Monday, September 6, 2010

And Now, for Something Completely Different...

It's been a good year since I've done a speed workout or raced anything shorter than 50 miles. That's unfortunate though, because while I live for long distances, a race that doesn't require the good part of a day and continuous refueling is a welcome respite. And a little nostalgic. Running cross country in high school was probably the most fun and rewarding experience in my life and shaped who I am today.

 The Stanford Invite was the first big meet outside of Washington that we went to - and it was humbling, running with the best teams on the West Coast (I'm 2180, by the way).

So it was with excitement that I went over on Saturday to Lower Woodland for the Seattle Prep Fr. Sullivan Alumni Run. It's a labor day tradition where the cross country team runs their first time trial of the season with any able and willing alumni on the 2-mile Lower Woodland course. I got to catch up with my former coaches and some former teammates, though I was sadly the only one from my class in attendance (lame, because a lot of friends I ran cross country with still live in the area).

And holy crap, the size of the cross country team. There were about 150 kids on the team, almost as large as my graduating class. That's got to be about one-fifth of the school. As I toed the starting line, the other alumni and I were swallowed up by a mass of freshmen, though I can't be sure because to me they all look like kids. The race starts wide on a soccer field and narrows within 100m to a gravel path. If I was going to have a good race, I needed to get through the gap early (this was my strategy in high school, as well).

About to pass someone (Andrew Walker's brother?) on the way up the first hill.

The gun went off and I jolted up to the gap in eighth place. The pace through the first 400m as we rounded the dirt track was spot on given the fast start. By the bottom of the first hill, a pack of front runners had developed, with about 10 or 11 guys within ten seconds of the leader. I passed a Prep runner on the way up to the top of the hill and latched onto the heels of another on way down. I was getting some ridiculous speed down the path and almost lost it at the corner at the bottom, skidding around a tree on some loose gravel.

Cruising down the straightaway. Seriously, I hate this part. It's like running down a long hallway.

I believe that the worst part of both the two mile and 5K Lower Woodland course is the long, flat, gravel straightaway. People always looked at me sideways when I mention that, especially since the 5K course includes "widowmaker", a short but agonizingly steep scramble up to the start of the camel humps, three undulating hills that progressively whittle weaker runners down. But I loved hills in cross country, because I knew that other runners feared them. I liked to turn terrain into a psychological weapon, powering up each hill. While other runners would slow down and limp over the crest, I would continue to push the pace so that I was already running at top speed only a few strides into the downhill. Imagine how crushing it feels to watch as someone blazes past you, seemingly oblivious to the hill both of you just climbed.

On the straightaway, the name of the game is steady pacing. There is no variation of terrain, no curves to cut through or hills to master - just you and the other runners. The repetitive strides turn into monotony and it's easy to lose your focus. Not only that, but the unrelenting pace starts to take its toll, and you realize, shit, it's still another mile, and I have to pass through this thing again.

As we passed through the grass field and the skate park a second time, I started to make my move with a little over half a mile to go. I caught up to another runner on the way up the hill and blew past him just after the crest, catching up to an alumnus who had previously been leading the race. The front runners had put some distance on us, but we were still a coherent train. The second straightaway was over in a flash as everyone shifted into fifth, settling into their positions before the final sprint. I am positive that we were all just a tick under redlining at this point.

The sprint was not eventful, as we all kicked on the afterburners on the final turn and held our respective positions. Moments after crossing the finish line I was getting my breath back and...6th place, 3rd for the alumni. Hey, not bad for an ultra runner in a 2 miler.

 Six years ago at Lower Woodland in the 2 mile time trial. My desire to keep running short races is not to relive high school, but to experience that same rush that only a short race can bring.

I think that next season I'll be incorporating shorter races - 5K's and such - into my schedule between ultramarathons to break the regularity of my pace in training and include some fast running to keep my running form in check and my mind fresh. There's the nostalgia, too, but also the race strategy and experience of it all. There is time to make a mistake in your execution. Positioning becomes important, as does your path through the course, because taking the turns and the terrain efficiently can make all the difference in the world, but it's really about going balls to the wall for 3 miles. But even with all of that, I find that my mind is surprisingly calm and free during these races, as if the body is shunting calories from the brain into the muscles. It's unlike the end of an ultra, where it becomes a psychological battle with your brain as it does all it can to convince you to stop.

There's a moment of zen in a 5K, right around 2-2.4 miles. The middle mile, always the worst, was a struggle to remain focused, but suddenly, everything becomes crystal clear. Your mind empties, thoughts and ideas drift away, and all that remains is instinct. At that moment, I lose my sense of self as I am enveloped in the fabric of the race, and I awaken two steps after the finish. Waking up from a dream, it's difficult to remember what happened, but if you leave all of yourself on the course, it will become ingrained in your memory forever.

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