Monday, February 20, 2012

2012 GW Birthday Marathon Relay Redux

Rohan (far left in all red) set for the start. (Photo courtesy
of Bengal Richter)
A woman walked by with purpose carrying a bag of flour under her arm. We eyed one another “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” style until Rohan spoke up. “What do you think that’s for?”

“Maybe it’s for the starting line?” I questioned. We shrugged our shoulders and laughed, then Rohan returned to stretching.

There’s nothing quite like the smallness of a local race. In this case, the 51st running of the GW Birthday Marathon Relay. If races like Boston and New York are the raging keggers of youthful lore, then the GW Birthday Marathon is an intimate gathering of friends in your living room. No frills, no crowds, no buses, no choked roadways. The race takes place in Greenbelt, MD along a course of rolling relentless hills that the solo marathoners cover three times, while those weaker of spirit split up amongst three to form a relay team. The rewards, however, are just as good or better than a big race. For $22.50, you get a sweet Brooks running tech shirt and the promise of chili and/or pizza awaiting you at the finish line. Ah, life's simple (running) pleasures.

And so, my friends Rohan and Ebo completed the threesome of our team, 1 Life to Run. We cut across the baseball field and congregated in front of the neat suburban houses. A smattering of runners milled about and the cacophony of idle chitchat spread between the narrow neighborhood streets.

At 10:29, a man with a bullhorn stepped forward. He asked all the relay runners to ensure they swung the wristband as low to the ground as possible so that the timing mat picked up the chip before you handed it off to your next person. Yes, we affixed the timing chip to a wristband. If we had big Oakley’s, hot pink shorts, cotton t-shirts, and that bag of flour was actually cocaine, it could have been the 1980s. Luckily, it was a chilly morning and the potential for getting a sweat-soaked wristband to complete the final loop of the course was low.

Then…the gun. Rohan disappeared around the first turn and I looked at Ebo and said, “We gotta go. He’s pretty fine-tuned.” With 9.7 miles to cover, I knew Rohan would be at the exchange in about 58-60 minutes.

Ebo and I promptly arrived at the exchange and elected to stay in the warm car. The DC-metro area braced for “no significant accumulation” of snow starting around 3:00 and we eyed the fleece of gray clouds with skepticism and debated whether or not it was ok that we planned to wear shorts. (Spoiler alert: there was no precipitation the entire day, and yet there was a run on bottled water and toilet paper at the store.)

With the clock nearing 11:20, we hopped out of the car and prepared for Rohan to crest the hill. Sure enough, at 11:29, he appeared in what can only be described as: hauling ass. They made the handoff and Ebo took off down the hill. Lines of crusted salt streaked down Rohan’s face as he struggled to get the words out. “Hilly! Surged back and forth. The whole way. But. I put in. The miles.”

While Rohan cooled down, I bounced anxiously around the car, ducking into the woods to pee, pausing to stretch, then thinking it too early. I settled on eating my power bar and absently rubbing the glowing spot above my left ankle that had plagued me the last couple weeks. A woman and her daughter walked by talking about chocolate and peanut butter. "Who's got chocolate peanut butter?" Rohan asked. They lauhged and continued on. Fifteen minutes before Ebo came through, I went through my warmup, telling myself that this was just a tempo run, to find the flow, and enjoy the ride.

“He’s coming!” Rohan shouted.

I pulled my jacket off and tossed it into the car. Ebo, as is his trademark, came barreling toward the exchange at a ferocious pace. I took the sweatband, still fairly dry, and balanced my water bottle as I tried to slip the band over my wrist.

After a short decline, the course exerts its will upon you with a mighty short and steep climb. I focused on keeping my legs under me and not overstriding. The mincing steps helped propel me forward. When I came through the first mile, my watch beeped 6:11. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Not sustainable.” And banished the watch from my mind, deciding not to check my pace again, and to truly run by feel.

I came upon the woman and her daughter that had walked by Rohan and I. "Chocolate. Peanut butter," I gasped. They waved and urged me on.

The first 3.5 miles went by in an unsettling storm of discomfort. I paid for setting that pace from the onset and spent those early miles trying to get into a rhythm and measure my breathing. But the steady, long climbs made it difficult. I fought a side stitch and tried to distract myself with the bucolic countryside. I broke my 9.2 mile run into three segments, essentially three sets of three miles.

The course (photo courtesy of Bengal Richter)
Once I hit the halfway mark, however, I’d found the rhythm I searched for on a long, forgiving downhill that served as a reset. The sun ducked in and out of the clouds and made it just warm enough to be noticeable. I came on the marathoners and tossed a “nice job” to them, feeling guilty that I only had to complete this loop once.

Remembering the course from last year, I knew I had three significant climbs left and I steeled my mind to the task, using the downhills to recover and pick up some speed. I came through the exchange point and followed the arrow made out of flour that pointed to “Finish.” Oh! I thought as a puff of white cloud kicked up from my heels. One hill left to go, one that had reduced me to a walk this time last year. One last left turn and the road began a steady incline, just enough to let you know that you were climbing. The 25 mile marker appeared and that’s where the real work began. The road pitched upward and around a bend where it continued to climb. I shortened my stride and chuffed up, willing myself onward. I let out ragged breaths on each exhale and searched for the apex. I hid the pain behind my sunglasses and kept my face stony and reserved. Finally, I could see the hill break ahead of me. My legs turned over and I surged down the backside like a madman, knowing the last half mile was all downhill. The trail cut through the woods and I managed a thumbs up to the few fans near the finish line.

I finished in a huff, the clock just under three hours. I staggered around, tossing a head nod and a thanks to my friend Caroline who’d come to watch the race. I looked at my watch for the first time: 58:40 for 9.2 miles and thought, Not bad. Could be the jump I’m looking for.

The three of us walked back up to the visitors’ center for our well-deserved pizza.

“All in a day’s work, gentlemen,” Rohan said.


1 comment:

  1. That hill at mile 25 is murder - MURDER! Great job out there yesterday, so fun to cheer you guys on!


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