Men’s Health Urbanathlon (Chicago): Grand Old Day 8K

Since taking up running last summer I’ve run a total four races; beginning with the Twin Cities 10K, the Urbanathalon (15Kish), Goldy’s 5K in April, and this past weekend the Grand Old Day 8K. So many K.

The good news with this format is that I can confidently say I’ve posted personal bests in each race. The downside is that I lack a true comparative set. Can I run a 5K more quickly or was Goldy’s fluky fast (for me)? I don’t know.

I do know that this weekend’s 8K was just what I needed. Short enough that I could push my tempo a little bit and see what I could sustain over the haul, but far enough that I had to think more strategically as a runner, run further through considerable fatigue, and contemplate at least once the prospect of just peeling off to the side and calling it a day.

Just a beautiful morning to be out

The course
Grand Avenue in Saint Paul on a perfectly sculpted Sunday morning. Literally a straight shot into the sunrise the first 2.5 miles, through Macalaster College, a ton of great shops, funky homes and old-timey apartments and duplexes, and then back. As part of Grand Old Day (a street festival/party of sorts), food and merchandise vendors line almost the entire course, and as built-in spectators they were extremely encouraging and fun (Grand Old Day is a family affair, but as the day goes on skews more to the loose, party atmosphere). There is also a parade on the same route shortly after the race, and a few eager families grab a spot early enough to catch part of the run (before freaking out over free candy). And people who actually live along Grand Avenue are busily setting up their front yard living rooms, and offer random support (big props to the older shirtless gent dressed only in a kilt and lei, inaudibly singing and waving his arms). So there was just a constant buzz and beehive of activity along the entire course, which I think is unique.

10 minutes prior to our 8K run they legged out an 8K on inline skates. There were a few hardcore teams (who are somethng to see in action), but mostly your casual skater. The first skaters started hitting the finish a few minutes after we were on the course.

The Draw
I loved the casual neighborhood and small business district course, and wanted something more than a 5K, yet not something quite as daunting as a 10-mile. We usually stop by Grand Old Day anyway, so why not burn some calories first.

The Mindset
I spent a little time (okay, a lot of time) online looking up last year’s results to gauge where I might fall into place (not an exact science, but I like to know what I’m getting in to). I estimated, based on my training, I’d come in right around 38 minutes, putting me among the top 70 in the field, and giving me a punchers chance at the top 50 (based solely on last year’s registration volume and performances).

Perhaps buoyed by what I felt to be solid training the last three weeks, mixed with a moderately uplifting showing at Goldy’s 5K, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could hit the 35-minute mark, but I’d have to hustle. Either way, my mindset was very competitive (in terms of wanting to run hard), and when it came time to line up I somehow found myself at the front of the start (though I took a few steps backward from the more intense runners to settle in at the third row).

Last-minute adjustments before go time

Come start time I found myself in the thick of it … huh?

I like the energy up front, and getting out of the blocks early and settling into my pace seems much easier there (I find that my nerves/jitters make me impatient and it’s hard for me to calmly navigate the middle of the pack for the first quarter mile or so; I like to peel off to the side early where I can either be easily passed or easily pass).

The Race
About 60 seconds into the run I had to tell myself, out loud (but only so I could hear), “relax.” I was so amped (in a good way, I think) I thought I might pass out. I felt this way during Goldy’s 5K, too.

Based on my training I thought I’d run the first mile at about 7:40, then step up to 7:30, and settle into 7:20 for the home stretch. But when I checked RunKeeper to see if I was on target (I know I start out way too fast), I must have missed the ‘start activity’ button because it wasn’t running. I got it started and ran the rest of the first mile at my current pace, which when I checked the app again, was at about 6:40. Like during Goldy’s, I thought, ‘hmmm, cool, but can I keep this up?’

The packs sorted out quickly. About 25 runners took the helm and lead convincingly from the start (I could clearly see them during the first 2 miles, but they took off on the return down Grand). There were about a dozen runners in my cluster, and then several yards back the bulk of runners.

