Sprinting by the Dogwoods

David Yon, March 20, rev 23.

As I sat down to write this week, I could not help but wonder how many pieces I have written about Springtime 10K. I believe I ran it for the first time in 1984 and one of the things I noted in my running diary that year was “tough course.” I crossed the finish line in 42:09 after climbing the hill up Gaines Street and then another up Calhoun Street. It was a tough finish. I don’t think I have missed more than one or two Springtime races since then, running as slow as 53:06 and as fast as 35:09.

It is of course fun to write about what a great community event the Springtime races are, especially with the addition of the 5K in 2008. For many years, it was Tallahassee’s only “downtown” race and the fact that it was run the morning of the Springtime parade and festival contributed to its special place in the running scene. But one of the primary things that has always set it apart for me (at least when I am running healthy) is the competitive aspect of the race. I always wanted to run my best at Springtime. The hilly nature of the course meant it was not likely to be my fastest 10K of the year, but it was always a course meant for racing. The rolling hills meant if you pushed the downhills, and ran the uphills steady you could do well and finish ahead of competitors you would never beat on a flat, fast course.

That extra pressure probably kept me from running as well as I could have some years. Other years, it was the motivation to keep me hanging in there until I reached the top of the hill on Alban street, a quarter of a mile to a half mile past where Dick Husband used to hold the four-mile sign for many years. After Alban, the course presented runners with a lot more downhill than uphill or flat, at least until the 6-mile mark. If there was a little gas left in the tank and you knew how to block out that last .2 from your mind, you could make up a lot of ground.
A big goal I had for a number of years at Springtime was to break the 35:00 barrier. Truth of the matter, I only ran faster than that anywhere twice, and it was pretty rare for me to run under 36:00. The time was never anywhere near fast enough to win the race, so it was really just a made-up time goal that I chased. But, it was during a period when I thought I might keep improving for a long time.

1997 is a Springtime year I will probably never forget. I was running well and I had my sights set on breaking that 35:00 minute mark. I had a plan for every step of race; when to run hard, when to recover and when to just see what was left. There is a deceptive difference between stress out and focused. All experienced Springtime runners, know the first mile of the race is critical. Runners drop downhill for more than a half of a mile. Run too fast and you will pay dearly for it, starting about the time you hit the mile mark. But if you really want to run well, you must take advantage of the early downhill and run it well because you will be climbing a lot of hills after that first mile.

I rolled down the first big drop and passed the half mile point well ahead of the 5:38 pace I would need to average to break my goal. At the bottom of Call Street runners take a right on to Franklin Boulevard and run a stretch that is flat. It took less than two blocks once the course became flat for my desired pace to become hard; instead of flying downhill faster than I needed to, I was reaching down trying to find some extra power to keep me from slowing too fast.
But suffering is ok even early as races are supposed to be hard when you are trying to run your best. The mile split came and went quickly, no doubt my fastest first mile split in a 10K ever, and without denting my confidence too much. Still, I started to doubt; can I keep this up? Soon though we were turning left on to Lafayette and heading up the hill. From a very gradual slope, the grade became steeper and tougher. I looked at my watch (mistake) and my pace had dropped a surprising amount. I fought back against the bullying from the hill, pushing hard to arrest the slow-down in my pace. But the hill just got steeper. And then in a moment, shortly after I looked at my watch again (didn’t learn first time) and felt a bolt of desperation, all systems overloaded. My breath became rapid and shallow, my lungs began to fail in their job of transporting oxygen and my heart felt like it was ready to explode. I took 10 or so more strides and then stumble off the course to the side.

I am reasonably certain that is the first time I ever stopped in a race. Maybe I had a short stop for water in a marathon once or twice and I used to plan walk breaks into my 50 milers. I was crushed and I had every intention of walking off the course at that point. After all, I think I had just experienced my first asthma attack. Then, the surprise switch went the other way. I decided to start jogging some again. With no pressure, my breathing was relaxed and with a slow start I found out quickly that everything was working fine. The pace picked up and before long I was running hard again. I finished in 36:18, a long way above the coveted 34:59. I will never know what happened that day. But I strongly suspect I let the stress of wanting to run well at Springtime keep me from running my best. I don’t know whether I had a chance to run under 35 with a smarter race or whether I did what I had to do the first mile and half and just did not have what it took.
It has been awhile since I was able to run with intensity at Springtime and I sure miss. It is a great race for racing. I also used to love viewing the azaleas and the dogwoods at Springtime. On a perfect day, they bloomed together and made the trip through Meyers Park spectacular. It was Tallahassee’s signature day, overwhelming even the city’s giant oaks and Spanish moss. The dogwoods all over town took a terrible hit over a number of years and they just don’t light the course (or city) up like they once did. No one seems to know exactly what has taken them down. Speculation includes fungus (one named Discula destructiva), damage by an abiotic stress, weather extremes and rising temperatures. All the things that make us slower as runners…well you know what I mean.

Regardless of how I run, I will be happy to be there on the first of April. But I have to admit, I will miss the dogwoods in their best glory and I sure wish I was running for a “fast time” again.