Friday, November 23, 2012

Fifth Annual Gabe's Run 5k XC Challenge

5k w/u
Target: Win, break course record (sub-18:40)
Actual: 18:25, 1st place and new CR
2 mile c/d
Total: 8 miles

I know what you're thinking: "Umm...didn't you just run a marathon four days ago?!" Well technically yes, but in my defense this race has been on the calendar for quite some time, and for good reason. 

Pre-race photo opp with my coworker Scott, his fiancee Jen and his brother
I didn't know much--nothing, really--about Gabe's Run until a few months ago, when my boss Eric mentioned it. The race takes place just a few miles from his house in Hamilton, which is the next town over from where we work in Beverly, which is just north of our home in Salem. Gabe's Run takes place in memory of a Hamilton High graduate who was bound to run at Dartmouth when he was tragically killed in a car accident the summer after his senior year. Now in its fifth year, Gabe's Run has swelled to almost 800 participants and benefits a student-athlete scholarship fund in Gabe's honor. As far as race beneficiaries go, I can't think of a better one to support. So for the past month or so, Eric and I have been recruiting other Karhu and Craft employees to participate--largely by promising brunch at Eric's house afterward--and even Eric's 7-year-old daughter Ella was eager to tackle her second ever 5k endeavor. I held off on signing up until after the marathon just in case any part of my body imploded in a serious way, but after three days off and a tentative tester jog on Thursday I was confident I could at least shuffle around the course in one piece.

Admittedly, Jordan had initially been against the idea of me racing. But as we began slowly tracing the course on our warmup jog, something seemed to change. Having not really participated in cross-country since high school--Club Nats two years ago at McAlpine's glorified dirt road hardly counts--I really had no grasp of effective racing strategy. Jordan offered several pointers and helpfully suggested that I better "beat all the high school girls if I wanted a ride home." In fact, his last words to me before sending me off to the starting line--the men's and women's races were run separately--were, "The course record is 18:40." So much for no pressure.

Of course, 18:40 isn't exactly fast--but then, neither is the terrain. Deemed a "true" cross-country course by Jordan, most of the route traverses uneven, grassy fields and rocky dirt paths. The real gauntlet comes at 4k, when runners are forced to claw their way to the top of Scilly's Hill. I'm always wary of topographical features that necessitate their own nomenclature, and this one was no exception. A steep, rocky, rooty ascent that goes on much too far--for reference, it's steeper than the McAlpine hill and about three times as long--Scilly's Hill was designed to break people. Possibly me. Still, Jordan and I had talked strategy and I felt good about keeping my composure and, in theory, the lead past that point.

That is, until I stepped up to the starting line and spotted a familiar looking figure in a Dartmouth uniform.

"F@#k me, that's Abbey D'Agostino," I thought to myself (and hopefully didn't say out loud, but I can't be entirely certain.)

If you don't know who Abbey D'Agostino is, a quick search of the 'ol interwebs should tell you that she is the reigning NCAA 5k national champion, came within hundredths of a second of taking a free trip to London last summer, and as recently as last weekend placed second at the NCAA D1 cross-country championships. In other words, it didn't matter whether I ran a marathon yesterday or last year; there was no conceivable scenario in which my legs would be fresh enough (never mind fit enough) to challenge her. It was looking as though the exercise of running the race was a mere formality.

I stepped up to the far edge of the starting line, hoping I would have a straight shot across the field when the course narrowed. The announcer was rambling on about this and that, seemingly building up to an elaborate countdown to the start. "And now we have the women lined up, a great field, let's get them in place and--"


The gun fired literally in the middle of his sentence, and chaos reigned. Half the field surged forward, while the rest of us stood, perplexed, assuming it was a misfire and that we would be called back. After about five seconds it became apparent that the latter would not be the case, so I gamely took off after the stampeding crowd. Within the first two minutes it was obvious that Abbey was just jogging--or possibly pacing a friend/Dartmouth teammate--as I was nearing the front and she was nowhere to be seen. The course narrowed as we passed a baseball diamond, then widened again as we burst into the open field, and at that point I had already assumed the lead.

The morning was absolutely gorgeous, brilliant, the sky a deep cerulean and without a cloud. For late November in New England it was best case scenario, and without a drop of rain in the previous week the ground felt firm and responsive. So too, did my legs, and I passed the first mile in 5:43 feeling relaxed and totally comfortable. If the marathon had induced any lingering fatigue I wasn't feeling it yet.

The second mile was the quickest, and the most fun, as I passed near the start line again and was greeted by a phalanx of spectators. There were several hundred people spurring me on, a feeling which I hadn't realized I missed from cross-country days long past. Passing two miles in 11:19, I'd probably opened up a 200-meter lead--enough to ease any worry about being passed on the crawl up Scilly's Hill, but that didn't mean I wasn't dreading it. Sure enough, my ascent was anything but graceful, and I'm not exaggerating in the least when I say I could've walked faster--practically was anyway--at several points. By the time I reached the top my quads were pulsing with a fire that even 26.2 miles hadn't managed to spark, and for the first time since the race began I was counting down the minutes until I could simply stop. A furtive glance at my watch confirmed I would break the course record, but it was astonishing how much time the hill had eaten away. I crossed the line in 18:25, eclipsing the previous course best by 20 seconds, while Abbey and her teammate finished 2-3 in 19:43. I might just frame the race results, as it is certainly the only time my name will ever be listed ahead of hers.

Starting line of the men's race
The guys were up next, and I'm sure Jordan will appreciate me glossing over the finer details. Suffice it to say he went in expecting to get his doors blown off by scores of high schoolers and returning collegians, and he was not proven wrong. I'll let him share the gory details when he updates his blog approximately seven months from now.

Jordan kicking hard for 25th place

It was during the time I was spectating that a diminutive brunette woman approached me. "Didn't you win the women's race?" she asked. I barely had a chance to respond in the affirmative before she was enveloping me in a hug. "I'm Gabe's mom," she continued. "Thank you so much for coming."

I was speechless. How could I respond? I mumbled something wholly inadequate, and then she was gone. But that brief exchange was enough to affirm why I was there, and why I will return next year, and how this often insignificant sport of ours can actually mean so much more than just numbers on the clock. I won't pretend I came to the race solely for altruistic reasons, but I'm honored to have been a small part of the legacy that Gabe has left behind.