I stepped out of the air conditioned house into the awakening morning light, only to be blanketed with a thick, moist air that I’ve come to know crowds your lungs and gums up your system like expired oil. A stifling humidity rode the back of last nights storm and hung around to ruin already sketchy race conditions.
I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “Eh, whatever. We’ll just change up the expectations and instead of run hard, run both hard and smart.”
The Athletic Annex team filled the start line from one side to the other, creating a veritable wall of yellow singlets that silently challenged anyone to take us on and see if they could bring our streak of dominating this race to an abrupt halt. Honestly, I wasn’t too concerned with the competition as I was my tendency to run way too hard at the start and suffer drastically for it deep into the race. When I ran this race 2 years ago I went through the first mile in 4:50 and paid for it dearly. I resolved NOT to do this again and worked at convincing myself all the way through my warmups and up to the starting line.
The countdown started at 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and the wall pushed off the line and headed into the long, but noticeable downward grade through the first mile. Teammate Jesse Davis took the lead as expected and a few of us followed just behind, one runner not of ours suddenly right on Jesse’s heels. “Perfect”, I thought to myself, “I’m just gonna let him hang on Jesse and I’ll just sit a few strides back and see how this plays out at my own pace.” Teammate and closest contender, Brad Mason, was right with me as we worked down the road, firing up our lungs, but not taxing ourselves out of range. I knew this would be a quick, but not too quick, first mile and that gave me courage for the rest of the distance to come.
Hitting the level road in the first mile I suddenly found myself quickly moving on the second place runner who had instantly dropped off Jesse’s back. I pulled aside him and immediately passed without any increased effort going into the first turn and quick incline. His breathing was noticeably labored and he was pounding the pavement with audible force, not a good sign for him. I pushed ever so slightly up the incline and he dropped off the back unceremoniously, while Brad continued to hang on as expected.
We rounded the turn into the first mile and our coach called out splits. “5:00, :01, :02, :03!” Not bad. Maybe a little quicker than I hoped, but no 4:50 by any means.
The road quickly dropped again as Jesse continued to separate the distance between us and Brad and I used the downhill for some speedy recovery before leveling out again. I felt my legs come back under me on the flats and was able to pick up speed without laboring my breathing, despite the thick, hot air slowly drifting into my lungs.
Moving towards halfway I heard Brad’s footfalls get softer and softer behind me and realized I must be pulling away, at pretty much the same point when we were going 2nd and 3rd on this course 2 years ago. Brad, however, has a tendency to drop off and then creep up on you at the end as if he was just playing a fun game, letting you think you were home-free, and then pouncing like a cat on mouse. So, I made sure not to get comfortable and figured I’d keep at a pace that would REALLY hurt for him if he was to try and make up ground.
Unfortunately, trying to keep a strong pace was beginning to get harder and harder, the humidity beginning to take it’s toll and lay the “tractor pull” effect on me. The further you get, the slower you go, the harder it feels. This is what I expected.
I went through mile 2 in 5:12, not terrible, but a significant drop from the 5:03 start. I instantly knew there would be no leveling of pacing today and I just needed to keep from crashing hard and expending everything before the finish, which is not an easy feat in such heavy air.
I kept pushing through mile 3 (5:16), up and down slight rollers that began to feel steeper and steeper the further we got into the course. Jesse lay ahead in sight, but certainly out of reach and Brad lay somewhere behind me, hopefully not in attacking distance. Just in case, I imagined he was close enough to turn it on if needed and used that to motivate myself to keep running hard.
By now the humidity had really taken it’s toll and I struggled to keep my breathing rhythmic and calm, while my legs lost form and I had to concentrate on staying upright and smooth. I needed that fourth mile to come, hoping the “One more mile” mantra would be enough mental strength to carry me through to the finish…and far enough away from Brad.
I hit mile four in a disappointing, but again expected, 5:18 and tried to shed the voices telling me to save my strength towards the end. I still think I was ahead of Brad enough at this point, but not totally sure, and decided to just let everything out and push through the last mile as hard as I could instead of saving anything for the last 800. This was easier said than done, as the ground seemed to move under me like I was on an easy recovery run instead of quickness I like to see during a fast mile. I took on some of the spectator encouragement and made the turn that signaled 800 meters out, resisting the urge to look back and see where Brad might be.
The final stretch leads up a long gradual incline, but I had given up conserving anything at this point and just pushed hard, my breathing out of control, my form like a doll without stuffing, and my legs with barely enough muscular strength to respond to my mind’s orders. I just let go of my concern and tried to get that incline over with as soon as possible, finding a little bit of speed as the road leveled out and I worked towards the final turn. With nothing left to lose I went into sprint mode and just focused on turning my legs over as quick as possible, not caring about the rhythm of my breathing and pushing as hard as possible towards the finish line.
I hit my watch, 26:11, kept myself upright walking towards the volunteer who was going to cut my timing chip off my shoe, but put up one finger and asked her to wait as I bent over and regained my composure, on the verge of throwing up. I managed to keep everything (nothing?) down, let the relief of stopping fill me with strength and look up to see my son running up to stop short of hugging my soaking body.
In all, I was very pleased how my first race back felt after a couple months of training. Taking into account the excessive humidity, I felt I ran as quick as I could, but more importantly, ran smart and controlled. My mile splits got slower and slower throughout the race, but this is pretty much what you can expect in weather like this and it’s a good day if things don’t go drastically south. So in that, I take encouragement knowing I could have run close to 5:00 flat splits in ideal conditions. This bodes well for more months of training leading up to the marathon in November. It took me awhile to get the confidence to race and I’m psyched at the trajectory of progression I’m on right now. With smart training and attention to all the extras, I’m really looking forward to what is coming. Onward!