After your first time on the course for the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon, it's easy to pick your favorite mile: it's mile 8. Those long, gentle rollers are as close as you get to flat and straight, and the last quarter is a lovely downhill coast that finishes at the mile 9 post and the most hellish climb on the course: a 100 foot, quarter mile climb that John's Striders just call the S-curve. Knowing it's out there makes you savor that beautiful preface even more.
Yesterday, as the 2:30 pace group and I rounded the corner that starts that lovely mile, we were greeted by a foal and his mother. They were running along the fence, following the runners as we gasped out on the road. The thoroughbreds would mirror our progress all the way to the corner of their pasture, then turn and gallop back to escort another lucky group of brightly dressed humans. They reminded us of two things. First: RTB's billing as one of the prettiest half marathons in America is an understatement. Second: there are creatures who love to run even more than we do. What a beautiful reminder that a race track is a pale parody of the free, generous spirits of these glorious animals.
The morning started before dawn, like all race days. My clothes were laid out on the bathroom sink, waiting for me to shower and apply all the necessary lubes and tapes that protect my skin on a long run. Carrying my race shoes and socks, I padded carefully to the kitchen to make coffee without waking Mrs P. My pre-race rituals are part of the fun for me, and that includes the paranoid fear that I'm going to step on a sharp dog chewy in the dark and ruin my foot. The week before my marathon, I put my shoes on before I got out of bed. This time, I chose to live a little more recklessly.
My pre-run breakfast hasn't changed in a long time. One cup of coffee and two pieces of toast with jelly. Sugar and carbs for fuel. Caffeine to open my eyes. Again, I chose to try a new strategy. I super-charged with a second cup of coffee, and two gooey apple fritters. I knew it would mean extra bathroom trips before the start, but I also knew how long those hills were. I didn't want to run out of gas before the end.
It was around 39° as I started the Honda, its windows covered with condensed fog. As I drove the back roads to Keeneland, I passed hollows and creeks filled with gray mist that turned the bluegrass fields into a dream. An hour before the race, the parking lots were nearly full, and the roads were packed with carloads of runners waiting patiently. None of us were in too much of a hurry to get out onto that frosty grass. I parked in the field and made my way up the hill to the Keene Barn where the expo had been. This morning, it was full of drowsy athletes, stretching, hopping, and occasionally napping, seated straight legged on the floor, their backs against the wall, even in sleep they were stretching the hamstrings. I made a quick stop in the men's room, determined to beat the rush, and then walked out to the starting line for a little jogging to ease my jitters.
The air was simply magical. To the west, the fog cleared for a moment to allow the nearly full moon to peek through the blue morning skies above. To the east, diffused through the thick fog, the sun glowed, it's outlines indiscernible: not a rising disk, but a slowly warming glow above the horizon. There are runners who like to sit quietly before the gun. There are others, more nervous types like me who just want to keep moving. A big old diesel takes a little longer to rev up than a zippy little coupe. I joined another senior runner just past the starting line. We nodded greetings and jogged along quietly together for the first half mile of the course. We did a couple of hill repeats and I studied my Garmin as I went, reminding my legs of the 12:00 per mile pace I had planned. The road ran us directly into the rising sun, and I followed the silhouette of my partner as he trotted toward the sky, then turned and coasted easily back down to the base again. After three or four times up and down, I felt myself starting to get warm, and headed back toward the car where I would put on my race shirt, the numbered bib pinned on since last night.
By the time I reached the car, I knew I was in trouble. 25 minutes till start time, and I really needed to pee. I looked around the parking lot. Everywhere I turned there were engines running, trunks popped open, people dressing. I stood behind the Honda with the back window up and the tailgate open. Screw it. We were all runners here. We were used to training early in the morning and jumping up into the cedars for a quick one when necessary. Just as I was hooking my thumbs into my waist band, a man walked out from between two cars. "Bob, right?" "Yeah, hi." "I recognize you from the Y. Good to see you here. Gonna be a cold one, huh?" We chatted briefly. I was wearing the logo on my shirt, and was particularly glad that he hadn't caught me with little Pennsy at work in the dawn's early light. Once the coast was clear. I quickly did what needed to be done in the shelter of the open tailgate, carefully avoiding both the back bumper and my shoes.
|Uncle Ernie Peel: |
Godfather of Strider Nation
|Pennsy loving mile 8.|
|Last year's time: 02:43:26. Cut it by almost 10 minutes.|
I'm not sure what the implications of all this are for my Marathon in May. I learned that I'm faster than I thought. I finally made a race plan and followed it. There's a world of difference between 13.1 and 26.2 miles, and I have a little more than a month to bridge that gap.There's one thing I know for sure, though...
I woke up this morning a better runner than I have ever been in my life.
|Because "Surviving" just isn't enough...|