Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Reflection on Sunburst

We are lucky enough to feature a poetic reflection on yesterday's Sunburst races and festivities, written by none other than the winner of the 10K race!  Congrats, Craig!!  Perhaps his post will serve as motivation for those of us (...myself included) who didn't take part in the races this year.  Also - a BIG congrats to my fellow 365-blogger who ran the half marathon (and finished well below her targeted time).  Way to go, TJ!!

The Sunburst races have a reputation in South Bend for ushering in the intense heat of summer and corralling the ambitions of thousands who wish to test their strength against the heat; runners travel from places as foreign as California to run in one of the handful of races that the Sunburst offers, though most come from states and cities only a short drive from Michiana. This year, the 28th running of the Sunburst, stylishly played its traditional role -- and that's a good thing.

As the sun crested the College Football Hall of Fame and smacked the top of the tallest building in town, the Holiday Inn, music pumped from an impromptu stage set up on a sidewalk at the crossway of Michigan and Washington, a carnival out of place among coffee shops, restaurants, and boutiques. Invisible, the heat crept up on the scene like a curious horse stalking a stableman who toils away in a tack room. Its strength intensified as more runners jogged, ambled and strode to the starting line and huddled in a gigantic school like fish in a river -- they paced anxiously, swayed from one leg to the other, and jumped around, letting time pass ever so slowly until the sharp *ping* of the starting gun signaled the start of the 5K race. It was only 7:15 a.m., but the conditions already resembled those of a late July afternoon. The romantics who signed up for the marathon got a head start to try to best the ineluctable pace of the sun's rise to the center of the sky. At this time, Ryan Greutman, the lead runner and eventual champion, had not yet passed the halfway mark, one hour and twenty-two minutes left to run until he crossed the finish line in Notre Dame Stadium. Any thoughts of him, or the hundreds of other marathoners trudging away somewhere along the course, slipped from the atmosphere as the runners heard, "Ready! Set!" and then fired a blank bullet into the early June air. The 5k had begun.

Typically the race with the most participants, the 5k saw over 4,000 runners toe its course. They rushed by onlookers, family members and those waiting to race the half marathon or the 10k. Ten minutes after all of the 5k runners had cleared from the bustling city center, the half marathoners took off. From Michigan Ave., they strode south until they intersected and turned right onto Western Ave. for a brief stretch before they turned right again onto Lafayette St. and began to weave their way through the course on riverside paths and sleepy neighborhood drives. Undulating hills dot the course -- a few of which rise steep and sharp, shocks to already tired bodies -- to create an overall challenging experience.

Back at the start line, a thinner pool of participants stirred in place before the 10k kicked off with another shot from the starting gun. At the front of the line, I wondered when last year's champion would join me in the 5-minute mile group. With only one minute to pass until the start of the race, I realized that he would not show up, that I was the de facto favorite to win the race, a precarious situation that often riles up anxiety from my core that tenses my muscles, dilates my pupils and weighs on the cadence of my breathing. From the crack of the gun, I ran alone, only twenty seconds separating second place from me for most of the race, until the gap grew in the final two miles of the race. After three miles, the heat bore down on us, whipping and snarling and sapping strength from our muscles. Despite how tired I felt, I smiled as I passed supporters that lined up outside their homes or worked at water stops. Some were especially creative. "No more hills the rest of the way!" one man cheerfully shouted at me as I climbed the steepest hill on the course, and I shot him a chuckle through a smile in return. Passing by casual participants -- those who walked and jogged in intervals or ran to support a cause, like Team In Training -- I heard "great job" and "keep pushing" sung to me. On the Irish green turf of the stadium, exhausted high-fives and sweaty hugs linked finishers like they were playing a big game of Red Rover. We had endured, all of us. And in straining our bodies for miles running under a leaden blanket of heat, we remembered why we had signed up for the race, why we had started running in the first place -- fellowship.

When we look back on the 2011 Sunburst races, many will recall heavy heat and high participation. I will remember the theme song to Rocky blasting from a home stereo, a handshake from a runner in a royal purple shirt and congratulations from fans sitting in the stands of the stadium. Most of all, I will remember running; running with thousands of people, not in front, not behind, all at once.

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