Hospital Hill official website: HERE
KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- The 10k is likely my favorite run distance: it's short enough for serious speed, but long enough to be insanely challenging. A lot can happen (and go wrong) over the course of 6.24 miles, so it still requires a fair amount of forward planning. I've already written a little bit about Hospital Hill (see my post about 2013), but I'll be re-covering one of my favorite races of the entire year here.
Format Changes: The Hospital Hill Re-Run
This year came with some welcome (for me, at least) changes. The 5k was moved to Friday night, leaving the 10k and half-marathon options on their own on Saturday morning. Additionally, organizers offered a "Re-Run" option for participants, which included the Friday night 5k in addition to either the 10k or half-marathon on Saturday morning. A fan of challenges, and of the 10k course, I took them up on the 5k/10k Re-Run option (I'd gotten my fill of half-marathons for a while, and actually was forced to miss the Dam-to-Dam Half-Marathon in Des Moines, Iowa due to hip problems).
The weeks prior to Hospital Hill, the weather, as if often the case in Kansas, had been tumultuous. Thunderstorms had been forecast for nearly every day, some with severe conditions such as wind, hail, thunder/lightning, and flooding (even some tornadoes up north). Though I'm not completed objecting to running in the rain, I'd gotten my fill of raining in downpours, hail and thunder/lightning at the Garmin Half-Marathon, so I kept a tight eye on the forecast for race week. What I found, unwavering, was high chances of thunderstorms on Friday night, and likely chances (possibly even severe) for Saturday morning. The days surrounding Friday night/Saturday morning were nearly clear...it seemed the weather would be in town just for Hospital Hill. This should be interesting.
Making things even more interesting: three days before race day, I had my last quick run leading up to Hospital Hill. It was just a fast 5k at 5k-effort ("5kP," i sometimes refer it to, or "5k-pace"). One mile in, I noticed tightness in my right calf. Two miles in, it got worse. I knew I was pushing the pace (sub-7), but I was legitimately having some pain. I slowed only a bit for the final mile -- I was overheating anyways. Post-run, my calf was in extreme pain. Hours later the pain would be matched with a feeling of extreme tightness. My left calf was tight as well, but nothing beyond "normal" (rare do I suffer calf pain, but it happens from time to time, and is usually just from tight muscles after a hard workout). The next day, I did a short, sub-2-mile run at recovery pace (9:30-10:00) in an attempt to loose it up. 9:30 pace actually felt difficult, and though the pain didn't get worse, it stuck around. Any improvement post-run was minimal. The next day, the day before race day, my left calf would be fine; my right, not so much. This should be really interesting.
Packet Pick-Up and Health & Fitness Expo
Like last year, packet pick-up is held in conjunction with a health and fitness expo (free stuff!) at Crown Center in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Specifically, in one of the Crown Center exhibit halls. Organizers provided two offerings to stop in and pick up all necessaries: the Thursday and Friday afternoons before race day(s). Also, like last year, organizers had things running very smooth. All volunteers are always so nice and helpful. It's no wonder this event has become so popular and has achieved such a long and storied history. Well done.
Hospital Hill actually features a legitimate expo, with several vendors from across the area (and nationally) showcasing their product lines (and freebies!). Foot traffic was light-ish, although I dropped in on Friday afternoon during normal workday hours. Parking in any of the adjacent garages was also free with validation stamp -- always a plus.
Last year, for the 40th anniversary of the run, 10k and half-marathon participants picked up a snazzy track jacket with the Hospital Hill logo embroidered on the back. Not a bad substitute for a t-shirt, if you ask me (although, mine ran awfully small, and the material was fairly thin -- still a nice sub). This year registration came with a sports backpack, offered to all registrants, including the 5k'ers. Hospital Hill Re-Runners (5k/10k OR 5k/HM) got an additional Re-Run cotton t-shirt in addition to the backpack. Additional packet stuffs included an official Hospital Hill program, including maps and race day info (which I sorta like -- almost like a souvenir program), and of course the number bibs, complete with stickered timing chip, as opposed to shoe-mounted chip timing. Apparently a "golden ticket" randomly was placed in to one of the reported 8,000 backpacks, eligible for exchange for a free Garmin Forerunner. I know I already have the Fenix 2, but I was hopeful. No such luck for me.
