Every year I run the Bolder Boulder 10K. It’s one of the rare times I "race" and run on pavement. There’s something exhilarating about being part of the 40,000+ mob of runners who finish in Folsom Stadium after starting in waves of several hundred and running through beautiful tree-lined streets and a gauntlet of performers. The race is very well organized and, somehow, makes every runner or walker feel like the race is just for them. And after the amateurs trudge into the stadium all morning long, you get to watch some great elite middle distance runners from around the world compete after a dramatic noonday Memorial Day tribute in which fighter jets roar overhead in a flyover, and the American flag drops from the sky on the foot of a sky diver.
For a few months before the race, I run a little harder knowing it's coming. For me, it's a rite of Spring. About eight weeks before the race, I abandon my dirt trail for a paved county road through a sprawling ranch. The cattle and horses watch curiously as I pass by, huffing and puffing and glancing at my watch for mile split-times as I try to discover a sustainable pace. My goal is always to run equal to or less than my age. It's one time when it helps to get older -- it’s much tougher to run your age when you are 35 than it is when you are over 50.
I hesitate to say I compete in the Boulder Bolder. I certainly don't compete against the elite runners, whom you get to watch race out of the stadium, and then follow on a giant JumboTron screen with live commentary by Frank Shorter. They will run a mile almost twice as fast as I will. And I've never bought into the idea that you compete against yourself. That sounds schizophrenic, like there's a real you who is fast and disciplined, and an alter-you (most likely to show up for the race) who is a lazy slacker. I'll run what what I run, harder than normal because that's what you do that day.
Lots of variables will affect my performance: the temperature, biorhythms, how much beer I drink at the pre-race party the day before, and time lost when I slow down to watch the Blues Brothers, an Elvis impersonator and the belly dancers. A few weeks later, a nice report will arrive in the mail with finish time, actual split times, where I finished in my age group, overall, etc. And if you can't wait to know your exact time, the results are posted on the Internet later than night.
For a TOJ, competing is good if you need motivation and a goal, but it can ruin the fun if you take it too seriously. You can train too hard and get sick or be constantly disappointed. I have a friend who is a very fine older runner. He participates with a serious running group with a top coach and follows a tough, systematic training regimen, but he invariably picks a target time that just out of reach for him. Despite impressive times for his age, he feels he needs to train harder or lose more weight (he's already too thin). I've yet to ask him after a race how it went, and him to answer, "I did great." Likewise, it was sad to see Kara Goucher so upset after her recent incredible performance at the Boston Marathon. After leading most of the race, she was caught in the last mile by runner from Kenya and Ethiopia, and lost by only 9 seconds.
Personally, I find it liberating to realize that I won't be competing. The elite runners are remarkably gifted, well-trained, young and vying for prize money. I enjoy watching them. But for me, the best thing about the Bolder Boulder is participating with all the other also rans. Everyone gets to give it a shot, be out there on the course, all 10,000 meters of it, and finish in a stadium full of cheering people. If you are lucky and you peak just right, you will run the best you could on that Memorial Day. Maybe you will beat some abstract time on a clock, but better yet, you will feel joyous to be alive.
It was interesting the way the press reacted to Usain Bolt, the incredible Jamaican sprinter who broke the world record in the 100 meter dash in the Beijing Olympics, because he slowed down slightly when he knew he had the race won. He could have run it even faster, but instead he started waving to the crowd before he even crossed the finish line. The rap against him was that he did not take the Olympic competition seriously enough. When he walked onto the track a couple nights later for the 200 meter dash (which he also won and set another record), he was clowning for the cameras as he walked into the starting area in a line of somber fellow competitors. A TV guy asked him how he could be so loose -- wasn't he nervous? Bolt said of course he was, but he was just trying to have some fun.
When I'm at the starting line of the Bolder Boulder in a couple of weeks, and Springsteen's "Born to Run" is blaring over the giant speakers, and the adrenaline kicks in as the E Wave approaches the starting line, I'll remember what I learned from the cool Jamaican: Run hard, have fun.