The sun hadn’t even begun to break the horizon as a caravan of elite athletes left the hotel parking lot for the park where today’s race was to be held. We filed into the parking lot, gathered our gear for the race and headed out for our individual warmups, stretches and bathroom stops. The warmups felt good enough to me and the tightness from the days prior had worked itself out of my body well before we stepped to the start line.
A couple guys in our group who had run this race before cautioned of the hilly course, which hugged a shoreline that was lapping its edges with small waves as the wind blew across its surface. The skies were filled with grey clouds that blotted out the sun and kept the temperatures to a sufficiently cool degree, making for pretty ideal running conditions. The wind was noticeable, but only a concern in open areas of the course, of which there were not many.
The minutes counted down and a larger than expected group of elite athletes gathered at the start line waiting for the race to begin. The elite field was pretty deep and the expected groupings of Kenyans from various parts of the midwest had also shown up to race. Right off I knew any sort of prize money placing was well out of reach, where in years past I might have made a run for the top, this time it was about putting down a good race in preparation for Chicago. After a quick introduction to the race the signal was given and we all leaned over the line and took off down the lakeshore road.
My race strategy was hold back more than usual for the first couple of miles and then lay into, trying to see if I could pace myself to a strong and very fast last mile. With the course ending at 9.3 miles I felt I had a chance to hold strong to the end, but the cautioning about the hills put a touch of doubt into my plan. So then imagine my surprise as we rolled into the first mile marker and the volunteers standing to the side of the course yell out, “4:45!”. Now, I’m not the best gauge of my own pace, but I KNOW I was not putting down a 4:45 mile. Soon after we started off the finish line, a group of about 10 guys blasted out ahead and about 4 or 5 of us strung ourselves out behind, so when we hit that first mile marker I knew I was running a pretty standard first mile and they had to have been incredibly off. Little was just ahead of me and I saw him turn and say something to the runner next to him. Making a verbal confirmation of my own, I yell ahead to them, “No WAY that was right!” Eh, mile markers tend to be off in races and so I didn’t let it bother me.
Just ahead of me Little and another runner were moving side by side, but I was beginning to gain on both of them by the second mile. Little pulled out a little further and the other guy started to come back to me as I made ground. I knew I was going to pass him quickly as we hadn’t even hit the second mile and he was continuously looking over his shoulder to see where I was. We hit a relatively steep but quick hill and as soon as I pushed he fell right behind me and drifted away. I kept Little in sight and saw another string of runners that had fallen off the main pack dotting the road in front of him, the bulk of that pack consistently throwing down sub 5 minute miles and pulling far out of reach.
We hit a long flat bridge and I found myself moving up on Little almost immediately. I was feeling incredibly smooth and at ease, but I could tell he was suffering for some reason or another. I moved up on side of him and he kept pace, but as soon as I put a touch more effort into the flat stretch of road he dropped behind and fell away, the sound of his breathing quickly trailing out of earshot. I looked ahead and saw an interesting scenario for the rest of the race, Jessie Davis in sight, but decently far ahead, then two Kenyans in between myself and him. Now usually, when I start moving up on a Kenyan, they have blown up from the earlier effort and are simply trotting their way around the course to get back to whoever is going to drive them back to the hotel, but these two were in no way slowing and looked to be sticking with a solid finishing time. This…was incentive.
I made an effort to keep them in sight and make moves to pull up on them if I had it in me. I was still feeling incredibly strong as we rolled through 5k and started tackling a few of the quick hills that popped up before us. I was keeping both a quick turnover and strong pace on the flats and decided to to approach the hills differently than I normally do. Where I usually try to keep pace up the hills, often dying at the top and struggling to recover thereafter, this time I decided to accept the slowing pace while keeping my leg turnover consistent as the flats, even if my stride was shortened and choppy. After trying this for a few hills I think I was on to something. Hill after hill I worked my way up with a choppy but quickened stride and found myself recovered at the top of the hill almost immediately. And sure enough, the first of the two Kenyans was pulling back to me quicker and quicker, on both the downhills and the uphills.
Still feeling great we rolled down a quick descent into 5 miles and I passed the first Kenyan, he not even making an effort to hang on and keep stride. I looked ahead and saw the next one not too far off in the distance, still keeping a strong pace, but close enough that I could make a go for him.
The course never got out of hand as the guys in our group made it seem it might, but as we ran through 6 miles the roads did start to get a touch tricky, if not defeating. The slant on some of the roads became so severe that keeping a consistent stride became impossible and a greater effort was made trying to stay off the broken shoulder. This portion of the course slipped behind us soon enough and we were back into a strong race. I kept my sights on the guy in front of me and as I was still not feeling the sense of fatigue I normally do at this point I kept making a push to catch up. It wasn’t a quick move, but I was noticeably reeling him in as we moved into the final 5k.
It was at this point at the last 1/2 marathon that I started to struggle hard and I feared a repeat for these final few miles, but I was relieved to find myself recovering yet again on the hills. At mile 7 we did encounter a longer hill than most on the course and all though it drug me down at its crest, I patiently waited out the fatigue and found myself recovered yet again before we started the descent on the other side. I was still moving on the guy in front of me, but it wasn’t quick enough to convince me that I could catch him before we hit the finish.
I was still surprised how strong I felt and kept pace as we crossed the final lake bridge and hit mile 8….and then with just 1.3 miles left, I started to feel it. I certainly wasn’t crushed by any means, but another hill put the fatigue into me and my effort to run strong on the flats was now noticeably compromised. I looked to the guy ahead and it almost seemed like he had moved out further, but not enough to crush my determination. Running over the final lake bridge I tried to pick up pace and lay down that solid last mile I had hoped for, but I was pulled down into the road by an invisible weight. I started to feel something in the back of my throat as I pushed the effort and struggled to breath as my pace dropped. The final mile was twisting and I was losing sight of the runner just in front of me, but I pushed on trying to dig deep for the final kick.
Then much sooner than expected we were on the shoreline path and the finish banner was just up ahead. I started to push into a final kick, but the guy ahead was too far out to catch. Still, I laid into it and, oddly enough, a spectator yells to me, “Good job! Finish strong. Finish strong please!” Yeah, he said please. It’s funny the things you can remember when you are pushing out a final sprint in full body pain. Anyways, I was able to dig deep and kick in the final stretch of road, coming through the line at 49:13 and 12 place overall.
I was very satisfied how I ran that course. It certainly wasn’t an easy course, but I was able to tackle the hills and recover quickly and strongly and felt smooth the whole way through, save the last mile. Undoubtedly I would have dropped well into the 48’s on a flat course and a less windy day, but overall I was pretty thrilled with how I came through it all. One more effort down and on we go.
15k (9.3 miles)
12th overall (2nd in age group)