Who would voluntarily wake up at 6 a.m. to run in 40-degree weather? Well, at least 11,000 people in Baltimore. Saturday, Oct. 15, was the 21st annual Baltimore Running Festival, which included the 5K, the 10K, the Half Marathon, the Marathon and the BaltiMORON-a-Thon, which is a 5K and a half marathon back-to-back. It is truly for the morons who are obsessed with running — although maybe that’s all of us.
As part of the Running Club at Hopkins, I got up extra early at 5 a.m. that Saturday to head for the starting line down at Inner Harbor. The cold and the early alarm was a dreadful combination, but it was the most beautiful sunrise I’ve seen in Baltimore. The skyline above the harbor displayed a hazy purple. Not a lot of people were there yet, creating a silence before the storm.
The half marathon didn't start until 9:45 a.m., but naturally we were there to support the teammates who were running the 5K bright and early at 7:30 a.m. That is really half the fun: running all around downtown Baltimore trying to cheer for teammates with different starting and finishing times.
The two hours we had to spare flew by with warmups and Porta Potty runs. Next thing we knew, we were lining up and listening to the national anthem, except the lyrics weren’t really clicking with all the adrenaline pumping. Somehow, the five of us running the half ended up at the very front, where the pros belong – with our matching jerseys, maybe we blended in looking like a Division-I cross country team.
But all the nervousness and jittery faded away when the gun sounded off. Replacing them was this pure joy and excitement that blanketed all 3000-ish runners and the huge crowd cheering us on. I knew I needed to be a little conservative with my pace or else I would not live through the hills of Baltimore, but running with the first group was just too much fun. I was hardly even aware that I was running when the first mile marker passed — 6 minutes and 51 seconds — way too fast. I needed to slow down.
Settling into a smoother and much more comfortable pace of seven minutes and 15 seconds for every mile, I locked onto autopilot and tried to enjoy the scenery as much as I could. Baltimore has a reputation of showing out for the running festival, and the festivity was certainly there. Patterson Park was the epitome of fun: a street DJ, funny signs, a full-length mirror and huge crowds at every corner. Coupling all that with a slightly downhill course, it was probably the most enjoyable mile.
The crowd died down a little bit after that, the hills grew a little steeper and quads became a little tighter. But we were running north towards Hopkins — that’s home court. The idea of that made the pain diminish a little. Just a little though, those miles hurt a lot. I was still feeling strong, legs were still somewhat fresh, but I knew it was only getting worse.
And worse it became. Miles eight to 10, which were just a steady incline on 33rd street leading from Lake Montebello to Homewood, were absolutely dreadful. It’s a route that we’ve trained on countless times, so I felt slightly embarrassed about my struggles. Maybe knowing exactly how much hill I had to climb made it worse.
Seeing some friends when I passed Homewood gave me a new burst of energy, though. I started to pick up my strides and blasted my way down Maryland Avenue. It felt amazing, as if it was going to be smooth-sailing downhill toward the finish line. Then I was slapped in the face by the hills around Mount Vernon.
If the Boston Marathon has the infamous “Heartbreak Hill,” this must have been Baltimore’s. Just two miles of rolling hills until we got back down to the harbor, and it was the hardest two miles of my life. All I could think was, 'Come on Tommy, you can run two miles in your sleep, and don’t you dare walk.’
I don’t remember the final two miles well, but the final straightaway is still fresh in my mind. Big crowds gather near the finish line; the cheers are loud but they seem so far away. In that final sprint, I felt like I was all alone and nothing around me mattered. The only thing in my mind was one step in front of the other.
After using what was left of my sanity to pause my watch at the finish line, I felt this overwhelming joy and gratitude wash over me. There is something special about achieving a long-time goal and an athletic milestone. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything in the world.
Sitting here writing this article with a few blisters on my feet, a sunburnt face and a small but nagging headache, I can only find happy recollections of the race. Sure, running is hard, but I can think of no better way of seeing this city with all its charm.