They say Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Runners know that Philly is also a city of running clubs.
We have a running club for every predilection. There are competitive clubs (like my club, Philadelphia Runner Track Club), several beer running-themed clubs, neighborhood clubs, charity-themed clubs, trail running clubs, motivational clubs, get-in-shape clubs, university clubs, alumni clubs, masters clubs, and ... well ... you get the picture.
The Mayor's Cup brings Philadelphia runners from all these clubs together on the infamously challenging Belmont Plateau Cross Country course, in mid-August for a day of food, fun, and friendly rivalry. There are no individual awards – teams compete for the Mayor's Cup, which goes to the fastest team.
You must be registered with a Philly running club to run in the Mayor's Cup, and you can choose from several races: a trail half marathon, a 10-mile road race, a trail 10K, a 5-mile road race, and a cross-country 5K. All courses are slow because they include one or several notoriously challenging elements (unpredictable cross country terrain, trails and/or crazy elevation). Each team member can only run in one race. I opted for the 5-mile road race.
Worst-case scenarios happen
Everyone expects conditions for the Mayor's Cup to be hot. After all, it's in mid-August in Philly, a city framed by two rivers, where it gets famously hot and humid. Typical temperatures at start time are about 75 degrees. But race day this year, Philadelphia was in the middle of an epic heatwave, and it looked like race day would fall at its miserable crescendo.
Sure enough, race morning heat indices were forecasted to be near 110. (Yes, you read right.) My race was scheduled to start at 9:45am, rather late and prime heat time. The race directors wisely decided to push all of the races back one hour because of the dangerous heat, as this TV report affirmed. I was disappointed because after training all summer, I was primed to run a decent time and that simply was not going to happen. But everyone had to adjust their goals and expectations.
My 5-mile race in the extreme heat
I usually do a 2-mile warm up jog before a 5-miler or 10K plus dynamic stretches. But it was so hot that just jogging 100 yards pushed my heart rate up to Zone 1. Some of the younger runners on my team did their full warm up on the course, but I decided to save my energy.
I did a few sets of strides, popped some ice cubes in my mouth, and made my way to the start, where I waited under the blazing sun next to Kinjal, my super-sonic-speedy team mate. This race was measured by gun time and not chip time, so I made sure to stand right on the line. When the gun went off, it was 90 degrees, 75% humidity with a 100 heat index.
The race began with a .5 mile climb up the grassy cross-country course. I went off too fast considering the conditions, and by the time I reached the top of the hill, I knew I seriously had to chill on my pace if I wanted to finish. Period. The hills plus heat would prove to be a formidable opponent.
After the crest, runners happily spilled onto the roads and enjoyed the slight downhill respite before the final, grueling 1.63 mile climb to the finish. Yes. Let that sink in: 1.63 miles of uphill. There were a few water stops along the way (Bless those volunteers, standing in the heat all morning). I typically would not even drink during a 5-miler – I have a hard time drinking while running and I am usually not thirsty. But today was no ordinary day. I poured some water over my head and tried to take in a gulp or two each time.
So many runners who had sprinted off way ahead of me were walking. I have never before walked in a race. But nearing the crest of that killer hill, my heart rate hit heights that almost caused my Garmin to spontaneously combust. I was gasping for breath and overheating; I knew I had to at least walk for a few hundred yards until my heart rate came down to a safe place. I didn't want to be road kill.
What goes up must come down. Mercifully, the final downhill segment was in sight: the grassy cross-country finish. I felt completely exhausted and dehydrated. I thought about walking again – lots of other runners ahead of me were walking toward the finish – but I quickly attributed this thought to delirium and told myself to suck it up. "You can do anything for .5 miles," I said to myself. When that stopped working, I yelled at myself. Then, I sweet-talked myself. I tried to block out the gasping sound of my breath and strained to remember every running mantra I'd ever come across on Pinterest.
I vaguely remember seeing Jamie, my teammate, cheering me on toward the end through my peripheral vision. Somehow, I made it across the line. The finish area looked like a war zone. Some runners were vomiting. Others were lying on the ground, completely spent. The wiser souls listened to their bodies and dropped out before it got to that point. I inhaled a bottle of water.
I finished in 40:10/8:02 pace – 9th woman overall, with the 8 women before me all being in their 20s and 30s. I won my 50-54 age group, and had I been in my 40s, I'd have won that age group, as well. Even though this was a respectable time and finish for the course and conditions, I still can't help but feel a bit disappointed to see 8:xx in my average per-mile pace. But I did the best I could given the conditions. I red-lined almost the entire race. Red-lining on a cooler day would have earned me a PR. Not today. Really, it's oddly comforting to know that some things are out of our control – like Mama Nature's hot flashes. (Incidentally, Kinjal, my speedy teammate, won the race in 32:58/6:36 pace. She is amazing. Such a fierce runner, yet such a sweet person.)
With the combination of dangerous heat and killer course, this was, hands-down, the most difficult race I have ever run. Much, much harder than running the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon. Seriously. A thousand times harder than any competitive 5 or 10K or half-marathon.
In retrospect, I learned 2 important lessons from this race:
1. I have a new baseline for what I consider difficult and for what I am able to mentally push through. I am in good shape, as were most of the runners who raced that day. This was a race that called upon every mental trick in my book to power through.
2. Gratitude. Philly runners are seriously the best. This running community is so welcoming. Runners are so supportive of each other. I am grateful to be part of this community. I am grateful to be able to run, period. I am grateful for my team – such a talented, fun group. And I am most grateful for the support of those in my circle.
The best part of the day (besides crossing the finish line)? My team won the Mayor's Cup!