Running in Memphis: road race series

Running has been a consistent part of my life for the past dozen years or so. Since 2006 I’ve averaged running 3-5 times per week and participated in around a dozen marathons, about twice as many half marathons, numerous triathlons of all distances, and various other running-related events. Next entry I’ll explore how I got into the sport, as I was not naturally or enthusiastically drawn to it. But I have a lot to cover in this entry so that can wait…

When we moved to Memphis it was not a question of whether I was going to continue running, but more of when and where. As I’ve already mentioned, it was disgustingly hot when we moved here this summer. I thought meeting up with some local runners would be a good way to meet new people over a shared activity. But the groups either met in the evenings, which my Seattle-climate-adjusted-self still deemed way too hot to run in, or the crack of dawn, which my lazy-butt-self deemed a time more qualified for sleeping than running (it seems to be a false assumption that runners are perky morning people). So my first several weeks of running in Memphis were mainly a solo affair consisting of several treadmill runs and a few outdoor sweatfests when the weather relented.

One Friday afternoon as I was perusing the web, I came upon a Road Race Series put on by the Memphis Runners Track Club. It consisted of a series of races, beginning with a 5k, then each month progressing gradually in distance (from 5k to 5-mile to 10k to 10-mile to half-marathon). Instead of giving out awards for the individual races, they totaled your time for all five events and then calculated your placement. I was intrigued. I had never participated in a series like this. I had already discovered that Memphis’ largest race, the St. Jude marathon, was to take place Dec. 1st, and I had been planning to run the half-marathon. This race series ended in November and was a natural build-up to that race. 

Run Memphis
Image from memphisrunners.com Great organization and resource for local runners! 

After discovering the series and giving it a few moments of thought, I decided that this was something I definitely wanted to do. I presented the info to Jeff after he arrived home from work that day, confident he would support my decision but unsure whether he would want to participate as well. Our exercise and diet habits had not been the best on our cross-country journey and neither of us were particularly well-trained at that point. But, as good-natured as he is, he not only supported my somewhat impulsive decision but decided to participate himself as well. Unfortunately, in order to qualify for the series we’d have to run the 5k in two days.

July: 5k (3.1 miles) at Audubon Park

I won’t say we were entirely unprepared for the first race, but with less than 48-hours notice, conditions were not ideal. We had been running some on our own but not doing any significant speed-work. We had also recently started a month-long diet called the Whole30 (to course-correct for our trip). The Whole30 essentially eliminates sugars and fast-burning carbs and is supposed to, over time, transition your metabolism to utilizing slow-burning fats (not quite to the extreme of the Keto diet –  so many trendy diets out there to keep track of…). Problem was, the 5k was on Day 6 of the diet. We have a Whole30 book which gives some guidelines for how you might feel on various days of the diet. The headline for Day 5 is “Kill all the things” and Day 6 is labelled “I just want a nap.” 

A quick note, which I hope doesn’t come off as elitist or arrogant… When I run a race I generally want to see how fast I can do it. I’m not a “just out there to finish” person. Especially for the ‘shorter’ distances. I regularly run in excess of a 5k on my own, for free. If I pay money, and show up with other people, I try to push myself and see where I can finish in relation to the rest of the field. I’m not elite, I’m not going to win anything (of value anyway), though sometimes I can place in my age-group. But I enjoy the challenge of racing. That’s just my own personal philosophy: if I finish the race feeling fresh then I didn’t run hard enough. 

I’m not knocking anyone who views these events differently. Some participate to enjoy the multitude of health benefits from running, some for social reasons, or to raise money or awareness for a charitable cause, or some combination of the preceding. And to some, it is a significant personal challenge just to finish the race, regardless of the pace or distance. We all have our reasons. But just to be clear, I view it as a race. Mainly against myself, but if you’re in front of me I will use you as motivation to try to speed up…

With that clarified, you can see why this first race was not going to be a pleasant experience: short notice, lack of high-intensity training, and “I just want a nap” metabolism. What a great recipe for a fun and fast 5k! I’ll try to avoid long-winded race recaps here, since I have a lot to cover and can usually recall things in excruciating detail (which I enjoy revisiting but others may not share my enthusiasm). If that is your cup-of-tea, you can check out my previous blog: http://www.joycetriathletes.wordpress.com, where I wrote about several races including participating in Ironman Canada in 2017. The final one on my Ironman Canada race experience is particularly verbose.

