September 26, 2011

3 or 4 things I learned while training to run the 5th Ave Mile

I love racing, but I generally have less to say about races than about workouts. Still, the Fifth Avenue Mile is a good excuse to talk about the things I learned while training for it. Because in fact they may have changed me forever.

I wanted to beat 5 minutes, as I did in 2010. I had a good running year in 2010, and a slow, injured 2011. Fifth Ave. was the first race this year where I felt I could get close to last year’s results. I was in it to beat 2010 Daniel, who ran 4:57.

After a good warmup with comrade Chris, we crammed into forward part of the corral and stood there immobilized for 20 minutes. I tried to focus on what would come next, whether to take the first quarter hard or not, what the hill would be like. Then the gun (a gun?) and I busted out of 20 minutes of stillness like I was trying to escape my own body.

A race goes by in a red-yellow smudge, indistinct at start and finish, like certain brushstrokes of later de Kooning. I remember very little, though I can piece it together from photos people took. I took the first quarter fast, and pounded hard up the hill that occupies the second quarter.

But as I crested the hill, my enthusiasm ebbed. Dispiriting thoughts settled in to my pace – easy Tiger, don’t hurt yourself. The photo evidence shows three guys passing me in front of the Frick, just before the halfway point. I let them go and ran alone for the rest of the race. I didn't use my watch, but Chris tells me I was ahead of 2:30 at the half. The guys who passed me there finished about 8 seconds ahead of me.

I sucked wind for the third quarter, but then I suddenly got hungry again. I caught a fabulous cheer from comrade Ani at just the right place, and decided no one would pass me again, not even 2010 Daniel. And this is where the lessons of my training cycle kicked in:

1 – Suffering is normal. Shut up and run.

And an old lesson, briefly forgotten:

Those lessons, which had first come to me as bright epiphanies during my last hard workouts, swelled up from my chest and held me like a life jacket. I was finally in the race, and relaxed into a steady kick.

As the clock came into focus my eyes were glued to it. In the finishing photos I appear to be praying to the sky. I counted down with it as 4:55, 4:56, and 4:57 slipped away forever. Then it passed out of sight, and I surrendered myself to the hope of a two-second net lag at the start.

The mile is a horrible distance, too long for a sprint, too short to get warmed up. But Fifth Avenue is one of my favorite races because you get to cheer the other heats and the pro races are a blast. I got to see some of my favorite runners, including Chris, Ani, Brenn, Robert, Jennifer, and Kip.

My official time, posted hours later, was 4:58. Yes, 2010 Daniel beat me, but not by much. That guy better watch out, because I have three or four things he didn’t.

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