When I was a little girl, Thanksgiving would be spent at my Nana’s house on Long Island. She’d line up two or three tables in the living room and feed nearly 20 guests. When we numbered more than 20 people, she’d set up the tables in the basement and the ladies would get a good quad workout marching serving dishes up and down the stairs all day. My Nana took such pride in her Thanksgiving hostessing skills that she would cook doubles of everything—turkey, stuffing, vegetables—so that every guest could take home a heaping plate of leftovers.
As if the fracas of relatives and tryptophan-induced stupor weren’t enough good times, each year my little brother and I spent Thanksgiving weekend with Nana and PopPop. We loved staying with them because they’d take us to the movies and to the beach, and keep us occupied with crafts. If we were lucky we’d get pastina and butter as a midnight snack, and for fun Nana would shoot Redi-Whip from the can straight into our mouths. The crafts were the best. Strict Aunt Tessie would come over and teach us how to make Santa faces using bleach bottles, felt and cotton balls. Or we’d twist pinecones onto wire frames to make wreaths, or stick plastic seagulls onto pieces of driftwood with florist’s moss and beach glass for our own interpretive dioramas of Jones Beach. These things would become the gifts we’d give to family members; we’d even wrap them up Thanksgiving weekend and tote them home in boxes, ready to be put under the tree for aunts and uncles.
But the best part of the whole weekend was when the Hicksville Fire Department would come roaring by in two trucks loaded up with firemen, sirens wailing and lights flashing. We’d rush outside to the sidewalk and jump up and down, waving our arms, waiting for the fireman dressed as Santa to throw us a popcorn ball. That was all they did, driving through the neighborhoods chucking balls of caramel corn, but we loved it—the noise, the fancy trucks, the treats, the flick attention we got from these cool guys. It officially marked the start of Christmas for us, even more than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center.
This year, my Thanksgiving involved none of that. Yes, I spent it with my family, but we were all in Colorado at my brother’s house, Nana’s days of hosting crowds at her dinner table long gone. New traditions (which basically means no traditions apart from turkey, stuffing, etc.) have risen to fill the place of those three-day weekends, and I am grateful to still have my family to gather with. For a few years I made my own tradition of running over the 59th Street Bridge on Thanksgiving morning, but this year let that go since I was in Colorado. I ran the Coal Creek Trail with my brother instead, which was pleasant but vaguely awkward; it sure as hell didn’t feel like a Thanksgiving run. So, today’s Duck Trot 8k was my irreverent nod to tradition (“Duck” instead of “Turkey” because the race is staged by the Long Island Road Runners Club, and Long Island is historically known for its duck farms).
Also, I really wanted to PR. Bad.
The Duck Trot is the race I won two years ago. Based on last year’s finishing times for the women, I didn’t think I could win it this year, but I was hoping for an age group award. In order to PR I needed to average an 8-minute pace or better. I have been feeling really strong in my training, and my running in Colorado confirmed I was fitter than the last time I’d run at altitude, but I still wasn’t sure how the 8k would turn out. The last race I ran, on Roosevelt Island, didn’t give me much confidence that I could sustain that pace or better for nearly 5 miles. I was nervous.
In what turned out to be a great cosmic assist, I could not locate the parking lot for the race and burned 10 minutes before the start driving up and down Park Drive in Eisenhower State Park trying to sight the starting line. Although this keyed me up and had me running a 7-minute-per-mile pace for the first quarter mile, the up side was getting lost(-ish) prevented me from standing around obsessing about the race I would soon be running.
Once I got to the start, I sized up the competition. There were two women who I thought might be faster than I was, one because she had on shorts that were very nearly bumhuggers, and the other because she was extraordinarily skinny. Clearly, my criteria for picking out these women are arbitrary but flawless: these two would turn out to be the only two women who finished ahead of me. I was frantically pinning my bib on and tying up my pigtails when SCL magically appeared on my left with a “Hi TK!” We shared a wish and a promise (Have a great race! See you at the finish!) before the gun sounded.
I hate how my pulse flails wildly out of control in the beginning. Excitement, nervousness, adrenaline, and the lack of a warm-up all conspire to make me think I’m a running heart attack. In the first half mile, I was passed by Bumhugger, Extraskinny, and an older chick with a blonde ponytail wearing tights. I let the first two go since I suspected if I tried to hang with them I would bonk, but I stayed right on the tail of Blonde Ponytail. She was running 7:55, and that was the pace I wanted for the first two miles. Soon after the first mile mark I felt her fading, heard her raspy breath. Poor thing. Passed! After that, a few guys ran by me, but by the time I crossed the finish line I’d passed most of them back. In fact, only 8 men finished ahead of me.