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Jeff getting ready before our first 5k

So what shall I write about this first 5k? The course was in a residential area and circumvented a local park, it was laid out pretty much in the shape of Kansas (if you’re trying to remember your U.S. geography… yes, Kansas is rectangular). We started in the Northeast corner of the state, I mean course, and ran clockwise.

Pacing is always a challenge for me in these shorter distance races (sorry if referring to a 5k as shorter sounds condescending, but since the vast majority of my races have been over 13-miles, this is short by comparison). My mind says, it’s so short, you have to start fast, fast, fast! But then there’s that fine line of, how fast is too fast? What can I maintain? With training this can be more fine-tuned. Without specific training it’s kind of a crapshoot…

At the 7am race start, I took off heading South at my best-guess speed. I was doing okay until shortly before the third right-hand turn when I realized that my starting speed may have been overly optimistic. Running along the North side of the course, the would-be Nebraska border, dragged on forever. It felt like a parachute had deployed behind me. Or, like this one time on the Biggest Loser, after the contestants had lost a significant amount of weight, they made them put on fat-suits to simulate their starting weights and then had them run around a race track. Where’d my invisible fat-suit come from? And we were heading East, directly into the sun, which even in the morning, was strong and radiant this time of the year. Ugh.

I finally made it to the 4th right turn and the race thankfully ended around Kansas City. It wasn’t a catastrophic slow-down but it definitely wasn’t the even splits that I aspire to. Jeff finished shortly thereafter, coming towards the line in his dramatic steamroller style making his last push look about as effortless as Captain Hook juggling five knives while balancing on a high wire… Anywho, we got the first race in the series in the books. Needless-to-say, it wasn’t a personal best for either of us. But since the race series was a cumulation of total time, the shorter distances mattered less.

August: 5-miler at Freeman Park in Bartlett

The series actually had two races every month, but you only had to participate in one to qualify for the awards. If you ran both they would take your best time at that distance (though you could run them all and get the title of Road Warrior). It just so happened that we did the second race each month. So, for us, each event was about 4-weeks apart. Next up was the 5-mile distance at a park just a few minutes from our house. 

I was impressed with how organized the series was and how relatively easy it was to access each race. This 5-miler and the half-marathon ended up being less than a 10-minute drive from where we live. The others were a bit farther away but still a relatively short drive and all had ample, onsite parking. Since we registered for the series, we were given a chip and bib at the first race and trusted to hang onto it for the rest of the races, which was convenient (assuming you don’t lose them, which we didn’t). So each of the subsequent races we basically just showed up, waited in line to use the facilities (obviously), and ran. About as stress-free racing as I’ve ever participated in.

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My personal ‘chip’ that I attached to my shoe each race

Another thing I enjoyed was not having to worry about freezing before the start of the race. The first two races were warm enough, even at 6:30am, that I just showed up in exactly what I was going to race in, and felt fine. This was totally foreign to my experiences in the Northwest. I joke that my body has poor temperature regulation (hilarious joke, I know). I get cold very easily. But I also, especially when running, get warm easily. I seem to have a very narrow range where my body’s like, we’re good here. So racing in the Northwest I always carefully plan my attire before the race so I don’t freeze (since you usually stand outside at least 30-minutes before the actual start), then try to determine the appropriate time and place to shed layers. It was nice to not have to carefully orchestrate this process during the series. Just show up and race!  

Back to the 5-mile race itself. I had never actually raced this distance (most events are either 5k, 10k, half or full). So, I was kind of excited. I also had another month of more specific tempo training and had formulated a specific race plan. I had identified a certain pace that I thought I could average and was determined, unlike the last race, not to set out too fast. This was going to go great!

