Saturday, April 28, 2007

Country Music 2007

It really hit me when I was planning out when and where I would be so that my family could scope out their spectating routes (yes, they are awesome). Start at 7am. Mile 2.5 around 7:15. Mile 7 around 7:42. Mile 14 around 8:24. Mile 21 around 9:06. Finish around 9:37. It seemed so precise, but how was I to know with such accuracy the effect of the 1000+ miles I had put on my legs since my last attempt at the distance? Any number of things could go wrong, and yet here I was planning out a schedule as if I were a subway train, programmed to run by the clock. Trains don't even run on schedule--how, then, this mass of sinew, flesh, and bone? I shrugged and gave them their schedules. They seemed unperplexed. Maybe it was possible.

Friday night. After three months of serious training. Finally. I slept well until birds out my window woke me at 4am. I lay in bed until 5 and got up. The morning was cool, damp, and gray. I slipped into my running shorts. I made some coffee, ate a Clif bar and a banana, and read a magazine, easing into the day. After a long taper I felt excited to be able to run hard. At 6:15 I left the house. The start line is only a mile away, so I just jogged there slowly, heading away from the quiet of home into the zoo that is the starting area.

At the start I saw a bunch of friends and began to feed off the energy. Lean Africans ran strides in the grass. I ran a couple, too. My legs felt good. I found my corral and lined up, at the front of a tide of runners. I can't help but run fast, I thought, with this swell of runners (30,000) behind.

The anthem. The gun fired before I was ready, and I sprinted out for a couple of steps. Easy, now. A long way to go. I picked out some friends on the sidewalks, chatted with the runners nearby. Mile 1. 6:00. Perfect. I settled in and concentrated on running easy. The first few miles are dangerous, precisely because they are easy; the streets are crowded with half-marathoners, the sidewalks dense with supporters. The challenge was keeping a damper on the pace. I ticked off 6:00 miles, one after the other. My shoe came untied at mile 6. No matter. Mile 7--42:30. Not too fast, and I felt great. Mom gave me a water bottle and a Gu. Onwards!

Coming down the hill I realized I was running with a pack of elite women marathoners. I thought--hey, these ladies are professionals, I'll just hitch a ride. So I tucked in with them and let them set the pace. Over the next two or three miles, having passed through the hills, we picked it up a bit, running 5:45's. I worried a bit that the pace would be too fast, but figured having a group to pace with was valuable. 10 miles in 59:39. I felt great. Onwards!

All of a sudden, the half marathoners split off. Instead of running at the crest of a mass of runners, it was just me and three foreign, intense women. The challenges suddenly became different. I found myself having to concentrate a bit, felt a hint of the weariness, the storm on the horizon. It was quiet, just the rhythm of footfalls and the whisper of breathing. Mile 12. Mile 13. Halfway: 1:18:02. Just do it one more time I told myself, and buckled down.

I met a couple of friends around mile 14 (still on schedule) with another water bottle and Gu. The sun was out now and strong, so I concentrated on drinking more than I wanted. While I drank, I slipped behind the lead women a bit, and they ran about 15 seconds out in front of me. Just run steady. Don't let them open up a larger gap. I was no longer running; I was racing. Just run steady. Mile 15. A band played Merle Haggard's "Working Man's Blues": "Just keep on workin' / long as my two hand are fit to use / Drink a little beer at a tavern / Cry a little bit of these workin' man's blues..."

Mile 16. Up the hill. The elite women slowed a bit, and I caught back up. I was feeling a bit better. I heard Trent yell from across the street and gave a fist pump. Okay, 10 miles to go. Don't get too excited. But I was excited. I was on pace. Mile 17. Up another hill. My enthusiasm dampened a bit. Ughh. I felt the first twinges of a cramp in my right quad. Just ignore it. Mile 18. Mile 19. 20 miles in 1:59:30. The fastest I'd ever run 20 miles. Only six miles to go, I told myself. Six more miles? At 6:00 pace?

More friends and family at Mile 21, with a last water bottle and a last Gu. I nursed the water bottle and took an electrolyte tablet. I was through 21 in 2:05:30--exactly when I told them I'd be there. I thought back to the anxiety conjured up by the schedule I'd written them out. So far, so good. 5 miles to go. The moment of truth.

The water and the Gu gave me another burst of energy, and I felt really strong through miles 22 and 23. I even thought if I brought it home hard, I could run 2:35. But the marathon would have its say. At mile 24, I felt weak. Two miles to go. Weak. It hurt. I forgot about 2:35. One of the elite women came striding by. I forgot about 2:40. I thought only of the two more miles of hot, gray pavement that lay between me and the finish line. Just run. And I did.

Those two miles felt longer than the 23 before them, but I managed to cover them somewhere around 6:40 pace. That number is not arbitrary. It is the pace I had driven into my body over the last three months. I poured 100 days of 10 miles a day at 6:40 pace into those last two miles. I ran out of habit, out of muscle memory, out of sheer animal stupidity. Each day took me 30 meters. Every 30 meters felt like 10 miles.

But I kept at it. Mile 25. Mile 26. Turn left, and hard down the final chute to the finish. 2:38:06. A 13 minute PR. Good for 20th overall. Not bad. Pretty damn good. On schedule.

Jump to 2:45 to see me working at mile 25:
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