Monday, October 10, 2011

2011 Army Ten Miler Redux

The halfway mark came and went unceremoniously. I didn’t even bother to glance down at my watch. The test coming was not on my wrist but in my legs. Independence Avenue began to pitch down after 14th Street. I could see the cones on the other side of the road that would mark the exit from DC. But there was work to be done.

The 1600m the make up miles 5 and 6 of the Army Ten Miler are, in my opinion, the potentially fastest mile of the 10. The road is a straight shot down Independence Avenue. It’s the next 1600m that can challenge your will because after the U-turn around the Native American Museum, you must retrace your steps up Independence Avenue.

Do I roll or do I hold back and steel myself for the uphill? I wrestled as the leaders went by on the other side of the road. Now, I did glance down at my watch: 5:53. I smirked. I can run faster than this, I thought. And took off down the hill.

For the past year, the 2010 Army Ten Miler has been the race I’ve gone back to to find my confidence. I ran a quad-busting 59:41 that had me convinced I was invincible. During my 400 mile base-building phase, when I could push the thick summer air, I went back to that race and tried to conjure any lingering magic that might still be in my legs or lungs. It had become my gold standard.

All summer I had to remind myself when the splits weren’t what they were a year ago, “This is a different time. A different goal.”

So, when I laced up Sunday morning, I did so with tempered expectations. The circled race on my calendar isn’t the Army Ten Miler as it was last year, but the New York Marathon, exactly four weeks away. This was my tune up, my fitness check. I’d barely hit interval runs that started with a 5-something pace, so I certainly didn’t expect to string 10 miles of them together.

After a stirring start that featured homage to the fallen, the wounded, and those currently serving, the cannon fired. And we were off. I fought to shoot through gaps and get outside of a choked first mile to establish any type of rhythm. It was like trying to merge onto the beltway at rush hour. I had to stop short, constantly check over my shoulder to see if I could switch lanes, and even laced together strings of swearing that I managed to keep in my head.

I looked down at my watch expecting to see 7:30-7:45 and instead glimpsed 6:40. Huh, I thought. This feels pretty good for 6:40. When the first mile marker came up and the race crossed out of Virginia via the Memorial Bridge and into the Nation’s capital, I was happy to see a 6:10.

The crowd began to string out and I found a flow and rode it down Constitution Avenue. We turned off onto Virginia Ave for a quick climb that I used to accelerate past a few more runners, knowing that my effort would be rewarded with a long downhill before we ran under the Kennedy Center. I was locked into 5:45 pace, until I was locked up.

Finally having some space to maneuver, I hemmed myself in with a pack of six runners. Two dudes recognized one another and as the conversation continued, the pace slowed and I started nipping at the heels of the one in front of me. I cursed myself for the tactical error then dropped back a couple steps before accelerating around them and surging toward the backside of the Lincoln Memorial.

The four mile marker came and went and the first flash of optimism began to seep in. Could it be a day for a sub-60? I asked, smiling to myself. But I wasn't even halfway through the race, so I quickly buried the notion. Right on cue my breathing got heavier as the new MLK monument flashed by on the right. After all, I still had 6-7 to contend with and…the bridge.

At the 6-mile water station, I switched from water to Gatorade. My eyes lit up as the sugar coursed through me. Picture Popeye after he downs the spinach.

As this training cycle has progressed, I’ve been amazed at how well I can own my pace. I feel like I can dictate my race rather than letting the race dictate me. If I want to speed up, I can summon the energy to do it. In the past, I might need to drop the pace but simply didn't have the gas to do it.

Rising back up Independence, a younger runner cut in front of me as I began catching up to him. We played cat and mouse for about 200m before I watched his shoulders creep up around his neck. The hill and pace seemed to be taking their toll on him. I made a slight adjustment to get on his left side then powered by him. So focused on our game, I was already half way up Independence and still accelerating. I took mile 7 in 5:43.

The 14th street bridge is interminable. The very mention of it to veterans of the Army Ten Miler or Marine Corps Marathon is enough to send quivers up their quads. Its rolls are numerous and it bends ever so slightly to the right so that you can never quite see where it ends.

The crowd had opened up at this point. I closed my eyes for a moment to steady myself. You’ve got the legs. You’ve got the lungs, I said. Keep it neat. I opened my eyes and let my stride just flow. I fought the urge to look at my watch and ran by feel, catching glimpses of the Pentagon instead.

When I came upon the 9 mile marker, I did some quick math and realized I could drop a 6:45 and still come in under an hour. Instead of backing off, I let the pace drop naturally. The spectators began to thicken along the course as we rounded the Pentagon. I saw the finish line banner and let a smile break across my face. I squinted to see the clock: Does that say 58?! I thought. I pumped my arms harder, heard the snapping of the cameras and made sure I was completely over the sensor before clicking my watch. I looked down at the 56 second PR staring back at me: 58:45.

I let the moment sink in while I waited for my wife and father-in-law to come across the line. We toasted our accomplishments later in the afternoon and feasted on steak. When the alarm went off this morning, a trace of that euphoria was still there. But there’s more work to do.

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