Year-End Race Roundup: The Great Cow Harbor Race

Finally, Cow Harbor. I’ve been running on Long Island since 2005 and this was my first Cow Harbor Race, probably our most famous race. I’d missed the previous years due to various reasons, but I made sure I made my way over to Northport on the morning of September 17th this time.

Where to begin? What I can say about this race that hasn’t already been said? I had never done more than one or two races a year and I had already done seven races at that point in 2011. Was Cow Harbor really that different? You bet. Read on.

I didn’t train in particular for this race beyond my normal daily running routine. This was the longest distance I’d have to cover in a race, but I wasn’t worried about that because I’d done 6 miles (~10K) in my neighborhood a number of times. The fact that this race was hilly didn’t worry me either because I knew it wasn’t as hilly as the St. James 5-Miler.

I got up around 4am and had a Cliff Bar. I didn’t want to have full breakfast in my stomach for the race, but I didn’t want last night’s dinner to be the last thing I ate either. I think this worked out well as I was not hungry at race time, but didn’t have anything in my stomach either.

I got near Northport a little after 7am and immediately ran into a ton of traffic. I should have realized that with 5,500 people running the race, there would be traffic getting in there. With so many runners, they have you park at Northport High School and then bus you to the start. The race website says the last bus leaves at 7:45 and I was still sitting in traffic at about that time. Having gotten up so early and now sitting in traffic, late for the race, I was getting a little stressed. I was beginning to wonder if it was all worth it.  (It was.)

One of the great things about this race is that after 35 years and being so popular, they have the routine down. Even though I got there after 7:45, I got a on a bus and was in front of Laurel Avenue School with plenty of time to get my number, leave my stuff with UPS (who takes it to the finish line) and get into my staging area. The announcer did note that we were starting 2 minutes late.

I was in stage 4 with a green bib which means I started 3 minutes after the initial gun. The system automatically subtracts time depending on your stage. As each stage goes out, they walk you to closer to the starting line until it is your group’s turn. The stages go out 1 minute apart.

Being my first Cow Harbor Race and having heard so many great things about it, I decided to relax and enjoy it rather than push myself really hard. I didn’t run it slowly, but I didn’t put in an intense effort either. I’m glad I did this because I really got to take it all in and enjoy it.

The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of spectators. The first mile takes you downhill on Scudder Ave and the people were great, waving banners, ringing cow bells and generally making a lot of noise. It was pretty awesome. With everything going on, I didn’t even notice the Mile 1 banner and clock until my watch vibrated (no, I couldn’t hear it!)

You start the second mile in the heart of Northport, pretty close to where you eventually finish and still the crowds here are amazing. After running slightly uphill along Bayview Ave, you turn right and face the dreaded James Street hill. I’ve heard a great deal about this hill and it’s pretty tough, but, I think the hill at the end of the St James 5-Miler is worse. Maybe it is because the James Street hill is early in the race and the Cordwood Path hill is late in the St. James race, but I don’t feel I had my butt kicked here as bad as in St. James.

The best part of the race for me was the second infamous hill, which you encounter early in mile 6. It isn’t as hard as the first one, but you’re much more tired. As I made my way up this hill, people on both sides of the street were cheering and making noise. This was helping me, so I pumped my fist in the air causing some people to yell louder. Without even thinking, I put both my arms up like Rocky Balboa as I got to the top of the hill and I got some great feedback from the crowd. It was, by far, the best moment I’ve had in a race.

Once you get to the top of that hill, it is purely downhill to the end. Someone even made a great sign noting it with the word “downhill” flowing downward across the sign.

As I got close to the finish line I heard a voice I am now very familiar with — Terry Bisogno calling the names of as many finishers as he could. I didn’t hear mine, but he’s announced my name a few times now.

Beyond the finish line, the parking lot by the water was full of tents where sponsors supplied food, drinks and whatever products they were promoting. I got to experience Zico for the first time. It doesn’t taste as bad as I’ve heard; I wouldn’t sit around and sip it, but it was fine after a hilly 10K run.

Weather-wise, it could not have been more perfect for running, it was around 60 degrees and sunny.

The Great Cow Harbor Race: a first-class running race in every way. This was my first one and I hope to run it again and again for many years to come.  Great job, Northport.

This race changed my perspective on running and racing in general. For a couple weeks after Cow Harbor, I relaxed and enjoyed my neighborhood runs more. That was September, and I wasn’t planning on racing again until December (and I didn’t) so that took a little pressure off.  I was enjoying a race every few weeks, but I was definitely thinking about them and pushing myself a little harder as a result. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it, but I was enjoying just running without any pressure either.

This leads me to my last two races of the year, which I just ran in back-to-back weekends. I will post those entries tomorrow.

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