Today I got up at 5:15am, dressed in the dark, wolfed down an English muffin, and headed out to run the Marine Corps Marathon Series Crossroads 17.75km, which wound 11 miles through the Prince William Forest Park, virtually from my doorway to the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Runkeeper told me today that I’ve run ONCE in the past 30 days. “Training” is a word I basically abandoned about a month ago, when a bout with hip bursitis on my left side convinced me that I had missed too much training buildup to just jump in and try to be ready for the MCM that was then only about eight weeks away (I posted about this dilemma previously, and later agreed with my cousin when he said it was pretty clear I knew that the decision was already made.) Instead, I’ve been going to physical therapy twice a week, re-acclimating to my work schedule with the beginning of the school year, watching torrential downpours, battling cold and sinus infections, and basically doing everything EXCEPT running.
So I had no idea what to expect from today’s 11 miles. It was my furthest distance since the Historic Half back in May, and I hadn’t done anything more than 5- and 10Ks in the meantime. I knew I’d finish, but when and in what condition was anyone’s guess. I woke up feeling decent, and decided that 2:15:00 would be the ultimate but probably unrealistic goal, and the closer to that, the happier I’d be. My hip was making a little bit of noise, but didn’t feel TOO bad.
I stood around in the pre-dawn, overcast gloom near the start line with my brother, Mike, his friend Matt, and my friend Leah, all of whom were anxious to start and to hopefully finish among the lead pack. They discussed recent injuries, questioned their preparedness, and it was clear they were all going to demand great performances from themselves. I felt kind of small and amateurish as I listened, knowing my pace was far, far slower than theirs, and that they would all be long gone from the site by the time I finished. In a way, that was good, because I didn’t want to worry about keeping anyone waiting while I was on the trail…I wanted to be able to just do my best and focus on that. But I knew it’d kinda bum me out to cross a finish line and have no one there to cheer me home. Still, the desire to avoid anxiety about making them wait prevailed; I knew I’d finish at least 45 minutes behind them, and likely close to an hour.
As the start time neared, Leah headed towards the front of the pack and I drifted towards my usual place in the back. I was surprised to find Mike and Matt had ended up there, too…Mike said he liked the emotional boost of being able to pass people. I knew I’d lose sight of him in the first few minutes. The gun went off…the phalanx of runners slowly shuffled forward, and we were off.
I rolled my ankle in the first few minutes of the race on a rock on the asphalt that I’d failed to see…but I was okay and kept going. I made it 25 minutes before walking (something that would’ve barely made me break a sweat a year ago, but that is a decently significant accomplishment this year). The turn off 234 and into the woods is about a mile from my house, so when I peeled off my sweatshirt, I dropped it just off the sidewalk in a grassy ditch on a drainage grate where I hoped it would still be in a few hours when I came back to retrieve it. If it wasn’t, oh well…but I didn’t want to run the next 9 miles with it around my waist. (It was there.) =)
As we made the turn into the park, we came upon a lady Marine…in a drill instructor hat. I had my earphones in, but it was clear she was shouting at us. Drill-instructor style. She was intense and intimidating and inspiring and totally awesome. I sped up a little as I passed her, relishing the boost of encouragement. Not long after, a woman I’d been leapfrogging settled in next to me, and we paced each other, urged each other, encouraged each other, and chatted with each other for the next 7 miles or so. It was a good match, and helped me stay positive where I’m sure I would’ve gotten discouraged and disgruntled had I been all alone.
The crowd around us had thinned almost immediately in the first mile…I knew there weren’t tons of people behind me, but I tried not to look, and instead focused on the road ahead. I didn’t want to feel like a straggler.
And I didn’t feel like a straggler. I am slow. My pace at best is in the 10-minute mile, and within 4 or 5 miles drops into the 12s. But I don’t FEEL slow. I’m steady and consistent…unless there’s a significantly long and steep hill I don’t have the juice to tackle, my splits don’t vary much, even over a long distance. I never feel like I’m sprinting, of course…but I DO always feel like I am maintaining the fastest pace I know I can, in fact, maintain. To go faster feels foolish to me…like I would be guaranteeing that I’d run out of energy, injure something, or fail to finish. My heart rate is high, my breathing is tough, I can talk a little but not sing…all hallmarks (or so I’ve been taught) that I’m exerting a high level of effort while maintaining consistency.
To say all that feels like I’m getting ahead of myself, but there isn’t much else to say about the race in a blow-by-blow fashion. I walked some, but ran as much as I could till sore, stiff hips, tight calves, or bourgeoning blisters compelled me to take another walk break. I kept my walks as short as possible, and frequently pushed myself to run to the next water stop, the next mile marker, the next Marine on post before I allowed another respite.
