Friday, December 31, 2010

Recounting the Miles of 2010

Greetings from Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO.  Ok, I’m actually snug in my house in northern Virginia right now, but I took one last peek at my training log this morning and one stat jumped out that normally doesn’t catch my eye: the yearly mileage.  My attention usually goes right to the weekly/monthly tallies, but I’ve never bothered to take a look at the accumulation of all those miles.  My 2010 total is: 1548.6 mi.  If I ran west from house, Colorado is where I'd end up.
I wish I could add another four and change to that tonight at the Fairfax Four Miler, but unfortunately, I’m on the shelf with a knee injury (a topic for another, broodier blog).  But it got me nostalgic to think about where all those miles took me throughout the past 11 months and 30 days.
The beginning of the year started with many snowy/slushy miles, slogging my way through Snowmageddon, Snopocalypse, and the other monster storms that came through the D.C. area.  I probably logged a quarter of those 1500+ miles on a four mile loop around the neighborhood across the street, since they apparently got preferential treatment from the snowplows.  It became my own Groundhog day, going round and round under the gray, cold sky, dodging cars and black ice, day in and day out.
But once the thaw came, 26.2 of those miles went to my first Boston Marathon and carried me from the leafy streets of Hopkinton to the avenues leading to the Prudential building.
Spring miles carved through single-track trails along the Potomac, where I earned my first bee sting (around mile 8 of the Northface Endurance Challenge Half Marathon) and got more familiar with a pack of nettle bushes than I ever care to again.  My right side still tingles at the thought.
The summer brought tortuous miles in the humidity that reduced me to a sweaty, staggering walk and taught me new appreciation for Saturday long runs at 7:00 a.m.  Suffering in the heat, however, sharpened my resolve and helped me earn lactic-acid-bound miles around the track.
And following an afternoon thunderstorm that ratcheted up the humidity so much so that the steam rising from the pavement made the route seem like it was on fire, I met my new running partner whom I covered numerous miles with in the wee hours of the mornings.
The changing leaves also brought a new adventure: the Ragnar Relay.  Though I took on just 22 miles of my team’s total (we covered just over 200 together), I learned to run up mountains in 90 degree heat, friendships can be born and strengthened when you spend more than 30 hours in a van with the same people, it’s possible to sleep on a soccer field for two hours and feel totally refreshed, and, perhaps most importantly, beef jerky can be better than sex.
The fall also brought a staggering PR spree, revealing just how sharp those torturous summer miles had made the sword.  A 17:11 5K two weeks before the Army Ten Miler, and a 59:41 Army Ten Miler time.  
While these miles aren’t reflected in my log, I biked all of my wife’s long run miles with her for 18 weeks leading up to her Philadelphia Marathon PR, an experience I wouldn’t trade, nor did I anticipate to be as rewarding.
And I’ve enjoyed races with friends who previously didn’t run or race, such as my friend Sarah, who is my Ragnar co-captain and took on the Backyard Burn Series and is running her first Half Marathon in March.  And my mother-in-law, who when she heard we were running a turkey trot, said, “I want to do it with you guys.”  So, three hours and a shopping cart full of new running gear later, she was primed to run.  She ran her first race with my wife the next morning.
Lastly, in the past few weeks, I learned that sometimes you just have to chuck the training program and get back to the roots of why we run: because we love it.  And so I let out from the back door and just listened to my feet pound the pavement and my breath chuff in and out.
2010 has brought me more than just worn shoes and PRs, but also new friends, deeper relationships, and the knowledge that physically (and mentally) I can endure a hell of a lot.
Here’s to a 2011 where you find yourself healthy, fleet of feet, and passing the miles with those you love.  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tread Lightly

If the show “Big Love” was based in running shoes rather than wives, I would be the star.

When I stumble down the stairs in the morning, I resist turning the lights on in the hall as long as I can. The dog will wait at the top of the landing in full anticipation, tail and butt wagging before committing to the trek down. I slip into my coat, take one heavy sigh, then turn the knob. If I’m lucky, nothing will tumble out of the closet. If I’m even luckier, my “dog walking shoes” will be right on top of the pile. I’m rarely that lucky. So I get down on my knees and start rooting through shoe after shoe, chucking them aside like socks, just trying to find a match. Worst case, I give up and flood the room with light, killing any notion that I might still be asleep.

Finally, ah-ha, a match. I pull them on, listen for the machine gun rattle of the dog’s collar as she shakes out and bolts headfirst down the stairs to go outside.

The point is: I have too many running shoes.

Yet, I’m happy to introduce you to the newest members of my running shoe family: the ASICS 2160s (Storm) and the ASICS 2150s (Lightning).

You see, since joining runnerdom, the gift list has never been hard to make. I normally answer the question, “What do you want for [insert holiday here]?” with: new shoes.

My father-in-law has my size and brand saved on Road Runner Sports and my parents just let me send them the link with color choice.

Who doesn’t love new kicks? I’m still getting over the aversion to new “things” going on your feet. For 17 years playing hockey, breaking in new skates usually required a package or four of moleskin and weeks of blister therapy. But when you find a pair of running you shoes you love, the break-in period is minimal.

So, over Christmas, the family and I got to talking about “just how many running shoes do you have?”

“Well, let me think,” I said, readying my fingers to tick them off. “There’s the pair I got for my birthday two years ago, the pair I qualified for Boston in, the pair I ran Boston in, the ones I got for Christmas last year, the ones I got for my birthday this year, the ones you just got me, the ones Rachel’s dad just got me, and of course my magic shoes. So…eight pairs.”

Naturally, they’re all in different states of use. And I love them all for various reasons. Some have no tread, others have holes in the upper. Some are caked in mud, others are pristine. The hard core ones have a few blood stains. Some are relegated to dog walking, others for the gym. Some are ok to run in but only come out for special occasions, such as the snow or muddy trails. Others only come out for speed workouts and races. Does this sound right to anyone?

There’s that great scene in Pulp Fiction right after John Travolta asks Harvey Keitel to say “please” and Harvey Keitel pretty much tells him what he can do with that. John Travolta walks past Samuel L. Jackson, puts a hand up and just says, “I can feel your look.”

In this scene, my wife would be Samuel L. Jackson because I could feel the look. And it was telling me, get rid of some of those shoes.

To aid this process, I left a pair at my parents’ house for my dad to drop off at their local running store. We shared a tender moment before I walked out of the room…out of each other’s lives forever.

On Friday, when we go to pick up packets for the Fairfax Four Mile, I’ll bring a bag of shoes with me to donate to the local Pacers store that I believe go to Shoe4Africa. It’ll be a sad goodbye. I can already picture myself cross-legged on the floor in front of the closet, clutching each pair to my chest and recounting the “trials of miles, miles of trials” in each shoe. The PRs, the disappointments, the new trails, the old favorites. There may be pictures coming to a blog near you…for posterity sake.

