02 October 2015

Counting On Some Race Magic

You’re never ready for the next race. Once you accept that, the rest isn’t exactly easy, but it’s a little more palatable. With just over a week left before my fall marathon, I’m nowhere near where I imagined I might be when I hitched on for this one last spring. But Dearest Spouse put it in proper perspective, noting that I could fret about how well I’ll run and what place I might snag, or I could just go run a marathon and enjoy it (at least to the extent that one can enjoy the late miles in any marathon). Making that mental shift is harder for me than it should be, but some effort in that department, and maybe a little reliance on some race magic, should get me through.

It’s been a rough couple of months in Lake Wobegon, and though I don’t live there, it’s been rough here, too. The best laid plans of catapulting off a solid Boston, training hard over the summer with a plethora of quality tempo, bursting into a fall race brimming with energy, and therefore signing up for one of the fastest courses in the east, well… Those plans pretty much just laid down and died. As of a couple weeks ago, I was considering bagging the whole thing. After all, why dump good money into travel costs for dubious results?

But somehow this thing called running always manages to surprise. A not-entirely-terrible local five-kilometer a couple weekends back suggested that perhaps, just maybe, I wasn’t dead yet. Emboldened, I of course did something rather silly and pounded out twenty-three the day after the race. It wasn’t great, but then again, it wasn’t bad, either. Then quite by accident I found myself cracking an old record and topping ninety miles for a week – still shy of that single hundred-miler from my youth, but otherwise the most I’d ever piled on in seven days. Wait, I hear you say, whaddaya’ mean, “By accident?” You didn’t notice ninety miles? Well, no, I was just running a lot trying to regain what I’d lost over that rough stretch. Heck, no wonder my legs were tired.

A family road trip to my native Upstate New York lowered the output for a couple days, with a flat and rather healing outing along the big lake in Syracuse and an intensely non-flat – but highly leisurely – outing with Dearest Daughter the Younger in Corning, a run which sported a notable DTM Ratio of 3.6 (Deer To Miles). And all of that was the setup for a swing back through Albany for more clan visitation, and key to our tale, The Test.

Back in June I’d run the first half of the Mohawk Hudson course, logging a solid pace through the initial twelve and three-quarter miles. I didn’t expect any surprises on the back half, but I know that seeing the course – even a generally flat course largely on a bike trail – adds that element of familiarity that gives you a bit of mental control, especially in the high miles. When the body is turning to rubber, you want to know exactly what ground you’ve got left to cover. So it was that after a light free breakfast at our finishing-line hotel, Dearest Spouse deposited me for a chilly forty-six degree launch at mile twelve-seven-five, then headed back to the far end for her and DDY’s run, artistically timed to correspond with my hopefully triumphant appearance on the Albany riverfront.

Sounds like a grand plan, right? The cool thing is, it worked. With about a mile to go, I swept past them on their outbound leg, indeed feeling triumphant, conveniently timed for a spin-around cool-down to meet them back on the course. NASA couldn’t have coordinated it better. We even made it back to the hotel in time for a second free breakfast before they shut things down (which, by the way, set us up nicely for a third breakfast, this one not free but hearty, with Dearest Offspring the Elder, a couple hours later…ah, one of the joys of running is an unlimited license to eat). And that arrival was triumphant because I’d passed The Test. I’d convinced myself that there was indeed a marathon lurking in me, and that it would in fact be worthwhile to toe the line in two weeks.

Right out of the gate, my crusty, creaky, achy-breaky body of recent weeks came alive. Perhaps it was the chilly start, necessitating some rapid internal combustion. Perhaps it was the light duty of the day before, hinting that if I can manage to back off on a decent taper, perhaps my overtrained legs have more in them than they’ve let on recently. Or perhaps it was just that race magic, the combination of adrenaline and the simple knowledge that now is the time to turn the knobs up. Whatever it was, the knobs turned, the engine fired, and by the time I plunged off the trail at milepost seventeen and a half – a quick drop just as nasty as I’d feared from my memories of the area – I was hitting sevens cruising south through Cohoes and Watervliet. Convenient timing brought me through a gang assembling for their Sunday morning group run – just seven minutes later and I’d have had company, but would likely have blown my pace – and about an hour later blew me across the finish line of a local race just being set up. Call that an easy win.

The familiarization aspect worked. Mental notes of rail trail tunnels, entrances, landmarks like the old street-car station. That nasty drop. Visuals and feels for the distances of the highway crossings. Answering the mystery of how to get back on the trail for the last six-plus, having driven the highway above hundreds, if not thousands of times, and having never seen the tiny underpass we’d follow – who knew? Solving the odd branch in the trail shown on Google Maps yet never referred to in the course notes. (Answer: it’s not there, your bad, Google.) And perhaps most critically, laying out the last mile in my head for that inevitable painful final push.

By the end, I’d clocked an average pace a good quarter-minute per mile slower than I’d clocked on the first half in June, and quite a bit off what I’d need for a truly competitive race. But I’d also clocked the most solidly paced training run since, literally, June. Indeed, I’m not dead yet.

I won’t tell you it’s been all peaches and cream since that day, but it’s been considerably more decent than it’s been in quite a while. The question has been answered. I am indeed in for Mohawk-Hudson. One more local race this weekend for a tune-up, a taper, then I’ll just hope for a little of that race magic to sew both halves of the course together – and to help me hold it together!

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