Inside the first mile, in reliable fashion, my crew was on the boulevard, and they must have spotted me a block away (I was way off to the right). My girls ran up the block to meet me, and then turned to run the rest of the block down. That was fun, and as always they put a hop in my step.

My crew pulls me into view (if you squint you’ll see me in all black to the left; and notice the pack is still tight here)

Flagged down (though I spotted them about a block away, too)

Together we leg out a good 50 yards before sending me on my way with a needed high five.

At about a mile and a half (the first water ‘island’), my parents surprised me along the course; my dad with his iPhone and my mom with her boisterous cheers. This was especially uplifting because three days earlier my mom had a pretty invasive surgical procedure and had been physically and emotionally drained, but was now on the upswing and being appropriately belligerent.

For the first 2.5 miles an older participant ran a few yards ahead of me (I later found out he is 67 years old; he ran with his shirt off and looked awesome). He had a steady pace that was a little harder than I would normally run on my own, so keeping up with him was attainable, but required me to dig a little deeper to do so (this was good). I never looked back, but I could tell by the cadence of footsteps that there were just a few of us at this point.

On the return down Grand Avenue my unofficial shirtless pacer trailed off only slightly, but another guy came even with me and we ran pretty much the remainder of the course in equal stride. We never exchanged words but it felt implied that we were in it together (and gave each other the silent but appropriate ‘at-a-boy, thanks’ back slap after the run). This was important because the packs really thinned after 3 miles. It was the leaders waaaay ahead (and now finishing), just a few of us now loosely in together, and then a pretty significant gap until the next cluster.

The final mile was really tough. Up until that point I felt really good; my wind was up and I had a strong, purposeful stride. But that last mile, when those welcome declines were now mountainous inclines, heaviness set in. I quietly regretted the early pace I set for myself, but maintained. One runner passed me at about the four-mile mark. That was good because it sort of prodded me a little and forced/encouraged me to step it up, only I couldn’t (completely).

This is where I have significant room to learn and grow as a runner. I’m good at running in my comfort zone (and pushing the boundaries a bit), but I don’t yet know when it’s okay to gut through that threshold and run in a more demanding zone (and what that zone should feel like; I don’t want to go into cardiac arrest on the course …). I’ll figure that out.

Lifted somewhat by the crowd (and again by my crew running 40 yards with me on the return) I closed the last half mile pretty strong (but could not close the gap on the only two reachable guys ahead of me) and was able to fully sprint the last 50 yards. In all, a positive experience for me and I was pleased with my individual performance.

Helping me trudge through that last mile (Note, see the shirtless 67-year-old I mentioned earlier. Also, the guy in red behind my daughter was in tandem with me up to this point, and the sliver of blue you see behind him is the guy who passed me up about a minute after this photo, and who I could not keep up with.)

My finish time was 34:59 (I thought I’d finish at 38 minutes at worst and 35 minutes at best), placing me 29 overall (out of 320 runners), 26 among all male runners, and 2 in my 40-44 age group (there were 19 in my age group).

How this bodes for the Urbanathlon?
Like all of my training, it all comes down to ‘how is this going to help me in Chicago come October?’ Again, here it just boils down to being a stronger runner than I was last October. The 8K distance is a shade more than half of the Urbanathlon distance, and my pace right now is markedly improved. I’ll keep building up to the 10-mile mark (while maintaining my current pace).

Most importantly, with each race I feel like I’m getting my game-day reps in. The adrenalin, pace, excitement, competition, fatigue and psychology of race day is so different than day-to-day training. The more I ‘compete’ the better I’ll become at managing my body and controlling my race, rather than finding myself in no man’s land like I did last year in the later stages of the Urbanathlon.

Overall Grand Old Day 8K Experience: A+
How could you not love it? A beautiful straight course buzzing with spectators nearly the entire way, with the bonus of meaty smoke billowing in your face as you passed flaming grills filled with turkey legs, burgers, chicken wings, gyro, kabobs, corn, etc. There were runners of all skill level and it was a supportive atmosphere for each of us (there was a 5K immediately after the 8K and some runners registered for both races … maybe next year).

Meeting up after the race they still had something left in the tank

I love my team!


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