Am I alone? How many spouses shoes do you have?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

16 Weeks to Boston & Needing Every One

One more cup of tea. One more knee-ice pack session. One more day staring (and longing) at my running shoes. It’s been a most unceremonious start to my Boston training program. Hampered by a sinus infection and a nagging knee injury (thank you floor hockey) that I just can’t seem to shake, my Boston training can be summed up in one word: thud!

I hoped just two weeks ago that some good old R&R would leave me fresh to embrace the 16 weeks ahead with renewed vigor. Tortuously, I paged through my summer and Army 10-miler training – which ultimately was geared toward getting stronger and faster for Boston – and admired the neat, colorful peaks that rose and fell depending on distance and workout. The only breaks in the range came on scheduled rest days.

Then I compared it to the last month, even six weeks, and shuddered at the gaps, the low weekly mileage, and the monthly totals that don’t even come close to scraping 100.

I feel heavy. I feel dull (i.e. the opposite of racing sharp). I feel unfit. I feel like crying out, “Do you know who I used to be?”

I long for those satisfying evenings when the first mile sheds the weight of work day toil, then you settle in for the night to enjoy that physical exhaustion that wraps like a blanket.

My friend Sarah (who has a fabulous blog called Sarah Finding Fit) and I recently discussed the notion of muscle memory: the theory that your muscles can recall the fitness level that they once performed at. I’m hoping that my muscles don’t forget what it’s like to turn 75 second quarters 16 times over with ease, fly through the woods on a late afternoon tempo run, and accelerate through the final miles of a long run.

I had a previous experience with this, an epiphany if you will, that’s made me a believer, or perhaps heightened my faith. I spent most of summer 2009 nursing an IT band injury. The calendar days flipped by and the Army Ten Miler got closer and closer. I channeled that pent up energy by going to the gym and *gasp* swimming. Since I didn’t drown, I resumed training by hitting the trails and building up distance slowly.

After being at it for two weeks, I took an ambitious seven miler on the road. I suffered. The IT band was fine, but the pace felt terrible, my body felt out-of-whack, and I had to fight for every step. I’d taken the “downhill” version of this loop and fought back frustration that arose because I couldn’t even run downhill efficiently.

But nearing the halfway mark, I ran out of the last major downhill and made a sharp turn onto the main road. On it for only a quarter mile, something started to change. Picture Forrest Gump being chased by the kids on the bike, braking free of his leg braces, and suddenly finding his stride (Yes, the infamous "Run Forrest Run" scene that has probably been screamed at us by a passing car at one point or another). I turned onto the trail from the main road and darted through the trees.

The malaise had lifted. I shrugged off any lingering injury doubts and just flew.

From there, training went well and I experienced similar days to that one. But I’d been waiting for that one switch to flip.

While I haven’t gone out yet (stupid sinus infection, stupid knee), I’m on the mend and tapping the gas to get the bus started and point it toward Boston.

I have a race scheduled for New Years Eve, the Fairfax Four Miler. However, PR’ing is on the shelf for this as well, keeping with my “run to run” theme. I knew going into this that resting was going to be hard, that times were going to suffer, and frustration would most likely reign.

I’m just waiting for that switch.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Making Tracks

It never gets dark when you're running in the snow.  Home early from work today -- because two inches of snow will do that for you in the D.C. area -- I puttzed around the house and shoveled off the stairs awaiting dusk.  Now that I'm accustomed to running in the dark, I found myself staring up and out the back window at the golf course, wondering when the daylight would finally dim.  The thing was, it kept getting later and later, but never got any darker.

The morning's snowstorm began to taper off.  Mattie's tail batted expectantly at my leg.  She looked up at me, then back outside.  "We doing this?" she seemed to say.

At 5:15, normally near total darkness, I decided to lace up (and bundle up) and head outside.  Co-workers today asked, "You're not going to run in this are you?"  I smiled and quoted Bill Bowerman back to them: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only soft people."

And so, Mattie darted off through the two inches of snow and out onto the golf course, back legs splaying, and clumps of snow spraying.  I trotted behind, found the golf cart path, and away we went.  

The pace came a little a slower, the movements a little more cautious, but I nonetheless found a fluid stride.  Soon, I fell into a steady rhythm.  Mattie and I played cat and mouse.  She'd fall behind, stuffing her nose into the snow for anything good to smell, then go sprawling ahead of me.  We wound through the bare trees now coated with snow.  Mattie stopped occasionally to nibble the clumps of snow that formed between her paws, then we'd continue making tracks along the fresh snow.

There was no running by feel tonight.  No waiting for your eyes to adjust.  The snow lit the trail ahead and though night had fallen, the path forward, the entire golf course, glowed white.  

As a lover of running in the snow, particularly the year's first, the last thing I should have been thinking about was a spring race.  The last time I can remember longing for those warmer months was when I was held captive in my own house during snow-pocalypse earlier this year and ended up signing up for my first trail half marathon to make myself feel better.  The thought of heat and humidity in the early Virginia June summer seemed a keen thought.

This week has been different, though.  Sure, it's been in the 20s.  Sure, we're on the front end of winter with warm weather a far off fantasy.  Still, this week I "captured" my white whale.  In terms of D.C. races, I've done Marine Corps; ran the Army Ten Miler; done Jingle All the Way; hit up the Shamrock 8K; the National Half three times.  But the lone race, the one that everyone talks about here: the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler.  

The wait is over.  I found out that I (along with six of my friends) got accepted into the 2011 Cherry Blossom 10 Miler.  The final major race in the D.C. area that has eluded me.  Granted this was the first time I applied for entry.  In the past, it's always been something: a vacation (cruel, I know), another race scheduled on or near race day, the Boston Marathon, etc.  

In 2011, however, Cherry Blossom runs two weeks before Boston, i.e., I'll be in full taper mode.  So long as I run smart, run for the experience, or run marathon pace and not shoot for a sub-60, I can enjoy that singular moment that defines spring's arrival in the D.C. area.  

The blooming of the cherry blossoms is essentially the antithesis of what I ran in this evening.

In keeping with the tradition of looking ahead to the coming year, I've suddenly realized that my April race calendar is nearly full.  I run my tuneup half marathon on March 26, followed up by Cherry Blossom on April 3.  Boston comes around on April 18, then two weeks later, I'll pile back into a van with 11 other friends to take on the American Odyssey Relay.  

And then I will sleep for an entire weekend.

With about two miles to go tonight, the moon burned through the thin, lingering clouds.  A lone deer spotted us from across the fairway.  Then, as quick as I saw it, it's silhouette bounded into the trees.  Mattie, oblivious, licked at the snow between her paws.

