I haven't run a race in about...oh, close to two years now. I just reached a point, economically (as in I didn't have a job) where I could not justify spending up to a hundred dollars or more on a marathon or a half, and the thought of running a 10K, and spending $50 on it, seemed silly. So, I stopped. I do think races are a great way to stay motivated, and to challenge oneself, and if I ever get a decent job again (ha) I'd spend at least some of my disposable income on races. But for a while, I've just tapered off. I still run, and barefoot at that, but under the radar, for half hour or at the most hour chunks.
Until now. Because the Zena Road 15K here in Salem, OR is only a mere $15 for early sign up. Can't turn that down. Because I'm american, I'm not quite clear on how long 15K actually is, but seems like a short half-marathon. So ok. There is also a 3M run/walk, and a 6M run, neither of which actually goes on Zena Road, but we're all out in the West Salem area, across the Willamette (pronounced will-AM-it here in Orygun) up in wine country (and some hops fields). Nice forested hills. Quiet, except for this running mob.
I gotta say, the Zena folks know how to do a race, because we're actually starting at a sane time: 11AM. Unheard of, but blessed be. So nice to get up normally, lazily, have breakfast like normal, and some green tea, like normal, waiting for the fog to lift (which is isn't) for the predicted sunny warm day. And it is a casual affair. There is a parking lot up the road, with a bus shuttle, but most folks are parking on the side of the road nearby. No cops. No roads closed off. I'm not even sure any officials anywhere know or care this is going on.
The 3M and 6M are out-and-backs, heading south. Us 15Kers will head north, loop around, and come back on the same road the lesser beings, the weaklings, are running. And whoah, we'll head up the biggest hill in the area, right from the beginning. Ok...We all line up together, just facing in opposite directions, everyone starting at the same time. After the obligatory singing of the Star Spangled Banner (the first verse anyway, before it gets political) some dude with a microphone gives us the ready, go!
And we go!
Straight up hill. Fortunately for my ego, I've started in the back, so as not to get passed too much. I know I will finish this thing, just have no idea in what time, nor, again, what distance it actually is. Ten miles? Eleven? Nine? But I haven't run this long in a long time. Still, I have the mental experience. But man, this hill. It's a 300 feet gain in the first mile, is what I hear. The road here is nice and smooth. I'm wearing my VFFs, having been warned that there are gravel roads on this loop.
Because of the hill, the pack stays fairly grouped together, unfortunately, because, voilà: another reason I don't like races. Here's a person cranking her iPhone with her favorite americana oh-so-profound singer, and she's sharing it with all of us. In the spirit of do-unto-others, I think I'll start carrying my own phone, and when someone does this, I'll crank up Slayer and run right next to them for a mile. But, she's faster than I, and soon leaves me behind, to the quiet streams and birds and huffing runners.
Still on the uphill, we do indeed hit the gravel road. And it's the worse kind of gravel: like with a hard packed dirt and stones, almost pavement (there's probably an ODOT term for this) with gravel on top of it, so there's no give when you step on a stone. Even the shod runners don't like this stuff. Well, I was forewarned. And with VFFs, the gravel is like a foot massage, right? Right?
One other minor annoyance about races: when a group or duo lock in behind you, and then talk a lot, and loud. Ok, well, a good opportunity to stop and take off my sweatshirt. Sun starting to break through up at this elevation, and that hill warmed me up. And a bigger good point about races is in-shape women in tight black running pants. So the pluses outweigh the minuses.
We peak up on top of the hill, and the road becomes more mild hilly-like. I'm feeling good, I actually ran up the hill, didn't walk, and am trying to pace myself. Have been passed, and most of the pack is ahead of me. Sigh. The loneliness of the long distance runner. But, it's good. It's good to be in a race again. I won't 'win,' it's just more of a mutual inspiring, we're all in this together. And, it's an ancient, primal, reenactment of the great mammoth hunts, when the whole tribe would get out and run.
