I’m an equal opportunity 5K race participant. Middle of the summer and straight up a hillside? Delightful. Dead of winter and through a dull neighborhood? Love it. Four loops around a mall parking lot? Pleasant. Christmas mad house downtown night-time gassy throngs of children run? Bring it.
What I’m saying is that I’ll sign up for nearly any 5K. I think I might draw the line at those slop-through-mud and climb-over-a-wall-and-collapse-on-an-obstacle-course 5Ks, because, obviously, those are just stupid.
Otherwise, I really don’t care. I ran a 5K in San Francisco years ago dressed as a giant chicken. Didn’t care. For the past 5 years I’ve run a totally un-scenic 5k in monstrous heat where video of me hurling at the finish in ’08 is on YouTube. Don’t care. I’ve already signed up for a March 5K that is considered the crybaby weenie race for toddlers that accompanies the Important Half Marathon. Still not caring.
So when fellow-runners warned me not to run our local zoo fundraiser 5K, I was all, “Whatever, dude.” (Early on disclaimer: I wholeheartedly support this race’s cause, and it’s astoundingly well produced and organized in spite of, well, everything else.) I mean, I figured a race through a zoo would be pretty cool. Lots of animals and stuff. Sure, there were supposed to be a few turns, but it had to be pretty flat, right? And the walkways would have to be moderately wide and well-maintained, n’est-ce pas? An afternoon race is not my dream, but how bad could it be? And a big crowd? Oh, boo hoo.
Where to begin?
Cheryl was volunteering at the race (even she had said, “You’re going to run the Zoo Run? Really?”), so we got there 2 hours (SIGH) early. As it turned out, there were already enough volunteers to hand out timing chips (this is an exhausting job of handing people chips and saying, “here’s your chip.”), so Cheryl and I sat her car in the parking lot for an hour observing the throngs as they arrived for the race. And by “observing,” I naturally mean “making snarky comments.”
Let’s say it’s 47 degrees, a bit damp, and overcast for an afternoon 5K. What would you wear? Perhaps jeans over a pair of tights, gloves, a down vest over an imported Shetland sweater, earmuffs, and a balaclava mask? How about a full cotton sweat suit complete with a sports jacket and hiking boots? Maybe ski pants and a fur coat (at the zoo)? If you said Yes! to any of these sporty options, you would have fit right in. I exaggerate not when I say that the bulk of the crowd appeared to be gearing up for a major trek across the frozen Siberian tundra.
Camelbaks. We saw at least half a dozen. I know you think I’m making this up, but I’m not. Ask Cheryl. She never lies. I lie all the time in this blog, but she’ll be tediously honest about what we saw. Anyway, Camelbaks at a winter 5K. With water at every mile noted in the entry. Dear God.
About an hour beforehand, I started my warmup and was happy to only hear a few people loudly blast, “WHY WOULD SOMEONE RUN BEFORE A RUN?? HA HA HA HA!!!” For what appeared to be well over a thousand people, I saw very few people doing anything other than rushing over to the activities center to cram themselves inside, flop down somewhere in exhaustion, and eat gels until the start. This was slightly troubling. I’ve seen pre-race lethargy, but this set a new gold standard of languor.
The start was a study in cell phone worship and the exuberant tossing of race etiquette out all windows. After a couple of hours of previewing the participants, I was alarmed enough to position myself way closer to the front than I usually would. Nonetheless, there I was amidst a sea of grade-schoolers and astoundingly overweight 30-somethings all gazing placidly at their phones. I noted that a woman next to me had her timing chip tied around her neck. Just in front of me, a rotund young man was on his phone announcing, “Under 45! Under 45! That’s my mantra for this one!”
And we were off.
Do I really need to describe the horror of that first half mile? Let’s just say that there was substantial coming-to-an-abrupt-stop-to-text-someone not even a quarter of a mile into the race and leave it at that.
In my notes in my running log, I described this race course as “An inexplicably idiotic course of hills, constant switchbacks, gravel roads, and slippery bridges. Where was the fucking zoo?”
I saw some bamboo and flamingos around mile 2, but that was IT. Mostly, it was a tour of the employee parking lot, grounds keeping sheds, machinery, and weaving muddy gravel roads that connected these delights. Granted, it’s not like I was going to enjoy some pleasant memories with the elephants during a 5K, but come on! Zoo Run my ass.
Needless to say, it was crowded. There was also a higher level of extreme manly panic when I passed guys in this particular race for some reason. The highlight, really the zenith, of this race occurred around mile 2.5 when we were headed downhill and over a wet slippery bridge. Coming up behind me was a pretty huge dude I had passed on the prior uphill. His weight began throwing him off-balance and he was windmilling his arms and yelling WATCH OUT! as he barreled right into me. I may or may not have addressed him with a coarse oath.
Cheryl was working the finish line, clipping chips. I careened around her for 15 minutes, a veritable fount of complaints. I said, “Never again!” about 300 times just in case she, and everyone around her, didn’t hear me the first 299 times.
Later that afternoon, she told me that 3 separate people had asked her if the buckets for the chips were for puking. (Her response was, “Do you think I’d be sitting here if it was?”) At least two hundred had asked what the chip was for. Nearly a third of the crowd had begun texting or calling or whatever people do on phones before exiting the finish area. At least a dozen people had gotten pissy with Cheryl when she had to run after them to get their chip because they were too busy cramming their phones to their ears to hear her.
Afterwards, standing in the beer line (thank you Jesus), I listened to three young women in front of me dissect the race in terms of treadmill walking settings.
“We did it in 4.1! I’m so proud of us!”
“I think I actually ran across the whole parking lot near the finish.”
“That second mile was tough. I must have dropped to a 3.9 or less.”
“I felt so bad for Ashley. She was like so not even 3.6!”
Maybe I’m just old and peevish. I’m all for anyone getting their lard ass off the couch and going to a race, whether they can run fast or not. But the bulk (heh) of people at races really don’t race anymore. The concept of a race as an event where everyone runs pretty hard, or at least to the best of their trained abilities, is mostly a dinosaur idea. I don’t think it’s an overestimation to say that 50% of people at a lot of 5Ks have not trained at all.
Every six months or so, ye olde “Were Runners Faster in the 80s??” question comes up on running boards. Younger runners get stressed and panty-wadded and old hags and farts get pompous and supercilious. But the obvious answer is No. Times are faster now. Loads of new records have been set. The fastest runners today are faster. Hello.
The main difference in the 80s was the fact that races were races. No one showed up at a 5k to walk or jog. The idea of “just finishing” was preposterous. Were runners faster? No. But people who ran races were.
Anyway, the Zoo Run aftermath wound down to a lot of (good) free beer, decent prizes, and seeing a lot of friends. I guess that more than made up for my idiotic race. In fact, after the 4th beer, I was all, “This race is great!” Yeah, I’m an equal opportunity 5K race participant. I may even be back next year.