Those thirty seconds hung over my head for the last year.
Yeah, I smashed it a few months later at the Austin 10/20, but I still wanted those thirty seconds back at this race. So much that in addition to my usual training, I ran hills every Thursday in the Texas summer to prepare.
I had a dream Saturday night that I slept through my alarm and woke up at my house having missed the whole thing. It was raining and windy (J said it was Matthewing) when we left her house. We got a later start than usual and hit traffic. We parked in a different garage. The foot-traffic tunnel to the Pentagon was so crowded, we came to a complete standstill several times. I’m pretty sure the rain and angry sky prevented the Golden Knights from performing their parachute jump–I never saw them, anyway. My stomach felt weird. Lots of things that could disrupt my race.
This year we didn’t get stuck in a glacially-slow potty line, though, and we managed not only to find K’s friends from Ohio but also to move along with our corral instead of racing to catch up with it. So there’s that. However, it was a bit disheartening, as we waited for the cannon blast that signaled our wave’s start, to look over and see the first finishers blaze by. They’d run the whole race and we hadn’t even started. Dude.
Did I mention the wind? Instead of collecting the balloon arches (a different color for each wave) over the start line, race workers had pulled them low and off to the side, presumably so they wouldn’t blow away. It would not do to have balloons getting tangled up in the blades of the helicopters that hovered over us as we took off.
The first mile, my quads felt heavy. I hoped it was from standing around (thanks to the aforementioned corral-waiting) longer than last year so I just needed to warm up. But running into the wind did nothing for that. Mile two, and I looped up to the Arlington Memorial Bridge still feeling sluggish. Crowd support rocked on the bridge, though, and I started to settle down. I slowed through the first water stop, then made the turn toward Virginia Avenue. I looked at my watch more than I probably should, and I worried that my pace was slow compared to my effort level–and my goal.
At three miles, I told myself I was one-third (plus a mile) done, but that sounded depressing. Quads still yelled at me and gusts of wind swirled around me.
At the Kennedy Center, a guy dressed as one of the Incredibles (I think) danced to Rocky’s Theme blaring from a speaker mounted on the back of a parked bike.
At mile four, I noticed my Garmin had (again) gotten progressively ahead of the markers, and I began to worry that my pace (again) wasn’t fast enough to compensate for the difference. But then I thought of all the people who believed in me, who’d messaged me before the race and were cheering me from afar, who would be disappointed in me if I didn’t push myself to achieve this. So I kept going.
Entirely too many people shouted “You’re almost halfway there!” before the mile five marker.
The stretch along Rock Creek Parkway and Independence Avenue felt longer than previous years. My quads continued to yell at me, and I seemed to be running into the wind no matter which direction I turned. But again I pictured telling people I’d fallen short of my goal, and I pressed on.
At the 10K split, not long before the turn onto 14th Street and the bridge, I turned on my music. You know, the playlist called ATM Bridge, You Asshole. I’d planned to fire it up closer to the bridge, and while crowd support had been great on Independence, I needed a boost.
I took advantage of the vaguely downhill segment in front of the Holocaust Museum toward the river, then took a deep breath (and a hit on my inhaler) and prepared to tackle my nemesis, The Bridge.
As I climbed the first hill I heard someone behind me observe, “Just a 5K left” and I turned up the volume on my headphones. The last thing I needed was to fall into that trap.
I passed a guy walking on carbon fiber legs. And as it always does, it reminded me that if he can do this, I can sure as hell can do this.
At the mile eight marker (more like 8.15 by Garmin) I risked my first look at my overall time. I had 25 minutes. And my least favorite stretch of the race in front of me. THE hill. Well, overpass actually. I struggled up this damn thing the last three years, and 25 minutes didn’t feel like enough of a cushion.
But you know what? Charging up this sucker didn’t hurt any more than the rest of the race had up to this point. I remembered something my coach had said last week: on speed days, run until it hurts, then keep going. Pushing through makes your body learn a new normal. And I think my summer hill regimen (plus dozens of miles with my BRFs) taught my body a new normal.
I passed people as I climbed. And that mile was my fastest, up to that point anyway. At the top, I heard “we made it through hell and back again” through my headphones and I laughed. Partly because it was true, and partly because it played this same song at this same point last year. What a difference a year makes.
One more mile to go.
This stretch has always felt hilly and awful. But like the overpass, it was less awful than I remembered. I saw a woman wearing a Notre Dame shirt and wanted to flash Hook ’em Horns, but considering how far both football teams have fallen since our win, I decided I had no room to gloat.
I heard sirens coming from the bridge, and I hoped K and her friends were okay.
Half-mile to go. I didn’t look at my watch.
I picked up the pace and started passing people again. My lungs hurt from hours of breathing cold, windy air. My left calf made sure I knew it was angry. My quads had long ago moved from angry to enraged. But I could see the balloon arches from the start. Almost there.
Unfortunately the balloons had not been moved to the actual finish line. I still couldn’t even see the finish line. That took some wind out of my sails.
But I could hear the announcer (over “Don’t Stop Believin’) asking runners to stay to the left to make room for an emergency vehicle coming through on the right. Then sirens. A guy on a stretcher. EMTs. It looked like the man was responding to questions from the paramedics, so I’m hopeful he’s okay.
And suddenly, I crossed the timing mats. I guess the wind had caused problems with the usual overhead finish line, along with the balloons, and I couldn’t see it through the crowd until I was upon it. That’s the kind of race day surprise I can deal with!
Unofficial time was 1:58:37.
Today reminded me that I’ve been lucky, weather wise, the last three years to run in crisp sunshine. While not awful, these were easily the most uncomfortable conditions I’ve experienced for this race. The clouds and wind kept it from getting too warm, but I fought their relentless gusts the whole way. My quads hurt from the first mile and never warmed up.
But I did it. Not only that, the last two miles–including the hill that tanked me last year–were my fastest. In fact, from mile five on, I ran each mile faster than the last.
I guess I have to rename my playlist now.