Despite the fact that visibility was sketchy during the China Grove 5K -- no surprise, as the starting gun went off after sundown -- it seemed like runners were finding PRs left and right along the small town's darkened Main Street on Friday night.
Bob Heck was one of them; he set a personal best with a 19:06 to win the men's 40-44 division. Billy Shue, 25, nailed a PR with an 18:24 good for third in his age group. And Scott Helms, a newer runner, was beaming after breaking 26 minutes for the first time (25:15).
Oh, and if you were wondering: I did indeed finally come in under 22 minutes with a 21:39, good for 62nd out of 390 runners who finished the Main Street Challenge in China Grove, which is about 40 minutes from uptown Charlotte.
The gun went off at 9 p.m., a few minutes after sundown, and the throng headed southeast through the downtown area. Within a few more minutes, it was dark. And I think the darkness contributed to many of those fast times. When it's light out, there's visual stimulation all around; something may catch your eye, you may wave to volunteer or police officer, etc. In the dark, it's like running through a tunnel. You lock into a zone, and just go.
There was nothing terribly remarkable about the out-and-back course -- but that also helped speed runners along, I think. Relatively flat (save for a gradual climb as you approached the turnaround) and relatively straight, you just found a speed and cruised.
One cool thing, though: Because it was an out-and-back, this was the first time I'd ever gotten a glimpse at the front of the pack sailing along in its highest gear. It was fascinating watching these guys fly at you out of the darkness and whoosh by at their sub-five-minute-per-mile paces.
And by the way, this was not like running down a major street in Charlotte. It was, as I may have mentioned, DARK. There were barely any streetlights. The road had been entirely closed to traffic, and I saw very few cops or volunteers. So on the way back into town, as everyone was hitting that third-mile mini-wall, I think we were all doing the same thing: dying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When the lit-up finish line finally, mercifully came into view, that was the sign to start your finishing kick -- if you had anything left!
As with most small races I've run, the atmosphere afterward was extremely friendly. Everyone seemed to be smiling (as well as sweating buckets -- yes, it's still hot and humid even at 9:15 p.m.) and generally in a good mood.
Spread was yummy and eclectic, including warm Krispy Kreme doughnuts dipped in chocolate right before your eyes, cookies and cold sodas from Subway, fresh watermelon, and Monster energy drinks and bottled water. The Subway Sprint for kids (41 of them) was handled nicely, race T-shirts were technical fabric and not cotton (always a plus), and despite the heat, there was no wind and (of course) no sun to contend with.
Only two minor complaints:
1. The police cruiser pacing the leader on the return trip, as we neared the turnaround, came at us in the dark on the right-hand side of the road -- forcing us over to the left and slightly into the oncoming front-of-the-pack runners. It worked itself out from where I stood without incident, but to do that during a nighttime race on an out-and-back course seemed slightly dangerous.
2. I thought the layout was mildly confusing. Registration was inside the education building of the St. Mark's Lutheran Church on one side of Main Street, and the food and drink tables were set up in a parking lot across the street. When we arrived, it took a minute to find the registration area, and I didn't realize until after the race that there were porta-potties behind that parking lot. (Wish I'd seen them earlier, because before the race, I waited in a slow-moving line inside the Y for a single toilet.)
But these are minor quibbles. As smaller races go, it was exceptionally well-run by the Rowan County Y and the Salisbury Rowan Runners (led by David Freeze). I definitely plan to run it next year -- and you should, too. Unless, well, you're afraid of the dark.