Wednesday, October 11, 2006

My Love Affair With Running - Part 2


I began to run nearly every race in the area. Anne and I rode together sometimes or drove separately and met before the race to chat and encourage each other to give our best to the challenge. After each race we would visit with the other runners, compare performances and eat the always-provided foods. It is the only time I can recall eating pizza, cookies and cola at nine in the morning by choice. In those first races in 1999 and early 2000, Anne beat me every race. I was close behind her, but always behind. Many times I could see her up ahead of me. I just could not catch her. With her encouragement, I set a goal to increase my training distance to six miles per session and run in the 2000 Cotton Row Run 10K. I had six months to get ready.

I began gradually increasing my practice distance on my rural figure-eight course a half-mile each month, the goal was to be running six miles each session. I moved to Huntsville in early 2000 and found a new three-mile practice course around the neighborhood near my new apartment. Twice around the new course met my 6 mile requirement.


By far, the most delightful times I had running were on the Cotton Row course.
The Cotton Row 10K race, held each Memorial Day, was the biggest race of the year in Huntsville. Over 1,200 runners entered it. Equal to the Rocket City Marathon, held in mid-December. The Cotton Row name reflects the history of Huntsville.

In the late 1800’s several cotton merchants built their offices next to each other across the street from the county courthouse in Huntsville. Though the buildings are long gone, that section of Madison Street is still referred to as “cotton row”. The race course passes this area, thus, the name “Cotton Row Run”.

The course is a challenging six mile loop. Near the beginning of mile four the course peaks 250 feet higher than the start/finish level. Right at the end of mile three is a very steep segment that climbs 90 feet in a tenth of a mile. This short section is referred to by everyone as The Hill. For sure. The road on this section is so steep that the lower half of it is covered with coarse-finished concrete instead of asphalt. It is so steep that most runners stop and walk up its daunting incline. I learned very early to respect it.

Each year about six weeks before the Cotton Row Run 10K, a small group of runners from Adtran would meet on Wednesday afternoon after work and run the course for practice. I joined them in April 2000. Practicing on the actual course helped acquaint me with each detail of the course so I knew where I was relative to the finish and what was coming next. I found that running uphill was different from running on a level course.

Through trial and error, I found that even though I could run the entire length of The Hill, it took so much out of me that my course times were actually faster if I walked the first half – and steepest part – of it. After The Hill, there was another slight incline, then the last three miles of the course were virtually all varying degrees of welcome down hill.

It was an amazing experience to join 1200+ runners in a race. As we started off, the crowd of runners flooded the five-lane wide streets of downtown Huntsville like a river of humanity. There were people filling the streets as far as I could see. As usual, I passed many even as others were passing me. Lost in the front third of them was me.

After the Cotton Row race, I returned to my relatively flat 6 mile practice course around the lake near my apartment. By the end of 2000, I was beating Anne by over a minute. From 2000 through 2003 I ran over 20 races each year.

In 2001, I moved to another apartment and had to find a new practice course. I found it in the Research Park, just a quarter of a mile from my apartment. The wide roads were lighted and lined with narrow sidewalks. It was the perfect practice course. Normally, I ran three miles on Wednesday afternoons and six miles on Saturday mornings, when there was not a race.

In April 2003, I changed my usual mid-week training session and began to run the Cotton Row course again prior to the 10K race. Because I was now attending church on Wednesday evenings, there was not enough time to run the course with the Adtran group at 5:00 PM and still get to church by 7:00 PM, so I ran it an hour earlier. On Memorial Day I, again, completed the race for that year.

The week after the race I was considering returning to my course in Research Park to do my mid-week practice runs when an idea struck me. Instead of going back to my flat practice course, why not just keep running the Cotton Row course all year? The idea was inspired. It was a difficult course. Running the uphill course on a regular basis would make me stronger for the other races during the rest of the year. So I began running the Cotton Row course every Wednesday afternoon after work and Saturday morning.

At first, my new program was extremely taxing. I could tell that I was working harder. Doing the course twice a week took noticeably more effort. But that was the plan. It took a couple of months, but I began to notice that my race times were beginning to drop.

Running the course on Wednesday afternoons in the north Alabama summers was brutally hot and humid. The temperature was nearly always in the upper 80s or 90s. I never took water with me because I felt that I could do without water for an hour or so. And that proved to be so. I was careful to drink plenty of water during the day of practice and I carried water in the car so it was handy both before and after my run.

Saturday mornings on the course were different. They were magical for me. Watching the sun come up as I ran in the misty, humid hills east of downtown Huntsville each Saturday morning was relaxing and beautiful. The streets of downtown, so busy and noisy with traffic on Wednesday afternoon, were virtually empty and silent at six AM on Saturday. Many mornings I ran right down the middle of the wide streets, alone. The temperature was always in the upper 60’s or low 70’s. The air, heavy and damp. Dew glistened on the grass of the well-kept yards. The low sunlight filtered through the leaves in the big trees that lined most of the course and cast long shadows across the streets of my course.

