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 e-mail...top 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 us...off 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.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Back to Boston...Officially

It took more than a few weeks last year, but I suppose this year's Boston Marathon theme is speed, and that doesn't just include filling the field. A mere four days following registration, I clicked into my mail and found my confirmation e-mail that I'd been accepted into the 2011 Boston Marathon.  

With a big race coming up in less than 48 hours, I've tried to savor this moment, but I've been focused on getting mentally ready for Sunday's race.  I've actually lost a few half hours of sleep each night this week thinking about pacing and the various parts of the course...but that's for another blog.  

Between Ryan Hall's sudden departure from the Mammoth Track Club and the Boston Marathon selling out in less than a work day, the online running world has been abuzz.

The great Boston sellout seems to have brought mixed emotions from folks.  Some call it a tragedy, others an injustice, while some are simply indifferent.  Either way, the Boston entry system seems to have suddenly become running's equivalent to the BCS debate in college football.  

What is the right way?  Is there one?  Is the BQ still as illustrious as before...if you may not even get in? Who knew so many people could hate charity runners?

I think we're going to see qualification times raised for 2011.  That 3:10:59 suddenly becomes a 3:00 and I'm back to the drawing board to modify my training to get faster.  Got a great quote the other day that essentially sums up how I feel about that: Stepping outside the comfort zone is the price I pay to find out how good I can be. If I planned on backing off every time running got difficult I would hang up my shoes and take up knitting. --Desire Davila

As one who got in, I'm thrilled to be running Boston for the second time.  Having been through it once, I feel like I'm better equipped with the knowledge to "do it right" if that's possible, or perhaps "do it better" is more appropriate.  While I had trouble getting my form to go though during registration, my mind had already raced ahead to contingency plans: maybe I run Philly with my wife in November; maybe we finally pull the trigger on Big Sur; I braced myself for the letdown and would certainly have been one of the people lambasting the BAA.  

Did you get in?  Did you get shut out?  What needs to change?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Once More into the Breach...

With the finish line in sight, I went down to the well and mustered every last bit of energy I had left.  The stride suddenly smoothed out and the knots in my shoulders unwound.  I ran through a wall of people, at least three deep, their maniacal voices echoing off the high buildings.  I picked out my wife, dad, and father-in-law leaning over the guardrail and yelling for me.  The flash of a smile, one that we all shared, knowing that a mere 400m (one lap the track), was all that separated us from the end of a nearly two year journey.  Then I crossed the line....

We were the walking dead.  Casualties fell all around, claimed by cramped hamstrings, bulging calves, or just the overwhelming exhaustion that you'd just endured something far greater than you'd ever imagined.  When I started to try and think about it then, my face contorted in that involuntary way that one gets when biting into a lemon or drinking too strong whisky.  I fought back the tears as long as I could.  They didn't fall for any reason.  Just one of those things.  Then I saw them.  First my dad, then my father-in-law, and finally my wife.  Then there was no holding back.  I fell into their arms.  Couldn't keep my fingers from digging into my hips to relieve the ache, the soreness, the tightness that just wouldn't subside.  

Before he dashed off to get a cab, my father-in-law asked, "Would you do it again next year?"
"Hell no," I said.  "F-no.  I'm done."

But as I felt life returning, the memories, not two hours old, started to fade.  The agony maybe not so bad.  My heart mending itself after the top of Mile 21.  The Citgo sign perhaps not as far away as it seemed.  That jacket, the one with the yellow unicorn, sliding on over my shoulders felt pretty damn good, even if it was a touch warm to be wearing it.  The airport terminal, watching others hobble around, exchanging the knowing nods of other soldiers returned from battle.

Perhaps it wasn't out of the question.  Perhaps I could take what I learned having been through it once and really train for it for a whole year, and *gasp* do it "right."  Whatever that means.

And so, there I found myself today, closing the door to my office for my "9:00 appointment."  The one that had been on my calendar since the date and time of registration was announced. Fingers eagerly poised on the keys.  When the hour turned over, I typed with great purpose, my hands working the keys like Ralph's fingers on the Little Orphan Annie decoder.   The initial excitement came on as it had a year ago.  But when I hit submit, the form refreshed...and cleared.  It was worse than a crummy Ovaltine ad.

"Ok, be cool," I said.  And did it again...only to get the same result.  So I called my wife.  Not at her desk.  So I called my Mom.  "I need a favor."
"It's not going to cost you anything."
"Ok, then, what is it?"

