After waiting in the hotel lobby most of the morning, the call quickly spread throughout the elite runners milling about, digesting breakfast, watching the red and green blob on the radar screen. It was time to caravan to the start line. We quickly grabbed our bags, walked out the sliding front doors and stepped into the dark, morning air….and a downpour. We all jogged quickly, but cautiously, towards our cars, filed out in one long line and made our way through downtown Decatur to the park where the race would take place. Like dominoes in a row we pulled into our parking spaces one after the other, but instead of getting out and starting pre-race rituals, we sat sullenly, avoiding the rain. I flipped through my cd’s trying to find some inspiration in my selections and instinctually grabbed a fitting title, “Unearth – The coming storm.” The music filled the car and I psyched myself up to run in the less than ideal conditions.
The race was the Shoreline Classic 15k, a complete loop course that rung a massive lake and rose and fell continuously, rarely ever laying down level stretches of road, but never making us suffer for too long. I had run this course last year and tried to remember the more difficult portions so as to be prepared for the challenge. Putting up significant prize money, the field for this race is always deep and impressively fast, which always lends to having other runners to go with and so I hoped would aid me in a decent PR for the distance, despite the course’s difficulty.
Surprisingly, about 15 minutes before the start, the rain gave up its fight and transitioned to a mere spitting, only keeping the roads damp and not restricting our race in any way. After going through our repetitive warmups and run outs 2 rows of lanky legged runners of all descents, latino, african, american filed behind the start line and waited for our release from the announcer. Just then a wiley-haired man steps up to me and says, “Hey. You kick their asses!” I smiled, no recollection of this spectator, and assured him I would do my best.
I stood poised on the line and when the airhorn sounded I shot off down the road as the group of about 8 or 9 elites ran out even faster. Knowing they were going to be running through in sub 5:00 miles I remained calm and let them move ahead, finding my place within a second pack of runners a short distance back, my breathing labored with the strong effort, but not feeling over-stressed. We settled into a rhythm in the first mile and anxiously waited to hit our first split, the definitive gauge if the day was going to go smoothly or as a struggle. Running with Poray we covered the first couple course undulations with ease and went through the mile…5:08. I was surprised at the pace considering we had to take some hills in the process and I still didn’t feel that taxed.
Soon after passing the first mile our group broke and where I thought we might have some company our competition trailed back never to be seen again. It was just me and Poray moving quickly towards mile two, continuing to climb the quick bursts of hills that would fall just as quickly back down. Feeling relatively confident in my pace I found myself moving slightly ahead of Poray and without making a concerted move was then moving further and further out ahead. Unsure whether he was having a bad day or I was having a good day, I decided to keep going with my effort and looked ahead to see Jesse running alongside one of the handful of Kenyan runners who came for the prize money. I went through mile 2 at 5:12 and hit one of the longer stretches of flat road that crossed the lake on a 2 lane bridge. My legs were strong and I was able to put down a deliberate effort to pick up pace, trying to stay ahead of the speed sapping hills that would come later on.
The road started to rise into mile 3 and just then I noticed Jesse had dropped the Kenyan, but I wasn’t sure if I was in the position to move up on him or if he would continue to run away from me. Regardless, running alone, I decided my best option was to keep an eye on him and make a move to catch up every chance I got, using him as a pace incentive instead of getting sucked into the comfort of no man’s land. Just then the course hills began to rise and fall over and over, making continuous pacing more and more difficult. I ran through mile 4 and 5 with varied splits of 5:21 and 5:14, unmistakably showing the rise and fall of the route.
Keeping an eye on the Kenyan in front of me I noticed a pattern in our pacing. He suffered on the uphills, of which I enjoy, so I would begin to close the gap between us, but on the downhills he would move out a touch further. We played this back and forth game through mile 6 as I decided to push on the downhills in hopes of gaining, but fortunately mile 7 rose at length and I was able to pull him towards me significantly. Mile 7 was a steep, speed sapping incline and I was frustrated to go through at 5:30 pace, but relieved to recovery quickly once we leveled out. The kenyan was now very close and on the next decline I pushed hard to come right up behind him before the road started to turn upward. As I expected, he slowed and I moved up along side and then in front of him, but as I also expected, he hung on and used me as a pacer. Fair enough, as he unwittingly did the same for me for the past 5 miles.
