After blazing through my second-ever 5k in September, and with my training going well, I decided to enter an 8k for the second weekend in December. I trained (not hard, or often, enough), I rallied some buddies (almost all of whom bailed), and I bought a doofy holiday-themed t-shirt at Walmart. I was ready.
The two 5ks I've run were both local - one in Middleburg, one in Leesburg - with probably 200-or-so participants. The first one had a woman with a stopwatch at the end telling us our times; the second one used a digital timer. They had a few signs posted and a handful of volunteers to keep us on course, and they gave us cute cheap t-shirts at the end. They were really fun and very low-key, and I even placed 22nd in the second one.
Needless to say, I was a little anxious being one of 4,700 lining up under the signs that grouped us by estimated mile time in the heart of D.C., with oodles of volunteers, professional signs, and lots of sleek-looking runners who really looked like they knew what they were doing.
Imagine my shock when I saw all the random people out to cheer us on, the whoops from the runners around me when the pacesetters doubled-back past us, the HUGE crowd at the end of the race, arms outstretched into the lane for high-fives and whoops of encouragement.
It was a COMMUNITY. It was a FAMILY.
It was FUN!
Of course there were people there to win, or to run their PRs. I don't know how many, but I know that there were 4,700 people there with only a handful of elite athletes at the top. But when they came by at one of the many switchbacks on the course, the rest of us whooped and cheered. And I felt so inspired by those people; being in the company of these phenomenal athletes made me push myself harder. Getting smoked by runners old enough to be my parents, and even my grandparents, was a serious kick in the butt.
The world of race running is, obviously, very different from the horse show world. My weird little barefoot shoes cost me $100. I train by myself, on the county's roads. A race costs about $35 to enter. Of course, if I wanted to compete at the Olympic level, it would require a tremendous amount of time and money, but I can compete as an amateur on a shoestring. And I can do this, and even get dramatically better, without ever working with a coach.
Riding isn't like that. Even the grassroots riders need to spend a not-insubstantial amount of money just caring for their horses, and showing locally isn't cheap, and no one should pursue dressage, even at the lowest of levels, without a professional helping them out.
But I was reading the Chronicle and Eventing Nation reports from the USEA Convention, reading about David O'Connor's incredibly well-thought-out plan to bring U.S. Eventing back to the forefront of the world, and how excited everyone seems about it - not just the High Performance riders, but the lower-level riders, too. My beginner novice amateur students sound excited about The Plan. They are thrilled at the prospect of our top riders going further and achieving more, the same way that the 4,700 of us in that race cheered and whooped as the top 100 flew by.
The race also had this incredible energy. No small part of it, for sure, is the fact that this is a Christmas-themed race, complete with Santa hats, reindeer antlers, jingle bells, lights and Wise Men pushing a baby in a stroller and the totally-crazy people dressed as the 12 Days Of Christmas (a turtle shell with wings - turtle doves, get it?) or in full-sized onesies and a Cindy Loo-Hoo wig. But it was also just fun, with even non-runners out to cheer on the pack. My friend Heather, who ran with me, said that when she does marathons, people tailgate along the route. I know why events have an easier time attracting non-riders: running and jumping even at beginner novice is sexy, training level dressage not so much.
There are lessons to be learned for dressage, both from the runners and the event community. Like our eventing brethren, we didn't have the Olympics we'd hoped for. Our sport is also at a crossroads and is about to find itself with a new leader, too. Of course we need to support our amateur rider support base - they are the students and the owners for the top-level riders, and without them, we're lost - but there has to be a way to cheer for each other, and to rally around our banner, lift up our future Olympians and Team riders, and to use their successes as inspiration to trickle all the way down to the beginners at the bottom.