02 January 2012

Bang Bang!

Two common phrases contradict. Go out with a bang. Start off with a bang. So, which is it going to be? Why decide? Bang Bang! Do ‘em both. I can’t recall the last time, if ever, I’ve raced on successive days. Certainly I’ve never done it in this weekend’s style: race the last day of 2011, then again the first day of 2012. The result? Last year, out with a bang. This year, in with a bang.

Two very different bangs, though, both superficially and on a deeper level. Superficially, a mile on the track versus five on the road – something new, something old. Deeper, flat out flooring it versus a mental game of persistence – something raw, something cranial. Still, bang bang.

Saturday (make that 2011) saw my return to competitive racing on the track for the first time in about thirty years. Or as Greater Boston teammate Joe put it, “The last time you raced a mile, most of the people in this building weren’t born yet!” And there were a lot of people in the building, the event being the “Mini-Meet”, which was anything but mini, at Boston University’s delectable 200m indoor banked oval. Mini? How about fourteen heats of the mile with about a dozen in each? How about my forecast of 5:15 placing me clear down in heat ten? (And yes, it’s fastest to slowest.) This was not mini by any means.

Oddly, my intent wasn’t to run this race at all, but to join my GBTC brethren in Lou’s Relay, an annual four-by-sixteen-hundred-meter relay extravaganza. Except our Teammate Number Four came down with an unidentified ailment and bailed. Though we could have scored a new fourth, the mini-meet was so over-maxed that had we waited for said Headline Event, the new year would be encroaching across Europe and several of our spouses would have been encroaching on our lives for our absences from home-side holiday festivities. So we jumped into the open mile.

Truthfully, this was a relief. While our relay team wasn’t intended to be highly competitive, I would have been in the slower half of the team, and more importantly it was my intent to test out the Hot New Shoes (see previous post). Racing in shoes never worn, yes, I know, bad idea, but opportunities are few, just go for it. Still, had they inflicted unbearable pain and agony, I’d rather they merely crippled my own mile than dock the team’s relay performance. So a flat-out mile was just ducky with me.

And flat out it was. Not only had I not raced on the track in thirty years, I hadn’t run on a track so small since then, either. Two-hundred-meter laps fly by so fast that with the pedal to the floor I couldn’t even think to look at my watch for splits. Bang times eight. But I didn’t need my watch to know that I don’t have the rhythm of a mile down yet. It was pretty obvious that I faded around lap six, slipping from second to my eventual seventh place 5:13 finish in the heat of fourteen, after a tenuous moment nearly going down on the last turn after being pressed against the rail by a passing competitor. The laps are small, they fool you into thinking they’ll pass in an instant, and they do, but those instants get harder and harder.

Flat out. Too fast to think. Give me some time on this one, I’ll figure it out. But, um, wow, bang.

Oh, by the way, the shoes? Like driving a turbocharged GTO. In slippers. Delightful.

Sunday (make that 2012) was a whole different, far more familiar game. A rushed return to an old favorite, the Freezer Five, a relatively flat and known accurate five-miler which, prior to this fall’s New England Cross Country Championships, was the site of my personal best at that distance. Rushed in that our church band doesn’t usually play the first Sunday of the month, but we were on, and no, of course we didn’t get the “fast” priest. Finish the last song, drop the guitar, and drive rapidly. Perhaps the adrenalin of just getting there was a boost to the system?

In the back of my mind was the nagging question of whether this was a good idea at all. Race successive days? Risk injury? Or simply die an agonizing death on the course?

Warned by a friend of a fairly stiff headwind on the outbound leg, I figured my fortunes would be boosted by latching on to a nice moving windscreen for the first two miles. And this is where this race got cranial and deep right away.

A little background here. My race performances have been doing what I call “compressing” over time, meaning my pace in the longer races is coming down closer to that of the shorter races, but the shorter races haven’t been getting much faster, they being compressed against my top speed in track workouts. I’ve seen this as sort of a speed limit, and have started work to break through it, hitting the track for a few sessions of mile repeats lately, the theory being that if I can raise the speed limit, I may be able reach a comfort zone that then allows a higher limit for the five kilometer sprint, and open up some space for compression at the longer distances to continue. In this respect, the previous day’s flat-out mile may have been a benefit.

Off the line it was apparent that others were also looking for nice moving windscreens, which made it hard to get one for myself. I’d already fought three-quarters of a mile of wind before a true drafting opportunity arose, but the pair ahead of me were holding a pace just a hair hotter than I felt capable of, and kept creeping away.

Mental game time: If I let them go, my effort goes up and my performance goes down. If I stay with them, I have to consciously turn on mini-sprints to continually close the gap, mini-sprints when I’m already at a pace I’m not certain I can sustain for five miles. But in my mind I now knew that my track speed limit had just risen, blasting away that longtime 5:30ish limit with yesterday’s 5:13. So tell myself that these mini-sprints aren’t out of the question.

It’s debatable whether I actually gained any wind advantage out of this, but it kept me glued to these guys, both of whom I eventually beat. After the lollypop turnaround, the expected return-leg tailwind reversed itself – of course, what else would you expect? – mom nature offering only more resistance. But by then, despite the lack of mile markers, I knew I had a shot at sub-thirty, a goal secretly unstated and a plateau never achieved. Place didn’t really matter at that point for anything more than pride. It was merely a game of mental will to drive up the last small hill and press home. You know when you’re pressing the limit when you need to think about whether to swallow (or otherwise eliminate) accumulating gunk and risk losing the oxygen benefit of a single breath or just let it fly where it may, but that’s pretty much where I was.

Payoff. First five-miler below thirty, and twenty-one seconds below, for five-fifty-six pace. And I’d wondered whether it was a good idea to race. Bang.

It’s Twenty-Twelve. Have a bang bang year.

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