Strength and stability flow into my legs with each step. My strides even out, joining the swing of my arms, my heart beating, my inhales and exhales, to create a familiar cadence, resetting my body like clockwork. Regardless of my location, the language, the company, this rhythm is me at my core, constant, reliable.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Embrace the Challenge

“Maximize work and minimize stress,” I recently advised the athletes I am coaching for Fleet Feet’s No Boundaries II program.
“The work you put in is what you get out of it, but above all, we’re here to have fun!”
Now’s the time to take my own advice. I turn the corner, passing the sign for Mile 8 and there it is. Straight ahead, the top of the hill I have been waiting for. Nearly a mile of gradual incline looms ahead of me.  Like a neat trail of ants, the runners form a steady stream upward, disappearing over the top.  I imagine we all are thinking the same thing,
“Get over this hill and it’s just one more downhill mile to the finish.”
I entered this race for fun.  I’m in the tune up phase before beginning spring marathon training, so I haven’t been training specifically for this race. My goal was simply to enjoy the company and embrace the challenge of this reputedly hilly course.
For the first time since college, I was racing with my team.  Six of my Fleet Feet teammates and I drove out to Amherst from Albany to run the DH Jones 10 mile race that morning. Our little pack emitted a slight glow in our neon green and yellow Fleet Feet uniforms as we headed out for our warm up together. A teammate who has run this race before led the way, providing advice and insight about the course as we went. As we looped around back to the staging area for the start of the race, my teammate encouraged me “at this point in the race, you have a mile to go, it’s all downhill from here.” I nodded.  Having only done the first mile and last miles of the course, I was already nervous about lasting a whole 10 miles of similarly rolling terrain.
“Just good, clean fun!” I thought to myself as we lined up at the start.
I can still hear my high school cross country coach’s voice before every race, reminding us to relax and just go out and run hard because that’s what we love to do.
 “That’s what I’m here for, just to have fun.”
A few quick turns, watching the ice on the road, and then the incline began. A woman chatted loudly behind me.
“Run the race with me and you’ll have a great race,” she advised a man running beside her.
“What pace do you think we’re running?” he asked.
“Oh, 6:15, 6:20?” she guessed.
“Sounds about right to me,” I thought.
My goal was to average no slower than 6:15, but I figured I would take the first few miles a bit slower so I would have the strength to run hard at the end.  We passed the Mile 1 sign. 6:00 exactly. Oops.
“At least I feel relaxed,” I thought. “But you don’t want to regret it, back off a little bit.”
I focused on finding the women ahead of me.  A very strong field of women had come out today, and the majority of them were within sight. My one female teammate was aiming to win the race and thanks to our bright uniforms I could see her down the road among the leading men. I picked a couple women to focus on. One in a light blue uniform just ahead, another in red and black a bit further.
“You’re going to pass them, one by one,” I told myself.
Mile 2. 6:07. “Really?” I felt like I was going slower, but great! “Now just keep it there.”
No problem, we were at the base of a large hill. 
“Just maintain an even effort,” I told myself, as a few runners passed by. “They will come back.”
The chatty lady passed by, still talking loudly to her running partner.
“She must be feeling strong if she can manage to talk so easily, don’t let her go.”
For the next mile and a half I stared at her feathery, bouncing ponytail, just a few meters ahead.  Mile 3. 7:23. Oh dear. Between trying to relax and the incline I had really let my pace go.
“It’s okay, you have seven more miles to make up for it,” I thought. 
There was a long downhill stretch.  The chatting had ceased. I let go, picked up speed, and quickly passed the woman by.
On to the next.  The woman in light blue was not far ahead, and the one in red and black was still in sight as well. I wondered where the next hill was.
“Don’t worry about it. Just stay relaxed through mile 5. Once you’re halfway it will be time to push.”
We had left the road and were now on a wide, icy dirt trail flanked by woods. For the next couple of miles I shifted my attention between footing and the two women up ahead, wishing I had worn spikes to get a better grip on the trail so I could fully take in my surroundings. Though we weren't far from the city center, the expansive woods gave the impression that we were far from civilization. My usual routes are restricted to the city streets, often at rush hour, which combined with snow-blocked sidewalks has recently made for many a frogger-like run. I soaked up the calm quiet, disturbed only by the rhythmic pounding of runners’ strides and took full advantage of running freely in the middle of the road.
Mile 5. 32:40. Perhaps not my goal pace, but I still had half the race ahead of me.
“Now is the time to push the pace.  You know you can run hard for five more miles. If you pick up the pace you can run under 64 minutes, still a good time on a course like this.” I told myself.
I reached the light blue woman and we exchanged words of encouragement as we ran side by side for couple of minutes. I began to pick up the pace and she didn’t follow,
“Great job,” I said, “Come on, keep it up!” but she let me go.
Now for the woman in red and black.  An older man in a matching uniform was just behind her.  I caught him, and we struggled back and forth for the next several miles to pass one another. He clearly did not appreciate the challenge and I was determined to get ahead. He breathed heavily and had a seemingly laborious gait, but he his pace was unwavering.  We turned the corner into the eighth mile.  I could see the lady in red and black already several meters ahead.
“Get up this hill. It’s downhill from there, you can catch her then,” I thought.
 The man moved ahead taking his place in the ant-trail of runners, and I tucked in just on his heels,
“Just focus on staying with him,” I thought.  
As we crested the hill and picked up speed on the descent, he called out to his female teammate ahead of us.
“Keep it up!” he encouraged.
The hill did not seem to have taken a toll on her, but I held my focus. 
“Chase her. There’s hardly anything left. The harder you run, the sooner you’ll be at the finish.”
I crossed the finish line in 63:42. Perhaps not my best race, but a solid pace for this stage in my training, especially on such a challenging course. My teammate was jubilant at having improved significantly from the year before despite the conditions. Another teammate was the top female finisher by several minutes.
“And you didn’t even want to come to the race!” our teammate teased her.
As our group cooled down together, we all complained about the hills and I was relieved to hear that everyone had experienced a significant drop-off of pace in mile 3, and we had all had our doubts in mile 9.  My legs screamed as we climbed one last hill back to the parking lot, but we were already chatting about our next race in a couple more weeks. I always look forward from one race to the next. Each race is just another opportunity for a fun challenge.