Sometimes, despite your best efforts at self-sabotage, things just come together on race day.
A bit of background here. I will always remember the 2006 Crim in Flint, Michigan, as a perfect race. It remains my personal record for 10 miles (1:07:38); I placed third in my age group in a competitive field, and was among the top ten masters (against Russians who were no doubt doping); I ran negative splits, with the last mile (a 6:20-something) my fastest.
Much has changed over the last decade. I went through cancer treatment and chemo-induced menopause. The Big Three automakers – and with them, the state of Michigan – almost went belly up. I gave up on racing for a time, got married and moved to Brooklyn. The city of Flint had an emergency manager imposed on it, stripping its elected officials of their authority (and its citizens of their political power), and ended up with a poisoned water supply. I joined a new running club here in Brooklyn and started racing again.
But racing now is different. I don’t remember exactly what my training schedule looked like the week before that magical 2006 Crim, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t include skipping a run to chase after a rare bird. I suspect I ate a carefully-chosen dinner the night before (probably pasta, vegetables and lean chicken). I’m sure I went to bed early and had oatmeal for breakfast, followed by a banana on the drive up to Flint. I know I was in marathon shape, running 60 to 80 miles a week, trim and lean.
This past month, between the heat and humidity and no fall marathon and the start of fall migration and a week’s vacation in New England, I’ve been running south of 40 miles a week. (Sometimes far south of that – like, Tierra del Fuego south, to be completely honest.) I’m carrying around a few extra pounds. The night before the race, I chose to celebrate the advent of fall temperatures by cooking a hearty autumnal meal of watercress salad, daube de boeuf provencale, aligot and a plum cake. With lots of red wine, of course.
Never mind that despite the cool, crisp conditions outside, the temperature in our apartment was still in the 80s.
And never mind that I had a race in the morning. More wine? Sure, why not!
Bedtime came and went. I was bleary-eyed when the alarm went off at five-something. Coffee. A slice of leftover plum cake (should I? oh, who cares, go for it). Another swallow of coffee. Head for the train.
. . .
It is a long haul from Park Slope to Yankee Stadium. A long, long haul – especially when you board a much-delayed D at Atlantic Avenue and discover that it is already standing room only. Everyone in south Brooklyn, it seemed, was heading either to the race or to jobs at hospitals, hotels and construction sites in Manhattan. While I was lucky enough to snag a seat at Grand Street, I still spent the rest of the journey inches away from other riders’ stomachs and buttocks, their arms reaching over my head to grab the bar, their NYRR-issued regulation plastic bags swinging perilously close to my face.
A few people got off at Columbus Circle, but not so many that you couldn’t hear the collective groan (from both inside and outside the car) when the doors opened again at 125th St, where hundreds of other runners were waiting on the platform.
It was almost 7:30 by the time we finally arrived at 161st St/Yankee Stadium. I try to get to large NYRR races an hour before the start (45 minutes in a pinch) so that I can jog around a bit, make that all important port-a-john visit (or two), store my change of clothes, and meander over to my assigned corral, all without feeling rushed. What I try to avoid is a situation where I’m required to choose between the port-a-johns and baggage check (now! which will it be? quick, that way! or should I go that way?).
Running 10 miles while clutching an unchecked bag seemed more feasible than trying to make it to the first pit stop along the course, and so I headed straight to the port-a-johns (which, fortunately weren’t busy at all, seeing as how everyone else was sprinting to make the baggage check cut-off).
Fortunately, the rumor that baggage check would be closing at 7:30 was unfounded (or at least unenforced). As I waited on line to go through security and drop my bag, I felt the profound calm that comes when you give up on all your race goals. They would take my bag, or they wouldn’t take my bag. I would make it to my assigned corral before it was closed, or I wouldn’t. Whatever. It was a pleasant, crisp morning; I was here in the Bronx with my teammates and a cast of thousands; and one way or another, I would run up and down the Grand Concourse and through the finish and enjoy the experience.
As it turned out, the corrals were defined by easy-to-duck-under tape, rather than hard barriers, so I had no problem squeezing into the C corral minutes before the scheduled 8 am start. Which, of course, was not the actual start. In those last few minutes (which stretched to five, then ten), I put together the rough outline of a race plan:
1. Start out at some pace.
2. After a mile or two, see if the 8 minute pace group is in sight.
3. Try to keep them in sight.
4. Or not.
This seemed . . . doable.
. . .
And we were off!
Congestion at all of my recent NYRR races has been minimal (hats off to them for their race management magic), so I was surprised by how crowded the start of the Bronx course was. My heels were clipped several times; I was nudged to the left and clipped someone else’s heel; my elbow hit someone else’s elbow; I had to tuck in my arms and shoulders to shimmy through the spaces between other runners. Things opened up a bit after a quarter mile or so, but it was still slow going. At the first mile mark (8:11), the 8 minute pace group was quite a ways ahead, but at least I could still see them.
I spent the next mile trying to keep the distance between me and the guy with the pace sign from growing – and was surprised, and a little worried, that it was shrinking, and eventually, gone. Was a 7:52 second mile smart? And did I really want to get caught up in the knot of congestion that forms around pacers?
As my race plan had it, “whatever.”
