As I walked along the sidewalk I could feel the right side of my body heat up under the rays of the rising sun. Just on the other side of a small wall was the beach, the ocean’s wave splashing invitingly.
A bead of sweat ran from my temple and down my cheek. I looked at my watch.
The race wasn’t starting for another hour, and that was only if it was starting on time. One more hour for the sun to rise higher in the sky and give off its intense heat. I puttered up and down the sidewalk, stretching a little, jogging a little, trying to work out the crick in my neck I had woken up with 2 days earlier. I wasn’t feeling great about this race.
4 months earlier I had run a 10K in sub-freezing weather. Initially I had worried about the cold, but I discovered that at that temperature, I was actually kind of fast. I finished in a flashy 39:29. I toyed with the idea of going sub-40 this past Sunday, but with the temperature as it was at 9AM, I re-evaluated and thought maybe a sub-45 was a smarter goal. Normally I enjoy the hour before a race, but the heat was so intense that I was afraid to sit still for too long, and so I wandered like a lost soul.
Finally, at 10, we were called to the starting line. The announcement came over the PA that if you were planning on running 17-minute 5K splits, you should step to the front of the line, otherwise step back. I took several steps back, along with everyone else. Two Kenyans joined us where we stood. My teammate Lisa* leaned over and told me that they were the heavy favorites. I took another step back. The two Kenyans kept shuffling backwards and everybody else followed suit. I looked over at another teammate, Chris, and said, “I wish they’d stop shuffling back. Aren’t they supposed to be right on the starting line?” He nodded and laughed.
Finally the starter asked everyone to step to the line. The crowd pushed me forward and I found myself lined up alongside the Kenyans. “This is not good,” I thought. Chris asked me what I was shooting for. “40 if it were 30° cooler, you?” He said 36.
Hmmm. 36. Maybe I won’t be hanging with you too long.
The starter raised the horn, counted down and we were off! I followed my teammate as we shot off the starting line. Initially it didn’t feel so fast, but I knew I had started too quickly when my breathing became heavy almost immediately. A quarter of a mile in a photographer took a shot of the lead pack. It was the Kenyans, Chris, another runner and me. I very quickly realized that this could end poorly for me. I had no business being in this lead pack. As we hit mile marker 1, with the Kenyans already 20 yards ahead, I looked at my watch.
5:55?!? What the heck was I thinking? I had a moment of panic as I tried to keep up. I made a very quick decision to slow it down drastically. As I watched my friend pull away, I focused on getting to the turn around. The race had been set up as a 3.1 mile out and back loop. I knew the turn around was less than 3 minutes away. With the heat pounding down on us the way it was, I was going to have to break this race down into 4 1.5 mile races to get through it. By the time we hit the first turnaround, a few runner had caught and passed me.
There is no worse feeling in a road race than getting passed, but again, I also knew that I had no business being this far ahead of the pack.
We hit the turn, I grabbed some water, took a sip, poured the rest down my back and headed back.
BAM! The wind hit me hard. In retrospect, I don’t think that the wind was actually that strong, but when combined with the heat and humidity, it felt like I was running into a wall of jello-pudding.
Mile 2 arrived quickly, 6:36, But I could already feel myself fading. The heat was getting to me. A few more runners passed me, but I kept plugging along. I spotted the building that we had started at and looked at my watch. Oh! Just under 6:00! Maybe I’m doing better than I thought. That gave me a little energy boost as I honed in on the turnaround…except it wasn’t the building and the turnaround wasn’t there. I looked up to see an identical building a couple hundred yards down. There was the building we had started at. My small boost of energy quickly deflated. Mile 3 still arrived at a respectable 7:12.
As I hit the turn, there were my girls. I shifted right to give my Katie a high five.
She was wearing the same “Go Dad!” hat she had worn for Boston. I shot out of the turnaround at 20:18 – striking distance of a sub-40 – and sitting in 15th place.
Katie had given me a small energy boost that carried me over mile 4 in 7:05 (my first and only negative split of the day!). I struggled to make to the turn, but kept telling myself that once I was out of this turn it was only 1.7 to go. I took a gulp of water, poured the rest down my back and prepared to be hit by the wind. It didn’t hit me quite as hard this time, but in looking back I realize that it was because I wasn’t going nearly as fast. I pushed on, knowing that I essentially only had to keep this up for another 12 minutes or so.
The mile 5 marker came and went. I looked at my watch. 7:20. I was slowing down. Shortly after passing the marker I got passed one more time. I tried to hang with the guy, but every time I tried to hit the accelerator I got nothing. It was like cranking an engine with a dying battery, and my legs were dying!!! Mile 6 came in a relatively slow 7:37. Chris was standing there and yelled, “300 meters! Kick it in!”
As I passed the last water stop I yelled, “Throw it in my face!!!” The kid holding the water cup looked confused. “Throw the water in my face!” I yelled again. One of the other volunteers told the kid to throw in my face. Finally he got. As I went through the water stop, I got hit three time. It woke me up! The legs came somewhat alive and I pushed it for all I had.
Unfortunately, the guy who had just passed me did the exact same thing. I closed on him but in the end I ran out of real estate.
Coming around the final turn, I high fived Katie again and went through the finishing chute. 43:11. I had covered the last 0.2 in a 7:00/mile pace. I leaned on my knees, breathing hard. As miserable as it was, I have to admit it was fun. One of the things I love about out and back races is that you get to see everybody. Throughout the race I was able to shoot hello’s to teammates and various runners who I had met before the race, plus I really got to see the two Kenyan runners in action, up close. They ran with a fluidity I can only dream of.
When the results sheet went up I almost tore out my hair. 4 months earlier I had missed the podium by 2 seconds, finishing 4th in my age group. When I first saw the initial results, there I was, 43:11, 16th place out of 169 finishers, 4th in my age group. 4th?!? Again? This time by 9 seconds. Remember that guy who passed me just after mile 5? Yeah, that was him. I couldn’t believe it. What I forgot however, was that in the final posting of the results, most race directors remove the overall podium finishers from the age group category, so surprise, surprise, I found myself on the podium at the awards ceremony. 3rd place in my age group! I’ll take it!
So what did I learn from this race? Lesson #1: unless you are Kenyan, don’t try to run with them. As thrilling as it was to run next to poetry in motion for a 1/2 mile, I paid for it dearly over the next 5.7 miles. Lesson #2: no matter how tired you are, dig deeper at the end to get that final kick and start it before the final 0.2 miles. The last guy that passes you could be the difference between a podium finish or not. Lesson #3: racing on a team can help your motivation. I managed to finish 2nd on the RaceMenu/mix1 team, but part of what kept me motivated was seeing my teammates out on the course. A simple wave or a nod was an acknowlegement of a shared effort to get through a race under brutally hot conditions.
Up next is the Boston13.1 half-marathon this coming Sunday. I’m praying that the 6:15 AM start means much lower temperatures.
*Back in March I was asked to join the RaceMenu/mix1 racing team. I have now run the Boston Marathon, the Providence Marathon, the Boston Run to Remember Half-Marathon and the Father’s Day 10K with them, and it has been a pleasure meeting the teammates I have. Check out RaceMenu at www.RaceMenu.com.