Monday, October 17, 2011

The Last Long Run - A Hard Thing to Know

It started as most runs do, with the beep of a watch. The sky along the Potomac glowed with broad strokes of pink and orange and boats bobbed gently next to one another along the dock. A small pit of nerves formed in my stomach. I trotted easily past mile post 12 of the Mt. Vernon trail and said to myself, “I’ll be back here again…sooner rather than later I hope.” Then I let the thought vanish. There was a lot of work to be done first.

My Sherpa entourage (Mrs. Onthebusrunning and her mother) pedaled behind me. The first mile came and went more quickly than I would have liked because it meant that I only had a mile and a half until the tempo intervals began. Our group meandered through Old Town Alexandria and I took a worn trail out to Jones Point. When I looked behind me, I only saw the hedgerow I’d just come through. No bikers.

My watch had hit 2.5 miles, which meant it was time to crank the pace down for the next three miles. My legs came to life and the cool morning air filled my lungs. I knew then this was going to be a good day. I gave a couple more sideways glances while running under the Wilson Bridge only to find that I was still alone. I hoped my wife would at least catch up to me at some point so I could snag the water bottle of Gatorade from her.

I passed runners and bikers alike and let the spiraling leaves fall against my chest and shoulders while I ran under the foliage. Then I heard it, “You need coolin’, baby I’m not foolin’!” Mrs. Onthebusrunning crooned Led Zeppelin behind me. “You want some water?” she asked pulling alongside me. "You look great!"

“Um,” I huffed, checking my watch. 5.49mi…5.5mi. “That’d be great,” I said, reaching for the bottle in her backpack. I slowed the pace and got ready to cherish the next “easy” three miles.

“My mom fell,” she said. “But she’s ok.”
“Just go back and get her. I’ll be fine. Enjoy the ride.” I said. And then we parted ways.

"The boardwalk" aka just before mile post 7.
The stretch of the Mt. Vernon trail from mile post 6 to mile post 0 is a cruel, torturous serpent. The road rises sharp and fast and doesn’t afford the runner the luxury of finding a rhythm. The trail winds along upscale houses, turning over on itself several times before finally reaching George Washington’s home.

I managed the “out” of this section well. My legs rode out the climbs and accelerated the descents. When I hit mile post two, I did a quick about face and started the “back.” I slipped into a steady pace with a quick turnover. My arms pumped steadily and the sweat began to trickle down my face now that the sun was up and on me. Only a half mile to go until I hit my two mile “easy” section. It would prove anything but.

Those two "easy" miles may have been the darkest of this 20 mile gauntlet. My rest was more of climb, descend, climb, climb, descend. To say that I cruised through the first 10.5 miles would be an understatement. The rest, however….

I got a nice bump in spirit when I saw Mrs. Onthebusrunning and her mom on a bench just beyond mile post 3.

“Ladies!” I yelled.
“Heeyyyy! My mom fell but she’s ok and…..”

I heard “ok” and saw laughter so the rest got cut off. as I disappeared into another hill.

I hoped that the one mile interval coming up would bring the snap back to my legs…and it did. I took off trying to manage the pace but I wanted so badly to get out of this section of the trail, knowing the long downhill that waited for me after mile post five. I crossed over the GW Parkway and relished the newfound zip I’d find and hummed along down the trail.

“12, 8, 4, 2,” I repeated to myself during the one mile “easy.” As in 1200m, 800m, 400m, 200m intervals left to go. What I enjoyed most about this stretch was that I could train my focus on each interval, rather than the fact that I still had seven miles left to run. The work is demanding but, for me, it’s easier mentally. The hardest part for me ends at mile post 8. You leave the trail behind and reenter Old Town Alexandria. It’s still four miles but the change of scenery does my head good. The mile posts disappear until 11 so it's running by landmark rather than post to post. In my head that's somehow better.

During those last intervals, I buzzed past other runners on the trail. When the breathing grew harder, I’d catch a glimpse at my watch and see “5:45” or “5:53” and know then why I was hurting. Still, I soldiered on.

When I finished the final 200m, I fought the urge to walk, even for just a moment. I had the long climb up Union Street to go, plus another two miles back to the car.

“You’re done,” I told myself. “Just cruise now.”

I shut my eyes for a moment to regroup. I felt like I was shuffling along and it was only until I checked my watch to see that I was running “7:03” that I bucked up. During this trainin cycle, when the skies in my head get dark, I try to remember that the hurt is going to come in the race too. Every workout that I can absorb it, push through the exhaustion, and finish the workout will callus me both mentally and phyically. Shalane Flanagan calls it "getting to the pain." At mile 17.5, I got it.

I focused on good form, relaxed my shoulders and kept my stride neat. With two miles to go, the confidence surged through me and a smile broke across my face. My watch beeped to signal one mile to go. The pace fell naturally.

I saw mile post 12 and said, “See, I told you you’d be back here again,” while striding past it. I could see the row of cars and the stop sign where it all began just over two hours ago. I pretended that I had just rounded the final turn in Central Park and the gaping arching of the finish line waited for me.

My watch beeped just the same as it had when I started the run.

I got back to the car, hobbling some thanks to some tender hip flexors and tightening hamstrings. The watch read “2:14:37.”

I fired off a text to runDanrun to give him the good news. We exchanged a few more texts before I received this: “I love the fact that 10.5 miles, for the lay man is impossible, for most runners is a workout, but for the fit and finely tuned, it is merely a warm up! In NYC, when the gun goes off, let slip the dogs of war!”

Mrs. Onthebusrunning and her mom rode in about 20 minutes later. We feasted on breakfast foods and I went about the day with a quiet yet confident air about me.

Indeed, it was a hard to thing to know.

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