By James Fell, Special to the Los Angeles Times
June 13, 2011
I picked a bad race for a personal best attempt.
Only one person out of 796 racers completed the June 4 Calgary Underwear Affair 10K in less than 40 minutes to claim first place, and it wasn't me.
First was taken by Alex Rynn — a member of Canada's national boxing team who is nearly two decades my junior — and he's won the race three times in a row. This year was his slowest time because it was a new course, a brutal, hilly one with lots of narrow twists and turns. In previous years, the course was flat and much straighter.
Can you tell I'm already making excuses for not running it in less than 40 minutes, my stated goal in the last column I wrote?
Though it's not an optimal course for speed, the Underwear Affair is an awesome event. It's a fundraiser for research into prostate, ovarian, colorectal, testicular, bladder, uterine and cervical cancers. "Compared to other high-profile cancers, below-the-waist cancers tend to be underfunded," I was told by Nick Locke, chief development officer for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. With the help of generous donors, I raised $1,145 of the event total: $855,000.
The Underwear Affair is a race, but it's also a party. People have team names such as the Flying Vs, Victorious Secret, Saving 3rd Base, Babes in Briefs, Cervixens and Saving Ryan's Privates, and others that cannot be printed here.
Then there are the costumes. I saw a bathing-suited Borat, Hef and some bunnies, and a few "down there"-themed outfits that were just way too much information. I kept it simple yet on theme, with proper running shorts but with red-hearted silk boxers over them, a gift from a Valentine's Day long past.
I am not an experienced racer. I ran a 10K when I was 14 but broke my leg a few weeks later and didn't take up running again for a quarter-century. I ran the Underwear Affair 10K in 2008 and again in 2009. With this year's race just my fourth time in competition, I was a jittery mess of pre-race anxiety.
I'd spent the previous evening — my 16th anniversary of marriage to a brilliant, beautiful and tolerant woman — carb-loading at an Italian restaurant. (I was following fueling advice provided to me by sports-nutrition author Nancy Clark of Brookline, Mass.) I was supposed to be focusing on marital bliss, but I could barely concentrate on the conversation, and that night I slept fitfully.
In the hour before the race, I must have visited the bathroom five times due to a nervous bladder. Between trips, I obsessed through my last-minute checklist: Timex on stopwatch mode? Check. Pearl Izumi laces double-knotted? Check. No dairy today to inhibit creation of Elmer's-glue-like saliva? Check. Properly fueled to prevent bonking but not so much as to require stopping at a Porta Potty? I sure hope so.
I'd run some laps around the parking lot to warm up and was hopping from foot to foot with other racers at the start line, just wishing they'd stop blaring that stupid "Tonight's gonna be a good night" song and begin the race.
Finally, they did. I hit start on my watch and took the lead. Since this is a 10K, I'm going to describe it in metric. If you get confused, there's an app for that.
0.5K: First place was fun while it lasted, but I just got passed by three guys, one of whom had painted half his body green, which I assume makes him more aerodynamic.
0.7K: Dear City of Calgary: If I break something due to the sorry state of this pathway, I'm going to sue.
1K: Right on pace, but the narrow pedestrian bridge with two 90-degree turns causes me to bounce off the rails like a billiard ball.
1.4 to 1.9K: Four more wretched 90-degree turns, and things are finally starting to straighten out.
2K: My friends Stephan and Kimberleigh are there cheering me on, but I'm busy wondering why my lungs already feel like they've recently been sandpapered. I'm still on pace, though, with my watch reading exactly eight minutes. I see bison and deer — the path runs along the Calgary Zoo — and decide I don't care.
3K: Who knew that 70 degrees Fahrenheit could be so bloody hot? My watch reads 12 minutes; still on pace.
4K: I'm hopeful about a sub-40-minute finish even though my breathing is starting to come in rasps like an asthmatic Darth Vader after a road trip with Tommy Chong. I'm passed at this point by Alex Rynn's younger brother Isaac, a competitive collegiate sprinter I'd chatted with at the start line. "Stay loose, James," he calls, and I realize that my upper body has been tense all along. I wonder how much energy that cost me. I am now in fifth place.
5K: Shameful, I admit defeat. This is the 180-degree turn-around point, and my time is 20:10. I'm only 10 seconds off pace but know deep down that, barring a rocket pack and roller skates, I can't do the second half faster.
5.1 to 6.5K: The race is on a path approximately 10 feet wide, and there are 791 people coming toward me taking up the whole thing. I don't care if a lot of them are young, attractive and scantily clad women; right now, I hate people. During this time I do manage to pass a lanky and much younger guy to reclaim the fourth position. Go me.
6.5 to 8.5K: I can see the third-place guy 100 feet ahead, but even if I were being chased by a wolverine coming off a meth bender, I wouldn't be able to catch him. I'm more than a minute off pace and my legs are about to go on strike.
8.7K: At the start of the hill from hell into a head wind, a race-day miracle happens: Third Place Guy —whose name I later learn is Ryan — stops to walk. I tap into a reserve of "not yet dead" I didn't know existed and pass him, but then he starts chasing me, trying to reclaim the podium. I can see Isaac far ahead in second.
9.1K: I'm still in third, but I've switched from breathing oxygen to inhaling fire ants.
9.3K: Ryan is gaining on me, and I think my heart just served me with divorce papers.
9.5K: I hate this hill. I hate Ryan. I hate running. I hate everything.
9.7K: I think Ryan gave up. I try to focus on not dying for 300 more meters. The only thing keeping my heart from infarction is the cheering of the crowd.
10K: I cross the finish at 41:51 as near to death as I have ever been. This is a personal best, and I claim a consolation prize of third place overall. I'd have rather had a sub-40 time than a podium position, though.
My family and friends are proud, but I cannot help but feel disappointment mixed in with the absolute exhaustion.
I will try again.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada
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