Shamrock Run Logo. Image: BuffaloIrish.com
Last weekend, I was double-booked: overdue for the 17-mile run I needed to complete as part of my marathon training, I had also registered for the Shamrock Run, the big, crowded, drunken, joyous 8K race that winds its way through South Buffalo every March. Since A: the prospect of my first 17-mile run was scary and B: I knew I had little chance of placing in my age group, I decided to do the two birds/one-stone thing and run a 12-mile warm-up for a 4.97-mile race.
Because it seemed like the practical (relatively speaking) thing to do, I ran to the course from my apartment. While I was still a mile away, I started to spot runners with bibs on their jackets warming up along Ohio Street and a few, in various states of undress, using their trunks as portable locker rooms. As I kept running, I passed a goup of volunteers stocking up on water at tables on the side of the street. It was a chilly but sunny morning, and even though my legs were tired, I was excited. A festive race atmosphere does that to me, no matter what my chances are competitively.
I reached the course at 11:30, and met up with my friends at the port-a-potty line. Heather would be running, and Alex would cart around our water and the extra layers we discarded before the gun (Note: Alex also took a bunch of awesome pictures, but due to technical issues I have unfortunately been unable to include them here).
The race was scheduled to start at noon. We finished at around 12:45. I was exhausted, thirsty, and proud, and I had come to the conclusion that road races should perhaps be limited to fewer than 1,000 contestants per mile.
Sure, the cheerleaders stretching down every last square inch of sidewalk meant that we runners never had time to get discouraged. True, the sea of athletes made stopping or slowing down nearly impossible, because it’s hard to tell yourself I can’t do this when you’re surrounded by thousands of people who are doing it.
But 5,000 runners is just too many for an 8K, and I can give you 4 good reasons why:
All other dogfight pics were unpleasant. Photo: Flickr/RichardMasoner
1. Endless port-a-potty lines: Though I joined the line at 11:30, I didn't get my turn until 11:55.
However, I will say this for the event organizers, or the port-a-potty company, or whoever was responsible: Toilet paper? Fully stocked.
2. 5,000 athletes=way more than 5,000 mammals in attendance: People bring spouses, friends, parents, and kids to act as cheerleaders and pack mules (Okay, Heather and I were just as guilty of this as anyone else).
They also bring dogs. Guess what? A dog that is a model of sweetness and good behavior at a 9:00 AM 5K of 200 runners is not necessarily suited to Obama-inauguration-sized crowds (incidentally, I was at that inauguration and I don't remember any dogs). As Heather and I waited in the bottleneck at the start, a pair of knee-high spaniels behind us growled and whined with anxiety. A few feet ahead, a lab mix strained at his leash, whining and growling even more loudly. The nervous animals were separated by a dozen adults—and a couple kids—who had not signed up to stand in the middle of a potential dogfight.
3. Miscommunication: Because the race is so huge, packet pick-up lasts almost all day, every day, the week before. Heather and I went on Thursday night to pick up our race numbers, and I pinned mine carefully to the front of my vest, assuming it would be used to record my finish.
Two days later, halfway through the race, I said to Heather, “I just don’t know how they’re going to keep track of all the finish times, without having chips.”
“What do you mean?” She said. “Of course they have chips.”
Heather had received an e-mail on Thursday night instructing her to pick her chip up at a tent on race morning. Spam filter? Clerical error? For whatever reason, I never got that e-mail, and having spent most of my pre-race time waiting to pee, I missed the signs pointing to chip pick-up.
Okay, if I’d thought about it, I would have realized that in a race of thousands you need chip timing in order to achieve any semblance of accuracy in the results, but in my defense, I was focused on the running, not logistics.
And while over 5,000 people registered--so many that they ran out of race numbers and we spotted more than one contestant with a handwritten number fastened to his chest by a lone safety pin-- according to official results, 3,541 people finished.
Maybe 1,500 athletes did drop out, but I doubt it.
(Fortunately for me, Score This !!! was able to help me work it out so that I could get credit for officially finishing the race).
A much more fun videogame than running game. Photo: Flickr/Adie Reed
4. The bottleneck: Heather and I joined the crowd of runners at the start on Louisiana Street a few minutes before noon, and since we’d been in the port-a-potty line up until the 11th hour (literally), we were stuck waaaaay in the back. We never heard a horn or a gun (if there was one, we were too far away to notice it), and we didn’t cross the starting line until 4 minutes after the official start.
We spent most of the race working together to spot gaps between joggers, running on the sidewalk, jockeying for position, passing people who were walking but who had started so far ahead of us that we didn’t even reach them until mile 2.
Our game of live-action Ms. Pac Man certainly made the day more interesting, but the 4-minute handicap was a bummer (I mean, there are people out there who can run an entire mile in that amount of time. I'm not one of them, but still). The chip (if you even get one) allows you to know your "real" time, but it's not really your real time—the official finish is determined by gun time.
* * *
Unless you’re fast enough to have a shot at placing, or assertive enough to muscle your way up to the starting line, the Shamrock Run isn’t a race you enter in order to compete or go for a PR.
But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in competition, to obsess over mile splits and kick yourself for missing an age-group medal by 20 seconds. A big race isn’t only a competition, but a celebration. Last weekend, 5,000 people decided to spend their Saturday running (or jogging, or walking, or pushing a stroller) for 5 entire miles, in March, in Buffalo. Several thousand more decided they would like nothing better than to cheer on these people, to ring cowbells and whistle, to high-five strangers, to try (in vain, 99% of the time) to pick out their runners from amongst a sea of green.
Okay, maybe some of the excitement is due to the excuse to start drinking at 11:00 in the morning. But I still think it’s a good sign that as fat and lazy as Americans are purported to be, a community center in South Buffalo can draw thousands of people from Western New York and Canada to park in the mud and stand in line for port-a-potties and join a big chaotic mess of people moving forward as fast as they can.
The Shamrock Run isn’t a big corporate-sponsored event, either. It’s not the HSBC Shamrock Run or the ING Shamrock Run or the Wendy’s-Coca Cola-T-Mobile-Shamrock Run. It’s just the Shamrock Run. You pay your race fee, and you get some snacks and maybe a jacket or a hat, and the profit goes to an organization that raises money for community development.
In two weeks, I’m headed to Hamilton, Ontario, for the “Around the Bay” 30K, which, perhaps because of its claim to fame as North America’s oldest road race, sells out every year. There will be 7,000 people in the 30K alone—fewer per mile than the Shamrock, but still a mighty crowd.
I’m glad I got a bit of practice right here in Buffalo, a city that can pull off a big race along with the best of them.