Shortly after Boston, I wrote here about my next goal which was to place (1st, 2nd or 3rd) in my age group in a New York Road Runner’s race. I did some research and found that the only one that may work was today’s four mile Celebrate Israel run. Yes, today was the day.
I hadn’t really done any serious training for it, not the way I would have liked. Sure, a couple of speed workouts but nothing on par with the pace I’d have to run in order to stand on the podium. After Ragnar, I knew that I’d have to rely on the training I already had, on the fact that I am in the best shape of my life. I’d have to run hard and run fast, sure, but I figured if I kept my head I could do it.
The weather out was mild, partly sunny and a little breezy, starting line temperature around 60 degrees. Perfect weather for a race like this. I put myself right at the front, didn’t even turn around to look at the crowd behind me. I was focused on the road ahead and this being such a short race I couldn’t afford to spend any time in the first mile weaving through and dodging other runners. Being so close to the front, I was unprepared for how quickly the start happened. After the national anthems were sung the corrals came down and next thing I knew I was standing on the starting line. I recognized a few faces before me, runners who regularly win these races. I felt both proud and unprepared to be standing this close to them. I had only just reset my watch when the starting horn sounded and I was off almost immediately.
The downhill first half-mile felt fast to me. By the time we started moving up Cat Hill I started breathing heavily. It’s too early, I thought, but I knew I couldn’t slow down. This was the race for me, a huffing, kicking race the whole way. This would not be a race defined by how well I kept my cool for the first two miles; this race would be defined by how fast I could run, pure and simple.
By the time I got to the top of Cat Hill, my breathing had gotten a bit more regular and I felt a rhythm coming. That’s what I look for in a race, to get into a rhythm. On a long race, 15K or a marathon, I have the luxury of time to find my rhythm, to feel the road and my feet on it and my arms swinging in just the right motion and my breathing is heavy but not labored and I’m moving in perfect sync with myself. This race didn’t afford me that kind of time. Starting to feel that at the 3/4 mile mark was exactly what I wanted. Then disaster seemed to strike. My right shoe began to feel a little loose; I looked down to see that shoe had come untied. The thought struck me that this could be my undoing and I laughed at my inadvertent little pun. Then I wondered if I had time to tie the shoe. I shook the thought away. I barely had time to breathe, here, much less stop to tie my shoe. It would have to keep going and I would just have to make sure I didn’t trip over the loose laces. I passed the first water station and felt a thirst I worried would stop me. No one in front of me took water, but I did. All I got was a swallow–I’ve never practiced taking water at that pace–but it was enough.
Before me I could still see the red truck that leads all NYRR races. I heard the driver ask others to clear the road. I could see the lead pack in front of me, moving steadily away. Between me and them was a single runner with an H on his back: New York Harriers. He didn’t seem to be moving very fast but I couldn’t seem to catch him, either. I’d never run in sight of the lead vehicle before, not in any race. I didn’t know how far behind me was the next runner. Having never run this close to the front before, I was a little unprepared for how quiet and lonely it is. No other runners around meant no heavy breathing to listen to, no other feet pounding against the pavement, and most importantly no throngs of fans and supporters cheering us on. It was me with 12 to 15 seconds between me and any other racer. All I could do was run.
The second water table at the 102nd transverse was still well stocked with water. I’d find out why later as it had everything to do with how far in front I was. I grabbed a cup and got even less in my mouth this time than the first water table. My shoelace had miraculously wrapped itself around the D-Tag that was timing my run so I no longer feared tripping. As I passed the 2 mile mark, I clicked my watch: 5:33, basically the same pace as my first mile. (My timing is a bit off, actually, because I hit the split a little late.) The clock as I passed it read 11:04. That’s 2 miles in eleven minutes, faster than I’d ever run two miles in my life. I let the thought slip away quickly before it took hold of me and kept running. The next mile would be the decider. The third mile of this course is where the rolling hills lie, and it is there that I knew I would run my slowest mile. I tried to hold on to the pace, but I was starting to feel it when I made the turn onto West Drive. Volunteers cheered but I had no energy to raise a fist and acknowledge the applause. All I could do was keep running.
I started feeling the hills at about 2.25. I pushed as hard as I could on the uphills and tried to push harder on the downhills, but when I cross the the three mile mark I had done a 5:46, much slower than I’d hoped. My overall time was 16:51, which was also slower than what I’d planned. I had figured before the race that I should cross the 5K mark at about 16:45; I was at least 10 seconds off that. Again, I brushed the thought aside. Nothing to do but run. That’s what I did. I tucked my head down and ran. I only had a mile to go; all I had to do was run this last mile and then I could stop. The last water station, just past the third mile mark, is also the last bad uphill. When I crested the hill, at the south end of the Reservoir, I felt my legs wanting to coast. I felt myself slowing, ever so slightly but slowing nonetheless. As soon as I realized what I was doing I began to kick harder. I pumped my arms and pushed my legs and just ran as hard as I could. Up ahead I saw the Harrier and I thought I might be able to catch him, but when we made our incline towards 72nd Street he was no where to be seen. Had he turned on the after burners? No, there he was, hidden behind a couple of recreational runners who shouldn’t be on the roadway. He turned the corner at 72nd and I lost sight of him.
When I made the sharp left turn onto 72nd, it was the first chance I had to see how close the runners behind me were. I glanced over my left shoulder and saw no one, not one runner, coming up behind me. I was well in the lead. That was my first inclination that I had a shot at my goal. I saw M and m cheering me at the sidelines and I threw my hat towards them so as not to ruin the finish line picture, and then I turned on all I had and sprinted the last 100 yards. I crossed the finish line with my head high and my arms raised. I didn’t even look at the clock as I crossed. I stopped my watch a couple of seconds later at 22:28. I knew my official time would be faster than that. I was thrilled and ecstatic. There was still a chance that another runner somewhere behind me would beat me on net time, but I didn’t care. I’d run the best race I could. As I crossed the finish line, the announcer even called my name! That’s what comes from behind all alone when you finish.
Twenty minutes later I walked to the results booth and looked at the sheet posted on the wall. I felt like a high school kid going to find out if I got the lead in the school play. I was nervous and excited. Then I saw this:
And there I was, in first place. The oldest of the age group to place in the top ten. I turned to the awards table and told the old man manning it my name. “Fourteen seconds,” he said. What? “Fourteen seconds, that how much you won by.” He looked up at me and smiled and then shook my hand. “Congratulations,” he said. “Thank you very much,” I said and walked away with my prize:
It’s the clear, Lucite object on the left, not the beer on the right. That’s the victory beverage.
For those of you interested in what it looks like to fly, see it after the jump.
(Photo credit: Ben Ko–Thanks!)