We arrived back at the fifth hole.  I turned back to call for her and noticed the line of footprints, the only ones on the trail left behind.  The cherry blossom trees lining the fence trembled in the cold wind.  Not a trace of a bud, and not one coming for some time.  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

This Ones For Me

The first warning shot rang out.  A sharp Honk! that shattered the still, cold silence.  Word traveled down the line.  A mild panic spread across the ice.  Honks echoed all around now, "We're here, we're here.  There are more of us then there are of you."  The nervous shuffling grew and became the anxious pitter-patter of steps skating across the thin ice: pit-pat...shhh, pit-pat...shhh. 

Sensing the mild panic she'd stirred, Mattie's ears rolled back, her tongue bouncing.  She moved her head in quick jerks from the geese now forming up in a tight circle, to the path ahead of her.  The look was one of desperation, "Please let me go after them!"  

I delivered my own sharp warning, "Mattie!" And she relented, falling back in step with me.  We rounded the water hazard and disappeared over the steep hill that links holes 11 and 12 just as quickly as we'd started it, leaving the commotion we'd caused behind us.  

When I'd set out some 3.5 miles prior, I did so with tempered expectations.  Since Thanksgiving, I could pinpoint my mood in one word: exhaustion.  Following my sub-60 at the Army Ten Miler, I hadn't taken much time off.  In fact, I went full steam ahead into an intense half marathon program to prepare for my soon to come Boston program.  Yes, a program to train for a program.  Between running, playing hockey (as cross-training), work, and the recent death of my grandmother, I was, in a word, exhausted.

Normally during points of tension in my life, I've turned to running as the release valve.  You can run off a bad day at work, a bad night (or week) of eating, a bad anything.  But what happens when the runs become bad?  Last week, I was at a loss.  My grandmother's death, I soon knew, had taken a bigger emotional toll on me then I thought.  This is really the first time in my life I've had to grieve, and quite frankly, I don't know how to do it.  I thought running could save me, instead, it made things worse.

I did what I thought once to be unthinkable: I chucked the training program.  No more intervals.  No more tempo runs.  No more pressure for pace or distance or PRs.  I decided it was time to get back to basics and just run for the pure sake of running.  

So this week, that's what I've done.  No watch.  No headphones.  No prescribed distance.  

There's a Tom Petty song that goes, "This ones for me.  This ones for me.  Not for anyone else.  This ones for me."  It's sort of become my mantra over the week to take back my running.

I've taken to the golf course that loops through our neighborhood and followed the five mile golf cart path.  Before I break into an easy trot, I can smell the brisk cold in the air that stings your lungs until you've warmed up your chest.  The cold energizes Mattie and she alternates between quick dashes and her best impression of a bucking bronco.  

In the dark, without headphones, senses are heightened.  Like I said, you can smell the cold, the traces of burning fireplaces, the dampness around the marshy water hazards.  I can hear only the steady clip-clop of my shoes over the path.  I can feel the clouds of warm breath blooming in front of me.  On the golf course, I embrace the unique feeling of being alone and having that entire expanse of running path to myself.

And so we run together down the long fairways and steal glimpses into the backlit dining rooms of folks getting home from work.  Other parts are lit only by moonlight.  The sun, long since dipped below the horizon, still creates a pristine, electric sky that silhouettes the trees like black spires.

At the 14th hole, Mattie and I emerge from a short tunnel.  With no more roads to cross, I stop for a moment, unhook her, and she darts off ahead, a white flash of fur.  Perhaps feeding off her exhilaration, I feel my legs turn over faster.  The pace drops naturally to tempo.  There's no pressure to run it that way, no guilt or anxiety if I don't hit the splits.  My body's just ready to go.  And it feels wonderful.

Mattie and I flow through the night.  My legs burn.  My lungs suck in the cold, stinging air, but I push on.  Not because I have to.  Because I want to.

Overtaking the last hills, Mattie gallops up next to me.  We stop and stand together for a moment, huffing and puffing, then begin the slow walk across the 5th green, under the fence, and back to the house.  But before we make it to that fence, I stop for a second and close my eyes.  I have the urge to lay down and catch my breath.  So...I do.  I lay down, legs and arms outstretched and take in the night sky.  I start to think about my grandmother and how she used to ask about my running, but never really knowing just how much work I'd put into it in the last five years.  Her reference point was always the New York Marathon.  "What about the New York Marathon?" she'd ask.  "Have you run that yet?"  I like to think maybe now she can watch me and know.

Most of the stars are out now and I follow a plane blinking by overhead.  I can feel the blood coursing through me and my heart pulsing in my head behind my eyes.  When my breathing is under control, I lay for a minute longer.  I can hear Mattie's jingling collar getting closer.  She must be finished smelling whatever caught her nose.  I start to call to her but my face is so cold, it's hard to talk. She's on me, sniffing and licking my face.  "All right," I say.  "Let's go in."  And we finish the walk to the back door.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Philly Marathon (Spectator) Redux

When the wakeup call came at 5 a.m., I’m not sure who leapt out of bed faster, my wife or me.  Rarely is there an occasion to get out of bed at 5:00 with excitement, but perhaps race mornings are the exception.  Funny thing is, I wasn’t even running this race! 

My lady friend and I post-marathon
Back in June, my wife and I ran our first trail race.  On the bus ride back to our car, she looked at me and said, “I’m ready to run another marathon.”  It’d been three years since we suffered through the scorching heat in Chicago.  I’d gone on and run the Vermont marathon to qualify for Boston, and then run this year’s Boston.  She traded marathon training for school work.

Not one to drag her feet, she called her dad in the car on the way home to rope him into it, and before we’d stepped back into the house, they were signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon. 

Suddenly, my training program was not the only one hanging from the fridge.  In the past, we’ve talked about what a time commitment it is to train for a marathon, then we discovered it was something we could do together.  So, on our precious Saturday and Sunday mornings, one of us would bike alongside the other, playing both water jockey and moral supporter, while the other ticked off the long run miles. 

And while I wasn’t training for the marathon, I felt like I was a part of it. 

Fifteen weeks and six days later, I soaked in the race atmosphere in Philadelphia.  People of all shapes and sizes clogged the streets on the way to the expo, the majority clad in running attire and a water bottle nearby. 

“Do you wish you were running?” she asked as I watched them pick up their race packets.
“I do.  I’m quite jealous.”
“Here,” my father-in-law said, thrusting his number at me.  “You can have mine.”  We shared a half-serious, half-kidding laugh. Could I pull it off, I wondered?

On race morning, my wife dressed and spooned down some oatmeal while I got a backpack together of post-race clothing for her to throw on.  We leashed up the dog (thank you Westin hotels for being dog-friendly) and headed outside into the crisp, cold morning a.k.a. perfect marathoning weather.  Like ants returning to the hill, droves of runners converged on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps for the start. 

