Race #44 – The Harrisburg Mile, Running for the Homeless: a “Live” Race Returns, with Milkshakes

Spoiler Alert: 4th place in my age group, at the Harrisburg Mile

Race #44: The 39th Annual Harrisburg Mile, Harrisburg, PA

The Cause: The Harrisburg Area YMCA / part of the Harrisburg Area YMCA Race Series

The Harrisburg Mile is a tradition normally run along Front Street, along the beautiful Susquehanna River. Honestly, I’ve always been a bit too intimidated to enter. The competition is pretty fierce. And, honestly, I haven’t been motivated to seriously train, including speedwork, for a mile–until this year.

Isn’t it wonderful, to have a real race experience, amid all the canceled races?

Isn’t it funny to focus on training for a mile race, in the midst of numerous 100-mile+ challenges?

Let’s face it, we are living in bizarro world lately. 2020 has turned our lives upside-down. So… why not?

The chance to run a “real” race was a welcome change. Even though it was held under some pretty interesting requirements–at least they would be considered “strange” prior to March of 2020.

This Central PA race “tradition” gave way to modifications in 2020. And the Y did a fantastic job, rolling with the changes and laying the foundation for a safe race amid the pandemic.

Traditional location: The fairly flat, straight, Front Street, with road closures, Harrisburg.

2020 modification: A loop around City Island. The first half-mile is fairly flat, but the third quarter-mile is a steady uphill followed by a flat finish–but unfortunately it’s not straight. It’s a rough loop around the outside of a parking lot.

Traditional format: Heats by age group, gun-timed.

2020 modification: Rather than running strict “heats,” runners were grouped by ages and assigned to 20-minute windows of time in which they could run their mile, chip-timed. No official gun-timed starts; runners could start whenever they wanted during their window. Or, runners could come throughout the afternoon to run their mile on the course, especially if they were concerned about maintaining social distancing.

The start line, by FNB Field, City Island

More modifications: Masks were required by runners and spectators at all times–except for the actual mile run. Runners were to maintain six feet of distance between each other at all times. No post-race party. Runners and spectators encouraged to depart shortly after their runs–not staying to cheer for runner friends. And, not really knowing how you stacked up among you competition until you arrived home and checked the Y’s website for race results.

Traditional turnout: 1,500-1,600 runners.

2020’s turnout: 400ish runners signed up.

But now let’s start talking about the cause. Because… believe it or not, the way all these modifications worked out, the Y is actually making about the same dollar amount from the 2020 Harrisburg Mile as they usually do. How is that possible? Way fewer costs, in terms of road closures, police protection and permits, t-shirt costs, etc. And the entry fees from a quarter of the “normal” number of participants still have an impact upon the organization, especially during these challenging times.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to interview the Y’s marketing director for a news story (linked here). And she told me the Y’s race series helps support the physical facility, a historic building that includes an 86-room resident hall for homeless men. Throughout the pandemic, she told me that the Y stood by their residents, connecting them to the food bank and medical support, while increasing cleaning measures, to continue providing a safe place for them to stay–even though the building closed to “the public.”

As hard as this pandemic has been for all of us… can you imagine being homeless during this time?

While I was factoring the Harrisburg Mile into my 50 races this year all along, I never imagined the cause and need would evolve like this.

That’s Harrisburg Mile and YMCA Race Series’ race director Tom Gifford facing the camera

Original plan: I was going to sign up for Fleet Feet Mechanicsburg’s Speed Demons training program geared toward the Harrisburg Mile, led by my coach Fred Joslyn. But the program wasn’t held due to COVID-19.

2020 plan: I loosely incorporated speed training into my runs for about a month, was doing “test miles” in the low 8’s (8:00 minutes/mile pace) then ran the virtual Carlisle Mile in a humid 8:13 a few weeks ago (race recap here). And Fred provided 2 weeks of mile training runs leading up to the mile, to Fleet Feet’s FB running group, which I followed. Those 2 weeks of plans helped me tremendously and I saw great results, even running down into the 7’s (7:00 minutes/mile pace).

Traditional weather: In recent years, the Harrisburg Mile inevitably falls on a hot, steamy, humid, stormy July night.

2020 weather: Pushed back to August, this year’s Harrisburg Milers lucked out. It was a gorgeous night, around 80 degrees and not a trace of humidity.

City Island is in the middle of the Susquehanna River

Speaking of luck, it was great to see so many friends around the island–fellow race participants and volunteers alike, and my best lucky charm–my husband–cheering. Harrisburg truly has an amazing running community.

Pre-race, with my husband! We ran into my run friend Mel, who offered to take our photo. πŸ™‚
Focused at the start line, after an easy mile warm-up and a few striders, just like Coach Fred recommended

I went old-school and wore my husband’s old Timex, set on the stopwatch function and simply started it as I crossed the start line! At 1/4 mile, I was right on target for an 8-minute mile, at 2:02. I felt good, even as I dodged and wove my way through a pack of bike-riding kids–yikes. At 1/2 mile, I was at 4:05. At 3/4 mile, 6:05. The final 1/4 mile around the outside of the parking lot was rough footing indeed. And I was trying to take the turns fairly tight. My husband, always concerned for my safety, cheered, but also shouted, “Watch your step!” (insert laughing, crying face here… )

I know I truly tried my best, and I am at peace with my final result, 8:09, which put me in 4th place in my age group. The 3rd place winner was :11 seconds faster than me at 7:58. I too was hoping to duck just under 8 minutes. Had I seriously trained for more than 3-4 weeks, ha ha, it was probably within my grasp. But in the grand scheme of things, 8:09 was my fastest mile since my high school track days. And at the age of 50, I’m ok with that.

The night recaptured the spirit of live races amid strange times, and it ultimately benefitted a great nonprofit making a difference in the lives of the homeless. And there were milkshakes. All good.

Just past 3/4 mile – Photo thanks to my run friend Scott!
Approaching the finish line! Photo thanks to my run friend Marjorie who caught me “flying” with both feet off the ground. ❀

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