February 20, 2012

No direction home: Cherry Tree 10-Mile

Running, as fun as it is, can feel like an exam. Every workout is like a quiz, and each race a test, to show whether you're ready for. . . well, more quizzes I guess.

In my buildup for the Boston Marathon any workout could prove that my fitness is going well or completely in the wrong direction. Each race could prove all the work I've put in has been a monumental waste of time. So is it any wonder I've developed test-anxiety before races?

The Cherry Tree 10-Mile, put on by the Prospect Park Track Club, is one of my favorite races every year. It's well-organized, friendly, and on my home turf. They always have good bagels.

This year however I was filled with an insidious dread: this was to be the first long race of my marathon training cycle. The first one over 10k in about a year, in fact. I still have plantar issues. My knees are still mushy from my spill a few weeks ago. This race was going to feel very pass/fail.

My house was home base for my running comrades, who were coming from Queens and Jersey to run the relay version of this event. We all kitted up in our team's orange, joked through our pre-race nerves, and jogged over to the start. I lined up optimistically at the front and hoped I was ready.

I took off moderately fast at the horn. It was a slight downhill and I found myself doing 5:30's. This was strategically about right but it didn't feel good. By the middle of mile 2 my knees felt dry and squeaky like styrofoam. The whole thing was becoming a chore.

Damn. It was a beautiful day; I was well trained; there were awesome bagels at the finish. But something was missing. At the top of the steep hill in mile 2 something jostled in my shorts pocket. Crap, I forgot to take my gel.

Now, no one needs a gel for a 10-mile race. Your glucose reserves won't be tapped. But I had deliberately drunk only 1 cup of tea that morning, and my whole dose of caffeine was supposed to be in that stupid gel. And now I was going to have to suck it down mid-race, on the downhill, at 5:30 pace. Good news was, it might have a Popeye effect.

And sure enough, by the second time I hit the steep hill I didn't feel so middle-aged anymore. My legs felt brave and capable, and I could fend off the challenge that the guy behind me was mounting. Popeye was ready to get him some Olive Oyl.

I tried to pace like teammate David, who was maintaining a sensible approach to the hills about 10 seconds up ahead of me. Just in front of him was the guy who sold me my first running shoes. I liked them both. And I wanted to beat them.

Now that I had some depth to my stamina I reached down as far as I could into the reserves. I had good endurance from my earlier high-mileage weeks, but no real ferocity. Thing is, by mile 9 I was having a great time. The morning was too lovely. I lagged behind teammate David and the shoe guy and just worked on weaving a friendly path through the muzz of runners we had lapped.

I caught sight of my wife and daughter, who were running to get to the finish. They gave me a cheer that shook me like rocket fuel. I relaxed for a moderate surge, but still couldn't find the fierce push it would have taken to catch up to David and the shoe guy. I watched them empty out into the finishers' chute even as I was gaining on them.

But that last mile had felt strong, as if I had something more to give. As if I might even have done this pace for a few more miles. Like I was going the right direction.

After getting a congratulatory kiss from the wife and daughter, I joined the comrades for a cool-down lap around the park before we headed to the high-school for hot chocolate, apples, and bagels (a meal only a runner would dream up). The relay team had done well and everyone ran better than they thought they would. Everyone passed the test. We formed a happy orange flying wing.

I hit a PR by nearly four minutes, and I recall the whole day as cheery and bright. I might fail the next test, but this one proves that for one fine and shining moment I showed some improvement.


  1. "And they're certainly not showing
    Any signs that they are slowing!"

    I just love that movie. Wonderful post Daniel, and stupendous performance Sunday. You made it look like a romp through a chocolate factory.

  2. Thanks for the cheering, live and virtual - my golden ticket!