Race clothes, on. Running shoes, tied. Pre-race breakfast, eaten. Race fuel, water bottle and sports watch, check.
Azalea Festival 10K: Here I come.
I started running in high school. My junior and senior years, I was a member of the cross country team. I have consistently run ever since. The longest race I have run is a half marathon, 13.1 miles.
I decided to run the Azalea Festival 10K to force myself to run longer distances again. After suffering an injury last summer, this was the needed incentive.
As I arrived at the race start around 9:40 a.m. for the 10 a.m. start, I felt a little jittery, but mentally I was focused on the task at hand: to run a strong 6.2 miles, hopefully in under 60 minutes.
When race organizer Brittany Jenkins said “Go!” I took off with about 75 other runners.
My body felt great for about the first 2 minutes of the run, and then I got a side stitch. I told myself not to panic, to breath deep and to keep going.
Then a few minutes later I noticed a toe on my left foot felt a little funny – a toenail was digging into the side of my foot – I forgot to cut my toenails the night before.
I told myself to be tough, and to continue running with the pack of runners.
As we passed Azalea Park, I began to wonder where the first mile marker was. I looked down at my watch, saw 9:57 and yelped to myself that I had better pick up the pace.
When I crossed the Chetco Bridge to head down to the Port of Brookings-Harbor, my eyes were scanning for that elusive first mile marker.
As I ran under the bridge, a wave of relief hit me when I saw the mile 2 marker. I glanced down at my watch, and saw 16:08. 16:08?! I couldn’t remember the last time I’d run 2 miles in 16:08!
Suddenly everything changed – my side stitch had disappeared, the pain in my left foot was manageable and my body felt great.
I’d found the necessary boost of energy to get through the monotonous part of the race: running past all of the Port businesses on the long, flat and seemingly never-ending Lower Harbor Road.
When I hit mile 3, the good fortune continued. A quick glance at the watch showed 25:26, a time I hadn’t hit in a few years. And I’d started picking off runners.
At this point, approximately the half-way point, I began to wonder how long I could hold the pace.
I decided to find out, and pushed on.
While running back along the dreaded Lower Harbor Road all alone, my legs said “I’m tired.” Try as I might, I couldn’t keep up an 8:30 pace any longer.
My new goal became to find a more realistic, steady pace and to stick with it.
Once I started running up the mountain also known as the incredibly steep part of Lower Harbor Road under the bridge, sticking to my new goal was easier said than done.
I attempted to charge up the hill, and did for about the first 15 yards. Then I switched to running it at the pace of a tortoise.
However, once I finally did reach the top, I knew the worst was over.
Or so I thought.
I became so focused on making it back across the bridge that I completely forgot about the hill on Oak Street.
I did my best to power through, but my legs were tired.
After finishing 5 miles in 45:30 a few hundred yards back, I was just trying to hold on as were the handful of other runners within eyesight.
I knew I was close to accomplishing my goal, but my legs were quickly turning into Jell-O, and my lack of experience with a 10K was setting in.
I gave myself a pep talk, and swung my arms back and forth to thrust my tired legs forward.
As I reached the near-empty-track, I glanced at my watch and saw 54:30. “.2 miles to go,” I told myself.
I focused on a strong finish, and sprinted to the finish line.
When I heard my time, 56:55, I couldn't help but smile. I was happy to be done and pleased I’d accomplished my goal.
Man should only have to run for one of two reasons: to escape death, or catch prey.
Women, of course, have one additional reason for running: Getting away from men who are catching prey.
I never really thought about what it would mean when I proclaimed I would participate in the Azalea Festival 10K Fun Run a little over a year ago.
Many goals are set in the world that are dropped, changed or forgotten but, for whatever reason, my proclamation was never forgotten.
Scheduling conflicts weren’t even allowed to get in the way as I ran the course more than two weeks after the main body of competitors.
It may have something to do with the event organizer’s darker side.
Sure, on the outside Brittany Jenkins is nice, polite and at times even a little bubbly, but somewhere in all that gooey goodness is a dark, tormented sliver of humanity that enjoys watching others – maybe just me – suffer for 6.2 miles or more.
