I wrote a draft of this a couple weeks ago, but never got around to proof-reading or editing or posting it. Given what I titled this and why, when I heard the news about Tom Petty today, made me want to get back to it. Which may have been a mistake on taper brain. Sorry Tom, you deserve way better than being associated with this sloppy thing. Also,I realized I put a race report not in the race report folder. Oops.
A lot of people say they perform best under pressure, when the stakes are highest. Most of them are full of shit and are either stroking their own egos or justifying procrastinating until the last minute to do whatever the task at hand happens to be. Just because you get things done under pressure doesn’t mean they’re any damn good. I mean, if I pulled a knife on you and told you to draw a self portrait in 10 seconds you could probably get something on paper, but it would be terrible. Unless you’re one of those caricature artists on the street who failed out of Pratt or something and draws those things up as people walk past then harasses them all the way down the train platform trying to sell it to them for $10. But if you failed out of school you probably can’t claim to be good at performing under pressure anyway so the point is moot. Regardless, I fall squarely in the camp of procrastinators. I’m not lazy or anything, I just loathe most of what makes up my inbox on any given day and the things which I find least interesting or most unpleasant to deal with get handled at the last possible second so I don’t have time to dwell on the misery of the task in question. The ol’ rip off the band-aid technique.
Now despite my admitted proclivity towards procrastination, I do think I have an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion when the stakes are high and the odds are stacked against me. As Exhibit A I submit to you my racing history, which is full of surprise PRs. You remember the beer and kimchi fueled 5K I somehow crushed (was gonna link to the bloop, but…). And there was the 5+ minute PR in the pikermi I ran on residual marathon training fumes and muscle memory (again with the missing link to the dead bloop). And this same race last year (oh yeah, BTW, this is a race report), where I went from too exhausted to warm up to channeling Raging Bull on the way to another unexpected PR (yeah...no bloop). None of these races should have gone well given the lackluster training or exhaustion or hangover, yet all were PRs. So even though my legs were still recovering from a 16 miler 36 hours before and I was awash in accumulated Hansons fatigue, I quietly held onto some hope for this year’s Big Peach Sizzler 10k (which was on Labor day, but procrastination remember?).
The dead legs I had to drag to the train station for our ride up to the start line were a constant reminder that yes, I was in the middle of marathon training. Any commands to move my lower extremities felt like they were being transmitted south from the brain via tin cans and string. As we milled around the start line I eschewed all of my usual pre-race routines out of sheer exhaustion, not once thinking about paces or doing my neurotic shoe retying routine. When I had put my Chicago goal time into a race predictor it had spit out a 43:29 10K time, and even though this was supposed to be my fitness check race I hadn’t give pacing or goals much thought as we toed the line, waiting for the national anthem and countdown to the start. I was entertaining myself trying to turn “toed the line” into a Toad the Wet Sprocket joke when I saw the starter, without saying a word, raise his arm and fire the starting gun. Everyone looked at each other for a confused half a second, then took off like we were charging into a Best Buy on Black Friday. I guess we weren’t feeling very patriotic, which bummed me out because I’d worn my American flag socks. See?
I avoided the mistake I had made last year starting too far back in the pack and was able to quickly find some running room for myself. I finally started thinking about pacing and remembered how this race had gone last year. I was equally exhausted and hobbled by worn out legs then and I had also not done much of a warm-up, but after a slow first mile I had somehow managed to crank up (down? whatever, make faster) the pace and even kick at the end to a big PR. So I decided to see if lightning would strike twice and tried to keep up what felt like a decent effort for the first mile. And for a moment, I started to feel almost good. The legs were still a little creaky but I felt like I was moving at a good clip and wouldn’t have that far to push to get to what should be 10K pace. Then the Garmin announced a 7:31 first mile. Well, the plan WAS for a slow start, so I guess I nailed it.
Given the disconnect between what my pace felt like and reality, I started to do the usual status checks to see where the problem was and realized I wasn’t really working all that hard. My breathing wasn’t that labored, my heart rate wasn’t in the “racing” zone, and I wasn’t even hurting that much. My legs just didn’t want to respond. So I got mad and started swearing, because that’s what I do when I’m mad. Some of the runners around me didn’t seem to appreciate it. I didn’t appreciate their judgmental side-eye, so I figured we were even. To get myself going I started to pick out nearby runners and focus on reeling them in, one at a time. I concentrated on my stride, struggling to lift my legs out of the marathon shuffle and into some semblance of a running gait.
First victim up was a hipster looking guy who in no way appeared to be in good enough shape to be ahead of me. He had the full Brooklyn barista look going, with the sides of his head shaved but long enough hair on top for a man bun, the retro looking sunglasses, and even a handlebar mustache. He definitely wore suspenders and sleeve garters to his job as a mixologist at a speakeasy with an idiotic password like “funicular” and rode his fixed gear bike home to the loft apartment his parents pay for while he “finds his path in life”. I passed him just before we got to mile 2, which was 7:01.
I reassessed things, and still felt as if I’d go as far as I could drag my legs. (Brilliant assessment in a foot race, no? I was going to change this but it’s such a bad line I decided to leave it in as the highlight of this hack job of a race report.) So I kept pushing up the small hill in front of me and prepped for the mostly downhill mile 3. I had my aim set on an older guy whose graceful, effortless, metronomic stride was a far cry from my desperate uneven lashes at the pavement. As I passed him and looked for my next target, I saw the 45 minute pacer about 150 meters ahead. My first thought was I don’t recall ever seeing a pace group for a race this short. My second thought was DAMN IT I didn’t think I was going that slow. The sight of that 45:00 flag launched another wave of profanity, and further sharpened my focus. Properly motivated and riding the slight downhill I was hoping for a fast split in mile 3, so was disappointed to see a 7:06.
