The only thing I love more than running is running for adorable animals. Did you know that the African penguin is an endangered species? Neither did I until I met one last year on my birthday! One hour with Greenblack the penguin at the Mystic Aquarium was all it took to get me hooked on these adorable little waddlers. So when they told me that the Aquarium hosts an annual 5K to benefit penguin research and preservation, I knew I was in.
The race had its ninth birthday this year, so I knew that it was a well-worn course. Despite this, we didn’t get updates about check-in, bib pick-up, or even start time until shockingly close to race day. I might have blinked at signing up if I had realized that it was a 9AM start-time on a Saturday (which effectively meant a 5:30 AM wakeup call since we had to drive down to the Aquarium… a hefty road-trip). Nevertheless, myself, my honey, and my BFF got it together and woke before the sun to get to the start line.
We were mostly asleep the whole way down, but woke up pretty quickly when we arrived. There was a penguin walking around taking pictures and giving out hugs, which was
awesome since it was a bit chilly before the start. I agonized over what to wear for this race since the morning did start out quite cold; but knowing that it was going to warm up during the run I opted for just a thermal and my vest. Turns out I made the correct choice; by the time we were out on the trail it was nice and toasty.
I thought it would be a nice, flat road race; I was WRONG. The course started nice and flat and I booked it out of the start gate. It was a small-ish race (only 250 runners), so even in the crowded sections of the course it wasn’t that terrible. After a brief half mile on flat road, we ran through a cute field, then into a small trail section with some technical elements. Roots, inclines, a bridge; it was legit trail running for a minute there. This was the only section of the course where I experienced back-up; at one point the trail got so narrow that runners had to go one at a time, which meant we all ground to a halt waiting for our turn.
Since I hadn’t planned on PRing that day, this was just fine with me. The backup didn’t take long to clear, and we were on the road again. Out of the trail section, we were back on the roads of Mystic for what turned out to be a windy course.
There were two water stops, both serving ice cold water. I was grateful for this, but quickly found a small technical difficulty: the water-fillers were a bit overzealous and were actually doling out full cups of water. While I would have loved to swig, toss, and run (as is my usual MO at water stops on a 5K), this was kind of impossible with a full cup of icey hydration goodness. I suppose I could have tossed the half-full cup, but that just felt wasteful… Anyway, the water stops slowed me down a tiny bit but like I said, this was not a PR-chasing day.
About 2/3 of the way through the course, we hit a SERIOUS hill. The kind of hill that makes runners want to cry and give up. While I had been doing pretty good, the hill put a definite crimp in my plans (I wasn’t the only one) and I had to slow down to tackle it. But… just keep running, as they say.
After the hill, the course doubled back on itself. It led you back through the trail (more roots… more rocks…), back through the field, then back onto that nice flat piece of road before you hit the finish. I was able to finish strong within a minute of my PR; not too shabby considering the terrain and the back-up on the trail! The finish line was well-stocked with bagels, bananas, water, poweraid, and (get this) brick oven pizza that they were making in the back of a truck from a portable brick oven. Pretty killer for a 5K!
Honey was able to PR on that insanely difficult course, and my BFF finished strong (running the entire thing; her first full 5K! So proud!) so it was a good day for our crew. At the finish line, you could check to see if you won a door prize (none of us did), adopt a penguin (we absolutely did), and put your name in the penguin betting pool because (get this) there was a PENGUIN RACE to follow! Yes, after the humans ran for the penguins, the penguins ran for the humans!
Before the penguin race, we got to explore the aquarium a bit. It’s a neat place with lots of things to see, pet (I touched a shark!), and wonder at. We checking in with our favorite whale – Juno the beluga star of such Youtube videos as “mariachi whale” and “bagpipe whale”. Then it was time for the penguin race. Of course we got there early and got
wonderful seats (they host the penguin race in the same space that the seal show is… the seals are in the darkened swim tank while the penguin race chute is on the floor in front which probably means that the penguins can’t actually see the seals, but the irony is still palpable to us humans). The penguin race was adorable; the penguins weren’t entirely sure which way the finish line was, but they figured it out eventually.
On the whole, this was a great, well-run race and I’d highly recommend the experience. It’s a beginner-friendly race with a course that will challenge you without making you want to die, and there are loads of perks at the finish line. Plus: penguins. Do it for the penguins.