During Mile 1 and 2, despite better advice from JT, I looked constantly at my watch to make sure I was keeping the pace a few seconds under 8 minutes. Those splits clicked at 7:50 and 7:56. At the very beginning of Mile 3, there was a decline leading into an incline. I decided to rev it up on the downhill so I didn’t slow down pace on the uphill. Well, I didn’t actually ever slow down from the rev-up, so Mile 3 was a 7:44. I passed a few folks in that mile, including a man who groaned “Uuh!” with every exhale. Runners NB: if you make weird noises as you run, have an audible tread, or a beeping heart rate monitor, you’re just begging for me to pass you, if only to get away from the irritating sounds!
At the beginning of Mile 3, I caught a glimpse of Extraskinny. It was like I was a shark who whiffed a trace of blood in the water. I had thought she was so far ahead of me that I’d never catch her; I’d resigned to racing myself, and all those nice things us mid-pack runners tell ourselves so we still feel like a winner when we finish a race. But when I saw her I thought, Hhmm let me see just how close I can get. I could tell that she wasn’t working extraordinarily hard; her form was relaxed, she had her iPod in (translation: I probably wouldn’t pass her but I might get close enough to make her nervous). She certainly didn’t seem to expect me to catch her. I decided to very deliberately do another rev-up; nothing drastic that would leave me gasping and leaden in the final mile, but something steady and focused.
Well, thank God for Extraskinny. Bit by bit, I reeled her in, and her ever-decreasing lead kept me working at a consistently hard effort. My last two miles were 7:34 and 7:20. I’m pretty sure Extraskinny put on the jets the last mile (or, .96 of a mile, since this was an 8k), since I had to work harder to maintain the gap. Also, I saw her look over her shoulder a few times, to see where I was. That was kind of cool. If someone had been close enough to play the theme from Jaws for her, I’m sure I could have psyched her out completely. CHOMP! I’m not sure what her original lead on me was, but I couldn’t even see her for a while, so I’m stoked just to have closed the gap as much as I did (she finished 11 seconds ahead of me).
Yeah, I never did get to gnaw on her third-place leg. Instead, I finished third out of all women, 1:32 behind Bumhugger, with an official time/pace of 38:25/7:44. This is 3 seconds slower per mile than the pace I ran at the Roosevelt Island 5k this October. I was 11th overall, which makes me disproportionately happy. Oh, and that’s a PR by like MINUTES. I got a nifty age grouper medal, and chatted with SCL for half an hour after the race, which was a treat. I wasn’t expecting any other New Yorkers to make it out for this suburban gem, and it’s always great to get face time with my Twitter pals.
Afterwards, I headed over to my Nana’s house to spend some time with her and share about my Thanksgiving with her great-grandchildren. She was lively, alert, and grateful for the unseasonably warm weather since it meant a few more days she could comfortably sit out on her stoop. She had her Thanksgiving dinner with her live-in nurse. My Nana is on an oxygen tank and largely housebound; she shuffles from her bedroom to the kitchen table with her walker a few times a day.
I left her a little after 11 AM, and set out walking to the train station (it’s about a 20 minute walk). As I walked, I heard sirens screeching in the background. I walked several more blocks, and saw kids on every front lawn hopping up and down and glancing about in excitement. It dawned on me: the firemen were coming to chuck popcorn balls! I stopped walking. I got my camera ready. I watched the kids; I waved at the firemen; I remembered my childhood with a goofy grin on my face. Then, Santa laughed and hurled a popcorn ball at me. It hit me right in the chest and bounced onto someone’s lawn; I scrambled after it, laughing with a non-age-appropriate glee.
A few minutes later, contentedly chomping on my popcorn ball as if it were an apple, I realized how I must have seemed to the firemen. Two fluffy pigtails, sneakers, athletic jacket and track pants. I was walking to my destination (no shiny SUV for me), with a backpack strapped over both shoulders. Not to mention, I made no attempt to catch the popcorn ball, just watched it arc towards me, mesmerized, until it hit me, bonk! I must have looked like I was out on a day pass from a supervised home for special needs adults. He threw it right to me, and I stood there laughing like a big spaz.
If only those firemen had seen me race. Maybe next year.