Smuttynose "Will Run For Beer" 5K
It's amazing to me that thousands of people can arrive in one spot, collectively run in a giant loop, and somehow everything runs smoothly. Especially when there's beer involved.
That's what it was like at the Smuttynose 'Will Run For Beer" 5K, one of the more popular races in New Hampshire. I left for Hampton nice and early, and still made it to the starting line with less than ten minutes to spare. The 5K began and ended at the entrance of the Smuttynose Brewery, but parking was about a mile away in an industrial park. I joined the conga line of runners-to-be across an overpass to the brewery on Towle Farm Road. The race began in forty minutes. That's plenty of time, right?
Most people run 5Ks with the intention of meeting a personal goal. The goal is usually: FINISH. Some people want to finish without dying. Some people want to break thirty minutes. My goals have evolved over my rookie season and as I improve, I want to beat twenty minutes. In late May, I PR'd with 21:13. That race was a slog, though, and I certainly feel like I pushed myself too hard.
Someone jogged by me and I realized I should probably loosen up, so I jogged too. And I'm glad I did, as I didn't see any open space until the race began. The brewery's driveway led up a hill to the registration area and starting line. And lots of people. There'd be over 1600 finishers and many of them were milling about now. But a good swath of us didn't even have our bibs yet. The registration tables were organized by last name, alphabetical, and I landed in Lh-M. Our line was so long it snaked through other lines. Foot traffic cut through, adding to the chaos. Someone joked that next year she's signing up with the last name Zeus. Hmm, I like Zeus Zeusserton. With about twenty minutes before the race, I was given my bib, number 1066.
I took two steps to skip past the t-shirt line and found myself in the port-o-potty line. Lines, lines, lines. Pre-race jitters, out with you! There were about twelve bathroom lines, each one branching out to three or four toilets, a decent strategy for moving people along. As I approached my turn, the race announcer began calling people to the starting line. He asked that runners with strollers start in the back and to let the 15-16 minute people have the front. I think runners with strollers should have their own category. It's pretty badass to run a 5K with a stroller. It must be a little depressing to watch the front pack take off and know you're back here with the kiddos. It must be a super fun ride for the kid, though!
Some people near me wondered aloud if 22-minute people stood on the front and acted like they could keep up with the 16-minute people. I smiled, because yes, we do. But if there's room on the starting line, we 22-minute people glady fill those gaps. I realized that most people are too shy to get into the front pack, and it's a great exercise in getting out of my comfort zone to stand up there. And getting stuck behind the huge crowds can take a lot of the fun out of the race, if you're trying to go fast.
The race was starting in seven minutes and I had no idea which direction the starting line was. All the people near me were facing the toilets. Then I realized the starting line was so long, it curved around the bend and some people would be running a 5.5K. Since I was alone, it was easy for me to navigate the crowd. Most people were standing around fiddling fitbits and cell phones and I just excused myself through the entire horde. Of course, there was plenty of room in the front pack. The people up front were running practice intervals and doing hamstring stretches.
They played the national anthem. I don't know who picked it, but props for selecting a crooning 90's R&B rendition. I'm pretty sure it had xylophone chimes in it. And moments later, we were running. The first moments of a race are always a blur. I like to focus on my breathing – as much through the nose as possible! – and let the front pack shake itself out. I'm at a pace now where I end up in back of the front pack, just far enough ahead of the larger group of runners, which is a nice place to be. Plenty of people pass me in the beginning, but then I generally have the course to myself.
We ran over the highway – must be a great site if you're cruising down I-95 to see thousands of people barrelling over you – and I watched the front guys decimate us all, breaking off quickly. Siyonara! I paced myself with the people around me. The first mile, you just get away from the group. The second mile, you find your rhythm, and the third mile, you push yourself as much as you can, without bonking or bombing out.
We left the highway behind us for a bucolic country road. Our little group looked pretty good. A few people whizzed by, escaping the crowd, but now joining their rightful gang in the front. Someone wore a shirt that read No Meat Athlete. Some tiny runner moms passed me. A woman around my age and I kept passing each other, no one shaking the other. There were wafts of cow and fermenting beer in the air. Yeast, hay, early summer day's heat. Fortunately, there was lots of shade. Families poked their heads off their front porches to enjoy the festivities.
The water station was right around mile two and I took a cup, sipped a spit's worth, then poured the rest on my head and down the back of my shirt. Zap! Then the road turned sharp and the girl my age and I passed everyone in our group and made our dash for it. She seemed to not want me to pass her, but I figured we were racing, so why go easy on her? But she left me in the dust.
What did me in was the highway overpass – and that feeling of being interrogated by the sun. As if it were asking me, “Did you think you were getting a PR today, you rookie?” I had to plow through that heat, my tongue hanging, my legs suddenly feeling heavy, that hill of a driveway leading back to the finish line a mountain. The cheering fans nothing but static. Some random guy whizzed by me and all I could think was “Ughhh.” Then I saw the time clock, and I had about fifteen seconds to beat 22-minutes, so I perked up and hauled it over the finish line at 21:57 (though my net time was 21:52), which was 48th place, pretty cool.
It's so fun being at the finish line early. I had first dibs on the water bottles and bananas. Then the swarms arrived, rolling in at 24, 25, 30, 35 minutes. I always look for familiar faces, regulars from other races we've done. I saw an older man who does a lot of races, but I noticed his bib was not the blue and orange Smuttynose bib, but something from an older race. Clever bandito!
One thing I don't like about finishing after the winners, is that I can't watch them win. It's a little bit of a catch-22: I'd like to study their techniques but if I'm too busy running behind them, I can't watch. I have two options, then. Skip a few races to be a spectator, or get faster!
I hung around for a little while to watch people finish, but once the race clock struck 40-minutes, it was crowded again. The event continued long after the race. Smuttynose threw up kegs and food and there was an all-day festival, but I figured I'd find my way back home. There was a beautiful June day ahead of me.