The New Haven 20k, by Joanna Thompson

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Korir_Leonard1-Falmouth18.jpgLeonard Korir, photo by Photorun.net

Hall_SaraH-OttawaM18.jpgSara Hall, photo by Photorun.net

The New Haven 20k is one of the stalwart races of the fall. It is held on Labor Day each year, and the course has not changed in 22 years. Joanna Thompson, who has written several fine pieces for runblogrun, wrote this fine piece on the test for fall marathoners.

On Your Mark.

Like 35 million other Americans, my teammates and I spent the first weekend in September traveling. Unlike most other Americans, however, we were not heading home to enjoy a labor-free Labor Day firing up the grill with family. Our destination was the city of New Haven, Connecticut to compete in the USATF 20k Championships.

As the first pre-planned city in the continental US, New Haven is a mishmash of historic and modern. The Omni Hotel, where elite athletes are housed prior to the race, sits right next to the famed New Haven Green, formerly a burial ground and currently a public wifi hotspot. Along the race course, the gilded stone buildings of Yale University poke through the elms like some kind of modern American Rivendell.

That same blend of tradition and innovation has seeped into the race itself.

The Faxon Law New Haven Road Race has been a New England institution since 1978. Its 20k course, unchanged since its conception, was (fittingly enough) mapped out by the city's traffic and parking director, John Cavallero. A newsletter sent out before the inaugural race provides the following description: "it contains few inclines and many straightaways, expected to help the participants post fast times and enjoy the scenery". It is an apt, if vague, portrait. Since 1996, the 12.4 mile stretch has hosted more USATF Championships than any other single course in the country. Legends have graced its asphalt, including greats such as Greg Meyer, Marla Runyan, and Bill Rodgers, who won the first-ever running. And the legacy mindset extends to the local running scene: twelve stalwart New Englanders have competed in every New Haven Road Race since the very first, and all twelve again toed the line this year.

We were in good company, past and present.

Get Set.

Each year prior to race morning, the elites are treated to a pizza party complete with every topping from margarita to mashed potato. Sounds strange, but trust me - New Haven takes its pizza very seriously, and the thin crust alone is worth the trip.

Another race custom, however, is far more somber.

Elite athlete coordinator John Tolbert has made a special point every year since 2008 to honor the memory of Ryan Shay, the great American distance runner who tragically passed away during the US Olympic marathon trials from a preexisting heart condition.

Shay won the 20k championship in 2004 and left behind an indelible mark. It's become tradition at the elite athlete technical meeting for someone who knew Shay to take the podium and tell a "Ryan story", a way to honor his memory. This year's remarks were delivered by Kevin Hanson, one half of the Brooks Hanson Project's coaching staff.

Hanson recalled watching a high-school-aged Shay race in a particularly humorous incident. Shay, the clear favorite, took off like a bullet from the gun, only to slowly fade like "a gravy-sucking pig". He won anyway. Years later, Hanson watched as he won the US Marathon Championship with the most perfectly executed race he'd ever seen.

Athletes are constantly maturing, searching for new race strategies and workouts, even at the highest level. Though many of us had never raced or even met Ryan, we could all see something of ourselves or, perhaps, one of our teammates in this story. By the end everyone in the meeting was laughing around the lumps in their throats.

Go.

As race morning dawned, sixty-odd of the country's top distance runners milled about the Omni Hotel drinking coffee. We were ready to go. The usual pre-race energy hung thick in the air like humidity before a storm.

Unfortunately, the actual weather was behaving similarly. By the time the 8:30 gun went off, it was a sunny 78 degrees with 91 percent humidity: for all intents and purposes, a sauna.

Race tactics proved just as brutal as the conditions. The women went out in a blistering 5:25 mile, lead by Sarah Crouch. The men opened in a similarly speedy 4:40. From there, it was a grind up and over the first series of gently rolling hills, through dazzling sunlight - broken, mercifully, by frequent patches of shade. Unfortunately, the heat claimed a number of victims: casualties (in the form of DNF) were high, including yours truly.

In the end, Sarah Hall toughed it out to a victory in 1:09:04, followed by Allie Kieffer and Emma Bates, while Leonard Korixclaimed the men's title in 1:00:17. Haron Lagat and Kiya Dandena rounded out the men's top three, respectively.

Post-race, the Green - location of both the start and finish lines - was a haze of finishers and white tents. I exchanged hugs with several of my fellow runners, all of us varying degrees of clammy, and tried to track down some fuel. Apparently, the race used to serve fish chowder at the finish chute. Nowadays you'll find slightly more conventional treats, like frozen yogurt and beer, which were being eagerly scarfed by a multitude of toasty finishers. Given the weather, I doubt whether chowder would have gone down quite so easily.

I sat for a while in the race-aftermath with a weird mix of emotions melding in my gut - part embarrassment for letting the heat get the best of me, part excitement for my friends/fellow competitors, part grim resolve to do better next time. And then I caught sight of the trophies. All of a sudden, things clicked back into perspective: what we do, why we do it, and the incredible community of which we, as runners, are privileged to be a part.

Opposite the date and inscription on the winners' plaques is a picture of 25-year-old Ryan Shay stepping across the finish line, beaming, arms raised forever in victory.

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