Saturday, April 30, 2011

Union County - Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run - April 29, 2011

Sometimes we find Friday night races and they can be a lot of fun and very different with the evening atmosphere. One Friday night race and a new county we've had our eye on for a year or two is the Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run in Union County, right outside of Charlotte. Up until this year the calendar had not worked out, however. There are a few races we can choose from in Union County, but the Waxhaw race is a function of the Waxhaw-Weddington Sunrise Rotary Club, and we have a soft spot in our heart for services organizations. (plus we just like saying, "Waxhaw")

This was the 6th annual Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run, and it's a big race in a little bitty town. 406 runners were listed in the 5k results, not counting the spectators and the runners in the half-mile fun run. With sponsor tents and race setup thrown in -- and with the area hard-edged by a set of train tracks -- the town center is absolutely packed with people. Some of the lucky spectators get to watch the festivities from the old footbridge over the train tracks, which date to 1888 and were refurbished in 2008. They are a lovely landmark and provide a nice spot from which to see the race.

Once you find a parking place and walk in to race headquarters, you wander through the crowds to check in. I arrived just as the half-mile fun run was taking off, and there was a very large crowd to see the fun-runners. Queen City Timing was managing the race, and once the half-mile was over, they began ushering the 5k runners into the street behind the start/finish line for race instructions. The town square area had been divided into "lanes" with caution tape, first to allow for runners to head out, then to pass through at the half-mile, then for the finish.

When we were all ready to take off, they blew the horn and we were off paralleling the train tracks through the town square. Teams are recognized in the run, so there were several school-based teams running together, having a great time. We made a very quick loop around a couple of blocks and passed back through the start/finish area just about a half-mile into the race, with spectators cheering us all through the block. Then we made a couple more turns and were out into the first out-and-back section of the race. Someone told me after the race that the reason for all the twists, turns and out-and-backs was first to keep us from having to cross the train tracks but also to keep us within the small city limits of Waxhaw proper.

In addition to the cool temps of the evening, most of the race course was nice and shady thanks to the big, old trees in the yards lining the course, and there was a bit of a breeze as well to provide excellent running conditions. Some very friendly volunteers gave us water at the one-mile mark, and then we turned onto another out-and-back section which was through a relatively new subdivision. All throughout the course, but especially in the subdivision, folks had come out to watch the race from their front yards, porches and driveways. It was great to hear their support and see them out there. However, this was also the stretch where there were some serious hills, and once we were on the road back to town, they pretty much had me running on fumes again.

Fortunately I finally realized how close we were to the finish line -- the approach from behind the town square initially had me thinking we were farther away -- and got a bit of inspiration to push it through the last stretch and across the big red inflatable finish line. The runners spilling back into the town square area increased the activity and excitement, and volunteers handed out sports drink, fruit and bagels to everyone. Someone was playing good music on the PA system, and it was a very nice post-race atmosphere with the sun going down and the merchants in the area promoting post-race dinner specials. I got to survey the scene from the old footbridge and talk to some of the locals who take part in the race every year, as well as several runners who had driven in from Charlotte.

Overall, the Waxhaw Town & Country 5k Run was a great little event, but you wonder how much more it can grow without overgrowing the town square area, which really is a neat little place to situate all the activity. Hopefully the Rotary Club will be able to manage its growth well, keep the volunteers and residents involved, and keep a really nice race around.

And if you think small town races don't have any surprises to offer, after the race I was able to dance with Michael Jackson, an Imperial Stormtrooper, and a cow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Scotland County - Scotland Memorial Foundation FUNd Run 10-Miler - April 9, 2011

Well, too bad that Chad and I don't have any of the popular running kilts, because this weekend we were headed down I-95 to Scotland County, which really was settled by Highland Scots in the 1700s -- way back when we would have been doing a colony countdown!

The morning weather was perfect and cool in Laurinburg, North Carolina as we arrived for the 7th annual Scotland Memorial Foundation FUNd Run 10-Miler at Scotland Memorial Hospital. (The foundation is the charitable arm of the hospital.) Only 35 runners were registered for the 10-miler, but a good crowd of 169 runners would take part in the 5k event. The main entrance to one of the hospital buildings was set up to serve as the registration and check-in area, and we were able to get inside for a little bit to warm up and have some pre-race fluids. The organizers had set up a kids area with games and bounce houses to occupy the little ones during the race, and a band was setting up on the stage for entertainment later on. Setup Events was doing the race management and their start/finish arch was being inflated as we checked in. A local radio station was doing live updates from the start/finish area and talking with the organizers of the race. Both of us felt nice and relaxed and were looking forward to a good run, although neither one of us had really trained for a big 10-mile performance.

