The shortest story about Walnut Creek: 1:59:12.
Some longer stories:
- A 400-foot climb can be an incline, or it can be three hills.
- Pacers in bright clothing deserve the best of everything.
- Run math is always wrong. Always, always wrong.
And here’s the longest story:
I have a terrible sense of direction, and it’s typically at its worst in the East Bay, so I left San Francisco a little after 5:30 a.m. The info sheet we’d gotten at the expo said the start would only be open for four minutes, so being late wasn’t an option. At the first “road closed ahead” sign, I turned onto a side street where lots of runners were parking. I left when I saw the meter would turn on at 9 a.m. and found a garage instead. If I didn’t break 2 hours, the last thing I wanted to show for it was a parking ticket.
I got to the start around 6:50, closer than I would have liked, but the porta potty line moved fast, and I found a spot in the staging area near the 9-minute sign, behind and to the right of the 2:00 pacer. Countdown from 10, and we were off.
My plan was to treat the first mile like a warm-up, kick into tempo mode until the hill, do whatever was necessary to survive the hill, and then ride the downhill for as long as possible. This plan went out the window when the pacer took off at about an 8:30 pace. I figured she was banking time for the hill, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bank time for the hill, so I hung back a bit, but still not exactly a “warm-up.” First mile: 9:08.
… or so I thought. I’d decided to manually lap my watch at the mile markers, figuring that “GPS distance” didn’t matter, only course distance. (What IS distance, anyway? wonders philosophical runner.) Good in theory, if the mile markers were separated by a mile. Of course, I didn’t know then that they weren’t; the pacer mentioned later that she’d had a tough time with the markers being so off, and when I uploaded the data, the discrepancies between what I saw during the race and the “shadow race” happening in the background were hilarious. Then again, who cares what time I run one mile in, or three, or 10? The only time that counts is the one at the finish.
And I’m glad I remembered that, because otherwise I would have given up on this race after clocking “mile 7” in “11:02.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At some point, when we merged down to one lane, I squeezed in front of the pacer. I knew I was running faster than I’d intended, but I decided that banking time wasn’t the worst idea; the hill would suck no matter what, I’d have a downhill, and then I’d just have to hang on. So I made it my goal to stay in front of her, and it worked; at one point I’d relaxed a bit, and she came up on my shoulder and it was a good reminder to keep pushing.
I listened to a little bit of music and a little bit of a podcast review of Homeland, and I spent almost all of mile three eavesdropping on the women behind me. I resolved to stay in front of them, too; worst case, they were entertaining.
Miles 1-4: 8:36, 8:58, 9:10, 8:58 [what I saw: 9:08, 8:15, 9:20, 8:56]
By mile 4, when the hill started, we were running in some serious fog. I figured, this could work: If I can’t see what’s ahead, I can’t be freaked out by it.
The elevation chart had made the hill seem like it was going to be one incline over about 2.5 miles:
But it was actually two or three different hills: one that ended just before the mile 5 marker, then a couple of shorter, steeper ones with a gradual incline in between from about 5.5-6.5. Here’s what the Nike+ data looked like, which I think better represents how it felt (up, plateau, uppppppp):
I’m good at gradual incline, but I wasn’t expecting short and steep. I focused on taking quick, little steps and keeping my eyes focused ahead — and not on my pace, definitely not on my pace — but I was clearly slowing down. A couple of younger girls (teenage cross-country runners, is my theory) were bounding up the hill like lovely little deer while I shot them dagger eyes. The 2:00 pacer passed me on the steepest hill, and I couldn’t stick with her, but I kept telling myself, “Just don’t take your eyes off her.”
I lapped at the mile 7 marker and saw 11:02, and I was pissed. I knew I’d slowed down, but that much? And for a whole mile? But I could still see the pacer’s pink sweatshirt up ahead, and I said — out loud, I think — “well, you’ve got some work to do.” I saw a bunch of people celebrating as we started to run downhill, and I thought they were crazy — because I’d misread the elevation chart and thought the hill extended beyond mile 7. Nope, it slowly dawned on me that it was literally all downhill now.
