Friday, October 18, 2019

Race Report: 2019 US Ten Mile Championships

Analyzing Philly led me to two broad conclusions: the weather sucked (thanks, Captain Obvious) and I got too anxious about it, trying too early to fight, flail, and force my way to a pace that should have come easier. Twin Cities Ten Mile would be different. First, the weather was down-right perfect, relieving some of the latter issue since worries about weather went out the window (into the fresh, crisp fall air). Also, I’d spent some time talking to a sports psychologist and working on ways to not get so tense and anxious so early in the race. As a bonus, I focused on being grateful to be there. Twin Cities Ten Mile was also the 2019 US Ten Mile Championship and I was allowed in the field despite not making the listed qualifying time. Without the standard, I got an entry but no support, so I paid my own way and ended up with two days in a hotel room all to myself. As a mom of a two-year-old, there may be nothing better than a solo, silent, weekend getaway (my first as a mom). Race schmace, I was going to enjoy that part.

Busy focusing on myself and my own head, I didn’t really think about the rest of the championship field. But when I arrived in St. Paul and the hype started building and friends starting relaying pace goals, the reality of racing the field (not the clock) set in. At brunch, a Oiselle teammate who raced a few years ago said she found herself way off the back after going through 2 miles in 11:20. That was much faster than I planned to run (I hoped to start no faster than 5:55 for the first 2-4 miles—or 11:50 at mile 2—and then try to cut it down). How quickly am I going to get left behind?? Still, I remembered that last year some people had run over 60 and I planned to be about two minutes under that. When I ran in the elite women’s fields at Cherry Blossom Ten Mile and Boston I had women to run with. Everyone I talked to was going out faster than me, but surely I’d find some ladies to work with.

Man oh man, was I wrong. I got dropped in the first 200 meters and literally laughed out loud. Seriously?!? It didn’t surprise me that the leaders went out hard, but I couldn’t believe that everyone else did too. They all have way more confidence than I do. I forced myself to slow down, to let them go. Surely some of them will come back. When I saw the mile 1 clock come into view, I tried to slow even more. Wayyy too fast. Coach is not going to like this. (Coach has yet to reprimanded me for a fast start, but for some reason I was very concerned about it at that moment.) Even with my attempt to slow, I hit the mile in 5:42. (It is downhill.) I could just barely see two ponytails ahead of me, and only two. Everyone else was long gone.

In the dark, as I ran alone along the river, a fox darted across the empty road in front of me. Go right ahead, Mr. Fox. I’m the only other one out here.

Lonely and far from having the start I wanted, it was time to practice my relaxation techniques. My plan was to do a quick body scan after every mile marker, focusing on relaxing my shoulders and arms. If I was in my head too much, I’d pick something external to focus on (a tree, a sign, any landmark). I didn’t want to tense up too much from the splits I was getting (fast or slow). In the second mile, I knew I needed to relax the pace, but didn’t feel like I totally slowed. My watch pace was hovering around 6:05-6:10, a bit slow, but good enough to even out that fast first mile.

Man oh man, wrong again. I hit the second mile in 6:32. WTH?!? Was that mile long and the first short!? I told myself it must be and tried to reign in any thoughts of a disaster unfolding. But I also realized that even if the markers were wrong, I was still way over pace at two miles. (After the race I noticed my Garmin, which is often off by a hundredth or two, called that mile 1.08. Still, I trust the official markers far more than wrist-based GPS.) I tried not to let that get in my head--Just get back on pace for the next mile--but the reality of that mile would haunt me.

Despite some uphill in mile 3, the next two miles were right on my planned pace of 5:55. But as I told myself I was doing it—Relax, I’m back on pace—that stupid 6:30 would pop back up. Actually, you’re still way slow. Also, you’re in last place. I tried not to let these thoughts bother me and kept reminding myself to relax, to focus on the mile I was in, but I think the tenor of my thoughts drifted downhill. If you had asked me right after the race, I would have told you mile 4 was too slow, but it was actually perfect. I started worrying the men were coming. (The race had an equalizer: the men started about six minutes behind the women and the first person—male or female—to cross the line got a bonus.) Of course, they’re coming, they’re going to pass you eventually. I could hear cheers, which assumed was them coming over the mile 3 bridge, way before I expected to. Why did this bother me? I have no idea, but I was clearly starting to stress. Try to get to mile 5 before the men catch you. Otherwise, it’s just embarrassing.

