Tuesday, March 29, 2011

National Half Marathon Redux

“It’s not last year,” I kept telling myself. I pulled tights back out of the closet since the weather called for a brisk 32 degrees at start time. So much for testing my Boston outfit in a race. I continued my pre-race routine and pinned my number on the shirt I’d wear in the morning, laid out my oatmeal packet and bowl, and packed up my backup. All the while, I repeated, “It’s not last year,” because last year was different.

Last year, I ran 1:21:48 at the National Half Marathon, shattering my PR by seven minutes and feeling supremely confident about toeing the line in Boston. I had a number of 18+ mile long runs under my belt and a stockpile of fartleks and hill repeats. This year was different. This year was about getting in the miles. This year was just about getting to the line.

I told myself I’d be happy somewhere around 90 minutes, but not to force it. If the pace came, I’d go with it…if it felt crappy, I’d pull back and just use it as a recovery run. After all, my last five weeks of weekend mileage looked like this: 9.2, 14, 16, 18, 17. A step back weekend wouldn’t be the worst thing.

The next morning, I felt lethargic getting out of bed with the alarm, and as I groped my way down the stairs in the dark, I thought, “Why do I need to do this?” But the more I walked around, got some food in me, and talked to my wife and father-in-law, the more life returned.

When we arrived, parking on a sidestreet near RFK, my initial inclination was, I need to find a tree. So, I did my best impression of a calf stretch against a tree and completely bypassed the porta-potty lines. Meanwhile, my wife and father-in-law walked off to the start to go meet our friend Sarah who was running her first half marathon. A good luck kiss for Mrs. Onthebusrunning, and a handshake for my father-in-law.

I went through my dynamic warmup in the solitude of this D.C. side street. Families were still asleep, warm and tucked in, while I tried to coax my muscles to life. Satisfied, I trotted off toward the start, threw in a couple pickups, and smiled at the bounciness in my step. I tried to contain my excitement because I’d felt this before and it led to good things.

I ducked into the number 1 corral and bounced eagerly while the announcer shouted final directions. “It’s not last year,” I repeated. I looked around and noticed the other members of my corral in their racing flats and trainers and then down at my clunky 2160s. “I’ve got to start training to race in flats,” I thought. And then the gun.

Being up front, I didn’t have to weave too much, but still made my way to the periphery of the horde for some breathing room. The pace came easy, though I tempered expectations because the race opens with a long, gradual climb up North Carolina Avenue. It’s not enough to burn the quads, but enough to steal some of your breath.

A smattering of D.C. residents stepped out of their Capitol Hill row homes to cheer on the runners. It was enough to distract me from the task at hand because before I knew it, the hill had plateaued and my watch beeped the first mile. I looked down expecting to see 7:10, 7:15….6:25 it said. “Huh,” I let out audibly. “Shit.”

The Capitol dome rose in front of us and as we rounded the bend, I felt like I had pulled the pace back, not wanting to blow up. My watch beeped again. “Ok,” I thought. “Let’s see what we’ve got,” again expecting to see 7:00, 7:10….6:18. “Oops.”

The course continued beyond the normal turn following two miles, a last minute reroute. I decided from there not to look at my watch again, rather to just run by feel and see where it took me.

We wound around the course and out to Union Station. I knew we’d end up on Constitution eventually. With one final turn, the course dumped us out at the Modern Art Museum. “Ack,” I thought, “That’s it?” expecting to be farther down the Avenue. While the miles down Constitution are always beautiful, the Mall to your left, the sun coming up behind the Capitol, the White House to your right, it doubles back on itself, which I can’t stand in races. However, the new route mercifully eliminated the turnaround and instead took us straight onto Virginia Ave…where the real work begins.

For me, the National Marathon always starts at mile 4. It’s here that you enter the Dupont Circle area and the Dupont Hills. For five miles, the route rises and falls, testing your quads, and lungs. But what the course takes away in uphills, it gives back in downhills. I know if I can make it to mile 9, I’ll be treated to a one mile downhill stretch that ends just beyond mile 10. The mantra today was “nice and smooth” and the freshness I felt on my warm-up carried through these challenging miles.

When my watched beeped 10 miles, I ducked under an overpass and caught a glimpse at my split, 63:00. From above I heard, “Don’t look at that watch! You look good. Keep going, keep going.” I tilted my head up and tossed a wave, smiled to myself, and steeled my will for the final 5K.

With only four turns left, I pushed the final two hills, one in mile 11 and the last on 13th street before you make the turn onto North Carolina and see RFK rise up against the hill. It’s here that the marathon leaders make their second pass UP North Carolina, and it serves to give me a little jolt to the finish.

I hit the half/full split and barreled toward the finish. “Let’s wrap this up,” I thought, accelerating around the final turn to the finish.

After I crossed, I looked down at my watch: 1:23:38, and laughed. I ran the final 3.1 mi with consistent 6:11 splits. I couldn’t account for it. As I stretched and pulled my warm-ups back on, I called my dad and recounted the race to him. We pieced together just how this might have happened…and couldn’t come up with much.

Whatever the case, sometimes it’s best not to ask those sorts of questions, or perhaps have answers to them. In the end, I’ll take the time and not change a thing about my training between now and Boston (less than three weeks away), and hope some of that spring is still there in Hopkinton. It's not last year...and that's ok.

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