Flat, Fast, Fun: the CVS/pharmacy Downtown 5K
High-caliber competition will meet high-test fun in the smallest state's largest road race and this year's men's national 5K championship.
Posted Tuesday, 30 July, 2002
Neal Colman doesn't even like urban running, but he loves running Downtown -- the CVS/pharmacy Downtown 5K, that is.
"I usually avoid running in cities -- the fumes, the traffic -- but this is a race I never miss," Colman said of the annual 5K held in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. "All of Providence pretty much shuts down for the race, so the streets belong to the runners. I wouldn't miss it."
Thousands of other runners share Colman's enthusiasm for this 12-year-old New England standby, which takes nearly 5000 runners every September on a high-speed tour of Providence's revitalized downtown. Featuring a flat and fast course, the CVS/pharmacy Downtown 5K draws some of the top runners in the world, as well as weekend warriors who revel in this giant party for New England runners.
But don't let the festivities fool you, this is no frivolous fun run. The CVS/pharmacy Downtown 5K has a pedigree of high-test competition: Elana Meyer broke the women's 5K world record there in 1994; marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi set his 5K personal record there in 1997; and this year USA Track & Field designated the race as its men's national championship event for 2002 and 2003.
"It's an indication that on a national level there is recognition of the quality of the race and the quality of performance within the race," said Steve Vaitones, managing director of USATF New England, when he made the announcement in January.
Of course, most of the thousands of participants in the Downtown 5K don't have designs on a national championship title. For them, the race is an opportunity to see the stars of the sport do their stuff -- and to enjoy the race's well-organized program of entertainment.
More than twelve bands will line the course's 3.1 miles this year, lending a high-tempo soundtrack to this high-tempo road race. One year, race organizers managed to pack 18 bands along the course, placing a musical act every 300 yards. "You don't get to hear very much of any single band since they go by so fast, but it makes it fun," Colman said. "By the time one band fades out, you start hearing the next one."
This year, race organizers have added a post-race concert with John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
"It's a very concentrated hour for most people," said race director Charlie Breagy. "You run the race, you hear all these bands along the way, and at the end we wine and dine you and give you a free concert with a major band."
Fast Course in a Fast-Changing City
For all of its star power and social atmosphere, the top marquee element of the race could well be Providence itself. Once a moribund industrial city known more for its mobsters than anything else, Providence has staged a remarkable turnaround, benefiting from a physical and economic facelift that has morphed it from seedy to sensational. Money Magazine calls it one of the best places to live in America.
"Providence is going through a renaissance at the moment, and the whole downtown area has gone through an amazing transformation since we started the race in 1990," said Breagy. "Now it's one of the nicest cities in America."
At the heart of this renewed city is the Waterplace Park and Riverwalk, located at the foot of the Rhode Island Capitol, a gleaming-white marble structure with a soaring dome. The Providence River was diverted to flow through the park's several small Venice-inspired bridges, allowing visitors to take gondola rides in the heart of the smallest state's largest city.
Re-routed rivers and giant construction projects are, however, not the stuff of race director's dreams. Downtown construction have forced changes in the Downtown 5K race course in every year the event has been held.
"After 13 races we've never used the same course twice," said Breagy, who runs the course regularly to check for unexpected new construction. "This year's course is going to be the fastest we've ever had. It's about three or four seconds faster than last year. We cut out some turns, including a sharp left-hand turn, where we're going straight this year."
Just as the river has become the focal point of the city, it's also the focus of the Downtown 5K. The loop course starts and finishes in front of the State Capitol building, alongside Waterplace Park. After a 50-yard downhill start, runners will go straight through Kennedy Plaza before joining the shores of the Providence River. The course leaves the river briefly before returning to cross it at the halfway point.
"Crossing the Bridge is great," Colman said. "You've got the river view on both sides, and it's very scenic."
From there, runners benefit from two clear straightaways down South Main Street and Canal Street, before crossing the river again and returning up Memorial Boulevard to a short uphill finish.
"It's really flat, really fast," said Colman, 50, who has been running and racing for 22 years. "I ran my fastest 5K time at this race."
Good for the Sport
The CVS/pharmacy Downtown 5K has grown steadily in the past decade, and Breagy says he hopes that its growth will help to encourage others to start running. "When you have a big race like ours, it actually helps to promote the sport," he said.
Breagy's not talking just about adults. Since the race's first year, the CVS/pharmacy Downtown 5K has featured a full slate of kids' races before the 5K main event. Over 700 children participate every year. "We always felt this should be a family event," Breagy said. "It shouldn't just be the adults. Kids should be able to have some fun too."
"My children have run it," Colman said. "All of the children get medallions, and it really inspires them to go forward. They come in to the finish, and their names are announced over the loudspeakers. A lot of attention is given to the kids, it's great.
"It's a social event," Colman added. "I haven't missed it since I started running it six or seven years ago. There are a handful of races that I make sure I do every year, and this is one of them."
"We've proven ourselves to be a consistent race, a high-caliber race, and we've attracted the best athletes in the world," said Breagy. "But most of all, we want people to walk away from this race and say, 'I'm glad I done that.'"