Racing During the Pandemic

The Granby Road Race 2020

I jogged down the hill to where people were lining up for the start. It was 8:26 and the race started at 8:30, or at least the first wave started at 8:30. I knew I was a little close to the start time, but I was shocked how many people were already lined up. 

I was expecting a small race, capped at fifty, maybe a hundred people, but there were easily a hundred and fifty runners already lined up. Or maybe it just looked like there were more people since runners were required to be spaced single file, six feet apart. 

I jogged up closer to the start and tried to find a place in the line of runners. I was probably pushing the six feet rule, but we had our masks up, and I wasn’t about to get stuck at the back behind a hundred slower runners.

“Did you sign up for virtual New York or guaranteed entry next year?” A group of friends in front of me was chatting. “I did guaranteed entry, I’ll have to pay for that again which is a pain.” It was a typical conversation between runner friends these days. What races are you running…next year? Is it going to be virtual? Will it be postponed to 2022 or 2023?

There was no gun to signal the start of the race, we just saw the line start moving. Slowly I inched up to the starting line. The guy manning the start put his hand up indicating the group in front of me to stop. They paused. After a minute or so break he waved them forward. 

Then it was my turn. 

I hadn’t raced in over a year. My last race was the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge last September in San Francisco. I ran a solid time for the 3.5 mile race, 23:31, somewhere around 6:44/mile. Nothing crazy, but a pretty good time, especially for someone who was still discovering the limits of her speed. 

But that was a year ago. Since then I’d trained for a marathon only to injure my ankle a few weeks out from the race. Then the pandemic hit and my upcoming half and full marathon plans were derailed. Although in hindsight, it may have been a blessing in disguise as I was plagued by yet another injury in the spring – this time a pulled muscle in my lower back. 

I had three solid months of healthy training behind me now, and the racing gap had me fired up to run a really good time. 

I took off. 

The first mile was fast. I looked at my watch at the first mile marker – just over seven minutes. I should probably slow down. My goal was to average around 7:20 pace so I knew I’d gone out a little too fast, I should have been closer to 7:25-7:30 for the first mile. Still, I pressed on but tried to settle down a little. 

Then the hills came. 

The Granby Road race is my hometown race, I don’t know that I would have known about the race or decided to run it if it wasn’t the local race for the town I grew up in. I’d been back living with my family in Granby since May after I decided I wanted to escape San Francisco and my little apartment for more space and the fresh country air. I’d initially planned to go back to SF around Labor Day, but then I found out that the road race was happening and I decided to stick around a few extra weeks for the opportunity to run a “real” race. 

The course starts at the local high school/middle school and cuts through the center of town before looping up and into McClean Game Refuge and then down though the game refuge, back through the town center and up another hill back to the school. 

The first mile or so of the race is mostly down hill which explains why I ran it to fast, that, and the adrenaline of finally being able to race again. The course then cuts off the main road, up a hill to an opening in the game refuge. In the refuge you run on windy, rocky trails, up and down through the woods before coming back out to the main road and into town again. The final stretch is a challenging uphill to the finish in front of the school. 

It’s a difficult course for two reasons – the first being the hills, particularly because the majority of the downhills are in the woods, covered in rocks, where you have to slow down to make sure you don’t trip or roll an ankle as you roll down the hill. The woods mean you have all of the suffering of the uphill, and none of the easy, fast flow down the hill. Then there’s the roots and sand and general challenges of running the trails and the uphill finish, which is never fun. 

I knew all this going in – I’d run the race once before and I’d done some training runs in the game refuge. I was ready to go and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to run an exceedingly fast race. I just wanted a solid time good enough to put me in the top finishers and based on prior year race results I thought I could do it. 

Eyes on the prize. 

The first hill wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I passed a few people on the uphill, and I’d passed many more on the quick stretch through town after the start. My mom, sister, and dog were waiting for me at the edge of the game refuge with a cup of water. I grabbed the cup for a quick sip, just as I would at a normal water station, then tossed the cup back in their direction. I’d told my sister to pick up the cup – I didn’t want to litter. 

There were no water stations at the race this year. Usually they had two positioned strategically throughout the course, but to reduce human interaction they cut those out this year. 

I wasn’t the only one to have family and friends placed throughout the course to pass a bottle of water. My mom lended an extra cup for another mother to hand to her daughter, and there was a group cheering and passing out water bottles to their crew a little later in the race. 

The trails were just as challenging as I’d expected. The downhill was slow going as I was afraid of falling or rolling an ankle. Someone I’d passed earlier passed me back as a struggled not to trip. The flat sections of the trail were also slower, but more fun. I enjoyed pushing the pace on the clearer sections and then dodging the roots and other things on the trail. I passed back the guy who passed me on the downhill, along with a few others. 

As I neared the exit to the game refuge I passed a group of young runners. “Marzo?!” One shouted. I turned to see a familiar face. It was a friend of my sister’s who I knew was running the race. He pulled out his phone to snap a quick pic for my sister, and then I kept going. 

At the exit to the game refuge was my dad on his bike. As he saw coming out of the woods he reached for the water bottle he kept in holder on his bike. “I’m good,” I gestured as it was a cool day and I didn’t want to slow down for another water break. 

My dad hopped back on his bike and rode alongside the course cheering me and the other runners on. The group of young runners, including my sister’s friend, stayed close throughout the last stretch of the race. I would pass one of them, another would pass me back. It was a fight to the finish and I loved it. 

“You got this Caroline!” My dad shouted from his bike and I suffered up the last hill and turned into the loop in front of the school. I pushed for a final kick, but could only muster so much speed to get myself up the hill. 

I crossed the finish line in 46:38, at least according to my watch – the finish clock read 51:54. Thanks to the staggered start I wouldn’t know the official results or my place until later in the day. 

I was ushered away from the finish line and found my family amongst the small group gathered along the finish. I wanted to keep moving to cool down so we walked toward the car. There was no finish festival or awards ceremony so we were free to head home. I took a few minutes to drink the water and electrolytes my sister had brought for me and did some active stretches. I then passed the water back to my sister and jogged home. 

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