Miles 5-7: 9:33, 9:16, 9:34 [what I saw: 9:41, 8:33, 11:02]
So then I was flying downhill, realizing we were going down a lot faster than we’d been going up, starting to understand that there was going to be a whole lot of race left after we hit the flats, and thinking, “don’t care. just go.” It had become absolutely beautiful — early morning sun on the rolling hills of an open space preserve, a lick of fog sitting right over the valley.
Mile 8 was sub-8 on my watch and my run-math told me I’d gotten back one of the minutes I’d lost. I could still see the pacer, but it didn’t seem like I was getting any closer. I reminded myself that Run Less, Run Faster thought I could run a 2:02, and a 2:02 would still be a massive PR, and I was just about on pace for a 2:02, so that would be that. I spent mile 9 feeling like there was cement in my quads. I remember thinking I should eat a Gu and then spending the better part of a mile trying to get it into my mouth; I’d never Gu’d at that speed before.
Miles 8 and 9: 8:05, 9:00 [what I saw: 7:56, 10:25]
Everything after that is a blur. I remember the enthusiastic aid station just before mile 10 saying we were at mile 10 and being like, no, you fools, we’re at 9.5, not the same. We made a hairpin turn onto a winding path through a park, where I kept losing sight of the pacer on the turns, and I thought maybe I could figure out how far back I was by counting the time between when she passed a tree and when I got there, but I couldn’t handle the logistics.
I remember hitting mile 10 at 1:32-ish and thinking, “well, 2:02 it is, if you keep going!” Because: your run math is always wrong. I thought I was going to have to run a 25-minute 5K to go under 2 hours, and my legs wouldn’t turn over any faster than they already were.
I remember thinking I’d stop at an aid station and refill my water bottle once I was sure I couldn’t break 2 hours, but I never stopped, because I was never sure.
Right around the mile 12 marker, we turned onto a dirt trail, and my watch said 1:48 — which was almost certainly not 12 miles into the race, I realize now, but at the time I did a double-take and thought, oh wait, this is still possible. GO. My legs were stuck in their gear, but I thought maintaining that might be just enough.
I closed on a girl who was ahead of me on the trail. Passed her. Passed a guy. Got passed back. Tried to stick with him. Turned again. I could feel my form getting hilarious. Could still see the pacer’s pink sweatshirt, getting closer.
Mile 13, right around 1:56. Holy hell, I had this.
We went over a bridge, turned again, and made a hard left into the finish chute. The actual finish was on goopy grass and my feet went thwick – thwick – thwick and I remembered falling on my face at Ice Breaker and had just enough time to think “Please don’t fall on your face” before crossing the line. I heard the announcer call out the pacer and say “right on time!” and the clock still said 1:59:xx so I was pretty sure I’d done it.
Miles 10-13(.1): 9:04, 9:09, 9:15, 9:15, 1:19 [what I saw: 8:19, 8:14, 8:15, 9:43, 1:19]
How did I feel? Um, just look at this goober:
I immediately put my hand on the pacer’s shoulder and babbled a stream of “thank you thank you thank you I’ve tried for this for more than a year and you were always right there and I couldn’t stay with you on the hill but I caught up and your sweatshirt was so bright thank you for wearing something bright thank you” until she finally was like, “uh, cool, yeah, congrats, I have to go pay my meter.” I grabbed a bunch of food and wandered around in the sun, stretching a little, trying some free coffee before realizing I had no use for a beverage I couldn’t chug, and continuing to grin a giant shit-eating grin.
It’s crazy, looking at the splits again, how different this race looks by miles on my watch and by miles on the course. But I wouldn’t change anything about how I ran it. I didn’t really know until mile 12 that I had a chance of breaking 2:00, but I also didn’t know that I didn’t have a chance, and that kept me fighting just enough to get there.
At the end, as I was making a parachute out of my space blanket to hold all my stuff for the walk back to the car, I started chatting with a woman right at the edge of the park. “Did you do as well as you’d hoped?” she asked.
It felt so damn good to be able to say, “Actually? Yes. I did.”