The 2019 Cow Harbor 10K, Part II: Race Day

I did have a little bit of trouble sleeping on Friday night, and finally at 6:15 on Saturday morning, I decided it was time to rise and roll. I packed up all my things, since I’d be returning after the race just long enough to shower and grab my belongings, and then head out. As I looked at the race gear that I’d laid out on the bed, a stubborn thought ran through my mind – “8:42… so that’s then we find out whether or not this was a good idea.” Fortunately, after just a few minutes, I realized that I had totally the wrong mental framework. I took a deep breath, and yelled something (internally, of course) meant to reorient me toward the right one: “WAKE UP, IT’S RACE DAY!!”

After packing, I got “suited and booted” – that is, donned the race gear – and armed myself with the very few things I’d need to have on me after crossing the finish line. (Things like my ID, the key to where I was staying, and a bit of cash.) I also applied SPF 70 to every exposed skin surface; I didn’t want to be peeling like mad in the days to come. About 7:40, I walked out the door and over to the starting area. That was a moment when it started to feel real – seeing the thousands of assembled runners all awaiting the same thing I was. Fortunately, there was one sense in which I didn’t have to wait – for a toilet. I counted forty-nine of them in the row what had been staged, and the lines for them were dozens deep.

At 8:15, I “stepped into the crucible” – that is, onto Laurel Avenue, having found the staging area for my “wave.” The Cow Harbor 10K uses a staggered start (officially, the “John J. Pitfick Staggered Start” after the man who devised it). The race’s official starting time is 8:30, but only the elites – the runners who are in it to win it – and other very fast people kick it off then. The field is divided into fifteen waves, based on predicted finishing times. Each subsequent wave starts, like clockwork, a minute after the previous one. Having listed an hour and ten minutes as my estimated completion time, I was in the thirteenth wave. The anticipation built as the minutes ticked down. At 8:28, I heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” off in the distance… and two minutes later, “pop.” The elites were on the course, and the 2019 Great Cow Harbor 10-Kilometer Run was officially underway.

With every subsequent “pop,” both anticipation and trepidation built within me. But there was no turning back now. With less than two minutes before my wave was sent off, I elected to knowingly (because I read them) violate the race rules, albeit in a manner befitting a quote from Albert Einstein: “Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.” The instructions to runners, right there on the front page of the race’s website, clearly state that “NO…HEADSETS…will be allowed on the course.” Plenty of others had theirs in, so I didn’t see a problem with doing the same. 8:41 – “pop” again. We’re next. Someone on a loudspeaker got us psyched up, as I fiddled with my phone. It would determine most of the musical accompaniment, but I would choose the first song myself. I started the playlist, and took another deep breath. The starter intoned “five, four, three, two, one…”

POP. I started the stopwatch, and I started running. Ten thousand meters to go. The song I chose was Pink’s “Just Like Fire,” and its chorus reminded me why it was the right choice: “we came here to run it, run it, run it… just like fire, burning out the way, if I can light the world up for just one day…” This was my day to light up the world.

Over the first mile, I repeatedly reminded myself to exercise the caution I knew was necessary. After a brief climb, Scudder Avenue slopes downward for the remainder of Mile 1 and into Mile 2. You don’t want to expend too much energy, especially knowing what remains ahead. I reached the first mile marker ahead of pace, but not too much. So far, so good. The playlist here did its job reminding me of what to be willing to expend – “Whatever It Takes,” by Imagine Dragons. I turned the corner onto Woodbine Avenue, which takes you within sight of the finish line. It occurred to me then that the leaders were already on Main Street. Onto Bayview Avenue, and those wonderful views of Northport Harbor off to the left. That’s when I passed two things that remain indelibly on my memory – someone holding a sign that said “Go, Random Stranger!” which drew a smile from me, and someone running the race in full firefighting gear, including an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). Respect, sir. But Bayview is only so long, and eventually I made the dreaded right, onto…

