You’ve heard about how I trained all winter for the Donna marathon, which ended up a disappointment. You’ve heard about my post-race tendon flare-up and the never-ending New England winter. A 5k PR at the end of March gave me hope that my disappointing marathon experience really was the result of hot weather and a bad day at the office, and was not a reflection of my real fitness level, but would my newfound speed hold up over longer distances? I signed up for a 10 miler and a 10k, followed my coach’s training plan, and hoped that it would.
April 8, 2018: The Middletown 10 Miler
This is my hometown race, and a bunch of my friends were doing the 10 miler. Plus, my friend, North Shore Strider, was coming for the race and staying with us overnight.
Racing at home makes me nervous. Racing is supposed to make you nervous, but racing in my hometown can send me right off the edge. Coach Mick had suggested a goal of 1:21 or thereabouts and that seemed pretty reasonable to me, in line with the online pace predictors. My PR for a 10 mile race was 1:25:25 from Broad St. 2016. So 1:21:xx would be an enormous PR and I’d be happy with that.
Then I learned that my friend, the Retiree, was pacing the 1:20 pace group, and some other friends would be running in that pack, too. Could I hang with them for a 1:20:xx finish?
I spent a lot of time pondering this question, my mental wheels spinning until they were ready to fly right off my bus. Should I start with them and hang on as long as I could? Or maybe run just the first mile with them and then revert to my race plan and run my own race? Surely running your own race is always a good idea? Or, try to start with them and see how long I could stick it out? But the race predictors, but Coach Mick’s original plan, but the bunny race, etc. Eesh, I just couldn’t settle.
Texting with Coach Mick on Saturday night before the race, I asked what he thought about aiming for 1:20-1:21. Was that crazy? He said, he would not use the word “crazy.” Maybe “aggressive.” I touched base with High-Powered Running Mentor (HPRM) #1 and he asked: How did I feel about “aggressive?” I said I had no idea, but scared would have been the more honest answer. We had been chatting about running and faith earlier in the day and he noted that the thing Jesus says most in the Gospel is some variation of “Do not be afraid.” Christ calls us to live life with a bold and unafraid spirit.
I have sometimes raced too conservatively. Now I was getting nudged to run more aggressively. When people ask me what I have learned from running, I always say: To stop being afraid. Now I was looking at fear in running again. I went to bed still not knowing how to handle the race.
Things were not much clearer when I woke up the next morning. The internal battle between 1:20:xx and 1:22:xx was making me crazy and I needed to shut that down, so I decided not to look at my watch and just run by feel. Before I pinned my bib on, I grabbed a pen and scrawled “Be Brave and Unafraid of Spirit” on the back.
I found some friends, Teacher Runner and Snarky Girl, at the starting line, but they were hanging back a bit. I dragged them up to the front and in my sometimes-bossy way, I announced: Hey friends, we are running 1:20 today, this is our pacer, the Retiree, he’s fabulous, just stick with him.
We started the race with a great crew: The Retiree with his special pacing singlet and sign, me, North Shore Strider, Teacher Runner, Ghostie, Snarky Girl, and a woman named Sue, who seemed to know the Retiree from previous races. We came through the first mile split in 8:11, just as planned. I pulled my arm sleeve over my watch so I wouldn’t look again by accident. I did peek one more time – in the second mile, the pace felt too hard and I checked. 7:50. Sorry Retiree, I can’t hang there. A second or two after I backed off, he also noticed and slowed down. After that, no more looking at the watch.
At Mile 3 I checked in with myself. I felt fine and was running pretty smoothly. I told the Retiree that HPRM #1 thinks I should race more aggressively. The Retiree said he wouldn’t disagree. I said: Remind me of that around mile 7.
At the five mile mark, the Retiree checked in with his crew. How were we all doing? I said, I am just going to take this mile-by-mile. I had not expected to still be with the pace group. I knew his pacing plan was to start at 8:10-8:15 for the first few miles, then drop down to 8:00, and then to speed up the last few miles which are downhill. I figured when the 8 minute miles started, I would be done, but I wasn’t done. Ghostie said I looked like a machine – “In a good way, of course!” But I also felt like one. Just hammering away at it.