With packet, free goodies, and a new pocket waist band (I refuse to call the new designs fanny packs) purchased from the Fitletic tent in-hand, I was out the door. Packet pick-up itself took MAYBE 5 minutes, including parking validation. Additional hoofing around the expo varies depending on how much time you want to spend. Either way it's quick and easy. Again, well-done.
Route Review: The UMKC School of Medicine Hospital Hill 5k
This would actually be my first year with the 5k route, with last year's first-time experience being with the 10k. The only common link between the 5k and 10k is the emergence of Hospital Hill. Both routes start and finish in the heart of Crown Center Plaza in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. For the 5k, the route cuts short at Pershing road, and continues immediately east and south up Hospital Hill, all within tenths of a mile from the start.
Hospital Hill itself technically begins just beyond the Gillham Rd bridge at 22nd street. On the 5k iteration of the course, runners pick up Hospital Hill at Pershing Road towards Gillham, finally picking up Gillham almost halfway up the full Hospital Hill -- a bit of a shortcut relative to the 10k and half-marathon courses. Either way, Hospital Hill still proves treacherous, with an average grade (on the 5k course) of just under 5%, and grades maxing out at near 9% before easing up. For 5k'ers, climbing up Hospital Hill takes about half a mile.
Technically Hospital Hill ends at 26th street, at almost a half a mil in length, although a quick false flat after 26th, and runner immediately begin a second climb up Union Hill, a "short" quarter-mile 5%-average grade that tops out at 12% in some spots, and a climb that is often confused for a second section of Hospital Hill.
The first-half climbing finally finishes around the 1-mile mark, after turning east on to 29th Street. A half-mile downhill respite on 29th and turning north on to The Paseo allows for a quick gaining of composure before another quick uptick after turning on 27th Street. Flat roads comprise the rest of 27th until the last of any positive elevation change hits turning back north, about 1 mile short of the finish. The descent back down Hospital Hill along 25th Street, then Pershing again, makes for a quick finish, but still pounds on the quads.
Route Review: Hospital Hill 10k
A climb that 5k runners don't get to appreciate is the first climb north away from Crown Center Plaza along Grand, a three-quarters-of-a-mile stretch of road that boasts an impressive 85 feet of climbing, and grades averaging 2% and maxing out at just over 5% -- just long enough and steep enough to punish cold legs.
Both the 10k and the half-marathon courses get the full brunt of Hospital Hill, all 0.66 miles of it. In the opening meters of Hospital Hill before Pershing Road (a stretch that doesn't appear on the 5k route), grades approach maximum at just over 13%, boosting average grades to 5%. Passing 27th, where the 5k route again diverts from the 10k/HM routes, 10k'ers get a smoother, but still significant, climb up Union Hill (+42ft, 4.2% max grade, 2.7% avg grade).
Other route features 5k'ers also don't get is Rockhill Hill, a sudden hairpin turn from Gillham Road to 39th Street that averages 3% and max's out at almost 11%. This is the hill that took me by complete surprise in 2013, and shot my impressive first-half pace to hell. Two final climbs, including Broadway Hill, make an appearance in the final mile and a half of the course before finally descending down Hospital Hill -- very quickly -- from just under 1 mile to go towards the finish back in Crown Center.
Regardless of your poison of choice, all routes require significant experience and prowess hill climbing in order to be even remotely competitive. Either way, you always crawl across the finish line having had likely the most bizarre fun you've ever had, alongside an immense sense of accomplishment.
Race Day: Friday Night UMKC School of Medicine 5k
Though my right calf wasn't 100%, things had improved dramatically over the following days up to race day. My biggest concern was pushing the 5k to the point where I re-aggrivated it for the 10k which was a mere 12 hours after the 5k start time. I was stuck between taking the chance and pushing the pace, or playing it safe and placing all my eggs in the 10k basket.
