SCHENECTADY — I gotta have more cowbell.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with that line, just go to YouTube and search for “more cowbell.” Then enjoy the hilarious “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Will Ferrell is cast as the, um — let’s say over-exuberant — cowbell player while Blue Oyster Cult is in the studio recording “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
That’s what I was thinking about for a moment on Saturday morning, chuckling to myself, while in the comfort of measured discomfort that is a road race.
Not a “virtual” race, where you time yourself, by yourself, on a course of your choosing somewhere and then go online to submit your “result.”
A real race. Against people.
With cowbell, clattering away as we ran past spectators on their lawns, or in the Jumpin’ Jack’s parking lot, or on the grass by the river at Mohawk Harbor, kids bundled-up against the cold, hard wind with hand-made signs of encouragement framed in glued-on glitter.
A year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic was canceling everything, one of my obligations was to write about the races that weren’t going to happen, like the springtime Boston Marathon, a popular destination for many Capital Region runners; the Freihofer’s Run for Women in June; and the Stockade-athon, a Schenectady staple of the fall calendar since 1976.
A year later, we have races, mostly by virtue of work from the stellar crew at Albany Running Exchange Event Productions (AREEP), which hosted the inaugural Electric City 5 Miler starting and finishing at Mohawk Harbor, in the space between Rivers Casino and the chain of apartments and condos at the north end. It’s an encouraging sign for 2021 that a sizable group of people can safely go to an event now that’s designed, in my case, to test how miserable I’m willing to make myself.
We’ll get to that later.
As I walked to Druthers to pick up my race packet on Friday, I heard a guy on his way out tell his companions, “I can’t believe we’re actually in a race.”
As I was warming up Saturday morning, I passed a woman wearing her pre-race game face of determination — and a green tulle tutu. Also, a guy in a green furry teddy bear coverall. If you were out in that wind, it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
AREEP has run a few races already, since the fall, and has some more scheduled through December, but the calendar remains sparse and subject to strict rules at the direction of the CDC, state and local health departments. If you want to get AREEP president Josh Merlis riled up, mention supermarkets, or Crossgates Mall, but he and his team want to put on races, so they follow the guidelines to the letter, and then some. Race entry came with a meticulous 13-page participant handbook.
At one of the first races AREEP organized, Josh actually had people park according to their zip code in a 100-acre field, for social distancing.
On Saturday, we gathered in AREEP’s staging area that leads to the line for staggered starts every 10 seconds in rows of six runners at the most. You had a number and letter assigned, and gradually moved through well-marked orange cone stations until it was your turn to “Go!”
Masks on everywhere, of course, and no water stations, bring your own.
I picked my denim Tough Traveler mask for the race because it’s pretty loose and easy to pull down and back up, which we were allowed to do out on the course as long as we weren’t near anyone. With the staggered start, the field was pretty much in single file from the get-go, which happens in most distance races not long after the crowded start, anyway.
When I got an email from AREEP on Feb. 18 alerting me to this new race, I was ready to run through a wall, especially since I know every inch of the course. I pretty much took the winter of 2019-20 off, but got it back in gear once COVID became a thing, in part for the immunity boost of exercise.
That doesn’t mean I was in race shape when that email arrived, but I was a very sound racehorse with some fitness, and there’s nothing like a race target to get the juices flowing, even on just a few weeks’ notice.
As Howlin Wolf sang, I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed. Yet.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been on training runs that were pure joy, blue skies, birds chirping, feel like a million bucks, and you want to get right back on that roller coaster as soon as the ride is over. Every race I’ve run, on the other hand, has been a self-imposed grind, as was Saturday’s. It’s different, because, as a wise person once said, if you haven’t pushed yourself to some level of discomfort, you’re doing distance running wrong. In a race, anyway.
So, at 9:37:20 on Saturday morning, it was discovery time.
I stood at my designated 4I cones next to a young girl in a purple-ish/pink dyed ponytail and a green RCS (Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk) school sports hoodie, “Laurel T.” embroidered in gold on the sleeve. A familiar face, Vince Juliano, who was the Stockade-athon race director for 19 years, was right in front of us at the 4H cones.
When it was our turn, voom, Laurel T. took off, and I never saw her again. I did gasp past Vince on Sunnyside Road in Scotia, and he said, “I think Mark Mindel is on the lead bike.”
“That makes sense,” I said. Once a race director, always a race director.
That wind was a bear, on Freemans Bridge, Sunnyside and in Collins Park. But people came out to cheer us on. The gentle decline on Western Gateway bridge was my favorite part, with the wind at our backs and the sun bouncing off the pavement.
As we turned left into the Stockade on Washington Avenue, a huge dump truck was also turning in, from the other direction, and there was an AREEP course marshal right there to holler to get to the left, because “Ya gotta Mack truck behind you.” Noted, sir.
In the final bend at Mohawk Harbor to the finish, I tried to kick, but five miles is a little out of my range right now. I was passed by more people than I passed. Hearing the crowd was awesome.
When I looked at the clock, it said 51 and change, and I thought, ‘Huh. Welp, guess I’m not hitting that 45:00 target.” Then … “Dude, that’s not your net time, remember?”
I went online and was thrilled to see 43:27. Even better, I wanted to run evenly throughout, and my halves were 21:43 and 21:45. I was 267th out of 500 finishers and 19th in my age division (Men 55-59. Shut up).
There were a bunch of familiar names on the results list, people I consider rock stars and have written about, like Karen Bertasso, who won the female division in 29:36, Chuck Terry and Martha Degrazia. Brian Reis was the overall winner, in 25:23, and with the staggered starts, I can only wonder how close he and runner-up John Amenta, separated by four seconds on the net list, actually were at the finish.
“Laurel T.” must be 16-year-old Laurel Ticer, in 43:02. Well done, Laurel.
It was an honor to be in the field, in a real race, with all of them.
As that chilly wind continued to bust across the flat land next to the river, I swapped notes with Vince, who rocked a 44:40 at the age of 63, and headed to the tables outside Druthers to pick up a bag lunch (race entry also got you a beer ticket. See you soon, Druthers).
A year ago, it was difficult to imagine and impossible to predict when we’d get a chance to do this again.
Then the door was open and the wind appeared.
I kid you not, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was blasting over the PA as I grabbed my lunch.
We’ve got more cowbell.
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