I again checked my heart rate and breathing, and again neither was where it should be for a race. What the hell was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I get my legs and lungs aligned? I passed the halfway water station, but the temperature was only in the low 60s and I didn’t think I deserved water anyway, so I skipped it. I remembered listening to a recent interview with Des Linden where she talked about her upcoming training goals. She mentioned that with so many years of nothing but marathon miles and paces, she wanted to get some speed back into her legs and do some shorter faster running. I wondered if I was suffering from the same phenomenon, and if I’d just forgotten how to run fast. I looked up again and saw the 45 minute pacer, still well out of reach. I was at the bottom of the last little hill on the course running behind another hipster, but one who actually looked like a runner. I knew I was running out of miles and was apparently way behind where I should be, so I got mad again. Really mad. I released a new stream of violent cursing and pushed myself to what felt like an all out sprint.
The mini-hipster tried to stay with me, and matched me stride for stride up the hill. I kept the hammer down as the course flattened out, and as the pace started to drop so did my mustachioed companion. Mile 4 passed in 6:58, and I momentarily cracked a smile. Then I became infuriated again when I realized it took me 4 miles to get to what should have been my goal pace, and I kept focusing on just driving myself forward, step after step. A new mantra suddenly popped into my head. They were playing Tom Petty’s Runnin’ Down a Dream at the start line, which on some background channel in my brain behind all this other nonsense somehow got me thinking of the album “Damn the Torpedoes”. That’s not even the right album for the song, and I don’t know how my brain had the ability to subconsciously make that connection and suggest a wholly appropriate mantra in the middle of a race, so I just went with it and every time my legs would protest the pace, my inner monologue would scream back DAMN THE TORPEDOES. I closed in on my next target, and was right on his heels as we entered the high rise canyon of the Buckhead business district. The road here turns slightly to the left, and I maneuvered to pass him on the inside and keep the tangents tight. I ran through another status check and was happy that my cardiovascular system had finally joined the effort, but kept wondering if my legs could hold the pace. And then, the bastard I was passing moved over and cut me off, almost tripping me and even giving me a track-worthy elbow. I suddenly forgot about my legs, and vowed to destroy this sonuvabitch and feast on his withered soul.
I moved right behind him, breathing down his neck and almost clipping his heels as we ran through the gentle turn. The road immediately curves back the other way, and I knew this guy would try to move over to follow the tangents. So as soon as we hit the inflection point in the twisting road, I moved to his shoulder and blocked him. He looked over at me with a clearly annoyed look on his face, to which I responded by throwing my own elbow, and pulled away from him. I didn’t realize that we’d passed the mile 5 marker in 6:54, and didn’t even have time to check my watch for pace because just as I passed the jackass, I got passed. I recognized the passer as one of the employees at our LRS who we’ve become friendly with over the years of biweekly visits. From The Wife’s stalking of race results I knew we were about the same speed, so I tried to hang on to him as long as I could.
As we continued to weave through the canyon of post-modern glass towers, my LRS friend was slightly pulling away, but I noticed we were both finally gaining on the 45 minute pacer. I tried to do one last status check, but gave up when I realized that I didn’t have the mental energy for it. I was drooling on myself, my form was a disaster, and despite the 60 degree temps I was flinging flop sweat like a dog shaking off after a bath. So I swore out loud one more time since that seemed to be working and kept on the gas. We turned off of Peachtree Road and I passed mile 6 in 6:36. Both my LRS friend and the 45 minute pacer finally looked as though they were running out of steam, and the thought of catching them on the last downhill stretch helped me maintain pace. When I caught LRS guy I glanced over and nodded, and he looked at me and said “you got this”. Now, and I don’t know how or why, but when he said that I suddenly thought to myself “yes, I do” and took off. I had no idea where this extra gear came from or how long it would last, but it felt like I had jet fuel pumping through my veins and I rode it down the hill and through the last turn. Don’t run like this at home kids:
I ran the last quarter at a 5:43 pace, passed the 45 minute pacer right before funneling into the finish chute, and crossed the line in 43:29. Which means the 45 minute pacer finished in something like 43:35. Perfect. This also means I really should get better at runner math if I couldn’t figure out they were that far ahead. I mean, it’s not like I took 6 semesters of calculus or anything. (It was only 5)
I caught my breath and realized I had hit my predicted time to the second, and had repeated last year’s race almost exactly. Just faster. I stumbled around on gummy legs waiting for The Wife to finish and thinking about how I had somehow again delivered when I had no business running fast. In my post-race daze, all I could come up with was that I must have some kind of superpowers to keep pulling this off. When I told The Wife what I ran she got mad and started yelling something about perfect training never working for her but I can show up hungover or sick or so tired she has to help me tie my shoes and I somehow PR anyway. I tried to tell her about the superpowers, but she only yelled louder. Which meant that all the people trying to hand us flyers and sell us crap as we walked through the train station were terrified of her and left us alone, which I think might be her superpower.
As a fitness check race, this was a resounding success. I finished right in the middle of the window which predicts a 3:20 marathon, and the remainder of training went extremely well, so I’d say everything is on track and we’re all systems go for Chicago this Sunday. I also thought about how awful I felt on race morning, and how awful I’ve felt for so many of my best races, and started planning for my pre-marathon routine. Deep dish with extra sausage for dinner the night before with a couple pitchers of beer oughta do the trick. Maybe hit the clubs a bit and roll straight from the velvet ropes to the starting line. That seems to be how I activate these superpowers, so I may as well go all in.
Or maybe, ya know, it’s just the training.