Every September, Bethlehem hosts Celtic Fest and there’s always a race (a 5K and 10K) that kicks off the festivities on Saturday morning. I don’t usually run it (I’ve done the 5K a few times in the past), but this year it fit pretty nicely into my training. I knew a little about the 10K course and was aware it wasn’t a PR type of course, so my main goal was to run hard and try to be somewhere in between 10K and half marathon pace. Ideally, I would love to break 40 minutes in a 10K and I think I can do it (my PR is 40:36) so if I was feeling it on Saturday, I was going to go for it and throw everything else out the window. Well, this ended up being the slowest 10K I’ve run in about a year and a half, but I was fine with that based how it all went down.
The race is only about 10 minutes from my house, so I was up at a reasonable hour for coffee and a plain bagel with almond butter. I headed out, but I didn’t feel much like racing. I was still fighting this stupid cold/allergies/whatever and just wanted to go back to bed. I got to the start, grabbed my packet and found a few of my friends. We chatted until it was time to start. I lined up at the front at the last minute, next to a girl who looked pretty intense. I found out later that she’s won the race for the past few years.
The race began, and we were off. The girl from the start was on my heels in the first mile but I told myself to run my own race and not to go out too quickly, since that’s been working for me lately. I didn’t speed up to pass her and held my pace, but I dropped her before the half mile mark. I was running with a pack of guys at this point and was the lead female. I didn’t want to be faster than a 6:30 for the first mile, and I hit that in 6:31. Perfect. Except then the road race turned cross country race – and I am certainly not a cross country runner. I’d looked at the map before the race, but it was really confusing. I was aware that some of the race wasn’t on the road, but I didn’t realize four out of the six miles of it would be cross country style. Some of it was a cinder trail (one that I’ve never run on because it’s not always in the best shape), but a large chunk of the race was also run on grass and was quite hilly. The second mile wasn’t too crazy but it was on the cinder/rocky trail. It opened up to a field next to an area known as Burnside Plantation, and we began running on the grass. It slowed me down a little and I hit that mile in 6:46. Besides the unfamiliar terrain, I felt decent, considering the cold and the allergies. Miles 1 & 2 – 6:31, 6:46.
Miles three and four were the most difficult of the race based on the terrain. We were literally running up and down a grassy hill near a local golf course. It’s part of the high school cross country districts course in our area. Those miles were not so pretty and more about me not tripping and falling on my face. I didn’t feel bad, I just don’t usually do the cross country thing. I told myself to work hard enough to keep my lead and to worry about pace on the way back. I knew there were two miles that headed back to the finish where I could potentially make up some time. I also wished for a pair of cross country spikes. I was relieved towards the end of mile 4, where the course dumped us out onto a road – but we began to run through Monocasy park. It’s a very short park and there’s a bridge at the end to cross a creek. The course took us up and down a flight of stairs to cross the creek, and then up another flight of stairs to exit the park – it was really strange. Miles 3 & 4 – 7:13, 6:55.
Miles three and four were a bit more intense than I’d anticipated, but now we were on our way back. I felt really good at this point and had plenty of energy and was prepared to RUN. This is where the drama began. The course was very well marked on the way out. I even remember thinking how great it was that there were arrows spray painted all over the grass to mark where to go so there was no chance of me getting lost. But on the way back, things got sketchy in the second half of mile five. The arrows were spray painted on the grass to mark the way OUT, but not the way BACK. The course was kind of like a lollipop, so it wasn’t a problem until the last mile – I also knew the first mile and the last mile were different.
Somewhere in mile five, I could still see the three lead guys up ahead of me – two were further away, one was pretty close. We turned a corner on the cinder trail and I couldn’t see the two leaders anymore. I passed the guy in front of me, but we were both slowing down at this point and looking around – were we going the right way? We were passing some oncoming walkers that were just nearing the 1.5 mile mark – were we still on course to head towards the finish? We were both confused and slowed to sort of a jog at this point. Neither of us were really sure about what was going on.
The trail dumps you out on a road, and across the road the trail continues and there was a water stop that we hit in the beginning of the race. I crossed the road, grabbed water and kept running but something felt wrong – I knew that we weren’t supposed to go back the way we began. I also knew if I went back this way, I had well over a mile left and I was already at 5.1. I turned and jogged back to the water stop and noticed the guy I was running with sort of running in place, not sure what to do. I stopped and said to a woman working the water stop – “Which way for the 10K?” She points towards the direction we had just come from and said, “That way, you have to go out towards the golf course” (where we just came from). I replied, “No, I was there already. Where do I go now?” She points again and I said, “No, you don’t understand – I’m looking for the finish – I’ve already run over 5 miles. Which way to the finish?”
My favorite line of the day. She looks at me, completely confused, and said, “Oh…hmmm, I don’t actually know.”
What? What? WHAT? At this point I just laughed – I mean, I wasn’t having the race of my life anyway and it really was kind of funny. Luckily, a cop directing traffic overheard the last part of our conversation and he jumped in saying, “Ohhhh!! This way! This way! You are the first female!” (UMM, where were you when you let me cross the street to begin with?!?!) Instead of continuing straight on the trail, I was supposed to turn left on the road. Once he pointed me in the right direction, I knew exactly where to go from there (most of my runs are in downtown Bethlehem) so I took off. A few minutes later, I knew I was going the right way because I began to catch the tail end of the 5K. Back on course.
If I had to estimate how long I lost with slowing down in the 5th mile, running back to the water stop and stopping to ask for directions, I would guess somewhere around 60 seconds. I did whatever I could to finish mile 5 strong, and mile 6 was my fastest of the whole race. Mile 5 & 6: 7:03, 6:28. Last .2: 5:47 pace. My legs felt totally fine at the end. I wanted a redo. I did, however, come in as the first female!!
The course map:
You can see where miles three and four just go around and around – that was the hilly/grassy section. Only the first and last miles were on the road. I finished in something like 42:13 according to the chip timing. I feel like 41:13 would be pretty close to what I would have run considering most of my 10Ks are in the 41 minute range, and my PR for this distance was just in August and I definitely feel stronger now. The other reason I believe I lost about 60 seconds was based on when the first and second males finished. I was the 1st female but the 3rd overall runner to finish: the two lead males brought it home in just under 41 minutes. That also confirmed my suspicion that I would probably be closer to 41 minutes because I could see them for the whole race until the section where we turned and the course got confusing.
Even though it certainly was not my best race of the season, I was happy with the end result. I didn’t know much about the course before going into this one, but I knew it wasn’t going to be like a traditional road race. This is not a type of race I am comfortable with, but I would do it again because it took me out of my comfort zone. Especially now that I know the course 🙂 Usually, I find that the experiences that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable are the ones that don’t necessarily come with a PR but are the most beneficial in the “long run”. They challenge you mentally and physically, and they help become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s why I periodically do things like random trail races or the occasional triathlon in the summer months – it’s challenging and exciting to do something different, and you never know what you will get out of it.
Have you ever run a cross-country style race? Have you ever gotten lost while running a race?