Sunday, July 25, 2010

Crystal City Twilight 5K Redux

When I visited France a couple years ago as a chaperone for a high school boys French class, I boarded with a couple who taught English.  We spent those two weeks testing out different phrases on one another, really trying to delve into the true dialect beyond the stuff you get from textbooks; i.e. they had never heard of the term "cold cuts" and turned perplexed faces at me the first time I muttered it in passing.  Anyhow, on one particularly hot and humid day in the Lyon countryside, Bernard stooped into the kitchen and mopping his brow after an afternoon in the garden and said, "This is what you would call the 'dog days of summer,' no?"  If he were referring to the climate at last night's 5K, I would actually call it the precipice of hell.

Last night, my wife and I and a couple friends toed the line at the Crystal City Twilight 5K.  We monitored all day.  But even the hourly forecast couldn't keep up with the rising mercury.  Ninety-two was the forecast.  It may as well have said "die in a fire."  This was no day for PRs.

On the way over to the race, we eased any pre-race jitters by making light of it, or rather heaping more drama onto it to make any sort of finish an epic conquest.  Then we wondered how runners like Michael Wardian could endure temps much hotter than this for days at a time while running across the Sahara.  Surely our 5K could be just as triumphant as his Marathon Dos Sables trek.

Once parked, we sipped from ice cold powerades that my friend pulled from a cooler.  We lingered near the start waiting for one more to join us.  The sun descended behind the buildings casting a hazy apocalyptic pall over the route.  We barely moved, only shifting slightly from foot to foot, and of course the obligatory porta potty stop, and even still, sweat glistened off all areas of exposed skin.

The ten minute call went up.  Our group filed into the starting shoot.  I sifted my way toward the front, but not before exchanging high-fives with my wife and friends.  A race official closed the metal grating to prevent anyone else from slipping in and it felt like the closing of a dungeon door.  In winter races, I've come to enjoy the sudden and welcomed warmth brought on in the starting chute by hundreds of bodies huddled together.  Last night, I thought I might suffocate.  I stood shoulder to shoulder with 1,800 sticky, stinky, moist strangers.  Those final ten minutes ticked by in agony, when finally, the race director walked everyone up to the starting line.  You could feel the mass of humanity breathe as the stifled air was finally released from our group.

Despite telling myself that a PR was not the wise goal to shoot for today, to just go and have fun, find a rhythm and just let it flow, I still felt the surge of adrenaline shoot through me.  That chill starts from the top of my skull and trickles down until it reaches my toes.  I try anyway I can to harness and channel that nervous energy.

Before the gun went off, they made sure to announce that the starting temperature was...100 degrees!  A collective groan moved through the crowd, then *Bang* we were off.

I tried to pick my way through the herd.  I had not gotten as close to the start as I wanted and paid for it by getting boxed in behind some eager children and more...casual runners.  Finally free after about a quarter mile in, my legs started to fall into a smooth turnover.  

I hit the bend near the first mile marker and came through the water station.  Normally for 5Ks, I push straight through, but tonight I took no chances.  I grabbed the first cup I could get to, but rather than throwing it down my gullet, I closed my eyes, ready to feel the sweet relief of the cold water move down the back of my neck.  Imagine my disappointment when the water was luke warm and rather than feeling refreshed, I only felt soggy.  No time to lament.  Had to push on.

The first mile marker came.  Perceived effort was high.  I've been training at 5:20 pace to ride at 5:45s in a 5K.  Imagine my disappointment when I saw 6:05.  So, rather than beat myself up, I took a deep breath and finally accepted that truly tonight was not the night for a PR.  

We looped back past the start/finish line.  I tossed a wave to my wife who called out to me.  We exchanged smiles and that carried me for another quarter mile or so.  You know, until I started yearning for the two mile marker.  Yes, the deal-making officially began.  

I came through mile 2 at 12:17, slightly slower, but purely battling for survival at this point.  Then the leaders came through, and, man, this dude was smokin'.  I thought that the turnaround must be getting somewhat close, but every turn we came around, the more runners I saw dipping around another building ahead of me.  "Where the hell is the turnaround!?" I screamed in my head.  (I later learned that the winner crossed in 14:03, which would explain why I had so much farther to go)

Another water station, another luke warm cup of water down my back.  Then the misting station.  I couldn't tell if my feet were wet from all the water dumping on to me or if it was sweat.

Finally the turnaround.  I chuffed around it and as we came around, I felt a renewed sense of vigor.  I wasn't going to do die, and in fact, I'd do more than survive.  So I turned the screws up some and fell into a nice rhythm.  I tossed another wave to my wife and to our friends.  Then the sweet noise of the loudspeaker, and, oh, yes, the blessed balloon arch marking the finish line.  

I swooped through mile 3 and turned whatever kick was left on and came through in 19:21 (63rd/1,808).  I grabbed my knees for a moment, sucking in the hot air, and thanking whatever saint of a volunteer who came over and poured cold water on my head.

I slowly walked back toward the finish line, stripping my wet singlet off and flinging it over my shoulder to give my body as much help as I could to cool down.  I cheered for my wife and friends to cross the line as moisture dripped off me.

As we congregated and each told our own war stories from the night, the next mission became to find the beer garden.  And while we sipped the best cup of Bud Light I'd ever drank, I noticed at a table not too far away, 2008 Olympian Brian Sell chatting with some runners and signing autographs.  I implored my friends, "Please guys, can you wait just 10 more minutes so I can get him to sign my race bib?"  And they did.

So, giddy like a school girl, I waited in line for Brian Sell, much the same as I did for Ryan Hall last year.  Similar to Ryan, he could not have been a nicer, more laid back person.  We shot the bull for a couple minutes, talking about his upcoming plans for school and the potential for him to still run competitively.  If there was a redeemer for this race, that was certainly it.

Autograph in hand, I took some gentle ribbing from everyone, before we set off for the most important part of the evening, the salvation if you will: the post-race meal.

Five baskets of greasy, salty tortilla chips, two enchiladas, and two more beers later, I felt replenished and ready to lay down and dream the fever dreams of overheated runners.

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