The slight flutter of butterflies came to my stomach as we got closer.  Glimpsing the starting line and the nervous energy of those about to run, conjured feelings of races past.  Damn I wish I had been running.

With a final kiss and pat of the dog, I parted from my wife and her dad while they slipped into the starting corral and disappeared. 

Mattie and I started walking back toward the line when the gun went off and the dam of runners broke free.  We started a trot to make it to the start so that I could click my watch and keep track of her progress.

Once they ran by, I dialed up my friend whose husband was also running.  We decided to meet up at the 10K mark.  Mattie and I speed-walked through the empty Philadelphia streets until we came back along the race course.  Runners were already making their way past us.  I met up with Caroline and she froggered across the street to meet Mattie and I.  Trying to pick my wife out was like a moving game of “Where’s Waldo.”  But I finally picked her teal longsleever and white hat out.  Mattie might have seen her first because she went into full body wag.

“Looking great!” I called.  She darted over and planted a sweaty kiss on my mouth, barely breaking stride.

From there, Caroline and I hurried back to the start to catch her husband and Rachel once again at the halfway.  Given our spot we not only caught those two, but also the elite men finishing up behind us.  I caught a rush of adrenaline as the leader, in the full throes of pain and discomfort, staggered by us with no one in sight around him.  You could hear the cheers build as he neared the finish line.

My wife went by us effortlessly.  “This course can’t even handle you right now!” I cried to her before getting another sweaty kiss.  She’d picked up time since the 10K.  Her dad, however, decided to drop back and run the race as a half. 

Half the race down for both our runners, Caroline and I headed back into town for a bagel and much needed dose of caffeine.  Then it was back to the finishline. 

We squeezed in among the other fans, families, and friends.  Normally, I’m on the other side of the guard rail, fighting my own thoughts, urging myself on, and trying to soak in the encouragement.  But it’s quite another thing to be watching it.  As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, one of the best things about a starting line is taking a step back to look around at the others toeing the line with you. Their stories are as unique as yours, their journey just as great.  To watch this same people cross the finish line, some in agony, some in elation, others smiling, while still more smiling through tears, is inspirational in and of itself.

I kept looking at my watch knowing that she’d be coming soon.  Any minute now.  Any minute now.  Watch for the hat.  Find the shirt.  Then, I saw her.  She strode forward.

“Go, Rachel!” I yelled.  Her eyes gazed forward a few feet in front of her.  Maybe she didn’t hear me, I thought.  “Come on, Rachel!  You’re there, you’re there!” 

She turned her head and gave me a slight smile and nod. 

Mattie and I rushed off to go meet her at the end.  I watched her cross, clicked the watch, and gave a little fist pump at the four minute thirty second PR she set.

“So proud of you,” I said.
“I hurt,” she said.  “That last 10K…brutal.”
“But you made it, and PR’d no less!”

We walked (well some of us did) back to the hotel.  Rachel showered, a long hot shower, then we kicked back and ordered room service, waiting for the time to come to go for massages (hey, spectating is hard work too).

While I had a great time crewing and watching, the most rewarding moment was when she said, “We did it together.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Confessions of A Runaholic

A beer for what ails me...
Let me be the first to tell you, this BBQ chicken pizza tastes phenomenal.  As good as the Sam Adams Winter Lager I'm using to wash it down with?  Perhaps a close second.  File this under, "Unexpected" for how I thought this Thursday night -- and week for that matter -- would play out.  Let me explain.

I could feel it coming on the week prior to the Army Ten Miler.  I wouldn't call it overtraining, but it was damn near close.  I grew increasingly sore, couldn't massage it out, couldn't stretch it out, couldn't get the ibuprofen to work it's magic.  But I powered through and ran the race anyway.

My reward? A week off...from running only.  I continued to go to the gym and continued to play floor hockey, even picking up a couple extra games in net for teams lacking a goaltender.  That following weekend, I churned out a 5K, rode 20 miles alongside my lady, then another floor hockey game.  Tuesday, it was back to the roads and a new training schedule.  I barely slowed down.  My uncle called the sluggishness "race hangover."  Hair of the dog, right?

More running and more hockey led to late nights, early mornings, and double (and even triple) workout days.  The Jersey Shore had GTL.  I had GRH (Gym, Run, Hockey).  

I got close to stopping, but like an addict, kept finding excuses to forge ahead.  I spent groggy mornings walking the dog and thoughts such as, "If I got sick, then I'd be forced to stop running for a few days" came through the fog.  Self-fulfilling prophecy.  Last week, I got sick.  What's a sore throat, though?  I could sweat this out.  So, I continued on, tackling the 12-miler with Rohan Veterans Day, followed by a 5K Saturday morning.

The tipping point.  With a day off on Sunday (from running), I DayQuil'd it up for my afternoon hockey game.  "If I can just get through this game," I reasoned, "I can take a break."  I found that most of my sentences started this way: "If I can just get through [insert physical exertion here], then I'll rest."

All at once, my body decided enough was enough and shut it down for me.  I wish I could tell you it was making some glorious glove save, gutting out a race win, or even finishing a solid interval workout. It was nothing of the sort.  In that Sunday game, five minutes remained in the third period.  We clung to a 5-4 lead.  I hunched over when the play was at the other end to keep my wits about me and clear my head.  The ball (it's floor hockey), came rolling toward me.  I reached out to set it up for my defensemen and felt the odd but familiar twinge in my lower back, just above my pelvis.  "Eff!"  I thought.  I knew what this entailed: three to four days of stiff, spasm pain in my lower back.  

And so it came to be.  I've spent the last three days gingerly moving through the days, trying to make any sudden movements and look as normal as possible when getting out of my chair at work, you know like I don't have a big load in my pants?

Last night saw the first signs of relief.  All week I imagined that knot in my back unwinding itself.  I jammed thumbs in there, hoping for any sort of release.  I spent my free time lying on my back, on the hardwood, neck craned toward the TV.  I entertained ideas of close my office door to lie down.  I crouched at my desk instead of sitting in the chair.  Co-workers walked by and asked if I was sitting at the kids' table.  Everyone's a comedian.

Knowing that I haven't been able to run all week, I've sort of relaxed and let the Type A slide away, embraced it, if you will.  I certainly feel pangs of guilt when I see the big goose egg in my running calendar for this week, and yes, the November mileage will suffer.  But, I can't remember the last time my legs and hips have been completely pain free like this.  Nor have I eaten with such abandon without worrying about how it will affect my afternoon, morning, mid-day run.  

I had the chance to run this afternoon.  I could have squeezed in that mile repeat workout or even the hill workout.  Instead, I decided to clean sweep the week and just let everything heal in total.  I'll do a shake out run with my wife on Saturday as she gets ready to run the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday.  And I'll lace 'em up with renewed vigor next week and probably hop into a Turkey Trot.  

