Saturday had started off as a kind of poopy day. A stomach virus had been spreading like a wildfire through my school, causing 25% of the students and faculty to be absent on Friday, and making the rest of us paranoid. I was not feeling my best on Friday, so I took it easy and got a decent night’s sleep. Saturday morning, I did not feel any better, but not really any worse. I would be fine if I could hold this thing off until after today’s race.
February 4th was the 29th annual Winter Flight 8K in Salisbury. Winter Flight is the state’s oldest 8K, and it always draws a big crowd of fast runners. I had won a free registration to this race from a giveaway contest by Théoden Janes, the Charlotte Observer’s runner/blogger. 1996 Olympian Joan Nesbit still holds the course record, which has stood for 20 years. Joan was on hand to meet and greet people, and she ran the race with us as part of her 50th birthday celebration.
The race was to begin at 10am, which is rather late in the day for someone of my schedule, so I decided I would get up early and bank some easy, long mileage beforehand, making Saturday my long run day, and leaving Sunday for rest. At 6am, I met fellow DARTer John Richards and his friend Garry at my local YMCA. John and Garry had 18 miles on their schedule before their Myrtle Beach Marathon taper, so I decided to join them for about half of it. We kept a nice, slow pace, and the company was great, but as I broke off to return to my car after about 6 miles, I just couldn’t get into a groove. Maybe it was my shoes. My Brooks Pure Flows were fairly lightweight by most runners’ standards, but they were way more cushioned than the shoes in which I normally run during the week. Were they throwing off my form? Maybe it was my hydration backpack. I don’t normally carry water for anything less than 10 miles, but I have been wearing my hydropack on long runs for training purposes so I will be used to it before me next 50K in May. Maybe the sloshing around was affecting me. When I reached my car after 9 miles, I concluded that I was most likely coming down with something. I wasn’t sick, but I wasn’t 100%.
As I drove home to pick up my wife Heidi for the drive to Salisbury, I examined my goals for the race. I knew I would not be able to sustain a 5K pace, which was an idea I had thrown around. I decided I would just shoot for a 7 minute/mile pace throughout. This would be a good tempo run, and it would ensure a PR since I had not raced an 8K in quite a while. I had a couple other secret goals, but more on that later.
During the pastoral 45 minute drive across two counties to Salisbury, I was feeling a bit queasy. This had nothing to do with race day nerves…there was something else roiling around in there. I told myself that it was ok to throw up as long as it was before or after to the race…hopefully not during.
Heidi and I arrived at Catawba College, a small but beautiful campus in the middle of a seemingly downtrodden Salisbury. The packet pick-up was inside the gymnasium, where there was an expo that might have rivaled some marathons. Peter from Vac-And-Dash—everyone’s favorite running retailer/vacuum cleaner repair/screen printing store—had a large booth with dramatically slashed prices on apparel. Another booth had running shoes for up to 50% off. Heidi and I agreed we would have to stop by the expo directly after the race.
I had enough time to get a warm-up run in, so I ran an easy mile on the course with a few short bursts at race pace to get that speed into my head. The warm-up run made my stomach feel a little better, and I was confident going into the beginning of the race. After a few dynamic stretches and a Double Espresso flavored Turbo-powered Clif Shot, I was ready to toe the line. It was unseasonably mild for early February, but I still dressed lightly as to be a little cold at the start. Rain had been threatening to fall all morning, and the asphalt was wet, but the start of the race was lucky enough to have a break in the precipitation.
As the race began, I politely elbowed my way around much of the crowd until I found a nice pocket in which to run. As I glanced at my watch, I was seeing paces between 6:15 and 6:30. “Settle down, Chas,” I told myself. There was a long incline coming for most of the first mile. I slowed down to a 7:00 pace and did my best to ignore everyone else. Two thirds into the 1st mile, I spotted another DART singlet 50 yards ahead of me. I knew from the broad shoulders and backwards cap that this was Jim Crotts. I knew Jim was a quick runner, but he also was in my age group, so I couldn’t in good conscience just let him go. I wanted to kick up to meet him, but I forced myself to stick to my race plan and try to maintain a steady pace. Crotts could wait. Besides, the steady hill we were climbing already was bringing a few other runners back to me. As long as I was consistent, I would make my way up the pack. My split at the 1st mile was 6:58. So far, so good.