I didn’t. The embarrassment was just beginning. Mile 5 was 6:08 and I think I started accepting it wasn’t my day. How defeatist was I? How much did I give up? I don’t remember, I think I tried to stay in the mile, to remember my relaxation techniques, but I couldn’t get my legs to go. My stomach wasn’t right, I wanted to stop and use the bathroom. Who cares, I’m running crappy anyway. I’m running slow and in Dead F’ing Last, it doesn’t matter. This is an embarrassment. Again, I wondered why I was doing this. I guess I didn’t deserve to be in this field. 

Mile 6 was slower still (6:13) and I started thinking I was once again running my VA Beach/Philly pace. (I wasn’t; I was still averaging faster, but that’s where my mind jumped to, which was decidedly defeatist.) I wanted to drop. If I’m in such dire straits I have to stop completely, then surely that would excuse away why I ran so terribly up to that point. But all I really wanted was a porta potty and even that wasn’t dire yet. Despite nearly always wanting to, I’d never dropped out of a race and didn’t want to start a trend. DFL is better than DNF. At least I’ll get a workout out of it. Once again, did just deciding not to quit mean I gave up a bit? Could I have pressed harder?

At mile 7, whether because the course starts going slightly downhill after three miles of slight uphill or because I realized I was only three miles from the finish or because I could once again see a ponytail ahead (amongst the guys continuing to stream past), I seemed to find a slightly new gear. This is the marathoner in me, it just takes this long to get me rolling. Somehow I missed mile markers 7 and 8, but I had the sense that, although I was still far from the pace I wanted, I wasn’t continuing to slow like I had at Philly. (I was actually right about this one: I averaged 6:06 for miles 7-9). Just get to the finish line… and then keep running for the restroom.

With a mile to go I dug a little more and tried to push. Even though I had nothing really left to fight for I tried to give it what I had and finished in 1:00:29. The only (albeit minuscule) victory of the day: unlike Philly, the last (downhill) mile (5:41) was my fastest, even faster than the blazing start. A reminder that there’s always more left than I think.

Classic stop-the-watch pose. Even when the watch shows
a disappointing time, God forbid it shows two extra seconds.

But to recap, I started at the back of the pack and passed no one. A steady stream of guys—and a fox—passed me. I finished minutes off my goal time. It was… demoralizing.

The stomach issues immediately eased off and after some all-too-familiar tears with a teammate in the tent, I spent the rest of the day trying to enjoy the last moments of my “vacation”: getting a free massage in the VIP tent, going to a bakery, reading on the plane. I thought at any moment the dissonance between how I wanted this race to go and how it actually went would come crashing down, but, back at home, it was back to the business of real life. It wasn’t until I sat down the write this, a few days later, that the reality of this race hit me. I have no idea why it went so poorly. The weather was absolutely perfect, the weekend stress-free. Maybe running alone for so much (i.e. the entire race) let the race mentality ease off a bit; I train alone and think I can race alone, but of course I run best when I have people to work with, even if only for a few miles. Maybe my training’s not where I thought it was and my PR hopes were a little delusional. Maybe my ferritin is still low. (Editor’s note: I did get the latter checked. In August, it was even lower than last May, but is now getting back to May levels. Which, to be fair, were still less than ideal.) Maybe it was just a bad day, which we all have, but that doesn’t make that explanation any more satisfying. It felt a lot different than Philly; it wasn’t so aggravatingly tough, I just couldn’t go. (Maybe I was too relaxed??)  That makes it even more frustrating.

Although I know no one cares as much about my running as me, and probably no one even realized I got last place until I wrote this treatise about it, I’m embarrassed by my performance (and this entire year). Maybe I didn’t deserve to be in that field. But I do not, in my heart, believe that to be true. Yea I got last, but someone had to. My ten-mile PR remains decidedly sub-par (I’ve run faster for the first ten miles of a half marathon), but I think I deserved to be there based on my marathon time. Why I can’t get my other PRs in line with that one is the crux of this chapter of my running story.

One more race to go. How will this chapter end?

Dream big,