Are you ready for fall racing season? It turns out I was not!
The Plaza 10K is my traditional first race of the fall. I’d run it for the last three years, and run it well, and I looked forward to running it this fourth time, thinking my marathon training would make it a frolic. Something didn’t add up, however. (It may be worth noting that this is my first organized race since the disastrous marathon in St. Louis last April.)
A 10K is 6.2 miles, and while that is just about the distance of my regular Saturday morning training runs (and half the distance of my Sunday morning training runs), I allow myself the indulgence of taking rest breaks during those. For this 10K I intended to run it continuously, just as I had the last three years. The course is relatively flat; at least there are no monstrous hills to grind up. It’s also familiar territory; I’ve run it before. And I felt trained and fueled. Thus I strutted to the start with confidence. Confidence I may not have earned, it seems.
Because of the wretched heat of August, I ran many of my weekly miles on the treadmill in my cool and cluttered basement. I’ve come to realize that treadmill miles really aren’t that good for training. They don’t mimic the real world. It turns out that in the real world, the ground doesn’t move under your feet; you have to cause all of the forward movement. Also, a treadmill provides a constant pace. And it doesn’t reflect the rises and falls of the terrain. (Yes, there are treadmills with programs in them that will simulate these kinds of challenging variables, but I don’t have one of those.) In short, it’s easy to get complacent doing half of your weekly miles on a treadmill. And just as easy to be, apparently, undertrained.
The Plaza 10K starts and ends in the Country Club Plaza of Kansas City. It’s an upscale shopping/dining district (which is about as close to the real world as treadmill miles are to running outside, but that’s a different post). The course leaves the district, runs along prettified Brush Creek for a bit, returns to the Plaza, scoots along the main drag through it, passes the art museum, and then goes just far enuf east to skirt the working-class part of town before making a U-turn and returning to the Plaza for a glorious downhill finish. (I do like this finish, which is the same one as the Trolley Run.) There is some rise to the course, especially after mile 4, but it’s all manageable and ever-so upscale.
I had some vague notion that I could PR on this run. I hoped I would run it faster than I had in past years and set a Personal Record. If I ran it continuously, I thought I had a good chance of that. My average pace has been dropping (by 15-20 seconds, which is a big deal to someone of my ability), and if I could sustain that for the distance, I thought I could PR.
So when the anthem was sung (no protests that I could see, though there were a few hats on folks that were not doffed) we were begun. Back in my wave, it was several minutes before I crossed the starting line and turned on my watch. My race was on!
The first mile is the worst mile. Never are the voices in my head as loud as they are in the first mile. And they’re all saying “Stop this nonsense now!” Beating them is a combination of sheer rigor, as I keep putting one foot in front of the other, and constant reminders to the little bit of reason left in my brain that it will get better after the first mile. Generally, it’s my lungs that are the biggest complainers. Also, the 50 years of sloth ingrained in me that says it would be easier to just stop and take it easy.
But I was determined to run this 10K the same as I had the last three years, without stopping. So I ignored the voices in my head and pushed on. (This got harder to do.) People were passing me by the hundreds, but I had placed myself in the front of my wave (based on estimated pace per mile) in the hopes that at least some people in the wave wouldn’t pass me simply because they were slow like I am and I was, you know, ahead of them.
When I awoke on Sunday (yes, at the freakish hour of 3:00) the temperature was a delicious 54 degrees. Perfect running weather. I had selected the short-sleeved shirt you see in the photo above to give it a try out. I am currently auditioning gear for the upcoming NYC Marathon, and the shirt was being given its chance. (It’s actually a pale blue color, but it looks grayish in the photo.) Anyway, what you don’t see in the photo is the compression shirt I wore under it. I wore it solely for the added warmth it would provide. Layering, right? It turns out I didn’t need the extra warmth; the sun had risen and was kissing parts of the course before we had even started. I realized within that first mile that rather than keep me warm the extra shirt was going to make me hot. There was little I could do about that short of stripping off the blue shirt, then stripping off the compression shirt, then re-adorning myself with the blue shirt, and then figuring out something to do with the compression shirt, all while running. My daughter had done something like this on one of her marathons, but she had her husband beside her to help. (Also, it is a compression shirt. I sometimes get the sense when I’m wearing it that it prevents me from breathing as deeply as I might since it is, well, compressing my chest. But that may just be rationalization.)
I managed to get through the first mile (my watch chirped to let me know) and my lungs were reluctantly agreeing to play along. This was when the course made its turn to go back to the Plaza. Only 5.2 miles to go. I was dying.
But I was determined, so I pressed on. As I usually do, I tried to find the flattest part of the pavement before my feet. Roads are built so they will shed water, thus they slope from a crown, generally in the center. The slope is usually barely perceptible, unless your feet are striking it thousands and thousands of times. Then you’re well aware that one foot is falling a half inch or so lower than the other. Thus the center-of-the-road method I try to implement. Often this can be seen as selfish since slower runners are kindly expected to steer themselves to the side of the road, leaving the choicest pavement for the swift. But since I was a back-of-the-pack runner, I didn’t have any of these swifties to antagonize. After the first mile, the mass of people who were going to pass me had already done so. Yes, there were still people passing me, but we had four lanes of road to sprawl across, and I was passing some people as well, so I didn’t feel bad about running on the choicest pavement. All the while I would glance at my watch to check my pace, and many times — too many times — I found that I was going much faster than I could sustain. So I had to rein in my legs and keep thinking of the long haul (as well as ignore those persistent voices in my sweaty head).
