I crossed another one off the life list.
As I previously wrote about in my origin story, I got my first real taste of running in 2001 while working as a sports intern for the Observer-Dispatch in Utica, N.Y. Going in, I had no idea that running was the thing to do in this part of the world. But I learned quickly — one of my first assignments was to cover a 5K — and soon began to run myself.
The biggest event in Utica — not just running, I mean event, period — is the Boilermaker Road Race. With 14,000 runners annually, it is one of the largest and longest-running 15Ks in the world. It draws elite athletes from around the world and thousands of local runners who go for the hills and stay for the post-race party at F.X. Matt Brewery.
Twelve years later, I can call myself a Boilermaker finisher. All I can say is, the event from top to bottom was as good as advertised.
Expo: That’s right, an expo for a 15K. It’s held every year at Mohawk Valley Community College, with one gym for packet pickup and another gym dedicated to exhibitor booths. Among those booths? Oh, you know, no big deal, just some living running legends chatting with Boilermaker hopefuls and signing autographs and taking photos (and trying to sling some books, too). I got to meet three luminaries of the sport — Kathrine Switzer, Bill Rodgers and Roger Robinson — and they could not have been more gracious. Each one of them signed my race bib. (“I always sign them upside down. You know why? So you can read it,” said Switzer, who still looks incredible at age 66.)
Pre-race: The Boilermaker is the first race I’ve ever run where the start and finish are not in the same area. I hitched a ride to the start line with John Pitarresi, a former O-D co-worker who is the foremost expert on the race (he gets to ride in the truck every year and watch the blazing-fast elites battle it out to the finish). I immediately made my way to the bank of port-o-johns — along with half of the Western Hemisphere. That “quick pit stop” took me at least 30 minutes, so I didn’t get into the corral until five minutes before the gun went off. Which meant I was in the waaaaay back of the general corral.
The good news is, being in the back allowed me to really take in the vastness of the race and its 14,000 participants. The start line is situated halfway up a hill, so if you’re in the back, you have an incredible view of the neon sea of humanity ahead of you. The bad news is, being in the back meant I was going to spend the first four miles bobbing and weaving.
Race: Five minutes into the race, I was already sweating bullets, so I knew the heat was going to be the biggest problem of the day, even more so than the significant hills awaiting me. I was mentally prepared, and I tried to think of it as a fun marathon training run, but let’s be real, I still had a goal time in mind. That said, I did my darndest to take in all the sights and sounds and just enjoy myself. And the people of Utica make that pretty easy to do.
Spectators lined the entire course. Rogue “aid stations” popped up everywhere, with people doling out ice and popsicles and high-fives. There were garage bands and marching bands, there were garden hoses a-plenty, there were goats and snakes and iguanas (courtesy of the Utica Zoo). Though, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in the race signs. Not a ton of snarky hilarity out there, but it simply could be because the people of this city hold the race in such high regard. (For example, the mile markers are permanent fixtures, which I think is about the coolest thing in the world.)
I was warned about the hilliest parts of the race: Valley View Golf Course at mile 3 and Burrstone Road at mile 6. Other than the traffic jam as the road narrowed — and people started walking — through the golf course, Valley View was absolutely lovely. I hardly even noticed the steep hills, which I mostly attribute to the fact that I was concentrating on weaving my way through the crowd. Burrstone Road, though, was as grueling as promised. A mile of uphill with no shade an hour into the race. Woof.
After that beast was conquered, the final 2.3 miles were mostly downhill. My legs actually felt amazing — zero pain in my hips and knees! — but the heat was getting to me. And I’ve never seen so many aid stations! Most of them had water and ice available, so I took both. Water to drink and pour on my head, then ice to shove down my sports bra (front and back) and more ice to put under my hat. (Look into it, folks. It’s the best.)
A slight uphill at 8.5 was an unexpected pain in the you-know-what, but I cruised to the finish line and crossed in 1:25:18. My goal? 1:25. Works for me.
Post-race: The combination of sweat and water from the past 90 minutes made it look like I’d just jumped into a pool with my clothes on. I collected my finisher’s pin (FYI: no race shirts, but you do get a pint glass and a finisher’s pin, and the race is only $35, so who’s complaining?) and made my way to the chute toward the post-race party.
Three words: Root Beer Popsicle. It was heavenly, and I ate it in about 2 minutes flat. Up next was an array of snacks and the massive post-race party in a huge open lot on the backside of the brewery. The Saranac Beer was flowing, and it was delicious. I reunited with former co-workers who also ran the race (new Bad Angels JR and Colleen!) and drank beer in the sun-drenched Utica morning. There are worse places to be in the world, for sure.
(Side note: The whole race, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to the Bix 7, which Adrea and I run every year in Davenport, Iowa. July race, huge community support, hilly course, hot as hades and killer post-race party.)
The people of Utica put on a damn good event, and they have every right to be as proud of the Boilermaker as they are. So if you ever find yourself in Upstate New York on the second Sunday in July, give it a go. Guaranteed to be a good time. — Mags