After a fun warm-up session led by members of the local school's wrestling team, the 10-milers were ushered into the starting corral. There were three elementary-school age kids up front that I was afraid were lining up for the wrong race, but when they turned all of us loose, we all were out and on our way! Fortunately, with only 35 runners, there was plenty of room to settle into a good pace, and from my spot safe in the back of the pack, I had a good view as the 10-milers headed out along the hospital access road and stretched out along the way. There were enthusiastic volunteers at the turn points to make sure we didn't get lost, plus there were plenty of road markings to help us along.

The majority of both race routes incorporated the campus of St. Andrews Presbyterian College (home of the Knights). Initially we ran past their athletic fields and across a bridge over the lake that is in the center of campus (duck crossing -- be alert!). We spread out into the surrounding neighborhoods and did a few out-and-backs and loops through some very pretty areas and saw some lovely houses and some pink flowering dogwood trees that were in full bloom. The out-and-backs allowed us to see the majority of the runners in the field, and not surprisingly, three runners from St. Andrews' cross-country team were leading the way. I had a little tightness in my left knee that was new, but after a couple of miles it felt fine; Chad also had some discomfort early on that slowed him down in the early going. We also passed Scotia Village, a Presbyterian-sponsored retirement neighborhood with interesting Scottish-themed street and building names like Tartan Village and Shetland Apartments. The Scotia folks manning the aid station within the village were a lot of fun and very encouraging to the runners. The out-and-backs also gave me a chance to check up on how the youngest runners were doing; one fellow was having no trouble at all with the distance, even as his father followed along in the family van to make sure he was OK. The other two little runners, though, held strong through the first five miles before finally faltering and getting rides back to the finish line, where they got to run across the finish.

After the first half of the race through the neighborhoods, we headed back towards St. Andrews and did a big loop past the "Scotsman" statue and through the main parking lot. The next mile or so had been improvised through the campus, and I enjoyed that stretch a lot. We ran down sidewalks and across quads and meeting areas, and we crossed the lake again on the main campus road and the bell tower that is the main architectural feature of the campus. We passed the main Physical Education building, which features a statue of a knight with sword fighting in full battle armor. (We might have been able to use a more active direction-giving volunteer in one spot where it wasn't clear where to go.) A few more turns, and we were back at the Knights' athletic fields, for another out-and-back down the road we had traversed earlier. This out-and-back gave me a chance to encourage Chad that the fellows running in front of him were having a tough time of it and that he could catch them. Unfortunately, when we got back to the main road, the girls staffing the aid station had retreated to their car to get out of the cold, but as I helped myself to sports drink, they had their windows rolled down so that I could ask whether we were turning left or right at the intersection. (Right, they pointed.) We also encountered some of the slower 5k runners headed back to the hospital.

Admittedly, it was in this range of 6-8 miles that I realized I had a chance at a new 10-mile PR. I don't like to be a constant clock-watcher, but I was trying to maintain a steadier pace than I normally keep. I had felt really good the whole morning and hadn't taken any extra walk breaks beyond the aid stations. I figured I had about 37 minutes to do the final three miles to get a new PR, so that was the focus I kept encouraging myself with. I'm sure the very, very flat course had contributed a lot to the morning's performance, and I'm very thankful for that! When I was ready to be headed to the finish line with the 5k finishers, the 10-milers instead got directed into a new neighborhood for some additional mileage, and although the homes and yards in this area were very, very pretty, nothing would have looked as good to me as the finish line.

A few more turns brought us back to the hospital area, but it was one of those finishes where you pass the finish area, keep going, and circle back around a half-mile or so before you actually get to cross the finish line. I kept plodding along as we retraced our steps from the beginning of the race, and finally a few more turns brought me back to the start/finish area (now augmented with some fire and police vehicles adjacent to the kids zone) where I happily crossed the finish line with a time of 1:45 flat on my Garmin (1:45:02 officially), which was a more than 3-minute improvement over my previous 10-mile PR, which was back in 2009. Chad had recovered from some of his early difficulties and crossed the finish line about 2 minutes later.

The post-race activities were a lot of fun; the band that played was pretty entertaining, and the food and drinks for runners were good and plentiful. Chad had an age-group fourth, and I had an age-group fifth! The race administrators did a great job compiling the results from both races very quickly and handed out some nice medals to each age-group winner and the overall winners. We enjoyed meeting some of the other runners and re-hashing some of the race together, but eventually we got a little chilled in the morning breeze and packed up to head back home. We both mentioned that a race doesn't have to be a great big event to be well-done and a lot of fun! But we had a great time in Scotland County and were very excited about our great performances in the 10-miler! We may just have to come back and enjoy this very flat course again soon!