For a long time, I’d be able to look at you straight in the face and tell you that running was a fairly straightforward activity. One foot in front of the other, propel yourself in a forward direction (more often than not, ideally), and bam! you’re good. While there’s obviously some inherent degree of truth here, the aforedescribed undermine a lot of the more nuanced aspects of our sport. Sure, it’s just running, but figuring out how hard or when to push, when to pull back, what that borderline feeling is that puts you riiiiiiight up against oh hell oh hell oh hell territory without falling headfirst into the abyss — this is the stuff, the more complicated and messy stuff, that belies running’s simplicity.
… but it’s also the stuff that makes it so effing fun in a (probably) masochistic way.
Such grandiose statements to begin talking about the Marin Memorial Day (MMD) 10k USATF PA road race up at the College of Marin on Memorial Day, no doubt, but all told, I think these descriptions fit a 10k race pretty accurately. The distance is manageable, a good 6.2 miles, a bread and butter daily run distance, but from every distance I’ve ever raced, I think the 10k is among, if not the, most calculated. It’s like the friend you think you have but who can be really manipulative and downright treacherous if you don’t watch your back. If you give too much, your friend will take it all and run like hell away from you, leaving you on the sidelines, whimpering to yourself, questioning your life’s choices. Conversely, if you give too little, she’ll demand more and wonder why you’re not holding up your end of the deal, pondering what is wrong with you that you didn’t contribute more earlier or sooner. Cold, calculated, conniving.
A 10k is nowhere on the scale of distance of a half or marathon — obviously — but it’s also twice as long as a 5k (two graduate degrees here, thanks!), so finding the effort that you can sustain for longer than what feels comfortable can be just … elusive. I’m sold that 10ks are among the most challenging distances to race because of the high-but-not-too-high effort that the relatively shorter, but not too short, 10k distance necessitates. It’s like a tedious, complicated dance on an impossibly taut tightrope; one poor decision, and you’re falling off the edge, a goner. You have more time to work with, more time to make decisions, but in the grand scheme of things, you don’t really. There’s no luxury in “easing into things” like in longer distances, but dare you get off the line like you do in a 5k, you will absolutely pay for it later. This is probably why I woke up on race morning with feelings foreboding trepidation; I knew what was coming.
The MMD is another road race on the PA circuit and one that, as our team master captain leader extraordinaire, Lisa, said, tended to produce fast times, PRs, and club records. In fact, I think I had read somewhere online that the course was one of the fastest in California. Going into the race, to be honest, my singular goal was to pace this 10k more intelligently than I had at Heart and Soles 10k in March. On paper, I thought that I could possibly eke out a PR at MMD — owing it to the faster field, probably a faster course, and more weeks of marathon training under my belt — but a PR was a very faint and distant secondary goal, barely a blip on my radar. I really just wanted to run a 10k without pacing it like a
n idiot tool.
Come MMD, I was about 8 weeks out from San Francisco and thus, really needing to emphasize the long stuff over the short, so I rearranged my long run schedule in the days pre-MMD and ran 18 with 12 @ GMP on Saturday (which went really well, yay!), recovery ran with my runnergang on Sunday early, and hoped for the best that I’d be recovered by race morning on Monday. By race day, I had about 140+ miles of volume in my legs from the previous 14 days, having taken some time off in the beginning of May for a colitis flare. Fortunately, since May 15 anyway, I had been feeling great and complaint-free. My legs weren’t necessarily “fresh” to race, but they were fresh enough, given that I’m focusing more on July 27 than anything else right now.
After a minivan ride up beautiful 280 to the College, my six teammates and I piled out of the van and quickly noticed the overcast, cloudy skies and the slight “chill” in the air from the 5x degree temps; hello, perfect racing weather. Claire and Sam, my teammates whom I am often chasing in our PA races, and I talked goals for the day, and while they both vied for a sub-40, I knew that today wouldn’t be my day to try to go for something that laudable; keeping them in my sight — but pacing intelligently — would be more than sufficient. Based on a text exchange with Impala galpal Robin in the days preceding the race, I figured she and I would also likely be working together, too, in this race, so I felt I was virtually guaranteed a good ride for 40ish minutes, being surrounded by Claire, Sam, and Robin in my immediate vicinity. Racing is a lot of fun, no doubt, but as any child will tell you, chasing others is also a pretty good time.
