Sunday, September 19, 2010

VICTORY: at last

The start of the 10k Run for Peace in 2009. I'll update the photograph as soon as I can to include ME. :)

I ran a 10k race today; my first since February. I had mixed expectations for myself: on the one hand, I just wanted to beat my old (unremarkable) PR of 40 minutes because the owner of a running shoe store in Reno told me repeatedly I never would. Yet, I also wanted to run at a pace that would mean I’m fit enough to run a 2:46 marathon. Well, as is often the case in life, I am not exactly where I want to be, which is both a good and a bad thing.

The race was held in Berkley at a park next to the marina. I can only describe this as a novel experience for me: running mere feet away from the sea water of the bay. San Francisco glistened on the hills to my right, Berkley to my left. The morning was overcast and cool, yet the humidity (well, relative humidity. Pretty much anyplace feels humid for a Nevadan) was palpable, heavy, but not unpleasant. The course consisted of two loops around a jetty of sorts (a distance of 5k) followed by what was supposed to be a 5k out and back that wound inland on dirt paths. It was completely flat, a fact I discovered during my warm-up, which made me unusually giddy.

“Just beat 40 minutes,” I repeated to myself like a mantra, yet deep down in my gut I knew I wanted to do more than squeak by that temporal distinction: I wanted to blow it out of the water.

I ended up warming up with a guy named Ethan, a 40-something married man who runs with a local running group called the “Aggies.” He’d just run a 10k on a track the week before and was looking to come across the line in “39:30. I’d be happy with that.” I decided I’d do my best to stick to Ethan’s pace, even though he admitted a tendency to “go out too fast. But when I slow down from going too fast, I usually still end up keeping a respectable pace I can hang onto.”

I admit: it was so nice to go to a race for a change....and to go as a runner. I’ve missed the camaraderie of fellow runners who train more or less as seriously as I do. I love the exchange of horror stories (“I’ll never eat THAT again”) and the “I remember when I forgot to wear underwear” sort of tales of past glories and mishaps. I miss the identity I wonder sometimes if I still have. (I constantly question myself” am I a runner? Am I an athlete?) when I’m not, from time to time, in situations like local races such as this one.

Sponsored by the City of Berkeley, this was a race to raise money for the UNA, (United Nations Association) with an emphasis on raising money to feed those going hungry in poverty and disaster-afflicted areas of the world, such as Pakistan which was recently and horribly flooded. Though one sometimes wonders how much of your race entry actually trickles its way to the people in need, I’d rather give $20 and my effort in running any distance to that sort of thing than to ignore those sorts of problems entirely. Yet, I digress from the subject at hand: the 10k I ran today.

It was old-fashioned, I have to say. No timing chips, no starting gun. Just an older man in a faded UNA sweatshirt who yelled “runners, on your marks, set, GO!.” And go we did; or five of us did. Four men and yours truly strode to the head of the pack and heard nothing from the other 100 runners for the duration of the race. One man rushed to the very front and maintained that distance from us; Ethan and another, younger guy were five feet in front of me; the other man dropped off soon after the start and so I was the fourth runner by the first mile of the race.

One lap around the jetty maintained this configuration. On the second lap, I passed Ethan and the other guy, becoming the second person in the race. I felt, at this point, fantastic, as though it was effortless to run at what my Garmin posited were six-flat minute miles with an occasional 5:59 thrown in for good measure.

Trouble started (unbeknownst to me) at mile 3.5, an important juncture in the race. As I mentioned previously, those in the 10k race were supposed to do an additional out and back for their second 5k; yet, a well-intentioned UNA volunteer thought one dirt path looked just as suitable for the race as another and so directed us the WRONG WAY. Of course, I had no clue about this and kept running, telling myself to remain in control, to breathe, to sustain a consistent rhythm in my foot-falls. The unnamed man who ran next to Ethan passed me, moving me to the third runner and I set my goal of maintaining my pace, regardless of what he did. I was surprised Ethan didn’t follow him. In fact, Ethan later told me after the race had ended: “I kept trying to catch you, but you kept speeding up. It was frustrating!”

But what can I say? I was excited. I kept looking at my watch and the finish line which drew closer. By the time I’d returned to the pavement, my watch read 30 minutes. I chanted to myself “OHMYGODOHMYGOD”, believing (in my excited state) that not only was I going to blow the ceiling off that 40-minute mark, I was going to make it cry like the pathetic girl it was. 40 minutes? Who said I’d never break 40 minutes? Well check it, bro. I just did the distance in 31:26 because that’s what my Garmin said when I passed the line. Of course, I’d only been looking at the time (and occasionally glancing at the pace.) When I focused on the distance, my heart pooped its pants out of sadness.

5.2 miles.

“You didn’t run a 10k,” was the first thing the volunteer at the finish line said to me. And, you know, I just sort of nodded. No victory for me.

I hate to admit it, but I wandered off and cried a little. I mean, I’ve been working hard and I really, really wanted
to prove to myself that I have made improvements since last February and believed, for a second, my efforts were all for nought.
I called my coach who was digging post holes for a fence around his condo in Reno. I was afraid of informing him of the mix-up: I didn’t want him to get angry with me. Again. But oddly, he wasn’t. He said: “Well now you know you can run a 10k race in under 40 minutes.”

And you know, he’s right. I DO know that. Though my race was a mile short, there’s no way I would have run it in over 40 minutes.
Whether I would have run it in 37:30 or 38 is debatable, perhaps, but sub-40 was guaranteed by my pace and the fact that throughout I felt euphoric, like I still had plenty of high-octane gas in the tank, like I was floating over the earth, not running. Plus, I was smiling the entire time because it was just so goddamn fantastic.

Upon further reflection, I can’t help but marvel at what I did today. I know in the grand scheme of world-class athletes my time doesn’t merit a blink of an eye, but you know, for me it’s a huge accomplishment. I have always doubted my ability to run six-flat pace for anything more than a single mile: and here I did it for slightly more than five. Of all those that participated, only TWO RUNNERS were able to complete the course faster than I did: both were men, both YOUNGER than I am. The next woman who finished after me was at least five minutes behind me.

Most importantly, however, for my efforts the race committee awarded me two free nights at the Doubletree Hotel in Berkeley. It might not sound that great, but Steve had only just told me he couldn’t come down to see me because of the cost of not only gas, but lodging. In other words, because I won, I get to see Steve again which is perhaps the best prize of all.

And so I say: bring it, San Jose (where I’ll run a half marathon on October 3rd.) I’m getting fitter, stronger and there’s nothing that can stop me. Trials or Bust, baby. That’s my new motto; that’s where I’m going no matter what setbacks I’ve had or where I’ve been before.

Race Stats:

Distance: 5.2 miles
Time: 31:26
Pace (average): 6:03
Place (gender): 1
Place overall: 3
Blisters: 0
Prize: Priceless

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