The third Saturday in June is the celebration of the local cash crop – corn – being harvested in the small town of Holland, TX – population 1,233. It also marks the annual corn festival now in its 37th year.
For me it means race day. Our “A race” 5K of the late spring/early summer. The first road race after we make the switch from marathon training and racing in the fall and winter months to the shorter, faster races held in the heat of our Texas summer. Even though the race attracts only a little more than 250 participants, it is a well organized event that returns many of the same runners year after year. Holland, just north of Georgetown and just south of Temple is about an hour by car from our home in Northwest Austin. A little far to travel for a 5K, but every year the event is more and more fun.
I plan on keeping it on my calendar for many years to come.
As is usually the case before a race that I care about, I had a hard time sleeping on Friday night. I slept soundly until about 4:00 a.m., then dozed on and off for the last hour and a half before it was time to get up, grab a quick bagel for breakfast, slam down a grape gatorade, shower and dress for the race.
It was going to be another hot one on Saturday morning, 82-85 degrees at the start of the race at 8:00 a.m., but more troubling was the humidity which was hovering around 84%. To make matters worse, the wind which had been relatively calm for the last couple of weeks was back on Saturday. It was blowing out of the West 12-15 mph.
I tried to play the race course over in my mind when I walked outside to check on the conditions, wondering if the wind would be in our faces on the way out or on the way back. I thought that it would be blowing into our faces on the first 1.5 miles, then helping us slightly on the way back to the finish line if I had remembered correctly.
No matter. The elements are the same for everybody, you just have to block that stuff out and race hard. That is the only way I know how to do it when it comes to dealing with less than ideal race conditions.
Pre-Race: My friend Neil picked me up at ten minutes after 6:00 to make the ride up to Holland. Dawn and Landry would be making the trip up a bit later to take in the awards ceremony and the parade. With no traffic Neil and I made our way to the race start to pick up our race packets and retreive our bibs.
I opened up my bag and saw my number.
The number seemed fitting as I wanted to really run my race on Saturday after the events of the past week.
I was going to leave it all out there and try to break through the 19:00 minute mark, which would be a :23 second improvement over last year at this event and :42 seconds faster than my time in 2009. It was a time I was capable of on the rural, hilly course. But with the heat, humidity and wind, it certainly wasn’t going to be easy. Not too much is when it comes to racing a fast 5K.
Warm-Up: I got back to the car, pinned my bib to my shorts and fired up my GPS watch. I wanted to run an easy 2-mile warm-up. Something around 16:00 minutes total, just enough to get a good sweat going, but easy enough not to sap my rested legs. I ran out onto the race course and covered the initial .25 miles up to the first turn and the next .75 miles down to the first foot bridge at the bottom of the first climb.
I turned around and ran back to the finish to wrap up my warm-up, looking at the curves in the road and planning out how I was going to tangent the turns. I wanted to run the shortest route possible, making sure my race was as close to 3.1 miles exactly as possible.
I hit the 2.00 mile mark in 15:54. Just :06 seconds fast. I was pretty much dialed in.
Mile 1: I had chatted with my friend Paul from Temple, TX, his son and his friend about their goals and pace for the race. It sounded like they wanted to run about a 6:30 opening mile. I was thinking more along the lines of 5:55. We were all tucked into the starting chute and a couple of minutes ticked by. I felt my legs tightening a bit, so I ran two quick striders in front of the starting line. Just two :15 second bursts – just enough to stay loose.
I tucked back in to the chute and at the horn we were off.
I surged out in front of the pack and got into the line I wanted to take the the first turn to the left. The road has a significant camber to it and falls off quite a bit to the left. I wanted to make sure I was running on the flat part of the street, about 30 feet from the left edge. I would cut hard to the corner and make a tight left turn.
As we approached the turn I was running in third position, no traffic on my inside and I was able to nip right along the edge of the turn. Perfect.
I felt a few runners coming up on my hip as we approached the first 1/2 mile split and realized it was Paul and his son. My watch beeped with an opening 1/2 mile of 2:53. I called the time out to the runners with me and Paul and his son backed off the pace, they had started out a bit too fast which is an all-too common occurance in short distance races. It takes a lot of discipline to lock in on your pace and not waver no matter who is running around you and how fast they are going.
We hit the slight downhill section leading to the bottom of mile 1 and two high school runners moved ahead of me. I passed Paul’s friend and settled in to 6th position. At the beep my second 1/2 mile came in at 3:01. I had run a 5:54 opening mile, just :01 second ahead of my goal for that split. Perfect.