Our team did about a 2.5 mile warmup along what was mile 4-end (or thereabouts) of the course, a nice little preview. I was feeling pretty good — knowing the tempest was brewing but hadn’t yet arrived — and before too long, we all headed over to the starting area and cramped in. I’m still learning all the USATF intricacies, but I’ve gathered that even though it’s chip timed, for scoring purposes (and money purposes, I think?), it’s based on gun time; hence, the squashed-in-like-sardines at the start, even though we’ve all got chips on our bibs and our chip times still count as the “official” times… or something. There were a lot of small children right on the line, right with the 5xx/mile runners — making me very nervous that they’d get trampled — but mid-I hope those kids move over real soon, real fast thought, we just started running — no gun, again (why?) — and suddenly, it was another Lion King run or be run over moment at the start of the race. I legit got elbowed in the ribs by an older woman within the first 10 meters of the race, as though we were in the bell lap of an 800m (seriously? lady, you still had 9,990 meters to go!) and stayed fairly boxed in for the first mile or so. Even if I wanted to move around the masses, I couldn’t. Claire and Sam, in addition to my other teammates Jenn and Lisa, were all right within my line of vision, and before the first 400m of the race, a tap on the shoulder and wave on my right showed that Robin was there, too. Yay! Time to work together.
For the first three miles, the course gently and rolling-ly wound its way through the downtown and some residential areas of Kentfield before turning around, making a lollipop design in the process, and heading back toward the direction of the college and the bike path/streets where we had run our warm-up. Fortunately, by about mile 2 and change, the sea of runner humanity began to open up, my claustrophobia and fear that I was going to trip on someone and eat shit finally abating. My teammates were still visible, though I had lost Robin again somehow, and I even had the good grace of getting some mid-run coaching by two different gentlemen. Probably before the first 1.5 mi of the race, when I was stride-for-stride with another woman, a guy behind us — maybe someone this other woman knew — was dishing out lots of yeah ladies, really smooth, really strong, that’s right, you’re really good and strong, you’re looking really great to us both. I don’t particularly need to hear that when I still have more than half the race to go, but … thanks? Not much later, around mile 3, soon after I had the unexpected delight of seeing and hearing Michael Stricklan on the sidelines yelling at me (last time I saw him, I was massively pregnant before SF ‘15), another gentleman and I began running elbow to elbow, and he, too, began dishing out gratuitous mid-run coaching: we’re looking really strong, we’re going to finish side by side, really smooth, really smooth. Alright! Maybe he needed to say it out loud to himself, and I just happened to be there at the right time. Whatever floats your boat, dude.
As I came through the 5k, a quick glance at my watch showed me to be not that far off my 5k PR — a thought both momentarily terrifying (shit is redlining imminent?! Did I go out too fast?) and strangely encouraging (the next 19 +/- minutes are going to feel long and never-ending, but I’m preeeeeeeeeetty sure I can do this). Sam was still in my sight, even looking at the storefronts on her left to see if she could catch my reflection; my mid-run coaches had basically disappeared into thin air; I hadn’t seen or heard Robin since early on and had no idea where she was … but at least we were all heading into familiar territory by now.
I’m thankful Lisa had us run the last 2 and change in our warmup because it was (understandably) nice to know what to expect. The sun had begun to peek out for the first time in the morning, but the temps were still really nice and comfortable, and I (poorly) began trying to do the I can run for X or so minutes more math as we got onto the bike trail. I still hadn’t found Robin since I saw her in the first mile, and Sam was still about 5 steps in front of me, but my other teammates were significantly farther ahead. I couldn’t recall anyone passing me in a while, so I tried to hold on to that and just keep pulling myself to Sam. Throughout the race, I had periodically looked at my watch to see my pace, and I had been running about where I thought I should have been. I wasn’t able to catch my splits each time, but from what I could recall, they were all close to each other: a far cry from Heart and Soles. Out of seeming nowhere, we had a hefty-enough wind coming at us for the final 1.2, and somehow, the slight downhill that we felt over the final 1.2 in our warmup seemed to have disappeared altogether. (Mind games… mind games…).
