Sometime after 10pm EST on Friday night, as I was barreling up I-196 in Michigan at 80+ MPH, with my head on a swivel to look out for any deer rushing out of the woods to come play on the highway, the thought occurred to me: What am I even doing here? This trip had technically been on the books since I signed up for the race in November 2011, but it didn’t *really* feel real until I was less than an hour outside Grand Rapids. I was 3 hours away from home, alone, on my way to stay with my friend Lindsey who I didn’t know all that well and her sister Melissa that I’d never even met before, and all for the opportunity to run what was essentially a glorified 15.5-mile pre-marathon training run the following morning.
What the hell was I doing here?
The race wasn’t so expensive that I would have rued the sunk cost of my registration fee if I didn’t run; in fact, the 35th annual River Bank Run 25K cost me exactly $35. I would end up paying more for the gas required to drive to/from Grand Rapids than I would for the actual race. Yes, I had originally planned on having an additional traveling companion for the drive/run, but I’d known for over a week that I’d be riding solo, so I had plenty of time to change my mind. I had made the choice to be here. As these thoughts fired across my synapses, I looked around in all directions of this divided woodland highway I was tearing across, and I actually laughed out loud as I confirmed again that I was completely alone on the road. What was I doing here?, I asked myself one last time.
Oh well, no matter. I just needed to make it to Grand Rapids as fast as possible.
In truth, the seed for running this race had been planted a full year earlier, when my hostess-for-the-weekend Lindsey had run the 25K in May 2011. My friend Dan Solera (a recurring character in this blog) and I had both been training for the 2011 Traverse City Marathon at the end of May that year, but we each acknowledged at the time that running a 25K road race would be pretty cool, if for nothing else than it’s such a unique distance (and Grand Rapids also happens to be within a palatable driving distance from Chicago). We made the most tentative of agreements that we’d consider the 25K in 2012, but I was always a liiiittle more serious about running it than Dan was. Lindsey, a fellow Michigan State alum that I’d met through mutual friends in Chicago, had already indicated early on that she planned to run the race again in 2012. So when I checked the River Bank Run’s website last November and saw that registration had opened, I took the plunge and took advantage of the ridiculously-cheap early-bird registration fee of $35 after fees. I’m not sure that there are any other large chip-timed races out there that cost as little as $1.40/kilometer, though if there are, I’d be interested in hearing about them. Lindsey signed up shortly thereafter, though Dan remained on the fence.
A month or two prior to the race, Lindsey actually moved away from Chicago to take a new job in Grand Rapids, moving in with her sister Melissa– while we were all sad to see her go, she did offer Dan and myself a place to stay for the weekend of the race. Dan, though…well, Dan was unable to add this race to his spring calendar. Not that I can blame the guy, mind you: if Dan had signed up for this 25K, then that race would have been the sixth of eight consecutive weekends where he’d be running a race, and it would have been the third out of four weekends in a row in which he traveled out of state to race, leaving his fiancee and two dogs at home. A man has to keep a balance at home, so he gets a pass from me on this one. That being said…a 3-hour drive in each direction becomes a much different prospect when you’re driving alone as opposed to when you have someone else in the car with you, and as the race date drew closer, I began to have second thoughts about making the trip at all. I knew Lindsey socially when she lived in Chicago, but I didn’t know her all that well, and I felt a bit out-of-place driving up alone to stay with her for the weekend. Then there was the matter of the “race” itself– since I will be running the Traverse City Bayshore full marathon during Memorial Day weekend (just 2 weeks after the 25K), I wouldn’t be looking to push the pace at all in Grand Rapids. Was it really worth it to make the drive alone, just to run a semi-leisurely 15.5 miles?
In the end, I told myself that just experiencing the River Bank Run (or “RBR” as some of the locals call it) and adding a 25K to my race resume outweighed any apprehensions that I had, and so I decided to go through with it. New race, new city, and all that. Lindsey assured me that I would be a welcome guest, and we even found a race objective for me for the 25K: while I wasn’t looking to run the race at a PR intensity similar to a half-marathon (though, by definition, any official time would technically be a 25K PR for me), I would pace Lindsey as she looked to improve on her time from the year before.
