It’s been quite a while since I ran a 5k. Not for lack of want; just for lack of calendars intersecting my physical location. I think the last time was the New Hampshire State Police D.A.R.E. Classic Road Race in New Hampshire1. Since then our trip down the eastern seaboard has simply not encountered any big race communities. Every community has races, but we were just not quite in the right spots at the right times2.

Whenever we book more than a few days in a given city, I almost immediately check out the listings on Running In The USA to see what’s going on. When we committed to Louisville we already had plans to run the Derby Festival Marathon and Mini, but when I learned about Throo the Zoo just two weeks later it was hard to resist.

As the name implies, this race doesn’t go around the Zoo. It goes though (or, “Throo,” if you will) it.  Right through Gorilla Country, to be specific. Now, I was a little disappointed when I realized how small Louisville Zoo is – technically, only the last 1.2ish miles are IN the zoo, but they did a great job with the space they had available: a loop around the parking lot, hook through the park across the street, in through a service entrance past the African Lion, in to Gorilla Country, past a few cheering Woolly Monkeys and the supportive but silent Zebras, before a right turn out through the main entrance for a grand finish in the side parking lot where they had all the post-race love set up.

Yesterday was pushing 90 degrees, but a storm brought a cold front in over night. This made for a very chilly time waiting around for the race to start, but awesome running weather.  According to NOAA, it was 52 degrees, which seems about right.

Race organizers made a big deal about the race starting at 8 AM sharp, but there was a slight delay while they finished closing off the road.  Apparently, despite publicizing that they needed to close the roads at 7:45 and people should get there early, people were still pulling in at 8.  Other than that, they were pretty true to their word regarding the race start.  Personally, I think they could have put up a few more maps of the course, or maybe signs pointing to the start line, as many people apparently couldn’t find the start line.  (There was a very clear map right in front of the Zoo, but just the one.)

However, despite the arrows all pointing one direction, we all lined up facing the wrong way.  Organizers took it in stride and announced how proud he was of us all for finding the start line, but that we were all on the wrong side of it.  Shuffle shuffle shuffle and you’ve got yourself a nice chaotic chute all ready to run.

Now, despite getting nearly 1800 participants, this is really a small event.  It’s run by a few Zoo employees, members of the River City Racing staff (the race arm of the local Fleet Feet store), and a few volunteers.  There’s a few sponsors, but I don’t think any huge corporate money is coming in, so they try to keep costs down to maximize the benefit to the Zoo.  But the course is clearly communicated on their web site, along with the fact that there’s no chip timing or prize money (top prize is “the coveted ostrich egg award” – a real (unfertilized) ostrich egg emptied out mounted to a plaque!) and pretty much all the other details that people rage against on Active.com.

Fact is, it was well organized for it’s size and really only had one true flaw: they’ve grown too big to start the race in the direction they started it.  As with any local race, there’s tons of people who line up in the wrong spot.  It’s never possible to position yourself perfectly, but if you’ve never run a 5k before, you probably shouldn’t be shoulder to shoulder with the high school track kids, and if you’re looking to PR a sub-18, you certainly shouldn’t be behind me!  I thought I had wedged myself a reasonable distance back from the track kids, but should have actually been in front of the two old guys3 in the shiny new Boston Marathon jumpsuits that had their butts in a 12 year old’s face and their, well, other end getting kind of inappropriate with the aforementioned track kids.

The guy with the mic4 did try to encourage people to line up a bit more realistically, mostly stressing that he didn’t want any little kids getting trampled, but, of course, nobody budged.  So, human nature aside, the factor that organizers had control over was the course, right?  The first quarter mile or so heads through a tree lined road in the northeast corner of the parking lot (see satellite view on the map) which is less than the width of two car lanes and sports rather steep hills on either side.  That, coupled with the absolute lack of people’s consideration for those who might be faster or slower than them, resulted in a very chaotic first stretch and a whole lot of leaping up 45 degree inclines and hoping a sprained ankle doesn’t occur.  I even had to hop around a woman with a jog stroller!  (In her defense, though, she was pretty darn fast and not too far behind me in the end.)

