Monday, April 2, 2012

Race Report: Cherry Blossom 10-miler (2012)

"Running hurts.  A lot.  What a stupid sport.  Why the heck does anyone do this?"  
-Me, 10' across the finish line, Cherry Blossom 2012

It looks like my fitness may be coming around just in time.  So far this spring I'd run two races: a 10-mile portion of a marathon relay, where I crashed and burned in epic fashion, and the Rock 'n Roll Half-Marathon, where I felt okay through the first half but again cratered out to a 1:29:55 finish.  Despite those weak performances, my training had been going well, and in the last week I'd knocked out two key tempo workouts.  First, on Tuesday, I completed 3x2 miles at 6:06/mile (2' recoveries).  Then, on Friday, it was 2x3 miles at 6:15/mi, with 2 miles at marathon pace between the sets.  Those were great confidence builders with Boston looming, but they left me with something of a dilemma: how hard should I run the Cherry Blossom?  I could see an argument for cruising it at marathon pace (7:05-7:10), going hard but not full-speed (6:40-somethings), or just giving it gas and letting the pieces fall where they may.  I ultimately decided that, even if racing 10 miles two weeks ahead of a goal marathon isn't exactly a by-the-books approach, I wanted to give myself a chance to have a good race under my belt; it's never easy to head into a marathon where all of the tuneup races have gone poorly, and I didn't want that millstone around my neck.

Me and my dad before the race.
This was to be my 6th consecutive year racing the Cherry Blossom, and my previous times had been:

(2007) 1:07:12 -- 6:42/mi
(2008) 1:07:12 -- 6:42/mi
(2009) 1:06:24 -- 6:38/mi
(2010) 1:04:55 -- 6:29/mi
(2011) 1:05:06 -- 6:31/mi

The trick this year was that, not only had my other tuneup races gone poorly, but I wasn't coming into the race rested (much less tapered).  Based on my training paces, I figured a good day would be anything in the 1:04's, or under 6:30/mile.  A PR was within reach, I thought, although each year the last few miles of this race have made me feel like death on toast.   Given what we now know about wheat gluten, this is even worse than it sounds.  I resolved to try to keep it between 6:25-6:30 per mile and see what the day gave me.

Fortunately, as always seems to be the case for the Cherry Blossom, the day was a perfect, still, overcast 45 degrees.  I jogged easy for a couple of miles to warm up, then seeded myself about 3 rows from the front of the first wave corral.  I knew from past experience that the first half mile or so would be Project No Faceplant, so avoiding heels was a top priority.  In general, I find that one rarely goes wrong by seeding oneself overly aggressively, although game theory suggests that I should keep that wisdom to myself. Whoops.

The first few miles went as they always do: too fast.  The ten-mile distance is a tricky one to pace because even though you're running pretty hard, there's none of the immediate suffering of a 5k or 10k.  You must, in other words, run fairly hard without it actually feeling hard.  No matter what I do in this race, I always seem to finish the first mile (which has a little downhill) in 6:10-6:20, and this year was no exception to my overenthusiasm, clicking off a 6:08.  The highlight of the first mile was when a girl just in front of me, who must have ripped off a 6:05 opening mile, heard a spectator shout to her from over her right shoulder.  She turned her head to yell back, looking behind her, and immediately went ass-over-tea kettle, right into the pavement.  Guys were hurdling her and diving out of the way.  Fortunately, she rejoined us soon thereafter, doubtless beneficially lighter due to massive blood loss.

I resolved to slow myself down to something closer to goal pace for the mild hills over the Memorial Bridge in mile 2, and so I did: a 6:15.  Still a little hot.  Then, descending off the bridge and cruising past the Kennedy Center, I saw mile 3 flash by in 6:11 -- gadzooks. I wasn't hurting too much but I realized that this was getting silly: my midweek hard tempo runs had consisted of 2x3 miles @ 6:15, and I'd just run the first three miles of the 10-mile race at an average of 6:11.

For miles four through six, I basically just slowed myself down, kept it light, and prayed my first few miles hadn't set me up for a mid-race explosion.  I was reminded how evil 180-degree turns around cones can be when you're running fast: the acceleration back up to race pace is treacherous not only because acceleration is inherently tiring, but also because you have to identify "race pace" again starting from a standstill.  Oof.  But I kept it rolling: 6:20 and 6:23, making for a 6:15/mi pace at the half. That was a full minute faster than I planned to be, which was either very good or very bad news, depending on how the rest of the race unfolded.

But it just kept unfolding.  Mile 6 came past in a restrained 6:25, and with four miles of Hains Point to go, I had to decide whether to (1) back it off a touch and be happy with an inevitable PR, ensuring no pre-Boston injuries, (2) accelerate and try to capitalize on how good I was feeling, while risking a meltdown, or (3) just relax and keep clicking off the miles.  I opted for the last approach, remembering that my fast first few miles could catch up with me at any point, and wanting to record a solid result above all else.  So I kept it steady -- dead steady. Miles 7-9 breezed by in 6:21, 6:22, and 6:22, respectively.  It was only at that point that I really started to suffer, but I realized there was no need for last-minute heroics, so I tucked in behind a couple of guys and just concentrated on staying light.

Each year I'm reminded of how utterly nasty the last, pathetic little hill toward the finishing line can be.  It's probably no more than a 30' climb, but coming at mile 9.8 of a 10-miler is insidious.  I think the only way to handle it is just to charge up it at close to full speed, and when you get to the top, point yourself down the other side as you black out, and hope that your momentum will bounce you off of any race barricades you encounter on your way down the chute.  So that's exactly what I did, and the last mile was another 6:22 -- the fourth in a row within 1/2 second of one another.

According to my watch, I covered 10.07 miles in 6:19/mile.  The official time was 1:03:32 (6:22/mile), the difference being the extra tenth of a mile or so I ran that didn't strictly follow the shortest route on the course. Considering that my PR had been 1:04:55, and that that time had come in a fully-tapered condition, this counted as a big victory.  In fact, I realized that it hadn't actually hurt that much until the last mile or so; I think that, in a rested condition and at a time when I wasn't afraid to leave it all on the course, I might have been able to go sub-1:03.  Goals for the future!

(Finishing video at 3:25.)

The next month or so will be fully booked with two marathons: Boston on April 16th, and Big Sur 13 days later, on April 29th.  After that, my focus will be on ramping up the cycling miles ahead of some long triathlons and ultra-rides, but my running training will follow quite a different approach as I try to cross another item off of my bucket list: the 5-minute mile!  It'll be an adventure.

This is called fun.
Looking further down the road, I signed up for the California International Marathon, in Sacramento, on December 2.  It's a fast course and will come at an ideal time for me to finally break through the elusive 3-hour barrier.  My Cherry Blossom time equates to a 2:57 or 2:58 predicted marathon, and while I'm not so naive to think that I can actually pull that off at the moment, I do think that, by December, I can give it a real go.

To infinity and beyond!