The point is, the lesson learned (again), it's important to give your body a rest.  And if you ignore the signs, it'll find a way to force that rest upon you.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a pizza to finish.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hazel Mountain, Ice Baths, and Bacon OR How I Spent Veterans Day

Rohan and I prepare to tackle Hazel Mountain
We had run maybe two-and-a-half miles.  The beauty lay in the fact that we hadn't kept track.  There were no splits, no mile markers, no pace checks.  It was running at its purest.  The only goal being to survive the trail, no matter how long it took.

Tearing down the side of Hazel Mountain, we glimpsed the expanse of the Shenandoah Valley to our left.  Rolling hills, rather than sharp peaks, crested and dipped over the valley floor; a quilt of fall colors sewn in red, orange, and golden patches.  We disappeared off the ridge and began to descend into broken shadows.  Leaves crunched underfoot and hid rocks that rolled our ankles and tested the strength of our cores.  A stray arm shot out here, there to maintain balance while we skated over the carpet of leaves.  "Wooooooo!" The beauty, you might say, lay all around us.  

For about a month, I'd had the notion to run the Hazel Mountain trail in the Shenandoah.  It's a trail I'd hiked twice in the past, and from what I could remember, seemed reasonably runnable with about a two mile stretch that could would require hiking rather running.  I wondered when I could pull something like this off given busy weekends and training programs.  About two weeks ago, it hit me: Veterans Day.  A random day off during the week.  My wife did not have the same good fortune as I and had to work.  I was willing to do it on my own but threw the idea out to my running partner, Rohan.  "When should I be there?" he said with no hesitation.

The waterfall that inspired an ice bath
After 20 minutes of running, we heard water crashing below us.  A side trail appeared and we veered off to make the steep descent.  A quick stream carved through the mountainside before plunging some 20 feet into a small pool.  We stopped for pictures.  As we began climbing back to the trail, Rohan turned to me and said, "How good would this water feel after the run?  We should come back and do an ice bath."
"You know that's what the elite guys do up in Mammoth Lakes.  Yeah, let's do it."

The trouble with the Hazel Mountain trail is that it lulls you into a false sense of confidence.  You see, the 10 mile loop descends for the first five miles.  Knowing this, I tried to temper expectations and effort.  But there was something about flying between the trees, hurtling fallen limbs, and crashing through streams that puts you in touch with those most primal of feelings tearing through the woods.

At one point, when the descent had ended, we made our way along the side of the mountain before turning back up.  The trail became mostly flat and let us stretch our legs, really finding our stride.  It was here that things opened up and we just flew.  Thoughts and actions became stream of conscious, no thinking, just running.  Later we compared it to running in the dark.  Senses heightened.  Awareness.

Looking out from Mt. Hazel
Sudden rustling of leaves.  Breaking of Branches.  To the left! A shock of white.  There! Gone.  The deer's tail betraying its path.  Then nothing.

But that of course ended when we reached the Sam's Ridge Trail.  

"Right turn." I called.
"What?!  Up there?"  Rohan said.
"Yeah, time to start climbing."
He snorted.  "You lead."

So we took off up the Sam's Ridge Trail, attempting to run it for as long as we could.  I started with mincing steps that slipped on the leaves sending my knees knocking into one another.  We became the opposite of the graceful predators we were minutes before.  My heart nearly pounded out of my chest and my quads groaned.  We walked.

About a mile into that climb, the talk of food came up and the tiny burger shack perched on the side of the road in Sperryville titled "Burgers 'n Things" became the focus of our desire.  They could very well be the worst burgers in the world, but every time I stop there after a hike, I inhale the first without chewing, and the second is washed down quickly with a chocolate milkshake.

"Tell me about it again," Rohan said.  "What would you compare them to?"
"I would put them in the Five Guys category.  Did I mention bacon?"
"You never said anything about bacon.  There's bacon?  We need to get this hike moving."

Rohan on pins and needles
After several false starts, we were running again.  With just over a mile to go, we decided to double back and head to the waterfall, adding about another mile or so to our day.  We peeled our socks off and stared at the water.  I stuck a toe in, then my whole foot, and elicited a yelp that I could not control had life depended on it.  Rohan laughed until he went ankle deep.  Gingerly we went in to just above our knees. I don't know if I got used to it or if my legs simply went numb, but dammit, it felt pretty darn good.  There was a light stabbing feeling, pins and needles, really.  Then we got out, I had flashbacks to playing in the snow and then running my hands under warm water.  Yeeow!

It seemed like a good idea at the time.
We ran back to the car mostly in silence, exhaustion finally overtaking us.  We got our food (two bacon cheeseburgers and a milkshake for me, a chili dog and a double cheeseburger and milkshake for him), and rode back to civilization.  

When we arrived back at my house and were freshly showered, we walked gingerly down the basement stairs and promptly passed out on the couches before the TV had even had a chance to come on.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Empire State of Mind

On the New York
I believe it’s come to pass that there are two types of people in this world: those who love New York, and those who hate it. My confession: I mostly fall into the latter. But when it comes to marathoning, how can New York not appear on your wish list?

I’ve spent the last couple months canvassing running friends (and strangers) alike about their thoughts on the New York Marathon. Answers have run the gamut, everything from “You must do it,” to “I’ve had no interest in ever doing it,” and “It’s going to beat the hell out of you.”

Even my grandmother has chimed in on the conversation.  It seems that her reference to running IS the NYC Marathon.  After asking how Boston went, the next question out of her mouth was, "Have you ever run New York?  When are you going to give that one a shot?"  Humph.

It wasn’t until this past Saturday that I became 100 percent convinced that I needed to run New York next year. I’ll admit that I got taken in by this year’s [running] press coverage, which seemed to me higher than usual. Of course this could be the byproduct of that effect where you decide you might want to buy a certain car and all the sudden you see a million of them on the road wherever you look.

Between Meb’s title defense, the Rookies vs. The World series, Dathan Ritzenheim’s return to the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie making his New York debut (and end), just to name a few storylines, I was hooked.

Add to that my running partner and I talking about training together and doing next year’s marathon, (his first), and the pendulum started to swing.

So, back to Saturday night. I’d committed to waking up Sunday morning and watching the NY Marathon (at least the elite race) in its entirety. Somehow I can watch a pack of 14 runners covering ground at just under five minute pace for two plus hours, but the thought of sitting through a baseball game makes me want to poke my eyes out. I digress. Saturday night: I park myself in front of the TV and try desperately to find where NBC Universal Sports is on the dial. I find it…channel 807. I had no idea our channels even went up that high.

What I stumbled upon was last year’s race, you know, the one where Meb Keflizighi became the first American male to win at NY since Alberto Salazar did it back in the 80s. This became to the American running world what the healthcare bill was to Joe Biden.

