Wednesday, February 20, 2013

GW Marathon Relay Redux

We hunkered down in our respective seats. With every wind gust that shook the car, our arms tightened around our bodies. “Ok,” I finally spoke up. “I’m going to switch out my shoes, stretch, and head over to the start.” Somber nods.

If I had to pick one word to describe the GW Marathon Relay, it would be “unrelenting.” The course loops three times around the U.S. Agriculture’s land of discrete buildings, windswept brown fields, and variety of hills. This course has every type of hill: the short steep kind, the long graduals, and the long-steep-question-your-resolve kind. By doing the relay, it only subjects the runner to one tormenting loop. I won’t even postulate on the mental – let alone physical – resolve to run this course solo. Then you throw in the wind gusts and the low-20s temps on top of it.


Rohan, Ebo, and I have made this race a semi-tradition, this being our third running of it together. We’ve each used it as a springboard to the New Year’s racing scene. And for this runner, the course, the hills -- the HILLS -- make it ideal training ground for Boston.

With 18 miles on the calendar for the weekend, I decided to tackle the first and third loop – the first loop I’d run easy on my own (9.7mi), and the third I would race as part of the relay (9.2mi).

The three of us walked briskly to the line, listening to the chatter of the reluctant runners moving with us. “Should be ok until the back of the loop…when the wind smacks you in the face,” we heard, letting out a synchronized groan. With little time to spare, we fist bumped, shed our sweatshirts, and went with the gun.

Rohan and I ran step-for-step for the first two miles. We rode down the backside of a steep hill that I made note of having to climb at the end of my third leg, but that was a long time away. The wind blew hard from our left and sent us tottering and the clouds racing across the crisp sky.

The two mile mark came and went as we finished a one-time out and back that dumped us onto the main loop. At this point, the gap between Rohan and I started to grow. I tried to go with him at first then quickly pulled back on the reigns, reminding myself that this loop was just an easy training run for me.

Still, I cruised up and over the short steep hills, and noticed the deadness of the air. In fact, the sun shone and trickles of sweat began to run down from under my hat. I glimpsed the first turn that would send us back along the path to the exchange. When I came around, the wind greeted me with that promised cold smack. I found myself pitching forward just to cut into it.

I caught up to a few runners and began to draft off one guy, unintentionally at first because he was going just a hair too fast for me to get around him. Sensing my presence, he cut across to the other side of the road, at which point I decided to increase my turnover and leave him for good.

Over the final two miles, the road pitched upward again in two massive climbs. In a similar drafting position, I lassoed two runners ahead of me and steadily reeled them in on the upswing. The wind swirled around me and I felt myself pulling away from them with barely a hint of effort from my lungs. I swung into the relay exchange to a raucous applause from the other teams waiting to hand off and the smell of grilling hamburgers. Rohan and I found one another and started to recap the loop but both our faces had frozen.

I stretched out in the car’s backseat, alternating massaging my legs with eating some pureed mango.

I steeled myself to head back out and watched as the snow flurries blew across the crowd.

Ebo came barreling down the final straight, letting out a primal, guttural scream before handing off to me.

I roared off, reminding myself to ease into the pace and not rocket into the awaiting hills as I've done so many times on this course, only to regret it a mile in. Still the pace didn’t come as easily to me as I would have liked, but I tried to settle into a rhythm and ignore my watch.

The second loop passed more quickly than the first, though the backside hills proved more challenging and the wind more fierce. The same hills that I flew up on the first pass left me labored at the top on the second.

When I came through the exchange one last time, I broke from the other racers and headed toward the finish. Here, I ran alone with nothing but the final hill rising up ahead of me. I came off the final turn and felt the road begin to climb. “You’re in it now,” I said as the 25 mile sign came and went. I focused on keeping my form neat and the effort even. At every seeming plateau came another incline. I glimpsed my watch looking for the mileage and saw 6:50 pace. That spurred me on because I felt as though I were running 8:00 min/mi. At long last the road leveled then pitched downward.

I came tumbling through, no one ahead, no behind, and sprinted into the woods to mark the final .2 miles. Ebo and Rohan waited for me at the finish and a holler went up as I came around the final bend.

Fist bumps all around, while we walked hurriedly to the car for warmth. I did some quick math as we headed back to the visitors center for some post-race chow, to recap, and to commiserate with the other teams. I ended up averaging 6:20s over the second loop, 6:40s (so much for easy) for the first loop, good for a 19 mile day and 78 mile week. Spurred by our effort and the simple joy of racing after so many training miles, we talked of races to come and more adventures to be had in 2013.

By the time it was over, we walked to the car one last time, with that sweet, heavy exhaustion of a day’s hard work settling over each of us. Race season is here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Burning Down the House

You see it happen in team sports all the time. Your team progresses, plateaus, and then management blows things up while fans suffer through some lean “rebuilding years.” At some point, “But we’ve always done it this way,” just isn’t good enough anymore....

