Monday, April 4, 2011

So this weekend I was faced with a choice. Should I look at a race where I finished below my initial expectations as a failure, or should I look at all the circumstances surrounding the race and realize that I had done fairly well. Sometimes it takes a few days to realize that initial expectations are not realistic and that one can still be proud of hitting a lesser mark, all things considered.

I enjoy running, both for the relaxation it gives me and the sense of accomplishment. Some days I enjoy running because of the satisfaction it gives me to merely complete the distance - I can run seemingly effortless for miles and miles, and just enjoy my surroundings. Other days I enjoy pushing myself and gauging my own performance level. Those are the days that you hate the experience while you are actually running, but at the end of the run you can feel the satisfaction of the hard work.

Sunday at the Brew to Brew was supposed to be one of those days where I could gauge my performance level. For the past two months I had set my mind to running a strong Brew to Brew, with a goal of around 7:30 miles for the 43+ miles. While my training hadn't gone perfectly, I believe coming into the weekend that I had what it took to meet this goal.

As I stepped out of the door of the hotel room on race morning, I knew the day would have much in store. Warm. Humid. Windy. Forecast of 87+ degrees, and 40+ mph winds. No shade. No protection from the headwind (point to point course directly into the wind).

These first few miles in the dark went as expected. I headed out at around a 7:30 pace, hoping to simply get in a grove that would hold me for 30-40 miles. After a few quick miles alone in second place, I was joined by a few other gentlemen. The four of us would chat for the next 7 or 8 miles, keeping each other company during the early morning hours.

Somewhere around mile 10, we would begin to split off. By this point the sun was beginning to warm us up, as was the wind. The next 10 miles were supposed to be some of the flattest and fasted on the course. But sure enough, with the headwind, they were anything but the effortless early miles that I had hoped. The day was shaping up to be less than expected.

By mile 20, the game turned to a battle between the mental and the physical - not a battle to see which would win, but a battle to see which would break first. I had given up hope of sub 5:30, but held on with hope of 6 hours (really my #1 goal and something I knew I could still be very proud of). Physically, despite a long stretch of fairly flat and fast miles, the wind was beginning to take a toll. And then around mile 20, the course hangs a solid right hand turn, straight up hill. Next came a series of steep inclines, and only very limited breaks from the wind (interestingly, even with the limited breaks from the wind, I discovered that the wind equated to somewhere around a 3% grade). By this time even downhills became tough to maintain a strong pace while fighting the wind. I slowed my pace. Something that I wished wouldn't happen until 35+ miles. And mentally that hurt.

I hit the 26.2 mile mark in around 3:25, and regained some confidence. Surely I could run the next 18 in 2:35, right?


Around mile 30 I realized that my early morning application of sunscreen on my ultra-white body had long ago faded. I was beginning to fry. Having suffered through a very cold and cloudy winter, my body was not yet accustomed to any heat, let alone bright sunshine. I was suddenly bright red and salty. Unfortunately I knew it would only get worse before the day was over. These two factors (the sunburn and the salt) were taking a huge toll.

After applying sunscreen and refilling bottles at the 7th aid station, I returned to the course along with two gentlemen that I had spent some of those early miles with. By this time they were still able to maintain a solid 8:30-9:00 minute pace up and down the hills. For some reason, however, I couldn't function at a 9 min/mile pace, and my body insisted on either 8 min/miles or walking. So I began the 12+ mile homestretch with an inability to merely trot it on in. It became frustrating as I would yo-yo to and from those two runners who had now passed me.

Stations 8-9 are some of the hilliest on the course. I battled through with my unfortunate run-walk routine. By mile 38 or so, I had given up hope on a 6 hour finish.

In past years, I had come to realize that while the last 5 miles are entirely flat upon a levee, they offer no shade and no blockage from the inevitable southeast wind. This year would hold true. What should be very easy flat miles were anything but. I struggled to run standing straight upright, and even struggled to muster a run. After 2-3 miles headed nearly south, the course curved to the west, and a row of trees appeared to knock the wind down to something manageable (felt more like 20 mph than the 40+ it felt on the levee). My pace picked up some, but not like I had hoped.

Finally, I rounded the last bend to what I had expected (from past experience) to be the finish, only to learn that now we must cross an additional bridge and run to City Hall. I was heartbroken and merely broken. I refused to run, but eventually trotted in the last 100 yards or so.

I crossed the finish in around 6:21 (will need to verify). 4th place scratch time. But I could only feel disappointment. I had believed that sub 5:30 was possible and likely, and that 6:00 was easily within reach. At this time I chose to look at the day as a failure, not because I didn't place where I wanted to, and not because I didn't hit my time, but because I didn't think I held up well to the miles.

Postscript: Soon after the race ended, Jennifer (my awesome crew person) and I headed back out on the course to crew my friend Hannah in. We waited at the 8th aid staion, and as I saw all the solos and team runners struggling through the heat and wind. I began to regain some satisfaction in my efforts, as I came to realize the conditions were absolutely brutal. Jennifer would join Hannah and pace her in the last 10 miles. I would crew. Seeing them agian at the 9th aid station, and then everyone at the finish line (now having reached 92 degrees), I realized that expectations must be thrown out when winds reach 40+ mph and the temperature 90+ degrees (at least in April).

Having now thought about the weekend in hindsight, 6:20+ wasn't a failure. I stayed with it and finished the race. 8:37 pace isn't bad for 43 miles, regardless of the conditions, and I should be happy with that accomplishment. And I am. But another year will come and I will again try to beat the Brew.

Thank you again to Jennifer for crewing, and congratulations to Hannah for her first ultra in some really tough conditions. Great job also, Joggers and Lagers teams!