The only incident happened around Mile 9.5, where I was running along a stretch of asphalt that slanted away to the right. I ran along the extreme left edge of the pavement, proud of myself for automatically seeking out the most level surface so as to ease the strain on my joints. Suddenly, though, my foot caught on the edge of the paving and I was sent crashing to my hands and knees on the blacktop. I immediately got up, looked around sheepishly, and started running again…no one was close enough to have reacted or helped me or even called out to me, which was probably good…there was nothing to do but just keep going, if only to preserve what was left of my dignity. (I can’t remember the last time I had a skinned knee…it’s kind of funny and kind of humbling.)
There were a few drill instructors along the way, but the toughest one was at the end…another lady. She might have been the same one as at the beginning…I was afraid to look at her, though, because I was exhausted and the homestretch was on an incline I was too worn out to handle, and she was berating the HELL out of me for having seen me walking so close to the end. I muscled on past her the best I could, but I had hit the wall and was just DYING. I saved enough to sprint the finish, and the first mat was far enough ahead of the finishing mat that I got to spring through the calling of my name by the announcer, which you just gotta love.
(I made a liar of myself, though…I’d worn my MCM “In Training 2011” shirt, even though I’m not…and when the announcer called out a compliment on it and asked if I was running it, I nodded…because what else could I do?)
I finished with 2:23:11. 20 minutes under my half-marathon time from May, which is what I’d expected and hoped for. Reasonably close to my goal time. I was totally exhausted, and completely convinced I had done my very, very best. I went into the Museum to buy an EGA sticker for my car, visited my dad’s and brother’s bricks for a quick photo op I’d thought of, and headed back to my car…very proud of myself.
Found my brother at his son’s football scrimmage, where he told me he and Matt finished together and barely passed Leah at the end. They all crossed the line at about 1:28:00. Leah was the third in her age group. Mike finished 96th overall.
I was 631st. Out of 657.
ALL THREE of them were in the top 100. I was in the bottom 30.
And the more I thought about that today, the more my proud red balloon leaked helium till it was squealing around the room in a wild, manic spiral till it collapsed, deflated, on the floor.
Disconsolate thoughts plagued me: I am really BAD at this. Why am I so SLOW? How come I don’t FEEL slow? How could I have finished SO FAR back in the pack?? Were there REALLY only 26 people behind me out of almost seven HUNDRED???
I’m usually in the trailing end of the pack. But not THAT low. Granted, I was in the bottom 7% of finishers in my marathon last December. But that was different. One, my knee had gone out RIGHT at the halfway point. And plus, it was a MARATHON. And I FINISHED. So anyone who laughs at my 5:55:50 can bite me. But this one messed with my head.
Even the Historic Half in May, when my average pace was nearly a minute faster, I finished ahead of over a hundred people in my division alone.
Soooo…??? Even the good ol’ reliable “I lapped everyone still in bed this morning” wasn’t working.
So I talked this over with my friend Keith after puzzling it out all day. And he said exactly what was in my head. And hearing it come from someone else made it feel less like rationalization:
I was no slower in this race than I am in any race. And my relative placement therefore reflects not on me, but on the cohort of people with whom I was running. Therefore, I have to assume that the pool of runners in this race was far from the societal cross-section one gets in most 10Ks and nearly all 5Ks. I simply have to conclude that I was running with a far more elite pool of runners than I normally run with. This run, 11 miles, coincided with both Leah’s and Mike’s slack week in their marathon training, meaning that this weekend’s slated long run was about 12 miles, sandwiched between two 20-milers. From that, I must assume that many of the racers there today are 5 weeks away from the Marine Corps Marathon, and therefore are reaching the pinnacle of their training. They’re ready for a run of this distance; have been doing it for weeks now. (Whereas I have been able to do little training at all, and nothing over 6 miles.) If that fact applies to two of the three people I knew at this race, it stands to reason that it also applies to hundreds more who were there.
Therefore, while I may have been among the LEAST badass of Crossroads participants…
…I may possibly be among the MOST badass of runners of my own pace and skill level…many of whom evidently did not choose to run this race.
Is that right? Or am I just trying to make myself feel better?
I do wish I were faster. I wish I were a natural like Mike, or totally fit like Leah. And while I know I COULD get to one or both of those points if I were wholly dedicated to it for a long, long time…I doubt I ever will.
But I will keep hitting the pavement. Keep trying to heal this hip. Start over at square one and build myself back up to 30 minutes, and take it from there. I already know I can do it.
And I DID lap everyone still in bed this morning. And I beat all my fellow tortoises who didn’t show up. And 26 of those who did.