Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Navy Federal 5K Redux (and 20 miler)

“I’m too tired to chew,” my friend Rohan said. His fork clanged onto the plate and he slid down in his chair.

“Shall I take your plate, sir?” the waiter asked. He balanced my plate in one hand, the one with lingering smears of chocolate chip left over from what used to be eggs and pancakes (the smears I couldn’t get up with my fork). With the other, he began to pick up Rohan’s.

“Whoa, whoa!” Ebo and I both said at the same time, leading with our forks.

Like vultures descending on carrion, I stabbed at the remaining sausage links while Ebo sopped up syrup with the waffle half left on Rohan’s plate. The waiter’s eyes widened, taking it all in as we took it all away.

“Now?” he said, eyebrows raised.

“Ok,” we said, mouths full, eyes inspecting the now empty plates for any last remnants.

That’s what 17 miles and a 5K will do to you.

Hours earlier, the sun began to peek up over the trees lining the W&OD trail. The three of us clicked along, Rohan and I running, Ebo acting as water Sherpa and official trip photographer (see above). I had high hopes for this run. I tried to mimic last year’s performance when my wife rode alongside me and the miles seemed to slip easily by. I switched into faster gears with ease and had plenty left in the tank to complete the “fast finish” portion of that 20-miler by running strong to a top 5 finish in a local 5K.

History, sadly, did not repeat itself. Ebo and Rohan chatted easily through the first four miles, while a storm raged in my head and I tried desperately to weather its passing by focusing on my form and assuring myself that if I could just make it to four miles, the switch would flip and I’d be fine the rest of the run. Rather than, you know, focusing on the 17 odd miles left.

At about 3.5 miles in, Rohan looked over at me. “How’re you feeling?”
“Shitty,” I breathed.
“I thought so, you’re pretty quiet.”
“I’ll be. Ok.” I hope.

But lo and behold, at four miles, the clouds cleared and the pace dropped. We ran mostly in silence, not because, we hurt, but because we were in the flow. We hit the turnaround point with an hour and twenty minutes to spare before the gun went off for the 5K.

In that blissful stretch where the miles flipped like calendar pages, I hadn’t accounted for the fact that a lot of it had been on a gradual decline. So as we turned to make our way back to the car, the path inclined ahead of us and we climbed. And climbed. And climbed.

Normally, I thrive on the uphills. It’s here that I shorten my stride, tap into the turnover drills, churn up those hills, and make moves in races. I had no reason to think otherwise that morning except that when we hit the uphills, all the power had gone from my legs. If you'll excuse the Star Wars reference, it's like I was the Millenium Falcon trying to make the jump to light speed but the Empire had dismantled it without my knowing. My legs felt totally sapped of energy and they had no pop or kickback off the ground. I felt hungry, tired, and just wanted to curl up on the side of the trail and fall asleep.

With just under three miles left, I sent Rohan ahead of me and grinded out the remaining miles, trying to block out the fact that I still had a 5K to run once we got back to the car.

Mercifully, I reached the car with 17 minutes to spare. I downed a gel and started doing some butt kicks, high knees, and hamstring swings to trick my legs into waking up. Each step seemed to pull on my calves.

Ebo switched out of his bike gear and Rohan and I looked on one another with near dead eyes, both seeking the strength to run this 5K, knowing how bad it would hurt.

When the gun went off, we bolted from the line. The pack thinned quickly. I found a steady rhythm and tried to lock in, not looking at my watch, but rather running by feel. When I hit the first mile marker, the timer called out 6:03 and I balked wondering where the hell that came from.

I locked in on Rohan’s back and let him carry me the rest of the way. The second mile went by in a blur, and soon I charged for the finish. With a half mile to go, I knew a downhill finish waited for me so I fought off one last runner and made for home, wanting (needing) a strong finish to salvage my confidence. I crossed the line in 19:12 and found Rohan. We ambled to the food station and began eating in line as we grabbed apples and bananas. Then, we collapsed into chairs to relish a morning hard earned.

Not long after, a primal roar came from the finish line and we saw Ebo howling across the line, high fiving the runners around him. The three of us padded back to the car, Ebo to celebrate a near PR, Rohan having run farther than he ever had in one jaunt, and me, well, for survival. It was one for the rolodex. And one to forget.

Even the bad ones go down a little easier when there are pancakes and eggs waiting at the end.

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