“Hey look, you’ve gone a mile already.”
“Only 4 miles left to go.”
“You’re setting a really good pace.”
Great words of encouragement, but, when said with a smile that doesn’t quit no matter how far she runs – and when she is showing off by running backwards – it all seems like a subtle form of torture.
Brittany and Charlie – the catching prey half of the Jenkins family – were running side-by-side with me as I fulfilled my goal.
I had promised to run the 10K after I covered the return of the event to the 2011 Azalea Festival and, while I didn’t want to get out of my commitment, it sure would have been easier to not run.
I’d like to say I trained hard for the event. I’d like to say I bought special shoes and clothes and a watch that tells me how far it is to the moon and back – in addition to being sweatproof, tracking my location within five inches, and telling me what my splits are (what are splits?) – but I didn’t.
I increased the number of times I rode a bike around town and I walked more when I could, but I just couldn’t squeeze time into my busy schedule to run for running’s sake.
So, I was ill prepared, but when 3 p.m., on Thursday came around, I was ready.
I had on my all-black New Balance cross training shoes, a pair of basketball shorts and a cotton T-shirt – not the best gear for long-distance running.
Oh yeah, did I mention I forgot my water bottle?
Brittany had my back though, she brought me a bottle of water to drink when we were done with the run.
The first quarter of a mile was walked around the track to warm up and then we headed out on the route used by the Fun Run-ners.
“We’ll take it at your pace,” Brittany said. “When you run, we’ll run and when you decide you need to walk, we’ll walk with you.”
We jogged up Fern to Ransom, turned on Kevin Place and then made a right onto Hassett where I was faced with the biggest challenge of the day: the hill leading to the intersection of Hassett and Old County Road.
Brittany must have sensed my trepidation because she suggested we walk to the top and then run down the backside.
With my first challenge out of the way and momentum carrying me downhill, I was feeling pretty good.
The path followed Old County across the bridge and down into the port where the thought came to me: “Jef, you’re an idiot. You’re going to kill yourself running this far.”
I walked. I jogged a little. I walked a little more. My body finally realized my brain was right, and tried to refuse to lift my foot over the curb. I didn’t stumble, but I realized that I was indeed crazy.
At one point I think I challenged Charlie to a foot race. I did pick up the pace for all of 10 feet before my body rebelled and I had to drop back to my shuffle pace that would have been surpassed by a slug.
Through it all, Charlie was right beside me, carrying on a conversation as though we were sitting on a couch sipping lemonade. Brittany was on the other side, smiling, running backwards, counting off the miles, encouraging me and, oh, imagine that, carrying on conversation like we were on a leisurely stroll through the park.
The last two miles of the course found us walking more than running, but the overall pace didn’t suffer too much.
When we got to the final hill that leads up out of the gully on Fern past the end of the football field, Brittany suggested I walk if I wanted to.
I replied with, “I haven’t run up a hill yet, I’ve got to do this one,” and kept on jogging. It wasn’t easy, but I made it to the top.
As a visual-goal-oriented individual, I had been setting goals that I could see as points to run to. The overarching goal had been what I thought was the finish line: the gate leading back into the stadium.
I was filled with joy at what I thought would be the conclusion of my self-induced torture session when Brittany dashed my hopes with one simple sentence, “One lap around the track and we’re done.”
I was devastated. The absolute hardest part of the run was that quarter mile on an absolutely flat track with the reward of a water bottle visible in the distance.
As I crossed the finish line, I didn’t feel any kind of euphoric rush that I expected. I felt some relief at being done, and I felt exhausted, but there was no extreme joy at having completed the task.
I didn’t understand what the problem was until a couple of days later when I was talking over the run route with my wife.
The problem was that my euphoria wasn’t found in crossing the line, or completing the task. It was in the process.
As I talked about the run with Holly, I realized that the joy was in having two friends who would sacrifice their time, their pace, and maybe their sanity to make sure I could complete the run.
Brittany and Charlie didn’t have to schedule time outside of the actual event to allow me to run it. They didn’t have to run it with me. They didn’t have to offer words of encouragement, but they did.
That is worth more than any 10K I’ll ever run.