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Pilk’s Points: Small Races Offer Big Rewards

A smaller race has a charm to it that's a welcome change of pace.

A smaller race has a charm to it that’s a welcome change of pace.

I did my first small(er) race over the weekend in my hometown of Petaluma, Calif. In its fourth year, the Clo-Cow Half Marathon has under 500 participants between the half and 5K—compared to the monstrous road races I’m used to, this was definitely perfect for me: My small-town hometown offering a small-town running event.

As I covered the gorgeous, albeit extremely hilly, hidden back roads of my beloved city, I soaked in some of my favorite things about racing through farms, alongside emus, next to the same people and on completely open roads (although there were probably five total cars who did more cheering than honking at runners). While I do have a special place in my runner heart for big, blown-out road races that cram thousands of people into closed roads, hundreds into 30-plus corrals and dozens into every race photo, this tiny event that actually announced every runner’s name across the line really struck a special nerve—and I’m definitely going back (with a lot more hill prep).

I Saw A Different Part Of My Childhood

Although this is particular to the fact that I was actually born in the Bay Area and raised in Petaluma, it was a surreal, yet calming feeling to finally be able to run a race through a place that I still love to call home. And P-Town definitely would never host a huge race; it was the perfect tribute to small-town living and running.

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Less People Means More Interactions

I’ve never felt like I “got to know” the runners around me during races—it was tunnel vision and weaving when necessary. But as I covered those insane 13.1 miles, I felt almost connected to the handful of people that kept trading spots with me; since it went through unclosed farm roads, there were hardly any spectators and almost dead silence (save for the occasional goat). We never spoke, but it was almost like you could hear each other’s thoughts. I still can’t pick a favorite runner though—was it the powerhouse downhill runner that kept passing on the downs while I passed on the ups? Was it the older ginger man who wore split shorts two sizes too small? Or was it the extremely flamboyant gentleman who would heave through his asthma, catch me again, and scream, “You go girl! Pass those boys!”

Logistics Were A Cinch

No exaggeration—we were staying 15 minutes away, left 45 minutes before start time, stopped to use the restroom, parked two blocks from the start and still had time to meander before the gun went off.

The Culture Is Authentic

While I fully support the hype often surrounding huge races that bring teams, charities, groups of friends, celebrities, etc., the running culture at such a tiny half marathon was much different. People were there to run, to hurt, to smile at volunteers, to encourage other people sharing that hurt and to get to know themselves as a runner. For the first time, I studied the 15-ish people I saw throughout the race—and nearly every person ran with an obvious strategy. There were strong hill runners, solid downhill sprinters, patient ones, tangent experts and everything in between. Everyone was running to run because they loved the sport.

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You Discover (Or Rediscover) Yourself

You know those gag videos about runners and their spastic thoughts during a race? That was me during 13.1 miles—the spectrum of emotions was full and loud in my head. I ran without a watch and without music on a silent course with no clocks, so all I had were my thoughts and how to make it through the course. I (re)discovered that mile 2 is when I have doubts, mile 4 is when I want water, mile 7 is when I’m dropping f-bombs, mile 9 is when I need water, mile 11 is when I get my second wind, and mile 13 is when I realize .1 miles is way longer than you think.

The cowbell medal and my fourth-place age-group finish made the race even sweeter. I even ran into Jared Chan, who finished two minutes ahead of me. Perhaps that’s the real magic of a small-town event: Despite a grueling course on very little training, I still crossed the line with a smile, ready to come back stronger in 2015.