I held to my hopes that I would be able to move away as the race came to a close, but just around 7 1/2 I heard more footsteps behind me and as I figured might happen, Poray had found his stride again and caught back up. He first passed the Kenyan and then passed me at the beginning of a downhill, during which the Kenyan decided to use Poray as his pacer and latched onto his trail. I suddenly found myself being left behind for the last mile.
All 3 of us approached the final bridge that would put us one mile and change out and I tried to keep those two in touch in case I got a final wind in my lungs or lengthy sprint in my legs. I was excited to find that I could push hard and keep them from running away as they lay only 5 seconds ahead. We rolled through mile 8 and I made another surge to catch up, cutting the distance to just a few seconds.
The course took one last turn onto a footpath that would snake its way to the finish and I began pushing harder and harder, trying to mimic my efforts at the end of our mile repeat workouts. I noticed Poray was getting dropped by the Kenyan by a stride or so and I was tempted to yell out “Kick now Poray!” as the finish line lay deceptively out of sight on the last turn. By the time most runners realize how close the finish is, they’ve missed the opportunity to lay into it. Making this same mistake last year I started my final push farther out, hoping to close the gap between Poray and the Kenyan even more.
When I was sure I was safe to lay into it, I put in my final effort, maxing out my lungs and sending my heart rate into erratic territory. I made the final turns to find the Kenyan moving out quicker and quicker, but Poray easing up towards the line. I pushed off the ground with everything I could and suddenly found myself right at Poray’s back, but just as we came into the line, him just one second ahead of me. I hit the final timing mat and felt the relief of my halted effort come flooding into my legs and lungs.
I checked my watch….49:00 flat. 5:16 / mile average. 12th place overall.
Where we go from here
I can’t say I’m disappointed in this race, I mean, I ran a P.R., but when I step back and look at the big picture I still have cause for concern. This was it. This was the last race before Chicago, so if I am to derive any indication of my fitness and where I stand at reaching my marathon goal time, this is the closest I’m going to get. With that in mind, I can’t be too happy about this race. Again, I did run a PR, but only by 12 seconds and my previous PR was set on this course one year ago, also as the final race before Chicago. I don’t know how to properly perceive the performance in this light. I ran well and I felt strong throughout the race, but last year’s time translated into a 2:25:55 marathon performance just a few weeks later, so by that measure, I seriously doubt 12 seconds will translate into a 2:18:59 effort. Then again, the marathon is a whole different beast and it’s probably not best to gauge fitness based on individual races. I’m still holding on to a fellow runner’s words that when he qualified for the Trials he had run a couple of his worst races, even dropping out of one, just before Chicago. So there is still hope….if I must convince myself.
I also wonder if my less than hoped for race performances are not necessarily an indication of my current fitness, but rather an indication of the amount of work I’ve been putting in these past handful of months. Maybe all those miles at a significantly faster pace, all that quality speed work and those 100+ mile weeks have simply left me temporarily flat. Maybe the fact that I can train like I have been and still come close to last years race times means I’m working harder and my body is just waiting to respond during the two taper weeks and on race day when it truly counts. I know how helpful it is for me to take a day or two off before a race and I have yet to do so, to let my body recover for any of the races during this training period. So maybe, just maybe, my body is tired. Maybe it’s just waiting for a grace period to store up and then cash in all that work I’ve put it through. I don’t know…then again, maybe I’m just not responding well this time around.
One thing is certain, we’ll find out in less than 3 weeks. I promise you this though, I’m not stepping to the line in Chicago doubting my abilities, holding reservations about my last few races or considering backing off. Oh hell no. I’m going there looking to run no slower than 2:18:59 and I’m going to make an attempt at it for as long as my body and then mind will let me. And THAT’S where we’re going from here.