Tagged: Trinity River

Racing against racing drivers: how I accidentally took on NASCAR’s finest

The realisation the Toro Dash 10k wasn’t going to be an entirely normal morning run came about ten minutes before the start, when I was queueing for the ever-glamorous portable toilets in Fort Worth’s Panther Island Pavillion on the banks of the Trinity River. That’s when I looked up to see someone who looked remarkably like seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson emerge from one of the toilets.

With my mind focused on the race ahead (and steeling myself to cope with the less-than-fragrant whiff of chemicals cleaner and, erm, stuff that people deposit in portable toilets) it took me a moment to notice that said Jimmie Johnson lookalike was wearing an athletic top bearing the logo of the charitable Jimmie Johnson Foundation. And it also took me a moment to remember that, on the same weekend as the Tarrant County College’s Toro Dash 10k was being held in Fort Worth, the NASCAR Cup Series was in action at nearby Texas Motor Speedway.

As an aside, that latter realisation shouldn’t have taken that long. Part of the reason I found myself visiting Texas (yes, again) on that weekend was in part because it was close to my Fort Worth-residing brother’s 40th birthday, and in part because visiting at that time gave me a chance to catch up with family and attend a NASCAR race.

In short, it took me a few moments, and a furtive second glance or two, to realise that this wasn’t a Jimmie Johnson lookalike. It was actual Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and all-round stock car superstar. And he’d just emerged from a portable toilet with a number pinned to his top at the start of a 10k race I was entered in. After a few more moments, I realised what that meant: I was about to race the actual Jimmie Johnson. Oh my.

Things quickly became more surreal. Because, it turned out, Jimmie Johnson wasn’t alone. In fact, he stopped to chat to a few people just ahead of me in the portable toilet queue. Including someone who looked remarkably like 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. Because, as you’ve doubtless worked out by now, it was 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. And, as I’d later find out, he’d brought a good number of his Chip Ganassi Racing crew with him.

Well, this was going to be interesting: this was my two worlds colliding in a wholly unexpected fashion. As this blog will indicate, running is a passion of mine, but my day job involves working in journalism. I currently write for the world’s oldest road car magazine, but I spent 12 years working in motorsport titles – because I’m a huge motorsport fan. And, despite being British and stock car racing being a particularly American branch of the sport, I particularly enjoy a spot of NASCAR. So suddenly discovering that I was about to race a bunch of racing drivers was a little bit surreal. Still, I tried to convince myself that once the race started it wouldn’t make much difference. After all, it was a big field, and very unlikely I’d really see them in the race.

Having done my stuff in the portable toilet, I tried to focus on my warm-up routine, but my brain was still racing. So I found my brother (who was starting a little further back than me…) and told him, mostly because I was hoping the process of telling someone might convince me of the reality of the situation. And then I went to find my customary starting position.

Now, when picking where to line up for a race – especially one I haven’t done before – I tend to look at the previous year’s results, see what the pace is like, and then pick a spot accordingly. Based on the 2016 results and my expected pace, a top ten finish looked on the cards in the Toro Dash, although I would be some way back from the winner. So I figured second row would do it. Except, when I worked my way towards the start, I found the spot I was aiming for occupied by Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and a host of their NASCAR buddies.

They weren’t exactly hiding, either. While they weren’t drawing attention to themselves, they were happy to pose for photos with a handful of people who recognised them. Meanwhile, I was too busy trying to work out what this meant for my pace and finishing predictions. After all, the current generation of NASCAR drivers aren’t at all like the old stereotypes: you have to be properly fit to hustle a heavy stock car around a race circuit, in incredible heat, for several hours at a time. so, for example, I knew that Johnson was a regular competitor – and a pretty competitive one – in triathlons. It seemed entirely possible that, even though they were clearly doing the 10k as a bit of exercise ahead of their weekend of racing, they might just clear off into the distance.

They didn’t. Well, they jumped ahead of me at the start, but not that far. And then I started to catch them up. And pretty soon I was alongside them. And, not long after that, I was past them. Yikes. I’d just overtaken a pack of NASCAR types (who, true to racing form, seemed to revel in running in a tight drafting pack).

I wasn’t clear though, and once I settled into my pace it became apparent that my 10k pace was very similar to that of McMurray and someone I later worked out to be Josh Wise, recently retired driver-turned-coach. We eventually settled into a small group of our own, without any local Texan runners around us. Spoiler alert: this would shortly become a problem.

The Toro Dash 10k course started on one side of the Trinity River, crossed a bridge, then followed the trail alongside the river for a few kilometres before an abrupt hairpin around a cone took it back up the river. It then went past the first crossing bridge, rejoining the route of the 5k race, crossing back over another bridge, with a few more wriggles before returning to Panther Island Pavilion.

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The slight problem was that, as well as having 5k and 10k versions of the Toro Dash, there was also some form of charity walk taking place on the Trinity River trails that day, which had their own signage. So I was a little confused about which signs to follow when I reached the water station and grabbed a drink.

