Cold, wet, windy, puddly, muddly.
It’s a big race. The website proudly brags that over 5,000 runners are expected to sign up. It is the 32nd year for the race in Lincoln Park. All those years, all those paid entry fees, and they still have the most mundane race name ever. “Turkey Trot 8K.” (4.97 Miles) The christener of the race clearly never anticipated the perils of search engines and the world wide web. Or the need for a little character.
I’m pushed out of the car at the bottom of the exit ramp off Lake Shore Drive. No point in Laura trying to fight the traffic to get me closer. The staging area is in sight around the corner and I can walk faster than the car can sit in traffic. It’s 20 minutes to race time. I jog laps on Cannon Drive to keep warm and to warm up. And to kill time.
A books-on-tape version of the National Anthem. Embellished. Drawn out. Long, deep, silent breaths before the big notes. Extravagant. Wasteful. I once had a band conductor who firmly believed the star spangled banner should be played briskly and with verve. I missed him this Thanksgiving morning.
Younger runner guys move past me in the corral, grinning to each other and playing I Spy towards the pretty young runner girls stretching in their spandex running suits. They nearly break their own necks whipping their heads around with glee.
A few people are in costumes. Turkey costumes, mostly. And mostly women I see in those turkeys. I don’t notice any pilgrims. Perhaps, in some year to come, I will run dressed as Squanto. Full head dress. Brown leather pants with the fringe on the seams. Maybe a tomahawk. Etc.
Crowded start, but thankfulness that the slower folks really did hang toward the back before the non-existant, metaphorical gun went off.
Lots of broad U-turns on the course. North for a while, south for a while, north for a while, south again. The directional indecision keeps our faces from the wind for too long. A blessing. And Stockton drive in Lincoln Park may be the only road in all the city with an infestation of rolling hills. A rare Chi-Town pleasure.
I think mostly about how I’m breathing. I don’t want easy, but I don’t want my heart throbbing too hard either. I want to breathe comfortably, but feel the satisfaction of effort. This gifts me a 7:26 after mile one, then a 7:05 after mile two. Now the legs, they are awake.
Laura waits on a curb past the 2 mile point, grinning and camera pointing. I side out of the pack to the right side of the road to say “Hi” as I pass. I am pleased that the words emerge easily and unhampered by my body’s need to take air in.
At the southern-most point on the course, we uncouple our feet from pavement and our shoes become colorful pontoon boats on the muddy marsh of a crushed gravel foot path. Little tan, wet droplets begin to fly from the feet around me, and I know the backs of my black tights are growing a Pollock pattern, abstract and damp.
Soft mud sucks at my toe tops. I focus quick feet, quick feet, short steps, short steps.
Some puddles I jump, some I trod. Hard pavement under ¼” of water seems faster to me than 1” of thick mud. My compadres often seem to feel differently. One man nearly pushes me over my left side as he swerves around a larger puddle on our right. Puddle fear creates an unhindered lane thru the middle of the puddle path. I begin to peddle directly towards the puddles to take advantage when I can.
Mile four begins to suck the wind from me. I feel myself lagging, losing power, but I bide my time. The final u-turn will come just after the 4-mile marker. Then I will employ the power I have reserved for the final leg to the finish. My strategy costs me a 7:38 split for mile four, but I immediately shift up a gear and focus the feet once again. There may be discomfort until the end, but I know I can ignore it for one final mile. I focus quick feet, quick feet, short steps, short steps, straight back, straight back, quick feet.
Laura is at mile 4, too. Unexpected but nice. She was able to move the car quickly and find a parking spot at the north end of the course. I make sure to grin for a picture this time, but I do not allow it to interrupt the motions of my legs.
With half a mile to go, I feel my weary lungs. A stray thought tinkers through my head. (Slow down, ease up.) I ignore it and push harder instead.
Now for a final half mile, a new hobby: stopwatch glancing. What shall I push for? An answer comes from my math-dizzy brain that 36 and a half is in reach. Well then, off we go.
We leave the crushed gravel a final time and return to Cannon Drive. I see erected aluminum constructs and know the finish line is in reach. I do not care that several ego-runners around me have chosen to wait until this final 100-yard dash to use their kicks to sprint past me to the line. I notched up to a mile-long finish kick long ago and doled it out wisely. My final split is 6:59, a tick under 7 minutes for a tick under a mile. My total time stops at 36:33, a PR, though I rarely run the 8K distance. I’ve tested it only twice now in three years since I became a marathoner.
I have not asked my legs to churn so fast in months. The muscles quiver with relief. The quads shake with confusion. But the race is run, the line is crossed and the rest is earned. It is not a major landmark for me, but I am always thankful to know I am still capable.
After the race, I talk to my sister in Pittsburgh. She tells me the race director of her small, hometown race – an RD whose name I don’t even know – asked after me the day before to know if I’d be running their little town turkey trot again. I ran there and placed in my age group 2 of the last 3 years. He asked about me, specifically. He knows my sister’s in-laws well. When he finds I’m not coming this year, he gives my sister one of this year’s race t-shirts anyway. He gives it for free. “Please send it to your brother,” he tells her.
I realize I missed the small town trots I’ve run the last few years. I missed the small field of runners. I missed all the residents who walk the distance with family, just because. I missed sitting in the school gymnasium for an hour afterwards to hear the results and find out if I placed. I missed the baked goods feast food raffles. I missed the small-town-sized entry fees. I missed the charm. I missed the character.
I think next year I’ll be sure I don’t miss it all again.