By Rick Platt
After a succession this spring of flat and fast Colonial Road Runners Grand Prix 5K courses, combined with ideal weather that led to impressively fast times and high age grades, reality hit last Saturday at the third annual Run for Mental Strength 5K, starting and finishing at the Warhill High School track, but essentially the Warhill cross country course with many hills and a challenging mix of terrain.
The course started on the school’s track, up to an asphalt service road past the baseball field, then on to the power station service road to a connection with the gravel and dirt Warhill Nature Trail for more than a mile, exiting the trail for a loop of an emergency access path, the path outside the Sports Complex baseball field outfield fences, on some grass to return to the Warhill Nature Trail, with some two-way race traffic of the fastest returnees vs. the slowest runners and walkers going out. Combine all this with a light rain which made for slippery bridges on the Warhill Nature Trail, and slippery grass on the grassy sections.
A true cross country course, good for high school and college runners in the fall, but a challenge for road racers more used to asphalt courses. Many prefer the traditional road races, and fast times, but there are also some who like the diversity of races like the Mental Strength 5K.
Williamsburg’s Carol Hansen-Vessa, the current leader for the women’s 60-69 age group in the 2022 CRR Grand Prix, emailed, “I happen to like the course as it is, more challenging with the hills and gravel. It makes a nice change from flat, neighborhood races!” Williamsburg’s Mark Douglas, third for men 55-59 at Warhill, emailed, “I do like the challenge of a cross-country style course.”
Svetlana Goncharova, the women’s race winner from both last year and this year texted, “I really love the course. Sometimes I like to run on woods. Because it makes my race go faster, and no one can see me [competitors behind her]. This is why I love woods.”
Last year, Goncharova upset four-time CRR Grand Prix champion Emily Honeycutt at the race, her only win ever over the Tabb High cross country and track coach. This year, Goncharova, 24, of Williamsburg won by 10 seconds in 22:57, with Karen Grabowski, 38, of Toano runner-up in 23:07.
Deelyn Robinson, 56, of Williamsburg was third in 23:37, 20 seconds ahead of Bethany Spector, 32, of Virginia Beach. Spector was the number one ranked runner in the Hampton Roads area for all of 2021, and ran an outstanding 17:55 last September at the All Shades 5K on Jamestown Island, but who is now a few months pregnant with her first child and ran Warhill as an easy run. Her husband, Jordan, was fifth overall for the men.
Last year, Goncharova set the Warhill women’s course record with a time of 21:16 on a dry morning, and on a slightly long course (3.17 miles), due to last minute construction by the county on a portion of the course leading to a longer re-route back to the nature trail. Her 2021 time was equivalent to a 20:50 for a 5K distance, and was the stepping stone to a nine-day period later that month where she set lifetime records at 5K (20:10 at the Eastern State Hospital 5K road course), at 10K (42:53 at the Elizabeth River Run 10K) and at 8K (33:05 at the Yorktown Freedom Run 8K on Memorial Day).
Goncharova had a busy weekend, deciding to race the next day at the Peninsula Track Club’s Sarfan Center Superhero 5K at the Mariner’s Museum course. She had an unexpected adventure when she showed up at Newport News City Center a half hour before the announced 9:30 a.m. race start, and no one was there at the location listed on the entry form.
A call to her coach and a quick online search showed that the race location had switched to the Mariners’ Museum. Arriving three minutes before the race start, she nevertheless was not only the women’s winner, she was the overall race winner. Her time was 21:50, a full minute ahead of the men’s winner, Jeffrey Vance, 36, of Newport News (22:57).
For the men, the CRR’s “Big 3″ of Roger Hopper, Adam Otstot and Isaac Lamprecht were again duking it out, just like they had at the DOG Street 5K on April 16 and the Virginia Regional Ballet 5K at First Colony on May 7.
At DOG Street, the three ran yearly bests of 15:15 (Hopper), 15:22 (Otstot) and 15:43 (Lamprecht). With more humid conditions the trio slowed to 15:24 (Hopper), 15:44 (Otstot, but an all-time CRR record for men 40-44) and 16:07 (Lamprecht) at First Colony.
With the slippery bridges and varied terrain at Warhill, those times slowed about a minute or so each last Saturday to 16:26 (Hopper, 31, of Chesapeake), 16:35 (Otstot, 40, of Williamsburg) and 17:32 (Lamprecht, 15, of New Kent).
Hopper emailed, “We went out in 5:00, first mile is pretty downhill and forgiving, 2nd mile was significantly slower. Isaac was hanging with Adam and me early, but then I took it and put a few seconds on Adam, very gradually building my lead the rest of the way. Adam stayed in decent enough contact, but I made sure it wasn’t close. Heavy legs during a 120-mile week, 117 for the 7 days prior to the race, feeling good about my fitness right now, another 120 this week.”
