September 25th, 2019

christmas 2008

The 2019 Cow Harbor 10K, Part I: the road back home…

In Northport, New York, the town on the North Shore of Long Island where I grew up, the third weekend of September is one of the highlights of the year, a celebration of the community's spirit. Sunday is "Cow Harbor Day," whose name calls back what the area was originally called by English settlers (because cows grazed in the pastures adjacent to the harbor). The highlight of the day is a parade, which I marched in four times in high school. The weekend's other signature event happens on the morning of the preceding day - a 10 km (6.21 mi) run through the streets of Northport Village. The Great Cow Harbor 10-Kilometer Run has grown by leaps and bounds since its debut in 1977. Nowadays, it attracts a field of several thousand each year, including many elite middle-distance runners from all over the country.

And last Saturday, I ran it for the first time; not only that, it was my first ever organized running event.

The first memory of the Cow Harbor 10K I have is probably sometime in the early 1990s. My family went into Northport Village to watch the runners late in the first mile, at a family friend's house. We even had a folding table with cups of water for the passing runners; I definitely remember one of my elementary school classmates stopping and taking a cup.

Over the remainder of my formative years in Northport, I always thought of the race as something cool to read about in the paper, but never something I'd ever seriously consider doing, or even becoming involved with as a non-participant. I graduated from high school and moved on to Cornell, and then the Navy. Sometime during those years, the event's stature grew in my mind. In 2006, halfway through my six-year enlistment, I happened to be able to get back to Northport for Cow Harbor weekend, and so I decided to rise early on Saturday and take in the race from the finish line. And was that ever a year to be there. Ryan Hall, a recently turned professional runner from Washington, went out and crushed the course like nobody has ever done before or since. He covered it in 28:22, winning the race by forty-three seconds, and breaking the course record by twenty-two. In the (now) thirteen subsequent runnings of the race, not a single runner has gone sub-twenty-nine.

As I prepared to leave the Navy in early 2009, I first began to think about actually trying my hand at the course. But I allowed things to intervene. Taking five weeks to criss-cross the United States after officially separating, resuming my undergraduate studies at Hofstra... the race took a back seat that year. And so it did in subsequent years; in many cases, it conflicted with my annual trip to Ithaca for Homecoming at Cornell. Then I moved out to Ohio, and then I moved to Pennsylvania to take my current job, and initial license training has an intensity all its own, and then I got my reactor operator's license, but Cow Harbor stayed on the back burner...

...but the back burner is still part of the stove, and the thought still simmered. When I realized that Cornell had placed its 2019 homecoming in the first week of October, the window was open, and so I decided to consider it. I initially gave that consideration in a fairly expensive way - by buying myself a treadmill. (It was a Black Friday deal!) My NordicTrack 1750 is nice; you can download and follow workouts with actual personal trainers. It also has compatibility with Google Maps. Cool! That means I can program in my own routes! Here's a three-miler through Halifax, a four-miler around Mercury Bay in New Zealand...

...and Northport, of course. I put a few varied ones in there early this year. But once my mid-year vacation to Ireland was behind me, it was time to get serious about the second half of the year. You've said you want it, Matt. No better opportunity than this year. It's our high school class's 20th reunion. It's the Village of Northport's 125th anniversary. You took the required two nights off from work months ago. Do you really want it or not?

I finally answered in the affirmative. But that answer was not entirely dispositive of the question. Another condition had to be met: can you do it? I had been using the treadmill every so often ever since I bought it, but I figured there was one way to "stress test" myself. Program in the first and second halves of the course separately, and complete them on consecutive days at 5.3 mph (a comfortable 70 minute pace for the full distance), without varying speed or incline. On August 2 and 3, I passed that stress test. And so, later that night, I filled out an application and plunked down forty of my own actual American dollars to back it up.

