[For an intro to this story, please read my last post.]
The Lilac Bloomsday 12K Road Race, Spokane, Washington
Waking up in the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Spokane on race morning was very exciting. No matter how early it was, you could hear sounds of the race being set up, volunteers working, runners congregating.
The race start was probably less than a kilometre from the hotel, but I knew I had to plan my journey there carefully or risk being blocked by the 60,000-strong horde of runners. The secret was to approach the start from an area well in front of the starting line.
In fact, to better allow people to move at the start of the race, there were three different starting lines and three race routes that merged a mile or so into the race. In addition, there were separate race start times not only for the wheelchair athletes (which is pretty standard) but for the elite women’s field. We started 15 minutes before everyone else, except for the wheelchairs who started 5 minutes before us. In order to qualify for the elite women’s field, you had to prove that you could run no more than 15 minutes slower than the predicted time of the male winner.
About an hour before race start time, I left the DoubleTree and started an easy warmup just behind the hotel along the paths that followed the Spokane River. Spring races usually start out cool, and a fresh temperature was a good wake-up after my frequently troubled pre-race nights. By the time I made a final trip to my hotel room to put on my racing flats, I was ready to shed most of my extra clothing.
I’m jogging and striding in the area in front of the elite women’s start line. The crowds cannot come here.
Adrenaline charges through the air. Doing my strides, I feel all that good pent-up energy in legs that have had a rare rest for a couple of days. I glance around at all my skinny competitors with their colourful skimpy racing clothes and shoes, their hair carefully up in ponytails and braids. Everyone is nervous. Everyone knows they have to give 100% on this course, amongst such a strong field of runners. Everyone is hoping to run a good time and take home some cash. Everyone fears the terrible Doomsday Hill: the half mile of steep uphill that comes 5 miles into the race, when the body is already struggling. The early morning sun gives a festive air to the scene, but we fear it too; we know that its now-gentle warmth will turn into unwelcome heat by the time we’re fighting Doomsday.
When the gun goes off we are like fillies released on the racetrack. But instead of a track, we have, empty in front of us, the main street of downtown Spokane and then a wide six-lane highway leading out of town, following the river with big rolling ups and downs. On most parts of the course you can see far ahead. It’s incredible to have all this to ourselves, and to be able to see the other female competitors so clearly.
Being a masters runner, I can’t quite run with the lead pack. However, it’s still a heady stimulus to know that behind me are 60,000 other runners, joggers, and walkers, amongst them the superbly smooth elite men who are chasing us down like rabbits (and the winner would catch a couple of the elite women before the finish line—but not me!)
The real drama of the race starts at Mile 5 of the 7.5-mile race, when we begin our long climb up Doomsday. I’m a good uphill runner and can usually pass people on this part of the course. We’re helped by hundreds of cheering spectators. We runners realize that we have it relatively easy as we pass the occasional struggling wheelchair athlete. This hill is near-impossible for them to negotiate.
There were a couple of years when I was in pretty rough shape by the time I reached Doomsday. One time I was sick and was awake most of the night before the race with an upset stomach. I felt weak and faint on the hill, but still managed to hang on, my time only slightly slower than it could have been. Another year, I had a pretty severe calf injury and was just hoping the muscle wouldn’t cramp and die completely before the end of the race. It didn’t, but I paid the price afterwards.
Reaching the top of the hill, I know there are two miles of pancake-flat racing to go. It sounds easy, but it’s not! These are the two miles that separate the people with great endurance and pacing from the rest.
When I reach the final straightaway, I can see at the end the big clock tower that marks the finish line. It looks so close, but it’s an 800m journey. Those last two or three minutes of racing seem excruciatingly long. It’s getting closer, it’s getting closer, when will I be there, look at watch to count the minutes and seconds, don’t let anyone pass me, almost there try to sprint all-out now hold on hold on
Nothing beats that feeling of crossing the finish line.
The release from pain!
I made it to the end. I don’t have to run anymore.
Then I’m flooded with the exultation of running well; running a good time, beating worthy competitors, and conquering moments of mental and physical weakness.
The post-finish-line area of the Lilac Bloomsday is extra special because of another unique feature of the race: only people who complete the course receive the race t-shirt. A long stretch of road is lined with many, many tables piled high with these t-shirts. Smiling volunteers are ready to greet each and every finisher and hand them their requested size. These t-shirts are works of art; each year artists compete to have their designs chosen to go on the next Bloomsday shirt. I am happy I can get a children’s sized t-shirt that fits me perfectly.
I jog back to the hotel with a group of my competitors. Now we are friends, each of us telling our own story of the race.
In the hotel it’s shower time, time to fill the ice bucket with ice, not for celebratory drinks but for application to whichever parts of the body are the most sore, time to frantically gobble whatever leftover bagels, Powerbars or other snacks a race-traumatized stomach will accept.
In a little while I’ll head to River Park for the big awards ceremony. The sun will be hot. It will be a pleasant afternoon spent strolling along the river and browsing through the stores of downtown Spokane.
I’ll always want to come back.