I played the scales along my fingers, nervous taps against my thumb from index to pinky and back again. That pre-race energy started to sizzle my nerves despite my best efforts to tamp it down. Curious neighbors and spectators dotted the front yards and curbs along the start line. Runners bounced from foot to foot. The race director emerged from the crowd and turned to face us, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted, “Go!”
Thus began my annual winter training rite of passage: the GW Birthday Marathon Relay. The three-loop course rolls (ed. note: mostly rolls up) along the patchwork of fields that the United States Department of Agriculture Research Center calls home. Those with intestinal fortitude complete all three loops solo, while others share the load in a two- to three-person relay. Coupled with the challenging course, the weather – not to be outdone – typically provides another element of resistance. In my seven runnings, I’ve faced arctic, howling head winds, snow, rain, cold, unseasonable heat, and whatever else the mail(wo)man’s creed promises to overcome to deliver your mail. This proved to be a more seasonable – if not slightly warmish – year, with clear blue skies and a high of 50.
I’ve used the race in the past for multiple purposes: as a fitness gauge, a race, a kickoff, and this year a recommitment. As the first 20-miler of this buildup, I intended to make this a rededication to consistent training after having to cobble runs together over the past two weeks due to illness and nagging injury.
As a two-man team, my friend Joey and I divvied up the legs (me running legs 1 and 3, a total of 18.9 miles, and Joey leg 2, 7.3 miles), and my coach meted out the instructions to simply run by feel, get 20 miles in, and keep the pace easy even I felt like I could go.
So, I eased off the line to tackle my first leg, consciously holding back and trying to take myself out of that race mindset. Over eager runners blasted from the line as did those who would become the legit contenders. I tried to settle in (far) behind them and ignore that rather uncomfortable sensation of getting passed. “You’re here for you,” I repeated over and over, as the guy carrying an entire liter bottle of coconut water went by.
The course took a sharp dip and I put it out of my head that I’d have to run back up this same hill 19 miles from now. I let my mind slip into neutral and went about the task of establishing some semblance of rhythm.
Shotgun blasts from a nearby shooting range punctuated the steady thumping of my shoes. Crows scattered with each pull and the sun hung high overhead. By mile four, that rhythm brought me even and past several of the overeager go-getters. Without easing my foot down too hard on the accelerator, I targeted runners ahead of me and tried to pick each one off by maintaining the same output. My confidence grew, particularly when the two things I had worried most about were absent: noticeable pain in my hammy and any lightheadedness or fatigue from being sick. Yes, I was well on the way to the road back.
I came into the relay exchange full of optimism and handed the baton (read: an orange armband with a chip safety-pinned to it) off to Joey. I looked down at my watch for the first time and was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d covered the first loop (9.7 miles) at 6:53 pace.
While I waited for Joey, I stretched, foam rolled, and cheered on the marathoners coming through. I swapped long sleeves for short and got in a token 1.1 miler to keep my legs from tightening and to ensure I hit an even 20 miles when the day concluded.
Joey handed the “baton” back to me just under an hour later. While the first loop started with that all too familiar race adrenaline and nerves, the second began with the easy, confident stride of a runner ready to roll.
I came through the exchange again and made the turn for home, with 1.5 miles to retrace to the finish line. The hill that I had put away at the start now loomed large in front me. Fluorescent singlets dotted the horizon and I started to hunt. “Smooth, power, strong,” I repeated, and my legs churned under me. I settled into that magical homeostasis gear where the effort is steady and doesn’t leave your lungs heaving. I overtook the first singlet, a marathoner. “Don’t worry about me,” I said, “I’m a relay guy.” “I’m not worried about you, I want that power in your legs,” he called ahead to me.
The second singlet slowed to a walk (a sting I know all too well from climbing this hill in the past) and I overtook him as well.
With a half mile to go, I crested the hill and let my momentum carry me down through the neighborhood and onto the trail that would lead me to the finish.
I crossed the line and picked Joey out in the crowd. I nodded to him and shot over a smile then looked down at my watch: 6:53 pace again.
Back on the bus.