Friday, November 29, 2013

Santa Scrambled, Galloped, and Gorged: Deconstructing the Myth of the "PR"

November is my favorite month of racing.  The woods erupt in fiery autumn colors.  The morning air is cool and dry.  Every weekend features a variety of races of various distances to choose from - fast road races and Turkey Trots, contests over rugged trails, many of the best half or full marathons of the year are in this period between Halloween and Thanksgiving.  

Last year, I missed November after injuring myself during my Boston qualifying attempt.  This year, I was committed to a racing cycle from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, with the idea of peaking in this month.  It reminded me of a time that passed long ago, and so over the past week, I found myself getting rather sentimental (word of warning for what is to follow...)

Setting:  Fall 1998.  Bible and stock car racing country, North Carolina.

Standing at 6 feet, I was an emaciated 140 pounds -- an efficient racing machine.  It was two weeks after the cross-country State Championships, but I kept my peak training going into the post-season.  I signed up for a local 5K - an obscenely fast point-to-point, net downhill course.  My goal was to crush a personal best, one last shot at a quick time before heading into the void of the indoor track season.  I made the short road trip down I-85 from my hometown of Salisbury to Concord.  Radiohead's The Bends was a permanent fixture in the compact disc player of my Volvo, but I was probably listening to a cassette tape of Smashing Pumpkins and Goo Goo Dolls songs on the ride down.  Clinton was President.  Lance Armstrong had yet to win a Tour de France.  Running was a fringe sport - the race had maybe a few dozen participants, but all were semi-serious runners.

The "Santa Scramble" 5K put on by Phidippides Sports Center was the opener of the town Christmas parade.  Spectators lined the streets waiting to see gaudily decorated floats and local high school marching bands.  They watched in silent curiosity as a group of gangly runners soared through the town center.  Knowing the race would end fast, I hammered it from the start, held on through the second mile, and then coasted down a long hill over the final stretch.  I knew I was running well, but imagine the shock that came over me when I rounded the last corner and saw a time that was nearly a minute faster than I had ever run a 5K before flashing on the timer... I crossed in 16:52.

A "normal" runner would find eternal satisfaction in eviscerating a PR.  Not me.  Sure, for the rest of that fall, I took pride in my time and being a "sub-17 guy", but the glow wore off once I started the next season.  The problem was that over the course of the next many years, no other race or time could compare.  For eleven of those years, I barely raced at all.  The McMillan calculator spit out times that were so obscene for a marathon that I figured I must have been a one-trick pony - a 5K guy.  But 5Ks were so boring and painful to run... it was perhaps my least favorite distance.

The only way I could justify any of it was that the Santa Scramble was short.  A gimmick.

But there was only one way to find out.  I had to run the Scramble itself.  

Fast forward to 2013... No marathons or ridiculous trail races for me this fall.  I was going back to the short stuff... more than a few pounds heavier, but a good number of years wiser, and with a cadre of technological tools and websites in my arsenal to overanalyze my results.  Was the course short?  What was the elevation drop?  Did it have a tailwind?  My wife rightfully questioned my sanity for caring about some dumb race I ran back in high school.

I resurrected 90s iTunes playlists for my 2+ hour drive from Durham to Concord.  Anyone visiting this part of the state knows this is real "old-school" North Carolina, with vintage burger stands selling bottled Cheerwine and BBQ joints decorated with NASCAR posters.   Concord used to be a blue collar town, now Cabarrus County is a giant suburb of Charlotte, but the downtown retains some of that grit.  The Scramble had exploded in popularity - there must have been several hundred people running.  All the middle school kids lined up in the front, as usual.  The start was pandemonium.

