As I study my weather app at 6:30 AM, I see that it is forecast to be 34 degrees at the 10 AM start time for this 8-mile jaunt around the northern portion of Greece, NY. This tropical temperature just doesn’t sound possible to me….This race has to be freezing!….5 or 8 degrees…or 12 at the very most. It’s the Freezeroo in February, after all! In fact, last year’s race was cancelled due to severe winter weather. And, two years ago, it was frigid with breathtaking wind gusts and driving snow! (See picture below.) This race, hosted by the Greater Rochester Track Club (GRTC) and the Bagel Bunch Runners, is right on Lake Ontario, and we all know about the cold, steady, icy wind that blows off that bone gray body of water separating us from our friends in Canada. Hence, I reject the datum on my app and bundle up for a cold run. Not only did I wear my black compression pants and thick gray “Compass Care” sweatpants over them, I wear three running shirts (two long-sleeved and one short-sleeved), a toboggan, two pairs of gloves, and a soft, insulating, blue GRTC muffler around my neck (Freezeroo race bling). In retrospect, with this assemblage of gear, even in a snowstorm, I would be adequately dressed to walk across the approximately 50 miles of Lake Ontario (if it were frozen) to Presqu’ile Point, Ontario, have a nice lunch, and walk back. Well, I planned poorly….Should’ve heeded the forecast.
Well over 100 runners formed a jovial, compact huddle at the start line, the road leading in and out of Braddock Bay Park. I had a fun conversation with a veteran runner named Mark, who, as it turns out, uses my Erie Canal Trail route between Fairport and Pittsford, NY for his daily practice runs. He runs in the morning, and I usually run after lunch or early evening, so we don’t recognize each other. Runners love to talk running, and it is a pleasure for dozens of us to cover those topics that animate us: upcoming races, gear, distances, terrains, injuries, goals, strategy and technique. I’m happy to be in this club, this assemblage of men and women, who are setting aside all sorts of other demands and preoccupations in order to focus squarely on traversing this eight mile route with one foot in front of the other. This is a retreat, a meditation, a temporary reprieve from bus driving, studying, engineering, teaching, retailing, caregiving, driving, cooking, information processing, accounting, drywalling, cleaning, assembling, chauffering, and all sorts of other callings. Running is a simple sport – ambulate in a straight line and occasionally turn. Simple, I guess, unless you count every fun element that accompanies it! What a joy to mine it for all it’s worth!
I’m only 5’6″, so I’ve spent my life wondering what’s going on “up front”, but I hear somebody up there yell “Go!”, and we are off! I have a bit of a smile on my face, and, you know, I think many of my fellow runners do as well.
I was hot by Mile 1.5. It’s the kind of heat that causes sweat to pool around my temples and roll down my face, follow the contours to my chin, and careen down my neck. This heat is going to act as a governor, restricting my energy, and, hence, my pace. I pull off the blue muffler and shove it into my compression pants off my right hip. I was cruising at about a 7:25 per mile pace – perhaps too fast for me to sustain for 8 miles, but, hey, let’s roll! We can worry about that later! The road is clean and reasonably dry, save a few patches of snow and slush….No problem! I settle in to my pace adjacent to a runner with a thick, fuzzy pull-over sweatshirt in front of me. No, not a sweater, but a fuzzy sweatshirt – like a Land’s End shirt with a zipper collar. I wonder if he thinks he’s overdressed as well? This guy’s got a great stride and pace so precise, one could use it to set the atomic clock. I end up settled in off his right shoulder and about 6 feet back. Our route includes two intimidating traverses on overpasses that span the Lake Ontario State Parkway, a route my family uses for summer camping trips at the state parks between here and Niagara Falls. I take long looks at the parkway in both directions as I cross these overpasses. Now, whenever we cruise through here on our camping trips, I’ll have the memory of this run to ponder. And, yes, the Better Half will hear about it, probably on multiple occasions, and at varying intensities of exaggeration, and she’ll be one step closer to canonization as a result.