And so that’s how I ended up driving up I-196 at 80+ MPH by myself, on a divided highway late at night with no other cars on the road, not arriving in Grand Rapids until 11pm the night before the race. Thankfully, Lindsey had beer in her refrigerator, and so my streak of running and drinking remained intact (I’d gone for a run during my lunch break at work that day). If Lindsey hadn’t had beer in the fridge, as God is my witness, I would have driven to the nearest convenience store to buy a 6-pack so that I could drink a beer before the clock struck midnight. A streak is a streak is a streak.
As my friend Jim Burrows likes to say, “It’s not a problem, it’s a gift.”
After I’d gone to sleep sometime after midnight on Friday night, I woke up around 6:30am on Saturday morning to the sound of wild turkeys walking down the street, gobbling amongst themselves as they strutted the house. Yes, that last sentence actually happened. Wild. Fucking. Turkeys. I hastily threw on my shoes and ran outside to snap a photo; I definitely wasn’t in Chicago anymore.
Just like the miniMarathon in Louisville 2 weeks earlier, Grand Rapids was expected to be PUMMELED by thunderstorms during the race, and the local GR weatherman frightened me so much the morning of the race that I didn’t bring an iPod to the start line, for fear of it becoming waterlogged. However, just like in Kentucky, the storm cell missed us completely and we were left with ideal race conditions. While the 10K started at 8:00am and the 25K kicked off at 8:20, Lindsey and her sister Melissa were clearly unconcerned about traffic and parking, as we left their house around 7:30am. This would have been unthinkable for a big race in Chicago, but Melissa had the car parked downtown within walking distance of the start line by 7:45, and we ambled toward the main downtown civic center to drop off gear and meet up with some of the girls’ friends. Melissa and a few of her friends had originally been registered for the 25K, but a handful of them ran the full marathon in Louisville 2 weeks earlier (where I had run the half), and so all of them had decided to drop down to the 10K distance instead. That left only Lindsey and myself running the 25K, the former and current Chicagoan(s) tasked with keeping each other’s minds preoccupied with anything other than tedious running for the next 2+ hours.
As far as our planned pace, Lindsey had been sandbagging all week by saying that she’d been sick recently, that she hadn’t been running as much, etc., and so she was hoping to do 9:30-mile splits. Let the record show that I was perfectly okay with that, BUT I knew that her time from the previous year had been 2:17 and change (an 8:51/mile pace), so I nonchalantly asked her the morning of the race if she wanted me to pace for her a 2:15:00 “just for a couple miles, just to see how it goes” (that’s always how it starts). Lindsey agreed to that plan immediately and without hesitation, which is what led me to believe she was sandbagging in the first place. For my part, I was selfishly happy that I would have the chance to throw down a sub-09:00/mile pace for the race of this distance. I would be damn proud with a 2:15:00 or thereabouts, and I was impressed that Lindsey was willing to give it a shot, even though she’d never trained that fast. And so I took it upon myself to get us there.
Amidst perfect race conditions and 5700 of our closest friends, Lindsey and I crossed the start line 2-3 minutes after the gun went off, and we settled into a 09:00/mile groove for the first mile to warm up. And my God, was that a depressing first mile. The RBR 25K must want your expectations to completely bottom out over that first mile-and-a-half, so that there’s nowhere to go from there but up, because we ran through just about the most downtrodden area of Grand Rapids that they could have chosen. I stopped counting strip clubs after 2, and I stopped counting shuttered-up warehouses after about 5 or 6 of those. In addition to this spellbinding scenery, within the first mile Lindsey also asked me “how [my] girlfriend was doing,” when in reality that relationship had ended about a month and a half ago. Fun times and uplifting conversational topics all around. Thankfully, after about 15 minutes we had passed through the low point(s) of both the course and the conversation, and each improved dramatically shortly thereafter.
