I signed up for my fifth Skunk Cabbage Half Marathon on December 1. There’s something about hitting registration for your favorite races on the first day it opens, in the depths of winter. I have several races that are this way, including Gorges Half and the Cayuga Lake Triathlon. I love Skunk because of the people. It feels like everyone emerges from winter hibernation and converges on Barton Hall for an unofficial runner’s kickoff to spring. I love the social aspect of mingling before and after the race. The course is also rather nice, as there aren’t too many hills and it’s easily digested in stretches of 2-4 miles.
This winter’s MITHICAL Milers series served as good preparation to come into the middle of a half marathon plan. I chose to jump into the last 8 weeks of the Run Less, Run Faster plan. The plan calls for three key running workouts each week: an interval, a tempo and a long run. I’d fill a few more days each week with cross training, a critical component to staying healthy and keeping my whole system in check. As an added bonus, since it was still rather cold out and MITHICAL Milers was officially over, I’d have an excuse to go to Barton Hall for speedwork on the 200m track. I made it through the plan having hit my aggressive goals for the most part, so felt really prepared physically for this race.
What to Wear?
The key problem was going to be the weather. The temperature was forecasted to be about ten degrees colder than I’d like. It’d hover right around freezing for the entire distance! What should I wear? Tights could overheat. Shorts could be too cold, especially if it wasn’t sunny. I need up choosing shorts and my favorite NYC Marathon long-sleeved tech shirt. A hat and sunglasses completed the ensemble nicely, since the course was not sheltered and wind and snow could be an issue for visibility. I was really nervous, too. Race mornings can be hit or miss for me, but I was feeling particularly bad this morning, bad enough to tweet about it.
Getting Ready in Cornell’s Barton Hall
As we arrived outside of Barton Hall, Joel Cisne was the first familiar person we saw. His smile is always infectious and helps kick off the day right.
It’s no wonder he was awarded the Ian Golden Community Wellness & Spirit Award in 2016. He does so much for the local running community. Just outside of Barton, Amy and I saw Shane Eversfield, a beast in his own right, who taught me how to swim again. We exchanged enthusiastic hellos with him before heading inside to join the throngs of people waiting for the race to start.
I then ran into Jason Fingerman, who was treating today as a final volume day leading up to the Big Sur Marathon. We had been chatting on Strava about the race, and wanted to get together for a picture beforehand. He routed his first 8 miles downtown from Cornell and then back up Buffalo Street. He had my instant respect based on this route. He’d finish off his long run on the race course. In 1993, you could have found Jason and I in adjacent dorm rooms on Onondaga 4N at SUNY Geneseo. Neither of us were runners then, but we sure are now!
Barton was swarming with people picking up bibs, finalizing their wardrobes, grabbing last glasses of water and socializing with friends. I found a corner to stash our extra clothing in, said goodbye to Amy and started to do some strides on the track. Only half of it was really usable, which was fine. I wasn’t going for distance here, just looking to get the legs moving and feel what speed felt like again. I jogged a few light 100s and found some hurdles to use for stability as I swung my legs in all manner of directions to loosen up. Tonya Engst happened by and she stretched a bit with me as we talked about a play I’m acting in. The show’s in two weeks, so I’ve been telling everyone who’ll listen to me that they should go. If you live locally, you should!
It was 20 minutes to race time, so I headed off to the men’s room. Bathroom lines were insane (aren’t they always pre-race?) and I couldn’t help but laugh a little at all of us. The men’s room is always funny, with a single line feeding two types of pre-race people: sitters and standers. Only here can you cheerily say something like “Urinals are open” to a complete stranger behind you and have it be remotely okay. John Donaldson came in and feigned budging the line to bump into me, and we had a good laugh about locals causing all kinds of trouble. I don’t think I’ve seen him since a Taughannock trail run late last season! I turned to leave and saw Jon Shaff standing there patiently. I’d already seen him a few times and he cracked a joke about me, just hanging out in the bathroom socializing. Damn straight! It’s where all the cool kids hang out.