The race planners have done a great job securing police and firefighter support at each corner, and these local heroes do an expert job controlling traffic on what would otherwise be busy, fast two-lane roads on the edge of Rochester. Some drivers, as they slowly snake past or wait at intersections, study us with a perplexed expression, like we are exotic animals at a drive-through safari. I half expect one of them to try and feed me. “Why are they doing that? Where are they going?” We can’t explain it to you now. For one thing, we don’t have a surplus of breath for conversation! Most drivers smile, nod, wave, even if they’re a bit anxious about getting to their Saturday morning appointments. A few have heads down, as they are glued to their handheld devices. Put those things away and focus on the road!
At about Mile 3, I pull off my first pair of gloves – my blue GRTC gloves that were given as race bling a year or two ago. These get shoved in my shorts off my right hip, right next to the muffler I had already stowed away there. I’m still hot. My sunglasses (bifocals), held snugly to my face with a green tension cord, fog up, creating a prismatic dreamscape. I pull off my hat…and one of my three shirts. Finally, I pull off my final pair of gloves. I’ve got so much clothing shoved below that it is comical. But, I feel cooler now…I think I can hit that homeostatic sweet spot. I gradually ease past the athlete with the fuzzy sweatshirt.
A reader might be led to believe that I’m feeling good, but I’m not. Through Miles 4 and 5, I’m actually contemplating what it would be like to crash and burn. Is today the day? What would it be like if I just stopped now? My pace drops to about an 8 minute mile. I began running only 4 years ago, so the notion that “this running phase” could be ending is like a dark fog that infiltrates my thoughts and creates a dread that can, at least for moments, be nearly all-consuming. “No, Dear Lord, please, don’t make me go back to golf!”Most who know me would never describe me as anxious. Far from it! But, the thought of not making it can literally be felt in the pit of my stomach. It’s a bit like driving down the NY thru-way at night in the winter, with the fuel warning light on, and realizing that the next available gas station is 17 miles. What’s that noise? Did I just hear the engine sputter? Grip that steering wheel and drive, man!
I’m on Edgemere Drive now, running northwesterly. This is a narrow road that splits a thin finger of land, with two small ponds off of my left shoulder and Lake Ontario off my right. To improve my morale, I focus my attention on the clusters of people ice fishing on the ponds and even wave at a few. Behave happy, be happy! I see the GRTC photographer and ask him to capture my Braveheart qualities; he says he’ll do his best, but I know that’d require Photoshop. And, despite all my grousing about being too hot, I feel a strong, steady cool breeze coming from the west now. This is strange: my right hand is like an ice cube, but my left is still pretty warm. Is this difference because the right hand is farther away from my heart? My gloves are shoved somewhere down below, and that’s that. I use this frozen hand as motivation to run harder to the finish line.
The Big Finish
We roll into a tightly-packed neighborhood that’s surrounded by Lake Ontario on three sides. This is a neat little peninsula that must have great block parties in the summer. These neighborhood streets are not plowed as well as the main roads, giving us a chance to practice our balancing and slip-recovery skills. We return to East Manitou Road, a main artery, at about Mile 6.5, and I begin to sense that, once again, today’s not the day for the crash-and-burn. Indeed, I feel tired but strong. At Mile 7, I am running with two other guys, and we pour it on and return to about a 7:25 per mile pace. Hey, what are we saving it for? We exchange a few comments, and, admittedly, I talk the most- just gibberish – sorry, guys! We’re expending whatever’s left in the gas tank to propel us through this final drive to the finish line.
Jason McElwain (“Jmac”), a terrific athlete and 2006 ESPY Award winner, is calling out the finishers as we cross the line, all to the beat of Tom Petty and other classic rockers piped through a solid sound system. I made it in 1 hour and 57 seconds (6 out of 14 in my age group; 7:37 per mile pace) and, after cheering on a few others, head inside the heated park pavilion for the food, water, and wonderfully strong, black coffee. I stick around long enough to enjoy the company of a few friends, but I’ve gotta roll; I have to chauffeur one of the boys to his Boy Scout meeting by 12:45.
Our last Freezeroo race of the season is the Whitehouse Challenge on February 25th. I’m sure I’ll do a better job predicting the weather that day and will have no struggles at all LOL! My thanks to friends at GRTC and the Bagel Bunch Runners for a fun race. It was great, and you all did terrific! Looming in the distance is the Nashville St. Jude Rock and Roll Marathon in April…. I can’t wait!