Groundhog Run 2013

Skimpy attire for a run in late January in Missouri? I agree. But I was going running come rain or shine because where I was running there would be neither rain nor shine.

I haven’t done an organized road race since November, but I did the Groundhog Run 10K on Sunday, and you could still say I haven’t done an organized road race.

I’d always been fascinated by the Groundhog Run, even in the years before I became a runner. The run is completely underground, all 6.2 miles of it. It’s held in the limestone mines in north Kansas City, deep beneath the earth, and rain or shine, the run takes place. The surface world had rain this morning, but in the caves, we were dry (and dusty, and a little stale). So since I was underground, could you call it a road race?

This little run was unique in my experience because I was part of the company team. There were more than a dozen of us on the team, and the company paid our entry fees, so that was handy. But only two of us were running the 10K portion (I didn’t know this other man and was not introduced to him — oops, it wasn’t a man, it was a woman); the rest of the team was running/walking the 5K. The 5K started at 8:00 a.m.; thus most of our team was finished by 9:00 and ready to go home to their families. The 10K race started at 10:00, and I was in the last wave of runners to start (given my average pace), so I didn’t cross the finish line until nearly 11:30.

Team photos were at 7:30, and I was there for that. And I wished my 5K teammates well as they huddled toward the starting line with the thousands of other runners. One of my teammates happened to have brought along her nursing baby boy, and while momma ran, I tended her son. This involved mostly just carrying him around and keeping him from pulling off my glasses. We were there to greet his mother as she crossed the finish line, and then we went to the hospitality room and met up with the rest of the team. Everyone congratulated each other on their runs, and then they collected themselves and left for the day. I still had nearly an hour before my run began. I milled about and ate a bagel. Took my Advil as a preventative. As I passed the Brooks Running Shoes table, the man behind it handed me a shirt. He was giving them to any runners who passed who happened to be wearing Brooks shoes, which I was. So I got a sweet shirt out of the morning. (I also got a Groundhog Run shirt as part of my registration.)

My normal afternoon run several times a week is 6.2 miles. I pretty much do a 10K all the time on my own, so I shouldn’t have felt any anxiety about this run, but I always do. Perhaps being on a team with my coworkers had me worried. Or maybe it’s just the “officialness” of an organized run that got me nervous. Whatever the reason, I was anxious, and I just wished the run would start so I could worry about something else, like sudden death on the course, rather than my nervousness about the race.

I had asked around about this race among my few running friends, and I kept hearing one common thing: the air on the run is no good. One man said it was very dusty. I guess that makes sense given that it takes place in a limestone mine. A woman I ran with on Saturday morning said she found the air to be musty. And one of my team’s 5K runners, whom I greeted at the finish line, said he had difficulty breathing far back in the cave. (This man is an athlete; he was among the first 100 runners to finish the 5K.) So along with my usual anxiety, I had this new factor to deal with.

I huddled with the masses near the starting line, my timing chip on my shoe and my Nike+ watch on my wrist. I was far enough back, though, that more than five minutes had passed on the clock from the official start before I crossed the starting line. I deliberately told myself to keep a slow pace so I could last the entire distance. Thus many people were passing me, and that was fine. The full course was twice around the roads in the mine, and I wanted to get a sense of what I saw on the way so I could judge how far I was when I was doing my second lap. Let me tell you, the scenery doesn’t change down there. Huge, rough limestone pillars at regular intervals, stretching off miles into darkness. Avenues of more of the same meeting at right angles between the pillars. Imagine the parking garage of your worst nightmare and you get a sense of what it was like deep under the earth this morning, and the only way out was to run for 6.2 miles.

The mile markers were spray painted on the ground, and by the time I was crossing them, thousands and thousands of feet had already trampled them. They weren’t very legible, but I did manage to find the first two. As I was crossing mile marker two, someone behind me was shouting for everyone to get over to the right. Then several bicycles sped past, followed by a runner who was going nearly as fast. This was the man who was going to win the race, and he was already on his second lap of the course. I had done two miles while he had just finished more than five. Quickly behind him came several more swift runners, and it pretty much stayed like that for the rest of the first half of the run.

Still, at several points the course came and went on opposite sides of the same stretch of road. Thus I got to see how many people were behind me, and while I wasn’t trying to beat anyone, it was gratifying to see how many people were behind me. I’m probably never going to get a bicycle escort, but I don’t think I’m going to be the slowest runner in my age group any more either. (Oops! I was this time.)