For many returning to Northport to run the Great Cow Harbor 10K, the logistics of the visit are easy peasy. Not so for me anymore. I no longer have any family in Northport, after losing both my parents quite suddenly in 2013 and 2014, and my brother deciding to make a fresh go of it out West in 2015. I know a few of my high school classmates still orbit around our hometown, but I wasn't sure if any of them would be there last weekend. There was availability at the closest official accommodation, the Chalet Motor Inn in Centerport. But that could get dicey on race day if I missed an alarm and/or got out late and got impacted by course closures. So for only the second time in my life, I decided to turn toward Airbnb. And in doing so, I noticed a listing from someone relatively new to it, within the village, and close to the start line at Northport Middle Laurel Avenue William J. Brosnan School. And I decided to come up a few days early - the Wednesday before race day - to reacquaint myself fully with my hometown. After all, it had been nearly three years since I'd last been back.

In the following days, I continued to hit the treadmill. The runs got longer, and my capability to complete them was generally there. But surely enough, the inexorable march of time brought me to the afternoon of Wednesday, September 18 - and so the bags were packed and loaded into the Compass, and it was pointed northeasterly. After a long slog through mid-afternoon traffic, I found my way to Crab Meadow Beach, to the bench that bears the name of my late father. Then to James Street and downtown, to capture the views - a task for which the weather cooperated over the entirety of my stay on Long Island.

The next day I did much of the same, returning to my accommodation late in the afternoon. Its location was helpful for another reason - it enabled me to leave the car behind and head out on foot. I elected to do so and walked down to Sand City Brewing Company for a few glasses, and then up to the Seven Quarts Tavern on Route 25A, where I met my friend Ryan for dinner. It was very good to see him again, and we spent the meal catching up. But that task wasn't done by the time the meal was, so I asked him how he'd gotten to the Seven Quarts. When he replied that he'd walked, I ardently gave a four-word reply - "to the Wine Cellar!" - and indeed we headed to the Wine Cellar on Main back downtown. Along the way, I started pointing out what different businesses occupied various storefronts in the past. (For example: "see that gourmet olive oil store? I don't remember what it replaced, but that used to be Village Books and Things.") We stayed at the Wine Cellar until it closed, and shortly before it did, Ryan mentioned to the proprietor (with whom he is friends) that I was running the 10K on Saturday. She replied that commemorative shirts were on sale, and they would entitle wearers to a free post-race festive beverage. Ryan immediately bought one for me. Just after 11:00 pm, we headed out and headed home, splitting up at the intersection of Main and Church Streets. (I imagine that the entirely of this paragraph might come as quite a surprise to many of our late-1990s Northport contemporaries, because back then, Ryan and I were both teetotalers.)

Friday, as you might imagine, was a slog. I just rested up and took in more of the place, including another trip back downtown (alcohol-free this time). More boats were coming in by the day, and in multiple places on Friday, they were tied up three-wide next to the dock. It was one of the most impressive collections of luxury marine transport I've ever seen grace Northport Harbor; one that didn't simply need a healthy dose of "yacht rock," but DEMANDED one. I focused on the task ahead of me the following morning: control your breathing, keep your arms in tight, and stay on pace. To that end, I ran through the mile-by-mile splits that would get me to the finish line in seventy minutes, the time I'd put on the application form. I headed to the Brosnan School to check in and pick up my number and T-shirt. I was assigned No. 12033, which meant the actual moment of truth for me would be 8:42 am. (More on that in Part II.) I then headed home and turned in early, trying to get every ounce of rest my body would take. Before going to bed, I noticed something hilarious. The T-shirt Ryan bought me the night before bore the Wine Cellar on Main's address - but the "P" in "Northport" was missing! I'd planned to wear the shirt in the race, but now I really had to - just to point that out when I stopped in after running.

Finally, I got to sleep. Part II will recount Saturday - the prelude, the run itself, and the aftermath.

The 2019 Cow Harbor 10K, Part II: Race Day

I did have a little bit of trouble sleeping on Friday night, and finally at 6:15 on Saturday morning, I decided it was time to rise and roll. I packed up all my things, since I'd be returning after the race just long enough to shower and grab my belongings, and then head out. As I looked at the race gear that I'd laid out on the bed, a stubborn thought ran through my mind - "8:42… so that's then we find out whether or not this was a good idea." Fortunately, after just a few minutes, I realized that I had totally the wrong mental framework. I took a deep breath, and yelled something (internally, of course) meant to reorient me toward the right one: "WAKE UP, IT'S RACE DAY!!"

