by Jon Lindenauer
The inaugural year of the HMMRC Anniversary Race..
Richard Nixon was president.
Steve Prefontaine was a distance running superstar who had yet to compete in his first (and only) Olympics.
The South Tower of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City had just been completed several months prior.
Poring through the archival results calls to mind the famous poem by H.L. Dowless "The Weight of Years." Not unlike many other old and reputable Capital Region races, the history becomes a who’s-who of greater-Albany racing greats: Chuck Terry, Dale Keenan, Pat Glover, Bill Robinson, amongst others. Many trips around the sun later, Nixon's primary legacy (to paraphrase from elsewhere) is for an infamous scandal to include the suffix "-gate" in the name. It has now been nearly fifty years since Steve Prefontaine's death at the age of 24. Twenty-two years of remembrance of the September 11th attacks was recently commemorated. Bill Robinson passed away in 2021 after having been paralyzed for over three decades from being struck by a car while out on a training run.
I have my own history with the University at Albany, which was the major enticement of this race. Apart from having been one of the first places I ever raced when I moved to the greater Capital Region in 2018, it was a place of solace for me during the pandemic. Coming back after an ankle fracture injury, I would walk to the AstroTurf soccer field where I would run as many loops as my mending bone could bear - the softness and flatness of the turf was the only place I felt confident running at that point. When I had built up strength and felt ready, I ventured out from there, completing an untold number of loops through and around the largely desolate campus. I thought about when the pandemic might end. More specifically, I wondered when racing would return to the Capital Region. I wondered if it would be significantly different when it finally did return. I wondered - coming back from the most significant running injury I had sustained to that point - if I would be significantly different, in the sense of not being able to match my pre-injury performances.
I am all but certain there were relatively few people in the world during the pandemic wondering "when will I be able to race half marathons again?" or if they were, it was extremely (and rightfully) low on their list of concerns. And yet as I wove through countless counter-clockwise loops of the UAlbany perimeter path, I could not help but have my thoughts gravitate to that precise query. It did not have to be exactly a half marathon, just a good solid distance I could really sink my teeth into. In my head I was bargaining as I wound in and out through the various paths of the university: I was fine with whatever distance, I was fine with whatever level of competition (or lack thereof, just in terms of people not feeling comfortable yet coming back). Just give me a starting line and let me be able to race how I remember.
Fast-forward to 9/24/23. I had not had a month without at least one race since January. In the week leading up to the race, I asked Shaun Donegan (winner of the Anniversary Run in 2018) if he would be racing this weekend. "No racing for me," he said," [I] don't wanna overdo it." Meanwhile I had intentionally overdone it the previous weekend, having raced the ADK 5k in Lake George on Saturday, followed immediately by the Arsenal City 5k in Watervliet - both sub-15:45, which represented a maximalist effort for me. I have heard it traditionally stated that for every mile raced a person should hold off one day until their next race (for example, after a half marathon a person should wait roughly thirteen days before racing again, and so forth). I do not disagree with this, and yet I had looked at it like a sincere handwritten note that I proceeded to crumple up, throw in a trash bin and go about my day in complete ignorance of its wisdom. I had raced four times in the past three weekends and was planning another race this morning, with another in the pipeline for the following weekend.
The skies were gray and threatening rain as I drove down toward UAlbany. I no longer lived "a skip and a jump" away from the campus as I had during the pandemic; going there was now something I went out of my way to do. There were no big crowds, or vibrant music or vendor booths being set up. If it had not been for the start / finish line being erected and a few local road racing regulars doing their warm-up routines, I might have been tricked into thinking there was no race going on at all. For several HMRRC races - this one included - they do not even assign a timing bib.
"What do you do if you go to a race and there is nobody for you to run with?" I once had someone ask me. Setting aside the fact that I would not know that until the race was actually underway, my response was, "I don't care if the only two other competitors in the race are an elderly man who has not raced since the Reagan Era and a child who does not even know how far a 5k is. The main person pushing me in any race is me." Still, with all the racing I had done there was a temptation to complete the run as something other than a full racing effort. I had discussed this scenario a number of times with Shaun in the past, "Naw man, you're going to tell yourself that but then the race is going to start and you're automatically going to go into race-mode." That was the God's honest truth.
At about half a mile in, I was alone. I had never previously run this specific race, but it was impossible for me to be any more intimately acquainted with a race course. I knew this loop so well that when I saw the distances of the races - 5.9 and 2.95 miles - I immediately knew exactly the route of the course. I had run this loop in every season and every weather condition. I had run it alone and in a group, and clockwise and counter-clockwise, in peak fitness and hobbling along barely able to muster a jog.
0.75 miles - that was the top of the biggest hill and the portion I was most likely to avoid if I was running by myself outside of a race.
1.25 miles - I would sometimes turn here and go past the dorms, and wonder if people who saw me would think I was a UAlbany student out for a run.
1.5 miles - there are two interwoven paths here, one gravel and one pavement. I always loved getting to this spot and taking one path one day and the other on another day depending on what kind of mood I was in.
2 miles - the only other hill of the loop. This was also entering the most traffic-laden portion of the loop. At every intersection, even in a race, I would think about people I had known or heard of in the past who had been hurt or killed being struck by a car while out running - such as the aforementioned Bill Robinson, winner of the 1977 edition of the Anniversary Run.
2.75 miles - there is a straightaway where you would see the bright red digital numbers of the HMRRC finishing clock ticking away if you were competing in a race. Even when I was not running a race, that portion always felt like a homestretch.
On this morning I was racing myself. I raced against all the times I had previously suffered physically, mentally and spiritually through this same loop. Against times when I was hurt or depressed and felt like there was an anchor around me as I clawed my way through my umpteenth go-round. Not only had I defaulted immediately into race-mode as Shaun had predicted when the race began, I also instinctively defaulted to finishing-kick mode when I was something like a third of a mile away from the finish.
"You were way ahead, you could have just slowed down toward the end and felt good when you were finishing," my late grandfather once told me at a race as I lay in an overheated gasping heap at the finish line of a road race in Ellenville, NY. I had not told him then, and it is too late to tell him now, but I could not do that. A race is meant to be raced. Even if it is an obscure distance. Even if you are running most of it by yourself.
When I was finished, I was pleased with how I had run. It was two of my personal best loops of that same route amongst so, so many. I felt like I had honored the decades-long legacy of the race. Just like I had lost count of the number of times I had completed this loop, I had likewise lost count of the number of races I wish my grandfather could have seen, this being one of them.
After just about everyone had cleared out following the race activities, I found myself running more loops on the AstroTurf. "This is where it happened," I thought, "This was where I wondered if I would ever be able to race again how I used to. Maybe my ankle would not heal properly, and I would have a permanent limp or chronic pain every time I tried to go running." There would eventually inevitably come a time when I would not be able to run and race as I have in the past, but I tried to remain thankful that time had not yet come. As H.L. Dowless once wrote:
"Thrive in ye victories and thrills anew, for the weight of years certainly has ye in its indenture.
The weight of time will finally upon ye descend, forever removing thy presence from all surrounding, without mend; so live life with fresh eagerness anew!"
Jon is one of our elite runners, and much to our good fortune, a prolific writer of articles for The Pace Setter. He loves to travel to new sites for races and can happily tell you about the race’s highlights while giving a connoisseur’s guide to its craft beers. If there is a craft brewery within a 100-mile radius of Albany, Jon has probably been there more than once.
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