I waffled about what to wear as I walked out the door. I ended up ditching my standard-issue winter running windbreaker, as I was concerned about sweating into it and then having to tie it around my waist. Part of today was going to be getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, so I chose to leave that behind. As I joined the large group shuffling out the door, I talked with Jess Kerns about why we love to do this crazy thing called running, and about pink sunglasses. Since I had a pair on my head, it was only appropriate. Ian Golden was setting up near the finish line to announce, so we caught up briefly. Adam Engst was going to lead the half marathon on his Elliptigo, so I asked him if I could have a ride if I ever found I was flagging. As I walked down the yellowed center stripe of the road to the start area, the loudspeakers played Chariots of Fire. Hell, yes. The sun was out, this music was setting a fine aural stage, several hundred people in all manner of colorful running clothing teemed before me with infectious energy, and I couldn’t help but smile. I stood front and center on the start line and looked at the expanse of blacktop before me. It was a short rise before turning left and crossing the pads that officially started the race.
Ready to Race
I shared a space at the start line with Pete Kresock and Rich Heffron. We talked about paces briefly, though I knew that to try to keep up with Rich would be pure foolishness. He’d finish about 10 minutes before I did. Ian Golden (Golden for Congress!) approached the start line to give his pre-race speech, which was short, sweet and hinted at beer on the course. The beer, of course, is courtesy of Ithaca’s hashers — at least I think — and would make an appearance around mile 9.
We started running at the stroke of ten. I powered up the hill, rounding the corner with another runner at my side. I thought it was Rich, but then realized it was another speedster. I wished him well, and he shared that he was tuning up for Boston. Man, to be able to run that fast in a tuneup on the road to Boston. Humbling. I checked my pace and it was way too hot, so I moderated a bit as we turned onto Tower. Now it was time for Rich to pass me, and I wished him well, too.
The sun was out and the temperature seemed rather pleasant. I started thinking back to my half marathon PR set years ago at Corning. I was unsure what that pace would need to be, and I also hadn’t looked up any of my prior Skunk times. This was very unlike me, but also today’s effort was really about running my own race on this day, enjoying every step. I ran a few of these opening miles alongside runners of similar pace while the lead pack kept extending their gap. I stopped briefly enough to take in water at the first water stop and was alone from this time forward. It’d only been 20 minutes with another hour to go. Without music or a running partner, it was time to get mentally in the zone.
Trouble is, when my mind is empty lately, I start running lines and going through the myriad emotions of Payne Showers, my character in the play Artifice. “I’m pretty sure Payne is not a runner.” I thought to myself. Payne is a mountain climber. He’s probably into bouldering, drinking craft beer and sleeping in a hammock swinging between two trees. Those are all things I enjoy, too, except sleeping in a hammock. I should try that sometime. “Dude, you’re racing. Shut up.” I thought to myself. I tried to shuttle the thoughts of the play to the less-needed parts of my brain and started thinking about pace again. This required math. Math while running is really hard, and I gave up on trying to add, multiply and divide after a few minutes. It wasn’t important, either. I focused on turnover, breathing, squared shoulders and a level pelvis. All good stuff.
With my mind no longer consumed with lines or math, I started to get negative, but only briefly. I wasn’t sure I could keep up this pace, and I already knew I was off of a PR time. I even thought I wouldn’t write about this race (I love writing about running) since it wasn’t feeling all that special. I wasn’t even halfway through it! I paused for water again, clumsily spilling some on my shorts. Brilliant. Not that it’s cold or anything, so why not get some refreshing water on your shorts?
Somewhere around mile 6 I got passed for the first time since the opening miles. Blue t-shirt and white Ironman hat. Mr. Ironman. It’s funny: in a race I end up naming people by their clothes if I don’t know them. Over the next four miles, Mr. Ironman would trade places a few times with me. I passed him again just before mile 7 on a sweet downhill stretch. He encouraged me as I passed, and I said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get me again.”
“More than halfway done now.” I thought to myself. Keep going. The discomfort you feel is temporary. The sun had gone away after the first few miles of the race, but came back now. I pulled my sunglasses down to shield my eyes and also keep them from tearing in the wind. The glasses fogged instantly. I pulled them just off the ridge of my nose to let some air in, but then they bounced comically up and down. I pushed them back up securely. More fog. “Man, I can’t see shit.” I said to nobody in particular. The glasses were done for the day. I soldiered on, and the next water stop beckoned. This one would have beer! As I approached the volunteers’ outstretched hands, I listed to the cacophony of offered liquids. Water? Gatorade? Water?