I would choose the former. I lined up in the first lines of runners just ahead of the 6:45 pacers -- probably a bit hopeful given the course's difficulty. I was ready for the start with about 10 minutes to spare, a long time to wait in-corral. It was warm: Just short of 80 degrees and 65% humidity. Almost no breeze. A far cry from the scattered showers forecast earlier in the week for the evening. Despite the humidity, I didn't mind one bit.
The air horn sounded promptly at 7:00pm. From the start line in the middle of Crown Center, south on grand, a out-of-the-gate downhill gave me a quick jump-off. Then, not more than 300 meters later, we took an immediate right on to Pershing Road, and up the dreaded Hospital Hill. Given the course's shorter length, and my decision last year during the 10k to attack Hospital Hill, I decided to attack it doubly-so this year, especially considering the 5k route's shorter trek up the Hill compared to the 10k and HM'ers. I reached the top having only lost a few steps to the top 10 guys.
Then the immediate turn left on to 27th, and Union Hill (or is it technically still Hospital Hill? I can never tell). This one was shorter, but much steeper. It completely took the wind out of my gut. Undulations through the neighborhoods of Hospital Hill/Union Hill degraded me further. My breathing came out of control, meaning my HR was already maxing out. By 1.5 miles, I was already toasted, and decided to just sit in until the descent back down Hospital Hill in to Crown Center and the finish.
Each time another hill popped up, no matter how small, my pace plummeted. An alert stating I had fallen behind my Virtual Partner buzzed me -- my Virtual Partner was still set at 6:59/mi for last week's Amy Thompson 8k. This was not good. Another climb, another plummet. My right calf tightened up with just under a mile to go. The descents back toward Crown Center, though welcome, pinged my legs even more. I started to worry about my starting tomorrow.
The descent back towards Hospital Hill. Finally. I took as much advantage of gravity as my legs would allow. My second mile was a staggering 7:20. Mile three was shaping up to be the same, so I gunned it the best I could. Nearing the bottom, I remembered the blazing-fast start, all thanks to the descent from the start line. This meant a quick burst back UP towards the start line. Less than a quarter mile to go, I came off of Pershing and back on to Grand from the south side of Crown Center. I gave my best push, salving what left of an aggressive pace I had (if any).
Approaching the finish line, I saw 22:00 flash up on the clock. It has been a long time since I'd been above 22 minutes. That was nearly 7-minute mile average -- a pace I hadn't collected since summer of last year. I crossed at 22:24, a 7:06. Bummer. That may have been the most difficult 5k I'd done. Yes, I still had fun, but my pace faltered, I fell apart. The "What if" game started playing in my head. My leg ached. 11 hours until I line up again.
Race Day: Saturday Morning's Hospital Hill 10k
I woke up with the sound of rain drops pattering against my windows. I had been expecting this. I immediately checked the radar: surrounded by green and yellow, and much more on the way. A bolt of lightning, a crash of thunder. Hopefully we would still be allowed to run. My leg felt better than last night (cherry juice!!). I was excited to see the start line.
It rained the whole way downtown, with a few bolts of lightning here and there. We wouldn't be running in lightning. I had a feeling we would at the least be delayed. I arrived at 5:45am, a full hour and fifteen minutes before start time. I took full advantage of the adjacent parking garage -- I would no-doubt need to change out of soaking-wet clothes post-race. Better to do that under cover than in the rain. I checked the radar again: Less yellow, just as much green. And it didn't seem to have any chance of clearing up anytime soon. I broke out my rainy race-day secret weapon: triathlon running shoes. With drainage holes in the bottom, and sock liners designed to get wet, these would be perfect running in a deluge. Whilst others' shoes became weighted and water-logged, mine would simply feel damp. I decided to go sockless as well; socks would only soak up more water.
