by Paul Thompson (pictures by Shamala Kandiah Thompson)
The week leading into this race left me in a no man’s land of what to expect from this race, my traditional season opener. I’d run 16:35 in 2017 during my build-up for the London Marathon. What landed me in no man’s land was last weekend’s antics. It also placed at risk my running with Jason Dunkerley at the upcoming New York City Half.
On Saturday evening I’d participated in my first indoor meet, at the Armory in the north west tip of Manhattan, in which I ran 5 x 200m as part of a 10 person 10K age-graded relay (I didn’t drop the baton as the results show). The following morning I ran 20 miles in the rain with team mate Flavio de Simone. Actually it was 19.83 thanks to Flavio working in metric and having us do 32K: I call this the “Italian Job”. On Monday, it left me with sore hamstrings that gradually recovered through the week. In most walks of life as we age we get wiser. This does not hold true with running.
On the start line, after a 4 mile warm-up through Harlem from Marcus Garvey to the Armory, I was reasonably sure the hamstrings were set to race. Standing in the starting corral things took a turn for the worse. The elite runners bearing AA bib numbers were shepherded to the start line and told they would start ahead of the rest of us. The A runners , including my clubmates and I, started to roar in disapproval and a popular mass protest was on the cards. The AA runners took off and 40 or so seconds later, a random gap, we were off in hot pursuit.
The opening half mile or so steadily climbs. I was fired up and was near the front of the pack. But as the crest of the first hill (see course map) approached I started to rapidly tire. To make matters worse the cold wind, not as bitter as in 2017 when wind chill was -15C but stronger and a headwind on the outward journey of this out and back course.
Over the next half mile or so, passing the mile mark at the summit of the course (in around 5:35 according to my Garmin: I ignored the clocks at the mile markers as they were only showing times for the AA runners) some 20 runners, including masters Guillermo Pineda Morales aka Memo (WSX), Peter Brady (CPTC), and team mates Javier Rodriguez and Matt Chaston, swept past. I was preparing mentally for one to forget.
Fortunately as we rounded the Cloisters, the half way point, I began to rally. We were now running with the elite women who’d also started 40 seconds or so ahead of us. I don’t mind confessing I enjoyed running with these top lassies. They rock. I rarely have the honor: in most races I’m a typically ahead of them from the gun.
The race takes a 400m loop around the Cloisters and then heads back up a 600m incline to the two mile point. This is arguably the toughest part of the course as it takes you back to the summit of the course. My Garmin showed I ran the second mile in 5:23. I edged past Peter as we entered the closing mile leaving me with just two masters runners, Mengistu Tabor Nebsi in 15:52 (WSX) and Memo in 16:15, ahead of me.
One might be orgiven for thinking that was plain sailing from here. The closing mile has one 200m incline but otherwise it descends the whole way. And we had a wind behind. But if you take your eye off the ball and the foot off the throttle droves of runners come past. So I stayed focused and kept charging. Just ass we crested the final hill and with 800m of steady descent left I passed team mate Harriott Kelly. I gasped that she was getting away from her rival for first place.
After a 5:15 third mile, in a straight that feels like it’ll end in Battery Park, I crossed the finish line in 44th place, good for 3rd M40+ and 1st M50, in 16:35. This was one second better than in 2017 and gave me top age grade of 90.36%. Peter followed a few seconds later (in 16:38) and Harriott, first lady, soon after (in 17:23). I was first UA runner though this had more to do with the weakness of our open team and Javier’s poor health than my performance. It was enough to place me top of the UK 5K M50 rankings – for now.
UA’s boasted a truckload of individual top 3 age group placers (not surprising given how we dominated the masters Oscars at the 2018 NYRR Club Night). They were as follows: Saudy Tejada, 3rd F35-39 in 19:32; Javier, 3rd M40 in 16:57; Flavio de Simone, 3rd M45 in a big PR of 17:08; Ellen Basille, 1st F45 in 18:52; Jennifer Amato, 2nd F45 in 20:35; Matt Chaston, 2nd M50 in 16:41; Fiona Bayly, 1st F50 in 19:16; and Dominique Saint-Louis, 2nd F50 in 20:07. UA placed 5th and 7th in the women and mens open teams respectively. But best of all we got 1st F40, F50 and M50 teams and 2nd M40 team.
Washington Heights 5K is affectionately known in local running lore as Coogan’s after the famous bar that plays host to the post race revelry. The bar recently came close to closure. It’s won a stay of execution. If it closed a part of New York would die with it. The race will live on regardless. It’s like no other. The field is deep, the course is hilly, the weather typically cold and windy, and the neighborhood quintessential New York.
More than 5,000 runners completed the course. NYRR’s full story is here. First to cross the finish line for the men was Brendan Martin (NYAC) who finished in 14:50. I reflected on the race and noticed how such is its intensity I rarely have time to take in any of the neighborhood and local historical sites. One day Sham and I will walk around it to before it gentrifies. Before then I will run through New York with Jason.