Well in terms of this week’s race reports I am happy to say we’ve hit the home stretch! I know that technically, this is only the second race this week, but since the Women’s Mini 10k took place in the past seven days and I just did the report on Tuesday, I feel like I’ve been blogging about races non-stop. Needless to say, all this racing has been exhausting and although I didn’t plan for things to happen this way, today ended up being a rest day. I got home from work and my body just shut down completely. This means that I won’t be able to make my goal of 25 miles this week, because there’s no way I’m running 20 miles over two days this weekend, but since another one of my goals was to get rest when I needed it, I can at least feel good about doing the right thing for my body.
So. Last night I ran the Chase Corporate Challenge with a small team of people from my office. This is such a strange race. I
Stampede! Image via Cartoon Stock
meant to do it last year but a last-minute subway mishap ended up making me miss it, so this was my first year. I’d heard a lot about it, how “corporate” it is, and how crowded it is. The race is so popular that it’s done over two days in New York, with 15,000 runners scheduled to race on Wednesday, and another 15,000 schedule for Thursday. And yes, that’s 15,000. It’s a 3.5 mile course through Central Park, so the roads are not super wide, and there are people who are not doing the race using the park and yelling because they can’t cross the road due to the mass of people running.
The race was to start at 7 pm, and we arrived at the park around 5:45 so that we could get situated with a team area and start to prepare for the race. I wasn’t concerned about the distance, and I wasn’t thinking too much about what sort of pace I wanted to keep or time I was shooting for. After all, a 3.5 mile race is pretty uncommon, and in my case, any time would count as a PR. I was concerned, though, about the sheer number of people milling around, using the port-o-potties, stretching, socializing, and heading to the corrals at the start. 15,000 is a difficult number for the human mind to comprehend, and when I thought a bit about it, I realized it was the kind of number I’d really only seen in marathon distance races–the Philly marathon, for example, is capped at 25,000–and with good reason: the longer a race, the more people it can generally support, because the field will spread out over the course’s distance. The shorter the race, the more dense the crowd will be throughout the entire thing. 15,000 runners and 3.5 miles? Maybe not the best idea. To try to calm my worries, I reminded myself that this race has been going on for 35 years, and the organizers surely knew what they were doing.
The event was organized with wave starts, and the majority of my office/teammates and I were in the same wave so we could start together. We’d been asked to provide predicted finish times when we registered, so I kind of assumed that our starting order was determined by the time we had given. But as soon as the gun went off and the race started, I started to wonder if that was really the case. I had been pretty close to the starting line in my wave, and I still had a really difficult time throughout the first two miles waving through the massive crowd and trying to find spots where I could run at a good pace without the risk of tripping over someone. Doing so involved a lot of lateral movement as I often had to go from one side of the road to the other, trying to make my way through the crowd. People were walking several abreast, others would run very short distances and stop abruptly, and it seemed like very few people had any concept of race etiquette (which I consider to be mostly comprised of common sense knowledge. For example, if you’re a slower runner, move over to the right or the left to stay on the edge of the crowd; if you’re going to stop running and start walking, slow down first, and try to make your way over to the right or left, don’t just stop short where you are; etc). The experience was maddening, but also extremely nerve wracking because the potential to hurt someone or be hurt by someone was so high. You had to be incredibly alert, and as I ran along dodging walkers and slower runners, I got the impression that there weren’t many people who had realized how much attention needed to be paid to the course and the other people on it.
