Taking it up a notch: running my first elite-level road race
I recently got my first taste of elite-level running at the USATF Half Marathon Championships. The event was held in conjunction with Grandma’s Marathon weekend, and when I drove up to Duluth on the Thursday before the race, the city’s race preparations were in full swing, with “Welcome Runners” signs and orange traffic cones dotting the scene. I stayed with a good friend from college, whose family lives on the top of Duluth’s hill and, in nice weather, has a gorgeous view of Lake Superior from their porch.
Last year, I participated in the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Duluth, and I had a blast. It was my first-ever open half marathon, the weather was fantastic, and I couldn’t wait to come back this time around. However, there are some downsides to trying to run a fast time in the company of many, many recreational runners: for starters, the number of porta-potties was vastly inadequate. It would be foolish not to heed nature’s call, especially before the start of such a long race, and a nice warm-up jog, when combined with pre-race nerves, does, ahem, speed up one’s digestive system. By the time I made it through the bathroom lines, most runners had already lined up and packed themselves like sardines behind the starting line. “Excuse me, pardon me,” I said, trying to elbow my way up toward the front. I didn’t make it very far before the glares and muttering of the other runners—especially from the middle-aged-male demographic—discouraged me from pressing farther ahead. When the gun went off, I was with the two-hour pace group, and it took me about three minutes just to cross the starting line! Once I actually started running, I had to dodge slower runners like a squirrel trying to cross a highway, and I even had to run in the ditch by the side of the road for a while. Over the course of the race, and on the way to a time of 1:19:38, I passed literally thousands of people. I’m pretty sure that most of the people I passed were men, and I thoroughly enjoyed chicking them! I wondered, after I finished, what I could have done if I had been able to start near the front instead of in the middle of a sweaty sea of humanity. This year, I entered the Championships instead of the Garry Bjorklund, and I got to find out.
Running with the big dogs
I knew I was in for a completely different experience when I picked up my packet at a quiet, relatively upscale hotel. Forget the noise, crowds, and chaos of the expo, where most runners must go to get their race materials; instead, I approached a table—“Name, please”—without waiting in any line, and a smiling volunteer handed me my packet in about 30 seconds. Other elite runners were milling around the conference room, where tables had been laden with fruit, bagels, and bottles of sports drinks. I glanced around to see if I recognized any faces from television or running magazines, then grabbed a couple of apples and walked out to my car. I couldn’t believe that it could be that simple. One reason that elites run as fast as they do must be that they aren’t as stressed about race logistics as citizen racers!
The next day, Friday, I drove downtown from my friend’s house on Skyline Parkway after a nice shakeout run through the chilly Duluth fog. The elites had a technical meeting, something I’d never heard of for a road race. My friend and her boyfriend had informed me of the level of the field: Desiree Davila, Ryan Hall, Abdi Abdirahman, Meb Keflezighi, and Mo Trafeh were all in the Championships. Which meant that we’d all be in the same room. Together. I tried not to hyperventilate.
I arrived at the meeting room, picked up a free shirt that the volunteers were handing out, and stared at everyone around me. It seemed like most people knew each other, and I watched as tiny, beautiful women in black capris mingled with tall, handsome men in colorful jackets. I really didn’t feel like I belonged there, among so many professional runners. Having looked at the seed times, though, I knew that while I wouldn’t get first by any means, there was no way that I was going to come in last. I realized that we were all Chicks, with a capital C: although we were ready to race our guts out and compete like bulldogs from start to finish, we also appreciated the work that each of us had put into arriving at this race and supported each other’s efforts.
After the meeting ended, I quickly left the room and stood at the bottom of the escalator—I’m not going to lie, I positioned myself quite intentionally, so that I could see everyone who came down, and maybe catch a glimpse of a running celebrity or two. I was not disappointed: soon I saw Meb Keflezighi, who came in fourth in the marathon at the London Games, and Desiree Davila, who dropped out of the women’s Olympic marathon but is also a tremendous runner. It was mind-blowing for me to think that I’d be sharing a starting line (and, yes, possibly a porta-pottie) with athletes of such caliber.