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Race Report: Fort Collins Human Race 5K

Most of us aren’t really racers. We sign up for these things called “races,” strap on numbers, and haul ass over the finish line. But in reality we’re mostly competing with our own sense of satisfaction. We’re aiming to beat a time, or even just a course, more than a specific set of people around us. Even those of us taking home awards are generally out there competing with ourselves and hoping that’s good enough to bring home some hardware. I, for example, have got boxes full of awards, but with a few exceptions (either because they came from series events and I eventually started to know who exactly I was competing against, or because it’s one of my rare overall finisher awards where I could see the other runners as we duked it out for first, second, and third place) I had no idea I’d won them until someone posted results on a board somewhere. There wasn’t the thrill of staring down the competition, the heart pounding chase as you trade leads back and forth, or press to catch up or stay ahead. There’s just the satisfaction of crossing a finish line, and eventually seeing my name in a good place among the list of other names.

That’s where the Human Race 5k really excels. It gives you something to compete against. And it’s not some arbitrary time limit that you have to keep checking your watch and calculating paces for. It’s a real physical thing you can see and hear throughout the race. True to their theme of “Man vs Machine” you’re pitted against an old timey, San Francisco style, trolley in a fight to the finish.

You should approach most races with a strategy of some sort. It can just be a matter of plotting out a consistent pace on a fairly flat course, or maybe ensuring you hold something back so you’ve still got the strength to conquer a late set of hills somewhere else. I thought I had this race figured out. The course is an almost dead straight out and back, with one U-turn near the halfway mark, and another 90 degree turn just after you repass the start line to tromp out the extra .1 mile, with a slight incline on the out that reverses itself coming back. But I didn’t know how fast the trolley would go, so I figured if I could get in front of the thing early I’d have a fairly good idea of the pace I was going to need to stay ahead, and if I started to wear down late I’d know exactly how much I could afford to back off before the situation got dire.

Some of you have already guessed at least one of the problems with that strategy. I ended up getting too zealous in my attempt to fly out ahead of the mechanical competition, and fired off the starting line too fast. I pulled ahead of the trolley almost right away, but I could still hear it rattling along just over my shoulder through most of the first mile. And I don’t say that lightly, the trolley is loud. If it’s anywhere near you, the clatter is tremendous, and provides more than sufficient motivation to press ahead even harder. Eventually I managed to put enough distance between us that the noise was wheedled down to just the vibrating of the steel wires it travels along (it sounds something like a very large slinky being spread out and shook by that annoying kid next door your mom made you play with, even though he’s too stupid to know how to play with a damn slinky… Stairs! You put it on top of stairs you idiot!)

But as I swung around the U-turn the second problem became clear. The fucking trolley cheats. The damn thing starts about half a block ahead of the start line, which is annoying but okay because it gives you a target as you fire out of the gate, and it’s uniquely satisfying to actually pass, rather than just being ahead due to a faster first step across the line. But it doesn’t come out as far along the course as you do either. So when I started my return trip I could see it stopped a couple blocks out, and before I could wonder why it suddenly reversed directions and started pulling away. Now all that effort I’d put into building up a decent lead so I could relax a little towards the finish if I had to was completely erased. I’d gone from several blocks ahead to several blocks behind in the space of a single, blindingly frustrating moment. What’s worse, my earlier mistake in throwing all my effort into getting ahead was about to come into play, because with the trolley cheating itself back out in front, I needed to pick up the pace again, and I no longer had the juice for it.

Still I knew that aside from my mad dash to start the race my general pace had been enough since than to keep building on my earlier lead, so if I could just keep that up I should be able to at least catch it again given enough road. Except the damn thing was like a bunny taunting the greyhounds at the dog track. I would close the distance and suddenly it would leap out head again, but before I could get demoralized I’d see the gap start to narrow again, and the process would repeat. We were closing down to about half a mile left in the race and I knew there wasn’t much time left to make a move. The trolley’s tracks didn’t follow the runners through the last turn, so if I was going to beat this thing there wasn’t much course left to do it on. So as I closed in one final time, just as it started to speed up again, I launched forward with everything I had and managed to push out ahead. My abs were burning and my legs tingled, but I held my lead into that last turn and happily plodded across the finish line with just an okay time, but thrilled at slaying the dragon I’d donned my armor for.

Overall Impressions: By and large there’s not much to a 5k that can make it stand out. The courses are too short to have much variety to them, so you see things like themes (color runs anybody?) or big after parties to try and make them memorable. The Human Race has a decent post race thing going (most importantly you get not one, but two free beers to go along with your “pancake breakfast” that really only consists of one small pancake, albeit a freshly made one with blueberries, granola, and a delicious vanilla sauce… along with waste free wooden utensils that are too dull and useless to even make an indent in that pancake, let alone cut it), but its big attraction is the showdown with that trolley. If you can stay in range, it’ll loom over every step of the race like the unnatural opponent it is, clattering along at a roar just behind you, or rearing up above the runners in the distance ahead. I hadn’t realized how much I missed having something to compete against directly, and if you’ve got the speed to make a race of it (my time was 19:19 and I wasn’t very far ahead when when the trolley ran out of track to chug along, so I’m assuming they handicapped it to make up for it’s unfaithful ways since it was announced as having finished in a more doable for the public at large 20:20) I would highly recommend making the trip out to Fort Collins to attempt to outrun this soulless competitor.