by Jordan Castillo
The time is 7:45AM on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. A few other Striders and I are at the starting line for one of the virtual 8k races within the Quarry Road Summer Series. It’s early, but the heat and humidity are strong. The thick aroma of the dense greenery and freshly cut grass floods my nostrils, and I feel as if I can nearly taste the scenery. Despite feeling a subtle daze, my heart begins to quiver with excitement as I look around at the five-or-so other Striders who are jogging in place, preparing their bodies and minds for the race ahead. And though there aren’t any spectators and it’s not a typical race environment, my body still fills with electric anticipation as I prepare to give it my all in my first ever trail race.
I warm up with a few butt-kicker’s, some high-knees, and a few other exercises to get my blood flowing. As the clock nears 8am, I gather with the other Striders (socially-distanced, of course!) at the starting line. To make sure we have plenty of space between each other on the course, we spread out the start times of each runner. This actually makes it a bit more exciting, because each runner has their own personal starting time, so the whole group yells and cheers as each runner takes off onto the course.
Finally, after 13 minutes of waiting for the other Striders to start their race, it’s my turn.
“Alright, Jordan, you ready?” Ron Peck asks, holding his watch. He glances at the countdown. “Ok. Three, two, one… GO!”
I take off like a bullet. I hear a bunch of voices hollering behind me. “Go, Jordan, go! Woo!”
About five seconds into the race, I realize I am definitely running too fast. I’m in the middle of marathon training, so eight kilometers doesn’t sound like much. But I can’t sprint for eight kilometers, and I quickly remember what the other Striders told me about the race. They warned me, “Don’t underestimate the hills. You’ll reach what you think is the top, and then suddenly you find yourself at the bottom of another hill!”
Find your pace. Find your pace, I tell myself. I settle into an eight-minute-per-mile pace as I steadily ascend the first set of hills tucked away in the back of the Quarry Road trails. The rolling hills remind me of a gentle roller coaster, taking me for a ride on trails flanked on either side by dense Maine forest. I pay close attention to my pace, “changing gears” on the uphills and downhills as if I were riding a bike. All the while, I remember to take in the lush beauty of the trails and to just enjoy the thrill of the race.
The hills slowly drain my stamina, but I continue to push forward. It’s only an 8k, it’s only an 8k, I tell myself in an effort to convince my muscles to give it everything they’ve got. As I descend the highest hill in the park, I feel a rush of victory. Just some small up’s and down’s from here on out, I think to myself.
After making it past the toughest hills in the race, I feel more confident about running the last segment with a bit more speed. I kick it into a higher gear, determined to see how quickly my legs can carry me through the last few kilometers.
I make it to the last hill. My body is yearning for a break and wants to just be done with the race, but my mind knows there is still plenty of energy left for the final stretch. As I near the top of the hill, I break into a full sprint and zero in on the finish line. I faintly hear a few of the Striders yelling. “Jordan, come on! You’re almost there! Go, go, go!” I propel forward as I absorb this encouraging energy. Zooming with my hands held high, I cross the finish line and feel a rush of satisfaction and relief.
I glance down at my watch. Thirty-seven minutes. I know I could have run a bit faster, but nonetheless I smile because I know I did well. I turn around and begin cheering as soon as I see the remaining Striders running the final stretch of the race. It turns out our staggered start times led us to finish within just a few minutes of each other, and everyone is soon on the other side of the finish line.
To celebrate the completion of our hot, sweaty 8k, we immediately dig in to the donuts a few of us had brought to the course. As we are munching, there is a communal feeling of victory and satisfaction. Yes, things may feel different from a typical race that would include the crowd energy and more runners, but I feel deep gratitude for the sense of true community that exists even in the small group of Striders around me.
For those of you out there who miss gathering for regular race events, let me join you by saying I feel the same way. On many days, the effects of the pandemic can feel heavy. But experiences like the virtual Quarry Road Summer Races have served as another example of an important lesson I’ve been learning throughout the past six months. With a bit more effort and creativity, we can continue to (safely) experience community and gather with others for fun events. So, I encourage everyone to reach out to their running friends (Striders and potential future Striders alike!) to come up with some fun, safe ways to continue competing. And especially when you are running on those Quarry Road trails, just remember: don’t underestimate the hills—enjoy them.
Jordan Castillo is the Vice President of the Central Maine Striders and works in admissions at Colby College.