I went out too hard, and I crossed mile one in an absurd time - 5:18.  So much for being wiser.  The second mile was more reasonable (5:45), but I was beyond hurting.  I felt awkward in my racing flats and I ran alone as the tailwind shifted to a crosswind, well behind the leaders but well ahead of the chase pack.  To motivate myself, I thought about all the long training runs and races I have done in recent years.  I have finished five marathons since the last time I was on that course - it was not going to break me.  The pain was temporary.  I held on for the downhill section, which helped me at least maintain pace, but I must have forgotten over the years, the UP-hill finish.  I crossed with my second-fastest time ever, 17:08, 16 seconds off my best.  I felt Santa Scrambled.

My new GPS watch read 3.07 miles.  Ok, so the course was short, but not too short.  Maybe worth 10-15 seconds.  I plugged into the run-down performance calc when I came home, came out to 17:22.  My Type-A personality demanded that precision.  So much for finding the "Zen" of running - I am who I am...

The net elevation drop - only 70 feet.  Downhill 200, but uphill 130.  Anyone who runs knows the uphills take more out of you than the downs help.  Overall, it was a wash compared to a flat course.

I stuck around to collect an age group award.  I ran into Josh, a faster high school teammate and friend I had not seen in over a decade, who decided to pick up running again just last week and signed up for the race on a whim.  I saw parents of old friends, everyone looked mostly the same, just with whiter or less hair on the top of their heads.  The Triangle is my new home, but I still have that connection to that part of North Carolina down the interstate.

Five days later, I laced up the same racing flats to finish the Thanksgiving racing gauntlet - the Gallop and Gorge 8K, put on by Fleet Feet Sports in Carrboro.  The air was cold, but I wore that same trademark highlighter yellow racing singlet.  My friend Ellen joked afterward I was the least dressed person there.  I went out more reasonably - the goal was just to break half an hour - but again just over two miles in, I found myself alone.  A volunteer called out to me three miles in that I was in the top ten - with over a thousand runners, I was officially a "one-percenter" of the sport.  I headed down Hillsbrough Street into the sun, avoiding ice patches, compelled to make up some ground on the leaders, never looking back, but always focused ahead.  I found motivation in knowing I was doing something in that moment that I had never done before - holding a pace that I had typically struggled to keep for a 5K.  All of my miles were between 5:45 and 6:00, and I ended up with a 2 minute PR over the rarely raced distance and an age-group award to take home.  It was about as good of an ending to my 2013 racing season, which featured a blistering sub-5 mile at the Mag Mile Race, a few wins at some smaller low-key races, a legit Scramble attempt for a sub-17, and an 8K PR.  All this leaves me thinking what is next...

Truth be told, I'm in great shape now, easily the best 5K type shape in my adulthood, all while balancing what has been one of the busiest months I have ever had at work.  Over the last fifteen years, I have had some good years, a few injuries, and a few years where I've been out of the game altogether.  Over that whole time, I've had roughly the same potential - nothing is particularly special about this year other than I stuck to a plan, didn't stress about it, and focused on having fun through the whole experience.  Running is my release.

Over the last week, I had a few thoughts.  The irony of running is that as much as we try to admit to ourselves we "love" the sport - why do most of us spend so much time focusing on finishing our runs faster?  Why would we want something to end that we are supposed to enjoy?  I decided the runners I envy the most are not the fast ones - the ones who obliterate courses like the Scramble at sub-5 minute mile pace.  No, I do not envy them, not any longer.  The runner I want to be is the one who enjoys every minute of the act, every step on the path, who cares not for time or speed, but the whole process itself.  It may take me many more years to get there yet, but it gives me a goal to shoot for.  

If I run fast, and that is what gives me the thrill, what puts me in the "zone", then great, but I accept that I won't be this fast forever - and I am coaching myself on how to be ok with that.  I recognize that the next fifteen years, the decline will inevitably begin.  That is life.  As long as I am healthy, I must be thankful.

See you at the Santa Scramble, sometime in the 2020s... I hope to be the one in the elf costume somewhere mid-pack, slapping hands with spectators, smiling all the way.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you've got your head on pretty straight. Chasing faster times is something that I struggle with constantly. I'm definitely a happier runner when I don't care about the pace or finish time.