Note: Several people have told me they actually enjoy reading these accounts of my running adventures, so here’s an account of my latest. It was a great run.
Don’t ask for explanations. I don’t have any. I ran the Plaza 10K yesterday, and I turned in the best running performance I ever have. I blazed past my best time by more than 5 minutes. I’m astonished with myself.
But let me start at the beginning.
I’m always nervous about these “official” races. I don’t know why. A 10K is 6.2 miles, and I do that several times a week on my training runs. Thus I should have seen it as just another run that I’ve done scores of times. Of course, I didn’t. Or couldn’t. Add to this the fact that the Plaza 10K was going to be my 4th run of the weekend. I ran early Friday morning (thus declaring the weekend begun) and did a fine job with 5.3 miles. That was a confidence builder. Then I ran another 5 miles on Saturday morning with the running club, but I took it easy, knowing I had the 10K the next morning. Then I ran again on Saturday night, but only for 1.5 miles at a Dash & Dine the club held. (It had a Hawaiian theme, and my contribution was some Hawaiian beer and a Hawaiian pizza from one of the national chains. The pizza was devoured, but I had to bring most of the beer home. I’ll do something with it, I’m sure.) Anyway, that 1.5 mile run was tough. I think I was probably feeling the effects of the 10 miles I had already done in two days. My aching legs left me worried about the 10K the next morning.
I made sure to get to bed early on Saturday night, thinking that maybe there really was something to the admonition that a person needs sufficient sleep to run well. Still, I woke with no less of the nervousness I’d had all week. My wife, of course, was doing her best to assure me I would do fine. So we got down to the Plaza about an hour before the run was supposed to start. The Plaza, or Country Club Plaza as it is properly known, is the swanky, upscale shopping and dining district in Kansas City. The area is quite beautiful. It’s supposed to be the inspiration for shopping malls, though whether that’s a claim to fame or shame, I’ll leave for you to decide. As my wife and I milled about, we met up with several runners I know from the club, and since we all ran around the same pace, we decided we would run the race together. I knew what that meant, of course. Within the first quarter mile, they would be far ahead and soon after that they would be out of sight. But it was nice to stand around with them and kill time talking about our anxieties. Two of them had never run a 10K before, and the third was coming off of injuries from a bad fall. She even had her ankle wrapped for support.
The race started about two minutes late, which for an event with 3,700 participants is not bad at all. Of course from our place at the far back of the pack, we didn’t cross the starting line for about 5 minutes more. But we were timed by electronic chips we wore on our shoes (except for the barefoot guy who tied it to his ankle), so when we crossed the starting line, that would be when our individual clocks started.
I managed to keep up with my friends for about a quarter mile, but I could feel the burn in my lungs and began to fall back. This, I told myself, was the consequence of the tough 1.5 mile run — and the three beers — of the night before. For maybe a mile I could still see them ahead of me (but only because one of them was very tall), but by then I was concentrating on running my race, which is to say trying to shout down the voices in my head telling me I needed to stop and rest or just stop altogether. I’ve learned that distance running is at least as much mental as physical. I had been telling myself all week that I needed to find a pace that I could sustain for 6+ miles, and I would just need to keep pushing myself to keep going when I got farther along.
Of course I was being passed by thousands of people in the first half of the race. At one time this bothered me, but I am so used to it now that I don’t much care. It’s not like I am racing them. Just being out there running is still an astonishment to me. So I let them fly by, hearing snippets of conversation or the music from their iPods or the people on the sidelines cheering or the sound of my own breathing. It’s a place I’ve gotten familiar with, and despite the agony of pushing myself physically, I seem to be happy there.
But then something happened.
At around mile 3 I caught up with two of my three running friends! I followed behind them for a while, and I’m not sure they even knew I was there. (We were running into the sunrise at this point, with about a mile and a half of sunrise before us until we turned.) But — get this! — they were slowing me down. I had to slow my pace to stay with them, and that was an odd experience. Clearly they were already feeling worn out by their runs and had slowed. So after a short distance, I decided to pass them. I was going to pass some actual runners! As I did, they spotted me and shouted words of encouragement. I thought they might speed up to stay with me, but being a solo runner by nature, I didn’t pay attention other than to look for bottlenecks in the road ahead of me.