Meb Keflezighi in New York after his first marathon victory(Getty Images)
But I hadn’t actually seen the race yet. So I bought in at mile 22ish and watched Meb chase Robert Cheruiyot. Meb matched every surge that Cheruiyot threw at him. As the two prepared to enter Central Park, Meb pulled away. And the gap grew…and grew…and grew. Until finally Meb ran alone. You could hear the roar swell around him with each hill he crested. He flashed by the 400m to go sign and a huge smile broke over his face. He raised his arms. He pointed to the USA on his singlet. When he broke the tape, Meb’s hands went immediately to his eyes to soak up the tears and you could hear the heaving sobs as he made his way through the finish area. He crosses himself then drops down to kiss the pavement. Someone handed him an American flag, which he held open behind him, looked at the camera and said, “How about this?”

How about it indeed?  No need to look any farther for inspiration.

And on Sunday, I woke up -- a kid on Christmas morning -- and watched the women’s and men’s races from start to finish. I thought I might go between the Sunday Post, some coffee, some breakfast, but the next thing I knew, I got my first taste First Avenue's thunder.  Then, Shalane Flanagan broke off with Edna Kiplagat and Mary Keitany in those same Central Park Hills. My wife came down and joined me to see Shalane’s gutsy second place finish. Though Meb didn’t repeat in the men’s race, we celebrated the crowning of a new NYC Champion who’d never run a marathon in his life.

“So,” I said. “Inspired for your 12-miler?”
“Let’s get to it.”

We headed out the door, she to click off her last “long run” prior to the Philadelphia Marathon, and I carrying her water bottles on my bike.  Visions of elite runners and screaming fans danced through our heads.  I replayed the start over and over: the hordes of runners making their way across the Verrazano Bridge.  And when the lottery opened up on Monday morning, I hopped right on it and entered our names.  Fortunately, I met New York's automatic entry/qualification standard.  Now about that confirmation.

Though my wife and I each have a marathon scheduled between now and next year’s NYC marathon…we found one another in a New York state of mind.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Getting to the Pain

Growing up, my grandmother always told me, "Try something at least once.  That's the only way you know you won't like it."  She was referring to food, but today, I'm applying it to my running.

When she finally reached New York this week, some many days, months, and miles after deciding to take on what will become her first marathon tomorrow, Shalane Flanagan said in an interview with Flotrack that she had to learn patience in her marathon training.   And that patience meant stemming the inevitable pain and discomfort we all deal with when taking on those grueling 26.2 miles.  Let's be blunt: when you run a marathon, you're going to suffer.
But from what I've learned in recent races -- not just the marathon -- you can "get to the pain" as well.  I got a dose of this in the tuneup half marathon I ran back in March, and I'd say I got a full dose of it during the Army Ten Miler a few weeks ago.

This, to me, has become the physical difference between running a race and racing a race.  While it's still fun, and who doesn't love chalking up PRs, it's hard effing work.  I've read about elite runners and their coaches getting asked, "What's so and so's secret?"  Well, there's really no's the willingness to work.

What I haven't felt in my training perhaps, is that pain.  I don't mean to say that I shy away from my tough workouts.  I've spent many an evening after work, hands on knees, sucking air after a particularly merciless effort doing mile repeats or even 800s.

It's the long runs and the longish tempo runs that have proven cruel in these most recent training iterations.  My long runs have taken on a new form.  Or rather there are new elements to them.  Before, a long run was simply time on my feet.  Get out and just run for 14, 16, 20 miles.  And I still get those in.  However, in the last year, I've spiced things up with cut down runs (where the effort increases every 5K), interval long runs (run 60 mins comfortably then 20x1 min at 5K pace with a 1 min rest, wrapping up with 20 mins easy), and fast finish long runs (running the last 4-6 mi at marathon pace).  The purpose: learn to run fast while tired.

The cut down/fast finish long runs give me anxiety.  It's a mindset I need to break; otherwise, I'll put myself at a mental disadvantage during a race.  I can remember a couple of these runs in my Boston prep for this year that ended up being normal long runs because I psyched myself out of picking up the pace.

How do you know, though, unless you try it?  Today, the calendar called for a 12 mile cut down.  I spent the first 90 minutes of my morning eating oatmeal, drinking coffee, and watching NYC Marathon videos and interviews (I may have a problem).  That's when I came across the Flanagan interview.  That's when the light went off.  

So, I took off on my run this morning with the mindset that I've been through the ringer already.  I've gotten to the pain in races before and what do you know, I survived.  At each three mile checkpoint today, I spurred myself on, faster and faster, despite the terrain, despite the hills.  And you know what?  In some places it hurt.  In others the pace just flowed.  Similar to a race.  Some miles you're fighting it and you just want to turn in for the day.  Other miles, it comes on you miraculously, you're like the Traveling Wilburies and "just ridin' around in the breeze, feelin' all right."

While I won't run all of my runs this way because I don't want to leave my race out on a training run, I'm building up the mental (and physical) calluses to deal with the pain when I get to it.  Then it's not a surprise and I can call on those extra hard sessions to pull me through the tough spots.

Heeding my grandmother's advice, I'm now slurping down escargots...and attacking those runs head on, rather than stepping aside.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

When the alarm went off at 5:20 yesterday, something wasn’t quite right. I squinted at the clock in disbelief, “How had the night disappeared so quickly?” But that wasn’t it. As I came to consciousness, and the dog’s tail thwapped against the side of the bed, it hit me: there was no urgency.

I know what you’re thinking: Is there ever an urgency to get out of bed at 5:20 in the morning? Particularly nowadays when you find yourself in that perfect homeostatic balance, the one where it’s cold outside of the covers, but toasty under. Sigh. Anyway.

Since mid-July, every Tuesday morning, I’ve shot out of bed at 5:20, stealthily pulling on running clothes in the dark (already laid out from the night before) so as not to wake my wife, then jetting out the door into the still morning to meet up on the corner with my running partner.

A pair of 17:35s at the Goblin Gallop
For that extra motivation to get out the door and run, Runner’s World always mentions picking up with a running partner or group. This way, you’re obligated to get to your meeting place lest you face the scorn of standing up your partner.

Yesterday morning, however, that urgency was gone because my running partner has…moved to Maryland! For those not from the D.C. metro area, the Maryland state line is probably 15 miles from where I live, which in D.C. traffic conversion, means anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour drive depending on the time of day. But he and his wife have moved about an hour away to Annapolis, MD.

He broke it to me on a six mile jaunt, a gentle rolling three mile and out back. I remember because it was a strange morning where the weather couldn’t decide if it was still summer or transitioning officially to fall. So there we were, chuffing up one of those gentle rolls, cutting through the plumes of breath, and cursing that we hadn’t worn long sleeves, when he said, “So, my wife got a job offer.”

