March 22 was the Azalea Trail Run. The ATR has a history of bringing strong elites to town for the race, and they offer a very nice prize purse. *Sidenote- famous winners of the race include Bill Rogers and Joan Benoit. Last year, I managed to score Top Local, a pretty good win of the race, considering the competition is usually pretty tough. This year, I was feeling a little sad to not be defending my title; so I decided to volunteer. To my surprise, they put me on the Elite Athlete Committee.
My first duty was to chauffeur a few of the elites to and from dinner Thursday night. To my surprise, only one of the three spoke English, and that English was very broken. I smiled, waved, and motioned for them to get into the car. They all piled into the backseat! Hahah, I truly was their chauffeur! I tried to get one to sit in the front, and he just kept smiling saying, "Okay, okay." And then began the fun. I had a little trouble getting OFF the service road that the hotel was on. I had been to this part of Mobile before, but never driven on this particular road. I thought it was a cut-through, but realized quite quickly it wasn't. Um, and there was no place to turn around. So, um, I had to drive in reverse for nearly 100 meters. Oops, and the Elites were saying lots of things in their native language, probably wondering what the heck was wrong with these stupid Americans. THEN we got stopped at a train crossing. This part is hysterical, only because if you know me, I'm kind of a flustered mess nearly 50% of my life. It goes like this:
Elite Runner: We stop for long? (As I stop and the railroad crossing arms are down and flashing.)
Me: It will just be a couple minutes. A train is coming.
Me: Yeah (And then I proceed to pull the imaginary conductor whistle). Toot! Toot!
ER: Me no understand.
Thank goodness the train came through which explained what I was trying to say.
ER: People ride on there?
Me: Not this one. Cargo.
ER: People from Canada?
Me: No, materials. Stuff.
THANK YOU HEAVENS we were able to cross and drive immediately to the dinner after that. I was about exhausted just trying to communicate.
Once we got to the dinner, a man from our local running community was there to translate. Dinner was nice. It was interesting to see what they ate. It was mostly carbs. Most them didn't eat any of the salad, veggies, or dessert. They ate just the pasta. And I was shocked that some drank soda! It was neat to see the elites interact with each other- all very, very close, like family. (Even though they were from many different parts of Kenya.) I learned that they come to the US (North Carolina) for 3-4 months each year to train. Because of the language barrier, I could never figure out exactly where in NC or if this was a sponsored camp or what, but I did get the gist that many of them had trained there together. And the one that spoke broken English told me that he was married and had a kid back in Kenya. All cool stuff.
Race morning arrived, and I had the coolest job ever- taking splits on the pace/media truck! Right before the start, another volunteer and I gathered up all the elites' bags and jackets and threw them on the truck so that they would have them at the finish line immediately after. We rode in the flat bed with two news reporters, the elite coordinator, and a professional photographer. We learned a quick lesson- if we didn't watch for low tree branches, once of us would be decapitated! Honestly, at first it was a little stressful making sure I started my watch exactly on the gun, and getting a feel for how far ahead of the lead guy the truck was. (I started a stopwatch and my Timex, just to be safe.) We had a feeling the pack would stay together for the first two miles, at least, but after that the plan was for the other volunteer to get splits on the leader (or first pack) and I would try to get splits on pack two (or other runners that might podium). We were only in charge of the men. They had a bike team tracking the female leaders.
Just as suspected, the entire elite pack stayed together for the majority of 3 miles, and they hit 4:25-4:29 per mile. Wowzers. The truck was kind of crazy driving. It would speed up really fast, then slow way down. We were screaming at the driver to slow down b/c the mile markers were approaching and runners were too far back. And then once he slowed down TOO much, and I think the leaders had to slow down for US! That was embarrassing, but it only lasted a few seconds. I've led small races before, and I know how annoying that lead car can be if it's not in a good position. It was so fun and exciting! The news reporters were asking for names of runners. (We had a list of names with corresponding bib #s.) It was cool to be in the midst of so much excitement, and I was ready for the pack to break and see a real race.
Finally just before Mile 4, the pack broke apart. They began running 1 & 2, and then 3 & 4. The other volunteer watched 1 & 2, and I tried my best to get #3 & 4. It was tricky to judge when they past the marker because the truck was now a good ways ahead. One racing tactic I observed- #3 moved off to the far right of the road near the curb away from #4. I didn't understand what was going on, if he was about to drop, needed water, or what. He seemed to be running really strong, but he stayed over to the right away from the rest. I asked the elite coordinator what he thought, and he said that he probably felt like #4 (and maybe #5 because that guy was closing in) were pacing off him and trying to get in his head. Hmmmm, nothing I ever thought of before. Said he probably moved over there to work on his own race. And sure enough, just after crossing Mile 5 marker, he moved back over and took control of a solid third place finish.
The truck began to feel like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride- slow, fast, slow, fast. At one point, the driver warned us that we were approaching a speed bump, but couldn't slow down b/c the runners would get too close to the truck. We were holding on for dear life! We really had to estimate Mile 6 times, but did our best. It was important to all of us to see the finish; so the truck really gunned it.
Driver: I'm just going to slow down, but not stop. I need to get out of the way here. You guys just jump off when I get next to the line (finish line).
Elite Coordinator: Rebecca, except you. You stay on and ride it out.
*And I'm like looking at him like he has two heads.
EC: I'm serious. You don't need to jump off a moving truck.
(I mean, really, who DOES need to jump off a moving truck?)
So, I look at my volunteer partner, and he says, "You're still jumping off, aren't you?" I shake my head yes, and he tells me that he will jump just before me, and then I can grab his hand. (Yeah, because that's going to really help...) I agree, and off we go.
We made it just in time to see the lead guy run right at 29 minutes and female leader just under 33. Wowzers, those are some fast peeps. It was cool to have a "press pass" to be right at the finish line. I helped the elites get their bags, and my job was pretty much done. I later spoke to one of the reporters, giving him the rundown of the race from my point of view, and was able to give him the names he needed to fill his article.
All in all, it was an AWESOME experience. I'm so inspired by elite runners. Nearly every one I have met has been humble and gracious. I love watching and learning from them, too. It was a really good way for me to still be involved in the race without racing.
|Me & My Volunteer Partner, Jonathan|