As you may imagine, the 25K River Bank Run race ran mostly along…wait for it…a river! The course visibly joined up with the Grand River at about the Mile 2 mark, and once we hit the marker for Mile 3, we were surrounded by thatches of threes on either side that would provide shade overhead for the next 4 miles. In a word, it was serene; if I were the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”, then this path would have seemed to me to be “the one less traveled by.” Our pace was promising (08:40/mile splits on average), and the aid stations were well-stocked: in addition to having the standard water and Gatorade, I found it very thoughtful that EVERY aid station also had a separate table that offered cups of ice. While the temps were cool enough this day that overheating would not be an issue, I found it comforting that the RBR went above-and-beyond their duty to take these additional precautions to assure a safe race for everyone, being that the race takes place in mid-May every year. Good looks, RBR, I see you.
The next several miles sort of blended together — we hit the halfway point about a minute ahead of our 2:15:00 goal pace, but we started to hit small hang-ups after that. Keeping in mind that we needed to average a 8:42/mile pace overall for a 2:15:00, we ran a slower Mile 10 due to some obnoxious rolling hills, and then ran a 09:00 Mile 12 when Lindsey stopped to grab a GU pack from between her shoelaces. Still, we were making good time…that is, until we weren’t.
It was somewhere around the 12.5-mile mark that I realized my Garmin mileage readouts were off by more than I thought they were. Now, anyone that owns a GPS watch knows that the mileage shown on your wrist is not an exact reading by any means, but it’s really more of a very-educated guess than anything. In this case, however, the educated guess had overestimated our progress by between 0.10-0.15 miles, and so we weren’t running quiiiite as quickly as I thought we were. As we passed the Mile 13 marker, with 2.5 miles to go, I calculated in my head that we would need to average around an 8:30/mile pace over the last 2.5 miles in order to hit 2:15:00….whoops. Lindsey would smash her PR from the previous year no matter what (2:17:05), but since we had established a pre-race goal of 2:15:00, I really wanted both of us to hit that (and I could tell that Lindsey wanted that, too). Shortly after the next aid station after Mile 13, I increased the pace a little bit without saying a word, hoping that Lindsey wouldn’t notice.
Within about a 1/4-mile of passing that aid station at Mile 13, Lindsey asked me if we were going any faster than we were before (we absolutely were). Not wanting to alarm her and inform her that we were running at a pace that may have discouraged her, I did what any good friend would do in this situation: I lied to her face, and resolved to come clean after the race. “No, we’re right on pace for where we need to be,” I replied, which I suppose wasn’t technically a lie. The penultimate two miles of the course wound through neighborhood streets before entering downtown for the last mile, and by this point I could see that Lindsey was in no mood for the pleasant back-and-forth conversation that had characterized our first 10 miles. I’ve seen enough runners gut it out toward the end of a long run to know when someone needs to be focusing all of their exertions on running rather than talking, and so for the rest of the race I just gave her the relevant time/distance splits and implored her to stay on my hip. As we passed Mile 14, we were juuuuust about on pace, and then I started cramping up. The hell? I took a few huge diaphragm breaths and pushed hard on the location of my side stitch, and thankfully that cramp went away soon enough. Once we passed the Mile 15 marker (half a mile to go!), we looked to be in great shape, to the point where I started screaming things to the subdued crowds on either side….things like, “Hey everybody, cheer for Lindsey!! She’s about to set a new personal best!!”, statements which were met with raucous applause**.
