28 February 2015

How Quickly We Forget

In barely an hour, Spring arrives, at least by my reckoning. March First! Day 60 of the challenge! And yet, once again it’s dropping to the single digits tonight, and once again the call is out for another four to six inches of snow tomorrow eve. But it doesn’t matter. The sun is high, the forecast is for warming, and daylight savings time will be here in a week. It’s over. Winter, that is.

But something else is just beginning again: racing. It’s beginning again not because winter is ending (though more significant races have been cancelled or postponed than I’ve ever seen, so this year we did need winter to end for racing to start!) but because it’s been over four months since I toed the line. The last time was at Baystate, a race that went swimmingly till suddenly it didn’t, leading to a significant injury time-out, protective custody to keep me out of favorites like New Year’s Day’s Freezer, and a slow return to reasonable, though certainly not optimal, fitness.

Four months, tough training conditions, no speed work, weight on, weight off, and it’s time to race, which leads to the inevitable question, well, how fast can I go now? How fast should I go now? It’s not so simple as just bolting away with abandon. A decent performance requires decent pacing, and decent pacing requires some knowledge of capabilities. The wrong strategy means leaving too much on the course…or being scraped off the course with a spatula. And while four months isn’t really that long, four months with complications makes that strategy a complete mystery.

It’s really amazing how quickly we forget.

Racing is a funny thing. You forget how to do it in no time. Not as in forgetting how to ride a bike, not as in not knowing what to do with each leg in succession (no, left-left, right-right really doesn’t work), but you forget what you’re capable of and therefore how hard to go after that threshold. The only cure is…racing. My times of peak racing always come not just with consistent training, but with plenty of racing.

The plan was to ease in with my local Highland City Strider club’s annual tradition of re-assembling our masters team for the Hyannis Marathon relay. But alas, like the Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler the week before, which sanely belied its slogan of “No Weenies” by cancelling when they couldn’t find the paths that the race was to traverse, the folks in Hyannis threw in the towel, or should I say they tossed off the Cape, in the face of overwhelmingly bad road conditions.

As far as easing back into racing and starting the process of capability rediscovery, Hyannis had three things going for it. First, it’s a relatively short (seven mile) leg. Second, it’s an easy course; that leg having one small hill that barely registers in my book. Third, and most importantly, being a relay, everyone’s performance matters, but there’s no microscope on anyone’s, and at the end of the day, we do this as a fun club excursion. It’s not all that competitive. It just doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect return-to-racing laboratory.

So why was it that within hours of learning of its cancellation, there I was, answering that email from my Greater Boston buds to join the team at the Amherst 10-Miler? The Grand Prix Amherst 10-Miler. As in, the every ringer in New England will show, guaranteeing you will get your butt kicked Amherst 10-Miler. Why?

Part of the answer is that I didn’t do much for my Greater Boston buds over the last year of injuries and wanted to fly the flag. Part of the answer is that I miss Amherst every year for Hyannis, and, well, I was curious. But the real reason was because I’d forgotten how to race, really needed to start that recollection rehab process, and my vehicle to do so had just dried up. I was signed up before I’d even looked really closely at the course profile which was, courtesy of its creator some forty years ago, GBTC’s own Tom Derderian, brilliantly challenging, brilliantly evil.

So instead of low-pressure fun and easy seven, I was now committed to a highly visible uber-competitive, diabolically hilly ten. Seven to ten may not seem like a big jump, but the other factors made it feel like triple the challenge. And just to add flavor, it was only after I’d picked my target pace and locked my brain around it that I learned that over two miles of this beast was on a dirt road, which, in the Winter from Hell, though pleasantly on the nicest day we’d seen in a long time during the Winter from Hell, meant snow and mud to help your target time slip-slide away.

How quickly we forget. How about something so simple as lining up at the start? Certainly not up front, this is Grand Prix, I’d be killed up there. As it was, I chose too conservatively and lost a bit to traffic on the snow-narrowed roads. Not that it mattered much in the end, but it just reminded me how quickly we forget the details.

And certainly not that it mattered in placing. You don’t go to a Grand Prix race with any expectation of hardware. By the time the course straightened out enough to see ahead any considerable distance, those ahead were gone at far more than a considerable distance. These races will make you feel small. While you might be in the top few in a local race, here there are hordes ahead, and not because there are twenty-five thousand in the race a-la-Boston. On this day, in a six-hundred person race, I wouldn’t crack the top quarter, so you’re not battling for place, it’s just you against you. How tough can you stay, mentally, to stay on pace through ten? And not just any ten, but a brutal ten?

The course is a “lollypop”, the first two-and-a-half being out and back, with a five-mile loop in the middle. The bulk of the out part of the out and back is downhill, planting firmly in your mind that you’ll have a treat of a climb at the end. But it’s the loop where the real action is, starting with climb so tremendous that it added a solid minute and a half to my mile three split compared to miles one and two. So bad that those I was paired with when hitting the three-mile marker groaned and insisted I not tell them the embarrassing number I’d just read off my watch.

After being hit by that blunt force trauma, there was no recovery and thus no settling in till it was over, which was a long, long ways away. Even the long downhill through mile six required mental effort; I’m not a natural downhiller and have to force the stride open. Then, the climb on the back part of the out and back surprised me only in that the part I expected to be the worst wasn’t, though that was no consolation as the part I didn’t expect, was twice that. This was the kind of race where I was quite pleased that the professional photographer, who happened to be sitting on that climb, stopped snapping pictures of passing racers a dozen or so worn faces before mine appeared. Short of visual evidence of the crime, that sort of imagery really didn’t need to be seen.

I already mentioned that I was pummeled in the standings, though I did get minor consolation of rising about forty notches in the age-graded stats. But I’m calling it a win. Even with the unexpected snow & mud, I hit my target pace within a second. I’ve got a data point. I’m starting to remember what I’d forgotten. A few more of these and it’ll seem like old hat again.

And about the time I finish this column…it’s Spring. At last.

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