When we stepped out of the hotel this morning a cooled air I expected to greet us simply didn’t. I didn’t want to verbalize the demoralizing thought to the rest of the team, but it felt downright humid if you would have asked me. It wasn’t hot, hovering somewhere in the Upper 60’s at 6:30 am, but the humidity was apparent enough to give me concern for the race. “Oh well,” I thought to myself, and just carried on with normal race preparations leading up to the start call.
Groups of lean runners bunched behind the imaginary force field that is the start line and quickly shared goal times with each other. I heard a couple runners mention going for a Trials Qualifier (sub 1:05) and others go for less ambitious 71’s, 73’s and so on. It seemed I was going to be out near the front of the pack with only a handful of others as I aimed for a 68 finisher.
The airhorn filled the silenced air in the mall parking lot and we followed suit off the line onto a nearby street. Sure enough, 3 runners moved ahead out front and Poray and myself followed behind at a safe distance and conservative speed. Almost too conservative I wondered. The rest of the field swallowed the road behind us as we moved through the first mile and although my heart rate worked off the initial surge of adrenaline, I felt very smooth, very easy and almost very slow. My goal for the first mile was to ease into a 5:18/mile pace, but as Poray and I kicked down the road I feared we might go through around 5:25 or 5:30, so imagine my surprise when we hit the first marker at 5:18 on the dot. I was thrilled it felt that effortless and was bolstered with confidence. I won that battle solidly.
Rolling into the second mile the course took a turn downhill and we blasted down a quick decline into a flat stretch that gently continued at a net gain. I continued to feel solid just off Poray’s heels when a couple other runners moved up to join us. One of them moved past Poray and I, and when Poray followed I made the decision to hang back and conserve my efforts for later. The other runner pulled up next to me and we continued on exchanging efforts, crossing the 2nd mile clock at 5:09. Ok, that was a touch fast, but not with any deliberate strain on my part as the downhill had pulled us quickly into the distance.
Myself and the other runner were joined by yet another as we moved through a 3rd mile that started to climb gradually, but the course soon took another dive quickly and severely into the 3rd mile. The two runners dropped off behind me going down the hill and I passed the 3rd clock at 5:19, still right on pace for my final goal time.
The course took an inevitable turn upwards after the severe downhill, but rolled over a hilltop and back down yet again, quickening my pace ever more. All alone now I went through the fourth clock in 5:10, an encouragingly fast split considering how smooth I continued to feel despite the undulations.
At this point I was all alone and as Poray and the other runner continued to move far out ahead I realized this was probably going to be my position for quite some time…no man’s land. I hate that point. PR’s rarely come when you’re out on your own as it becomes increasingly difficult to convince yourself you have more gears, but when another runner is pressing at your back or pulling at your competitive strings, the ability to find speed is almost magical.
I continued to move quickly into the course, staying calm with the knowledge I still had a ways to go, but also noticing my singlet was already soaked in sweat and swinging with the weight across my back. The humidity had shown itself without reservation. I pushed through another mile of undulating roads that lay refreshingly shaded by trees and ran along a massive river, crossing the 5th clock at 5:18, still ahead of pace.
Although encouraged by my PR setting pace, the course started throwing obstacles into my path, laying down road that began to climb out of the downhill it set early in the race. Mile 6 climbed ever so gradually with only a few flat or downhill sections of relief, which showed when I crossed the mile 6 mark in 5:26, 33:00 minutes even. I did the calculation in my head and figured if I could repeat the first half tempo I’d be dead on for a 1:08 finish, but that confidence was quickly dashed as the course began unrelenting climbs upward. Adding insult to injury a speed sapping hill shot skyward where the mile 7 clock sat at the top, of which I maxed my systems out going through in 5:27.
Soon after, the course rolled downhill for a short stretch before ending all plans of a smooth run to the finish when it suddenly stretched out far before me…uphill. And didn’t quit. With an open line of sight I could continue to keep tabs on Poray and his competition as they repeatedly swapped places with each other, but I stayed back in no man’s land working hard up the ceaseless incline that comprised the rest of the course. I worked through mile 8 at 5:23, which deceptively ignored the continuous incline upwards.
I ran on periodically looking ahead for short, flat stretches or downhill that I could capitalize on to get back to PR pace, but the only thing I saw was the flat face of the road continuing to climb and climb and climb, not severely, but certainly consistently. This was not looking good and this was not going to change.
