I learned something about myself on Friday night as I was trying to fall asleep. The Holland, TX 5K was 10 hours away and I was having a hard time falling asleep. Mind you that the night before the Boston Marathon in April – just a small race you may have heard of – and the Pittsburgh Marathon just 13 days later I slept like a baby. But the Holland, 5K – whoa buddy – I just couldn’t seem to relax and fall asleep.
Ever since I came through the chute at Pittburgh this year I had been thinking about this race.
One year ago I ran Holland for the first time. I was fresh off of my personal best at the marathon distance at Pittsburgh on May 3, 2009. I was in top condition last year at this time, 100% healthy and had just qualified for the Boston Marathon with a time of 3:17:43. I felt strong heading into the Holland, TX 5K and ran a very smart, technical race finishing first in my age group with a time of 19:43.
One year later after a challenging training cycle for Boston and Pittsburgh and more bumps and bruises than I really told anyone about, I really wanted to race this weekend. No excuses about the weather, injuries, being a year older – I was going out to compete against … well … me.
Running two marathons in 13 days this spring for Dom was something that I will always remember and will forever be an accomplishment that I am proud of. We had a lot of people pulling for us and a lot of commitments were made to Dom and his family. I had promised to do the work necessary to complete two major marathons within two weeks to raise money and awareness in honor of Dom’s battle against cancer. It was an incredible journey, one that I will never, ever forget.
The truth of the matter is that because of that commitment I really did not come clean with anyone – even myself – with respect to my health. I didn’t want anyone worrying about me or questioning whether or not we were going to go get those two finisher’s medals for Dom.
The shin splint issue that I had in December as I began my Boston training was never completely remedied. I dropped my run days down from 5 per week to 4 so that I could actually rest on Saturday each week before my Sunday long run. I simply could not run on consecutive days at that intensity and hope to make it through both marathons. If I did not exit Boston relatively “healthy”, I knew I would have a hard time completing Pittsburgh just 13 days later.
Dawn would see me with a bag of frozen peas on my shin after every run along with two ice bags on both outer feet as “favoring” my shin caused me some inflammation and soreness in both feet. It was a battle, but considering what my good friend Dom was going through and continues to go through battling cancer – it truly was nothing. I just kept my head down, pushed through and “went to work” on my training days. I didn’t share how I was feeling because hey, I’m not the only one training for a marathon with bumps and bruises. “Get over it” I would tell myself as I worked to recover before my next training session, all the while knowing that we weren’t “quite right”.
But deep down inside, I knew that I was not completely healthy and I would have to tread lightly while preparing for perhaps the largest international marathon in the world.
There was no PR at Boston (3:22:07) or at Pittsburgh 13 days later (3:42:21) – but I am still very proud of those two efforts and all that they did to help Dom, Val, Sierra and Nico.
In the past few weeks I have started to feel more like myself. No more favoring my shin or icing my feet. I have been getting back to full health and able to push pace without feeling self-conscious about it. Not worried that I might push too hard and have a set-back, winding up injured.
I tell you this now, and frankly admit it to myself, to place the small town TX 5K race in the proper context. For me on Saturday I was racing the 2009 version of me. And for the first time in several months, I finally felt like I had a shot to win.
I took a rest day on Friday, although I did break down and cut the grass. I even prepared my “favorite” pre-training run or pre-race meal of pasta and shrimp tossed in Cajun seasoning and olive oil for dinner the night before. I hydrated throughout the day on Friday. I kept my feet up in the evening and turned in early. If only I could have slept a bit better I thought as I got out of bed at 5:15 a.m.
So as I woke up on Saturday morning and picked up my friend Neil on the way to the race, I had scribbled down my race plan and played it over and over in my head: 6:18, 6:20, 6:24, :36 over the final .10 which would bring me in at 19:38 and top my PR set 365 days ago by :05 seconds. Solid plan, very much within my reach if my legs showed up at the starting line.
We picked up our race packets from the tent about 7:10 a.m. and as I pulled my bib from my bag I saw it.
Now I like a low number as much as anyone, but not this low. It’s not as if the Holland, 5K is a seeded race or anything. But I would have been much more comfortable racing in my #59 from last year, or my #559 from the Congress Avenue Mile. Number 2 says, “I’m taking this seriously today guys, come and get me.”
I glanced at my friend Neil’s #94, shook my head and thought to myself, “you know what? Screw it.”
You wanted to race this morning Joe – so let’s race.
I ran a few strides in my trainers and my legs felt great. I had a lot of spring in my step and ran two quarter-mile “warm-ups” just to get the blood moving in my legs. I ran on my toes a bit to get my calves and hamstrings stretched and went back to the truck to change into my Brooks T6 Racing flats. As I slipped on my racers I felt like it was going to be a good day out there. I just needed to post a fast first mile and put myself in position to post that PR.
The Holland course is a loop course with a hilly second mile. If you don’t run a fast first mile it will be hard to make up time at the end of the race when you are fatigued. I decided to run with music this morning as I had done one year ago and slid close to the starting line as the runners prepared to race.
