In Northport, New York, the town on the North Shore of Long Island where I grew up, the third weekend of September is one of the highlights of the year, a celebration of the community’s spirit. Sunday is “Cow Harbor Day,” whose name calls back what the area was originally called by English settlers (because cows grazed in the pastures adjacent to the harbor). The highlight of the day is a parade, which I marched in four times in high school. The weekend’s other signature event happens on the morning of the preceding day – a 10 km (6.21 mi) run through the streets of Northport Village. The Great Cow Harbor 10-Kilometer Run has grown by leaps and bounds since its debut in 1977. Nowadays, it attracts a field of several thousand each year, including many elite middle-distance runners from all over the country.
And last Saturday, I ran it for the first time; not only that, it was my first ever organized running event.
The first memory of the Cow Harbor 10K I have is probably sometime in the early 1990s. My family went into Northport Village to watch the runners late in the first mile, at a family friend’s house. We even had a folding table with cups of water for the passing runners; I definitely remember one of my elementary school classmates stopping and taking a cup.
Over the remainder of my formative years in Northport, I always thought of the race as something cool to read about in the paper, but never something I’d ever seriously consider doing, or even becoming involved with as a non-participant. I graduated from high school and moved on to Cornell, and then the Navy. Sometime during those years, the event’s stature grew in my mind. In 2006, halfway through my six-year enlistment, I happened to be able to get back to Northport for Cow Harbor weekend, and so I decided to rise early on Saturday and take in the race from the finish line. And was that ever a year to be there. Ryan Hall, a recently turned professional runner from Washington, went out and crushed the course like nobody has ever done before or since. He covered it in 28:22, winning the race by forty-three seconds, and breaking the course record by twenty-two. In the (now) thirteen subsequent runnings of the race, not a single runner has gone sub-twenty-nine.
As I prepared to leave the Navy in early 2009, I first began to think about actually trying my hand at the course. But I allowed things to intervene. Taking five weeks to criss-cross the United States after officially separating, resuming my undergraduate studies at Hofstra… the race took a back seat that year. And so it did in subsequent years; in many cases, it conflicted with my annual trip to Ithaca for Homecoming at Cornell. Then I moved out to Ohio, and then I moved to Pennsylvania to take my current job, and initial license training has an intensity all its own, and then I got my reactor operator’s license, but Cow Harbor stayed on the back burner…
…but the back burner is still part of the stove, and the thought still simmered. When I realized that Cornell had placed its 2019 homecoming in the first week of October, the window was open, and so I decided to consider it. I initially gave that consideration in a fairly expensive way – by buying myself a treadmill. (It was a Black Friday deal!) My NordicTrack 1750 is nice; you can download and follow workouts with actual personal trainers. It also has compatibility with Google Maps. Cool! That means I can program in my own routes! Here’s a three-miler through Halifax, a four-miler around Mercury Bay in New Zealand…
…and Northport, of course. I put a few varied ones in there early this year. But once my mid-year vacation to Ireland was behind me, it was time to get serious about the second half of the year. You’ve said you want it, Matt. No better opportunity than this year. It’s our high school class’s 20th reunion. It’s the Village of Northport’s 125th anniversary. You took the required two nights off from work months ago. Do you really want it or not?
I finally answered in the affirmative. But that answer was not entirely dispositive of the question. Another condition had to be met: can you do it? I had been using the treadmill every so often ever since I bought it, but I figured there was one way to “stress test” myself. Program in the first and second halves of the course separately, and complete them on consecutive days at 5.3 mph (a comfortable 70 minute pace for the full distance), without varying speed or incline. On August 2 and 3, I passed that stress test. And so, later that night, I filled out an application and plunked down forty of my own actual American dollars to back it up.
For many returning to Northport to run the Great Cow Harbor 10K, the logistics of the visit are easy peasy. Not so for me anymore. I no longer have any family in Northport, after losing both my parents quite suddenly in 2013 and 2014, and my brother deciding to make a fresh go of it out West in 2015. I know a few of my high school classmates still orbit around our hometown, but I wasn’t sure if any of them would be there last weekend. There was availability at the closest official accommodation, the Chalet Motor Inn in Centerport. But that could get dicey on race day if I missed an alarm and/or got out late and got impacted by course closures. So for only the second time in my life, I decided to turn toward Airbnb. And in doing so, I noticed a listing from someone relatively new to it, within the village, and close to the start line at
Northport Middle Laurel Avenue William J. Brosnan School. And I decided to come up a few days early – the Wednesday before race day – to reacquaint myself fully with my hometown. After all, it had been nearly three years since I’d last been back.
In the following days, I continued to hit the treadmill. The runs got longer, and my capability to complete them was generally there. But surely enough, the inexorable march of time brought me to the afternoon of Wednesday, September 18 – and so the bags were packed and loaded into the Compass, and it was pointed northeasterly. After a long slog through mid-afternoon traffic, I found my way to Crab Meadow Beach, to the bench that bears the name of my late father. Then to James Street and downtown, to capture the views – a task for which the weather cooperated over the entirety of my stay on Long Island.
The next day I did much of the same, returning to my accommodation late in the afternoon. Its location was helpful for another reason – it enabled me to leave the car behind and head out on foot. I elected to do so and walked down to Sand City Brewing Company for a few glasses, and then up to the Seven Quarts Tavern on Route 25A, where I met my friend Ryan for dinner. It was very good to see him again, and we spent the meal catching up. But that task wasn’t done by the time the meal was, so I asked him how he’d gotten to the Seven Quarts. When he replied that he’d walked, I ardently gave a four-word reply – “to the Wine Cellar!” – and indeed we headed to the Wine Cellar on Main back downtown. Along the way, I started pointing out what different businesses occupied various storefronts in the past. (For example: “see that gourmet olive oil store? I don’t remember what it replaced, but that used to be Village Books and Things.”) We stayed at the Wine Cellar until it closed, and shortly before it did, Ryan mentioned to the proprietor (with whom he is friends) that I was running the 10K on Saturday. She replied that commemorative shirts were on sale, and they would entitle wearers to a free post-race festive beverage. Ryan immediately bought one for me. Just after 11:00 pm, we headed out and headed home, splitting up at the intersection of Main and Church Streets. (I imagine that the entirely of this paragraph might come as quite a surprise to many of our late-1990s Northport contemporaries, because back then, Ryan and I were both teetotalers.)
Friday, as you might imagine, was a slog. I just rested up and took in more of the place, including another trip back downtown (alcohol-free this time). More boats were coming in by the day, and in multiple places on Friday, they were tied up three-wide next to the dock. It was one of the most impressive collections of luxury marine transport I’ve ever seen grace Northport Harbor; one that didn’t simply need a healthy dose of “yacht rock,” but DEMANDED one. I focused on the task ahead of me the following morning: control your breathing, keep your arms in tight, and stay on pace. To that end, I ran through the mile-by-mile splits that would get me to the finish line in seventy minutes, the time I’d put on the application form. I headed to the Brosnan School to check in and pick up my number and T-shirt. I was assigned No. 12033, which meant the actual moment of truth for me would be 8:42 am. (More on that in Part II.) I then headed home and turned in early, trying to get every ounce of rest my body would take. Before going to bed, I noticed something hilarious. The T-shirt Ryan bought me the night before bore the Wine Cellar on Main’s address – but the “P” in “Northport” was missing! I’d planned to wear the shirt in the race, but now I really had to – just to point that out when I stopped in after running.
Finally, I got to sleep. Part II will recount Saturday – the prelude, the run itself, and the aftermath.