Otstot emailed, “The race played out very similarly to the First Colony race the week prior. Roger and Isaac set the early pace, and about a half mile in, Roger pressed, created a gap, and I spent the rest of the race in pursuit. He basically put a few seconds into me every mile. My mile splits were 5:02, 5:49, 5:32. Even though there was a big drop in pace after the first mile, that was due mainly to the course terrain, not the effort.”
Mainly due to the light rain and slippery conditions this year, only five men’s and six women’s records were broken for the race’s second year at Warhill. The inaugural Mental Strength 5K was held on the fast Eastern State Hospital road course, with a separate set of course records.
For the men, Hopper’s 16:26 this year was a course record, three seconds faster than Forest Braden’s adjusted winning time from last year (16:50 adjusted for a 5K to 16:29), one second ahead of Otstot (16:51 adjusted to 16:30), with Hopper third last year (17:16 adjusted to 16:55).
Five-year age-group records were broken by Lamprecht (men’s 15-19), Hopper (men 30-34), Otstot (men 40-44) and Alexey Popov, 39, of Newport News (men’s race walk, 32:59). For the women, age group records were broken by Grabowski (women 35-39), Jessica Anderson, 40, of Williamsburg (24:48), Megan Buckley, 47, of Williamsburg (25:14), Christine Williams, 60, of Poquoson (32:23), Hansen-Vessa, 67, of Williamsburg (29:48), and Laura Liechti, 60, of Williamsburg (women’s race walk, 40:47).
In contrast to DOG Street, where 11 age graded above the national class standard of 80%, including six above 84%, and First Colony, where seven age graded above 80%, including three at 86%, there were only six above the regional class level of 70% at Warhill, as compiled by CRR statistician Jim Gullo.
Otstot (81.61%) was fractionally better than Pete Gibson, 66, of Murfreesboro, N.C. (20:38, 81.10%). Following above 70% were Hopper (78.30%), Lamprecht (75.86%), Deelyn Robinson (75.66%) and Paul Pelletier, 56, of Williamsburg (20:49, 73.66%). There were 75 finishers in the 5K run/walk, and an additional 20 finishers in the one mile fun run/walk.
But the Mental Strength 5K is about more than just the competition, times, age group records and age grading, it’s also about the challenges of mental health. Women’s runner-up Karen Grabowski emailed, “As a Licensed Professional Counselor, a runner, and someone who lost a friend that died by suicide a few weeks ago, I wanted to take a moment to speak to what mental strength means. That mental strength isn’t about feeling good and okay all the time but rather having the willingness and ability to recognize when your capacity to cope has become overwhelmed, and being vulnerable to reach out for support and resources (whatever that may look like to you). That it is okay to not be okay, and community mental strength is about being there for each other and checking in on each other’s emotional well being. NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] had a tent at the race and they are a good resource for people.”
Race director Hannah Buttner, who is graduating from Warhill High this year, and who was race director all three years, emailed, “I began running cross country the summer before my freshman year. I fell in love with the sport and the people I was running beside. It was my new passion and it sparked a fire of drive that has pushed me towards going into the military [she will attend VMI in the fall]. I have cross country to thank for so many aspects of my life. In the spring of my freshman year, one of my classmates—a sweet and intelligent girl—committed suicide. The sudden death caused the whole school to mourn for weeks, even those who had never met her.”
That led Buttner, who was looking to host some sort of community event since middle school, to approach the CRR at age 14, with the idea of a race to support mental health. Buttner continued, “We have successfully organized and executed three 5K Run for Mental Strength races and have raised significant funds for NAMI and Warhill’s track and cross country team [the race beneficiaries]. Being a race coordinator has been the highlight of my high school career. This summer I will begin my next chapter at VMI in Lexington. After graduation I hope to commission in the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer. My dad, Louis Buttner, will be taking over the race because we promised to keep this both a CRR and Warhill legacy.”
Steve Menzies, second for men 55-59 in the race, and a strong supporter of NAMI, emailed, “This race has always been special to me personally since it bridges the two Williamsburg communities that add so much to the mental, emotional and physical health of our community. NAMI and CRR are both very visible in the community, and since I moved to Virginia in 2004 this race has been on my calendar [the previous version was the 5K Run for Mental Health]. My extended family has had multiple members struggle with mental illness and this community has one of the best NAMI chapters around. I may be biased, but both CRR and NAMI Williamsburg are incredible treasures available to all our citizens who want to connect with good people. I feel blessed to have settled here after my military career ended.”
Rick Platt is president of Colonial Road Runners.