As the road stretched on I struggled to keep form, to keep my breathing rhythmic, to keep my legs pushing off the ground instead of turning over merely with memory, but this was an ever losing war. I had won some pacing battles early on, but those were fleeting and disappearing off into the distance. I continued to roll alone into mile 9 at 5:28, then mile 10 at 5:27, not able to make up any lost time from previously slowed miles, only consoled by the fact that I was soon to be 2 miles out from the finish when the course would hopefully let up and I could try to make one last unrestricted effort through the line.
Then finally, just as I hit mile 11 at 5:37, my worst pacing yet, another runner pulled up behind me and compelled me to push forward quicker, despite the continuously rising course. I felt him just off the back of me and we moved faster into mile 12 as the course began to even itself out. I was pretty spent at this point from the effort, so I wasn’t all that surprised when we crossed mile 12 at 5:33. I knew my PR was out of reach at this point, but hoped to just come through the line strong.
A mile out the finish area was in sight and we started rolling strong towards the end, this other runner taking the lead and pulling me along. It felt good to let my breathing go and just start pushing hard into the finish, back on the pace I wanted to hold earlier on. The finish area got closer and closer and about 800 out from the line another moved up and rolled on us hard. We both pushed to maintain pace, but he continued ahead as I started to fall off the back.
Then in a more comical moment of the race, all 3 of us ran towards the finish when the announcer informed the crowd of our coming. “Here they are ladies and gentleman! The first women finishers…I think on a course record! It’s going to be a 1,2,3 kick to the finish! Wait…I think it’s just the first woman in that group. Actually, hold on, these are all still men. I just got word our first woman is still 10 minutes back.” I never got confirmation, but I do believe the gender mix-up was due to my long hair, which admittedly, is quite untypical of most male runners.
Then, to add insult to injury, the course took one last upward step into the finish, sapping any seconds saving sprint I might have had in me. The three non-women runners kicked to the line, myself unable to make any last competitive effort, crossing the line in a decent, but somewhat disappointing 1:10:38, securing 8th place overall.
Although initially disappointed in my performance, after so much post-race discussion with my teammates, we all came to the conclusion that the variables weren’t actually in our favor this day, as we all felt to be in much faster shape, but still failed to perform to our expectations. A number of other runners expressed the same. It’s hard to pinpoint what just wasn’t “on” today, whether that was the predominately uphill second half of the course, the humid weather, the lack of competition, etc. Who knows, the clock only reads them as excuses, and the overall war was lost without question.
But let’s not dwell on the negative variables of the day, for there were battles I wanted to win and did so concretely and it is these I will take forward into the buildup to Chicago.
First off, though coming in approximately 45 seconds slower than my PR (which I set on this course last year), I ran significantly stronger and endured further even more this year, which convinces me I’m still a stronger runner at this point now than I was last year. This is where I want to be and where I need to be.
Then there was my pacing, of which I often tragically fail at early in the race, but this time I ran conservatively, only spurred on strongly by the drops in elevation, yet still able to recover back to goal pacing before the course went upwards. This is a battle I lose again and again, but I came in mentally prepared this time around and won this smashingly, holding back at the start to hit a conservative pace on the dot.
And most importantly, and somewhat unexpectedly, that first mile and subsequent 5:18 miles into the first half of the course…..felt easy. Real easy. 5:18 is the average I need to run at Chicago to qualify for the trials, and to be honest, I’ve struggled to hit this pacing consistently in my workouts leading up to this point, with a few notable exceptions. So, to be able to run 5:18 without excessive effort, without feeling like I’m over-stressing myself, without great concern that I won’t be able to maintain this pacing deeper into the course is a HUGE battle won. Of course, I hold no illusions that I could maintain 5:18 for a marathon right now, but still being 6 weeks out, I’m confident I’ll be able to build up to that or at least get really close. That small, but important, dynamic of this race made the effort entirely worth it and above all else this is what I’m taking with me into the coming weeks of workouts and one last race.
In the end I could easily sulk over missing a PR, over getting rolled by two runners in the last miles, over failing to push when I was all alone, but that will get me no closer to a successful run on October 10th. Today’s war is over, but I won enough battles to become that much more hardened for when it really, REALLY counts. That’s the only war I HAVE to win right now. The rest are merely flesh wounds.