Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Rockingham County - Band on the Run 5k - April 9, 2016

Chad beat me to Rockingham County many years ago -- but then again, it is his home county, so that's not surprising.  But I was glad to get a chance to visit and be a part of a fundraiser for the Rockingham County Middle School band, namely the Band on the Run 5k.  The registration materials encouraged the runners to dress as their favorite instrument or musical artist, but race morning was very, very cold with a stiff wind, so I'm guessing most of the costumes were waived in favor of warmer running gear.  There was one gal who appeared to be one of the Pink Ladies from "Grease", but even she covered up in extra layers over her poodle skirt.

It was no problem getting to Rockingham Middle (home of the Jaguars) in the morning and finding packet pickup (and pre- and post-race refreshments) in the school cafeteria.  The packet pickup was very well organized; once they knew who you were, they looked you up on the master list, told you your bib number, and then you grabbed a pre-filled goodie bag with that bib number affixed to it.  The race t-shirts had been designed by a former student, and it was cold enough that many runners wore their race shirt as an extra layer against the breeze.  There was plenty of room in the cafeteria to hang out before the race, and some of the physical education instructors led a big group through some warmup exercises and calisthenics in the adjoining gymnasium.

Finally, though, we had to leave the warm cafeteria and go back out into the breeze for the start.  One of Rockinham County's Sheriff deputies gave the runners instructions on the route, which side of the roads to run on, and where the other deputies would be stationed for traffic control.  The band director did a quick pepping up of the band members -- "who's faster? the woodwinds or the brass" -- and then we were off, while I was thinking to myself, "well actually, it's the percussion!"

The middle and high schools are built side-by-side on a very large tract of land, so by circling the property, we actually covered almost a mile just getting back out to the main road.  And most of that first stretch was all uphill, which of course got those young whippersnappers who started sprinting right from the start of the race.  Sure enough, the deputies were right where they were supposed to be, keeping traffic on highway 87 stopped for the half-mile or so before we turned onto a secondary road and then into the Rockingham County government complex.  We passed the Board of Elections and the Animal Shelter, and then we made a quick loop around the far parking lot before heading back the same way we had some.  There was a nice downhill stretch leading to the turnaround, which just meant we had to go back up it on the way out.  But the aid station and the water and the encouraging volunteers were much appreciated as we tacked the return trip.

Before too long it seemed we were back entering the school property, and since I knew we had mostly downhill stretches leading back to the start/finish area, I tried to pick up the pace somewhat and take advantage of the downhills.  However, a couple of other runners had fresher legs than me and passed me just as we got the finish line area in sight.  (The wind had blown down the start/finish arch after we had left, so we had to run to where it used to be.)  Quickly we jogged around the parking lot, across the timing mats, and then back into the cafeteria to get out of the wind!

They had a very nice post-race spread of refreshments, including chips, pretzels, fruit and 32-ounce jugs of Gatorade, which was very much appreciated.  You have to give credit both to the kids who kept running and finished all three miles, and to the adults who came out and walked on a cold, windy day to support the program.  After allowing enough time for all the participants to finish the course, they gave out some very nice trophies as awards for overall winners and age-group winners.  I was somewhat surprised but very delighted to win my age group!  Find me a small enough race, and I can still win my group!

It was a lot of fun getting to visit Chad's homeland, and he gave me a very good suggestion to stop at Short Sugar's BBQ on the way out for an early lunch.  I had a great time running and supporting the Rockingham County Middle School band, and I hope their Band on the Run 5k continues to be such a fun race!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Camden County - Sunshine 8k - March 5, 2016

By any measure, Camden County, North Carolina is a small place.  It ranks 96th in population (10,052) among North Carolina’s 100 counties, it’s 93rd in land area square miles (240.5 square miles), which leads to it being 91st in population density (only 40 people per square mile).  And if anyone’s figuring the number of races per county, it must also rank pretty low, because I’ve been looking for a race there for more than a few years with no luck.  Fortunately, though, some race organizers have discovered the beauty, convenience and sheer flatness of the hiking and biking trail along the Dismal Swamp Canal, in the Dismal Swamp State Park that dominates the northwest corner of the county, and a few races per year have popped up so that we finally have a chance to run this county.

The Dismal Swamp Canal, completed in 1805, was the first connection of the Albemarle Sound in the Carolinas to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.  The hiking and biking trail, added in more recent years, gives pedestrians and cyclists an almost perfectly flat and straight 3-mile route alongside the canal and US 17.  The Sunshine Survivors Suicide Prevention and Awareness group picked the Dismal Swamp State Park Welcome Center as the start/finish area for the Sunshine 4k and 8k, both out-and-back runs along the canal trail.

The race organizers were blessed with sunny and cool running conditions for the race, and the crowd that gathered for race was in good spirits, too.  Kathy and I talked with a couple from New Jersey that were there as part of Team Red, White, and Blue, a veterans support organization that we have worked with as beneficiaries of races back in Raleigh.  One of the Sunshine Survivors team handed out small cardboard “sunshines” to the runners who wanted to memorialize or honor friends who had been affected by suicide, and these sunshines were hung on the branches of the trees around the start/ finish line.  Black t-shirts with a bold sunshine design were available to the runners as well.
Both races started together, so we all got lined up and pressed forward when we took off.  Unfortunately, one runner diverted around the start/finish arch to avoid the crowd of humanity, and accidentally ran into one of the support lines, resulting in a very slow collapse of the arch.  However, no one was injured or hit by it, and they had it restored and back in place by the time we returned.

The water in the canal was smooth as glass in the morning, and it made for some lovely water views as we ran south, into the wind and the early morning sun.  I hoped we might see some wildlife from the swamp area, but a solo hawk and a pair of ducks were the only wildlife I spotted.  Some of the trees were just beginning to bud and leaf, and it will be a very pretty run in a few weeks when more of the spring blooms are out.  And it was almost perfectly flat (my Garmin would later show only 3 feet of elevation gain, most of which probably came on the one footbridge over a canal creek).  

Some enthusiastic volunteers were running a water stop at the 4k turnaround, and they encouraged us 8k runners as we got refreshment and then kept going down the trail.  The trail does make a few turns around particularly big trees, so it’s not perfectly straight, but for long stretches you could look way ahead and back to see where everyone was.  And periodically the trail would pop out of the woods and be alongside US 17, probably designed that way for easy access in case of emergency.  You could definitely feel the wind whenever we came out of the shelter among the trees.

More volunteers greeted us at the 8k turnaround near the southern terminus of the trail, and we made the 180-degree turn and headed back north, this time with the wind and sun behind us.  By this time, the few 8k runners were very spread out, and in the return trip north, I only interacted with one or two other runners that I passed or who passed me.  The smaller size of the race in this park locale gave you more opportunities to appreciate the scenery and natural setting without feeling overwhelmed by runners.

Eventually we returned to the welcome center, and the organizers led a very vocal group supporting and welcoming each runner as they crossed the finish line.  There was a nice post-race spread of fruit and water for the runners, and the top men and women finishers in each race received a cute Sunshine mug in which a small plant was growing.  The post-race sunshine and warming temps allowed for more socializing with the other runners after the race along the canal.  36 runners completed the 4k, and 33 more finished the 8k.

I’m very glad we finally made it up to this historic and beautiful corner of North Carolina, where George Washington himself visited back in the 1700s.  Congrats to the Sunshine Survivors for putting on a great run and for bringing folks to this wonderful natural setting!