I clicked on Steve Earl’s “Hardcore Troubadour” and got ready to roll. There were a few High-School runners in the starting area and one College runner from the Pac 10 who won the overall title last year with a time of just under 17 minutes. I knew that they would head out at a pace well under 6:00 minutes/mile – if I could just stay near them through the first mile, I would be well on my way.
Mile 1: At the start of the race I found open road and actually led the group out over the first 2/10 of a mile. I was able to get my leg turnover exactly where I wanted it over the opening distance and fell into my pace. The faster runners, about 8 of them or so closed on me at the 4/10 of a mile mark and I let them go. I felt really strong coming up the opening hill and the first mile was going just as I had planned. It was a hot start to the race, approximately 82 degrees – so managing the heat would be the key for me as the race wore on. As we got to the first mile marker I glanced down at my GPS on the beep and had turned in a 6:04 opening mile.
Mile 2: After a quick first mile, :14 seconds ahead of my race plan I knew that I would have to slow down the pace a bit over mile number 2. As we made the turn heading out into the country I saw the first of two hills to climb in this section of the course. I decided that I would allow the hills to slow my pace and I would simply hold steady with my effort. I passed two runners on the incline and kept the legs churning. As we discussed earlier this week on the blog with respect to hill running, this is a strength of mine – and my hill training proved once again to pay off.
I made the turn at the 1.55 mile point and grabbed a cup of water from one of the race volunteers. I pinched the cup and took just a couple of ounces of water in as I went back to climbing. The turnaround point at the Holland race is at the bottom of a small hill, which requires runners to turn and then climb back uphill in the direction they had just come from. It is the first point where you can see who is “chasing” you – and it looked like I was in good shape for my age division. I did not see anyone on my heels that I would have to worry about at that point.
We crested the hill and approached the 2nd mile post. I glanced down in time to see my 2nd mile split on the screen at 6:23. Just :03 off of my race plan that called for a 6:20 mile number 2. With the :14 seconds that we had “banked” over the first mile, I was in good shape :11 seconds ahead of my goal.
Mile 3: As mile 3 began I passed my friend Neil who was coming at me from the other direction. He gave me a solid round of claps that told me what place I was in overall and I began my search. I was looking for a runner that would push me on pace. I saw a younger runner up ahead who I would later learn was Andy from South Austin.
There was one last hill to climb before the downhill final 4/10 of a mile and I closed in on the runner ahead. I briefly worked ahead of him for a tenth of a mile or so. I was fully aware that when we hit the top of the hill he would come back with a vengeance and take me over on the downhill stretch to the finish.
It wasn’t about trying to race him – I know however that “chasing” helps me push through the closing portion of a race when my body wants to slow down and “cruise” to the finish. I used the same strategy at the 3M half-marathon last January and the Congress Avenue Mile in May. Just having that “rabbit” up ahead really helps me finish strong. I glanced down at my time for mile 3 at the beep on my watch and read a 6:15 split.
Final .10: As planned Andy had pulled away from me and I was left alone to kick to the finish. The temperature was really climbing just in the 20 minutes that we had been racing. Full sun was shining directly in the runners eyes as they pushed to the finish. I was able to hold on to a 5:44 pace through the final .10 miles and finish with a time of 19:28.
A new PR, :15 seconds faster than one year ago at the same race over the same course.
All at the ripe old age of 42 years, 1o months and 19 days.
I found Andy after the race and chatted with him for a while about the race as I waited for Neil to finish. Andy passed on “New Dad” tips, something that I am in desperate need of, as he had his first child – a son – in January. I passed along “first-timer” Boston Marathon tips as Andy will be running his first Boston this coming April. I hope I helped Andy as much as he helped me today.
I ran into Kim who I had met at the race last year who organizes the January Marathon in Waco, TX. A fellow “Marathon Maniac” – she commented on my singlet and we chatted a bit about this winter’s race.
Shortly thereafter Neil came through the chute finishing with a time 9:00 minutes faster than last year! Now talk about a PR – great, great stuff.
We hung around for the raffle – no luck this year – and the awards ceremony, where with a time of 19:28 I took home first place in the Mens 40-44 age group.
I have to admit – that trophy is pretty damn cool. I’m sure you can make a lot of things out of wood, pipe-cleaners and a corn cob – but I don’t think too many of them would be as awesome as the Holland Cornfest Trophy.
I will absolutely be back next year to try to make it three age group victories in a row. But on Saturday there was really only one runner that I had in my sights and that was the 2009 version of myself.
In the end that is what racing really should be all about. I quickly snapped the photo below of the final runner of the day as he came through the finishing chute. Jacob Crosby, Age 5 finishing with a time of 1:01:18.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t about to turn over my trophy to him or anything. Jacob took third place in his age group on Saturday. The participants, the town of Holland, TX and all of the volunteers and spectators came together for a wonderful event.
See you again on the third Saturday in June, 2011.