Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Tale of Two Races

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I recently ran a 15K. Then a week later, I ran another, yielding a slower time but much better result. Both races consisted of putting one foot in front of the other with the goal of traveling from point A to point B as fast as possible. However, the two events could not be more different.The purpose of this post is not to write another race recap, but to attempt to explain the vast differences between trail racing and road racing, as well as the pros and cons of each.

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Held annually in Utica, NY, since 1978, the Boilermaker 15K Road Race is one of the largest 15K races in the United States. The race has become so popular than online registratrion, capped at 14,000, sold out in about an hour and a half. The 15K attracts runners from all over the world, and its sizable purse brings in East African elite runners who usually end up taking the top places.

Every second weekend on July, the entire city of Utica, (population 60,000) becomes encapsulated in Boilermaker fever. The weekend includes a large expo the day before the race, a National Distance Running Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a pasta party, loads of media coverage, and much more. The 15K course is entirely on roads, with about 450 feet of ascent. It also features a 5K race that starts 45 minutes before the 15K main event and draws the maximum of 4,000 runners. The Boilermaker is a big city race with big swag bags and a big entry fee.

Hayley and me at the Boilermaker expo

By contrast, the Forest Frolic Trail Run snakes through the woods on muddy singletrack, with a bit of dirt roads scattered here and there. 15K runners must deal with mud, roots, loose rocks, and 1,700 feet of climbing. Runners may register up to (and possibly after) the official starting time for an entry fee of $5-$15, depending on whether or not you pre-register. (The exception being in 2013, when the race's 25th anniversary was celebrated with a reduced registration fee of 25 cents.) There is no swag, no prizes, and no finishers' awards save a race bib and the dirt on your shoes.

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The Forest Frolic starting line brought 146 runners to the woods of Kennedy State Forest in Virgil, NY, and about half of those runners wore a familiar face to me. After some brief announcements, the 7K and 15K runners took off together downhill along a dirt road before turning uphill onto a steep snowmobile trail. The all-too-familiar sense of community was once again present on the trails, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, not worrying at all about split times or passing other runners. No one even seemed to notice the darkening skies and light rain that made its way through the treetops and onto the group of us.

Forest Frolic course map
***

The Sunday morning scene in Utica couldn't be more different. The starting line boasted an additional 13,000 runners, separated into corrals based on expected finishing time. Most were trying to shake off nervous energy, as this was an A-Race for many of them. There was small talk among strangers to relieve some of the excitement, but it was clear that many of my road racing neighbors didn't know one another.

The pre-race announcements were plentiful, complete with the singing of the national anthem, a speech by Utica's mayor, and finally, a gunshot to signal the start. The elites took off immediately, and the endless sea of runners swelled forward as if a dam wall had just been obliterated. The streets became an endless ocean of bobbing heads and brightly colored running apparel. I looked back at the 10,000 odd runners behind me and realized the back-of-the-packers wouldn't be crossing the starting line for another 10-15 minutes. Hayley had already experienced a similar situation 45 minutes earlier, with over 4,000 runners packed in at the 5K starting line.

The scene at the Boilermaker's starting line


***

Less than a mile down the dirt road and and suddenly I was frolicking my way up a 10% grade along a snowmobile trail. I had chosen to run the initial loop in a counterclockwise direction so that the climbing would be short and steep, as opposed the the long and gradual ascent the clockwise trailrunners would need to endure. A $5.00 entry fee AND I get to choose which direction to run! Power to the people. Ten minutes in and I was already left alone with my meandering thoughts and the sound of the breeze through the trees. Ah, the solitude of the trail. I pushed on and occasionally ran along side some other runners and made conversation.

The course here didn't have much for aid stations - just two or three unmanned coolers set up on tables near the road crossings - but really, how much aid do you need? I saw zero spectators along the course and single volunteer, only out there at the crossroads in the center of the figure eight, directing runners where the trails lead in four different directions.

***

The first few miles saw me dodging some runners while being dodged by others. The streets were lined with tens of thousands of cheering spectators, some holding up signs of encouragement aimed at their loved ones. Each mile saw two or three aid stations, and there were plenty more opportunities to grab water, freeze pops, and cans of Utica Club beer from spectators eager to partake in the fun without running in the streets. Every half mile or so brought a live band, DJ, or dance group. The noise along the course was nearly deafening, at least compared to the quiet forest, but it's easy to tune out the din when focusing on one's own performance.

