The Great Cow Harbor 10K is my favorite race that I completely ignored for 18 years.
I first ran the race in 1999 at the tender age of 25. I was a casual but dedicated runner, having run a handful of 5Ks, a copy of Runner’s World in my mailbox each month (yes, the print edition), and boasting a solidly middle-of-the-pack racing career. My 5K times were in the 8:45-9:45 pace range from what I recall, and I had never run a 10K before. Hell I don’t even know if I had run 6 miles. Maybe I had. If I had, it was my “long run.”
Cow Harbor is the nickname of my hometown of Northport, Long Island. Similar to calling New York City “The Big Apple,” it’s a fun moniker that no one actually uses in conversation. The backstory is that Northport used to be called Great Cow Harbor until I guess someone decided it was less of a mouthful to simply name the town for what it was: a village with a port on the north shore of Long Island.
Its annual 10K is fairly prestigious for such a small town – this year’s race had almost 4,000 participants, and the top finishers always seem to come from Colorado Springs or Flagstaff. The course is of the “rolling hills” variety. The second and third mile include the infamous James Street, a steady and steep incline I have mentioned on this blog more than once. There are also two pretty steep downhills, some flat sections, some smaller uphills, and many enthusiastic spectators along the course.
I’m not sure what prompted me to sign up for the race in 1999 other than I just wanted to see what I could do. I had no illusions of placing anywhere high; maybe I also just wanted an excuse to come back home for a weekend. The morning of the race, my mom and I visited my grandfather (in Northport) and he took a (crooked) picture of us. Then she took some of me and him. Just look at my fresh little face and penciled eyebrows.
My mom managed to take a couple of me running – she always had a camera on her, and in those days only used film, of course. This is probably the best one. It looks like I’m carrying sandbags on my hips but it’s just the billowy shorts.
I ran that 1999 race in 59:06, a 9:31 pace. At the time, despite my monthly devouring of Runner’s World, I didn’t really understand how to pace myself for races. Even with 5Ks, I ran just about everything as an easy-ish pace. I realize now that this was due not so much to a lack of training but a lack of confidence – I was terrified of going out too fast and burning out. I didn’t trust myself so I held back, keeping the same semi-casual pace for almost every single run I did. For that race, I finished 127th out of 203 in my age group.
In the years after 1999, I only ran a few 5Ks but I think I was too afraid to face the 10K again. I continued running, but casually. A half hour jog here and there. Up to an hour during my good stretches. Nothing all that fast or impressive. I liked running but didn’t really think I had any potential to be great at it. I kept my focus on other things.
Fast forward to 2017. I had been running more and more since turning 40 and felt ready to tackle the 10K again. At the time, I was living in Northport and taking care of my mom, then sick with cancer, so I figured I might as well run this thing again. I was 43 and wondered if I could beat my 25-year-old self.
I did, finishing in 54:39, an 8:48 pace. I felt much stronger this time around – the race was hard but I knew how to push myself, at least. I finished 41st out of 259 in my age group.
This was the last race I was able to tell my mom about, as she would soon be too sick to be able to carry on a conversation. I remember telling her as she lay in her hospital bed in the den that I hadn’t been able to beat my brother-in-law, who finished a minute ahead of me. She smiled and said, “You could beat him if you really tried.” My mother was nothing if not honest. And I was like, “You know what, you’re right.” I knew right then that I would run it the following year, and faster.
Two days later, I started a blog about running. My main goal was to document the following year as I trained for a faster 2018 Cow Harbor 10K. That blog, ladies and gentlemen, is this one.
I had extremely high hopes a year ago, having decided I wanted to run the 2018 race at a 7:30. While not impossible, it was highly ambitious. And of course I did not do as much speed work over the course of the year as I should have in order to properly train for running 6.2 miles at that pace. I think I knew a few months ago I wouldn’t be able to do it, especially after my two 10Ks in June, at 7:57 and 7:53 paces. While those were solid improvements from 8:48, I didn’t think I could knock it down to 7:30 in such a short time. So I had a new goal in mind: I just wanted to place in the top 20 of my age group. Whatever pace it took.
That’s it for the backstory. Now, the race recap.
