A couple of weekends ago we did a little run in Jacksonville. Nothing big, just 15K. A few people were there with us. You may have heard of it – the Gate River Run. Twelve thousand or so of our closest friends and a 9.3 mile street party. You want a mimosa at 8:45am? Mile three has ‘em. Rice Krispie treat? Mile seven just before you make that final turn for the bridge.
THAT kind of party.
Last year was our first experience at Gate, and we had a blast! As we limped back to the hotel we were already planning our strategy for next time. We stumbled into the lobby and saw one of the elite runners – we think it was Sam Chelanga – standing there, fresh as a daisy in a nice suit wearing his elite singlet and a medal the size of a dinner plate. No doubt he finished while we were crossing the first bridge! He pointed to the medals hanging around our tired and sweaty necks. “Good job,” he said, smiling. We nodded and said “thank you.” I would have asked to take a picture with him, but we looked like the sweat monsters from Hades by then.
Which brings us to this year. We’re pros now. We’ve got the Hokas and the Camelbaks, the tech shirts and compression shorts. It’s on like Donkey Kong. Our strategy this year was to start at the end of wave 3, putting us ahead of the walkers but far enough back that our intervals didn’t interfere with anyone. Usually when we run out-of-town we follow the Lost philosophy: live together, die alone. (You watched Lost, didn’t you? Didn’t you???) Chehaw was the first time we split up during a race. We decided that if one of us felt like they were faster/stronger than the other we would do our own thing.
Starting in wave 3 was genius, if I do say so. I have nothing against walkers and slower runners – I still consider myself a slow runner. However, there is a tendency to spread out and take up as much real estate as possible, which makes passing difficult. When the road narrows it’s even more awkward and it’s easy for your intervals to get out of whack.
The first bridge came up early in the race and was a piece of cake this time around. I learned a valuable lesson last year: don’t look down. The blue bridge is all metal and if you look down you can see the water. Plus it’s a lot easier to see how high up you are. And then there is my irrational fear that my toes will get caught in the metal grating and I will trip. Because I’m clumsy like that.
Keeping my eyes straight ahead, we ran over the blue bridge. Wait, what? The whole thing? Yep, the whole thing. How did that happen? Being 41 pounds lighter (me) and 25 pounds lighter (Joey) than last year and a lot of hard work. That’s how it happened. As we made our way along the “downhill” side of the bridge we looked at each other. We weren’t red-faced and gasping for breath. It was almost, dare I say it, fun. Who knew?
Making our way between miles two and three, we hit a water stop and gave a round of applause to the bands keeping us entertained. The first time check was coming up at the 5K mark. Considering the course and crowds we were pretty pleased with our first check-in: 44:03.
But the crowds. Oh my, the crowds. You remember the story in the Bible about Moses parting the Red Sea? Well, we had our own Moses moment. Joey, being bigger and much more intimidating than me, parted a sea of sweaty, smelly Spandex. I followed in his wake, in awe of the volume of people. There were short people and tall people. Like, crazy tall people. Lurch from the Addams Family tall. I swear I saw a guy whose legs were longer than my entire body.
Finally things cleared out a little bit and we passed through a little bo-ho business district, full of supporters lining the streets. Then it was on to San Marco. The St. John’s River was to our right and we were surrounded by gorgeous old homes. The streets began to narrow and were full of twists and turns. Residents sat in their front yards, passing out drinks and food. Our pace slowed, due to the crowds and my need to critique each and every house we passed (hate it…love it…nice but wouldn’t want to live in it….OMG I need to win the lottery to buy that). You know how it is.
The houses slowly changed, morphing from those that looked like they belonged on the Kennedy-compound to something us mere mortals would live in. Gradually the neighborhood shifted back into a business district. As we approached one of the larger intersections, we saw the traffic backed up for miles. I felt a little sorry for the people who were caught unawares and were wondering how long they were going to be stuck. A long time, buddy. A long time indeed.
