Saturday, March 22, 2014

Boston Training Week 14: Merge 25K

It is a cool, dry spring morning - the first Saturday morning of spring after the long doldrums of a winter from Hades - and I am running briskly down Sunrise Drive on the outskirts of Chapel Hill with a group of 6 or 7 other runners.  We are locked in relative silence, not making eye contact or conversation, with the exception of the scant word or phrase.

This may seem odd for a group run, but this is not the usual Saturday social affair.  

We are the chase pack at the front of the Merge Records sponsored 25-kilometer road race.  The lead guy has sprinted well ahead, and we are the next group, collecting as a pack to pull each other along and work as a team toward some esoteric goal.  With such an odd distance race, time seems to matter less, and the pace seems relaxed although I surmise it is faster than I would typically do even for a tempo run.  

When I signed up, my goal was just to run "target marathon pace" (6:45-6:48 per mile).

After seeing some fast times from peers at Wrightsville and Tobacco Road, I pushed it up to the 6:30s.

But at that point, I realized there was another stretch goal in mind. Sub-4 per kilometer, which would require a sub 1:40.  That just seemed too fast.  I had run only one 25K before (the Frosty 25K), and it was short and I still didn't break 1:40.

I ignored that one for now, deciding to let the race play out.

Someone amongst us quips that "maybe he [the leader] will come back to us" breaking the silence.  My goal is not to catch him, but just to hang on to Bart, Colin, and the crowd as long as I can.  In a moment of surreal irony, we watch as a few miles later, the leader pulls off to the side and stretches out a stitch.  He attempts to jog and pulls back off and we pass by offering brief words of encouragement.

I am now in the lead pack.

And when my watch beeps on the next split, it tells me I just ran another 6:16 mile.  And it still feels easy.

And I think to myself "how did I get here?"

It is almost my usual bedtime and I have yet to run my race.  I am in the last heat of an indoor 1000m heat at Eddie Smith Fieldhouse.  Some kids were born with the talent for sports.  I was not one of those kids.  I had joined the team so I would not have to ride the bus home from school with the Goth kids who wore Pantera shirts and huffed glue after school.  There were no tryouts.
I had a course in my neighborhood that was just under a mile that I tested myself on and each time I ran it that winter, every inch of my body hurt.  My lungs ached.  The giant hill in the middle was agony going up and I felt awkward going down.  The older kids on the team laughed as they lapped me in workouts, and knew me as the "kid who ran like a duck."

I line the start and when the gun fires, I begin my wild progression around the 160m UNC indoor track.  The building smells like burnt asbestos, or at least what I assume is burnt asbestos - it is memorably awful.  A pervasive dryness burns all the runner's throats during and after the race.  I run my 1000m, completing my first event as a "varsity athlete" sporting the light blue and white singlet of West Rowan.  Every step after the first minute hurts.  I am not sure my heat was officially timed, it certainly has no bearing on the team scoring.  My coach, a burly man with a grey beard who was always encouraging despite my ineptitude says I was "somewhere just over 4 minutes" which seems lousy when an older teammate was trying to make states with a 2:40-something.  "You'll get faster - next time you'll be under 4."  And that's when the crazy idea was planted in my mind - but I have a different goal from my coach... there were plenty of fast kids, but I was going to try something different.  How long could I hold 4 minutes a kilometer?  It is the birth of an endurance runner.

I am barely hanging on to the group going up the hill on Mount Sinai, so I decide to let them go.  I reach into my pocket for a salt tablet.  It is one of the little things I have learned over the years.  Small modifications to my routine, always tweaking, always finding that edge for improvement.  Salt over GUs.  Substitute dynamic stretching for static stretching.  Lean in slightly and let gravity do some of the work.  Extend my legs straight on the downhills.  Lighter shoes.  Beets.  Interval workouts once a week regardless of what race I am training for.  Tempo runs as part of my long runs.  Get a sip of water at every stop, even when I am not thirsty.

I run by the Godiva aid station.  Megan is there along with several of my friends, all people I have met during what I call my second stint here in Durham.  I had hoped to hang on to the lead until this point, but I am still not far behind.  They cheer and I feel that brief moment of satisfaction that I will need to draw from for the next 16-kilometers.

