Cliff Hanger 8K


Can you stand another post from me about my running adventures?

I have sort of vowed to do fewer organized runs. I love doing them. I love the energy of the crowd, the surge of the pack, the public recognition of the effort, the exhaustion/elation of crossing the finish line. I love the anticipation in the weeks (and months) preceding the event. I love the shirts (and I now have a drawer full of them). And then I love talking about them with my runner friends and increasingly bored family.

But there are so many to choose from, especially now during fall racing season, and I’ve decided I should be more selective. I’m pretty much going to avoid the novelty runs where the purpose seems to be more on the spectacle than on the running. And family-focused runs are fine, but they’re not the kind of physical and mental challenge I’m after now (for the most part). And it’s not like I object to the cost of an organized run either; my work compensates me for these (up to one a month). But I can’t do them all, and if I am doing one, I tend to run less in the week prior in order not to exhaust myself for the “official” run, and I really don’t want to reduce my weekly mileage. So I’m growing more selective.

One selection I’d made was the Cliff Hanger 8K held in the Old Northeast section of Kansas City. Old Northeast is a once-elegant neighborhood filled with magnificent old mansions and gracious parks that has fallen on hard times but is valiantly trying to recapture its former glory and is, regardless, home to many good people on all rungs of the ladder. Among the features of Old Northeast is Cliff Drive, which is a designated Scenic Byway. (Here is a very nice seven-minute video of Cliff Drive. Extra points for using Pachebel for the background music.) The Cliff Hanger Run goes along Cliff Drive, full of turning trees and dramatic cliffs and vistas and even a (human-made) waterfall. Best of all, it’s a mostly flat course. (I got enuf hills for the year from the half marathon three weeks ago. My left knee is much better now, thanks for asking.) The Cliff Hanger has been around forever, and many in my running club sport shirts from past times they have run it. (After our group runs, when we retire to a watering hole to “rehydrate,” we switch out of our sopping running shirts and into shirts that show our past glories at organized runs.) When I explained my new-found selectivity about choosing runs to my fellow club members, they all recommended this one as a Kansas City tradition.

The Cliff Hanger hosts both a 5K and an 8K run. You may recall that I had targeted running 1,000 miles during 2013 (and I reached it last month). When I registered for the Cliff Hanger, I chose the longer 8K just in case I was still in pursuit of the 1,000. (A 5K is 3.1 miles. An 8K is 4.97 miles, which is a stinking tiny fraction shy of 5 whole miles. Still, miles is miles, as they say.)

The day dawned at 36 degrees, which, while not as cold as when I ran the KC Half, was plenty cold enuf. Plus I was supposed to have set my clock back an hour because of the Daylight Savings change, but I had stupidly set it ahead an hour, so I was up far too early on race day, not that my pre-race jitters would have let me stay in bed anyway.

About my kit you see in the photo above: I have the usual gear there, but there are three important changes to note. I wore long pants for the run. Honestly, unless the temps are in the teens, running short are just fine for me. My legs don’t feel the cold. But I had just bought these pants — a size that fits this time — and I wanted to try them. Also, it’s now getting to be glove season, and the ones you see are my transitional pair for this time of the year. (I have a more insulated pair, that convert into mittens, but those will wait for now.) Finally, you can see the bright blue calf sleeves I’ve come to love. I wear them on my calves (duh), and they work like compression socks, holding the muscles there in place so they perform better (apparently muscles can shift around a bit during vigorous use and work less efficiently) and more importantly, helping me prevent a recurrence of my dreaded shin splints. Unlike compression socks, though, these sleeves don’t squeeze my toes, which don’t really need squeezing when I run. Also, they feel great, especially after a long run.

As usual, my wife and I managed to get to the site more than an hour before it was to start. The host this year was an osteopathic medical school, which allowed the use of its parking lots, its cafeteria, and the indoor rotunda of its student center for hapless runners underdressed in the cold. This meant the course would be run in the opposite direction of past years, and I heard some grumbling about it, but the facilities and generosity of the med school were wonderful, so you’ll hear no complaining from me.

We stood around, shuffled about, shifted on our feet, and generally killed time until most of the crowd walked the three blocks down the hill to the start. Although the sky was clear and the sun had risen, there was precious little of it reaching into the valley beside the cliffs where we hapless, underdressed runners were. My wife and I (and dozens of others) stood in one of the patches of sun for as long as we could, but eventually I had to make my way down to the starting area deep in the shadow of the cliff.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned before that my running watch receives signals from satellites on high but can also receive signals from the little sensor tied to my shoe. I generally turn off the toe sensor since it supposedly can make the pace readings erratic (more peaks and valleys) and because asking the watch to look for and use that sensor wears down the battery faster. However, I turned on that function for this run. Cliff Drive has that name for a reason. We would be running nearly all of the distance at the base of a tall cliff on the south side of our run. I worried that I might actually lose the satellite signal at some points along the run, and if I did, the toe sensor would be able to compensate for those “dark” times. (I don’t know if that happened at all, but at the start, when I turned on the watch and told it to find some satellites, it couldn’t. I started running relying on the toe sensor. From what I can tell, it did find some satellites eventually, which is what it is designed to do.)

We started a few minutes late, which was fine with me. I was annoyed that I had to fuss with my watch at the start, waiting for it to fail to find satellites, letting dozens and dozens of people pass me as I stood there, but I was not racing any of them. And I knew if my watch never worked, I’d still have the official time based on the sensor in my bib. So off I went.

Too fast.