I was then busy attempting to slurp the water from my cup when I nearly tripped over a cone in the middle of the path, with a big ‘turn around’ sign stuck on it. But with no marshals nearby shouting directions, it wasn’t where I’d expected the turn to be. So I instinctively ran on, since I could see some other runners ahead of me.

It didn’t take long to clock the runners ahead were going too slowly to be at my pace in the Toro Dash. And I couldn’t see any other signage. Had… had I missed the turn? I shouted the question to the two runners I could hear behind me.

Unfortunately, those two runners were McMurray and Wise, who both live in North Carolina and didn’t know the course at all. Worse, because I was short of breath and had my English accent, instead of hearing me shout ‘have we missed the turn?’, they thought I was asking how to dispose of my cup.

By the time we all figured our error and turned around, we’d added about 0.25km to the route – about a minute of extra running, at that pace. Hardly ideal. The slight detour also put us behind Johnson and a young local runner, who knew the course. And it meant all of us were frustrated, and I was particularly annoyed given I felt I’d led two other runners astray. They’d been following me, after all.

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As a result, I did the daft thing: rather than accepting the time was lost, I tried to up my pace and make it up. It took me a few minutes to catch back up to McMurray and Wise, at which I tried to offer some apologies.

“Sorry guys,” I yelled, while gasping for breath. “I was trying to ask if that was the turn.”

“We were following you,” responded McMurray. “I thought you were asking where to throw your cup.”

“I’m sorry,” was all I could respond. “You should never follow the British guy.”

At least Murray say the funny side of that.

Still, the frustration of having lost places from missing a turn was still getting at me, so I was determined to haul in both Johnson and the guy running near him.

By the time I did, with McMurray and Wise still close by, we’d reached the first bridge, where the course merged with that of the 5k. And so we found a vast number of slower runners from the 5k (which had started 15 minutes later) in our path. Trying to pick a path through the heavy traffic was genuinely difficult, so I took to following McMurray and Johnson for a while – after all, if you’ve ever seen a NASCAR race, they’re quite good at such things.

I eventually worked back ahead of Johnson but, as the Texan humidity began to build, I could feel myself paying for pushing too much after my extra 0.25k. Sure enough, with about two kilometres to go, my pace began to fall away – dropping from around 4m 04s kilometres to a 4m 27s in the ninth. McMurray and Wise both went past me, and with just under a kilometres to go I could see Johnson and the local kid were catching me too. That helped spur me to push on, and I eventually crossed the line in 42m 34.2s. A solid effort, especially if you knock off the minute or so of extra running I did.

That time was also good enough for 11th place: not the top ten I thought was possible before the start, but still a great result. And while I’d been beaten by one NASCAR racer, I’d still finished ahead of seven-time NASCAR title winner Johnson. Even better, a friend who looked at the results later spotted that the field also included 2003 NASCAR champ Matt Kenseth. So I can now officially say I’ve beaten two NASCAR Cup champions in a race. I just won’t mention that there were no cars or engines involved…

I hadn’t just notched up a top ten finish, either. I’d won my the male 35-39 year old division, picking up a bonus medal for my second class win (the first also came in a Texan 10k).

But, ultimately, the memory of the Toro Dash won’t be a bit of medal, but the surreal chance to race against a bunch of racing drivers I’ve regularly watched do battle on the track. That was brought home looking at the results later. There were 86 runners in the 10k, the vast majority residing in Texas. 14 of the runners lives in North Carolina or Virginia, marking them out as likely NASCAR personnel. There was only one person in the field who lived in Britain.

Which should be a lesson to Jamie McMurray, really. As I told him a second time when I went to further apologise to him after the race for leading him astray, if you’re doing a race in Texas, never follow the British guy…

Anyway, the Toro Dash turned out to be a day of NASCAR racing (with my niece’s ninth birthday tea party thrown in…). But while I enjoyed the evening Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, it couldn’t match the morning for sheer fun.

 

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Taking medals on merit: on the podium in Texas (despite the heat)

Ac occupational hazard of taking part in lots of races is that you’ll inevitably collect a lot of medals. While a handful of races offer the likes of T-shirts, mugs or glasses as prizes for finishers, most still hand out a pleasing lump of metal attached to a ribbon.

The trouble with collecting loads of medals is trying to work out what to do with them. I’ve got a handful on display – both my London and Houston Marathon medals are framed with my race numbers, and a handful of the more distinctive or memorable ones are on show around my desk – but the bulk of them are shoved somewhat unglamorously into a pot.

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The vast majority of my medal collection are finisher’s medals – you get them, fairly obviously, for finishing a race. Now, that’s all very nice, but if I get the medal regardless of whether I set a PB or do my slowest race ever, the sense of accomplishment is separated from the lump of metal. It’s certainly not in keeping with how medals are dished out at top-level sporting events.