Mercifully, the gravel stops, and we hit some really nice smooth pavement. Can this be the end of all the gravel? This soon? I think it is. Time to stop and free my soles. And even now, after years of barefoot running, in races even, there's a hesitation, a feeling of, 'oh, everyone's going to think I'm weird now. I should just keep my VFFs and run the whole run this way.' Like, why do I care? And it's not even about being weird: what is best for me and my feet? Being barefoot, obviously. So bam, off with the shoes!
So nice. I love my VFFs, they've served me well, but running on pavement in them can cause a little soreness in the heel. I just can't feel anything, so my feet start to go Sarah Palin on me. Bare, I keep in a healthy stride, nice and short.
We've peaked the hill, and begin a steep downhill. I do my best Barefoot Ken Bob and let gravity take me, but don't pass anyone. In fact, a couple lurkers, those who start way way at the back and reel people in, reel me in.
Down down down, to the intersection with the actual Zena Road, where cowbell-ringing volunteers direct us to the left. And, aw, Zena Road is not smooth. Like, at all. The ole dreaded chip seal. A brief thought (my inner self-doubting Loch Ness Monster) appears, like, maybe I should just put the VFFs back on. But I say no Loch Ness Monster! Ye shall not conquer me! It's a matter of pride. And weirdness. I shall finish the rest of this thing barefoot! Gotta represent!
Still a mild downhill here. Again, road not closed off at all. And all the winery visitors are coming out. Some runners ahead of me accommodate them be running on the road should, but I say nay, I shall not: The cars must accommodate me! Schweinhunds!
I am starting to feel 'it.' I'm sore, though it might be coming more from the tensing up I do during a race. If I were on my own I'd be all relaxed. There have been mileage signs, I'm at like Mile 5, or 6, or something, but I'm not sure what that means. If they do the race in Ks, they should give the mileage in Ks!
We reach the next intersection, off of Zena Road. This is where the 6 Milers did their turn around. There's a water table, and oh yeah, another mild experiment I'm trying, based on something I read in Christopher MacDougall's last book Natural Born Heroes: just not drinking water. Or, drinking only if really thirsty, which I'm not. The idea being that we actually drown ourselves in water during races, with that whole brainwashing thing of 'stay hydrated!' which leaves us sloshing. So far, I'm fine. I didn't drink a lot of water this morning either. So I think this is an affirmative on that theory.
Ok, so, there must be three more miles to go. So...I was at six last I saw. Does that mean 15K is only nine miles?! Is that right?! Well ok. I'm gonna do this.
Except, gosh darn it, this road is even more chip seal-y than Zena. Argh. Again, the VFF angel briefly lands on my shoulder and says, 'John, why not put them on? Why suffer for pride?' But I throw him to my Loch Ness Monster. I do have to admit though that the road is bad enough to be cutting into my speed. I try running on the middle line, which helps a little, but the road isn't closed off, so there are cars, and the road seems to hurt more after I've been on the paint line, so just staying on it, I get more used to it. Or, numb to the pain. Something. Grin and bear it. Or, bare it. Ha ha. Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week!
Also a mild rolling uphill here. And yeah, I'm feeling it. I'm a little sore and tight. But....not down and out. Challenging, but not impossible, and in fact in a weird way this feels good! Good to be pushing my body. I do miss races, this feeling, the pushing beyond what we think we can do. We all need this in our lives, whether physically, or even mentally.
I hear the cowbells: must be close. And yes, there it is, the finish! I do my usual sprint(ish), pumping up the arms and finishing strong. Yes, even on the chip seal. Just grr over it, the pain won't last, and in fact the pain goes away with the adrenaline. People cheering, even my fellow 3M running companions who have been patiently waiting for me to finish. I actually have to zigzag around a couple of 3M walkers who are just finishing. Wow.
Bam. Done. Did it! 1:35. I have no idea if that is good or slow. I suspect slow. But ok, I'm good with that. And I even built some weird cred with the crowd by finishing bare. As in, 'that dude's crazy!' As far as I can tell, I'm the only one who even wore minimalist footwear.
Zena 15K: good race! We need more of these cheaper races!
(photos of me running courtesy of Alex P. Thanks Alex!)