When I wake, the first thought on my mind is the weather. It finally started clearing a bit yesterday, although I still managed to find some patches of rain to run through during my afternoon commute. I peek outside – ain’t sunny, but it ain’t raining either. I’ll take it. For breakfast, I change things up. This time it’s two hard boiled eggs, some cereal with whole milk, and half a banana. Plus coffee, of course. After breakfast, I do a little light mobility work on the rumble roller, just to get things moving. The race starts at 10:30, which is great for me. The later, the better, if you ask me. At around 8:50, we load up and head out to Eagle River. At one point during the drive, Jen asks if I’d like to talk about the race. I tell her no, which some people might take as rude, but it Jen know the deal. I’m in my head now, gaming the angles and contingencies. My plan? Go out strong through the first mile, somewhere around 5:15-20. Work whoever is around me and let them pull me along through the second mile, hopefully hitting 2 miles around10:40. From there, maintain or step it up, and I should be in the 16:30s.
16:30s? What makes you think you can run that fast?
My best this year is 17:33, and my road PR is a modest 16:50something, back when I was 27. It would be a huge SB (season best) and a big PR. But then I think of my last track session, where I floated 5:20 pace intervals like it was nothing. Or how chill my tempo runs have felt at 5:45 pace.
Warming up confirms what I’ve been told about the course. It is flat and fast by just about any standard. There are a few inclines, but some good long gradual downhills as well. I run into Jake Moe, one of the guys from my track club, and jog a bit with him. He’s run under 15 for 5k, so I don’t expect to see him until the finish. He points out where he thinks the mile markers are, and I try to correlate them to what I’ve been playing in my head over the past week. Every run for the past couple of days, I’ve tried to run the race in my head. Not so much visualizing the course, but my mental dialogue and perception of feeling. I have a big problem with pre-loading negative thoughts of failure and disappointment, so I’ve been focusing on breaking the race up by each mile, and gaming how I might feel, what I need to do, and develop positive mental strategies. Sometimes it helps to have a positive phrase like “Come and Get It.” Sometimes it’s an image, and the past couple of days I’ve thought of an imaginary “+” symbol floating lightly in front of me through my race, pulling me through rough spots. It might sound silly, but elites hire coaches whose sole focus is the mental game, and these are just some of the techniques employed by those coaches.
I warmup over the entire course – no surprises. I feel loose and limber, not hurried or rushed. I’ve literally missed the start of races before, so it’s nice to be here with plenty of time to spare. I swap into my Asics Piranhas (which will be retired after today), kiss Jen, and scratch Rider. It’s time to line up.
The start is a little crowded with kids, which always annoys me. But luckily, I’m not afraid to move some people out of the way by backing my shorty shorts up on some folks. They make room. I line up next to a girl who can’t be more than 12, and spends every moment before the start of the race shaking her head and talking to herself, saying things like, “Oh no,” and “Uh, oh…” and “I can’t believe this…” Pretty funny stuff. Here, I’m about 20 years her senior, have hundreds of races under my belt, and I feel the exact same way.
I do some drills and strides off the line, and then wait for the start. It’s a moment I dread and relish at the same time. Half of me wishes for a stay of execution: “Just kidding folks, no race today!” But the other half is a slingshot ready to do this. The starter gives us a countdown.
I lean over, ready to release.
I am still.
And like that, we’re off. We make the first turn into a gradual downhill, and the lead pack is making steady progress away from me. I’m surrounded by other runners, which is exactly what I want – to be pulled along. But I’m also trying to do the math, and if the lead pack is going to run around 15:00, I’ve got no business being in their neck of the woods come Mile 1. So I try to just keep it even and somewhat under control. But I know I’m going fast, just based on my legs. I actually feel the pace in my hamstrings, which isn’t what I’d expect if I’m running 5:15. I’m half tempted to check my GPS but damn that thing. Just race.
Sure enough, I crest a small hill where Jake surmised Mile 1 to be, and I see 4:56 on my watch. Ouch! What’s weird is that it feels fast, but I’m not in oxygen debt. Sure, I’m working, but I’m still spending my money wisely. I want to hit that line and trade in my last penny, and it feels like I’m doing it right. Still, to be safe, I dial it back just a hair. At this point, I’m in 9th or 10th place, the leaders are streaking ahead, and a second chase group is in front of me about 20m. Moving along, I marvel at just how far 20m feels when you’re racing. Then, I am surprised by the sound of someone catching up to me, then passing me. I recognize the moment with a sense of deja vu. Sit back, or go? I go for it, attaching an imaginary line from his waist to mine. Yep, I feel it, but it works. I hang on. And, I’m closing on the second chase pack. Come and get it…
I spend the next mile+ closing the gap, passing a guy who is running shirtless. I know we’re well past two miles at this point. And then something awful happens. I get a little bit of drainage in the back of my throat, and it triggers a slight heave. Then another. Then, it’s too much. I’m gonna puke. I try to stumble a few more steps, then bend over the bushes, salivating and heaving. Shirtless Guy passes me and asks if I’m ok. Yes, I’m fine. I’m busy dry heaving away my PR, if you don’t mind.
I gather myself and I calculate I’ve lost 10-15s, and I’ve got less than a half mile to go. Somehow, I just know it’s still possible.
So I stand up, wipe my mouth, and commence to hammering. Somehow the nausea fades, and when I hit the last turn, I can see the finish. Ahead, the leaders are seconds from breaking the tape. My watch says 15:00. I’ve got less than 2:00 to cover the next 600m. I tell myself I can do this, but I have to throw down.
I muster everything I’ve got and pull together the semblance of a sprint. I can feel the nausea rising again as I drive my knees and arms. In my head, I’m Usain Bolt. In real life, I’m sure I’m a slow motion train wreck.
With a hundred meters to go, I’m closing on Shirtless Runner, but I don’t think I’m going to catch him. Who cares. Gotta slow that clock down.
I look up just before I cross the line and see 16:4-. I give a little fist pump, then collapse and dry heave on my knees. It’s been a long time coming.
Nice race, Matty! Stay safe over there.