When I got scared, which was often, I repeated what Coach Mick and HPRM #1 had told me. This is aggressive, but not crazy. Run with a bold and unafraid spirit. God’s eye is on the sparrow and also the long distance runner. Don’t worry about the end of the race. You are running fine now.
Suddenly we were at the 6-mile mark; the course is downhill from here on out. Much to my surprise, I was still with the 1:20 pace group. It occurred to me for the first time that I might run under 1:20. In fact, I was quite certain that was possible.
As we passed seven miles I asked the Retiree, who had been telling me to take deep breaths, what else he was supposed to tell me. He didn’t remember and there was no way I had the breath to explain the whole run aggressively thing again.
With about 2 miles to go, the Retiree told us to pull ahead. We were now running ahead of the 1:20 pacer, just hammering it. We were not competing with each other as much as working like crazy together to finish this race strong.
College Street is a big downhill and I remembered Coach Mick’s advice: Most people attack the uphills and it zaps their energy and they don’t run the downhills hard enough. Better to chill a little when running uphill and really go for it on the downhills. I took that to heart and found another gear. North Shore Strider asked something, but I couldn’t understand what and couldn’t answer anyway. Within seconds she was next to me again and we flew down College together.
Then we turned onto Main Street and could see the finish line clock, which read 1:19:04. I was going to be well under 1:20:00. Our little gang blasted down the street. Five of us finished within seven seconds of each other!
For the first time in a long time, I cried at the end of a race. We all hugged. Getting to do something you love with people you love and getting an outcome better than the best one you imagined. Is this not the stuff that dreams are made of?
Eventually we calmed down a bit and I called Coach Mick for the first time without a text warning. He did not even say hello, but just asked: “Was someone else wearing your watch? That was amazing!” and then “Do you know what your last mile split was? 7:25!” Totally shocked, I told him I took his advice about running the downhills hard to heart!
I was left stunned. I’d run beyond expectations for the first time. I remember running the Broad Street 10 Miler in 2016 with a huge group of friends; the ones I felt were super-speedy finished under 1:20. Now, I’ve done the same. It’s going to take a while for my brain to process and accept it, but I’m so happy about this race and result.
April 22, 2018: The Sprint Into Spring 10k
The Sprint into Spring 10k would be my fourth 10k ever. I suspected my 54:33 10k PR was pretty soft, because the other three I’d run were not run in perfect conditions, but I didn’t know by how much. Could I cut off 4 minutes, or even 5, and go sub-50?
It seemed like it must be possible. My daughter Rose is even starting to talk about “MY PR MAMA!” But I went and ran the Sprint Into Spring course twice for training runs and it is hilly. Very hilly. I didn’t know what to think.
Before the race, Coach Mick and I talked about splitting the difference between the 5k race at a 7:35 pace and the Middletown 10 miler at a 7:55 pace. 7:45 seemed reasonable for a 10K. I also sought advice from a bunch of people about how to approach the hills. My takeaway was a collection of three short phrases: 1) A posture cue from Coach Mick about leaning slightly into the hill on the uphill – “break the tape”; 2) fast feet on the downhill – “like Roadrunner” and 3) take advantage of the flats, Coach Mick described this as “goose it” which made me chuckle.
Race morning was the usual oatmeal and coffee routine. Plus the 5 hour energy shot, which Nutrition Guy recommended, and plenty of water. I was nervous but just kept sort of shaking my hands out and telling myself to relax. Snarky Girl picked me up at 6:45 and we drove to Peckham Park.
We got our bibs and shirts and I roped Snarky Girl into a mile warmup and a few drills. Our hubbies arrived with the kids in tow. The park has a great playground, making this an awesome race for families.
I was quite nervous before the race, but kept remembering what Coach Mick had texted me. It will get HARD, like the 5K and the 10 miler were hard, but you have trained for hard and you are ready.
I did feel ready! I lined up right in front! There was no timing mat for the start and I knew I wanted to start fast (as an experiment – usually I start too conservatively), so that’s where I went.
