3:50 am. A time when the craziest of party animals are finally calling it a night and little children are tucked safely asleep in their beds. Certainly not a time to be waking up for the day. Unless you are me (or one of the hundreds of other Team Challenge participants) rising to get ready for 13.1 miles of pure running joy. Warning - this is a long post.
Team Challenge Team Philly. Most amazing group of people I had the privilege of training with
Part One: My reflections on the course and the organization (or lack thereof)
13.1 Boston, one of eight half marathons in the 13.1 series put on by US Road Sports, was in my mind not a beginner or first timer race. I have participated and volunteered for some great races in the past few years, so I know what it takes from behind the scenes and I know what runners expect when they show up. Then again, if this was my first race perhaps I would not know any better and would have been happy just for the great day.
We boarded buses as a team for the 25 minute drive to Canton Mass where the race was actually held. Boston? oh well I guess technically if you have a race in the suburbs you can attach it to that city by association. In all honesty I didn't have a real problem with the location. A friend of mine from the Boston area was also running the race and he drove up to the start on his own and said he had no problem parking although he was smart and planned to arrive nice and early. The start area was a decent sized field, with space to house several large tents for sponsors, vendors and runner services. My first confused moment happened while looking for the gear check, as there were many large white tents and not a single one of them said anything about gear or checking it. Finally I stumbled upon one that was labeled "runner services" that was collecting tagged bags from runners. Odd, but they took my things and I was too full of nerves to really be bothered.
The race started simple enough, your basic national anthem and then ready set go or something like that. Many people started running way before the finish line, but I stayed stubborn and waked until the very moment we crossed the timing mats. The course started off pretty flat. If it was going uphill at all I barely noticed. It wasn't until right before mile three that we made a right turn uphill that I started to realize this course was going to be a little bit of a challenge. At the top of the hill was the second water stop of the course, I grabbed a cup and kept going. The course rolled downwards, then up, down and leveled out for the turn around as we headed back up down and up again. We doubled back to the same water stop as earlier, and to my honest surprise, the volunteers had run out of cups. They were pouring water into our cupped hands, or people were just drinking out of jugs before handing them to the next thirsty runner. I know this was a first time race, but to run out of something so crucial as cups this early on in a race? How do you let this happen?
The rest of the race was no better. Right before mile 5 we turned right again and headed for another hill only bigger and badder than the last. At the top, another water stop of chaos. I kept expecting the usual "water in front Gatorade in the back" but no one ever made a mention of Gatorade. Not once. I can't imagine I would have wanted to scoop it up in the palms of my hand anyways even if they did have it. Water dries, but I don't think I would have run well with sticky hands for half the race. The downhill around mile eight was a godsend. and as we made our way through yet another right hand turn the road leveled off, and then continued plunging down. Down, down down, and all I kept thinking was please god just bring me an uphill because I know it's going to smack us all in the face when it gets here. And it did; at mile 11. The road went up, and up, and up for what felt like forever. It had to be at least a half mile. Thankfully that was the worst of it and I survived to see it through to the other end. After mile 12 I started to see spectators and they began to cheer. This seems like such a normal concept but so much of the race was run in the woods and through residential areas. The encouraging words kept me going and before I knew it I could hear cheering and loud music and could see the finish line.
It was the most anticlimactic finish I have had to date. There was no one there at the end tossing you a cold water bottle and words of congratulations. There was at best a table full of cases of warm water bottles that you pretty much had to fetch for yourself. There was no one putting a medal around your neck and saying "good job". Instead you had to cross an open field and get it from one of the race volunteers. At many other previous races there was a large tent for post race food where volunteers would hand you a perfectly rationed bag with one of everything inside. A piece of fruit, an energy bar, some kind of bagel or bread product. Not here. Everything was a complete free for all. And there was nothing to carry it in so even though the Costco sized muffins looked mouth watering I had no hands to carry it around in. I did grab an orange (my favorite post race treat) although my hands were left sticky with juice which I washed off in an iced filled kiddie pool behind one of the tents. Don't Judge.