Because I know I am running on my own now - in the netherworld of the thin front of a race.  I drop a 5:54 mile going down the other side of the hill and the group is still pulling away.  No one is close behind.

4 minutes per kilometer.  It is a race against myself now and I am building a cushion with each step.

Fall of 1996 - West Montgomery High School - the same backwoods area as the Uwharrie Mountain Run, but I won't run that for almost 17 more years.  First sub-20 5K.  Check.

Spring of 1998 - I just turned 16 and have my new driver's license.  It's the first time my parents let me take the car out of town - I drive up to Mocksville to run a 10K sponsored by St. Francis Catholic Church.  A 10K is a long run for me then, but I finish just under 40 minutes.  Check.

And then a long break...

I get the crazy idea of running marathons in college just to prove I could.  I run from Duke to UNC once as a dumb-ass sophomore to prove I could, and realize I never want to run down Erwin Road again.  Strange symmetry with a race on March 22, 2014.

March 22, 2014 running route
Do not attempt this one without assistance from Durham PD
(My fitbit congratulates me for meeting my 10,000 step goal for the day)

I move to Connecticut, then DC, I am studying for actuarial exams in my spare time after a full time job.  80+ hours a week in my mid-twenties.  Running is a diversion - a much needed break but nothing more.  No time for clubs, for structure, for races.  I get what I can.

I finish taking exams in 2008, Megan and I get married and move to a new city, Richmond VA where I know almost no one.  Running becomes an anchor again to learn a new city, to meet new people.  I break 20 again for a 5K, 40 again for 10K and I was back to pursuing the "goal"

Spring 2010 - a sub hour 15K at a small church sponsored unusual distance race.  Check.

March 2011 - I have moved back to NC, and discover the Tobacco Trail.  I sign up for the half marathon and find myself in a pack of fast runners who pull me through 10 miles in 63 minutes... I hit a wall but hang on to run close to 1:24-flat... just under 4 per 1000m.  Check.

I assume that is the end.  Races between a half and a full are rare.

I am passed on Cornwallis Drive going up one of the testier hills on the course.  It is the only contact I have with anyone on the course since the leaders dropped me.  The race is starting to get hard, as I knew it would.  But still I am ticking away 6:20s, and I make a mental note to catch my watch when I cross 13.1 miles.

I turn on Duke University Road and almost forget to check my watch, but I remember just in time after passing 21K. 1:23:20 for 13.1...  I just set a half marathon PR in the middle of this race.

The rest is gravy.  I convince myself I have already locked down what I thought was an absurd stretch goal.

I cross the finish line not just under 100 minutes, but somewhere around 1:38-high.  Over a minute faster than my stretch goal.

I pump my fist in excitement and exchange a high five with fellow Godivan Ronnie Weed at the finish.

25K.  Check.

Salem Lake 30K this fall?

* * *

We all have something that drives us to become better at what we do.  Ideally it is just the love of doing it.

For me, in running, one of those drivers is an arbitrary benchmark that started when I was a kid and honestly did not know any better.  I never had any line of sight I would still be doing this at 32.  And would still be improving.

But times and pace... that is just the measurement of an outcome.  I could run fast at any race - what made the Merge 25K such a great event was that I had the opportunity to share the day with many others.

On a perfect spring morning I am celebrating the temporary abatement of winter with Megan and Godiva friends, drinking Bloody Marys at Motorco, eating barbeque and trying a Creme Brulee Stout at the Pit, catching the tail end of a band set, exchanging stories about the race we just ran or the trip some of us took down to Charlotte early in the year.  And it is a good day in Durham, North Carolina.

And I decide that every month needs at least one day like this.  

Because at some point a goal actually does become unrealistic - and they are replaced by new ones.

And life goes on and is always worth living like this.

Song of the week:


  1. I really loved this report, Brian. Great job of weaving in your past running experiences and the arc of your life so far into the recounting of the race.

  2. An awesome report! The flashbacks were fantastically tied into the storyline. Loved it.

    Also, I'm glad to know another person who actually knows where Mocksville is in NC. :-)