Let the record show: When a race goes by my house, I feel obligated to do it. Once I saw people running by my house wearing race bibs and I was frantic. What race is happening that I don’t know about? For the record, I never found the answer, although I think it was a private event affiliated with a nearby Adventure Bible Camp. Still, I felt left out.
My love for the Polar Bear 5K predates my current residence. It dates back to when I started running. A fair number of people I knew in the local triathlon club did this race which is how I heard about it in the first place. It’s a race with a gimmick. There is a person dressed as a polar bear who runs the race. Race t-shirts are given after you finish with the slogan, “I beat the bear” or “I can’t believe the bear beat me.” Then I was told they served pancakes after the race.
You had me at pancakes.
It’s the second week of my marathon training so this 3.1-mile run was my Sunday “recovery” run. There wouldn’t be much recovery involved. I wanted to run hard and see what I could do. The weather looked beautiful. Temperatures were in the mid-40s with sunshine and blue sky. Not very friendly for polar bears, but nice for runners. That is until you take into account the wind.
Oh yes. Wind has followed me to my races in 2016. (You’ve been warned). The winds were steady around 18 mph out of the south west. I knew exactly what this meant. This is a route I run all the time. The wind was gonna smack us in the face on the way out and it was gonna smack us the last quarter mile to the finish line.
Bolstered with bravado from how well my half-mile sprints went earlier in the week, I decided to let it rip. When I turned onto Route 18 to head west into the head wind and up the bridge spanning the creek I realized this may have been a mistake. We’re talking cartoon character territory — legs spinning but going nowhere. Back off? Nah. I committed to this so let’s see what happens.
My first mile was fast. My second mile, not so much. I paid the price for my quick start into the wind, but Mile 2’s pace was still a good clip. Just stay strong, I told myself. By the time we hit the Mile 2 marker, I came upon two guys. One was older than me, wearing earbuds. The other looked younger and was not wearing earbuds. I split the two and yelled “One more mile ’til pancakes!” They had no reaction. Fine then. More pancakes for me.
I passed them only to have the younger guy pass me back. Good job, buddy. You go. I was saving just a smidge in the tank for the last quarter mile, the turn south on Route 78 and the headwind finish. Shortly after that turn you can see the finish arch, but I kept myself steady. I started to increase my turnover. I picked up my pace. I saw the clock. I got excited. I picked up my pace some more and ran as hard as possible until I crossed the finish line. I looked my usual hot-mess finish line self, causing one of the volunteers to come over and make sure I did not require medical attention. (Seriously, I must look like I’m death’s doorstep at the end of most races.)
On to greet my parents and eat pancakes. I was curious to see my official time since I failed to stop my watch while I was holding my knees, gasping for breath at the finish line. I knew I ran well, but wanted to check before I texted my peeps. My time was solid — a few seconds faster than my season-best in 2015. Then I saw my age group ranking. I was second in my age group. Full disclosure: I double checked that online over my second round of pancakes. (Well technically, I traded with my dad — my sausages for an extra pancake.) Second in my age group? Woot! I was pretty excited. No lie. I did a happy dance.
Here’s the thing about placing second in my age group: I have little control over that. It all depends on who shows up. There was another 5K in Buffalo that day. My time in that race would have netted me sixth in my age group. When I pointed that out to my boyfriend he was equally excited. “You would have placed sixth! That’s great!” That was a perfectly placed reality check. Because finish lines, and starting lines for that matter, should never be taken for granted. There are people who race for place. Some of them are my good friends. I’m cool with that. That’s their goal. I have mine. Different is good.
Was I excited about getting my name called and receiving a Polar Bear 5K mug? Hells yeah. But I was also happy with how I ran, how I fought through my overeager start, how I pushed through the final quarter mile. My field may have been small and not very fast but in order to take second in my age group I had to make the commitment to run. I had to show up. I had to finish. I still had to earn it. And now, we drink some hot cocoa out of my swell new mug.