I heard later on from some teammates that not only did they run out of cups, but eventually they ran out of water all together. Maybe it was because several race participants, faced with the prospect of no cups for their beverages, just grabbed a whole jug and raced on with it in hand taking sips the whole way. Race organizers also had the nerve to tear down the finish line before all participants had finished so they could open the roads back up. I can't even imagine how I would feel if I had worked for so long to train for this event and as I was on my way to the finish I could see it being disassembled. Talk about heart breaking.
Was the race seemingly disorganized and poorly planned? Yes. Do they have lots of room for improvement thanks to the fact that they set the bar pretty low? Yes. Will I be coming back next year to find out if it gets any better from here? Oh no.
Part Two: The experience of it all; Team Challenge
As I wrote before, this race to me was about much more than a finish time. At the pre-race pasta dinner, I was nearly brought to tears multiple times listening to patients who had the strength to share their story with the world in order to raise money to find a cure and endure weeks of training in the process. Being there with my team who I had trained with for months made this weekend more than a race.
When my alarm went off in the pre-dawn hours of the morning I happily sprung (ok ok I did not spring it was more like a roll, but I was happy) from my bed to get dressed to the nines. As a well seasoned runner I felt like I owed it to all the first timer to be as upbeat and positive as I could possibly be. I was also really excited for my bow, my temporary tattoo, wristbands, and bright orange singlet. I bounded into the lobby, gear check bag slung over my shoulder (also tied with a bright blue bow) bagel in hand ready to get the day started. We gathered in a gaggle of excitement and nerves, attaching D-tags and sipping on water bottles, all too amped up on adrenaline to yet be tired.
The buses were something reminiscent of a high school sports team away game road trip. All dressed in our race singlets, carb loaded, rested and ready to go. We chattered about the whole ride, talking about past races, expectations, etc. Before I knew it we had arrived, although it sure didn't look like a race start line because we were in the middle of the woods. The beats of blasting music drew us away from the parking area and into the open field where I cheerfully danced my way to drop off my gear, met up with a friend from the Boston area also running the race and spent the remainder of the time in line for the glorious porta-potties before lining up on the tiny two lane road for the start.
I'm not going to lie, the race course was challenging. But I like a challenge and I didn't mind. The out and back portions of the course provided a great opportunity to cheer for my teammates as they passed. Despite the hills, the up and downs kept my mind off the distance left to cover and the miles flew by faster than they have in any half marathon that I could remember. While running downhill around mile 8, Coach Jack caught up with me and gave me some wise (as always) words of advice. "If nothing else, run the rest of the hills smart". So when mile 11 rose out in front of me I took his advise and picked a steady manageable pace. When my breaths started getting short I made sure not to push it. Although inside I was screaming at myself for not being able to push harder, I knew If I went too fast at this point I would be forced to slow to a ridiculously slow almost walk. I have never been happier than when that hill ended and a slow decent to the finish began. Spectators began popping up along the side of the road, cheering us one, assuring us that we were almost there. This seems like the norm but so much of the race was run in the woods that I was used to running within the confines of my own mind. Concentrating on the bigger picture, the fight against Crohn's and all the people battling something much more difficult than 13.1 miles every day of their lives.
The crowd on both sides grew thicker and all of a sudden the finish line was visible. The cheering, and support of spectators, of Team Challenge endurance managers, coaches, and participants alike was incredible. "Go Team Challenge" and "Go Sara" rang out all around me (my name was on my bib). My time was disappointing, but it was quickly pushed to the back of my mind as one of my teammates crossed the finish line shortly after I did. It was her first half marathon ever, and she ran the whole time. We went out in search of water bottles medals and food. Incredibly we both still had energy left to dance to loudly playing music, the soreness of our efforts had not yet set in.
Walking around the finish area with this woman, who was absolutely glowing with pride, that was an amazing moment. The first time you cross that finish line and feel like you can (and it's true, you really can) accomplish anything, that is a one time feeling and it was great to see it in someone else. For the next few hours I wandered around the field, running into my teammates and offering them all sweaty congratulations hugs. It felt so amazing to be part of something so big, and something so good. Not only within my own team, but all the teams that came together from across the country to participate this this one event. The after race party was a celebration of not just the race but of the money and awareness raised for the cause. It was, to me, what made the day as incredible as it was.
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