The second 5K checkpoint was just around the corner. Despite my rubbernecking in San Marco our time was within 34 seconds of the first 5K, 44:37. Not too shabby! But it felt like we were starting to hit the wall. Joey had muscle cramps in his calves last year crossing the Hart Bridge, so he loaded up with pickle juice and tried to stay hydrated this time around. But it wasn’t enough. At mile seven he told me to go and wait at the finish line for him. I felt bad – this was supposed to be a joint effort – but I was really hoping for a finish as close to two hours as possible.
Runkeeper and my new-to-me Apple Watch apparently had some sort of falling out during the race. I don’t know who said what to whom, but it was clear they weren’t speaking to each other at that point. Which meant no data – and goodness knows I love some running data. Mumbling obscenities to myself, because right then it seemed like the appropriate thing to do, I hit the 80s playlist in iTunes and decided to handle my business. The entrance to the bridge was just around the corner and my two-hour goal was looking pretty far out of reach.
I missed Joey and at some point probably should have looked back to check on him. But Madonna and I were getting into the groove by then. That long, gradual turn to the bridge was at hand, and as I rounded the corner I saw the Green Monster looming in front of me. Since the Runkeeper/Apple Watch debacle I’d been counting out my run/walk intervals in my head. I’m no stranger to talking to myself and as I started the climb to the bridge Me and Also Me struck up a conversation, kinda like the Kermit/Dark Kermit meme. Me: Hey, so what if we run/jog all the way across the bridge? Also Me: Are you nuts? It’s almost ¾ of a mile. Me: So? Also Me: Whatever. You go on with your bad self. See if I care.
What did I have to lose? Worst case scenario, I would end up walking. Or possibly hanging out with some potentially attractive paramedics. I had the emergency number in my phone, all ready to go.
I paused for a quick selfie (because nothing really happens if you don’t get a selfie). As soon as I passed under the first green truss I began to run. I say “run” but it was a slow trot. However, it wasn’t walking. The bridge was rising in front of me as I began to pass the walkers. The 8.3 mile marker fluttered in the breeze. One mile left. In the distance I saw Everbank Field and the crowd of people approaching the finish line. “I can do this,” I thought to myself.
Eventually the bridge leveled out and I was able to increase my pace ever so slightly. Less than a mile now. Just keep going. I pulled out my ear buds for another selfie at the top of the bridge. I was halfway there. The worst part was over, everything was downhill from here to the finish line. I passed between a group of three or four ladies who were walking. As I slowly pulled away I heard one of them say “look at her! She’s still running and doesn’t even look tired. Are her heels even touching the ground?” Day officially made. Me, who used to lumber along like an injured water buffalo. I couldn’t slow down after that, even if I wanted to!
I passed under the last metal truss. Goal achieved! I hit the final water stop and slowed down to a walk just long enough to take a drink. Faster runners began to pass me as we came down the final stretch behind the stadium. Less than .25 mile was between me and the finish line. My two-hour goal had passed, but I was well ahead of my time from last year.
I was swept up in a crowd of people and all of a sudden it was over. There was my sweaty, happy face on the Jumbo-tron as I approached the finish line. 2:13:17. My last 5K time was 44:38, one second slower than the previous. Overall pace was 14:17 and my last mile was 13:25. I finished fourteen minutes ahead of last year!
A volunteer shoved a bottle of cold water in my hand. I was unaware that I had reached out for it. I looked around for a place to stop and catch my breath, and was ushered through a gate by another volunteer who handed me my finisher’s medal. I tried to go back toward the finish line to look for Joey, but was told I had to wait behind the barricade for him. He appeared out of nowhere, in a group of people who crossed the line a few minutes behind me.
Another 15K in the books and it was time to celebrate. I left Joey in the beer line while I did a quick run through the expo. He found me a few minutes later, a beer in each hand. He was in his happy place. After paying for a couple of tech shirts and a 15K magnet it was time to go. The walk from the expo to the car was slow and peaceful and the parking area was almost deserted. I felt the first tingle of a sunburn as I leaned back against the car seat. Joey and I looked at each other and smiled. We were tired and sweaty, and if I’m honest, a little stinky. All was right with the world.