On October 3, 2010 after I let a race win slip through my fingertips at the Harvest Fest 5K I wrote: “One of the things I love about racing is how I feel like I learn something each and every time out. What I learned today is that if I am ever fortunate enough to find myself out front again, I will need to tap into that intensity necessary to keep pushing pace and chase after the win. Mental toughness is a big part of distance running, I feel like I came up a bit short in that department at Harvest Fest.”
I have thought about that race a lot over the years, wondering if I would ever have another opportunity to run out front and challenge for an overall win. Locally at small races I usually find myself battling it out somewhere in the top 10 overall, racing for 1st place in my age group or 1st place Masters (over 40) on a good day. But there are usually younger runners who are well out in front of us setting the pace.
On that October day I led the race from the opening horn until the 2.5 mile mark only to have Scott McIntyre – now a runner friend of mine – pass me with 1/2 mile to go and drop me like a bad habit. Scotty was a better runner than me then, and frankly he is a better runner than me now. I’ve had my moments, like at the IBM Uptown Classic in 2011, my 10K PR race where I was able to beat Scott head to head. But those moments are few and far between.
But back in October 2010, I let a runner hang off of my back shoulder and apply pressure to me – mental pressure – that got into my head and caused me to run tense, let self doubt creep in and I faltered. I told myself that if I was ever there again it would be different. I would run smarter, tougher, not give an inch. But deep down I always wondered if I would be able to respond if every placed in that same position.
Leaving the house on Sunday little did I know that I was about to find out.
Pre Race: It would be the first time racing back in Georgetown since 2010. Oddly in the same park along the San Gabriel River that hosted the scene of our defeat at the hands of Scott. A different course, going a different direction, with only about 3/10 of a mile of overlap – but it was not lost on me where we were headed.
Pretty regular 5K pre-race morning. A quick shower to loosen the muscles, teeth brushed and dressed in our race gear I grabbed our breakfast (Bagel) on the go and our cooler with Gatorade and a water to hydrate a bit on the 30 minute ride to the race. I hit the scale before leaving the house and weighed in at 134.5. The weight we like to race the 5K and 10K at spot on. 136.5 for the half marathon, 138 for the full. Always a good sign for us when we are where we need to be in that department.
Warm-Up: After finding the finish area I dropped my dry bag and decided to run a 2-mile warm-up at just a little bit brisker pace than normal. It was in the high 40’s and I wanted to get a sweat going before dropping my sweatshirt, wind pants and gloves to race in just a singlet and shorts with the sun rising over the river in Georgetown. I ran from the finish line of the course one mile out, which also previewed the race course from about 3/10 of a mile into the race up to the 1.3 mile mark.
My stride felt solid, not perfect, but solid and I was enjoying still winds with the sun coming up. I knew a little bit about the course, and was looking to my left for the low water crossing that would place us back up onto the trail we were on currently. Where that intersection was would mark the final turn of the race and it would be game on to the finish.
When I saw the water crossing my heart sank a bit. There was a steep 3-way switch back ramp that we would have to navigate 2.2 miles into the race. It was going to be a pace-killer and a rhythm breaker for sure. It would affect everyone the same, but seemed like it would be about a :10 second “penalty” for the runners.
I spun around, ran back to the finish line and clocked our warm-up 2-miles in 15:37. Nice and steady.
I switched out of my Brooks Launch, took of my wind pants and put on my Brooks T7 Racers. Tucked my sweatshirt into my dry bag, grabbed my sunglasses and made my way up to the start area at 4th and Scenic Drive. I was late arriving to the start area, said a few quick hello’s to my Friend Mick and a couple of runners I know – lastly Bill Schroeder came over to me and asked if I “Knew where the route went” as if I would be leading the way I thought …. for the first moment the thought crossed my mind that I might actually be running in the top 2 or 3 runners.
Just like that we took a moment of silence for those effected by the Boston Marathon tragedy and the Blast out in West, Texas outside of Dallas and then it was, “Runners to your mark – Horn!”
Mile 1: The race started with a pretty significant downhill section that rolled to the left and then back around to the right. I had jogged up the hill on the way to the starting line and looked at the footing, the turns and where there might be loose stones. There would be a few things to navigate – but mostly it was going to be fast. My thought was I would try for an opening 1/2 mile split of 2:46 running at 90% of our usual opening 1/2 mile effort. The downhill would let us save a little bit and fall in smoothly.
As the horn sounded we jumped out early and there was nobody ahead of us. Just a few sets of feet behind us, one pair directly behind us – but the course was wide open ahead. We thundered down the hill, around the turn and past what would be the finish line area in about 17 minutes or so. There was a smattering of cheers and the course flattened out. At the first 1/2 mile mark my watch beeped at me – 2:44. Perfect.
This is the part of the race where I thought the runner behind us might make a move, I decided to lock into our 3:00 min/pace per 1/2 mile and see where it took us. The runner stayed right on my heels and by the sound of things it appeared that it was a two-man race. Nobody had come with us.
At the one mile mark my watch beeped at me with a 3:05. 5:49 for the opening mile. Two to go.
Mile 2: Run even I thought, just run even and don’t look back. As badly as I wanted to see what kind of lead I had, I did not want to give the High School Runner any feeling of confidence. That I was “worried” about him back there. He was in the ideal position. I of course was not. It takes a lot more energy to set the pace and run out front than just hang off of the shoulder of the runner in front of you and then surge past at the end of the race. I knew that of course, but what made matters worse was the fact that I knew that he was well aware of that as well.
He was the hunter, I was the hunted – just like October of 2010. The races were unfolding eerily similar.
3:05, 305 were the splits – 6:10 pace for mile two. Time to make a move.
Mile 3: We ran right through the finish line of the Harvest Fest Race and again I was reminded of how things went for me the last time I was in this position more than 2 years ago. I noticed coming through the water stop that I had opened up a lead of :05 seconds or so. As we made the left turn toward the switch back I surged.
Surging on the turn would give me an advantage as I thought that he would not notice my move as easily as he would on a straightaway. By the time he knew what was going on, I would have the drop on him. I sped up the switchback ramp and could look back at the runner without having to glance over my shoulder. I bounded to the top and surged again.
Our pace over this 1/2 mile dropped to 3:17, but a solid :10 of that was coming from the switchback hill.
For the first time in the race I thought about winning. I tried to push the thought off and just run smooth, but it was hard to do. As we crested the final hill I could no longer hear any footsteps back there and I stole a quick glance. He wasn’t there.
The final 1/2 mile came in at 2:58 pace. Our second fastest 1/2 mile of the race.
As we approached the finish line to a smattering of cheer and “way to go!’s” – we slapped down an imaginary tape as Prefontaine would do at the end of his wins and it was over.
18:28, 1st place overall by :20 seconds.
Post Race: These days are obviously not going to come around very often, maybe never again. But it was comforting and very rewarding to know that given a second chance, we didn’t make the same mistakes twice.
Now we can move on to all the new mistakes we are bound to make in the next one 🙂