Sunday, March 4, 2012

Labor Day and Saguaro Cacti

(Originally Published on Runners World Loop 9/12/11)
For the 42nd year, the Labor Day holiday started off in Tucson with the running of the Saguaro National Park 8 Mile Race. The race is held on the paved loop in the stunningly beautiful Saguaro National Park East. The loop is a popular year-round running spot, but on Labor Day morning the National Park Service actually closes the loop for the race.
I arrived at 5:00 a.m. to help with bib pickup (seems like “packet pickup” is becoming a thing of the past – very few races actually give out packets of goodies anymore). Since I worked at the observatory at Mt. Lemmon Sky Center the night before, I only got about 4 hours of sleep so I was feeling a bit groggy…
This year’s race was the largest field ever, with 848 finishers in the 8-miler and another 257 5k runners. NPS limits the number of entrants so it was sold out, which meant no race-day registration. But there was still a lot of work to do to prepare for the event.
The race was especially popular this year because it’s one of three races in the Gabe Zimmerman Triple Crown. Gabe Zimmerman was tragically killed earlier this year when a gunman shot Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords and several of her staff. Gabe’s brother Ross spoke to the crowd before the start, and it was a somber yet encouraging remembrance.
The race began just before sunrise, and the sky was mostly cloudy. The sunrise is an amazing sight, as old Sol peeks over the mountains somewhere around a mile into the race. Somehow the clouds had burned away in the East, so by about 3 miles in, I was feeling rather warm. The first few miles of this race contain some very steep hills, and the large crowd of runners can really create some serious speed jams. Fortunately I started near enough to the front that I didn’t have problems, other than the beating on the quads that comes with trying to run fast down those really steep hills, and the inevitable slowing that comes when you run back up.
The course is most famous for the very long, very steep hill that comes around mile 4. This hill is just plain difficult, and is the place where many races are won and lost. There’s an aid station at mile 4.5, and for the past few years it has been staffed by the Sahuaro High School Cross-Country Team (which is coached by my wife, Pam). They always dress up in costumes and try to encourage us through the pain. This year’s costume theme was “Hippies”, and they really got into the act. This picture was taken by Bruce Matsunaga and posted to the SAR FaceBook page:
The XC team's huge cheer for me when I hobbled past really charged me up! Here’s a picture taken by my friend Kamran, shortly after the aid station and still working my way up the hill (I'm in the white and blue shirt):
Yes, there really are Saguaro cacti the entire way along the course!
Up until that point, I had been feeling really exhausted from my lack of sleep. In fact I had considered dropping out – this isn’t a PR course or standard distance anyway – but then I told myself that it was a good opportunity to practice pushing even when I didn’t want to. Once I reached mile 5, though (which happens to be the high point of the course), I suddenly felt much better and eager to run. There are still hills, but the net is downhill for the rest of the course. I pushed the last 3 miles and passed several people. The last mile was really fun!
Here’s a YouTube video taken by Kevin Carstensen at the race. He captured a bunch of finishers, including me at about 3:27 into the video.
My final time for the loop was 54:53. This got me 35th place overall, and 3rd in my age group. I won a small gift certificate to The Running Shop. The last time I won an age group award at this race was in 1987, when I got a trophy for 4th place, so it was fun to come back 24 years later and win an award again!

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