I’m not sure the Zoo has any areas that can really handle the volume of people that participate in a more fluid manner, but they need to rethink the starting position (or, as some have suggested, cap the number of entries to a lower volume of bodies) for next year.  Maybe the race could actually start in the park across the street from the Zoo?

One we rounded the first bend and people were able to spread and thin out a bit, things were pretty much awesome.  The whole course was very clearly marked – cones and arrows in the parking lot and park, then chains and flag ropes within the Zoo – which was essential given the number of twists and turns.  The portions in the Zoo was fun, passing the Woolly Monkeys, who cheered wildly, and the Zebras, who did not.  We also apparently passed right by the Rhinos5 but I totally didn’t notice that at the time.  Go me.

And just as you’re getting in to the groove of the Zoo, they spit you out the front entrance and loop around to the finish line.  Bam.  It’s done.  My watch read 3 miles even, but with all the twists and turns, I’m willing to believe it was a true 5k.  I was pushing for a PR, but with the wind, my lack of sleep and preparation, and the clusterpunks at the start line, that clearly wasn’t happening.  I did, however, for the first time ever, not get passed by anyone.  That never happens!  I jockeyed passed dozens of people in the first quarter mile, then continued to pick people off, first in huge clusters, then one at a time, getting more excited as the race progressed and I realized the significance.  I was getting faster with each mile, not slower.  Pretty frickin’ cool.  Even the old guys in the Boston getups.  I even managed to pick off one of the high school track kids just as we cleared the Zoo entrance.

Reality check, however; ahead of me were still seven other superstar kids, plus the twelve year old that everyone was concerned about getting trampled.  Twelve years old and he’s running a 19:25 5k.  Damn.

Post-race, things were laid out well; get your door prize ticket, get your fluids, get your bagels, get your fruit bars, get out of the way.  It worked great for the first couple hundred finishers, then it became an amorphous blob of people.  There was plenty to go around, though, and a DJ rambled on and on to try and keep people moving and entertained while we waited for all the finishers.  The idea was to keep people around until the Zoo opened (race bib = free entry!), so we spent half an hour giving out door prizes6 before going through the awards.  I didn’t know how many people were ahead of me and was hoping they were mostly high school kids so I might’ve placed in my age group, but I did not.  So sad.

All in all, a good day and a great event.  I was happy with my finish (19:52, 36th overall, 4th in my age group7) given the circumstances, and would do it again if we’re back in Louisville again at the right time of year.  I’ve also heard there are other Zoos that use races as a fundraiser.  I like the cheering monkeys.

Show 7 footnotes

  1. It’s actually run on the tracks of the NH Motor Speedway – wicked fun, even if you’re not in to NASCAR. I fully endorse it if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of New Hampshire!
  2. There was a cool looking Halloween 5k run by a fire department near where we were in southern NJ, but “near wear we were” turned out to be more than an hour away.
  3. I use the term old lovingly and somewhat sarcastically.  They were probably no more than 60, max.
  4. Minor gripe: you need more speakers and a bigger amp, plus the crowd management skills to say something unimportant like “may I have your attention please?” before saying the important stuff…
  5. You might notice the focal point of this photo is a blue recycling bin. In general, I was very impressed with the race photography at this event – I believe it was a one man shop, but he managed to get photos of what seems like every runner in three different points on the course.  Actually good shots.  That never happens.  It’s just the rhino/recycling shot that baffles me.
  6. Quick tip guys; we’re all wearing a bib with a unique number on it – you don’t need to give out little purple tickets too – just draw bib numbers!  Ideally before we finish.
  7. Though, the third place overall winner was in my age group, which in some events would remove him from age group awards and bump me up a spot.  But not here.