“Glad you’re feeling good,” my coach said on Sunday night. “Just don’t be surprised if the mileage catches up to you,” he added. That night, staring at the 81.5mi on my training calendar from the last six days and the 78 miles ahead, it already had.

Let me back up.

Six weeks ago, no, farther back than that. After I crossed the finish line at Marine Corps, I basked in my PR for a few days but dealt with this lingering feeling of, “What else….” As in, “What else can I do to lower that PR? Really lower it.”

So I tore it all down and began to rebuild for the one race that has owned me in both previous attempts: Boston.

For starters, I hooked up with the previously mentioned coach whom I met when I went to running camp nearly two years ago. I explained to him that while I’d seen results from the same plan tweaked slightly for each marathon, I felt stale. Cue that 81 mile week. I started running six days a week instead of five. I started running longer strides at the end of workouts. I started a new core routine. And I started to see results.

Then, I changed my diet.

On day 3 of “clean eating” I felt anything but. A dull headache spread across the back of my eyes and my head may as well have been the Golden Gate Bridge when the fog rolled in. I trotted out onto the golf course after work to tackle ten miles. At 2.5, I slowed…and stopped. Hands on head, trying to wring the haze out. I could have slept then and there.

So, I changed when I ran.

I dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 to run instead of being at the mercy of my work schedule. But with my energy levels steady thanks to the new nutrition plan, I actually sprung out of bed when the alarm went off. I could get up and run fresh instead of having a day of working and commuting hanging over my head.

I discovered that the light-headedness I sometimes felt the first four miles when going long came from an insulin spike due to the food I consumed prior to my run. I also discovered that a hardboiled egg, handful of raisins, and spoonful (or two) of almond butter are the perfect fuel sources for me when going long.

And so the rebuild began to take shape.

After several runs of wanting to hang up my shoes for good, the fog lifted and carried with it the dull headache. The 2:00 p.m. crash disappeared. I started sleeping better, deeper, and waking up refreshed. My legs recovered faster, and now feel powerful. And though I feel fatigued at the end of the week, I can still grind out my new Friday run and tackle an even longer run on Saturday.

Now, 8.5 weeks remain in this grand experiment until that fateful blast of the gun on April 15. Until then, it's a steady consumption of miles, whole foods, and heart for this runner.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Standoff

It was a curious thing. The rain had begun to taper off and a veil of mist floated in front of my headlamp. The clouds behind the trees glowed a soft orange, not from the sunrise – too poetic – rather from the streetlamps reflecting off the low ceiling. My footfalls crunched evenly, a gravelly metronome – ratch! ratch! ratch!.

I slipped easily through the pre-dawn hours, impervious and invincible. Limbo. That perfect place between consciousness and daydream.

The thing was, I had no idea.

It was like falling asleep while reading a book. When the words on the page blur and suddenly come to life, somewhere between waking and sleeping, until you realize it couldn’t possibly be real and you’ve crossed over to the other side of sleep, only to be jarred back to reality.

That jarring moment came when my headlamp swung onto a pair of yellow eyes. Before it could register, a hoarse shout came from the darkness ahead. I snapped to attention watching the glowing eyes close the gap between us. A shiver coursed through me. The eyes disappeared but the shouts continued to get closer, each one more audible than the last. “Cody!” I finally made out.

I slowed to a trot and then finally came to a stop. A dark shadow – Cody – trampled through the grass with furious intent. I used my headlamp to sweep the ground in front of me. The eyes were back, but they had stopped too. I switched my headlamp to the softer red light and waited. Cody watched and began to snarl. A low rumble gurgled in his throat that he collected and hurled at me with a sharp bark!. Plumes of breath rose from his mouth with each warning.

Thoughts whirred around my head: do I go to him? Do I call him over? Do I stand tall? Am I going to get torn to pieces?

The voice approached though not as fast as I would have liked. “Getoverhere!” it said. I could see the reflective piping on the voice’s jacket now, hear the same rack! rack! rack! on the trail.

As the voice got closer, Cody grew braver and let go one more bark before trotting over to me. I braced but extended a hand down to him – a peace offering. The beast approached. I winced then realized I needed to lower my hand further to his tilted up nose because he wasn’t more than 35 pounds.

Cody sniffed eagerly at my glove. His owner buzzed by me, “Morning,” he said. Somewhat annoyed that he didn’t apologize, I just let him pass. Cody trotted off behind him and as I turned to go, he stopped and hurled one last bark for good measure. “Getoverhere!” the voice seethed and the footsteps faded.

I switched my headlamp back on and noticed that the mist had turned to a steady rain again. I heaved a sigh and continued on. But something was different. That dreamy euphoria had vanished with the mist. I was suddenly aware of everything: my footsteps, the cars rushing by on the other side of the woods, the rain against my jacket, the effort….

The noises fell on me all at once and I struggled to reach back and remember exactly what it was I had been thinking about before the showdown. But like the dreams that dissolve with the dawn, so too had my “running dream” slipped beneath the surface.
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