“That’s. Cool. Where?”
“That’s. Not. So. Cool.”

And so it went. We plotted out the remaining weeks of our runs together. It culminated in last Sunday’s Goblin Gallop 5K. We decided to combine forces and run together to push one another. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we are two runners of the same mold. Upon our first meeting, we realized we’d run several of the same races and finished within seconds of one another.

We fed off each other’s pace during workouts and brought new techniques and exercises to the table…really pushed the limits of our training, plus, just had someone to bounce off life’s biggest issues with. Like just what the hell was Sammi doing going back to Ronnie in the last season of Jersey Shore?

We finished the only way we could on Sunday: with same time. Of course this isn’t good bye. Maryland isn’t that far after all. In fact, we have a run set up for next Thursday on Veteran’s Day since we both have the day off. And there are future races. We’ve already talked about toeing the line at the NYC marathon next November, which will mean meet ups for long runs.

So, I lumbered down the stairs yesterday instead. I headed out into the crisp morning, stars still shimmering on the mirrored water hazard at hole eight. This time I took Mattie with me, who dutifully trotted along by my side. If it weren’t for the herds of deer clumped on the course, I’d have let her off the leash. She proved a good companion. But when I asked her about what she thought of the Jersey Shore finale, she sprinted off and rolled in a pile of goose poop, which, ultimately, was probably the most appropriate response.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Running into People

Running, like alcohol, can be the great equalizer.  Let me explain.  Just as a few beers can make us suddenly more social and perhaps remove that oh-so-puritan-filter, so too can running.  Take my running partner and I for example, by run number two (so to speak), we'd already dived into each others, err, daily evacuation schedule and how crucial this act is on race morning.

But, it translates in others ways as well.  I love that great epiphany when you're in a (insert forced-socialization situation here), and your ability to nod and smile is waning, when suddenly, someone utters something to the effect of, "I have to get my long run in tomorrow," or "Just tackled a 10K last weekend."  All the sudden, your interest is piqued, you swoop in, and next thing you know, you're breaking down paces, comparing interval workouts, and spouting whatever the advice du jour coming out of RW for that month.

I bring this up because I've had three synonymous encounters like this in the past week that have made me go, "Man, I really love the running community."

Mattie wins for most adorable dog.
Episode 1 - Taking on a particularly grueling hill workout (10x300m up Ox Hill...killer trust me), I jogged to a near stop on my downtime to see a an older gentlemen standing at the edge of his driveway, arms crossed, beagle at the end of a leash.  I've seen him before, but I identify him more by the white Ford Explorer in the driveway because this tells me it's time to start climbing.  We exchanged nods, and I turned to head back up the hill.  On my return trip, he was still at the bottom of his driveway.  He mouthed something, so I plucked the headphones from my ears and leaned in closer.

"Where's your dog this time?" he repeated, disarming me as I felt some slight irritation creep in at my workout's interruption.
"She doesn't do the hill workouts with me," I replied, heart rate returning to resting.
"You just running up and down this hill?"
"That's the plan."  
A beat.
"I see you out here all the time, you really are just killing it.  I actually tell a girl who works in my office about you, how I see you running up and down these streets everyday.  She's running a 10-mile race soon.  What about you?"

Consider me charmed. It's not everyday you find out you are the topic of a stranger's inter-office conversations.

"Training for the Boston Marathon, I guess.  That's the next big race I have."
"Lots of hills in that one, I hear.  This hill thing makes sense now."

And we went on like this for a few more minutes.  I returned to the workout with an extra tingling of adrenaline having known that someone was out there watching, and not just watching but getting it. 

"And I got to run with Ryan Hall..again."
Episode 2 - Last Thursday, my friend Sarah (new to the Loop, check her out) and I met up in D.C. to do a fun run with Ryan and Sarah Hall.  As I've had the fortune of running with them before, I'm lumping this post together.  Following a satisfying three mile run through the Dupont Circle area and a couple minutes of one-on-one time with Ryan, Sarah and I departed and went next door for some dinner.  With my dog, Mattie, along for the trip, we sat outside in a cramped little restaurant that didn't exactly inspire private conversation.  

Mattie turned on the charm to try and steal some of this man's pizza crust.  While I corralled her, the man leaned in and said, "So, what did you think of Boston?"  My eyes widened.  His wife, sensing my apprehension, followed his remark with, "Your shirt.  Your Boston Marathon shirt, honey."

"Oh," I said, smiling now.  "It was hard.  It was real hard!"
"Sure is.  I don't have the knees for it anymore, but I remember those hills.  What'd you do to qualify?"
"3:08:41 in Vermont.  No one told me until afterward that Vermont is the Mountain State."
"Ha!  I'll show my age here, but...I qualified when the standard was 2:50."
(Insert high-pitched whistle)

Sarah and I spent the next 15 minutes talking marathons with them until they paid their check.  What marathons he'd done, why he liked them, what were his favorites, should I do NY next year, what does he do now.  They walked out, two people we'll probably never see again, yet I felt like, through running, I'd gotten to be near friends with them in those 15 minutes.

"We all arrive at the starting line for different reasons, from different corners of world, but with a common goal in mind.  It's nice when we can take a few minutes (or miles), to share those stories with our fellow brethren."
Episode 3 - This past weekend, two of our running friends got married, and in our good fortune, we were sat at the "runners table."  Several of them I'd met at the recent bachelor party so the ice was somewhat broken.  This is a group that's been running together (and running marathons together) for more than 10 years.  

My wife and I were welcomed with open arms.  It was as if they'd been given our bios before the evening began.

"So, you're the one running Boston.  And you, you're the one who's running Philly this year.  How's the training going?"

No excuses had to be made as to why we were hydrating because everyone was.  Each person had their own long run to complete the next day, and there was no awkward, "Oh, no thanks...I have a run in the morning" excuse.  

Again, we swapped war stories from marathons past.  One guy at the table covered 28 states worth of marathons.  When asked what his favorite was, he said, "They all have their own way of being my favorite."  Ain't that the truth. Then he regaled us with miles in the snow of South Dakota where he got lost and added 6.2 miles onto his trek, how NY beat him up, the unexpected beauty of the Steamtown Marathon, and on and on.  

Beyond fast times and achieving PRs, these are the moments that make me appreciate being a runner.  You realize in these everyday exchanges that you are part of something larger.  

Nothing is reinforced like this anymore than being at the start or finish of a marathon.  My wife and I weaved through the exodus of Marine Corps Marathon finishers pouring over the Key Bridge yesterday. Some hobbled, some cried, others chatted as if it were a Sunday stroll.  We shared a knowing nod with them and offered congratulations as we went by.  We'd been there before and surely would be again.  

