This race, sponsored by the best running club ever, is a President’s Day weekend tradition. Its official name alludes to the legendary honesty of Brooklyn battler (and father of our country) George Washington. Its unofficial name – “the race for the hardcore” – alludes to the fact that mid-February can be a pretty miserable time of year for three full loops of Prospect Park.
Not yesterday, though. The snow that had fallen overnight was already melting in the bright sun and 40-something temperatures, and the park roads were mostly – but not entirely – clear of slick spots by the race’s 10 am start. Conditions, in other words, were perfect: comfortable, but just sloppy and slick enough to justify taking it easy.
More races should come with built-in excuses.
Even by my own lackadaisical winter running standards, I was under-trained for this event. While my log shows consistent weekly mileage in the 30-40 mile range since the beginning of the year, my typical run has consisted of a one or two mile jog, 30 minutes of looking at birds, another quarter mile scanning the lake/brushy areas/sky, more looking at birds, a half mile to the next birdy area, another birding break, etc., etc., concluding with a mile or two’s jog home. With the exception of one (reasonably) steady 11-miler two weeks ago, I had probably not done more than four continuous miles in the preceding four months.
Just take it easy and treat it as a tempo run, I told myself, not having the faintest idea what my tempo pace is nowadays.
As the start approached, I doffed and stowed my extra layers, stripping down to tights and my long-sleeved PPTC tee (I am no longer fast enough to race in shorts and a singlet in winter). I hemmed and hawed over my windbreaker and throwaway gloves. At the last minute, I checked the windbreaker with my bag and kept the gloves.
Both of these turned out to be sound decisions, if for different reasons.
The crowd kept me warm before we began our shuffle to the starting mat, and my effort on the bright, windless day kept me warm after that. I was very glad I’d checked the jacket, and soon took off the gloves. My splits for the first three miles, according to my (old-school, non-GPS) watch and the posted mile markers were as follows:
Mile 1 – 9:02 (seemed about right)
Mile 2 – 10:56 (seemed very wrong)
Mile 3 – 5:33 (hahahahahahahahahaha!)
At that point, I forgot about about the race’s mile markers. For the next two loops, I defaulted to the miles and quarter miles I’ve memorized over many, many circuits of the park. They didn’t correspond to the race’s miles, of course, but they did give me reasonably accurate feedback on my pace. My race strategy – developed on the run over the first loop, which is not how most experts would recommend developing a race strategy – was to use the uphill stretch as a “rest” portion, not trying to push myself; let the downhill portion run itself; and then maintain pace over the mostly flat portion at the bottom of the park. And so:
Second loop, uphill – 8:50
Second loop, downhill – 7:58
Second loop, bottom – 8:10
It was as I was rounding the bottom of the park for the second time that I was lapped by the race’s leaders. First came a tall guy in a Dashing Whippets race kit, staying wide to the right to avoid us slowpokes; then, after a surprisingly long interval, another Whippet; then another, a non-Whippet (or perhaps a Whippet in mufti). I assumed they were 1, 2 and 3 in the race, but when I reviewed the race results, I discovered they were 5, 6 and 7 . . . the actual race leaders had blazed by so quickly I didn’t even see them.
Another runner was approaching the finish chute as I passed it for the second time (“finish to the left! pass to the right!”), and I saw that she was a woman, and that volunteers were holding out the tape (or, more accurately, Velcro) for her to break. To be finishing my second 3.3-mile lap at the precise time the first-place woman was finishing her third was both exciting and, well, humbling.
That’s also when my digestive system – quiet and cooperative as could be until now – rebelled. “Hey,” it seemed to be saying, “she’s finishing. Why aren’t you? You expect me to stay quiet for another loop? Screw that.” Or perhaps it was just confused, saw the breaking of the tape, and concluded it was time to celebrate.
Whatever. I made a beeline for one of the finish-area porta johns which was, I realized too late, out of toilet paper. My emergency tissues were in the pocket of the jacket I’d checked with my bag. I was, however, still clutching my throwaway gloves. They were grubby from years of wear, and full of holes, and the opposite of water-proof and, even in their prime, not very warm. But they were from Hansons Running Shop in Detroit, where I learned pretty much everything I know about running. And of all the pairs of throwaway Hansons gloves I’d bought or been given as freebies over the years – the years when Keith and Kevin’s group runs and training sessions transformed me from a casual jogger to a competitive age-grouper – these were the last in my possession.
I now have one throwaway Hansons glove without a mate.
The bathroom stop cost me around three minutes (in addition to the glove). The beautiful thing about having no race goals, though, is how easily one can shrug off a setback. Instead of making frantic calculations and recalculations, and then giving in to abject despair, you just start running again. And that’s what I did:
Third loop, uphill – 8:49
Third loop, downhill – 7:59
Third loop, bottom – 8:05
Note the impressive, almost metronomic consistency between those splits and the same sections of the second loop. I’m slower these days, but I’m also steadier, and while my 1:27:29 finish time wasn’t good for an award, it was good for me.
Time to start setting race goals for 2018.