The evening before the race I picked up my bib and t-shirt at the school administration building, which was once my junior high. These are boring pics but I wanted to show everyone what my old gym and cafeteria looked like. We also had school dances in the cafeteria. I have fond memories of this place, as I seem to be one of only a handful of adults who actually liked junior high, gym class, and school dances.
I think I was in bed by 10:30 with an alarm set for 4:30. I slept on my sister’s downstairs sofabed. I was up early the next morning – I actually woke before my alarm and just got up. I’m used to 5 1/2 hours of sleep so I wasn’t too bothered by it.
I brought my own breakfast because I wanted to eat the same thing I always eat every single morning: 1 serving oat bran, 1/2 tbsp. chia seeds, 1/2 tbsp. rolled oats, 1/2 cup almond milk, 1/2 cup water and a dash of cinnamon. I just brought the dry goods and my sister had almond milk. I’ve done this enough to know not to mess with food. On race day, eat what you normally eat. Nothing new on race day, as they say.
My sister and her family live only 1.6 miles from the start line, which was right outside the old junior high building. So I walked about half a mile and then jogged the rest of the way there. This was my warm up.
It was a really nice morning: warm but not too hot. The humidity was supposedly in the high range but honestly I’ve experienced much worse lately, so it actually felt fine. The sun was shining and my legs even felt good. I’d been nursing an on-again-off-again calf soreness and was hoping for the best today, but a little self massage while standing in the corrals was all I needed.
The race has a staggered start, with the elite runners starting first, and then subsequent waves following one minute apart. I was in wave 3 which meant I started two minutes after the elites. Your wave is determined by you – upon sign up, you have to indicate how long your race will most likely take, and the faster runners are toward the front. I had very ambitiously typed “45 minutes” and now, months and months later, I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to pull that off. I feared I was one wave too advanced, and hoped the other runners wouldn’t impatiently push past me after we began.
After a short delay while officials made sure the roads were clear, we were off.
My sister snapped a few shots as we rounded the first corner around the library I spent so much time at as a kid. I like this pic because not only am I thumbs-up-tongue-out, fully confident in how I felt within the first 60 seconds of the race, but the guy to my right and I are in perfect sync, as are the two runners in front of us. A Pulitzer-worthy shot.
Also: no headphones this year. No music. I almost didn’t even carry my phone, but ultimately I wanted the option of being able to take pics before and after.
This is a hilly course. Fortunately, it’s a course I know like the back of my hand, as most of the long runs I did during my recent stint in Northport covered most of it. This first mile has a small hill right at the foot of the library, and then the road flattens out for a bit until a nice steady downhill on Scudder Avenue.
In this first mile, I was happy to notice that everyone around me was pretty much running my pace. Nobody was insanely faster than me. I was actually passing some people. Maybe I had started in the right wave after all. Or maybe we’d all started in the wrong one. Regardless, it was fine.
I hadn’t wanted to go out too fast, deciding early to try to keep the first two miles at about a 7:50 pace. But the hill down Scudder helped accelerate things, and I ran the first mile faster than I’d intended.
MILE 1: 7:32 pace
The second mile began right before we rounded the corner onto Woodbine (the street my mom grew up on), and this is where a lot of the big crowds were as it’s very close to the finish line. But we had aways to go before we’d be crossing that. Up a short hill onto Bayview, then a flattening out. But the big daddy was coming: James Street. I steadied my breathing as I mentally prepared myself.
James Street starts immediately on an uphill, and it doesn’t let up for nearly half a mile. I’ve been focusing lately on running up hills faster, and for the first half of James I landed really softly on the balls of my feet, taking short but quick steps. I did this for the first half of the hill, when we hit the 3 mile mark.
MILE 2: 8:17 pace
Yikes, I had some catching up to do. After my legs couldn’t take the ball-of-the-foot running anymore I went back to using my normal form on the remainder of the hill. Some people had stopped to walk. But I’d run up this hill many times. I knew I could conquer it.
Before I knew it, I had reached the top. The steepest hill of the race was over. The next mile would be relatively flat and give me a chance to catch my breath.
As we ran along Ocean Avenue within view of the smoke stacks, I got my head out of the race for a few seconds as I let it sink in: I am running in Northport again. I hadn’t run here since before I moved out of my mom’s house last May. I loved running here. It’s light years away from running the crowded Central Park loop. It was definitely more of a solitary activity here. I felt grateful that I could experience doing it again.
