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A Tale Of Two (Very Different) Races

By Joe Dudman

You may not believe this, but I find running – pure running – a little dull. That’s one reason I race so much. I need a purpose, a goal, a challenge, a gimmick, to make running fun and interesting. Within a month in late summer/early fall I was able to participate in two vastly different races that provided all of those and more.

Sometime last spring I received an email from Steve Strauss, a long-time member of the Oregon Road Runners Club, with an unusual request: He was putting together a nine-man team with plans to run “Coast to Hood to Coast” – from Seaside to TImberline and back again! – and he was looking for a 9th runner to complete the team. With all my running contacts, did I have any leads?

With my Hood to Coast team of the previous two years (Team Chopped Liver) having bowed out, I had intended to sit out the relay madness in 2011, but the prospect of running the course backwards and then turning around and racing back down the mountain was too intriguing to resist. Much to Steve’s surprise (since he knew me as a “5k guy”), I immediately asked if I might be allowed to fill that final roster spot myself.

The team was kind enough to welcome me aboard, and the next several months were filled with group emails and Steve’s impeccable planning and preparations. By the time August rolled around, everything was in place and all that remained was the running and the anticipation of a memorable adventure.

We gathered at the turnaround in Seaside at 6:00am Thursday, August 25th, and our first runner Dave set off into the predawn light. Not content to merely double our pleasure, Steve had intentionally built the team with only nine runners, so that each of us would run a total of eight legs, four up, four back. I was our fifth runner, and the only one to run the same legs coming and going: 32, 23, 14, 5, 5, 14, 23, 32.

Despite appearances, the Coast to Hood to Coast experience was actually not terribly daunting. For one thing the team was a great group of guys. But also, knowing how much running we had ahead of us, we paced ourselves and made a point of enjoying the experience rather than worrying about time (OK, I may have run my first 4.5 mile leg at sub-6 pace, but from then on I paced myself… kind of.)

Running through rural Oregon in the relative calm of a weekday morning and afternoon was very peaceful, though running Leg 5 alone, in reverse, at 3:00am, guided only by the tiny beam of my flashlight was a little reminiscent of “The Blair Witch Project”. A spectacular thunder storm lit up the sky as we approached Mt. Hood, but it had drifted north by the time Steve triumphantly ascended Leg 1 bearing a huge grin the whole way.

Just when the novelty of running by ourselves the “wrong way” was beginning to wear off, we were ready to welcome the crowds and organized chaos of the conventional Hood to Coast. We arrived at the “start” with over two hours to spare before our official wave, and then it was time for Dave to begin the descent.

Though I’ve definitely felt fresher and more energetic, the trip back to Seaside was still fun and not nearly as onerous as you would think. Knowing what we had already accomplished, what was another four legs? Even the legendary traffic jams and a few exchange delays couldn’t dampen our spirits.

Before we knew it, we were back on the beach celebrating a terrific adventure and trying to come up with the next unique challenge.

Less than a month later, I boarded a flight to New York to visit my cousin and run The Fifth Avenue Mile, a historic sprint along a 20 block stretch of Manhattan next to Central Park. With only a few weeks to adjust my training, I wasn’t sure how well I could run a mile, but with some advice from Rick Lovett and a couple rounds of road intervals and hill workouts I was ready to give it my best shot.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Empire State” became my inspirational earworm: “Big Apple, takin’ a bite of me, Whole world movin’ below my feet…” As I was walking through the airport I kept thinking I was hearing people call my name, only to turn and find them talking to someone else. It took me a while to realize they were saying “Yo!” in fluent New Yawkese.

The Fifth Avenue Mile is one of the events that showcases everything that makes road racing such a great sport: It’s open to runners of every stripe and every pace, yet it also features professional heats that allow average runners to rub shoulders with Olympians, pros, and world record holders. (Well, not literally, since there are separate heats, but anybody can race and then stand at the curb and watch world class runners zoom by a few feet away.)

After warming up nervously in front of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, it was time to line up for my heat, men 40-49. I wedged myself into the second row in the surprisingly narrow start chute, and burst to the front as soon as the gun went off, trying to avoid getting entangled with other runners’ feet.

As a result, I went out just a little bit fast, to paraphrase Bob Uecker in “Major League”. My first quarter was a 62! Uh oh! But I was in New York City running a race I’d always wanted to run, so I was going for it! Though I started getting passed, I still felt OK through a 68 second quarter and a 71 third. But by the time the finish arch was visible several blocks away, the wheels had come fully off and I was trailing sparks as I dragged my bare axle through the final quarter in 78 seconds.

But I had given it my all, and run a sub-4:50 in the heart of Manhattan. I had no regrets. After a grilled cheese sandwich and a vanilla milkshake with my cousin at a nearby diner, we walked back over and found a spot a half-block from the finish to watch the professional heats.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was watching Bernard Lagat outkick the field in an incredible blur (finishing in 3:50, a full minute faster than me!), then having him cheerfully autograph my copy of Running Times as he did his victory lap back up Fifth Avenue.

The Fifth Avenue Mile is an incredible experience, and I hope some middle distance Lizards will be tempted to make the trip next year. As for Coast to Hood to Coast… I’m not sure that will be repeated anytime soon.

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