Apologies to the blogosphere for the lack of entries here this week, oh how I have missed you all. As my retribution, I offer you all this all-encompasing race report, which I hope will be as fun to read as it is for me to write.
By way of introduction, for those who are not familiar with the NYC running scene, the NYRR Club Championships is an annual race held on the lower 5-mile loop of Central Park that is limited to standing members of NYRR local running clubs. It is separated into two races – one for men and one for women – where the top fiver finishers from each club earn double points as well as bragging rights for their clubs depending on their order of finish. Because these points are heavily contested, especially among the upper echelon running clubs, the field is always much deeper than any other local race year round. As a result, not only is there a disproportionate number of faster runners in this race, the race also tends to run extremely fast right out of the gate.
Last year, I entered this same race on a relative high, having conquered the San Francisco Marathon a couple of weeks earlier and ran my best time ever. My time last year was a blistering 31:07, which equates to 6:13 min/mi pace. This PR remained until Thanksgiving Day when I ran a Turkey Trot of the same distance (but much flatter course) and finished in 30:46 or 6:09 min/mi pace.
Personally, I had been feeling a bit pensive about my running in the recent past. Maybe it was the fact that I turned another year older a week ago. Or maybe it was all the long slow miles I had been running (some by choice, others by design) as part of marathon training. Whatever it was, I was beginning to feel as if the racing world was leaving me behind and my window for PRs and fast times is slowly dwindling. Truth be told, I’ve been contemplating an early retirement from the sport ever since the debacle in Boston. Add to that the fact that my performances in the short distance races this summer have been mediocre by my standards (with only one 10K PR out of the five races I ran) and that I haven’t raced in well over a month, I began to have serious doubts on my chances of turning a good time to help my running club, the New York Flyers, in this race.
But despite my lackluster prospects for a good time, I wanted to give myself every opportunity for optimal performance by eating, hydrating, and sleeping well the night before. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of turning on the Yankee-Red Sox game late Friday night and got sucked into a 0-0 grudge match that stretched through the 12th, 13th, and 14th innings with nobody scoring. It was so infuriating because I’m not a fan of either club, couldn’t care less who wins and yet couldn’t get myself to turn off the game for fear of missing something “historic”. Eventually, when the clock struck half past midnight with NOBODY scoring, I surrendered to the absurdity and hit the sack. (BTW, the Yanks won 2-0 in the fifteenth with a homer from A Rod, in case you were wondering. But then again, if you were wondering, you’d probably already know that by now, so this sidenote is pointless…)
The festivities on race morning started bright and early five hours later as I tried hard to convince myself that I had gotten adequate sleep the night before. As I hurriedly prepared breakfast and my race attire, I noticed a crisp chill in the morning air. I checked the weather forecast online and confirmed that it was indeed going to be cool, dry and unseasonably mild at race start. This could make for a very fast race, I thought to myself as I gathered my things and headed out the door. For them and for me.
The commute over to the race start took slightly more than hour from my place in Flushing. During the ride, I sat anxiously in the subway car, intermittently peaking at my neighbors’ attire to check if any of them were traveling to the same place I was. (Nope.) I also had time to think about an appropriate strategy for this race. As I did, words from the commentators at last night’s baseball game kept reverberating in my head like a cheesy late-night infomercial you’ve seen too many times… Your entire approach to the game must change when you’re stuck in a low-scoring game in the late innings. Forget the long bomb. Just stick to the fundamentals. Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, and get ‘em in. Simple as that …I decided to adopt this philosophy for my race because 1) I couldn’t think of anything better and 2) it reflected my sentiments of the race course quite nicely.
I got to the race start with plenty of time to spare as the weekend MTA came through for a change. Many of the local running clubs with their colorful banners and matching uniforms were already out in full force, claiming their cheering zones in the grassy areas near the finish as if merely by their boisterous presence they can energize their own runners to surge toward the finish while intimidating their competitors to breakdown in defeat. I picked up my race number, store away my bag and greeted a few of my teammates before heading over to the start. There was a palpable calm nervous energy among the runners today. As I lined up in the red (second) corral, I watched intently on members of the blue (first) corral, and wondered aloud what min/mile pace one needs in order to be placed there.
Since the participants were limited to running club members and the first race was men’s only (the women would start an hour later), there was little fanfare prior to the start of the race. The national anthem was sung, Mary Wittenberg said a few words, the horn sounded, and we were off.
Mile 1 and 2 – Just Get On
My objective in the first mile of the race was to get off to a fast but comfortable start. Starting on the 102nd St transverse heading west, the course quickly turns into a series of treacherous hills on the west side of the park. Because I didn’t want to expend too much energy in this first section of the course, I stuck to a manageable pace and relaxed my shoulders and arms as I began the first climb in a series of many. As I looked around, I was noticing that already, within the first quarter mile, the field has spread out in front further than my eyes can see. I felt a bit discouraged that I was already trailing so many by so much but reminded myself to stay relaxed and run my own race. Luckily, almost simultaneously as I was having some negative thoughts, I turned left and saw runner26 cheering from the side. I was happy and glad to see a familiar face so early in the race. I quickly smiled, gave a quick wave, and continued on my way.