Now, of my not inconsiderable pile of bling (as I believe the kids call it), two of my medals were actually earned for performance reasons. And, curiously, I earned both of them in Texas.

The first came on New Year’s Day this year, when as part of my build-up to the Houston Marathon I competed in the Run Houston Race Series 10k event at Sam Houston Park – and promptly won the male 35-39 category.

The second came during my recent trip to Fort Worth. I was visiting in July, when the Texan weather is predictably hot – sorry, darn hot – and, as a result, not that many races take place. But after some web scouring I happened upon the Trinity 5000 Summer Series – a weekly series of 5k races held on 12 Thursday evenings during the summer.

It seemed perfect: the 7.30pm start time meant that, in theory, the intense heat should have subsided a bit, and the course was on the footpaths by the Trinity River – which meant it was pretty much flat. Having experienced Fort Worth’s surprisingly steep hills, this was a very good thing. So I signed up for one.

Now, the course was everything I’d hoped for: Fort Worth’s Trinity River trails system is utterly brilliant, creating a wonderful network of pleasant walking/running/cycling paths through the heart of the city. The section used by the Trinity 5000 events reminded me an awful lot of the paths that run alongside the River Thames near my house – albeit with a brilliant view of Fort Worth’s downtown.

The event was everything I’d hoped for too: it felt very much like a parkrun. Lots of the runners knew each other, and the organisers, and it was all very friendly and relaxed.

The weather, on the other hand, didn’t quite do what I expected. On the day of the race, the temperature in Fort Worth really built up – going some way past 100F (37.7C). And it kept on building, even into the late afternoon and early evening. According to my Garmin, which somehow keeps track of such things, it was 95F (35C) when the race started – although the heat index apparently took it over 100. At 7.30pm! It was ridiculous. Most of the Texans were struck by the evening heat – and if the locals reckon it was hot, imagine how it felt for the random British guy entered.

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The organisers went out of their way to help though. There was water available before the start, and they laid out an extra water station. That meant there were two on the out-and-back course, which meant there were four opportunities to grab water in a 5k race. Now, I wouldn’t normally dream of taking a drink on a 5k race usually. On this occasion, I grabbed water on three occasions – partly to drink, and partly to throw over myself in a desperate bid to limit the heat build-up.

The problem with running in such heat is that there’s just no way to cool down. There was only the merest of breezes and even the air was just plain hot, so even aiming for shade to get out of the sun didn’t really help.

Normally, a 5k wouldn’t really faze me at all – thanks to parkrun, I do one pretty much every weekend, and it’s the minimum distance I’d class as a good training run. But in such heat, working out how best to run 5k was a really tough challenge.

For one thing, I was sweating standing around before the start, let alone when I started running. Then, once I’d started, the challenge was trying to keep up a decent pace without overheating. Because once you got too hot to function, there was basically no way back. That meant I had to apply a much greater discipline than usual, trying to control my pace to ensure I didn’t just collapse into a red-faced, sweat-covered, pasty-faced British heap in the second half of the run.

That said, the usual excitement of taking part in a race, and the desire to find a bit of clear space, meant that my first kilometre was a 3m 57s – not quite on my 5k best pace, but definitely not steady by my standards. I calmed down a bit in the second k, running a more controlled 4m 10s, and pretty much settled into that pace for the rest of the run.

The plan was to stay at that relatively steady pace (compared to my 5k PB of 19m 26s), and then try and pick up the pace in the final kilometre, if I could.

Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.

Really, I couldn’t. As the heat built up, the challenge was just to maintain my pace. I was actually surprised when, looking at my split times later, I realised I hadn’t actually slowed dramatically in the final stages.

My eventual time was 20m 51s. Not slow, but nearly 90s down on my fastest-ever 5k – and yet, it felt like a major achievement in the circumstances. Then came the bonus surprise. I hung around at the finish for a while, mostly because I was too busy sweating to do much else, and was still there when the provisional results were posted. I’d finished 12th, which was a solid effort. And I’d also finished third in the male 35-39 class. I was on the class podium.

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There wasn’t actually a podium to stand on, but there were medals for the top three in each class. Which meant, for the second time, I earned a medal on merit (let’s not mention the class winner doing an incredible job to finish more than three minutes ahead of me…). And, for the second time, it came in Texas. What are the odds?

Well, actually, there’s likely a fairly simple reason – classes. Most British runs I’ve done have a very limited number of classes, and I’m usually grouped into the ‘senior’ category which spans everyone between the ages of 18 and 39. The two Texas races I’ve taken class podiums in divide the classes into five-year age groups, making my route to the podium substantially easier. Yes, I’m a sort-of Texan running pothunter.

But, well, it would be churlish to hang on that technicality too much, because, well, medals! Shiny medals!

Of course, that still doesn’t quite answer the question of where to stash the things…

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