And then something else happened.
I continued to pass runners. I ran at what I thought was a sustainable pace, and runners kept appearing in my field of vision, directly in front of me. (Something like tunnel vision often strikes me on a tough run. I lose focus on details, what’s around me, that kind of thing. Simple math — like how far I need to go to a turnaround point, for example — is pretty much beyond me. And spelling is out the door.) So as these runners loomed into my path, I ran around them. And then the next ones. And the next. And it continued like this for the second half of the race! I was passing other runners. Still passing them when I should have been feeling burned out and staggering on fumes.
But I still had half of the race ahead of me, and I was sure I was going to run out of energy, so I told myself just to run at a pace I could sustain for another three miles. But that pace kept bringing me up behind other runners who needed passing. And I did. I don’t know how to account for this. Where were the energy and stamina coming from? Whose legs was I running on? Who had lent me their lungs?
I don’t want it to sound as though I was breezing along effortlessly. I was not. I was breathing hard and arguing with the voices in my head the whole way. I was pounding the pavement with threats of personal disappointment and disgust if I didn’t keep going. I was fighting myself. And at the water stations they still did not have Bud Light!
And I continued to pass other runners. Obviously they had started out too fast and were slowed in the second half of the run. Right? The course was mostly along both banks of a prettified river, so the way was flat and I could see the tall buildings around our starting/finishing point. Thus I knew that I was nearing the end. Yet I still seemed to have the energy to push myself hard, so I did. (I knew what my fastest 10K time was, and it would have been nice to beat it, but I was not paying attention to my running watch. That tends to be counterproductive. Either I’m disappointed in the “poor” performance it reports, or I am terrified by the “too-fast” pace it reports and convince myself to slow or even stop. So I don’t look at the numbers until I am finished.)
The last mile of this course diverted from the river for a few blocks and then got on a road heading back to it, with a sweet downhill to the finish arch. By then, the voices in my head had lost their battle. I knew I would finish, and I thought I would finish well. As far as I knew, my two runner friends were only steps behind me, but I was deep inside myself by then, concentrating on squeezing the last bit of performance out of legs. As I made the last turn to the final stretch, I hit the afterburners. I was running hard — and fast. Somewhere in there I heard my wife cheering for me and managed to look up in time to see her on the sideline. And in the last hundred feet, I found even more energy and was really pounding. I haven’t seen the finish photos yet, but I’m sure I had a look of absolute agony on my face. Mouth agape. Eyes wide. Sweat and strain everywhere.
And then I was across the finish mats. Beat, but not beaten. I had the timing chip removed from my shoe. Someone handed me a bottle of water.
And then someone put one of these around my neck:
It’s a finisher’s medal. Everyone who ran across the finish line got one, but it’s the first one I’ve ever received. (Sadly, I have relinquished my hold on last in my age group. I haven’t won that coveted place in quite a few runs lately.)
I staggered around the finish area for a while until my wife showed up. Then it was time for gallons of chocolate milk and a few dozen bagels. The place was packed with runners and their groupies, but we did manage to find the chocolate milk, and I quickly downed two cartons. Then we pushed our way over to the bagels. I had about two bites of one, but it was awful. So I got myself two more cartons of chocolate milk. About then my two friends were crossing the finish line. They had not stayed two steps behind me after all. Somehow I had gotten far ahead of them. (My
fourth third friend had finished about five minutes ahead of me, but we never did find her in the crowd.) There were hugs and hand shakes all around, and we all admired the medals hanging from our necks. And though we were all giddy and happy to share our experiences, we also had the rest of our days to begin and parted.
When I got home — and peeled myself out of the plastic compression clothing I wore, took one of the best showers of my life, and snuggled into some sweet soft sweats — and plugged my watch into my laptop, I was able to review my run in better detail. What I found surprised me. During the second half of the race my pace actually increased. I was running faster then. Not only that, but on average, my pace kept increasing throughout the second half. The farther I went the faster I was running. That’s counterintuitive, but that’s what my watch reported. And to be honest, that’s what it felt like as I was fighting my way through those second three miles. I was in agony, but I was also feeling I could do it.
So it was a great running weekend for me, capped by a really transformative run. But the trouble with setting new personal records is that you know you can do it, and so you pretty much have to strive to do even better next time.
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