My plan hit a brief and abrupt barrier when I arrived at the start line and realized that I had forgotten my watch at home. Wait, my plan, especially in the first couple miles, was predicated on knowing my split times and adjusting accordingly. Crap. I was about to abandon that carefully constructed plan and go to plan B, which was basically to wing-it (how I ran the previous race – and not always the worst plan) when it occurred to me, wait, what does basically every other runner around me have on? 

So the race started and I set off at my best-guess tempo and at the first mile mark called out, “Hey, does anyone have the time? I forgot my watch.” Some gal near me immediately called it out and just like that, I was able to resume Plan A. The funny thing was that the gal who responded to this first inquiry ended up running about the same pace as me and every subsequent mile marker, without further prompting, she simply proclaimed the time. 

Oh yeah, this was also the race where I came very close to biffing it. Somewhere in the first mile another runner accidentally kicked my trail leg to the side as it was swinging forward and I distinctly remember the front of my right shin abruptly smacking into my left calf. I’m honestly not sure how I didn’t fall on my face, as my legs were clearly crossed and my momentum was carrying me forward at a decent rate. But somehow I pulled off a lurching, spastic recovery and remained upright. 

Okay a brief aside (I can’t help myself)… I’ve found over my athletic history that my unconscious reactions tend to be quite adept, as evidenced by my ability to remain upright. My conscious reactions on the other hand often fail me. One such example, an incident from college will help you see what I mean. Ultimate frisbee was popular on campus and somehow I got involved with a student group that decided to substitute the frisbee for a large rubber chicken. The chicken actually threw somewhat like a football and for the ‘kickoffs’ you could hurl it like a foxtail. I was on the receiving end of one such hurl and saw the chicken soaring high in the air towards me. I called out “got it” and just as it arrived my hands completely whiffed through the air and the rubber chicken hit me square in the face.  Now, had someone chucked the chicken at me from a few feet away I almost certainly would have deflected, or maybe even caught, it but with all that time to think about and mentally prepare…

Anyway, I won’t bore you with details of the race (chicken-to-the-face stories are more fun). It was not laid out in the shape of one of our nation’s fine states but meandered around some residential streets and ended in a neighborhood park. I ended up averaging the same pace for the 5-miler as I did for the 5k, which I was pleased with given that it was a couple miles longer. I began to think, maybe I could average the same pace for the next race in a few weeks, it’s only a little over a mile longer than the one I had just run… 

September: 10k (6.2-miles) at Shelby Farms Park

Spoiler alert: I did not average the same pace for the third race. It actually wasn’t too far off, about 7-seconds per mile slower, but given my training I thought I could have gone a bit faster. It just wasn’t one of my better racing days.

Anyway, the 10k was at the well-renowned Shelby Farms Park (not to be confused with Shelby Forest Park, which, to me, is actually quite confusing). Shelby Farms is one of the largest urban parks in the US. It covers more than five-times the area of Central Park in New York. I’d visited different parts of the park a few times since moving to Memphis but was excited to run the race here.

Shelby Farms
Satellite view of Shelby Farms Park

The morning of the race was drizzling and in the 60’s. Perfect running weather for Jeff and I! Well, turns out many of the locals did not agree with our assessment of the weather. Instead, I heard multiple grumblings about the poor conditions. Seriously, Memphisoneans are cold-weather wimps (granted, they would be correct in calling me a comparative heat-and-humidity wimp). The race through the park was scenic. It was nice to run on pathways closed to traffic and it meandered past a couple lakes and through grassy and forested areas. 

The races in this series generally weren’t supported by many fans. They were all pretty low-key and started at 7am on a Sunday while most people were probably still in bed or just waking up for coffee. So unless you drove your friend or family member to the race or volunteered, chances are you weren’t out there cheering people on. 