**Random Sidenote: I’ve noticed that crowds at the end of large races are the among the most easily excitable audiences you’ll ever meet. You can get them to cheer for anything. There is a very good and simple reason for this– these people have generally been standing in the same spot for 30-45 minutes, maybe even more than an hour, just for the chance to see their one special someone that they came to see go running by for all of about 20 seconds. And with the exception of those 20 seconds, during which they see that one person that they know, these people are bored. If you shout at them to cheer for something, as long as it’s not something completely awful, they WILL cheer for it. In this instance, I had both sides of the crowd cheering for Lindsey for a solid 200 meters. People just want something to do. Random Sidenote Over**
And when we rounded that final corner…well, fuck me, that finish line was further away than I thought it would be. We had passed the designated 15-mile marker at exactly 2:10:30 on my watch, needing only to run a 09:00/mile pace over the last half-mile to break 2:15, so how could the finish line be this far away? I surged ahead, but noticed that Lindsey didn’t surge with me; I turned my head back and shouted, “Lindsey, we gotta go!!” As my watch ticked to 2:14:00, we still had about 300m to go in the race, and both of us were knackered. “One minute to go, start building up to your kick NOW!!” 2:14:20 reading on my watch now — I knew that I could make it, but at this point it would have felt like only half a victory if just one of us broke 2:15:00, after we ran together for the entire race. And why in the hell did a time of 2:14:59 suddenly take on such an all-encompassing significance?! No matter. 2:14:40 on my watch, and still maybe 100 yards to go. “LINDSEY, WE HAVE 20 SECONDS TO MAKE IT TO THAT FINISH LINE, GO GO GO GO!!,” I shouted once more. I’ve never felt more like a coach in my life, and I can’t begin to explain the burst of pride that I felt when I saw Lindsey get that look in her eye and kick it into top gear. I started preemptively celebrating and…wait a minute…holy shit, now I need to start sprinting, or else she’s going to catch me. I can’t be having that happen.
I stopped my watch a second after crossing the finish line — 2:14:57. By my watch, we had hit our goal, but I couldn’t be positive that I had started my watch immediately as we crossed the start line. While we felt great about our time(s) and were already considering the day to be a success, both of us were anxious (but not really anxious) to know if we’d achieved our pre-race goal– we wouldn’t know for another few hours.
Like every other race longer than 5 miles these days, the River Bank Run 25K was sponsored by Michelob Ultra, so we made our way toward the beer tent to drink some of that refrigerated rat piss. To my surprise and delight, the beer truck also had Shock Top on tap, so I was able to drown my post-race aches and pains with a refreshing unfiltered wheat beer, leading to the photo below:
After drinking down our richly-deserved beers, we returned to the house where we each took glorious long showers and made our way to the bar to meet up with Lindsey’s sister Melissa and the rest of the girls that ran the 10K. And after downing my second Blue Point Toasted Lager, the results came online — 2:14:56 for each of us! In an alarmingly fast field, I placed 2,106th out of 5,704 finishers, and Lindsey placed 2,107th. In my first ever experience as a pacer, we had set out for 2;15:00, and we bettered that mark by 4 seconds; if it weren’t for the smaaaaall detail that we had to speed up our pace by 10 seconds/mile over the last 3 miles (whoops), I would call myself the greatest pacer in the world.
By all measures, it was a very successful less-than-24-hours that I spent in Grand Rapids, and well worth the drive each way. I got some new race bling, in addition to logging a new official time in a distance that I’d never run before; Lindsey crushed her previous PR, to the point where she’s already talking about going sub-2:10:00 in 2013; and I got the chance to share a triumph with a friend that I didn’t necessarily know all that well prior to the weekend. Chicago friends, I can report that Lindsey is doing quite well for herself up in her new city, and now she just needs some visitors.
Anybody game for the River Bank Run in 2013?
Run this race. You won’t find a better bang for your buck anywhere– $35 gets you a 25K (15.5 miles) and a cotton race t-shirt, or you can upgrade to a technical race shirt for an additional $15 and still get away with paying $50 after fees for the whole thing. While there wasn’t much crowd support to speak of over the majority of the course, the course was scenic and the designated cheering areas were well-populated. The aid stations were well-stocked, the volunteers were enthusiastic, and everyone of age got a beer at the end. Grand Rapids is a little off the beaten path, but for the largest 25K road race in the United States, it’s worth the trip.