The sea of royal blue reflected what one would expect to observe in the crowd at a typical Kansas City Royals game. The warmth of the progressing day had already begun penetrating the cool morning air as my stepmom, Dawn, and I stood in the parking lot of the Truman Sports Complex. Carefully, I pinned the blue and white paper bib to the front of my tank top as Dawn surveyed the crowds filing towards Kauffman Stadium. Already, I could feel the inserts in my running shoes digging into my heels, but according to the podiatrist, they would help ease the strain put on my Achilles and knee. After sustaining an Achilles injury (which subsequently also became a knee injury) in a four-mile race I ran in early-July — and finding myself unable to run at all for a solid month — I wanted to take every precaution. Still, it made me nervous that I had only resumed running less than two weeks ago, and here I now stood, preparing to take on another race.
I learned about the Royals Charities 5K a few months ago, sitting in Kauffman Stadium and watching pre-game entertainment as the Royals went through their warm-ups. Even though I’ve been running on and off since I was thirteen, I only made my debut into the world of racing last summer, and I discovered that I loved it: the competition, pushing oneself in spite of the elements and the obstacles, the training and the culmination of that training in a race-worthy performance. The ad for the Royals 5K particularly caught my attention when it mentioned the opportunity to run on the field. I typed the address to the website into my phone and pulled it up as soon as I arrived back home that evening.
The first thing I looked up was the course map, and as soon as I saw it, I knew I would sign up:
The fact that all the money raised would go towards a good cause (most races are also well-intentioned fundraisers) provided icing on the cake. I submitted my registration and continued my training. Given the timing of the race, and knowing that the course would be a relatively-flat one, I anticipated that this would be the race where I would set a new personal best.
The injury threw up a huge roadblock towards this goal. The course for the four-mile race I participated in on July 4th did not have quite-so-flat a course — in fact, much of the time, we ran at a slight incline. A month later, the podiatrist confirmed that this likely caused the strain and inflammation on my Achilles, and possibly my knee as well. He recommended that I invest in the shoe inserts and prescribed an anti-inflammatory, but otherwise said that I was okay to resume running. My Achilles, while still not 100%, no longer ached and had regained enough strength from all the rest I’d given it. While my knee continues to remain touch-and-go with regards to the pain, upon resuming my street running, I discovered that so long as I keep my steps short, the pain in my knee diminishes greatly and I can otherwise continue running like normal.
Unfortunately, I also discovered that in my time off, I had also lost a lot of cardiovascular endurance, and this was my biggest concern going into Saturday’s race. The farthest distance I ran since my return was the 2.5-mile run I completed last Wednesday, and that last half-mile left me huffing and puffing like a heavy smoker on a treadmill. Still, I had finished the run without stopping, my knee and ankle were feeling great, and I felt ready to take on 3.1 miles.
We arrived at the stadium about 7:30 a.m., and I warmed up in the time remaining before the 8:00 start. With about ten minutes until race time, I made my way to the starting line with the other runners. I found the sign that indicated “8 minutes” (meaning an 8-minute-per-mile pace) and lined up a little behind it. I realized that this was an optimistic estimate, given my time off, but I also knew that in a crowd of 2,500 runners, the pace was likely to start slow regardless. Bob Fescoe of 610 Sports Radio served as emcee for the race proceedings. We were treated to a phenomenal performance of the national anthem, which was capped by a flyover treat.
Then finally, the gun was fired and the race began. As I anticipated, the starting line was so crowded that I walked a good part of the way towards the actual starting line. But much to my delight, I was able to start jogging in the last few feet leading up to the chip timing sensor and settled into a comfortable pace shortly thereafter.