Mile 2: In any 5K this is the “money mile”, it is the mile where your pace starts to slow and you have to increase your effort to hold the same time. The trouble is if you have opened the race too aggressively, you don’t have anywhere to go. The pedal is already to the floor, so you can’t run harder. Your pace then slows down and you fall back from the pack. The key to running a solid second mile for me, is running a solid first mile.
Too fast over mile 1 and I’m cooked too early.
At Holland, this also marks the beginning of a 51 foot climb over the next 1/2 mile to the turnaround point. It is spread out over two hills. Put together they are a little bit higher than a 5 story building. This would be my slowest 1/2 mile split of the race unless I fell apart at the end. That was not the issue. The issue was how slow it would be. I was hoping to run this stretch in 3:10 or 6:20 pace.
I pulled past one of the two high-school boys ahead of me and was running alone with nobody to help cut the wind. Tough break.
At the beep I glanced down at my watch and caught my third 1/2 mile split – 3:13. I was :03 slow.
I navigated the cornstalk turnaround and grabbed a quick splash of water at the aid station. I didn’t want to take more than one sip as my breathing was perfect, so I just wet my lips and pitched the cup. We could now see the runners who had been behind us, as I pulled past the second high school runner I was now in 4th position. No threats from the rear, but unfortunately I was a solid :15-:20 seconds behind the third place runner.
Unless they came back to me I would be running the final 1 1/2 miles alone. Nobody to push me, nobody to chase.
I focused on my form and keeping my legs churning. I needed to make up a little bit of time lost on the uphill split. At the top of mile 2 my watch beeped once again marking my 4th 1/2 mile split at 2:58. 2:58? I was right back on track.
Mile 3: The next mile has a slight uphill tilt to it. Nothing too terrible, but it is long and gradual. I focused on running up on my toes a bit and tried to keep my stride long. Not letting the change in the grade shorten my length. Split number 5 came in at 3:04, Split number 6 at 3:01, I had just run a 6:05 third mile. It was time to kick, we had a real shot at that sub 19:00 time.
The Finish: Thankfully this part of the course tilts in the runners favor to the finish – my final 1/10 of a mile clocked in at :39 seconds.
As I hit the timing mat the clock read 18:51.2
During a week where I lost a good friend and a tremendous running partner in Scott Birk to a tragic accident, I had turned in what was easily my best race since the last time I ran with Scott, the 3M Half-Marathon back in January.
With Scott’s initials on my left shoe and Dom’s initials on my right – I wanted to make sure I left it all out there on the course for those two men on Saturday. Not to be overly dramatic about it, but I placed their names on my race flats with the ultimate measure of respect. They deserve nothing short of my very best. It felt really wonderful to deliver the goods for them.
I grabbed a quick sip of water and caught my breath. I saw Paul Lopez and my friend Erin Ruyle come through the chute finishing up their races then I jogged back up to the top of the final stretch of the course. I told my friend Neil that I would pace him in over the final 1/4 mile and help him close out strong.
My timing was just about perfect as I got in position to run in with Neil with .30 miles left in his race.
Running just ahead of him, challenging him to get on my back, run harder, run through the timing mat – push all the way to the finish.
Neil came to the race with a goal of running a time under 24:00 minutes. As he hit the mat I looked at the clock:
Awards Ceremony: Dawn and Landry made it to the race to join the party as Erin, Paul and his son Jonathan would all receive age group awards for their performances on Saturday.
As for me, I finished in 4th place overall, my highest finish at the Holland Race. We also came away with our third straight Age Group 1st place award. As I was walking up to the stage the Race Director said, “1st place in the 40-44 Male Age group with a time of 18:51 …. wow, that’s a fast time …. is Joe Marruchella …..” Hearing the comments of the Director was quite a compliment, he seemed genuinely surprised that one of us “old guys”, could throw down a time under 19:00 minutes.
The goal was to go for the three-peat. Mission accomplished. We’ll be able to come back next year, our final year racing in the 40-44 age group and see if we can make it 4 straight.
Landry was kind enough to make the trip up to the stage with me to pick up our Cornfest Trophy.
Great race, great day and to be totally honest something I really needed after learning about Scott’s death on Monday. I know that if he had been at the race on Saturday he would have been the very first person to come up to me, offer me a big bear hug and tell me just how wonderful a race I had run.
Of course, he would have beaten me by a few seconds.
Maybe that’s why I was running all alone over the final 1.5 miles on Saturday. Scott Birk was missing.