James Street. This is the major climb of the course. And I have to admit, not even my treadmill really prepared me for it. I’d biked it several times when I was younger, and every time, I had to step off the pedals and walk for a bit. Saturday was no different. I got back to a jog, but I had to conserve my energy – we still had a long way to go. Once atop the hill, I happened to notice my Airbnb host along the course, but didn’t think to stop at the time. Onward to Ocean Avenue and its spectacular views, which include “the Pit” (a depression in the land caused by sand and gravel mining, since redeveloped into high-end housing), the Northport Power Station (a point of high contention back home these days), and Long Island Sound (and on this day, clear across to Connecticut). Had to adjust slightly here, to account for the ambulance taking someone off the course. Three-mile split looks good, and so does the 5K. Halfway home. Down Eatons Neck Road and onto…

… “the back stretch,” the mile and a half section of the course on Waterside Avenue. The intersection of Eatons Neck and Waterside is the closest point the course comes to where I grew up in Crab Meadow. It was about here that the playlist gave me Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.” I found myself modifying the first verse: “this is how we do it, it’s Saturday, and I feel okay, we’re all here running the 10K…” I reached the four-mile marker north of the intersection with Norwood Avenue over a minute ahead of pace. This was crucial information to have on hand.

That run down Waterside is a long, slow incline, something you wouldn’t necessarily suspect if you drive over it. It’s often been said – and at the awards ceremony, was said again by Will Fodor, the race’s Director of Elite Runners – that the fifth mile is quite often where the race is won or lost. So knowing that I could afford to give some time back was helpful when my body told me it was getting close to the limit. I backed it down to a walk, got a little back in the tank, and came back up to a jog, several times over. One thing that helped me get back to a run at one point: the “Sea Legs,” an actual live band playing on the porch of one of the houses along the road. I told myself “you can walk if you have to for a bit, but you have to keep moving forward. You can’t stop. You have to finish.” I kept pushing, past the five-mile marker, toward the final turn…

…onto Main Street. This “home stretch” of the race starts with “Pumpernickel Hill,” named for the restaurant that sits at its base, on the southwest corner of Main Street and Fort Salonga Road. Atop the restaurant is a now-permanently installed sign, reminding runners that it’s the last climb on the course, and that the last mile is all downhill. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; there’s a bit of a plateau before the downward slope to the finish. At the corner of Main and Maple Avenue, someone did have a sign that said “it’s all downhill from here!” I thought then, “that’s right. Everybody gets to the finish! We’ve come too damned far to DNF now!” In fact, I almost yelled that out. Just before the intersection of Main and Church Streets, someone had the theme from “Chariots of Fire” blaring. I thought it most fitting, given that that film won Best Picture in 1981, the year of my birth. Under the last traffic signal, a curve right, and a curve left…

…and the finish line is in sight. As I took that turn, I thought, “This view, from this vantage, on this day, is something I’ve thought about for so many years, and now, it’s finally here.” Past the six-mile marker, and I was close to pace. It was time to find some Liquid Schwartz to dump in the emergency tank of the Eagle 5 like Captain Lone Starr and Barf did in my favorite movie. Push. Push. That banner got closer, and closer, and closer, until it was finally close enough for me to raise my arms and pump my fists in exultant triumph… and just like that, I’d passed under it. The icing on the cake came when I stopped the stopwatch, and pulled down my arms to look…

…and saw the numbers “1:09:57.” I had finished it. Holy ever loving bleep, I finished it – and just under my predicted time. (I’d told myself that the time didn’t matter, that only finishing did – but I did feel a slight inkling of responsibility to the race organizers to get around the course in the time I said I would.) I grabbed some more water and a complimentary Huntington Hospital/Northwell Health branded towel, stopped for more photos at the corner of Main, Bayview, and Woodbine, and made my way to Village Park for the post-race celebrations and ceremonies. It was there, waiting for the complimentary Sand City beer to which I was most duly entitled, that I transmitted the news of my completion to Facebook and Twitter. At the time, I was choking back emotion, so much that I said that to a small approximation, it must be what it feels like to win the Stanley Cup. Because at that moment, there simply were no words.

