After nearly a year of letting go of running specific goals, I found myself toeing the line of the GW Parkway Classic 10 Miler for the 1st time in some semblance of shape. But before I get to the race, I wanted to give a background of how and why I approached the past year.
After Boston last year, I took a much needed break. For nearly 12 years, I've been pushing to go longer, faster and be stronger. And while I've enjoyed every second of it, I felt the time was right to let go for a bit. We can't always be progressing in a straight line and I wanted my step back to be on my terms versus burnout or injury. So my Summer consisted of running as much or as little as I wanted. On average, this was 3-4 days a week and mileage typically in the 20-25 mpw range. Enough to keep my mind and body happy, but never so much that I felt I had to will myself to run. For fun, I ran a 10k in the early Fall and finished about 3 minutes off my PR. That was the wake up call I needed to start changing the direction of my training. A solid 10 lbs heavier and race specific fitness largely gone, I needed some focus. So I set some initial process goals - mainly being the goal of returning to running 5-6 days a week on average. It didn't matter if it was 30 minutes, but I wanted to re-establish good habits that serve as the foundation for solid training. By the end of Fall, I had established a good routine, developed some consistency, and raised my weekly mileage into the 30-40 mpw range. Early winter, I set a goal of running a half or 10 mile race, so I started laying out the training plans. Personally, I struggled to get back into the mindset required to perform workouts. When an easy run was on tap, I was out the door running without thought. I developed a plan that I knew would prepare me for a race, but when a workout was planned, I noticed I was finding ways to talk myself out of doing it that day to do it "tomorrow", as if tomorrow was any different. For the past several months, I have had to will myself to get in the workouts. Some weeks I got them in, while others I simply couldn't get myself to a place mentally to get it in. I didn't want to force it, so some weeks I focused on the consistency goal and just made sure I ran a lot in the weeks I didn't do a workout. I trained with the mindset of "something is better than nothing" and that go me through most of those tough spots. Throughout winter, I managed to average most weeks in the mid 40 mpw range, with a few weeks in the 52-55 mile range. I knew I had a good foundation of mileage under me and a fair bit of fitness capable of getting back to racing. I had a couple of key tempo runs in the month or so leading up that led me to believe I was capable of running near my PR pace (6:30/mi). I had a 6 mi steady tempo averaging 6:36/mi on a rolling course and a 4 mi tempo a few weeks after averaging 6:30/mi on the same course. Both workouts were done comfortably with the intent of pacing 10 mile/half marathon effort. So after some conflicts with a different weekend of a planned race, I signed up for the GW Parkway Classic the week of the race knowing I was race ready. I've run it a number of times before and knew I'd enjoy running it again, as it is one my favorite area races.
After parking in Alexandria at the finish around 5:45 am, I boarded the bus headed south to Mount Vernon at the start. I got there by about 6:40, which was the perfect amount of time for an 8 am start. I sat down for a bit so I wasn't standing the whole time (I remembered in previous years my back being sore from standing so much) and just soaked in the atmosphere. It was cool (50F) and the sun was up, setting the scene for a nice day ahead. Around 7:15, I ran a short warm up and a few 30s race pace pickups totaling about .75 mi. After that, I mostly just hung out near the start area by sitting down. With about 15 min till race start, I got back up and did some more dynamic stretching and strides. There didn't seem to be many folks interested in lining up in the 6:00-6:59/mi pace area, so the race staff had us all move up closer to the start. I found myself about 4 rows back from the start line.