I looked around me, still surrounded by dozens of runners. Many were wearing headphones, trying to power along to their favorite tunes. For a brief moment I almost pitied those that were too lost in their music to take some time to soak in the spectacle that is the Boilermaker - a spectacle in which they are the epicenter. Then I remembered how it can be difficult to distract oneself from the pain and fatigue that comes with running fast. If some people need music to distract themselves and achieve their goal times, then so be it, so long as they don't forget proper race etiquette.

***

A little ways past the 10K mark, I came a to steep climb up Virgil Mountain. I began a fast power hike with the hopes of picking off a few runners that appeared to be struggling further up the incline. I caught up the first first one, but instead of blowing by, made sure he was okay and then helped pace him to the top. I had just climbed some 200 feet to crest the mountain, feeling great and thinking to myself "Please sir, I want some more." The rest of the course was downhill and flat, so I took off at full force hoping to catch another runner or two. About 20 minutes later, I came down the dirt road to the applause of the finish line crowd, comprised  mostly of runners who'd already finished their race and decided to stick around and cheer on their friends and family.

My finishing time was a PR for the course by several minutes, although much slower than any 15K I've ever run on the roads. By this time, the clouds had made way for the sunshine and the sprinkles of rain were long gone. Perfect weather to indulge in some watermelon, socialize, and cheer for the remaining runners.

***

The 10K mark at the Boilermaker found me struggling up an incline feeling deader than a doornail. The winner was likely breaking the tape around that same time. Whenever I took a brief walk break, random strangers would offer encouragement - "Keep moving, you're looking good." "Almost there, keep it up!" "Free beer at the finish." I just nodded and said thanks with a smile on my face. It wasn't worth explaining that I didn't really care about my time and wasn't hurting in the least. It would take more energy explaining why I was out there at all only a week after running a 50 mile trail race.

After crossing the nine mile mark, the final 0.3 miles were downhill between two huge walls of spectators ten deep. I always imaged the finish of the Boston Marathon being something like this. Hundreds of strangers screaming and clapping for everyone coming down that road and through the finisher's chute. The adrenaline rush came from out of nowhere, and as if by magic, the pain and fatigue that plagued me over the last hour suddenly vanished. Looking around, it was obvious that the other runners felt the same energy surge at the same moment. Dozens of us broke into a dead sprint for the final few hundred yards. I followed suit and finished two minutes shy of my 15K road PR.

Each of us was handed a finisher's pin and ushered down the street to the water and food tables, manned by scores of volunteers and vendors. Thousands upon thousands of bottles of spring water and sports drink, packaged fruit cups, and individually wrapped popsicles made for tons and tons of waste. Where were the watermelon, orange slices, and bananas that are found at nearly every trail event?

The aftermath

I kept walking and finally came to the post race party - a live band playing a concert-sized stage, thousands of people walking around, vendors handing out free samples of goods and selling "official" Boilermaker merchandise. I scored some bananas at one of the Price Chopper tables and wandered around until I found Hayley at the front of the stage as planned. Eventually we met up with two of her friends who also ran the 15K, but the other two were nowhere to be found in the massive crowd. We enjoyed some free Saranac beer and stuck around to take some pictures and watch the awards ceremony. When the first raindrops began to fall, it was time to fight our way through the crowd and trek back to the car.

***

Everyone has his or her own preference when it comes to outdoor environments. Some runners enjoy keeping in touch with nature and can't stand the thought of running within five feet of the blacktop. Some live for big city races, massive crowds, and fast finishes. I speculate that whether an individual is more introverted or more extroverted may have something to do with that choice. Others, myself included, prefer to mix things up for a variety of experiences. (Although I do prefer trails, especially during the summertime.) Despite the eco-unfriendly aspects of putting on a large city road race, those types of events certainly have their merits - people who otherwise wouldn't leave their house may sign up for a road race and train for months at a time to prepare, leading to a much healthier and active lifestyle. The prospect of running a road race with friends, a large after-party with free beer, and finisher's awards for all, can be enough to entice people to lace up and head out. So whatever your preference is, get off the computer right now and go make it happen!

Just sipping some beer at 10am on a Sunday



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