The Tune-up

I checked my watch. Seven minutes to the gun. Perfect. I took off down the Mall toward the Washington Monument for one last strider. Turn, turn, turn, I repeated, reaching top speed, holding it for a moment, then easing off the accelerator and slowing to a walk. A stiff, cold breeze rippled my singlet. This could be a factor, I thought, then pushed it from my head and wove my way through the crowd to my corral.

Nervous fingers. Jittery legs. The announcements were static in my head as I ran through my race plan one last time. My coach and I never put a time goal for this tune-up half marathon. Rather, we set a pace range for various sections of the course, which allowed me to just lace up my racing flats and go execute without the pressure of hitting a specific time.

We bolted from the starting arch with Constitution Avenue abandoned and stretched out before us. Get out. Get settled, I thought. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.

That wind met me head-on and I did my best to relax into it without forcing the pace and burning through energy early. The course scraped the Lincoln Memorial then turned us down and alongside a choppy Potomac River and under the Kennedy Center. I nailed my first three splits, wanting to be between 5:45 and 5:50, and hitting 5:49, 5:48, 5:47.

Mile four’s combination of uphill and headwind backed me off that pace but I recovered for mile five as we headed up Rock Creek Parkway. The pace was on point but the effort felt just south of comfortable. I willed myself to relax, understanding the irony.

The course began to bend to the left and rise. “What exactly is going on there?” my coach asked me while we looked at the elevation profile earlier in the week. Having run previous incarnations of this race in the past, I thought I knew the hill to which he referred, but, faced with what lay before me, I knew this was not the same hill. “Your goal is to just get up it, don’t lose ground to anyone, and then take 60-90 seconds of easy running at the top to settle back into your pace from miles 1-5,” he said. Then ominously, “You might run 7:30 up that hill.”

Volunteers lined the hill holding American flags. They called encouragement, but my mind blotted out their voices. Up on my toes, I picked my way up the incline and pulled even with another runner. My breath came in rasps now and I could feel the strain in my quads. We rounded the corner together, and I remembered my coach’s words. The other runner tried to take off, where I concentrated on letting the fatigue drain from my legs. My watch beeped 6:30 at the top, prompting one of my friends on Strava to ask later if I had paused for a bathroom break there.

Take your minute, I thought. The course shifted downhill and I ironed out my stride. Relative normalcy returned. “Be ready to race at seven,” my coach said.

Let’s go. I thought.

I caught the runner who had taken off at the top of the hill and went by them easily now. They wouldn’t be the last. I aimed for 5:40-5:35 pace over the last 10K of the race. While I had recovered from the hill, the damage had been done. Fatigue had seeped into my quads and the wind over the first five miles had leeched strength from me. Be calm. Be present, I intoned.

The Howard University drums boomed and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, rounding mile eight. I rode the downhills and survived the up, dropping a 5:38 and 5:33, collecting racers as I went.

With under 5K to go, I picked up Brian Glanville’s quote from coach Sam Dee in The Olympian, “Be strong in mind as fit in body.” Except in my head it went more like, stronginminstronginmindstronginmind. After a 5:44 at 11, I resigned to just race and forgo looking at my watch, just taking what came over the last two miles.

I kept two other runners in sight, though was not able to gain on them, nor were they able to pull away. We ground up one final hill to get to mile 12 and that’s where I really came apart. A stitch gripped my side and somehow manifested itself in my shoulder as well. My right hip flexor tightened. My quads grew heavy. One. More. Mile.

I let gravity do the work for me, just trying to turn my legs over in that final mile. RFK stadium rounded into view and I threw whatever I had left in that final .2 miles, furiously pumping my arms and closing with a 5:39.

I clicked my watch and saw 1:17:05. Hmm, I thought, unsure how to feel about it. Though we had never put words on a time, I had expected to be faster, and yet, with the exception of a couple of miles, I had been in range. So, what to make of it? There would be time to ponder, but not for long.

I took my medal and my water bottle, reset my watch, and began a deliciously slow two-mile cool down.

Another race finished. Another checkpoint reached. But nowhere close to done.

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