MILE 3: 7:52 pace
The next mile included another steady downhill along Eaton’s Neck Road. This is a hill I was accustomed to running up, so running down it was a real treat. It’s secluded and had no spectators; there are woods on either side of it. It’s so steep that you have to be careful of not going too fast and landing with a thud on each step. I also didn’t want to destroy my quads halfway through the race.
At the bottom, we rounded a corner and made our way onto Waterside, a long stretch of the course that seems flat but after a few small gradual bumps, is actually a very slight, insidious uphill. It doesn’t look like it, but it’s there, and after a while it became very hard.
The spectators along the course were supportive and many had tables full of cups of water – I’m still not sure which, if any, were race-sanctioned and which were just families who went out and bought hundreds of paper cups. I grabbed water twice and took a couple of sips but never stopped to walk.
MILE 4: 7:44 pace
Mile 5 was all on Waterside Avenue. I used to run down Waterside in the opposite direction a few times a week. As I passed my high school bus stop, I said to the family standing there with a table full of water, “my old bus stop” and they chuckled and I kept running.
Most of this stretch was this very gradual flat-ish uphill, and after a while, it became exhausting. But since it doesn’t look like a hill, it’s almost confusing as to why it’s so hard. It’s always the most excruciating part of the course – more than James Street. I could actually feel myself slowing down. And I knew there was another hill coming.
MILE 5: 7:59 pace
After what felt like an hour we finally reached the end of Waterside and turned right onto Main Street for the last stretch of the race. Here was an uphill, similar to the one we had in the beginning going up Scudder. It wasn’t too steep or too long. And actually, after running along the same terrain for so long, it felt kind of good to change up the muscles. Once up, it was flat and a slight downhill for the remainder of the course. And Main Street always has great spectators. This is where my mom snapped that pic of me running in 1999.
My sister and her family had made their way to Main Street by this point, and she very kindly took a few pics of me. I saw my two young nephews cheering for me, and just to make them laugh, I yelled “I’m gonna win!” I’m still not sure if they believed me.
Thanks for the pics Shana!
I was feeling good here, mostly because it was almost over – and I knew there were NO MORE HILLS! I picked up the pace and wound up running the sixth mile exactly as fast as I had the first.
MILE 6: 7:32 pace
The final stretch down Main Street had the biggest crowds. Once I saw the finish line, I went all out. Another women started running right along beside me – it almost felt like we were racing each other. In the end, she “won,” but I still managed a decent pace for the last portion, which according to my Garmin was .28 miles.
MILE 0.28: 6:39 pace
I checked my watch: I had run the race in 48 minutes and 46 seconds. And I must have done a great job timing the button pressing, because that is exactly what my official time was: 48:46.
I beat myself from last year by 5 minutes and 53 seconds. I ran a 7:52 pace. Fastest 10K of my life.
Naturally, I selfied after I caught my breath.
They always have an insanely nice array of snacks for the finishers. I remember taking quite a bit last year. This year, I only grabbed a bagel quarter, a slice of watermelon, and an iced tea. I wanted to save room for an actual meal.
As I made my way back up Main Street to meet my sister and her family for a much-needed ride back to their house, I cheered on some of the runners making their way to the finish.
I even jogged a bit up Main on my way to meet them. I did that after the Percy Sutton 5K and it’s actually nice to just slowly jog after running so hard.
My sister snapped a pic of me and my nephews, who I am 100% positive will one day not only run this race, but beat the pants off me.
They wanted to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and luckily, so did I. Maybe I had some room for a donut.
Remember how I wanted to finish in the top 20 of my age group? I was eager to find out if I had. An hour or so later, I checked the results online: I had finished in 13th place in the women’s 40-44 age group. Out of 222, I placed 13th.
I had done it.
Next year, I’ll be in a new age group. I hate to repeat history and declare a crazy goal a year out, but it would be so fun to finish top 3 in my age group next year. I want to see if I can do that.
I have no idea if my mom has any idea about any of this, given that she is no longer alive. But if she somehow is aware, I hope she’s proud. My brother-in-law didn’t run the race this year, but it doesn’t matter: I beat myself. I improved. And that’s all I have control over. It’s all I can ever hope to do.
– Time: 48:46 (PR)
– Pace: 7:52/m
– Age Group: 13/222
– Overall: 448/3898