Sunday, October 30, 2011

Franklin County - Grace Haven Baptist 5k Rock-n-Run - October 29, 2011

Well, we had a nice string of races with really nice weather, so I guess it was about time we got one that was colder and rainy. Actually, the nice folks at the 4th annual Grace Haven Baptist 5k Rock-n-Run told me that they've experienced cold and rain a couple of years in a row, so we probably should have expected that when we made the quick jump over the line to Franklinton in Franklin County.

Since Chad and I are both church-goers, it's nice when we can find a church-sponsored race with a good beneficiary and get a new county at the same time. The folks at Grace Haven Baptist in Franklinton established the 5k Rock-n-Run as a benefit for Safe Space, an organization working to prevent and end domestic violence. One organizer told me after the race that over the short life of the event, they had raised several thousand dollars toward this mission. With some more publicity about this race and the adjoining Fall Festival -- arts and crafts also put on by the church -- they should be able to increase their contributions even more.

Race check-in and the finish line were at the Grace Haven Baptist property outside of town, where they have built a very nice outdoor shelter with a big fireplace, restrooms and meeting area. The fireplace is a huge stone hearth that was roaring on race morning and became a very popular gathering place both before and after the race for all the runners looking to avoid the 40-degree morning temperatures. It was also interesting to look through all the arts-and-crafts booths being set up -- I was especially checking out the warm-looking quilts -- for the Fall Festival later that day. Finally they began shuttling the runners out to the starting line in several volunteers' vans.

The starting line was back in Franklinton at the Grace Haven Baptist Church itself, across from Franklinton High School. On the shuttle, the helpful volunteer pointed out the mile markers, the turns, and the volunteers that would be helping us know where to turn. At the church, to keep us out of the cold and rain, they had the pre-race announcements and a prayer inside the building where it was still nice and warm. And we got a nice surprise when we walked out for the race start that the rain had pretty much stopped! Just after they synched up with the finish line timer on the phone, they lined us up and sent us off.

As our shuttle driver had promised, the first couple of miles of the race were blessedly flat. They had made a few changes in the course from the previous year to hopefully give the runners a faster route to cover. There was a brief rise at about the 1-mile mark, but it was so gradual and not very different from the surrounding landscape, so it didn't really present much of an obstacle to the fast pace. The volunteers were very nice to point out the turns for us -- "a bunch of left turns, just like NASCAR," as the starter had joked -- and the pace was very quick as we took advantage of the level ground. The roads were not closed or tightly controlled for the race, so we had to watch out for the occasional car in the area, like the vehicles who turned onto the starting area just after the runners took off. But all intersections were monitored, either by race volunteers, Franklinton police officers, or Franklin County deputies. So we were pretty well taken care of, including a very welcome aid station about halfway into the race, at Franklinton Elementary School.

By the time we hit the 2-mile mark, we were definitely outside the main Franklinton area and back in the country. I could still see some the runners ahead of me, and that kept me pushing it along the way, hoping I could pass one or two before we finished (I didn't). We passed by the Triple R Horse Ranch, where there were some great big horses just standing around in the mist watching those poor humans who were out there having to do the running on this morning. With the pasture lands and a lake in the background, it was a very quiet, pristine scene -- just right for a quiet autumn Saturday morning in the North Carolina countryside.

For the runners, though, we had just about a mile left to go, and fortunately for us, it was pretty much downhill all the way. The grade increased a little bit, so we felt like picking the pace up a little bit, and the country road was straight enough that you could see runners ahead of you, and you could also get inspiration from being able to see the finish line turn well ahead of reaching it. I had been running what seemed like a good pace all the way, and I'm sure I picked it up some for the downhill as well, but I wasn't watching my Garmin all that closely. There was a brief rise as we approached the final turn, and then we were on a gravel road entering the church property headed towards the big shelter. We could see the timing tent ahead, and there were plenty of volunteers cheering us in, so I'm sure all the runners made a last burst for the finish line. After a small turn, we entered the finish chute and checked out the clock display -- and I was very pleasantly surprised to discover I had run my first sub-28:00 5k in many, many years! Maybe cold and rainy weather is good for me! (or maybe I just wanted to get out of the cold and back to the fireplace!)

