March 21, 2021. Saturday dawned as predicted, favorable temperatures in the low 50’s under cloudy skies, and humidity only 70%. Sounds great, right!? The only problem is that one other weather indicator, wind. It was a killer, if not literally, it would certainly kill speed! At race start, 7:54 AM for the Elite Women and 8 AM for the Elite Men, the wind was 16 mph out of the NNE, gusting to 26 mph. That is bad enough on the ground, but the main feature of the Jacksonville course is the Hart Bridge, which spans the St. Johns River. Runners approach it a bit after 7 miles, climb up to the top, and race down the other side a mile to the finish! Once the runners hit the bridge ramp, they see that Bridge rising before them; they are running into the teeth of the wind and it is a shock! The early part of the course is not as exposed; the first bridge encountered about a mile into the race, the Main Street Bridge, is relatively short and is a drawbridge, so not as high as the Hart Bridge. After that, the course winds through many Jacksonville neighborhoods, eventually emerging onto Atlantic Blvd. at Mile 7. A half mile later the runners hit the ramp and the fun is over until they near the crest of the Bridge at Mile 8.3 and can feel the slope diminishing!
David Angell, 44, is the reigning USATF Masters Grand Prix Champion, the winner of the 5K and 8K Masters National Championships in 2019. Despite the long layoff due to Covid, he had high hopes coming into the race; he wanted to win the Masters competition. He also expected his fitness to carry him to a sub-50-minute effort and, with luck, a sub-49! As noted in yesterday’s preview, he already had a ‘live race’ 5K of 15:39 under his belt from last November. After some minor injuries over the early part of the Winter, training from mid-January on had gone great! After his easy 2-mile warmup, Angell made his way to the start, lining up in the Elite Corral on the left-hand side of the starting line as the runners look forward. The Elite Women went off with their 6-minute time bonus. A few minutes later, ceding the front row to the younger athletes, Angell lined up in row 2 and waited for the gun. On the USATF.tv feed, you can see him on the viewer’s right, with a black kit and the bright red Nikes. Once the race is under way, Angell tucks in behind, keeping pace for the first half mile or so. A viewer can see him wisely running a tangent while the young guys stick to the road center. Every little bit helps! Soon after that, the feed goes to the split screen covering both the Women’s and Men’s races. At that point, I lose track of Angell behind the main field. No doubt a gap started to emerge. John Raneri had decided, to the surprise of many, to push the pace early, taking the elite field through the first 5K at 4:38 pace. The field held back slightly but the 4:44 pace they were running was way too fast for a Masters runner to keep pace. Runners who wish to compete for the Masters prize are advised to be in the Elite field because Masters Awards are based on gun time. At least two other Masters runners lined up in the Elite field but neither could stay close to Angell. The downside of a Masters athlete being in the Elite Field is that one may not have anyone to run with. The Elites are too fast. There were some 20’s and 30’s runners that could run with Angell, but they started a minute after the Elite wave went off. He did find one of the younger runners he could run with for the first three miles, but then he was gone. All of the other runners Angell would see, would be those who were fast enough to close the 1-minute gap, quickly pass, and vanish into the distance ahead, and there were not many of them. From Mile 3 on, Angell was in ‘No man’s land’, but ‘all wind land’.
The first mile of the course is somewhat sheltered, and the wind is a cross wind. They turn at that point and start to feel the wind behind them. After they cross the Main Street Bridge, it is a tail wind through Mile 4. Once they turn into the neighborhoods, the runners occasionally are running into the wind, but it is somewhat sheltered, so runners do not feel the full brunt of the wind. Angell went through the first 5K in 16:21. Knowing that the Hart Bridge was ahead did not make him feel good about that time. He was hoping he would be closer to 16 flat! He kept grinding, nonetheless. It is hard to find a rhythm through the neighborhoods, as there are frequent 90 degree turns. Just before emerging for the 2nd time onto Atlantic Blvd, Angell passed the 10K checkpoint in 33:24. With the 2nd 5K in 17:03, and given the way his legs felt, Angell knew his dream of a sub-50 effort was toast! Based on what he could observe, though, it seemed likely he was in first place among the Masters athletes.
The last part was the hardest. I ran it in 2020 with a 12-15 mph headwind. It definitely ‘punches you in the gut’ as you are totally exposed. Angell noted, too, that the wind actually came slightly on an angle, as the bridge was running North-South, and it kept pushing him to the left of the road The higher you go the closer you get to the top, but the harder the wind blows! And Angell had 5-10 mph more wind to deal with than I did! Angell ran the first 5K at 5:16 per mile pace, the 2nd 5K at 5:30 pace and the 2.1 miles from the 10K to the top of the Hart Bridge at 8.3 at 6:04 pace. That is a typical pattern. The reward is that you get to sprint down the Hart Bridge to the finish a mile away. But Angell battled up the bridge into the wind and alone, with no one to shield him or even to silently commiserate with him. His legs were spent! Nonetheless, he crushed the last mile in 5:43! That gave him a 51:52 and the Masters win! The second-place runner in the Masters competition, Neil Chandler, was over 4 minutes back. None of the Masters athletes who started a minute behind the Elite Men was able to catch Chandler, much less Angell.
Angell observed after the race, “I'm glad I went even though I did not run as fast as I wanted to. I am always happy to get top Master; it was fun to get in there and be a part of the Elite field, even if it was only for the start. If I go back, I would include more hill training beforehand. The course is largely flat, but if you are not ready for the Hart Bridge, it looks like you can lose A LOT of time going up it. I totally underestimated how bad it was going to be.”
It was a terrific effort on a tough day. Angell epitomized the runner who, though challenged, does not give up, and battles his way through the headwinds to achieve victory! The time may be a disappointment to him, but the effort will mean more to him in the future when he looks backs at a Masters win at the Gate River Run, one of the iconic American races!
And what about the Women’s Race?
In the preview I noted that Roberta Groner, 43, and Maggie Shearer were both entered in the Women’s Elite field. During the race, the USATF.tv commentators noted that some elite athletes had bowed out in the week before the race, either due to reactions to a Covid test or other health-related issues. That may have been the case for Shearer. In any case, her name does not appear in the results. Groner encountered the same terrible conditions as Angell. The only difference is that her fitness is closer to the fitness of others in the Women’s Elite Field. She was the top American finisher in the 2019 Marathon competition at the World Championships in Doha. That meant she had the potential to run with a small pack.
|The Women's Elite Field waits for the Starting Gun at the 2021 Gate River Run [Photo Credit: Gate River Run posted on FB]|
Groner and Tristan Van Orde came through the 5K together in 16:53, trailing Madison Offstein by 9 seconds.
By the 10K, Groner and Van Orde, working together, had closed to within a few seconds of Offstein. They emerged onto Atlantic Blvd. and toiled up the hill into the fierce headwind together, gathering Breanna Sieracki in their pack, as she fell back from her early pace. The four of them crested the bridge between 46;22 and 46:26. Groner threw in a 5:30 mile to finish off the race, but the young legs won the race to the finish line, as the other three had stronger kicks.
Groner finished 18th overall and won the Masters race in 51:56. The
second place Masters prize went to Crystal Harris with a time of 54:34. It was another tour de force for Groner, showing she has not lost much to the time off from the Pandemic. It may be that Groner's days of competing for top Open wins is now in her past, although that is not certain. What is certain is that she will dominate future Masters competitions whenever she competes.