Yesterday on October 16, I competed in the Frank Lloyd Wright Races in Oak Park, Illinois. This was a return adventure to an event I won twice back in ’83 and ’84. That was 39 years ago. I ran 32:00 to win that first year on a rainy, cool day in October.
I recall the feeling of ease that day as I raced along at 5:10 pace. The roads were wet with rain and puddles, but I wore my Nike Elites, a set of racing shoes with a decent heel and waffle soles. I took the lead early and ran the angular course rife with young strength and speed.
The victor during those years received a beautiful silver cup large enough to store champagne, and I’ve used my two cups on many occasions. It’s been a few years since I polished the genuine silver on them to make them shine, but now I’m inspired again to do so. Those cups are one of the few awards retained from years of running and earning medals, ribbons, trophies and other such rip-rap from races.
My interest in racing this weekend was more about the experience than earning awards. Plus the race was priced reasonably, just $48 for an entry fee in an age when you seldom get to compete for less than $100. I get that races are expensive to conduct. The costs of insurance and police, tee-shirts and awards adds up quickly. So many races are fundraisers for non-profit causes it can be tough to keep any share of the profits.
This year, I made a $1 contribution on top of the entry fee, which I admit was cheap. I was in a hurry and eager to get the entry through in case they suddenly closed down according to some unannounced timeline. I had that happen several weeks ago while I was attempting to sign up for a triathlon. I went away to get some information needed to sign up and when I came back to refresh the site said ENTRIES FOR 2022 NOW CLOSED.
All you can do is laugh at that point. So I didn’t fool around. I sent my entry in and gratefully received confirmation. Then I looked at the course map again to see if the course followed some of the streets I raced almost forty years ago. Indeed, they did.
I was excited to race because my pre-race time trial on a local track went fairly well. I warmed up two miles and ran a 7:03 without terrible strain. That meant I could probably run 7:30 pace without crashing. Years of experience time-trialing and racing taught me that thirty seconds is a consistent buffer for me to race above a time-trial pace. Imagine the confidence I had back when I planned to run a 15K and raced a 4:22 mile in an All-Comers meet a few days ahead of the race. I made my friend swear that he’d not reveal the type of race fitness I had before running against a bunch of college teammates and some other Luther grads in the 9.3 mile Elvelopet race on a hilly course in Decorah, Iowa that year. Toward the finish it was just me and a talented runner named Mark Glessner together with a mile to go. I knew that he’d run a 10K in the low 30:00 range that year, but I tried to take the sting out of his speed from a ways out. But he caught me with just 100 meters to go as we both finished just over 50:00.
Those experiences fuel my more casual racing these days. The one race I ran this summer was a triathlon that ended on a massively hilly run course in Wauconda, Illinois. I’d run 8:00 pace on the flats and get reduced to a crawl on the hills on a hot day.
Yesterday dawned chilly and sunny. I drove down early and found one of the first two parking spaces on Lake Street, picked up my registration packet, pinned the number on my Zoot racing shirt and settled in for a half-nap in the reclined front seat of my Subaru.
At 7:00 a.m. I got up and ran a few short laps around the soft surface of the artificial turf field in Oak Park. My legs felt alive after the previous day’s easy 30-mile cycling journey with my wife Sue. I was happy to feel my legs responding. I was so relaxed it was fun to spend time chatting with other runners and stopped to pet a few cute puppies too.
The Nike Vaporfly shoes I’d purchased on sale at Dick’s Sporting Goods felt good on my feet. It took a few runs to get used to the squishy feeling of those shoes even though I’ve been training in a set of Nike carbon-fiber plate shoes the last few months. The Vaporfly’s are good for forefoot striking but I’ve also learned to shift from midfoot to heel for a bit to change up and prevent muscle fatigue.
I arrived at the Start line right as the siren sounded to start the race. It took a bit of dodging to get into the 7:00-7:30 pace group but once I was there, and glanced at my watch to see 7:02 on the pace indicator, I eased back a bit and ran through the first mile in 7:33, right where I wanted to be.
Then I concentrated on relaxing at that pace, practicing some of my own advice to carry my arms in the “Spindle Swing” that I’d taught to a running group this past summer. It involves putting an imaginary “spindle” about eight inches in front of your chest and pretending to pull a string back and forth with your hands.
I also thought about the P.A.W.S sessions conducted this summer to teach people running efficiency. That stands for Pushing Along With Speed, or ‘pawing’ your way with the heel and forefoot to cruise over the ground rather than raw, hard heel-striking or running so high on your toes that you stop yourself.
The second mile passed in 7:36, just a touch slower than the first. There were many turns in that section of the race, and I kept to the corners the best I could, but ultimately saw that I’d run 6.26 miles according to Garmin and Strava. You have to run the tangents to be most effective in a race.
The third mile passed in 7:35, and I felt really great. The thought passed through my head that I should test a faster pace. I ran the next mile in 7:28. Still good.
Right at that point, I noticed a guy about my age on my left. I thought I’d left him behind in the first mile but apparently, he’d either been tracking me or just plain caught up. “Hey,” I called over to him. “How old are you?”
“62,” he replied.
“Good,” I responded.
He retorted: “How old are you?”
“65,” I chuckled. Then I said, “We’re safe in our age groups. Now we don’t have to suffer unnecessarily.”
Meaning, he could focus on his race and I could focus on mine. So that’s what we did. He pulled ahead and wound up with about 100 yards on me by the time we finished.
The fifth mile had a couple turns that slowed my pace a bit. I passed that mile in 7:36. The sixth mile had some inclines and I managed a 7:49. But with .2 of a mile to go, the road turned down a slight downhill. I raised the pace in a kick. In all, I ran 47:25 according to the race clock, but my Garmin showed 47:04. I’d also started a bit back from the starting line and noticed that my times and distances were slightly off from the mile markers along the way. My Garmin congratulated me for the fastest 5K (I think it was 23:45 or something like that) and third-fastest 10K.
Now, I didn’t run as fast as I did a few years back at Sycamore (43:50) where my pace per mile was closer to 7:00. But neither do I feel like that’s impossible to reach that again. I had the best racing experience feeling good the entire way even though my gut flirted with some heaviness and side stitch possibilities at the first mile. I willed that away, breathed from the belly and kept it rolling. I said out loud, “This is fun!”
I also thought to myself. “You’re Christopher Cudworth. You’ve been doing this a long time. Yes, you’re sixty-five years old now. That’s a senior athlete for sure. But you’re in the top 100 in this race for sure.” Indeed, I finished in 77th.
I was so happy and satisfied with the day that I didn’t really care about awards. There wasn’t a ceremony anyway. I guess they’ll be available at Fleet Feet Sports in Oak Park. I’ll decide if it’s worth the drive to pick that up or not. My real reward was the feeling of smooth running on a bright fall morning. It’s not always that easy. But there’s really nothing like it when it comes to feeling young again. I felt a definite joy in that.
I called Sue and we talked on Facetime. She was out riding her bike 70 miles in training for two upcoming races. 70.3 Worlds in St. George and the Arizona Ironman in November. She wanted to come watch me race in Oak Park since she’d lived there for many years, but she also needed to get her racing bike over to the Trek store for shipment to Worlds.
That’s the life of competitive athletes at any level. It takes flexibility along with dedication to enjoy success of any kind. Come to think of it, that’s a good approach to everything in life. Be dedicated, but also be flexible because you don’t always know what life is going to throw your way. Then race along with ease and joy the best that you can manage.