They buzzed us out with an air horn and off we went. I had spotted someone from the Manchester Running Company, the Retiree’s running club, while I was warming up. I just signed up so I introduced myself in the first mile and asked about her goal time. She said she was aiming for 46-48 minutes. Not wildly off from me, I had been thinking 47-49 minutes. I ran next to her for a bit but a glance at my watch revealed 6:45 pace. No, no, no. Not okay. It also started to feel very not okay, so over the course of the first mile, I settled down and thought, all right, you have no business passing her, but keep her in sight and chat after the race. First mile was 7:28.
This is a two-loop course with two big hills on the loop. Approaching the first hill, I tried to remember everything I had learned about hill racing in the past two days. Lean into the hill. Look straight ahead. I tried to find some cute buns to look at, heh heh. Shorten your stride. Don’t gas yourself. Up and over the first hill.
There’s a pretty straight stretch between the two hills and I tried to focus on “goosing it,” as Coach Mick had recommended. The first time through, I felt pretty good. The second mile was 7:57, which was a good deal slower than the first, but not tragic. The third mile is up the second huge hill, but then comes a massive downhill. I could still see the woman from Manchester ahead of me.
As we ran past the start, I tossed my gloves at my husband and apparently hammed it up for the camera, though I have no memory of doing this. Third mile was 7:27. Then we started the second loop. I was running alone.
I ran the second loop in no man’s land, as Coach Mick calls it. It is surprising how much harder it is to run fast in no man’s land. I ran by some volunteers and they yelled “Go on! You can catch her!” referring to the Manchester woman. I thought, no, that would be a terrible idea. I need to keep my own pace now. I tried to goose it on the flat section but started to lose heart. Then I just yelled at myself internally: DO NOT GIVE UP! It’s just another solo tempo run and you’ve done plenty of those. Mile 4 was 7:40.
The hill at mile 5 was the worst. I had to power hike it near the top. One more bad hill to go. The long straight section that finishes mile 5 was quite hard. I could see that the Manchester woman was getting further away, but was glad I could still see her at all. This was the hardest mile of the race for me and the slowest at 8:24, but in some ways also the most beautiful because I kept fighting even when it was really hard.
I still had one more big hill to get up, though. This hill is reallllly steep but shorter than the first one and I didn’t walk.
I gunned it downhill, my brain chanting roadrunner, roadrunner, turn those legs. At the bottom it’s a quick left turn into the park and I heard Snarky Girl behind me yelling something like C’mon! Let’s GO! Give it all you’ve got! Yikes, she was aiming to finish in an hour, and now she’s right behind me? Come on, get going! WHEN IS THIS GOING TO BE OVER?
Then I saw the finish clock and it was 47:50 or something. My pie-in-the-sky goal was to break 48 minutes so I ran like an absolute maniac. There is amazing video footage of the clock changing from 47:59 to 48:00 as I am between the two mats! Official time: 48:00. Just to be clear, I am over the moon about this. My original goal was to break 50:00 and that seemed really, really fast when I decided to try for it. 48:00 is FABULOUS. But also, sub-48 next time.
I was my usual incoherent mess at the finish line. When the volunteer tried to give me water, I semi-collapsed into her arms instead and then got her to hand me off to my husband, who was waiting right there, thank goodness. He told me I was the third woman, which I couldn’t even believe. I knew the Manchester woman was ahead of me and I knew Snarky Girl, who’d obviously thrown her one-hour goal out the window, had passed me just at the six mile mark. But there hadn’t been any other women ahead of us? Third woman OVERALL? I had to hear that a couple of times before I believed it. I still can’t quite believe it.
I semi-collected myself and we of course put it together that Snarky Girl and I had to stick around for the awards ceremony! Only first place overall folks got trophies, but we got pint glasses, which are better than trophies anyway. Then, I also won a gift certificate to my favorite restaurant in the raffle. I didn’t even know there was a raffle! Score! We will be headed to the Blackbird Tavern very soon for a celebratory dinner. First, though, to celebrate our race, we went to Carmela’s on the Extension for brunch. I had a mimosa, of course!
Am I going to ride this wave of shorter-distance-speed for all it’s worth? You better believe it. Next up is a half marathon this weekend, then another half in June and then marathon training starts again. My hope is that focusing on speed this spring will help me to become a faster, tougher marathoner. I can’t wait to find out if it works!
Have you ever had a breakthrough race that surprised you?