“Beer?” I asked. YES. An angel of a man stepped forward with about 4 ounces of hoppy goodness and I downed it while briefly standing still. I grabbed a water from the next volunteer and chugged that as well before setting off again. All told, it was a 5 second stop. I couldn’t help but think about the beer mile, and how that might be fun to do sometime. Because running … and beer.
I had one last rise to make it up before the long, gradual 3-mile descent into the finish area. I ran up the hill thinking of effort, not speed. If I kept the effort constant and didn’t worry about my speed on this stretch, I wouldn’t kill myself. Though I did feel half-dead at this point. This train of thought came to an abrupt, happy end as I hung a left at the top of the hill. All downhill from here. Scotie Jacobs was spectating on the left here, at the turnaround point for the 10K. We started folding in with 10K runners, and it felt good to pass people and give encouragement as I went.
The skies darkened abruptly and it started to snow. Heavily. With three miles to go, it was going to be interesting. I thought back to the Syracuse Half Marathon, and how it couldn’t possibly get THAT bad. Katie Sick was on my heels, and with a mile left I said to her, “Ready to get to work?” I knew full well that my current pace was going to be my closing pace. I didn’t have much gas left in the tank. She did, clearly, and passed me before our final turns into Cornell’s campus. She’d prove to be a good rabbit for the last mile.
The closing mile was almost a whiteout. One foot in front of the other. Watch out for traffic. Smile. Almost done. Steve Gallow was on my left, taking what I’m sure will be wonderful photos in the falling snow. I felt for him, photographing the field in what he’d say was probably the coldest race he’s photographed. I rounded the final corner and saw the finish line. I poured what little energy I had left into a concerted effort to turn over a little faster. Ian shouted my name as I crossed the finish line. I was thrilled to see Brenda Michaud there to give me a post race hug. She’d normally give me a medal, but instead took down my number since some locals were being asked to forego their finish medal for a few weeks. I imagined there weren’t enough to go around, with so many runners this year! I said that’d be fine, and shuffled off to Barton to get into some warmer clothing.
I got into some warmer clothing and headed back outside to see Amy’s finish. Runners were coming in with snow-clad eyelashes and clothing smeared with white patches of ice. I knew then that I had missed the full force of the storm that swung through the middle of the race like an unwelcome visitor. After Amy’s finish, we ducked back into Barton to get something to eat and drink, socialize a bit, and then head out to see the last performance of my son’s middle school play.
As a consequence, we missed the awards ceremony. I knew that I was the first masters finisher based on the timesheet posted on the wall. It was close, too. The next masters finisher was 5 SECONDS behind me. Had I lingered a little longer with that beer, had to tie my shoe or take a pit stop in the woods, I would have been in second place. It’s hard to think about those things when the race is all said and done, and there’s no way to be aware about it in the moment, when you’re running. I finished with a 1:26:15, a good three minutes faster than any of my prior efforts.
What I didn’t realize as we were leaving was that since this race was New York’s RRCA State Championship race for the half marathon distance, I was also the NYS Masters Half Marathon champion! Joel Cisne would tell me later in an email, and I laughed out loud at the prospect. It’s just like when I won a 5K for the first and only time (I’m 99% sure of that) when I realized it’s all about who shows up for the race. My time is fast, sure, but it’s not sub-elite fast. I think more like upper amateur. Any number of people could have come out and blown me away, and that would have been okay. Expected, actually. I’ll hang the medal proudly on my gym wall, though, and in the future will look back on 2018 as the year I was the state champion.
A huge thank you to Alex Kleinerman and her crew of volunteers who pull this event off without a hitch, year after year. If you had an idea of half of what it takes to put on an even with 1,000+ runners, you’d be in awe. It truly is a wonderful way to kick off spring, even if it was snowing.
By the Numbers
Time: 1:26:15 (course PR!)
Age Group: 1/40, 1st Masters winner, NYS RRCA Champion