I had never seen so much red flannel in one place before this morning. And that’s including four years of living in southwestern Virginia and all of the merchandise at every Menards and Mills Fleet Farm I’ve been to in my life, combined. There were flannel jackets, scarves, shirts, hats, pants, pajamas, tutus, loincloths… you name it, it was there, it was made of flannel, and it was red. I was at the start of the Red Flannel Run, an annual event sponsored by the YMCA of Des Moines. Dressed in my typical running clothes, nothing flannel about them, I felt a bit out of place, although at least my running jacket was maroon. Well, it’s actually more purple than maroon, but that’s really neither here nor there. It was bitter cold – only four degrees Fahrenheit, with a windchill of twelve below zero, and I was just hoping to survive the five mile race that I had signed up for.
I was surprised to see so many people out this morning, and in such good spirits. It brought a positive vibe to the frosty air, and I barely noticed that I couldn’t feel my toes. I waited inside the YMCA until the last possible moment before we were told to make our way to the bridge for the start. I stood at the start, shivering, watching the minutes tick away on my watch. Nine o’clock- the scheduled start time- came and went, and we hadn’t yet moved. Chop, chop! I thought. The wind blew fiercely as we stood on the bridge over the Des Moines River, and I counted the seconds- with Mississippis in between them- until I felt the crowd push forward and then I knew we were on our way. I started my watch as I crossed the starting mat, wove around a few people to get some space, and began my run.
I hadn’t planned on running this race until just a week ago when I saw it advertised at the YMCA. When I moved to Minnesota from Washington, DC about four and a half years ago, I had given up on running winter races primarily because I can’t stand waiting in frigid conditions for the race to start. With the mild winter we have had in Des Moines, however, I registered for the Red Flannel Run thinking it wouldn’t be so bad and would be a good check-in to see where I am with my training. Those who know me well are aware that I seem to have a history of “bringing” extreme conditions to races (93 degrees at the 2007 Chicago Marathon; 92 degrees at the 2009 Grandma’s Marathon, to name a couple), so I should have known better. Sure enough, as I entered my office building on Wednesday morning, one of the security guards had asked me, “Did you see the windchill is supposed to be about fourteen below this weekend? Are you going to run in that?” Great, I’d thought. I wondered how it could possibly be that the first winter race I had signed up for in over five years would be on what is by far the coldest day Des Moines has seen this winter, but I reminded myself that these are the runs that make us tougher. Assuming we survive them.
During the first two miles of the race, however, I didn’t feel so tough. I felt completely disoriented and woozy, my eyes watering and then freezing, and my legs moving on their own, as though they were detached from the rest of my body. I had brought some music along for motivation, and after a couple of songs, squinted ahead in search of the first mile marker. I am normally quite attuned to my pacing, but today I felt so out of sorts that I had no idea how fast- or slowly- I was running. My “dream day” goal for today’s race was to finish under 36 minutes; my “great day” goal was to finish under 38 minutes, and my “just get the damn thing over with so I can go home and drink some hot tea” goal was to finish under 40 minutes. I never saw that first mile marker and just continued to let my legs carry me as we headed north along the river. I looked down at my watch to see 8:52 and desperately hoped I had passed the first mile mark by now; otherwise I was nowhere near any of my goals. After a few more minutes passed, I realized that there were no mile markers at all in this race; I was on my own for this one.
The race course led us back downtown, where we turned west on Grand Avenue. As we approached 3rd Street, I could see two people ahead holding signs. I knew what was about to happen. In fact, I had predicted this very moment when I learned from that security guard in my office building that it was going to be so cold this morning. I approached the two people with their neon signs, one directing the three-mile runners to turn left, and the other directing the five-mile runners to continue straight. You just had to sign up for the five mile, didn’t you? Yep, I knew I’d hit that point at some time during the race.
As I ran west on Grand Avenue, past the tall buildings, past the library, thinking maybe, at some point, I might actually see a turnaround cone, I could feel my pace begin to slow. Slightly frustrated by the lack of mile markers and not having any clue about my pace, other than that it hurt, I watched two grown men- one wearing what appeared to be a solid red onesie with safety pins holding the fly closed, and the other wearing what was no doubt a homemade flannel loincloth and nothing else (beautifully muscular legs though he had!), pass me. I kept them in sight until I reached the turnaround cone, where a volunteer reassured us that the wind would finally be at our backs. Hallelujah!
I ran the last mile or so back toward the river with thoughts of warmth in my mind. The race information had described the finish line as being at the hotel just over the bridge. I could feel the frost on my eyelashes as I stared ahead, focusing on reaching the bridge. I checked my watch and did some quick math… I might still have a shot at my “great day” goal if I really push.
A few blocks later, I could see the bridge in front of me, and as I crossed 3rd Street was reunited with the three-mile runners. My plan was to pick up the pace for my final kick once I got about halfway across the bridge. Wait a minute… the finish line IS halfway across the bridge, not at the hotel! It crept up on me about an eighth of a mile before I expected it to, and I was running out of real estate to pick up my pace, so I booked it as hard as I could. I crossed the finish mat and stopped my watch. 36:12. I was incredibly happy, knowing this was a personal record for me, by quite a bit; yet… had I known the finish line was on the bridge and not on the other side of it, I would have booked it sooner and perhaps had a shot at my “dream day” goal. Grrr.
Seconds after I crossed the finish mat, I looked up to see a good friend who had come out- in four degree weather- to support me. I was so grateful. One of the loneliest feelings in the world to me is running a race, and especially a personal record, and not having anyone I know at the finish. I was not expecting to see a familiar face, so it made my day to see my friend, even if all I could do was cough and wave to express my gratitude. We walked back to the YMCA, warmed up, and checked my official time: 36:10 – an average pace of 7:14 per mile; 43rd place overall out of 711 runners and 11th in my division, out of 67. I’ll take it… with a cuppa tea, please!
Thank you for reading!