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.