While I was running in the valley of Mt. Tam over that last mile and change especially, as I was beginning to feel tired and increasingly eager to finish the thing, the mental moments started to come out hot and heavy. Trust the process. Own the work and training that you’ve put in. You should be right here, right now, running this pace. Start at yes. Why not you? Why not today? Why not now? Do not dissociate. Stop looking at your surroundings. Just run. Lean in. LEAN IN. Mere minutes more. We hopped off the mile 5 street, turned into the parking lot adjacent to the track that we’d finish on, where a volunteer yelled that I was “looking really smooth,” — the apparent phrase of the morning — and then it was a matter of 300 meters on the track (clockwise) before it was over. Sam was still right in front of me, and with about 150m to go, I saw my watch click over from 39:59 to 40 — telling me that provided I didn’t erupt into flames in the next 150, I’d finish this much faster (and much closer to 40) than I had anticipated. My male teammates were on the sidelines, right in front of the finishing arch, yelling something about using my arms to launch me forward — oh yea! Arms! I have arms! Use my arms! — and whatever I had left I laid bare on that beautiful all-weather gem of a track.
40:53 — a 16 second PR. More importantly, and what I was really getting after for the morning: night-and-day-better pacing.
Just seconds after I had shared congratulatory high-5s and sweaty hugs with Sam, I turned around and saw Robin, commenting about the beauty of my ass (ha), which, unbeknownst to me, she had apparently been chasing. Better yet, we reveled in her killer nearly 3 minute 10k PR. Three minutes!! In a 10k! How amazing is that!!!? It was hard to not just beam because I was so much happier with how I raced (and so massively inspired, as always, by my teammates and my friends). Racing is really unparalleled. I love training, but man … I love racing. It is so hard yet so gratifying.
Connecting with my teammates post-race is one of the highlights for me, just because it’s always so interesting to hear about everyone’s different experiences. We have the shared experience of running the same course, but how it plays out varies tremendously. It’s another aspect of running and racing that I find so attractive; it’s kinda like this great egalitarian force, a shared, lived experience among people of varying capabilities. It doesn’t matter if you ran a 31 or a 101 minute 10k because chances are high that you can identify with the same sentiments that your teammates feel when they’re also throwing down mid-race: the fear, the despair, the encouragement, the leaning in, the dissociating, the questioning of life’s choices, the wanting to do this all over again to see what would happen if you do X instead of Y next time … They (we) get it. They (we) know. It’s just such an interesting conversation to have immediately post-race when emotions are still high, muscles are shredded, and the endocannibinoids are still likely unduly influencing our perception of just about everything. Those first few moments post-race are as raw as it can be, it seems, and it’s just … wonderful.
The cool-down miles with my team put me at 11 and change for the day, a nice start to the last week in May and a most excellent way to start a Monday. I came home with the quiet satisfaction that comes from accomplishing what I wanted for the morning — making the 60+ mile each way drive worth it — and really fired up about how SF training is faring and how my mental game is coming along. As I’ve said before, this short stuff is basically on the other side of the river from My Comfort Zone, but I’m finding that the more that I wade over into Unfamiliar Territory, the less on edge — not necessarily comfortable — I’m getting being over there visiting. I don’t necessarily feel like I belong, but I think periodically putting myself into The Great Unknown does a great service for me when I return to where I am most comfortable.
There are two more PA races on the calendar in the next couple months — a 1 miler and a 5k in June and July, respectively — but I’ll be out of town for both of them, so I’ll resume PA stuff in the fall. While I’m visiting family in the midwest, I have a half marathon and a 5 miler (I think) that I’ll be doing something with — racing, workout-ing, something — but otherwise, it’s mostly just going to be a lot of putting my nose to the ground for the final 8 weeks of SF training. Good luck to everyone racing in Los Gatos and Morgan Hill. There in spirit!