After packing, I got "suited and booted" - that is, donned the race gear - and armed myself with the very few things I'd need to have on me after crossing the finish line. (Things like my ID, the key to where I was staying, and a bit of cash.) I also applied SPF 70 to every exposed skin surface; I didn't want to be peeling like mad in the days to come. About 7:40, I walked out the door and over to the starting area. That was a moment when it started to feel real - seeing the thousands of assembled runners all awaiting the same thing I was. Fortunately, there was one sense in which I didn't have to wait - for a toilet. I counted forty-nine of them in the row what had been staged, and the lines for them were dozens deep.

At 8:15, I "stepped into the crucible" - that is, onto Laurel Avenue, having found the staging area for my "wave." The Cow Harbor 10K uses a staggered start (officially, the "John J. Pitfick Staggered Start" after the man who devised it). The race's official starting time is 8:30, but only the elites - the runners who are in it to win it - and other very fast people kick it off then. The field is divided into fifteen waves, based on predicted finishing times. Each subsequent wave starts, like clockwork, a minute after the previous one. Having listed an hour and ten minutes as my estimated completion time, I was in the thirteenth wave. The anticipation built as the minutes ticked down. At 8:28, I heard "The Star-Spangled Banner" off in the distance… and two minutes later, "pop." The elites were on the course, and the 2019 Great Cow Harbor 10-Kilometer Run was officially underway.

With every subsequent "pop," both anticipation and trepidation built within me. But there was no turning back now. With less than two minutes before my wave was sent off, I elected to knowingly (because I read them) violate the race rules, albeit in a manner befitting a quote from Albert Einstein: "Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced." The instructions to runners, right there on the front page of the race's website, clearly state that "NO…HEADSETS…will be allowed on the course." Plenty of others had theirs in, so I didn't see a problem with doing the same. 8:41 - "pop" again. We're next. Someone on a loudspeaker got us psyched up, as I fiddled with my phone. It would determine most of the musical accompaniment, but I would choose the first song myself. I started the playlist, and took another deep breath. The starter intoned "five, four, three, two, one…"

POP. I started the stopwatch, and I started running. Ten thousand meters to go. The song I chose was Pink's "Just Like Fire," and its chorus reminded me why it was the right choice: "we came here to run it, run it, run it… just like fire, burning out the way, if I can light the world up for just one day…" This was my day to light up the world.

Over the first mile, I repeatedly reminded myself to exercise the caution I knew was necessary. After a brief climb, Scudder Avenue slopes downward for the remainder of Mile 1 and into Mile 2. You don't want to expend too much energy, especially knowing what remains ahead. I reached the first mile marker ahead of pace, but not too much. So far, so good. The playlist here did its job reminding me of what to be willing to expend - "Whatever It Takes," by Imagine Dragons. I turned the corner onto Woodbine Avenue, which takes you within sight of the finish line. It occurred to me then that the leaders were already on Main Street. Onto Bayview Avenue, and those wonderful views of Northport Harbor off to the left. That's when I passed two things that remain indelibly on my memory - someone holding a sign that said "Go, Random Stranger!" which drew a smile from me, and someone running the race in full firefighting gear, including an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). Respect, sir. But Bayview is only so long, and eventually I made the dreaded right, onto…

