April 20, 2013

    It's funny how “stuff” can influence actions.  When my old cell phone was getting flaky and sometimes just not working, I let the cell-phone company "give" me an iPhone 4 for being a long-time customer.  After struggling with the device for a few days, figuring out some of what it could do, I found an app called "RunKeeper" that uses the GPS function to record workouts and posts them to a web page with lots of encouragement for the person doing the workouts.

    That encouragement happened just as I had bought some new running shoes and read a couple of inspirational books: Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run and Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  My response was to add a few miles to my weekly totals, to eat less and better foods, and to enter the Chickamauga Chase, run for 45 years by the Chattanooga Track Club.  I got an entry for Karen so that she could enjoy the walking event the club holds at the same time as the race.

    The Chase is a 15 kilometer run through the Chickamauga National Military Park.  It had been many years since I ran this race; I think the last time was probably around 1982 or so.  I ran it several years in a row when I was training a good bit, as it was the first long road race of the year, coming after the Rock City race, which was usually a 10K held in February. 

    My friend and flying colleague Jeremiah McBride had told me he was running the race, which meant I would share the road with some folks I know.  I had no other clues about who or what would happen.  Having not run a race in years (I did a 5K in 2005, a small event in Athens, TN) and having not thought about being competitive with anybody for a long time, I was pretty much clueless about this race.  Looking up the age group winning times for the previous year, it showed that a time of 1:18 had won the 65-69 men's division, with the 2nd and 3rd place times slower by only a minute or so.  Managing only one 15K training run before the race, which took 1:26 plus change, I wasn't thinking competitively at all. 

    The day of the race dawned beautifully.  A heavy rain early on Friday had soaked the whole area, but the clouds had cleared by that afternoon, and Friday night was a bit coolish.  Saturday's temperature was 38 or so, and Karen and I were a little bundled up as we arrived at the park.  There was some delay in getting the race started because of the previous day's rain: The field near the start-finish area was soaked, and vehicles were not allowed there by the park superintendent, so everybody parked at a large church parking lot a mile or so away, and rode shuttle buses to the race area.  That worked really well, but shuttling 1800 people took a while, so the club delayed the start.  We were underway with a bang from a Civil War-era rifle around 8:55 a.m. 

    The first mile was a gradual acceleration, as the crowd started to thin out and there was room to actually run.  I spotted Karen just after the start, as she was taking some photos of the racing crowd.  Two races were going on, the 15K and a 5K that started in the same place.  I think that a lot of the 5K folks may have not understood the self-seeding system for getting going, as I passed what seemed like a couple of hundred slower runners during the first kilometer.  But, no big deal.  At about 3K into the race, I ran alongside a fellow over-65er named Larry Kuglar, from Cedartown, GA , and we chatted for a while.  He was back in the race after having missed it last year with a health issue.  When we came to a water station, a guy right in front of me unknowingly blocked me for several seconds, and Larry was 20 meters ahead right after the water station.  So I followed him, and just couldn't quite keep up with his pace.  He gradually disappeared from my view over the next few miles. 

    I figured that Jeremiah was up ahead of me, and I thought I spotted a flight student named Roman Lehnhoff running with a group of people with Team Volkswagen.  Before the start, pilot Tom Bowen had appeared in the crowd, being there to support his wife Abigail, who was running in the 5K race. 

    About 10K into the race, Roman appeared on my shoulder to say hello and chat as we ran along for a ways.  He said he was struggling from being out of shape, with training having given way to caring for his newly-arrived son over the past several weeks.  We separated at a water station, and this time it was my turn to move down the road faster.  Faster is relative - I was averaging over 9 minutes a mile.  Up at the front of the race, fast was happening.  The quickest men were under 5:30 per mile, and the fastest woman averaged about 6:25.  In my part of the pack, everybody looks like they are on an enjoyable training run.  When three women running together passed me around the 11K mark, I asked if they were in contention for an award, and they laughed that off. 