At about mile 1.5, we had re-entered the Plaza and were making our way up a longish hill. I was feeling the heat, but there wasn’t much I could do about it other than get rid of my running cap. Fortunately, I expected to see my wife somewhere within the Plaza, and if I did, I was going to toss it to her. At the top of this longish hill we turned onto the main drag of the Plaza, filled with spectators and flowers and unopened, upscale shops and the dawning sun right in our faces. Somewhere along here I hoped my wife was waiting.
And she was, but for some reason she was behind an SUV parked on the side of the road. (I thought there was supposed to be no parking along here.) She kind of jumped out and waved at the last moment, which blessedly didn’t allow her the chance to take a picture of my wretched self, and I had just enuf time to whip off my white running cap and toss it to her. This was at about mile two, which meant I had a little more than four miles yet to go, but they would be the longest distance I had ever gone without a running cap. This was unprecedented!
Somewhere along here was the first water station. It caught me by surprise, in part because I was running into the sun and couldn’t see ahead very well, but mostly because I was fighting to keep going and concentrating on the three feet in front of my two feet. I missed the first few volunteers holding cups of Gatorade out for us runners, but I managed to grab a cup a few strides later and mostly sloshed it all over my hand, my face, my glasses, and up my nose. Delightful.
This run along the main drag becomes its own longish hill, culminating in front of the Art Museum. Then it’s a nice mile plus of downhill or flat running. I needed this because I was struggling to keep moving. I was not as trained as I thought I was, and I was learning this on the pavement. I was fighting to keep going. I was also finding that I was running faster than I should have been each time I looked at my watch. I was burning myself out.
We were once again running along Brush Creek, and the course would take us back into the Plaza along the other side. When I could look up from the pavement and wipe the sweat from my eyes, I could see the hundreds of runners ahead of me who were already on the other side of Brush Creek, about a mile ahead as the course goes. They were climbing that hill I mentioned beginning at mile four. It looked daunting, though I’d run up it the three times before.
But I was unaccountably struggling to keep running. When we reached the end of our outward bound run along Brush Creek, we turned and crossed a bridge over it. That was when my watched chirped that I had completed mile four. And that was when I lost the fight. I started walking. I should never have done this, but the prospect of the hill before me and the exhaustion within me allowed me to rationalize a brief walk. Some part of me knew in that instant that I had just surrendered my PR for the day. I should never had done this.
I walked a short distance, probably not more than two hundred feet, before I began trotting again. Uphill. I was disappointed with myself, but at the time I was also certain I could not have kept running. I think that may have been true. Had I tried to grind up that hill I might have passed out. I felt that bad. I certainly didn’t want to do that on such a lovely day, which is, as you can imagine, part of my justification for being a loathsome quitter.
The trouble with walking even a little bit during a run is that you’ve tasted the sweetness of it. You remember the sweetness of it, the relief it gives. And you want more of it. And thus began the last two miles of my run. An alternating walk/run. I was not the only one doing this, and it is considered an honorable way to manage the miles. But I had run this race continuously three times before. And I failed this time. I was tasting bitterness along with the sweetness. I tried to push myself farther each time I ran, but I would inevitably begin walking again. I repeated this for the rest of the run.
And yet, when I made the last turn into the Plaza, I found some energy and ran as fast and as hard as I could for the last few hundred feet. I crossed the finish line, well below my normal pace, with a mass of other runners, which is uncommon for me since usually by the time I get to the finish, those of us in the back are spread out.
I knew when I had started walking that I wasn’t going to get my PR, but I looked at the time on my watch just to confirm it. And I had. I came in three minutes slower than I had the year before. Had I not walked, I’m sure I would have come in three minutes faster. Of the four Plaza 10Ks I have run, this was the third slowest; only my first time was slower, by two minutes. I had the timing chip cut from my shoe and then accepted the medal handed to me. I strung it over my neck and went in search of my wife and chocolate milk. I found the chocolate milk, but my wife, who had apparently not seen me cross the finish line, was lost in the crowd. (She later admitted that she was watching for my white cap to come in.) I drank four cartons of chocolate milk and ate a bit of bagel, but I was ready to leave. The disappointment was that heavy on my heart. Eventually we did meet up, and off we went. Home for a shower and some dry cotton clothes.
By mid-afternoon, I was reassessing my defeat. Yes, it was poor training and too much reliance of past performance that did me in. But I thought that both of these could be fixed. And so I look forward to two weeks from now when I run a 5K at my old university. Time to PR!
Also, that new shirt I was auditioning passed the test. Its lackluster color, though, may be a problem. I’ll probably get another one in a more vivid color because everyone needs an overflowing closet of tech shirts, right?