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.