Sunday, September 18, 2005
Sept. 18, 2005- Philadelphia Distance Run
Scott Gurst- F4 Coach
Despite not really being able to follow the training program as I would have liked, I felt pretty good on Sunday morning Despite having no tangible evidence, I felt capable of running the 13.1 miles in under two hours. Based on previous races at this distance, I presumed that setting my target at 9-minute miles was conservative enough. Woke up on time, had my normal pre-race breakfast, enjoyed the warm-up, and managed to get into my corral just as the gun went off.
The start was a bit crowded, and as such, I wasn’t quite able to run the pace I wanted at the start. Instead of waiting for things to clear out, I did the best I could to weave through traffic. Because I was constantly changing speeds, I didn’t really have a good feel of how fast I was going. (For future reference, we’ll call this Red Flag #1). I looked at my watch for the first time at around 9 minutes, but couldn’t find the 1 mile marker. At about 10 minutes, I started to get worried that I was going too slowly, since I still hadn’t seen the 1 mile marker. At about 11 minutes, it finally occurred to me that I had probably missed it. After about 15 minutes of running, I still had no idea how fast I was going. (We’ll call this one Red Flag #2.) Finally, I saw the 2 mile marker, and hit the split button at 17:02. That’s 8:31 per mile, a full 30 seconds too fast for two whole miles. (Which I should have recognized as Red Flags #3 and #4).
At this point, you’re saying to yourself, Scott was probably smart enough to realized that he needed to back it down right away, still having 11 miles to go. And you would be wrong. I was actually pretty excited, because I still felt good, and was about a full minute ahead of plan. In fact, I was running about my PR pace for a half-marathon, even though I hadn’t really trained enough to even consider running a PR (Hello Red Flag #5). “Man, this could be a good day”, I thought.
But rather than be greedy, I decided stick with my original goal. I figured that I could just back it off to 9 minute miles (piece of cake, right?), and sail home easily with time to spare. Even at 9:10 pace, I had plenty of margin. And so, I ran miles 3-5 in 8:59, 8:56, and 8:55. But something was wrong. Typically, about this time, I’m just starting to get warmed up, and naturally getting faster, without really trying. But this time, I was, well … tired. And as we came out onto the road along the river, into the sun that was just a bit too warm, I began to struggle to keep pace, and my legs began to get heavy.
Mile 6 – 9:11
Still on target, but I had lost some of my time advantage. Of course, I had no data whatsoever to suggest that the pace I had chosen was a good pace for me. I hadn’t done any of the pacing workouts that you’ve done over the course of your training. I was just guessing. And I guessed wrong.
Mile 7 – 9:35
Suddenly, I’m losing bigger chunks of time. Though I’m still slightly ahead of my goal time, I’m heading in the wrong direction. This is the point in the race that I typically start making up time, getting faster and stronger, but now, everyone seems to be passing me, despite the fact that I feel like I’m running as fast as I can. My legs aren’t responding well, and there’s still a long way to go. I bend down to re-tie my shoes, and I almost can’t stand back up again.
Mile 8 – 9:45
For the first time, I’m behind schedule. And though I’m only 25 seconds off my goal pace, the writing is on the wall. I take some Powel Gel in a desperate attempt to get some energy back, to get some kind of boost for the home stretch. But I know it’s too late. I’ve hit the wall hard, and now there’s nothing left but to suffer to the finish, and pay for my carelessness and arrogance.
Mile 9 – 10:36
It’s hard to believe that I’m running so slowly. I walk through the water stations, and desperately want to just keep walking to the finish. My legs and shoulders ache, and the stitch in my rib cage feels like I’m being speared with a hockey stick. The only thing that gets me running again is my wounded pride, trying to summon up the courage to finish and salvage something from the experience.
Mile 10 – 11:23
I’ve never run this slowly in my life. And yet, I’m running as hard as I can. I want this to be over, and I’m still so far away. All around me, runners who ran a lot smarter are passing me, gearing up for their push to the finish. Typically that’s me. I briefly have thoughts about other races I have run. Smarter races. And I envision previous versions of me passing myself, one by one, the me that ran Backroads, the me that ran San Francisco, the me that ran Monterey. And as each one passes, they shake their heads disapprovingly, saying, “You, of all people, should have known better.”
Mile 11 – 11:52
I get passed by another F4 runner. I manage a smile, and some encouraging words, but I am embarrassed at my performance.
Mile 12 – 12:10
I’m now running slower than 12 minute miles. I didn’t think it was even possible. An ambulance goes by. Mocking myself, I change my race goal to “Don’t wind up in the ambulance.”
Mile 13 – 12:26
As we climb the hill to the finish, my legs begin to cramp. The spectators are whooping it up, and many of the other runners are riding that wave of enthusiasm to the finish. I feel worse than I can ever remember during a race.
Finish – 2:12:05
I run the last .1 in 1:11, which projects to about 11:40 pace. Small consolation that I managed to “speed up” over the last tenth of a mile. Typically when I cross the finish, I feel pride in my accomplishment. This year, I felt nothing, except relief that it was over. They handed me a medal, which I briefly thought of not taking. But it looked kind of nice, so I took one, and held it in my hand for a few seconds.
And then, I put it around my neck.
Because you know what? Even though it didn’t turn out anything like I wanted it to, I guess I earned it, along with some more hard-earned wisdom, the kind you can only get from suffering through the consequences of your own stupid mistakes.
OK … so why the horror story, especially as many of you get ready to take on your half-marathon this weekend? Because I want you to know that training well, and running a smart race both make a difference. I didn’t do either one. It’s not that I went out too fast, it’s that I didn’t even know what “too fast” was for me on Sunday. And just because it says coach on my jacket doesn’t give me special dispensation to bend the rules of physics. Running 13.1 miles is not a trivial task to be taken lightly, and regardless of fitness, LT, maximum heart rate, etc., if you don’t run a smart race, none of that really matters. Regardless of the size of the engine, all cars go the same speed when they’re out of gas.
You, on the other hand, have probably trained a lot better than I have. The reason we have asked you to do so many pacing workouts, and running at tempo pace is because you need to have a good feel for what you are capable of, to help you avoid all the red flags. Hopefully, you’ve done most of what we’ve asked, and you’re smart about your pacing. You’ve run a lot of miles, at a lot of different paces, and you probably have a pretty good idea of what pace you are capable of running at, and for how long. Now, all that’s left is to run an intelligent race, to go out conservatively, and trust your training to kick in at the time when those who are less trained and less smart are starting to fade. Hear this and know it to be true … By virtue of your training, you are more prepared, both mentally and physically than 99% of the other people running this race. (And that 99% includes me this time.)
I don’t regret what happened on Sunday. I had a few truly spectacular runs during training that I would not have had if I hadn’t been part of the program. And I enjoyed being able to run on a great morning in a beautiful city. For that, and for the opportunity to train with each of you, and add to my depth of wisdom and experience, I’m truly grateful.
This past weekend was a great learning experience for me. Hopefully, you can learn from it, too.