Race-readying myself, it was about 6:15 when I was good for a small warmup. Walking from the parking garage, "take cover until we can give further update" blared across the loudspeaker. Delayed. At least to 7:30, according to organizers. I went back, grabbed a jacket, and waited it out. For another 45 minutes.
At 7:00am, the rain slowed, eventually stopping at 7:15. Organizers stated 7:30 would be the start time. All participants hustled to the start line at 7:20am. At 7:35, the wheelchair athletes were off. At almost 7:40, 10k'ers and half-marathoners were, too.
Presumably pent-up from the 30-minute delay, the start was quick, with a small downhill and small uphill towards the Power & Lights District. Just short of the Sprint Center, we turned east, then back south towards Hospital Hill. My breathing felt sluggish. Mile marker #1 passed at 6:50. Decent start, but my side started to ache...side stitches.
Right at the Oak Street bridge, mere meters before Hospital Hill, the side stitches reached full-blow proportions. My pace plummeted. No doubt Hospital Hill wouldn't help. And it didn't. My second mile, the whole of Hospital Hill, clocked in at 8:00. Like last night, I hadn't hit paces like this so quickly during a 10k in nearly a year.
Nearing the top of Hospital Hill, it started to sprinkle. Then the false flat, then Union Hill. My side stitches worsened. 7:45 3rd mile. I'd reached mid-course, knowing full well that the nasty Rockhill Turnaround was just up ahead. I decided to slow my pace, try to catch my break on the downhill in preparation for the turnaround. The weather turned from sprinkle to light rain.
The final descent towards the 10k turnaround at Rockhill. Last year, this climb had taken me by surprise and completely shattered me. I remembered a running article once that said "run ascents by feel, not by pace." I normally ignored such advice, but with pains like this, I'd take whatever help I could get. I sped through the hairpin on to Rockhill Hill. Amazingly, my side stitch started to let up. At the summit, it was nearly gone. Bizarre. On que, the rain picked up again. Would this be a repeat of Garmin?
Turning on to Broadway meant slow and steady descents, almost all the way until the approach back in to Crown Center. At the 4-mile marker, my left heel started to burn -- my sockless shoes. Not thinking ahead...moister + shoes + no socks = blisters. And all with over two miles to go.
My focus was fixed on the pain developing at my feet, which may actually have helped. I had lost sight of my breathing problems, forgotten about my calves (they had felt fine earlier in the run, anyways), and didn't think at all about the pouring rain all around me. Making sure to hold a conservative pace, miles 4 and 5 nearly disappeared.
By mile 6, I actually had a fair amount of energy left, likely from my upper-7-minute miles. Ready to get the hell out of my shoes, I picked up the pace, topping Broadway Hill, then the hill approaching Liberty Memorial. The rest was downhill. Broadway and Liberty put my sixth mile above 8:00 so far. I wouldn't let that happen.
I blasted down Wyandotte, then Memorial, then back on to Grand for the final stretch. My watch rang Lap 6, the end of my sixth mile: 7:50. Only a quarter mile to go. I picked up the pace even more. Descending in to Crown Center, finally, I saw the clock ahead of me: 48:00. Just like last night, I felt somewhat defeated. Last year I finished in 49:00. I at least had to beat that. I opened up my strides as wide as I could, finally passing under the finish banner at 48:39. 7:40 per mile.
Though I'd hoped, and even expected, pushing PR pace like I did a year ago, I started remembering all of the obstacles faced with during this year's run: calf problems, a 5k the night before, side stitches for 2 miles, and pouring rain. Assuredly anyone would be slowed a bit as well. Though 7:40 per mile was still well over my 7:25 PR, I had plenty of time to train up to a 10k PR this year, and plenty of opportunities to show for it (I had registered for the Heartland 30k series, a new series comprised of 3 different 10k races on consecutive weekends).
And anyways, Hospital Hill, despite the immense inevitable challenge it always brings, was still one of my favorite running races of the entire year. I had conquered [rain on] The Hill.
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