Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Navy Federal 5K (and 20miler) Redux

It started with a few odd glances. That became smiles. There were waves, and there were head nods. Then it dawned on me: I was the leader. Well, sort of.

This past Saturday, I decided to take on what Quenton Cassidy would call, “running through.” In other words, I decided to race through my training. The scene opens with Cassidy letting go ragged breaths as he charges up a hill and watches in vain as his closest opponent disappears across the finish line before him. While he retches on the side, his good friend Jerry Mizner reassures Cassidy’s concerned girlfriend saying, “He just run himself a race is all.” Then Cassidy, Mizner, and Bruce Denton go trotting off for an easy 10 miler. "To beat someone while running through, Cassidy said, is to own them body and soul."

I haven’t raced since Boston back in April and coupling my base building period with the summer heat, I haven't exactly felt race sharp. In fact, I've felt pretty damn blunt. But seven weeks into marathon training, you start to get that itch, wanting to test your mettle, wanting to see if "it" is working.

So, that’s where I found myself staring down my first 20 miler (with the last 4-6 miles at a “fast finish,” whatever that means for a 20 miler). The trainer at our neighborhood gym was the co-chair of the Navy Federal 5K and subtly twisted our arms, err, encouraged us to sign up.

For the marathoners, there’s something about 20, isn’t there? It somehow takes on mythical proportions despite being only two miles more than your previous long run. Maybe it’s that it starts with a two instead of a one, maybe it’s a rounder number than 18 or 16, or perhaps it’s purely that it sounds bad ass saying that you just ran 20 miles over the weekend. Whatever the case, the 20 mile long run is one that is never taken lightly, and, for this runner, is never far from the front of my thoughts the week leading up to it.

I enlisted the help of Mrs. Onthebusrunning who agreed to Sherpa for me that morning. It's one thing to crew for someone on a long run...it's quite another entirely to throw away precious hours of Saturday morning sleep to bike before the sun has even come up. She has my eternal love and respect for such sacrifice.

Timing was everything. I wanted to be on the trail by 6:50 to be back to the car by 8:50 so we could throw the bike in the car and make it to the line for the 9:00 gun.

The sky was overcast, the air crisp with the first breath of fall air, and my legs popping from the first steps out of the parking garage. In short, there was that fall magic in the pre-dawn darkness; the day that you dream of to get yourself through those torturous summer miles was finally here. It’s as though I had three lungs and dammit if I didn’t feel like I could run the whole marathon that morning.

We turned on to the W&OD trail, a notoriously hilly bike path that is famous for its interminable slow, gradual climbs that are enough to snap your will if you haven’t steeled yourself. I save this route for the big runs to use as a measuring stick.

My wife and I were chatty, laughing and cavorting in the early-going. She pulled alongside to offer me water and Gatorade from the backpack and we regaled one another with childhood stories that we hadn’t yet heard about one another and talked about our future goals…all those creative, dreamy thoughts that come so easily to the surface on good long runs.

To save time post-long run/pre-race, I pinned my number to my singlet, so I was that guy on the trail with his race number on. Then I realized…I wasn’t the tool with his race number on, I was the race leader.  And my wife was on the bike guiding me through the course! “So this is what it feels like,” I laughed to my wife.

My watch beeped for six miles and I marveled that time and distance had come and gone so fast. Before I knew it, we’d hit the out and started the back. The pace dipped to 6:20s over the last three miles and I rode it all the way back to the race.

The weather had grown a tad warmer but I was in that perfect homeostatic state where my arm warmers and hat still felt comfortable.

“Do you care?” she asked. “I mean, do you have a goal?”
“Just want to hit marathon pace,” I said. “Anything else is gravy.”

That’s what I said. And mostly that’s what I thought. But the competitive fire stoked inside me and I wanted to see what my legs could do. I didn’t want to go into oxygen debt and I didn’t want to veer into the puking zone. But….

At the gun, I was a pack of one. The leader bolted ahead and I watched him disappear into the neighborhood. A pack of four was ahead of me and the rest somewhere at my back.

“Keep it neat,” I repeated, meaning my stride.

At mile 1 I’d gained ground and a smile broke across my face as I looked down at the 5:45 staring back at me. “I guess I can still run fast,” I said. As we hit the hills, the pace rose to 6:00 at remained that way, at least for me. I started to reel in one who’d fallen off the pack. I could hear that raspy breath as I came on him and we started to climb. I relaxed my shoulders, reset my breathing with a deep breath, and strode confidently past him so he’d know I wasn’t hurting nearly as bad as him and he’d only see my back the rest of the way.

With one mile to go, I kept the accelerator down and tore through the final stretch.  It was somehow different, though.  It wasn't that awful lactic acid storm that normally comes at the end of a 5K.  It was a relaxed, one more mile to hit 20 and end the workout feeling that I can't ever remember experiencing during a 5K.  I was in control, like I could drop the hammer and pound out that last mile or just focus on maintaining pace and enjoying a nice Saturday workout.

I came across the line in 18:26 and rounded out the top 5, good enough for second in my age group. I was more than satisfied and came away with the lingering thoughts of, “What could I have done without 17 miles on my legs already?”

My wife came across the line. We sipped our water and gathered our things. Then we trotted off to the car, not for 10 more miles, but to meet our breakfast club friends for some much needed eggs and pancakes, and to let that sweet, exhausted satisfaction of a workout gone good seep in.

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