During the first mile, I got kicked in the leg by someone who tried to cut in front of me and misjudged his pace, my pace, and the distance between us. At the first fluid station, which popped up not long after we’d passed the first mile marker, a guy stopped dead in his tracks right in front of me. We were in the center of the course and I can only presume that he’d decided he wanted to grab a cup of water. So instead of running past the tables and grabbing one (or even walking through the fluid station as many runners do), he just stopped, and I guess wanted to walk across the course, in a path perpendicular to the one being followed by the runners, in order to get his water. But because he stopped directly in front of me, and did so without giving any indication that he was going to do that, I ended up slamming right into him. If I’d had any choice, I would have happily avoided this bodily contact, but the speed at which I was running and the amount of time I had to react to his stop made it impossible for me to do anything but run right into him. This was immediately followed by the woman behind me slamming into me. Aggravated and unnerved by the entire thing, I yelled at him as I ran off, “You can’t do that here!” It struck me as one of the most idiotic things I’d ever seen, and also incredibly dangerous. If I had hit him with enough force to knock him over, he could have been very seriously hurt not only by the fall, but by the people who probably would have trampled him. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if I’d fallen too. And we were all lucky that his decision didn’t cause others to slam into us and bring us all down. At that point, I realized that all I could really do was speed up and try to get as far ahead of the majority of the pack as I could. I thought that maybe, if I managed to go faster, I had a better chance of either being in the company of people who were a bit more familiar with the way a race should be run, or just being in the company of fewer people overall. Even though I’d been careful to hydrate, I still had the same cotton-mouthed feeling that I’d had the night before at the 5k; nevertheless, I chose to bypass the first fluid station altogether and push through to the next one.
In spite of all the weaving and kicking, I completed my first mile with a time of 8:48. In spite of the body slamming, I finished my second with a time of 8:14 (identical, I think, to the miles I clocked during the 5k). In my third mile I started up with the mind games, as I usually do when I’m in the final throes of a race, regardless of the distance (really, I should see if this is just what I do when I get 2/3 of the way through a run. Note to self: keep that in mind). ‘You just ran a 5k race yesterday. You’re tired. Take it easy. Slow down. WALK,’ my tricksy brain was telling me. I ignored it, thinking about what might happen if I did slow to a walk–more full-contact running? No thanks. Even though the urge to slow down or start walking (just for a little bit!) was strong, I ignored it. ‘You know this course,’ I told myself. ‘This is your territory, you know the hills, you know what you’re doing, your body is ready for this.’ I tuned out my thoughts and focused again on dodging the other runners around me. At the second fluid station I took a quick sip of water without ending up in another pile-up, and set myself on a course for the finish. I ended up with a watch time of 29:55 (and a distance of 3.54) and a chip time of 30:07, the first woman to finish on my office team, and second overall (I was beaten by my boss)! My average pace for this race was slightly faster than my average for the 5k the night before, which I attribute to the fact that during this race, I managed to quiet the negative thinking that got to me on Wednesday. I’m proud of myself for managing to run two strong races in a row, and to stay mentally strong through the second one, even though it was a difficult experience. Whereas I’d felt slightly discouraged by my performance at the 5k (argh, those 5 seconds!), I felt reassured after the 3.5 miles, and comfortable in my place as a runner. As far as my performance is concerned, I’d definitely consider this race to have been a success.
Logistically, though, I think this was a disaster. It sort of pains me to say that, too, because there were many elements of the race that were extremely well-organized. The team areas were well set-up, the start was efficient, the course marshalls were clear in their directions, the fluid stations were well-staffed, and the finish moved people through the chute and back to their team area very quickly. There was a lot of water, plenty of bananas, and an abundance of coconut water at the end of the race, too. It is undoubtedly very difficult to pull off something of this magnitude, and the race organizers did a good job of that. But, and this is a big but, the conditions on the course itself were downright dangerous. It is unsafe and unwise to put that many people on a narrow roadway for such a short distance. There aren’t enough wave starts or course marshalls in the world to change that. Like I said before, I don’t know if the waves were determined by the times people provided when they registered–if they were, then a lot of people falsified their times. If they were randomly assigned, then that strategy is problematic and really needs to be reconsidered. Either the race needs to be done over more than just two days, or the field needs to be significantly reduced in size. As it currently is, the situation is untenable and if people haven’t been seriously injured already, it is bound to happen at next year’s race. Why even risk it? If nothing is done next year to address this problem, then I think the CCC organizers will be making a huge mistake. No matter how much you love running, when the race experience is unpleasant, you’re not going to want to do the race again. And since I don’t even remember the course (I can only remember it because I am so familiar with Central Park already) because I spent so much time and energy concentrating on not tripping over people, I think I can say that this was a pretty unpleasant experience and not one that I’ll be all that excited to repeat in the future. I’m already afraid of stampedes, I don’t really want to end up involved in one.