James Street. This is the major climb of the course. And I have to admit, not even my treadmill really prepared me for it. I'd biked it several times when I was younger, and every time, I had to step off the pedals and walk for a bit. Saturday was no different. I got back to a jog, but I had to conserve my energy - we still had a long way to go. Once atop the hill, I happened to notice my Airbnb host along the course, but didn't think to stop at the time. Onward to Ocean Avenue and its spectacular views, which include "the Pit" (a depression in the land caused by sand and gravel mining, since redeveloped into high-end housing), the Northport Power Station (a point of high contention back home these days), and Long Island Sound (and on this day, clear across to Connecticut). Had to adjust slightly here, to account for the ambulance taking someone off the course. Three-mile split looks good, and so does the 5K. Halfway home. Down Eatons Neck Road and onto…
… "the back stretch," the mile and a half section of the course on Waterside Avenue. The intersection of Eatons Neck and Waterside is the closest point the course comes to where I grew up in Crab Meadow. It was about here that the playlist gave me Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." I found myself modifying the first verse: "this is how we do it, it's Saturday, and I feel okay, we're all here running the 10K…" I reached the four-mile marker north of the intersection with Norwood Avenue over a minute ahead of pace. This was crucial information to have on hand.

That run down Waterside is a long, slow incline, something you wouldn't necessarily suspect if you drive over it. It's often been said - and at the awards ceremony, was said again by Will Fodor, the race's Director of Elite Runners - that the fifth mile is quite often where the race is won or lost. So knowing that I could afford to give some time back was helpful when my body told me it was getting close to the limit. I backed it down to a walk, got a little back in the tank, and came back up to a jog, several times over. One thing that helped me get back to a run at one point: the "Sea Legs," an actual live band playing on the porch of one of the houses along the road. I told myself "you can walk if you have to for a bit, but you have to keep moving forward. You can't stop. You have to finish." I kept pushing, past the five-mile marker, toward the final turn…

…onto Main Street. This "home stretch" of the race starts with "Pumpernickel Hill," named for the restaurant that sits at its base, on the southwest corner of Main Street and Fort Salonga Road. Atop the restaurant is a now-permanently installed sign, reminding runners that it's the last climb on the course, and that the last mile is all downhill. Well, that's not entirely accurate; there's a bit of a plateau before the downward slope to the finish. At the corner of Main and Maple Avenue, someone did have a sign that said "it's all downhill from here!" I thought then, "that's right. Everybody gets to the finish! We've come too damned far to DNF now!" In fact, I almost yelled that out. Just before the intersection of Main and Church Streets, someone had the theme from "Chariots of Fire" blaring. I thought it most fitting, given that that film won Best Picture in 1981, the year of my birth. Under the last traffic signal, a curve right, and a curve left…

…and the finish line is in sight. As I took that turn, I thought, "This view, from this vantage, on this day, is something I've thought about for so many years, and now, it's finally here." Past the six-mile marker, and I was close to pace. It was time to find some Liquid Schwartz to dump in the emergency tank of the Eagle 5 like Captain Lone Starr and Barf did in my favorite movie. Push. Push. That banner got closer, and closer, and closer, until it was finally close enough for me to raise my arms and pump my fists in exultant triumph… and just like that, I'd passed under it. The icing on the cake came when I stopped the stopwatch, and pulled down my arms to look…

…and saw the numbers "1:09:57." I had finished it. Holy ever loving bleep, I finished it - and just under my predicted time. (I'd told myself that the time didn't matter, that only finishing did - but I did feel a slight inkling of responsibility to the race organizers to get around the course in the time I said I would.) I grabbed some more water and a complimentary Huntington Hospital/Northwell Health branded towel, stopped for more photos at the corner of Main, Bayview, and Woodbine, and made my way to Village Park for the post-race celebrations and ceremonies. It was there, waiting for the complimentary Sand City beer to which I was most duly entitled, that I transmitted the news of my completion to Facebook and Twitter. At the time, I was choking back emotion, so much that I said that to a small approximation, it must be what it feels like to win the Stanley Cup. Because at that moment, there simply were no words.

I downed that beer, stuck around for the post-race ceremony and raffle, then headed back up Main Street. I stopped at the Wine Cellar on Main for my free drink - they most graciously allowed me to substitute a beer - and then dropped in just up the street at Gunther's Tap Room; as my brother reminded me on Thursday, a stop that absolutely had to be made. Gunther's - affectionately known as "Club G" around town - has a place in history more generally, having been the watering hole of Jack Kerouac when he lived in Northport. But it has extra special significance to my family. My late father was a dear friend of the late Pete Gunther, and my late mother tended bar a few afternoons a week there for more than twelve of my formative years. It also served as a reminder of just how long it had been since I'd last been back. That was December 2016; since then, the interior of Gunther's had been destroyed by fire, and it had been rebuilt and reopened. I stepped in, ordered a Budweiser, Dad's favorite, and basked in the glow of what I had just done. This Bud's for you, Mom and Dad.