Nonetheless, the air down there really was bad. I could feel a burning in my lungs that I don’t feel when I’m running on the surface of the planet. It seemed like stale air, air that had already been inhaled and exhaled by thousands of runners before I got around to sucking it it. This made the first half of the run a chore. I think I needed to get accustomed to it, and I’m not sure I ever did.

When I reached the halfway point (the starting line again), I opened my pack of GU Chews. GU is an energy gel that may or may not help me run with more stamina in the latter half of my longer runs. Is it enuf energy to make a difference? Can I metabolize it quickly enough to make a difference? Does it make a difference, or is it all in my head? I don’t know, but I do know that I seem to do better after a gob of GU. Normally, when I eat my GU (which is like cake frosting in a foil pack), I am stopped, waiting for a traffic light so I can cross a busy street safely. Since there wouldn’t be any traffic lights on this run (though there were several railroad crossings — an actual underground railroad!), I didn’t want to take time from my run to stop and deal with a foil pack of cake frosting. Thus the GU chews, which are like jelly candies. I figured I could open the packet, jab a couple into my mouth, and chew on them as I was running. And that’s what I did. It seemed to work. I didn’t have to stop moving, which, for some reason, I consider honorable, and yet I could still take my hit of energy. And, of course, at about mile four I felt an unaccountable rush of strength that I pretty much held onto for the rest of the run. Was it the GU? Perhaps. Maybe I was just getting accustomed to the foul air. Or maybe my muscles were finally warmed up. In any case, it certainly could not have been the “cheering” of the volunteers along the sidelines that charged me up. They were sitting in chairs or leaning against the walls, lackadaisically mumbling encouragement or clapping their hands listlessly. Sigh. At least they were keeping us runners from turning down the wrong roads in that endless maze of pillars and darkness. And I should be fair and acknowledge that they’d been at their jobs of encouragement for more than three hours by the time I was stumbling past.

At about mile five I decided it was time to see what energy I really had left in me and tried to up my pace. It was tough, but I seemed to be moving a little faster. And every time I came around a turn, I expected to see the finish line ahead of me, but it turns out I hadn’t memorized the course as well as I had thought on my first lap. Amazingly, however, I did finally make the last turn and come to the avenue leading to the finish. I really had no energy left by then and couldn’t hit the afterburners for a fast finish. I remember the announcer calling out my name, but I don’t know what he said about me. I crossed the timing mats and had the chip removed from my shoe, and then I looked up. No one on my team was there to greet me. No one had brought my son to the finish line to congratulate me. But there was plenty of chocolate milk waiting, and I enjoyed two cartons of it. (There was also a lot of coconut milk, but I’ve tried it and it’s nasty.) Then I stumbled to the hospitality area where I had left my sweats. They were still there (as everyone said they would be), and I pulled on the pants. I carried the jacket since running more than six miles had warmed me up plenty then headed back to the surface.

Rain had fallen in my time underground though it had stopped by the time I emerged. I walked back to my truck in only my skimpy dri-fit shirt and sweatpants, not feeling cold at all, then climbed in. I may not have been in any condition to drive at that point. I was in a kind of daze. Normally, Libby is along for these things and drives me home. But she couldn’t be there this time. And I guess I was in enuf of a daze not to realize I was in a daze, so I just drove home. (Without mishap.)

I didn’t achieve my fastest time on a 10K with this run; I had done that on Thursday for some unaccountable reason when I was out running on my own. But I did beat my times in the two other “official” 10Ks I’ve run, the latter being in September, by more than 15 minutes, which I think is respectable. I think maybe if I’d had decent air to breathe, and I hadn’t run four miles the morning before, and if I hadn’t told myself I was carb loading the night before when I had a big spaghetti dinner, I might have done even better on Sunday.

I’m glad I satisfied my curiosity about the Groundhog Run, but I don’t think I’ll ever run it again. Still, it was nice to be able to run in so little clothing again.

This just in . . . the local newspaper quoted me about the run.

2 Responses to “Groundhog Run 2013”

  1. Vickie Says:

    Interesting post on the underground run. Glad you’re still participating in the races. Seems to me they should have some kind of ventilation system in place to deal with stagnant or stale air, especially if they hold races there.
    Nice quote in the paper, btw. I remember Alan from my days at the paper. He’s a pretty nice guy.

  2. Ontario Wanderer Says:

    I am glad that I read through this and I am sure it is a race that I will NOT do. I have no desire to be underground long enough to run 10 k. Glad you came through OK and got home safely. Well done!

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