I had done the Groundhog Run 10K last January, and I vowed I would never do it again.
I did it again.
When I ran it before, I found the air stale and the scenery monotonous in the old limestone mines. Mile after mile of limestone pillars with the lanes between disappearing into the possibly endless darkness. The exhaust of big trucks and even trains that pass through the caves still in the air. Reports of orcs and goblins. The gloom of the underground could overwhelm a sensitive soul, but I had been preoccupied with the anguish of running 6.2 miles. I was glad I had done it, but I was also glad it was done, and I had no interest in doing it a second time. Once again, though, I had the chance to be on the company team, which meant not only did my fees get paid, but I got VIP parking (other runners had to be bussed in), and I got access to the VIP lounge (which has coffee, bagels, donuts, and real bathrooms).
Because I was not caring for anyone’s nursing baby this year (as his mother ran the 5K), and because no one had called for a team photo too early in the morning, I did not have to get there nearly four hours ahead of my start time (as I had to last year). There was one other difference this year. My wife came along as my support team. This is not really a good run for spectators. They do not have access to the bowels of the cavern miles back in the hill; they can only really be present at the finish line to watch us come stumbling in. And with my comparatively pokey pace, that meant my wife would have a lot of time to kill after I started.
We got to the mine only an hour before my start time, which seemed to me to be cutting it close, but we did have enuf time to find out where the chocolate milk was being given out — critical information for after the run. We also met up with some old friends of ours whom we hadn’t seen for seven years. I was going to run with one of them, but her pace is much better than mine, so “running with” her was more expression than reality. We milled about, caught up a little bit, and wandered over to the start area. (The place was too packed for us to get to the actual start for a while.)
Soon we runners parted from our spouses and pushed into the crowd of starters. We were in the third wave, so two groups took off ahead of us, giving us more space for collecting ourselves nearer the actual starting mats. Because we were underground, my running watch could not get a satellite signal and had to rely on the sensor on my shoe to judge how far and how fast I would be going. In order for it to do that, I had to walk a short distance as the watch searched for that sensor, and then after it was found, I would have to start the actual running within a certain amount of time or else the watch would have to find the sensor again. Fortunately, I was able to pull off this massive synchronization feat just about perfectly, and I pressed the GO button just moments before my feet carried me over the starting mats (which would provide the official — and likely more accurate — time). So we were off.
My running companion was soon out ahead of me, and by the first quarter mile, I had lost her. Also at the first quarter mile, oddly, was the first water station. No one needs water in the first quarter mile, but I realized soon after that that was not the point. Since the full 6.2 miles would require two circuits of the route, this water station was actually for when runners were at mile 3.35. (It would be a while before I would reach that point.) I started out slowly, by intent, and hundreds of runners were surging past me. I did a good job of holding back at this point when the energy of the crowd tends to get me going out too fast and wearing out too soon.
The first mile of any run is the worst for me. I question whether I can go even that far, why I am doing this to myself, why I have made all of the choices I have in my life, whether my life insurance premiums are paid up and my will is in order. Even knowing that I will eventually get through the anguish of the first mile doesn’t seem to help me get through the anguish of that first mile. But through it I always get.
Fewer people were passing me by then, and I had begun passing the walkers, all of whom had run past me earlier. I was beyond my initial agony but I was pushing myself to keep running. I had half promised myself that I could walk through the water stations, get a refreshing drink and a moment of rest, but when I came to the first (well, second) water station, I didn’t walk. I did grab a cup of offered water, spilled most of it, queried if they had Bud Light, but kept on running.
At several points along the run, the route goes down an avenue, makes a turn, then comes back along that same avenue. Thus I could see all of the runners who were ahead of me, and I studied them to find my friend. I never did see her. However, when I had made the turn and the oncoming runners were those behind me, I saw a co-worker and we waved. (This surprised me since she is a much better runner than I.)
And so the miles passed. I took water from all of the stations, but I never walked. I deliberately did not look at my watch to know my time since it can be a) not reliable, and b) often discouraging, so when I came back to the start and began my second time around, I really didn’t know if I was doing well or doing poorly. I did walk several hundred feet at this point. In the tiny back pocket of my shorts I had stashed some Honey Stingers, a kind of energy candy that supposedly would give me a boost to finish the race. I gobbled those as quickly as I could and then attacked the remaining 3.1 miles at a run.
By this point, the crowds had thinned. I rarely had to squeeze between or dodge around people to pass them, and this surprised me because I was actually passing other runners. I assumed they were even more exhausted than I was. What other possible explanation could there be for this?
When the opportunity allowed, I looked for my friend among the runners ahead of me, but I couldn’t find her. I kept throwing one foot in front of the other. I looked up now and then to take in the scenery (why was there a boat parked in that cave? is there a lake down there?). I took special meaning from the NO IDLING signs. I ignored the STOP signs. I took water when it was offered. And I just kept going.
Two things happened at mile 5. I found a surge of energy. I was exhausted. I wanted to stop. But I could feel my legs pumping faster, and I thought I could keep it up. Was it the Honey Stingers kicking in? The good night’s sleep I managed to get? The weeks of training? The glazed donut I had snagged from the VIP lounge? The three Advil I had slammed earlier? My positive mental attitude? I don’t know what it was, but I was eating up the pavement, feeling excited that there was some unexpected energy in me so late in the run.
The second thing that happened around mile 5 was that I caught up with my friend and passed her. I couldn’t believe that, but I couldn’t believe I was running so well at all. I expected her to trot up beside me, but she never did, and I ran the rest of the race nearly alone, seemingly going faster the farther I went.
At mile 6 I came upon one of my friends from the running club I am in. I didn’t even know she was at this run, but she recognized me and asked if my watch was working. Hers wouldn’t link to her shoe sensor and she wondered where we were in the total distance. As I said, I had not been looking at my watch much during this race, so when I obliged her and checked our mileage, I saw that we were at 6.1 miles. We had only a tenth of a mile to go, and I was still feeling strong. I hit the afterburners then and pushed hard to the finish, crossing the mats and then gasping for oxygen in that foul underground as I slowed then stopped. I had the sensor cut from my shoe (not the one that talks to my watch), and then someone gave me this:
My first bit of running bling for the year. The Groundhog Run is a benefit for the Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center, and those children are the ones who can fly because we run for them.
Soon after I finished, my friend crossed the mats. She and I walked a bit as she cooled down, then her husband and my wife found us among the crowd and we all hugged. I soon made my way over to the chocolate milk station and gulped two cartons (on top of the one that my wife had secured for me earlier). We took some photos. I met up with some other running club friends. And then the four of us returned to the surface of the planet and drove off to a breakfast joint for some well earned indulgence.
When I plugged in my watch later that afternoon and saw the time it reported, I compared it to the time I had run the race last year. I had shaved off nearly four minutes from last year’s time. And when I looked up the official time online, I confirmed that I had beaten my earlier time by more than four minutes. On closer examination of my run, I found I had negative splits. I ran each mile faster than the one before it, covering the last mile at a pace better than my best all of last year. That was surprising since I had taken off the whole month of December to recover from some injuries, so I considered myself in recovery mode.
So, I had vowed not to do the Groundhog Run a second time, yet I did. Now I’m thinking that I must run it every year and keep trying to get better.