Tuesday, July 06, 2010

SPORTS>>Fast finish comes from humble start

Leader sports editor

I don’t do anything in the morning without having my coffee first, and that includes running a 5K.

But my daily ritual cost me in the Firecracker 5K in Little Rock on Saturday.

In fact I can safely say, thanks to a pre-race, coffee-induced pit stop, I was the very last man to start the annual, 3.2-mile downhill run.

The race has been held on or near the Fourth of July since 1976, and thanks to the mostly downhill course it is the fastest 5K in Arkansas. Records aren’t official because of the steep layout, but among the past competitors are some noteworthy names:

Bill Rogers, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Frank Shorter.

It has been a bit of a tough year for me, and I wanted to do something in the form of exercise and goal setting to give my esteem, not to mention my heart, a boost. So after a couple months of training, I signed up the Monday before the race.

Steaming coffee mug in hand I drove from Cabot — the unofficial strip-mall capitol of the world — to the Capitol City for the 7:30 a.m. start. The goal I kept in mind on the way was simple —run the entire race, no walking — and finish strong.

I found the registration table just off Kavanaugh Boulevard and affixed my race number 330 to my shirt, idly wondering if I’d finish in 33 minutes. It seemed like a possibility based on nothing I’d done while training.

I never timed myself on the 1 ½-mile up- and downhill course I have been running at Cabot. I just figured if I ran uphill in 90-degree temperatures in the late afternoon, I should be able to go downhill in the relative cool of the early morning.

In line with race etiquette and tradition I took my place near the back of the pack, several blocks behind the start line. The front was for the fast people with the low numbers, you know, the ones for whom it was really going to be a race.

I stretched and did a few warmup jogs, then I began to worry, thanks to my two big cups of Colombia’s finest, that I ought to go before I went. But where?

Short of knocking on some stranger’s door, I was at a loss. Then I saw a home under renovation and the portable facility the construction crew had left at the site.


But while I was in the little fiberglass booth, the race began, and when I burst out I saw the rearest of the rear echelon had passed by and even the trailing police car was rolling.

I had to sprint across lawns and hurdle hedges just to take my place at the last of the column before crossing the start line. I worried someone would think I was trying to sneak into the competition, like those marathon runners who cheat by joining a race after it starts.

Except who, besides me, would join the pack at the very end?

Soon I was hearing the cheers and encouragement from the local residents, some still in their pajamas, who were out on their porches. My split time at the first mile was close to 12:00, but the clock started for the lead runners, not those of us in the back of the pack, or the restroom.

The decline got steeper and the course faster. I attempted to drink a cup of water after the second mile, like a real runner, and poured half of it down my front before giving up.

With War Memorial Stadium in sight I began to see skinny runners trotting back UP the hill holding what looked like sticks of dynamite. Either they were in hot pursuit of the Road Runner, or these were the top 100 finishers who had received firecracker replica trophies and were already running back to their cars, or showing off, as I liked to think of it.

A left off Fair Park leads to the Firecracker’s dirty little secret: It’s not all downhill; there is a steady climb just before the finish, right past the zoo and its assorted odors.

But I had paced myself for this reason and I chugged up the hill through the perfume of the monkey house, took my final left and cruised to the finish in an unofficial time of 34:00, roughly 10:30 per mile.

Men’s winner Josephat Boit, who finished in 13:48.43, was probably home and showered by the time I came in, but if I hadn’t started my race in the outhouse I’m sure I could have given him a real challenge.

Yet I still had something in common with Boit, women’s winner Leah Thorvilson and all those reedy whippets clinging to their sticks of fake dynamite.

I finished, with my heart and self esteem intact.