Big Race, Small Race

My first half marathon was uneventful. Okay, it was kind of eventful. I mean, I did run 13.1 miles… in a row. I guess what I really mean is the event itself was uneventful. It was the 2nd annual half marathon held in Poulsbo, my small Western Washington town, so it wasn’t exactly a party.

The number of runners was small. So small, in fact, we didn’t even need corrals. It was just kind of like… GO! And there weren’t exactly throngs of people lining the streets to cheer us on. The well-wishers were few and far between. My wife (then girlfriend) cheered me on when I shuffled past my apartment, but other than that it was a pretty lonely road.

At the time, I was more than comfortable with the intimate setting, probably because I was less confident in my ability to run the whole race without collapsing or sharting my pants. But as my running got stronger, I wanted to hear the roar of the crowd and run among a much bigger group of people, mostly so I could pass the slower ones and obtain a false sense of superiority.

Big race crowds.
So many people that I even found a few that were slower than me.

My second half marathon was the Portland Rock ‘N’ Roll Half Marathon. Needless to say the tone of this race was a bit different. Okay, it was a lot different. Thousands of runners, bands playing on the course, people lining the streets (including an old woman handing out bacon), and… an expo! Having never been to a running expo before, I was overwhelmed by celebratory nature of the event, to say nothing of the wide variety of brightly-colored visors and hydration receptacles that stood before me.

And the post-race grub… outstanding! I’ve been to weddings that had less satisfying food and beverage selections. No other race has even come close to matching the virtual banquet I partook in that Sunday morning a couple of years ago. After being spoiled like that, I swore I’d never settle for a half-assed half marathon ever again. And why should I? If I’m going to bust my hump training for 12 weeks, the experience needs to be worth it.

However, I don’t carry that same bias into smaller races. If I’m participating in a 5K, a 10K or a beer run, then I’m fine with small. In fact, the smaller the better.

Last weekend I wholeheartedly embraced this philosophy, running in the 2015 Run for Relief Burma in Gig Harbor, WA. The race, which was put on by a Presbyterian church, was designed to raise money and bring awareness to the unfortunate plight of the people of Burma. I’m embarrassed to admit, I was terribly uneducated on what’s happening in Burma and more embarrassed to admit I’m still a little in the dark about it all. The main point I gleaned via the pre-race literature is that it’s not good.

Small Race swag.
Saving the world, one 5K at a time.

The race itself was right up my alley. No big crowds, no waiting in line, just pin on a bib, run 5 kilometers with mostly non-running strangers, eat their half bananas, and go home. Everyone who participated (mostly their congregation from the looks of it) seemed delightfully pleasant and supportive. They didn’t even seem to mind that they had and stranger in their midst, and an atheist stranger at that. Though to be fair I didn’t exactly bring up my godless disposition.

The course was much hillier than I anticipated, so I wasn’t able to achieve the under 24-minute time I had set as a goal. However, the minuscule number of participants and the lack of hardcore runners allowed me to finish 16th overall, and 2nd in the always prestigious “Male 40-49” age group. There’s something very satisfying about seeing your name at the top of a finishers list, even if said list is tiny and mostly made up of people who have never worn compression pants or sucked down an energy gel.

In the end, I suppose races are like snowflakes; each one a unique and beautiful expression of joy and physical aptitude.

That’s overstating it a bit. Or a lot. But you get the idea. Each race is different. Different towns, different distances, different levels of competition, etc. But they’re all enjoyable and useful in their own way.

Sometimes I’m looking for a race that’s subdued and leisurely. Other times I want a race that’s an orgy of sights and sounds; an enormous outdoor party narrated by a bloviating hype man that ends with me soaked in sweat, drinking the sponsor’s insultingly bland lite beer.

However, there is one thing that ties all these races together: each of these public jaunts provides a new addition to my collection of mediocre t-shirts.

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