Post-race, the volunteers had put together some fruit and granola snacks for the runners, plus some very welcome hot chocolate and coffee to take the chill off. Plus, they had the big fireplace burning even hotter to help us warm back up. Several of the runners, including many teens from the church youth group, mingled around to compare notes on the run, gauge who the age-group winners would be (not me), and compliment the fireplace. The event had drawn in some walkers from the church as well, so there was plenty of time to hang out while the organizers waited for everyone to finish the course and arrive back at the main shelter for awards.

I was very pleased with my sub-28:00 5k. I knew it had been more than a decade since I had pulled off a race like that, and I was surprised because it just came out of the blue, with no expectations or specialized training. I'm sure I was helped along by the cool weather to keep me from getting overheated and the downhill stretches of the last mile. But it really made me glad to have gotten out and gotten to a new, neighboring county on a morning when it would have been easy to stay indoors where it was nice and warm and dry. The Grace Haven Baptist 5k Rock-n-Run was a great little event, and hopefully more runners will venture out to Franklin County to experience their hospitality and fast little course themselves!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Johnston County - Selma Railroad Run 5k - October 1, 2011

The town of Selma in Johnston County has a lot of heritage tied to the railroads, going back to its earliest days when lots were sold around a new station of the North Carolina Railroad. For the last 36 years, Selma has celebrated that railroad heritage with Selma Railroad Days, a fall weekend celebration with entertainment, food, arts and crafts -- and for the last 34 years, one of the area's longest-running 5k races, the Selma Railroad Run!

Chad beat me to Johnston County when he ran the Law Enforcement Torch Run 5k for Special Olympics a few years ago, but I was determined to get there on my own just for the Railroad Run. Because it's so close to home here in Raleigh, many of our running friends, including several elite-level runners (read Joey's report on the 2010 race), love the Railroad Run because the course is about as flat as it gets in the area, so it's a great course to hunt for a PR or to go all-out. Finally this year I was able to make the quick jump down highway 70 into Selma.

And I wasn't alone, either: lots of the Raleigh running elite had also made the trip out for the Railroad Run. David and Kimberlie were there, Gary and Rachel were there, Tom and Brandon and Jarett and Pauline and Rebekah and Zeph were all there! I joked that next year we should just rent the NCRC party bus and stock it up with Gatorade and Clif Bars to bring everyone down for the event.

Race morning itself was wonderfully clear and cool, another indication that this was likely to be a very fast race. Surprisingly, despite the longevity and good reputation of the race, it's usually a smaller-size race, and this year was no different, with only 127 finishers. Still, that made registration and packet pickup a breeze, plus the restroom and food lines were shorter. It was fun to see all the Raleigh elite runners arriving, stretching and warming up; you knew they were here to compete and that it was going to be a very fast morning indeed. The little bit of the course I got to jog in advance of the start confirmed everything I had heard about how flat the course is.

The race organizers ushered us out into the road and ran through a quick set of announcements and instructions. The law enforcement for Selma was out to keep the runners safe on the road as well. When the race started, all of the speedsters up front took off, and a very fast race was underway. Most of the course was out-and-back along a very level and very straight North Webb Street, but to bring the race up to the correct distance, we also did a quick loop through a neighborhood adjacent to Webb. Several of the folks along Webb and in the neighborhood were aware of the race -- it has been around for 34 years -- and were out to watch the runners come by and cheer them on. Other folks and drivers appeared to be surprised by the event but were looking on with interest.

From my spot safe in the back of the pack, I had a good view of a lot of the race as it played out. Since most of the course was out-and-back, as the leaders were headed back into Selma, I got a good measure of how big a lead Brandon and Kimberlie had (which they held through the finish), and it looked like Gary had a good hold on our age-group win (he did). It was very impressive and inspirational watching these elite runners focused on their performance and form, and it hearkened me back to the olden days when I might have actually been able to run with them for a short distance.

Friendly volunteers gave us water at the aid station, and I got a bit inspired myself when I was able to read the finish line timer displaying a time of 28 minutes and change. I hustled over the last stretch as best I could -- a woman runner and I had been exchanging encouragement over the last mile -- and burst across the finish line in 29:18, easily my fastest 5k of the year and probably one of my better ones over the last few years. I guess the hype about the flat, fast course is true!

There was a good spread of post-race food and fluids for the runners, and they were able to give out the overall awards pretty quickly, although a timing snafu prevented them from doing the age-group awards right away. But I enjoyed the time catching up with the other runners, hearing about their training and performance, and planning for that party bus next year! I really enjoyed the Selma Railroad Run 5k, and it's definitely one to include if you're looking for a fast course!