There was an exception though, a guy that I think was at every single race. Honestly, I’m not even sure if it was the same guy each time or different people rotating holding the sign. But the sign was memorable. There was always someone holding a big ole sign on the side of the course with about a mile to go that had a large red bullseye and said something like “hit here for turbo boost.” And guess what I did every time I passed it? Jeff said he warned the guy to brace a couple times as he ran by and smacked it. Hey, towards the end of a race you’ll try anything to get a burst of energy, right? Turns out, I never felt said turbo boost from hitting the sign, but it was a fun little mental reprieve before the home stretch of each race. 

October: 10-miler at Shelby Forest State Park 

Now this was the race I was most looking forward to in the series. It had a reputation for being super hilly and was nicknamed the Beast. The website also said it was everyone’s favorite. Hills, state park, everyone’s favorite… how could this not be fantastic?

Okay, it sounded like I was setting myself up for a contradiction there, but it really was the best race of the series. The worst part of the affair was the winding rural drive in the dark to get there at the break of dawn, in which it didn’t occur to me until about 30-minutes in to turn on my brights so I could actually see where I was going. I never use my brights in Seattle…

I was excited to get out of residential areas and run through the woods. I was a bit disappointed when I found out that we would be running along paved paths instead of actual dirt or gravel trails but oh well, you can’t have it all. I was also eager to see what is considered a really big hill in these parts. To-date in Western Tennessee I had hardly discovered anything worth noting as a hill, much less a big one. Perhaps all the hills were hiding out in this park… but I was a bit skeptical.

Oddly enough, as a runner, I actually like hills. When I started out as a runner I would lie to myself when I was struggling up a hill and mentally repeat, I love hills, I love hills. So, maybe I just lied to myself enough that it came true? Or maybe it was the years of training at Lord Hills back home in Snohomish county, which is loaded with hills, a couple so steep I could literally walk up them faster than maintaining a jog (that actually happened once, I was jogging up a hill and heard something behind me, turned around, and an older hiker waved hello as he was steadily gaining on me… not one of my proudest running moments). I know you lose time going up hills, and I’m not even a fantastic downhill runner, so there’s no way I make up the difference but I still prefer a scenic, hilly route over a pancake flat course any day…

Anyway, I will concede that there were in fact some hills on this course and not just blink-and-you-miss-them types. But they weren’t particularly long or Lord Hills level steep (with the exception of the last one). The size of the hills reminded me a bit of the Mercer Island half-marathon where there were several significant rollers. 

I had been forewarned (multiple times by multiple runners) about a very steep hill towards the end of the race and planned accordingly. Actually, I think I conserved too much energy for it, as yes, it was steep but it was over before I knew it and I practically sprinted the home stretch to the finish line.

I don’t know if it was because the weather was a bit cooler, or I was more in my element in the forrest, but this was the first race of the series where, although pleased with my time, I thought in retrospect that I could have run it a bit faster. And given that I ended up a mere 14-seconds away from placing in the Top 3 in my age-group for the race series, I probably should have. But I didn’t know that then. At the time we were considering running the earlier half-marathon, which was in two weeks, and I wanted to give my full effort to that event, so I may have been subconsciously holding back on the 10-miler… 

Shelby forrest
See, how could you not love running here? Image taken from https://tnstateparks.com/parks/meeman-shelby

November: Half-marathon down Singleton Parkway

Way back at the beginning of this entry (can you remember back that far?) I mentioned that my initial running goal when moving here was to train for the St. Jude half-marathon on Dec. 1st. Then I found this race series and couldn’t help but participate. But here’s the kicker, despite the fact that I had long planned to run the St. Jude half, I didn’t actually go to register for the race until October. Well by then, the half-marathon was sold out… bummer. I hadn’t seen that one coming. So, for reasons I’ll explain further next entry, we signed up for the full St. Jude marathon instead. 