The 2nd mile continued to the top of the long hill and then detoured through a residential area. In this neighborhood, shortly after 1.5 miles, I came up alongside Jim. He recognized me, but we both were concentrating too much on race pace to say “hello.” A simple thumbs-up would suffice. I ran alongside Jim for half a mile. If I tried to pass him too early, he would make me pay for it the rest of the race, much like he did at the A2S 5K in Davidson last September. I relaxed at race pace until just before the 2 mile marker and then made my move. A 7:02 mile brought my 2 mile split to 14:00. I was right on target.
During the 3rd mile, I spent a lot of time running in a no-man’s-land between packs. A racer in a baby jogger caught up to me on a downhill and was threatening to pass. He was looking pretty strong. “Run your own race,” I reminded myself silently, but the pride in me sounded more like “No way am I going to get beat by a guy with a baby jogger!” The downhill was short, and another gradual climb followed. Baby jogger man slipped behind me, but my pace was slowing as well. I was beginning to fatigue. Luckily, there was not much wind on this open state highway. A strong headwind would all but kill my pace. The 3rd mile was 7:05, with a 21:05 split. Not bad, but I was slipping behind my pace. I would need to find my 7 minute mile again.
The terrain helped on the 4th mile. I rode a steady downhill to both quicken my pace and catch my breath. Baby jogger man took advantage of the downhill as well and caught up with me. Crap. I kept him at bay, but another runner in a light blue tech shirt caught up to me as well. He was well passed my age group, but I am not one to get passed late in the race. I pushed my pace and kept track of him by the sound of his breathing. By the end of the 4th mile, I was feeling pretty good. My 4 mile split was 28:00, meaning I had accelerated to a 6:55 mile, and I was still picking up speed. I was pretty much locked in for a PR. All I had to do was negative split the hell out of this last mile, and I would accomplish another secret goal—beat Théoden. Théoden was not participating in this year’s Winter Flight. He was busy running the inaugural Charlotte Ultra Marathon 50K in a smoking 4 hours, 18 minutes and change. More power to him. However his time at last year’s Winter Flight was 34:47. Yes, I looked it up. Since I was racing on Théoden’s dime, I made it an unofficial goal to beat his time.
A short incline during the last mile allowed me to drop Blue Shirt and Baby Jogger and continue the race on my own. The final two thirds of a mile took us through the Catawba College Campus. I could see and hear the stadium where the finish line was, so I picked up the pace. The last 300 yards were on the track inside the college’s stadium. Breaking onto the track really prompted me to let it all out. I sprinted across the finish line to the cheering crowd with a time of 34:25. I finished 30th overall out of 272 8K runners, and I was 4th in my division of 20 males aged 30-34. I had beaten Théoden, and I had set a new 8K PR by more than 2 minutes, but most importantly, I didn’t throw up! I think racing actually settled my stomach.
Heidi greeted me at the timing table and grabbed a quick picture of me with Jim, who had finished 30 seconds after me. Fellow DARTer Kevin Ballantine congratulated us as well. He had finished at 31 minutes and change, slightly ahead of Joan Nesbit. Heidi and I sought the dry warmth of the gymnasium where I took advantage of the cookies and peanut butter, and we bought some marked-down merchandise from the Vac-and Dash tent. Then, it was nap time.
The Merrell Barefoot Trail Gloves are my favorite shoes. I have worn them to work, to the gym, and on quite a few training runs. This was their first official race, and they did not disappoint. At around 7 ounces, they are much lighter than many conventional racing flats, and the Vibram outsole gripped well on the wet asphalt. The Brooks Pure Flows I had worn earlier that morning are great shoes too, but they do not grip well on wet roads. Also, as I have stated, I am trying to move to zero-drop shoes like the Merrells whenever I can. I will still use the Pure Flows for long training runs.
I have to give props to the Salisbury Rowan Runners Club. This organization not only put on a great race that attracted hundreds of runners from counties away, but they have a full calendar of similar races throughout the year, all at affordable prices. If you are looking for some well organized 5K and 8K races to fill in some weekends, look up this running club.
Thanks also to Théoden Janes for holding the giveaway contest and making it possible for me to race this 8K for free. Sorry I gunned for your time, but it was nothing personal. Besides, your Charlotte Ultra Marathon time destroyed my best 50K time. Congrats!
Next on my race calendar (for now):
February 18th: Fitness, Family, and Friendship 5K: Concord, NC
March 3rd: Umstead Trail Marathon: Raleigh, NC
May 6th: Long Cane 50K: Abbeville, SC
September 7-8th: Blue Ridge Relay (maybe?): Asheville, NC
September 29th: Hinson Lake 24 Hour Classic: Rockingham, NC