Wednesday, March 31, 2010

National Half Marathon Redux

When the alarm went off at 5 a.m. last Saturday, I shot out of bed.  Funny how that can happen when I normally get up for work an hour-and-a-half later and lumber around for about 20 minutes.  Whatever the case, I could tell that the rest from the day before had done its job.

I dressed, ate, and monitored the hour by hour forecast on  Normally, this race calls for tights,  heavy long sleever, hat and gloves, and that's only when you're running.  But this year, we were looking at low 40s at the start with a 12 degree jump once the sun rose.  I thought this was a good opportunity to test out Boston gear, so I donned the red shorts and black and green singlet that served me so well for the Army Ten Miler...again, hoping to call on some of that past race karma.

Rachel and I rode in near silence into the district with dog in tow.  Though there was no traffic, we were cutting things a little closer than I'd wanted.  Cue the short answer, finger-tapping Brad who fidgets incessantly and keeps looking from window to window, ready to open the car door to tuck and roll.  Sensing my frustration, Rachel took the next parking spot, we exchanged a kiss and a good luck, and I was off, jogging toward RFK/warming up for the race.

I've been plagued in years past by not getting a thorough warm up for this race.  So, despite being four blocks from the start, it actually worked out in my favor.  I didn't hit the throngs of runners making there way over until about a block away, where, my worry became less about getting to the start of the race and more about looking for a place to pee.  

I will say that the National Marathon has a pretty good porta potty system going; however, I had only 20 minutes until start.  I peered down alleyways, in quiet backyards, and assessed potential hedges, but couldn't bring myself to do it.  Cue more fidgeting in the porta potty line.  I drowned out the nervous chatter of others and concentrated on mentally moving that line forward.  Finally, relief...on both levels.

I trotted over to the start where I ran into Rachel and Mattie one more time.  This brought a calming smile to my face.  I wove through the starting herd, looking for my corral but this system seemed to have broken down long before I got there.  So, rather than looking for corral 2, I just tried to get as close to the start as I could.

It did little good.  The gun went off and the shuffle to the start began...and then continued.  Applying my years of hardened D.C. driving skills into action, I started darting in and out of people, just trying like hell to get to the outside to use sidewalks, grass, curbs, ANYTHING to get some space.  Angry looks were shot at those carrying cameras, the chatterers, and essentially anyone without a dog in the fight.

Finally, I broke loose and took off down the sidewalk, dodging a few parked cars and the occasional spectator.  With the start going up North Carolina avenue this year, I found my breathing a little labored as I neared mile 1. Could have been the frustration, but I was pleased to look down at my watch and at least see that I'd managed to go under 7:00 by 20 seconds...manageable.  

Still, I had trouble finding a rhythm.  Could have been the start, could have been the hill, but thoughts such as, "I don't want to do this for 12 more miles" came and went in my head.  I closed my eyes for a moment here and there just to try and get a reset, tune in to my body, and just fall into pace.  

We rounded the Capitol at mile 2, day starting to break, the sky starting to come alive, and my watch registering a 6:10 second mile.  "That's more like it," I thought, and ditched the free gloves that had come in my race packet.  Now we were rolling.

The Capitol began to disappear behind me with the rest of the mall coming into view.  Having run this route many a time, I counted the museums, "National Gallery of Art, Natural History, American History" until the Washington Monument poked through and was suddenly beside me.  Rows of paper white crosses stretched out across the monument's front lawn, for what, I'm not sure, but it proved a good distraction.  It was here, just passing mile 3 (in 6:07) that the spark caught.

The rhythm was there.  Breath came steady.  Legs turned over. In the flow.

The turn at the Lincoln came and I steadied myself for the left turn on Virginia Ave that would let me know whether or not the hill work had paid off.  I ran the tangent and slingshotted around the corner, my eyes following the hill up to its summit that would lead us into Dupont.  

I watched others begin to fall off, but I knew I made my money on those hills.  I let my arms do the work and just let the legs keep turning over.  We entered the tunnel toward Dupont to thunderous clapping from spectators hanging from all sides of the bridge...a nice boost.  Emerging, we crested another hill and I straightened up my back and made the effort look minimal for the camera man.