So we walked through the form...only to have it not work on her computer.  I wouldn't call it panic, but it was pretty darn close.  I took to the internet and found myself on the BAA Facebook page.  They'd posted an announcement about registration opening.  108 comments followed, many expressing the same frustration -- and near panic -- I had.  Someone though had gotten through.  And they posted the url.  I went to it, filled out the form, and FINALLY got to the entry confirmation page.  Not a moment too soon as registration closed just eight hours and three minutes later.

I sat back in relief and then had the feeling I always get after signing up for a marathon: oh, shit...this is really happening.

I've got one more finish line to cross before turning my full attention to Boston, and that's the Army Ten Miler this Sunday.  But, as I said, it's sort of all been about Boston since April 20.

Indeed, once more into the breach dear friends....

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Great Pumpkin 5K Redux

Weary, exhausted, I walked into my friend's house some eight hours following the morning's 5K.  A few other men sat around the dining room table.  We had come together to take my friend out for his bachelor party.  But I'd say for the first 20 minutes of that evening, you'd have never guessed.  "This is Brad," my friend said to the group, introducing me.

"Oh's" and "Hey sit downs" echoed off the walls.  "Mr. 17:11 today, have a seat."  You can bet that that weary and exhausted feeling vanished.  "So tell us, what was your race plan?  How did you train?  Are you training for something bigger?  Do you do intervals? How far is your tempo run?  How long do you go on the weekends?"

The questions kept coming.  It turned into a deposition.  I loved every minute of it.  This was a group of guys who'd been running together since the mid-80s.  Combined, they shared well over 100 marathons, and probably close to 200.  

There were a lot of miles in that room.

With great eagerness, I poured forth about the day and the many weeks leading up to it and of course the much bigger plans that lay ahead.

A slight chill filled the air when we loaded up the car...not with gear, with people.  All told, seven of us ran the 5K, six Ragnar vets, and my running partner.  It finally felt like fall, though you'd never know it five hours later when the thermometer reached 87.  But for those blissful 17:11, it was perfect.

Rohan and I broke away from our carmates and set off on an easy two-mile warmup job.  The warmth built in my legs and moved up to my chest and arms.  Soon, sweat beaded under my (Boston) jacket.  I didn't feel great, but that usually means I'll run pretty well.  Knowing a steady climb awaited us just beyond mile 2, we trotted over to the marker to get a feel for it and run the last 1.1mi of the course.  Last year, this hill became my undoing.  I'd been rehabbing my IT band and had just completed the Army Ten Miler.  I turned in a gut wrenching 19:08 that left me bent over and gasping for air at the finish.

What a difference a year can make.  I went with tempered expectations.  I hadn't had the chance to take out my new summer speed trained legs for a 5K, but instead moved straight into 10 miler training.  The point being that I'd been putting in all this training yet not really knowing if it had worked.  Sure, I saw times in interval workouts improving and tempo runs getting faster, but wasn't sure how it would all blend together.  Workouts were one thing.  Primetime was another entirely.  I needed the validation.  I wanted a PR (less than 18:24), but what I really wanted was for the numbers to start with a 17.

Rohan and I talked about just running our own races instead of relying on staying with one another.  I lost him in the shuffle as we lined up.  He hopped the fence to get to the front; I wasn't so lucky.  When the gun went off, there was some bobbing and weaving.  But I broke comfortably to the outside and tried to find my step.  I hoped to run a 5:50 and get progressively faster as the race went on.  As we made the first turn, my feet turning over (forget to mention I had my magic shoes on), I saw the first mile marker appear and glanced down at my watch: 5:31.  "Man," I thought.  "5:30 seemed like suicide."  But I felt great, so I kept rolling.  

I fell into a nice flow as once eager runners started coming back to me.  Just outside the two mile mark, I spotted Rohan.  I came through in 11:03.  Now, we were in familiar territory thanks to the warmup run.  The hills came on a lot faster but, then again, so was I.  Lungs beginning to sear, I made the final turn and went into one last kick for the final 200m.  I came across the line and let out a "Yeeeoowww."  The watch read 17:11...1:23 faster than my PR and nearly a full two minutes faster than the year before.  Validation achieved.

Rohan and I sipped water to wait for our friends to finish with us.  

"Hell," he said.  "If I'd a known we were that close, I'd have pushed for the sub-16."  
"We'll get there," I said.
"Next time, we line up together," he said.  "That's how we'll get there sooner."

He and I finished 7/8, he winning his age group, and I placing third in mine.  We came in a mere three seconds apart, furthering our belief that we were made to train together.

I carried that time around with me for the rest of the day and let it soak in.  Everyone came back to our house for a celebratory pancake breakfast, which we took out on the deck as the day turned warmish.

The positive affirmation is good, but as I mentioned, this wasn't the big one.  The Army Ten Miler is just 12 days away and I'm dreaming about a sub-60.
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