I finished the climb and made my descent toward the second hill feeling very relaxed and comfortable. After the initial surge of runners passing me by, I settled into a steady pace at a tempo-like effort and started to pass some runners back, especially on the uphills. Because I wanted to run this race strictly on effort with as little regard for time as possible, I promised myself not to check the Garmin in between mile markers. It was a little disconcerting not knowing what pace I was carrying but since I had no idea what my pace my current fitness would allow for anyway, I thought this was the best course of action. I was caught a bit off-guard when I passed the first mile marker after my battle with the hills and saw a time of 5:59 staring back at me. I seriously had no intention of “getting on” so fast, but since I felt I was still holding back a bit in reserve, I was curious to know if I can carry this effort with similar results for the next several miles.
Mile 2 starts with a gradual descend toward the lower western portion of the park and ends with a steep little climb near Tavern on the Green. This is my favorite part of the course as I’ve grown accustomed to using this mostly downhill section to “recharge the batteries” on many tough long tempo runs around the park. Today, the role of energy recharger was played out not only by the road but by the constant cheers from spectators speckled along the course. Although I knew most of them were not out to cheer specifically for me, I channeled their enthusiasm and fervor anyway and used them to fuel my focus and my drive. Since I was somewhat married to my pace and feeling fairly comfortable, I bypassed the water stop towards the end of the second mile and focus my energy on cresting the little hill leading to the mile marker. I clicked the Garmin and looked down for confirmation. Mile 2 in 5:58. Wow, I’m significantly below course and PR pace. Could this possibly go on?
Get Over – Miles 3 and 4
I was smiling and confident, but kept myself restrained and humbled in preparation for the harder miles ahead. The task before me was simple. Get over to the east side of the park (Mile 3) and then get over the wretched speed bump known as Cat Hill (Mile 4). Keeping in mind that my objective for the race was not time-based but effort-controlled, I slowed down just a tad to begin the gentle ascension over to the east side. Although I could feel my mind starting to turn anxious and my breaths becoming ever shallower in anticipation of the great big climb, I consciously took bigger and deeper breaths and relaxed my body in an effort to calm the nerves. In my mind, I keep reminding myself that I’ve made this climb hundreds of times and in many circumstances, was in much worse shape than I am now. I straightened my posture, corrected my form, and forced myself to smile even as my body was starting to fatigue and my mind starting to wander. After passing through mile 3 in 6:05 and breezing by a few runners on the downhill, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the treacherous Cat Hill.
Maybe it was the smile decorating my face, or the conscious “happy to be running” thoughts I had, or the relaxed posture, or the focus on forefoot propulsion and landing. Whatever it was, scaling the hill did not seem such a bother this time around. It did not destroy me or make me invoke images of death like it had in races past. And although I slowed down significantly during this section (Mile 4 in 6:17), I ended the climb much happier, more relaxed, and feeling more exuberant than I’ve ever been entering the last mile of a 5 mile race.
Get In – Mile 5
After a short downhill reprieve, it was time for the push to the finish line! I feel the pace quicken all around me, and I reciprocated in kind. The spectators lined on both sides of the course did not fail to tell all of us that the end was just a turn and a jog away. Reminding myself to keep the relaxed form I had maintained the entire race, I increased my turnover ever so slightly as we approached the finish. As I passed by the cheering section of the NY Flyers, I saw many familiar faces urging me on to race hard to the end. I smiled and waved even as I was bracing myself for the final sprint. In the last quarter mile, I emptied the tank, ran faster than even I thought I was capable of, picked off at least five runners in the last 100m and trampled over the line feeling every bit as victorious as if I had single-handledly won the race.
After a few quick blows to recover and regain my senses, I clicked on the Garmin to claim my prize. Mile 5 in 5:52. Final Time – 30:13. Average Pace – 6:02. Course PR by 54 sec! Overall PR by 33 sec! I had won! I can claim victory over my younger self once again!
After the race, I received many compliments and congratulations at the post-race picnics. There were many PRs and great results out on the course today as the cool dry weather made for a great race day all around. Perhaps the best compliments I received (and the ones I will remember most from this race) were the spectators who commented afterwards that I was smiling and running very relaxed with seemingly minimal effort even as I was racing so fast towards the finish. They helped confirm everything I was thinking and hoping to accomplish as I was running this race.
Hmmm…now that I’m left to analyze and reflect upon this successful performance, only one simple question remains: Does 5 mile success translate at all to marathon success? I’ve got 12 weeks of training left to figure it out.
Final Time - 30:13; Average Pace – 6:02; PR by 0:54!!
Final Splits – Mile 1 [5:59]; Mile 2[5:58]; Mile 3 [6:05]; Mile 4[6:17]; Mile 5[5:52]
Overall Place – 198/810 (24.4%)
Age Place – 31/106 (29.2%)
AG Time – 29:43; AG % - 71.7
NY Flyers – 3rd Male