I downed that beer, stuck around for the post-race ceremony and raffle, then headed back up Main Street. I stopped at the Wine Cellar on Main for my free drink – they most graciously allowed me to substitute a beer – and then dropped in just up the street at Gunther’s Tap Room; as my brother reminded me on Thursday, a stop that absolutely had to be made. Gunther’s – affectionately known as “Club G” around town – has a place in history more generally, having been the watering hole of Jack Kerouac when he lived in Northport. But it has extra special significance to my family. My late father was a dear friend of the late Pete Gunther, and my late mother tended bar a few afternoons a week there for more than twelve of my formative years. It also served as a reminder of just how long it had been since I’d last been back. That was December 2016; since then, the interior of Gunther’s had been destroyed by fire, and it had been rebuilt and reopened. I stepped in, ordered a Budweiser, Dad’s favorite, and basked in the glow of what I had just done. This Bud’s for you, Mom and Dad.

From there, I walked back up Main Street to my Airbnb, showered, and cleared out and left behind the key. After lunch, I headed to Crab Meadow Beach one last time. That reminded me of the incredible bond between the race and the community that supports it – I didn’t notice a single cup from any of the water stops, official or not, lying along the road. If you didn’t know a 10K had taken place that morning, you would’ve had no idea. I then headed for downtown once more, treating myself to a glass of Race Day IPA at Sand City and refilling my growler with their Red Sand, before briefly milling about the harbor. But all good things must come to an end, of course, and the time had finally come to head back to Pennsylvania.

As I made that one final walk up Main Street to my car, I cued up a song I thought perfect for the epilogue. Its chorus:

When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter

Yeah, the paint could peel, the glass could shatter

Let it rain, ’cause you and I remain the same

When there ain’t a crack in the foundation

Baby, I know any storm we’re facing

Will blow right over while we stay put

The house don’t fall when the bones are good

“The Bones”, Maren Morris

I said earlier that in those first post-finish-line moments, there simply were no words to describe what it means and why it matters that I went back home and did this. Well, with a few days of clear hindsight, I think I’ve found some. It’s not simply the personal accomplishment, though that’s certainly important. It’s also the way my hometown came together and rallied around my brother and I after That Bleeping Day in late 2014. On that dark occasion, Northport reminded us in no uncertain terms that, as Morris sings, “we built this right, so nothing’s ever gonna move it,” and “it don’t always go the way we planned it, but the wolves came and went, and we’re still standing.” Coming back and taking part in this signature tradition was an honor for me, and but a small repayment for everything I’ve gotten from my hometown. The Fates can take me and my family out of Northport, but they’ll NEVER take the Northporter out of us.

As I made that last walk, I couldn’t help but beam at a thought: This is my day. And nobody can take it from me. Though I did have a moment of pause on the southbound New Jersey Turnpike – did I really, actually do that this morning? – that bolded thought was confirmed upon my arrival home. The first thing I did after dropping my bags inside the door was to check the race website for results. They were posted. And on the list, deep in the 3100s, was what I was looking for: “Matt Carberry / 38 / Royersford, PA / 1:09:48.68.” I had indeed done it, and come in just under my predicted time.

Any regrets? Actually, a few. One is not purchasing an armband to hold my phone. I instead took it around the course in my holster case, and that left a couple of marks on my left hip – thankfully, those are healing well. But the one that sticks is one that evolves from a comprehensive review of those results. At least three of my high school classmates also ran the course on Saturday – but I had no idea they were doing so, and so I couldn’t find and reconnect with them in the park. One of them even flew up from Atlanta for this! But that isn’t so big a problem. I looked at my 2020 work schedule and when other engagements fall on the calendar. And so, to the question of “will you be back next year,” I can give the same reply that men’s champion Futsum Zienasellassie gave to Will Fodor at the awards ceremony: “hell yeah!”

As I said in Part I, this year marks the 20th anniversary of my high school class’s graduation, and the 125th of the incorporation of the Village of Northport. It’s also the year that representatives of the country to which I gave six years of my life in defense won the Women’s World Cup for the fourth time; one of those representatives was no. 20, Allie Long – a Northport native. In two weeks, I’ll gather with many of my classmates on Long Island to remember and reminisce. To them, to all my other classmates, to Allie and her twenty-two teammates, to everyone else who ran on Saturday, to the Cow Harbor 10K race committee and all the volunteers, to everybody back in Northport, New York, and everybody else whose support got me around to the finish line last Saturday, I raise my glass – appropriately, currently filled with Sand City’s Red Sand – and toast you all with these four words, and with all my heart…

“Northport. Forever and always.”

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