We all arrive at the starting line for different reasons, from different corners of world, but with a common goal in mind.  It's nice when we can take a few minutes (or miles), to share those stories with our fellow brethren.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Army Ten Miler Redux

Ever since I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2006, I remember the 14th Street Bridge.  Ask anyone who's run Marine Corps or the Army Ten Miler.  Ask them about the bridge and watch the glimmer leave their eyes.  

Back then, you emerged from the lonely, fan-forgotten miles of Haines Point past the blessed 20mi sign.  The crowd spurs you on, but it stirs false confidence.  Because what lies ahead is a two mile stretch of never ending highway.  

While it's miles 20-22 for MCM, it marks the beginning of the long end to the Army Ten Miler.  The final two miles.  It's where the wheels came off for me two years ago, and where my undoing nearly began this year.  Nearly.

I started my race weekend like everyone before, with cautious optimism.  I'd put the work in.  I tapered.  I had some nagging pains that popped up that I tried to address, but ultimately pay them no mind.  Nothing could stop me.  Still riding high from my 17:11 5K PR two weeks before, I grew evermore confident that a sub-60 could become a reality.  

Follow the Yellow Bib Road
A week before, the starting corral e-mail came in.  For the past two years, I've earned a green bib, the second starting corral.  I wanted desperately for a yellow bib, yearned even.  I thought my 1:21:48 half marathon time may have done the trick, and lo and behold, "432" appeared in my 500, yellow bib.

Sunday morning came, a crisp, cool D.C. autumn dawn.  The trees had become a vibrant palette of yellows, oranges, and reds...fall had arrived.  I kissed my wife good luck and trotted off to the underpass near the start that I've warmed up at for the previous two ATMs.  The legs had a nice bounce to them.

I checked my watch after the last set of striders, took one last pee break, and headed up to find my corral. 15 minutes to spare...right on schedule.  I twisted and turned through the gathering throngs of runners and kept making my way to the front.  It was like having near front row seats to a show, I just kept walking and walking closer and closer to the stage.  At long last, I found myself with wispy and lithe runners, Africans and elites I recognized from running magazines and websites.  What the hell was I doing here?

A pack of helicopters thundered over us, igniting a roar from the crowd.  A stirring prayer was thrown heavenward, the booming national anthem, then, for two tension filled beats ... the world stopped ... runners tensed ... "KA-BOOM!" the starting cannon (and I mean cannon) blasted and we were off in a flash.

This was no time to be starstruck.  I dialed in to my pace, dodging a few runners here and there but nothing like the normal bobbing and weaving I'm used to in a 30,000 person race.  I settled into my stride and prepared for the work ahead.  I aimed for a slower first mile with the hope of negative-splitting the race.

The first mile marker came out of nowhere as we prepared to make the right turn to go over Memorial Bridge and into the District.  I glanced at my watch: 5:58.  Perfect.  "If they could all go by this fast," I thought.  

Crossing the Potomac is a favorite D.C. running moment.  I took a breath to steal a glance to my right, the Jefferson traced in pink while the sun began to rise over the water; to my left, Georgetown and the Kennedy Center still in the flat dawn.  Then back to business with the House of Lincoln just in front of me.  

It wasn't until mile 3 that some discomfort began to creep in and I had to start talking to myself.  "You trained for this.  We're racing now, we're not just finishing.  We're racing. Acknowledge the pain.  Then let it pass."  Each mile marker had me anywhere between 20 and 25 seconds ahead of the six minute pace marker, depending on the elevation gain (or loss).  It was quickly clear this would be no walk in the park.  Every second counted, every downhill needed to be maximized and each uphill survived with minimal damage.

I hit the half in 29:31 and took in the long...wonderful...downhill Independence mile toward the Capitol. Never mind that I'd have to circle the basin and go right back up it.  For now, it was all about efficient form and laying down some ground-eating strides.  

At mile 6, I took my first sip of gatorade.  Like sex, it tasted so good.

I began making the climb back up Independence.  I could see the overpass that would bring the final turn before the bridge.  I trudged up from 7-8.  My legs feeling it now.  I wanted desperately to keep pace.  My thoughts wavered between, "You're going to do it," to "You just don't have the legs for it today."  This epic struggle played out in my head and finally to the turn to 8.  A relieving sigh...I'd survived.

I hit the last water station, took the gatorade...ended up wearing most of it.  Two effing miles to go.  But the Bridge.

The Bridge is like a strip of bacon.  It rolls, undulates, but never seems to end.  I carried on, trying to think of it as just two miles rather than some cruel-long-spanning-PR-killing-Leviathan.  I envisioned the last two miles on my easy runs.

A woman with pom-poms cried out that we were close to mile 9.  I could see the flashing red numbers.  The clock ticked on: 53:57, 53:58, 53:59.... It took me six seconds to get the start line, so I needed to run a 6:06 last mile.

I closed my eyes for a moment.  The early mornings flashed through.  The torturous intervals.  The lung searing tempo runs.  The sweat-wringing long runs in the VA humidity.  "Here we go."  

I went to the well.  The bridge would not be my undoing again as it had been when I attempted to break 70 minutes two years ago.  I'd come too far, suffered through too much that morning to not have the storybook ending.  I'd throw up, I'd run until the lactic acid bound me up and my vision clouded.  God, it hurt.

59:41 never sounded so good.
My legs turned over faster.  Arms pumping.  Legs churning.  The road curved but still I could see runners.  I wanted them to be disappearing into the exit ramp.  The Pentagon appeared to my right.  Dammit I could hear the announcer.  Closer now.  One last uphill and at the crest I could see the ramp.  I descended toward a horde of onlookers screaming for us.  "Two right turns," I said and went into one last gut wrenching kick.  My shoulders burned, my quads growing heavy.  The last turn I could see the finish.  I squinted to see the red numbers: 59:27, 59:28, 59:29.  A smile broke across my face.  I knew I had it.  The pain, the tightness, it all disappeared.  My pace quickened even more and I sailed over the finish line.

I dropped my arms, palms open and wailed: "Yeeeeooowwww!"  Cameramen scattered and volunteers jumped.  I clicked my watch, unofficially: 59:43.  Subtract the celebration and official time became 59:41.

Other finishers and I congratulated one another, knowing we'd just accomplished something monumental.  I rested my hands on my head and just smiled and smiled.  

I made my way back to the finish to watch my wife come through.  For her, it was a drop in the bucket, a down week in her marathon schedule.  "Ten's a warmup now," she beamed.  She'd run through her training and checked off an 8-miler the day before.  We sweaty-hugged one another and made our way back to the car with our other friends who'd joined to meet our Ragnar team for breakfast.

Later that night, I fell into an accidental drunken haze after enjoying every sip of my Chimay Red in celebration.  The pain from the race had already faded, replaced instead by the good memories. I tipped my head back on the couch, the TV still on in the background, and replayed that celebratory scream.  It was all right.

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