"It's a little self indulgent..." - My mom
"After I read a sentence, I get mad at myself for caring what you're doing." -Karl Dusen

Monday, October 3, 2011

Paying the fiddler

I had to pick up my rental car for my trip to the Freedom's Run Half Marathon around 5 on Friday, but I didn't want to sit in beltway and 270 traffic all evening, so I went home for a few hours to wait it out. While watching a few episodes of Mad Men, I noticed a real pain my the top of my throat when I swallowed. It was an alarming symptom, I predicted, of an impending sickness.

I hoped a good night's sleep would help, but getting to my motel in Hagerstown was tougher than I thought. I had to pull over and take two breaks during the 75 minute drive. I had dinner and got to bed, but sleep was evasive. I woke up constantly, including once following a dream in which I was late for a race of some sort because the bus driver taking me to the starting line got lost. I didn't want to take any cold medicine, for fear of dehydrating myself.

I woke up with the sore throat spreading and congestion setting in, and a steady chilly rain falling. I thought about not going, but the money was already spent on the car, motel and entry fee. I drove down to Shepardstown, passing a Hoss's--the only roadside steakhouse worthy of Coach A's time during high school cross country and track--and got to Shepherd University.
I warmed up the first mile and back, and actually felt alright as we gathered on the starting line.

After the start, I bolted to the front, seeing two Newton-sponsored guys in the pack. By the time we got to the bridge over the Potomac, only one was near me, and by the time I climbed the first hill in Maryland, I was clear. Made the first turn and headed down a hill that was a little too steep to race down, but almost jogging down it helped relieve whatever tension the uphill had caused. I turned onto a delightful road that paralleled the towpath and hit the first mile in 5:14. I hoped to stay on it for a while, but had to make a sharp turn over a bridge and onto the towpath. I started rolling there, remembering a much different morning six or seven weeks before when I tried to hang on with Tex during a long run before wilting in the humidity and ultimately walking the last two miles. The heat wasn't a problem this time, and I split 4:59 for my second mile. I was keeping that pace up in the third mile until the course turned off of the towpath and headed up a long, long hill, partway up I hit 5:27 for my third split, the rain starting to sputter through the trees.
However much skepticism I had for the recounts from various four-hour marathoners I had read about the course in regards to its difficulty, I knew this would be the long hill and getting up it without surrendering my lead would be an accomplishment. I worried that I was going out too hard, especially going under 5:00, but I never felt like I was in over my head. I was bummed for my fourth mile split- 6:01, but I knew I was working hard for the ground I was covering, and almost all downhills had been immediately followed by sharp uphills, so I knew the course wasn't doing me any favors like the flat second mile. I thought about taking some water or Gatorade along the way, but my throat hurt too much to consider drinking anything, so I declined. My fifth mile, 5:33, was back on track, and I was a little surprised to only be a minute slower than my split at the same point last week. The next two miles, 5:32 and 5:53, we largely uphill, with a few instances to get a feel for my lead. By then, the rain was constant, and it just provoked my willingness to put aside discomfort, which probably helped my race.

The course had no actual spectators to speak of besides a few concentrations of volunteers. I would listen to when they stopped yelling for me and wait for when they would start cheering for my pursuer. After seven miles, though, I stopped running like I was scared of him catching me and started running like I wanted to make my mark on the race, it was time to push myself and see what I was all about, discovering how hard I could push. I did with the next two miles, both in 5:16, both of which featured nice rolling rural roads in the Antietam Battlefield. With the lead biker ahead of me, I had something on which to focus my attention and a few times caught up with her while climbing particularly steep hills. In mile 10, she sped away to make sure intersections were clear ahead, and I had to readjust my focus. I came through that mile in 5:44, splitting 54:58 for 10 miles, just 34 seconds slower than my 10 mile PR on a flat course with competition. I was buoyed significantly by this, because I was averaging just under 5:30 per mile and blowing away my pre-race prediction that I would hit 10 miles in 58 - 5:48 pace. It was my second-fastest 10 miles ever, beating my Spring Thaw time from 2007 by 50 seconds. And I still felt strong.

I thought, looking at the elevation profile, that the last three miles would be steadily downhill. That was wrong, so my hopes to run close to 5:00 for the last few miles were out the window. I was largely relegated to the road's narrow shoulder or the beaten up sidewalk and couldn't quite cruise like I did on the open roads. The rain was pretty much constant now, and passing cars and trucks soaked me with filthy splashes. Two more miles, 5:39 and 5:25. As I came upon the last mile, I knew it would have to be solidly downhill back to the bridge, I just didn't imagine having to switch sides of the road in poorly-controlled traffic, with no real direction from course marshals, or overtaking the 10k runners and 5k walkers on a

very narrow stretch. For a while, it helped to have the runners to pick off, until they thought they were competing with me and tried to block me. I got close to the stadium containing the finish and started to navigate some tight turns on a narrow walkway and ran right into a pack of older women walking the 5k. Three courses were bottlenecked at the finish onto a steep downhill and a 180 degree turn in the mud. I squeezed by when I could, yelled as much as I could to look out, pretty much stopped to let a woman walk by and then surged to the finish, my last mile a disgraceful 5:47 and a frantic 31 second .1 to finish in 1:12:19 -- a course record by 1:08.

As nice and scenic as the race was prior, the finish was an absolute disaster. It wasn't good for competitive runners and it certainly wasn't safe for runners or the walkers. I am pleasantly surprised I didn't hurt myself or anyone else on the course in the last tenth of a mile.

After a few seconds of trying to convince the race director there was a continuing problem, I relented and thought about my race. I had bit of an internal debate about how much by which I PRed. My fastest half marathon to that point had been 1:18:19 from the horrible Pacers Half last spring, but I had run 13.1 miles in 1:15:16 in the first half of the Chicago Marathon last year. Will had been insistent that my actual PR was the prior. Now, it's not an issue.

I can't remember the last time I felt so satisfied with a race, maybe 2007's Dash for Dogs and Cats, when I could impose my will on my body to run a certain way. I got exactly what I needed out of the race- a solid hard run, and it pretty much turned into a time trial as soon as I dropped second place, and to be blunt, that's what I wanted- just me and the course ahead of me. It was hilly, and the course was difficult, but I seemed to draw motivation from that. I'm left feeling like I'm in a great position to take a swing at what I would like for the rest of the season. A little break and some turnover work should get me ready for the Great Pumpkin 5k on Saturday, but then back to some long workouts in the cooler fall temperatures. A year ago I was tapering to get ready for Chicago, now I'm just getting started on the hardest work I have to do. There's no better time of the year to do it, either.

I got in a five-mile cooldown to hit 20 for the day and 90 for the week, then headed home, knowing the impending sickness was going to hit me like a shoe in the face. As I was finishing my cooldown, the reality of how cold I was hit me, and I started shivering to a ridiculous extent. That kept up for about two hours, and I was absolutely miserable. I had no appetite, I could barely swallow anyway, and I just wanted to feel warm again. That night I went home miserable and slept in Sunday, taking the day off of running and not leaving my apartment until the evening to go grocery shopping. Monday afternoon I'm coughing like crazy, congested so much I feel like my sinuses will burst and unmotivated to do anything. I ran from the cold as much as I could on Saturday, but it caught me, and now I have to deal with it.

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