With this change in race plans I decided to change this half-marathon, the last race in the series, to my A-race (running terminology for the race you want to try to peak at, or run the fastest) but also get in some last minute, higher-mile training for the marathon a couple weeks later. It took a little bit away from my taper for the half-marathon, but mostly my questionable decision to upgrade to the full St. Jude marathon would just mean that I would be going in vastly undertrained, and potentially still a little bit sore, for that race. Oh well, we’d just have to cross that bridge when we got there… 

But for now, I’ll focus on the half-marathon. Which went fairly well. The course itself was pretty much the exact opposite of the 10-miler. It was an out-and-back on a long straight, fairly flat highway. It was actually the highway that leads to the Navy Base where Jeff works, so I had driven it many times (we only had one car for awhile when we moved here so I’d often drive him to and from work). 

As in the 5-miler, I went in with a game-plan, and executed fairly well. Although it is always a bit concerning, especially for the longer races, when you set out at a pace that feels slightly uncomfortable and then know you have x-miles left to attempt to maintain it. I often think to myself that running well is really just an exercise in not panicking (sometime I feel like this is an apt description of life too). So that’s generally how I try to run if I’m going for time: start out fairly aggressively and try to maintain even splits. Jeff, on the other hand, often prefers to start slow and then increasingly ratchet up his pace and use number of passes as a motivator. Of course I modify my pace and strategy on any given day depending on weather conditions and how I’m feeling. 

The first half of the race I was trying to save mental energy and used a few consistent runners ahead of me to maintain my pace. Despite the monotony of the long straight highway, I tried to enjoy the views of the pleasant fields we were passing. It was a sunny, crisp morning, perfect running conditions (though my fickle hands did get pretty cold). 

The road was open to traffic so we were running on the shoulder, which had a subtle, but annoying, slant. I appeased my annoyance by thinking, since the race returned in the opposite direction, that at least the road would be slanted the other way on the return trip. Unfortunately, immediately after the turnaround I realized that, since we were now running along the opposite side of the road (against traffic again), the slant was still in the same direction. Apparently I did a really good job of saving mental energy on the way out…

I passed the 10-mile marker slightly faster than I had finished the race a few weeks ago. Granted, that was a hillier course, but I still had a bit over 3-miles left in this race. Around this point I found myself running beside a gentleman who looked way perkier than I was feeling. We struck up a conversation, which, for the longer distance races, can be a nice distraction from the discomfort and monotony. He eventually outpaced me, but I caught a few people slowing down, and hung on for a decent finish. 

This race ended up in my Top-5 half-marathon times, and given that I’ve run a couple dozen, I was pleased with that result. Granted, in hindsight, I would have been more pleased if I had run it 14-seconds faster… 

Let me expound a bit more on that, and why I may sound little bitter. My pre-series goal was to try to get in the Top 3 in my age group and I was so so close. Over 37-miles of racing and missing out by a mere fraction of a minute?! It was also somewhat annoying, because I would have achieved this goal in every single other female age-group category (ages 20-24, 25-29, 35-39 etc), as well as placing second in the same category in last year’s field (not that I would have looked all this up). 

Oh well, them’s the breaks sometimes. My group just happened to have more competitive runners show up this year but really, it was on me to run faster, not on the rest of the field to be slower. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so arbitrarily competitive (it’s not like you actually get anything for age group awards… or at least I don’t think you do… wait, if they do give legit awards maybe don’t tell me, that would just bum me out even more). 

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Taken after the half-marathon. I had to wear my “Run Seattle” shirt to represent for the last race of the series 🙂

In Closing

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the race series. If I were to stay in Memphis I would definitely participate in it again, and would encourage others to do so. For me, it was a unique running experience to combine different distances as well as race so frequently. Prior to this series I generally only participated in 3-4 races a year. But now, with St. Jude, it will have been 6 races in 6 months at 6 different distances (I guess that’s not the best numerical repetition).

Next entry will explore that experience, a bit more on how I got into the sport, as well as talk about some of the camaraderie within the running community. This one focused more on some of the technical aspects, which, I love to discuss, but may not be as interesting for the running averse out there. Well, thanks for reading this far (unless you just scrolled down to the end to see how ridiculously long this entry is and then decided to just read the last paragraph). Stay tuned for my experience at the St. Jude marathon…

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