Then came the eventual assault on Dupont, a quad/lung burning climb with the 10K mark waiting at the top.  "Keep the flow, keep the flow, in the flow," I kept saying to myself.  That sweet sweet powerade at the top made it all worth it.

The hilly section rolls from miles 5-9.  Once you hit 9, you're golden because 9-10 runs literally down N. Capitol Street.  In past years this has been a blessing and a curse.  I like to use that mile as a reset to prep for the final 5K but have still found myself struggling through miles 10-12, using sheer will to push through to the finish.

I kept waiting for mile 9.  This year, they rerouted the course some taking us the opposite way around the reservoir and through Howard University.  The first year I ran this race, Howard's band had come out and rocked. the. house.  But this year (and last), it was only a couple speakers blaring from someones dorm room...not the same.  The reroute also brought a couple of unexpected hills but I tried to power through knowing that that downhill mile was coming.

It was not what I had hoped for.  Instead of losing it at 10, I started to struggle at 9 and had to close my eyes again and try to refocus.  I got past by a guy who had cut me off at a water station before and took off DOWN a hill.  I took solace in the fact that I had caught him on one of the steeper uphills, but here he was again.

I tried to put him out of my head saying, "We're here for you.  Your race.  Not his."  It seemed to work because as the 10 mile marker came up, I felt rejuvenation rather than deflation.  I looked down at my watch: 62:47, a new 10 mile PR.  Then gave the guy a good view of the back of my singlet.

I took the corner to head back through Capitol Hill near my high school and felt the pace quicken.  Last year, I was reaching for a gel, and this year I was primed for the final 5K.

I started counting the blocks knowing that near 17, I'd be able to see the stadium, and, yes, the finish.  I moved over to the right side of the street because the sun was up in full force now and it was starting to get warm.  

The final turn onto North Carolina came and paid back what it had taken from me at the start.  With less than a mile to go, Michael Wardian, Arlington resident and practically owner of the National Marathon (winner of three of the last four), strode by in the lead.  A pack of us called out to him, and for me, this seemed the last bit of motivation I needed.  

My legs turned over faster and as I reached the half marathon/marathon split, that adrenaline dropped in and I unleashed all that interval/hill/fartlek work and took for the finish.  I caught Rachel and Mattie out of the corner of my eye and flashed a smile.

I crossed the line in 1:21:48, good enough for 73rd overall out of 6,289, a 7 minute PR, and most importantly, the confidence to take me into my final four weeks of Boston training.  

Tuned up.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tuning up for Boston

It's been 11 long weeks since I last laced up and toed a starting line.  But finally, tomorrow morning, I'll get to line up again and see what all this training has been about.  Around week seven, coincidentally when my world was covered with what seemed like endless amounts of snow, that racing itch began to set in.  I could see results in my training runs, particularly the intervals or the ease with which I could tick off miles during my long runs, but it's hard to get a real sense of how everything will come together without racing.  I found solace in those "key workouts," the Yasso 800s, the fartleks, and mid-week 12 and 13 milers but the adrenaline and atmosphere just aren't the same.

And everything seemed to be going according to plan, progressing nicely; however, the last two weeks have nearly been anything but.  Riding back in monsoon-like rain (hey, at least it wasn't snow), I had the phone pressed to my ear, my dad on the other end, pinning back tears after a 22-miler gone horribly wrong.  (I must interject that the tears aren't necessarily and abberation -- I tend to get emotionally exhausted as well as physically on long runs, and tears are the result -- just ask my wife who's seen this happen on many a car ride home after she's biked with me...but I digress).  I called my dad to essentially talk me off the ledge I knew I would step down from eventually but needed to hear the words of reassurance from someone other than the voice in my head.  Of course he did, but the hard lesson was this:  When you ratchet up the mental stress of work AND the physical (and, yes, mental) stress of running at the same time, something's got to give.  For me, it was the running.

I've spent the last two-and-a-half weeks working 10 and 12 hour days at work, in early, out late, and *gasp* logging time on the weekends.  Still, I fit my workouts in, only missing a run here or there as an injury prevention precaution.  In this span of time, my head has gone light, my body has felt exhausted, and my psyche has taken a beating.  Yet, my legs have been fresh and cardio in peak form.  It's been a frustrating juxtaposition to say the least.