It’s hard not to get caught up with the energy of the crowd and just run with them. It was only a five mile run (4.97 miles officially), and it wasn’t like I really needed to marshall my energy for going long, but I soon knew I was pushing too hard for my humble ability, and I slowed, falling in behind a man who must have had twenty years on me and was race walking (which is a demanding sport of its own). His pace was just a little faster than I was comfortable with, but I decided to use him as my pacer and just stuck with him. I had to push. I actually wanted to stop and walk in the first mile, but my first mile is always deceitful and I just kept at it. The race walker would get ahead of me a bit, then I would catch up and think about passing him, but I didn’t. I was still on the outward half of the run. (If you looked at that video I linked to above, you see the course we took, but only the first half. Where the video ends we turned around and ran back that entire distance. We do this for fun.) Plenty of people were passing me, many in unpained conversations about what they were going to do with the rest of their day or boyfriend troubles or whatever. I was breathing hard and pushing and ignoring the voices in my head. And I was beginning to pass a few people. They were walking, but if they were ahead of me at that point, they’d obviously started out running and had tired. So I felt pretty good about my discipline.

I think there may have been three places in the whole run where the sun touched the ground. The pavement was dry (for the most part), but it was covered with leaves and sticks, which are not a runner’s friend. Plus, this road has a lot of camber in it, so running anywhere but down the center meant running on a slightly sloping surface. It’s barely discernible, unless you’re on foot and running and trying to keep your knees and hips from aching too much. The course was mostly flat, as I said, but it wasn’t flawless, and I had to figure in the best way to run it on the fly. But I did, and I soldiered on. At about mile 1.5 the first of the swift runners were already passing me on their way back. They’d reached the turnaround point at mile 2.5 and were blistering toward the finish. Some of them looked fresh and untroubled while others were clearly giving the run everything they had. I respected them all.

When I got to the turnaround point at mile 2.5, something significant happened. I passed the race walker without realizing it. He must be a man of some renown, though, because the officials there gave him a shout out as he approached. I had promised myself that if I made it to the halfway point without stopping, I would allow myself to walk some of the distance yet to go. But I had just passed the man I had had trouble keeping up with, and I knew if I started walking, he would pass me and then the “race” would be on again. So, despite the angry voices in my head and the eloquent negativity from my quads, I kept running. What was gratifying at this point was that I got to see how many people were behind me. Since the course was an out and back, I was now running the same pavement I had before, just in the opposite direction. And I got to see the hundreds of people who hadn’t gotten as far as I had yet. I said I wasn’t racing anyone, but a year ago I literally was the second to last person to finish one race, so now when I see where I am in the  pack, it gives me a way to measure my improvement. Plus, I respected every one of them for being out there at all.

The run back is mostly a blur in my head. It shouldn’t have been hard at all, but I had done five miles the day before, and more than ten in the week before that, one of those runs holding my fastest sustained pace ever. And I’m still trying to milk some sympathy from running that half marathon. So maybe my body was more tired than I knew. In any case, I kept on.

Ahead of me was a woman who was walking. As I passed her, she began running and left me far behind. (I get this a lot. I seem to be a signal to people to pick up the pace or be like “that guy.”) But then she started walking again. I would close in, and she would run a bit ahead then walk. So it was for the last mile and a half. When we made the turn to the straightaway leading to the finish, I had passed her (again without really realizing it because I was deep inside myself), and I was trying hard to look half alive because I knew there were photographers on the course there. (And the finish photos of me at the half marathon show a dead man walking. I wanted to look at least slightly better than that this time.) With about fifty feet to the finish, the woman I had passed came surging by me and said something about racing to the finish together. I turned it on, but there was nothing left for me to call on. The finish line announcer spotted our little race and began narrating it for the crowd there. She whipped me. She crossed the finish mat a few second ahead of me, and good for her. (When I plugged in my watch later, I found that those last fifty feet were the fastest I have ever run in my life. So I thank this anonymous fellow runner for that.)

As I said, there were actually two runs that day. We 8K runners got the early start, and the 5K runners would start an hour and fifteen minutes later so the course would be clear of us more ambitious folk. The trouble with this arrangement, though, is that by the time slow pokes like me finished, the 5K runners were already lined up at the start, which was my finish. So after I blazed across the mats, I pretty much ran into a crowd of people standing around, acting annoyed that I was coming toward them at speed. If I were organizing this thing, I would figure out some better way to do that part. (Also, I would have Bud Light at the water stations, and I would have had chocolate milk and bagels, which were sorely lacking at this otherwise fine event.)

My wife met me at the finish, but there was nothing much to hang around there for, so we wandered the three blocks back up the hill to the med school and the free pancake breakfast that awaited me there. The pancakes were delicious, but only because I was ravenous. The scrambled eggs were served with ice cream scoops. The comparatively small cafeteria was packed with sweaty runners and their families, and after I wolfed down my free food, we left and made our way back home.

When I plugged in my watch and analyzed my run, I expected to be disappointed with my performance. I was exhausted through most of it, and I certainly did not feel like I was running very fast. Yet that turned out to be the fastest five miles I have ever run. I had achieved an average pace that is my goal to achieve next year. I’ve had some pretty good runs since that half marathon. I guess there might be something to this whole train-hard-and-push-yourself thing.

So the race is run, and I have the shirt to prove it. But there’s really no time to rest. I’m in training now for that full marathon next October. Still has me running scared.


As for my racing selectivity, I’ve already registered for four races in 2014, and there’s a little run coming up in December that I may have to do as well. It begins and ends at one of the watering holes where our group rehydrates, and there is supposed to be a free luau for runners there afterward. Plus, if I have to travel anywhere now, I try to find a run while I’m there. So I’m sure my dance card will be filled next year too.

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One Comment on “Cliff Hanger 8K”

  1. I have heard of that Olathe place…

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