I eased back a bit, letting the pace group get ahead, but still ran 7:55, mostly uphill, for mile 3 (what exactly was Mr. 8 Minutes doing? I hoped he wasn’t trying to “bank” time for the second half of the race because, really, he should know better).
Shortly after we hit the 3-mile mark, a police vehicle’s flashing light signaled that the race leaders would soon be coming through on the other side of the Grand Concourse. And sure enough, there they were – a pack of three thin, long-legged men – closing in on 10K and puncturing any illusions we might harbor about our own running prowess.
Another half mile, and the number of runners heading back as we headed out increased. These were civilians now, not elites, and I tried to spot teammates in their PPTC red and white. But guess what? The official race shirt for the event was red and white, and thousands of runners had chosen to wear it. I gave up, and just ran.
The left turn from the Grand Concourse onto Mosholu Parkway was a choke point – the roadway narrowed as we ran the wrong way down what appeared to be, under normal circumstances, a kind of exit ramp – and I lost a little time, but still caught up with the pace group (I heard the leader confess to another runner that he didn’t know this year’s course). I ran with them for the rest of that mile, and the next – first northeast, then southwest, almost to the NY Botanical Gardens, and then, after a ridiculously tight 180-degree turn, northwest again, back to the Grand Concourse. Miles 4, 5 and 6 were 8:01, 8:04 and 8:06 respectively.
Somewhere between the Botanical Gardens and the Grand Concourse, I passed the pace group. We’d been exchanging positions since mile 4, but this time it was for good. I never saw the pace leader’s high-visibility vest and aspirational “8:00” sign again.
The person I did see, after the 6-mile mark on the Grand Concourse, was a teammate who happens to be one of our best runners. “Go, PPTC!” I heard, as a lanky man with strawberry-blond hair flew past at 6 minute pace.
That he was behind me until that point must mean that someone else had an even worse experience getting to the race than I did (and makes his 1:01 and change finish time even more impressive).
Boosted by the encouragement, and inspired by his example, I clocked 7:35 for mile 7.
Shortly afterwards, the voices began. I hear them in every race, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, sometimes quieter, sometimes more insistent. Picture a bird (a tiny warbler, perhaps, or on a bad day, a Great Argus, like the one that attacked my daughter at the National Zoo many years ago). “Feeling tired?” it warbles/crows. “This sucks, doesn’t it? Are you sure you can keep this up? You don’t want this to be another medical tent finish, do you? Why don’t you slow down?”
Sometimes, out of confidence or defiance or stupidity, I respond with a decisive “no.” More often, I concede that they may have a point, and bargaining commences. I try to do the math in my run-befuddled brain, putting the distance remaining to be covered, goal finish time, and current pace – some or all of which are changing even as I attempt the calculation – into an equation that will tell me how much I can agree to slow down . . . except it’s hard to keep track of the variables, and even harder to go from base 10 for distance to base 60 for time, and if it’s a 5K or 10K there’s also the metric-to-English conversion, and, damn, where was I?
The good thing about this is, it keeps me occupied and quiets the voices.
I did slow a bit in miles 8 and 9, but just a bit – I was still deep in negative split territory, running 7:40-7:45 pace – and the final mile offered the unexpected gift of a long downhill to the finish.
Thanks to an exhilarating 7:20 in that last mile, I finished (upright and smiling) in 1:18:31, good for third in my age group. I’d run the first five miles in 40:05 (just over 8 minute pace) and the second five miles in 38:26 (under 7:42 pace). Could I have gone out a bit faster? Perhaps – but even so, this goes on my (exceedingly short) all-time list of well-paced races. I wouldn’t call it perfect, like the 2006 Crim, but it was nearly perfect.
. . .
Afterwards, I managed to find a few teammates in the sea of red shirts, collected my bag, took a few bites of a PowerBar, and scouted post-race photo ops. I took a few shots of the crowd, of runners stretching on the artificial turf, of Yankee Stadium, but remained unsatisfied. What was the best way to capture the spirit of a race in the Bronx on a crisp fall day? A wildly original idea occurred to me: what if I held up my race medal with Yankee Stadium in the background?
Except I couldn’t quite manage it. Even after I set down my bag and water bottle, holding my medal with one hand and the phone in the other and getting the frame just right while somehow hitting the shutter button with my thumb took more coordination than I possessed. I sighed, took a few more snapshots of Yankee Stadium sans medal, and prepared to head for the train.
As I was leaving, I saw a woman doing exactly what I had been trying to do – except, since she was young and adept at all things cyber, she was succeeding where I had failed. I approached her, burbling a stream of apologies and entreaties – “oh my God, I had the same idea but I couldn’t figure out how to do it, and I’m so sorry to bother you, but do you think maybe you could . . . “
“Sure,” she offered, kindly. “Do you want to hold it up and have me take a picture?”
And so the picture at the top of this post was born.
My most enduring souvenir of last weekend’s race, though, is the imprint the knotted cord of my racing shorts left on my body after rubbing against it for ten miles. I made the discovery when I stepped into the shower, let the warm water wash over me, and felt a burning knife stab me in the belly. (Yes, I screamed.) By the end of the day, I was sporting a raised welt just below my navel. The next morning, it had gained definition: I could trace the twisted strands of the cord in red, pink and white flesh.
It’s still there, and I’m half-hoping to come away with a (small, faint) scar to add to my collection. How better to remember a nearly-perfect race?