From there, I walked back up Main Street to my Airbnb, showered, and cleared out and left behind the key. After lunch, I headed to Crab Meadow Beach one last time. That reminded me of the incredible bond between the race and the community that supports it - I didn't notice a single cup from any of the water stops, official or not, lying along the road. If you didn't know a 10K had taken place that morning, you would've had no idea. I then headed for downtown once more, treating myself to a glass of Race Day IPA at Sand City and refilling my growler with their Red Sand, before briefly milling about the harbor. But all good things must come to an end, of course, and the time had finally come to head back to Pennsylvania.
As I made that one final walk up Main Street to my car, I cued up a song I thought perfect for the epilogue. Its chorus:

When the bones are good, the rest don't matter

Yeah, the paint could peel, the glass could shatter

Let it rain, 'cause you and I remain the same

When there ain't a crack in the foundation

Baby, I know any storm we're facing

Will blow right over while we stay put

The house don't fall when the bones are good

"The Bones", Maren Morris

I said earlier that in those first post-finish-line moments, there simply were no words to describe what it means and why it matters that I went back home and did this. Well, with a few days of clear hindsight, I think I've found some. It's not simply the personal accomplishment, though that's certainly important. It's also the way my hometown came together and rallied around my brother and I after That Bleeping Day in late 2014. On that dark occasion, Northport reminded us in no uncertain terms that, as Morris sings, "we built this right, so nothing's ever gonna move it," and "it don't always go the way we planned it, but the wolves came and went, and we're still standing." Coming back and taking part in this signature tradition was an honor for me, and but a small repayment for everything I've gotten from my hometown. The Fates can take me and my family out of Northport, but they'll NEVER take the Northporter out of us.

As I made that last walk, I couldn't help but beam at a thought: This is my day. And nobody can take it from me. Though I did have a moment of pause on the southbound New Jersey Turnpike - did I really, actually do that this morning? - that bolded thought was confirmed upon my arrival home. The first thing I did after dropping my bags inside the door was to check the race website for results. They were posted. And on the list, deep in the 3100s, was what I was looking for: "Matt Carberry / 38 / Royersford, PA / 1:09:48.68." I had indeed done it, and come in just under my predicted time.

Any regrets? Actually, a few. One is not purchasing an armband to hold my phone. I instead took it around the course in my holster case, and that left a couple of marks on my left hip - thankfully, those are healing well. But the one that sticks is one that evolves from a comprehensive review of those results. At least three of my high school classmates also ran the course on Saturday - but I had no idea they were doing so, and so I couldn't find and reconnect with them in the park. One of them even flew up from Atlanta for this! But that isn't so big a problem. I looked at my 2020 work schedule and when other engagements fall on the calendar. And so, to the question of "will you be back next year," I can give the same reply that men's champion Futsum Zienasellassie gave to Will Fodor at the awards ceremony: "hell yeah!"

As I said in Part I, this year marks the 20th anniversary of my high school class's graduation, and the 125th of the incorporation of the Village of Northport. It's also the year that representatives of the country to which I gave six years of my life in defense won the Women's World Cup for the fourth time; one of those representatives was no. 20, Allie Long - a Northport native. In two weeks, I'll gather with many of my classmates on Long Island to remember and reminisce. To them, to all my other classmates, to Allie and her twenty-two teammates, to everyone else who ran on Saturday, to the Cow Harbor 10K race committee and all the volunteers, to everybody back in Northport, New York, and everybody else whose support got me around to the finish line last Saturday, I raise my glass - appropriately, currently filled with Sand City's Red Sand - and toast you all with these four words, and with all my heart…

"Northport. Forever and always."