    Allow me to describe a little of what the park looked like.  The Chase is run on paved roads, which have been there a good while.  Unlike other roads that are constantly abused by heavy traffic and get repaved every few years, coming to the Park is familiar, even after decades of being away.  Traffic is light there, and a runner who sees the roads at a runner's pace of 7 miles per hour gets to know the details of paving, where the little imperfections are, the lay of superelevations and intersections, where the trees are close to the roads and where the park has kept trees cut to try to give visitors a feel for where the wooded areas and open farm areas were at the time of the battle in 1863. 

    And that battle - a struggle of 130,000 men, all Americans, fighting desperately through woods and across fields, dying in frightening numbers, over two days of confusion while men fought frequently at close quarters in smoke-filled woods that made visibility and communication difficult or impossible - resulted in over 30,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing).  Their spirit fills the place. 

    On this morning, the spring sounds of thousands of birds echo through the woods.  The runners make quite varied sounds themselves.  Some feet strike the ground with a "clop clop" that causes me to wince in sympathy; some breathing sounds terribly labored among my fellows.  But most of us are out for a cruise in beauty, and our passage is quiet enough to listen to the birds, have a little conversation with other runners, take the moments to notice these things, savoring the morning.  The trees have just awakened from their winter nap, and the leaves are the light and bright green of early spring.  The sunlight slanting through the new foliage adds to the beauty of the morning air, which will be full of insects and heavily green in just a few weeks. 

    The last 5 kilometers of the race course has several small hills, which challenge the runner who hasn't been doing much hill work - they aren't big, but they cause waves of speed changes among the 9 minute per mile crowd that I was in.  Some people take on a hill and go faster than the crowd on the rising portion, but then slip behind on the downhill; others find it easier to speed up on the descending parts and pull ahead there.  I was listening to part of "Born to Run" over this section: running uphill I was trying to let my feet barely touch the ground with a quiet pit-pat.  (I have the feeling that a video of me would show something less elegant.) 

       The race course winds its way back to the Wilder Tower and past the area where the race started, to a finishing chute with an inflatable arch surrounded by cheering folks, some of whom are spectators and some who have already finished the races.  The 5K runners get to watch the 15K people finish after cooling down and relaxing for a while; the walkers are there, too.  Most of the trail runners are still on their course, and the ones who have finished show the signs of their efforts: drying mud on their bodies, up to or even above their waists, along with the grins of people who have achieved something a bit out of the ordinary. 

       Out of the ordinary describes pretty much everyone present at a race.  That is the reason most of us run: we want to be better in some way, whether it's healthier, stronger, more competitive, mellower, or just more sane.  So we get out of the house, give up sitting for a while most days, really breathe and process oxygen, endure some minor pain for a greater good.

       So my run ended with Karen and other folks encouraging, with "way to go" and "looking good" in the vocabulary.  I was new to automated timing of the race - a nearly weightless timing chip had accompanied me, tied to my shoelaces, and stepping over the carpet at the line stopped the timer for me.  RunKeeper had given an approximate time, so I knew about how slowly I had covered the distance - around 1 hour 23 minutes plus some seconds.  I found some -ade, relaxed a little, ate a banana, hung around while 5K runner awards were presented, and wandered over to the Blood Assurance bus where finishing times were being posted.  This was just raw data, a serial printout of placements.  Mine was 209th, average 9:05 per mile.  Hmm. Pretty slow compared to 36-year-old Daniel who did a 10K in 38:45 in Ringgold in 1982. 

    But that time was worth 2nd in the age group!  Larry Kuglar won the class, and he'd just been a little faster, hadn't he?  So, some faster old guys didn't show up this year.  Anyway, I'm inspired to try some more races, and to meet some of the other guys like me who have kept on running through the many years.  I knew practically none of the people I saw at the race, so if I go to more of them, there will be another learning curve.  But it's a learning curve of fit people with positive outlooks who make it fun to be in the same neighborhood.  That's a good neighborhood.

    See also: Processing Oxygen in the aviation stories.


A Battlefield Run with 1,800 other people