Sweat was my regular companion. By the end of mile one I was nearly soaked. I got used to feeling of wetness coating every part of me. It ran freely down my chest, back, arms, legs, and head. My sweat-band kept it out of my eyes. Many days my light nylon singlet felt heavy with the abundant moisture I produced and I could feel it dripping off the hem of my top onto my running shorts and legs as I ran. Sometimes I could feel it dripping off of my elbows. I was like a baptism of joy.

Once out of the downtown area, just after the beginning of mile two, I could let my mind wander and drift as I followed the familiar course through the quiet, curving residential streets. I especially looked forward to the Saturday morning sessions each week when there was no race elsewhere. I came to love the hour of effort and mental cleansing that took place there. Without trying, I memorized every turn, hill and bump in the course. Unconsciously, I memorized the location of every mile marker along the course. I knew exactly were I was and how far I had to go to finish. Before long, I could have run the course in my sleep. In fact, many nights I am sure I did.

So refreshing were these times that my mind would often wander as I ran. Sometimes I would design things that I wanted to build at home. One morning I found myself trying to come up with a method to teach percentages to grade-school children. I did this for almost a mile before I realized what I was doing. I laughed at myself and wondered why my mind had taken that route. It was the product of a mind and body completely at ease.

I ran the course rain or shine. Most days it was sunny; or at least not raining. There were a few times when I had to deal with light rain off and on. But there were two memorable afternoons – both Wednesdays about a year apart. More than once, I began the afternoon run with a thunderstorm in the area. The safety rule for runners was simple: never run if there is a thunderstorm in the area. The danger was not the rain. It was lightening. It could strike as far as five miles away from the storm. I had learned to watch such things carefully. Early on I made it my business to know what the weather would be on my running days. And more specifically, what the weather would be at the time and location of my run during that day. But the nature of summer storms in this area was that, even though you could hear or see a storm, it did not necessarily mean that it would rain on you. And I played the odds. I was only going to be in a limited area (the Cotton Row course formed a rough square about two miles on each side.) for a limited time (about an hour). And most of the time I eluded the storms. Or they eluded me. Several times I drove home from my practice run in the rain I had avoided during my run.

But one hot Wednesday afternoon in 2004 the game of chance went against me. I was near the end of mile three (near The Hill) when I heard the rumble of thunder. Maybe it will miss me, I thought hopefully as I continued into mile four and the finish line three miles away. I knew that I was running toward the storm. The big trees around me tossed leaves at me as the wind began to blow and the temperature dropped about 10 degrees in less than a minute. Then as I turned onto Clinton Avenue - midway into mile five - I could see the wall of water coming down the street toward me. And then I was in it. My layer of sweat was rinsed off of me in twenty seconds. It was a classic summer storm. The lightening banged and boomed around me as I continued to run down the wet street. It rained so hard so suddenly that the street began to flood. The water got almost as high as the curbs and covered all but the very center of the crowned street. To stay out of the water, I had to run down the middle of the street – not an easy (or safe) thing to do in the afternoon traffic. By the time I reached my car the rain was all but ended.

The following year, I got caught by another summer storm at almost the same point in my run – Clinton Avenue, mile five. This time, to be sure the flooding gutters did not force me into the center of the street, I retreated to the sidewalk. Unfortunately, the sidewalks in this area are old and broken. Large sections of them are pushed up by tree roots or sunken from years of settling ground. The puddles in the sidewalk were nearly as deep as those in the street. This storm was more frightening than the last. The powerful lightening threatened to blow up everything in sight as it exploded all around me. The old neighborhoods I ran through were rich with big old trees. Any one of them could be the point of attraction for the next megadischarge of static electricity. Twice it struck just one street over from where I was running – about 100 yards. I debated whether to stop and hide on someone’s front porch or keep going. I hated the idea of stopping for any reason other than absolute physical collapse so I kept going. My usual solution to all questions about whether to keep going or not. Naturally, when my car came into sight, the rain passed.

One afternoon in 2005 I got caught in a substantial summer downpour. No thunder this time. It was raining so hard that near the end of mile five, a woman in a small pickup truck rolled down her window and offered me a ride. I thanked her and declined. Little did she know how good it felt to be in the cool rain after what had been such a hot afternoon. The only reason I did not like running in the rain was that it filled my shoes with water, making them heavier.

I ran the Cotton Row course every week until mid-October of that year. The effort made me the strongest I had ever been as a runner.

I stopped running the CR course on Wednesdays only in the winter from mid-October through March, because I did not want to be on the busy streets of downtown in the early darkness. Wednesdays I ran the lighted sidewalks in Research Park during the winter months.

More to come......

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