And it all came crashing down last Saturday.  I set out on my 22-miler after having gone to a wedding in the morning.  My plan was to start out at Roosevelt Island, do eight out and eight back, refill my water, then knock out the remaining six on the Mt. Vernon Trail.  The rain could have been a factor, but I've logged 20-milers in the rain before.  Instead, I just felt like I'd run out of gas.  I stopped to walk a few times, then shut things down completely, hoping to save myself for another day once I got back to the car.  There was a lot of swearing, water bottle chucking, and self-loathing.  Glad I was alone for this mature display.

I simply felt...tired.  During a lunch-time seven miler the week before, I waited at a stoplight for the traffic to go by and thought to myself that I could close my eyes and fall asleep right there and it would be the greatest feeling in the world.  My boss told me this week "how tired I look."  Super.

Thankfully, this past week has been a recovery week mileage-wise, so I've taken great care to run on the low end of the mileage spectrum.  I also took today off of work to ensure I got a good night's sleep last night and would be as fresh as possible for tomorrow's half marathon.  When I woke up at 10:00 this morning, 11 hours after turning out the light, I knew I'd made the right decision.  Already I feel better today.

And that race that I'm finally getting to run tomorrow, I'm excited about it again.  With dog in tow, we drove to packet pick up this morning, ate lunch outside, and just enjoyed life...and not being tucked away in a cubicle.

While I'm not putting too much emphasis on tomorrow, a PR would be nice as well as a boost in confidence.  Looking forward to seeing that finish line in sight and the sudden surge of adrenaline that drops in to let you know it's time to unleash the finishing kick.  Hoping the detour is finally at an end and the bus is on the right course again.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Jail Break!

For the last three weeks - though it seems like much longer - I have been a prisoner.  Call it snowpocalypse, snownami, or whatever other nickname you came up with for the recent snow storms that have paralyzed the D.C. area, I've called it the warden. 

Fortunately, I wasn't trapped in the house or relegated to the gym and the dreaded torture mill.  Instead, I found myself with two loops: a 4.8 miler in my neighborhood and a 4 miler in the neighborhood across the main road.  Sure, that's almost nine miles of sidewalk, shoulder, and street to tread on, but day in and day out, night in and night out, day after day, and yes, week after week, I felt as though I'd fallen into one of Dante's levels of hell. 

I tried everything to switch things up: going in opposite directions, taking certain sections at different points in the run, looping twice, changing the order, even running on the other side of the street.  As Morgan Freeman said in Shawshank Redemption, "Time can draw out like a blade." 

I started to get apathetic about my runs.  Little excitement.  Tired.  Cranky.

I did tempo runs, easy runs, recovery runs, fartleks, intervals, and, God help me, an 18 and a 16 miler.

This past weekend, that all changed.  Facing yet another 18 miler, I dutifully checked the 10-day forecast leading up to it and felt the relief wash over me when there was finally no snow in sight.  We enjoyed a steady diet of sunshine and above freezing temperatures.

Slowly, the world began to reveal itself once again.  The snow peeling away.  The grass came back (much to Mattie's delight).  The ice melted off the street.  And yes, there was a sidewalk again on the main roads.

And so, I found myself in high spirits as I trotted out along the Mt. Vernon trail for Sunday's 18 miler.  It took me alongside and over the Potomac, into the heart of D.C.  I ran on the edge of the reflecting pool, rounded the Capitol, and skirted the tidal basin.  Fatigue mounted as I prepared to head over the Memorial Bridge for the final two miles, but that freedom spurred me on.  I had visions of William Wallace belting out "Freeeeeedddooooooommmm!!!" at the end of Braveheart as the smile broke across my face.

What's more, it didn't stop there.  I headed out of my neighborhood last night and tonight, did 9 on the golf course that had me stalking herds of deer and sending geese off in honking alarm.  Even the rain that's been steadily falling hasn't been able to keep me from enjoying this new found freedom.  With the miles buildng up in what has become my Monster Month, the shackles could not have come off at a better time.

Don't look now, but those clocks go forward in just over two weeks.
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