Saturday, October 24, 2009

Go Air Force!

That's what I heard shouted at me throughout the Marine Corps Marathon last year and it really lifted my spirits. And, boy did my spirits need lifting. I entered last year's race with very high hopes. I had PR'd in the 5k, 1/2 marathon and 10 mile distances during the training cycle leading up to the race. I was running 6:25-6:30 pace with ease during my training runs. All signs were pointing to a sub-2:55 race for me. I was really hoping to run closer to 2:50.

I still can't put my finger on what exactly went wrong that day, one year ago on the streets of our Capital City (dramatic music plays). My guess is that there were a number of smallish things that ended up amounting to a bad race day which included my feeding plan in the days leading up to the race, lots of airline travel prior to the race, walking way too much during the 2 days before the race, and 'female' issues. All of these things conspired to make me feel particularly poopy race morning.

Hoping this 'off' feeling would pass, I went out still trying to target 2:50+ on this rather hilly course. What I failed to realize last year was that this course sets you up to suffer at the end even if you think you're going out at a reasonable clip. There's a reason coaches tell you to use the first few miles as a warm up in a marathon. Heading up a couple of steep hills right off the bat gives you little chance to save your glycogen stores for later.

By mile 9, I knew I was in trouble. I was at close to 6:30 pace when I looked at one of my AF teammates on the sidelines in Georgetown and said, "I'm going way too fast right now." She didn't quite know how to respond except to offer encouragement and told me that it would pass. It didn't. I kept getting slower and slower with each passing mile until I settled into about a 6:45 pace.

The best part of the race is between miles 16 and 20 where you run around the National Mall. There were tons of people cheering for us and awe-inspiring monuments to distract us from the pain of pounding the pavement. It was in this section that the real race for the women's military title began. I had 3 Navy girls pass me in this section and I passed the Marine front runner around mile 17. I passed two of the Navy women back after mile 20 and that helped keep me motivated. Over the last 10k, I wondered whether I would blow up even further as I continued on the long, lonely road to the finish.

The last couple of miles of this race are rough because you're running along sections of freeway with gentle rollers the whole way with no crowd support. As you turn off of the freeway to head for the finish, you see a 1/4 mile long hill that goes straight up to the tape. My legs had been screaming and seizing up on me in the last 2 miles of this race--something I had never experienced before in a race and have luckily not experienced since. When I turned for the finish, my legs stopped running, and I started to walk up that hill. I really didn't think I had anything left. Then, some random guy came up behind me and scooped me up with an arm behind my back, pushing me up the hill and said, "come on Air Force. Let's go!" The crowd was now an angry mob screaming at me to run, and I somehow found the mojo to get my legs moving again up that hill lest I get skewered by a pitch fork from the sideline. I'm not sure that I've ever been so grateful to cross the finish line of a race.

I ran 2:57:04 last year and won the silver medal in the military competition. Our AF Women's and Co-ed teams took second place as well. I was also the first old gal to cross the line. And, I earned a spot on the US Military Marathon Team competing the following April in Serbia. The military awards are taken very seriously with all of the pomp and circumstance you might expect. I walked away from the event with a lot of hardware and a feeling of pride for the part I had played in the military competition that day.

One thing I will say is that my tough race at MCM last year made me a stronger runner. I really thought long and hard about the things I thought went wrong and considered the things I wanted to try out in my next marathon. I also didn't want to waste any time. I took the MCM lessons learned and used them in my marathon 5 weeks later at CIM resulting in a 2:50 marathon, a huge negative split race and new PR.

Fast forward one year and I sit in the same hotel thinking about my strategy for MCM 09. I have had great training runs over the last two weeks that made 6:15-6:20 pace feel easier than it did leading up to Twin Cities. The only hitch I've had was not running related but is still bothering me today. I had to travel to San Francisco Monday and Tuesday and thought it would be a good idea to wear my sassy new boots and carry my 25 lbs of luggage several miles to my hotel since it was such a beautiful day. I looked super cute in my boots and skirt, but my shins suffered terribly. I still feel the effects of this ill-advised fashion caper today! I think my compression sleeves will come in very handy tomorrow and I might try out that support tape they put in my race packet to see if that can help relieve some of the discomfort.

So, what are my goals for tomorrow? From a personal standpoint, I really have only one goal: to qualify for the International Military Marathon competition in 2010. I have to place in the top 4 among military women to be on the team. While I think this is well within reach for me (most years the 4th place military woman runs a little over 3:00), I have to be cautious that I don't go out too hard and risk a major blow up at the end of the race that leaves me as road kill in the last few miles. This is really a team competition after all, and I do want to see the Air Force Team take the gold this year. I will do my best tomorrow to pass other female military competitors. I understand that there is one in particular that will be tough to chase down. She has a faster marathon PR than me, didn't run a marathon 3 weeks ago and is 12 years or more younger than me. So, she just better watch out!

I'm not sure it makes much sense to throw out a time goal. I would much rather do tomorrow what I did at CIM last year: go out at a reasonable pace and then pick it up in the second half if I have the legs for it. I think this will be the best strategy for me. I hope to be somewhere around 2:50 at the finish. Seeing a 2 and a 4 on that clock may just give me the extra umph I need to make it up that last, steep hill and across the tape.

Ending on a final fashion note: While I appreciate all of the military swag I got here, I wish I was running in the uniform I got from my friend Cindy with I got the new stealthy camo skirt with a sprinkling of hot pink mixed in to make it a little more feminine. Cute cute. Thanks Cindy!

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