After the race, Dawn commented on the wide diversity of runners that she observed participating, and there’s a lot of truth to that observation. You find people who live and breathe running, casual competitors like myself, people who are trying to lose weight and get in shape, and plenty of people who participate simply for the experience of walking the course. And when you observe a race with a particular overriding theme, you even find some interesting racing get-ups, such as this Mike Moustakas fan:
Much of the course turned out as expected: a relatively flat, giant loop around the parking lot of the Truman Sports Complex. It proved itself a good course for my joints and for my recovering cardio, and I managed to maintain a respectable pace throughout. However, going into the race, I had wondered how we were to enter the field for the final leg of the course, but I didn’t find out for certain until that moment came. That part of the race proved a blessing at first, but ended as a curse. We entered the stadium through a gate in the right field corner, which then took the runners down a ramp. Going down the ramp provided a momentary respite, allowing me the opportunity to glide at the same pace on less effort. Returning to charge back up the ramp later, however, I cursed my luck as my legs burned and my lungs cried.
Once we had descended the ramp and ran through the stifling hot tunnel that followed, however, we finally entered the field for the lap around the warning track. And what an experience! The warning track felt solid beneath my feet, in spite of the dirt. The Royals mascot, Sluggerrr, stood in the middle of the track, high-fiving runners as they passed. Looking down to my left, I could see the meticulous upkeep of the grass, each rich-green blade perfectly trimmed to the specified height. Looking up, I found myself wishing I had a camera on me to take pictures — some people stopped their run to do just that — but I knew that no photo I could ever take would capture the magnitude of what I found myself experiencing right then.
I’ve heard that the experience of standing at ground level in a baseball stadium is like standing in a cathedral, but the truth and depth of that description never sank in like it did as I jogged around that warning track. Sure, I’ve been to Kauffman Stadium and various other baseball venues numerous times, and one of my favorite experiences is sitting the stands at the K while they are still fairly empty, soaking in the atmosphere as I study the field, the stands, and the players. But being on the field itself is a different experience altogether.
I have had the opportunity in my life to see some pretty fantastic cathedrals, to experience the grandeur and the beauty of those spaces and what they stand for. This experience reflected that feeling in a myriad of ways. The size of the field and the size of the stadium around me as a whole made me feel like an insignificant being on its own. Then, when I considered what it all stood for — the Royals, the history, the game of baseball itself — I felt absolutely dwarfed by comparison. A part of me wanted to yell something to see if my voice would echo through the empty stands, but one does not call out so audaciously in a temple such as this. I tried to imagine the experience of standing on that field with the stands full of roaring fans, but failed to fully form the image in my mind. The experience of the stands sitting empty around me overwhelmed my senses enough on its own.
All good things must come to an end, however, and I came to the end of my lap around the warning track. In my reverie, I nearly missed the one last treat provided to runners before I exited the field. A camera set up near the dugouts projected the images of runners as they passed onto Crown Vision, and I turned just in time to see my giant form run by on the screen overlooking the stadium. I passed through the steaming tunnel once again and then turned up the ramp for the laborious trip back up to street level.
Upon reaching the summit of the ramp, I still had a few hundred feet to go to reach the finish line. In most races, this is the point where I break into an all-out sprint, but my final kick was delayed momentarily as I struggled through the residual pain of that up-ramp battle. I worked through it, however, and — reminding myself to keep my steps short — picked up the pace until I was running as fast as I could across the finish line, the struggle apparently showing all over my face.
The festivities did not end there, however. This guy stood at the finish line, congratulating runners on their victorious finishes:
Runners were treated to a remarkable spread of food, provided by Hy-Vee, in the post-race proceedings. I finally removed the inserts from my shoes, which made my shoes feel strangely loose around my feet. I also acquired a stress ball from the University of Kansas Sports Medicine & Performance Center, another race sponsor, which looks like a baseball.
Dawn and I stuck around long enough to find the results being posted along the gates. Given the injuries and the time off from running, I had kept my expectations for this race relatively low. I made it my goal to finish in thirty minutes or less, and my official time turned out to be 26:48. It is still a good minute slower than my personal best, but all things considered, I felt very pleased with this result.
It probably goes without saying, but this event proved well-worth the time and the registration fee that I put towards it. Besides, I also received this awesome T-shirt out of the deal, and who am I to complain about that?