Right at 8:00 am, the horn sounded and off we went! With a race often described as a "net downhill", everyone assumes a flat and largely downhill course. The GW Parkway course is not flat, nor is it largely downhill. It has lots of different hills and very few flat spots, but it is a fast course, especially at the start. Mile 1 is where the majority of the downhill elevation loss occurs. I knew it would be fast in the first several miles, so I was prepared for a slight positive split on the race. I found a pack of some of the GRC women and a few other guys after the first few minutes when pace seemed to stabilize. We were still running downhill, but folks who went out too fast pulled back, while others continued pushing past us. It seemed like these women and those around us were all hanging at the same effort, so I felt like it would be a good idea to latch on to a group rather than find myself running solo. We hit Mile 1 in 6:17 and my breathing was very controlled, so I knew it would be fast but my effort was steady. I knew Mile 2 had a few rollers, so that pace would slide back some, but I wanted to make sure I wasn't pushing too much this soon on the up hills of the rollers. The pack I was running with was still largely together, but on the 2nd uphill, I let them go. It was a tough decision, because I knew hanging with a group would keep me pushing, but I thought it might have been a little too soon. Hard to tell in hindsight if I regret it, but I would like to know what would have happened if I stuck with them. Shortly after, one of their girls dropped past me and it seemed the group was breaking apart. I was in no man's land at this point, but my focus was on keeping them in visible contact. Mile 2 came through in 6:25, still a bit fast but the effort was in a good spot. Mile 3 was mostly flat but ending with the start of more hills, so my goal was to get in a steady rhythm and ready myself for the middle miles, which are the toughest. I clocked Mile 3 in 6:31 right on goal pace.
After studying my previous race reports, I knew Miles 4 and 5 were the tough ones that could make or break your race. The majority of the elevation gain is in these two miles and if you push too hard, you have a long 5 miles left to go on tired legs. It was around this time, I was running alongside another female pretty much stride for stride. We didn't say much, but mostly alternated between one of us leading out front. It was around this time that I started feeling the headwind, which was forecast to come straight out of the N, so in a south to north race, that means a steady headwind. Nothing crazy like Shamrock level winds, but enough to make you work harder than if it weren't there. I ran steady through the uphill and tried to open up on the downhill to gain back a little time, clocking 6:34 in Mile 4 and 6:37 in Mile 5. At this point, I was on PR pace (65:04) as the running time on the race clock read 32:32. I just needed to hold on to have a solid race result.
Mentally, I was in a good place as I came through the halfway mark. I was on PR pace and I knew Mile 6 was largely downhill, so I thought I would be gaining some additional time to offset expected losses with some later hills in Mile 8 and 9. I remember running downhill a fair bit and felt like I was moving fast, so I was expecting to see a 6:2x split, but was surprised to clock a 6:30. This lead to my 1st rough spot in a place I thought would propel me. I knew the next mile or two would be slower than average, so I panicked a bit mentally. However, my mantra for this race was "Be the best you today". I knew I was going to get to a point in the race where I would question myself. In any race, this happens. You just have to be prepared for it. Essentially, my mantra meant that I needed to let go of my previous (faster) self, stop comparing, and stay in the moment of my race results now versus where I used to be. I will get there, but it doesn't have to be today. I was still running with the same girl but at this point, my goal was just to stay with her, holding on her to pace. My next goal was to get to the 5k marker, which meant it was time to push a little more. Once we got there, I got a surge of excitement and passed her and encouraged her to come along so we could keep working together. She stayed on my shoulder for a bit, but seemed to fall off pace at the next hill and I didn't see her again until she finished after me. I pretty much ran the rest of the race solo, which I think caused me to slow more than I would have if I was still working together with someone. With the surge, I clocked 6:37 for Mile 7.
While Miles 4-5 are the toughest in elevation, 8-9 are the toughest mentally. Mile 8 is gradually uphill as a false flat, so you feel like you're going faster than the pace shows. I used Mile 8 to ready myself for the last big push on the course in Mile 9. I just held steady to the effort, which in hindsight is where I probably lost my shot at a PR. With less than 3 miles to go, I could have likely pushed harder here, but I settled a bit. The headwind really started to be stronger and I was running solo. When I saw 6:41 for Mile 8 and knowing Mile 9 was more uphill, I realized my PR was gone. So with the .5 mi grind up the bridge over 495, I pushed hard enough for the first time at the race where I truly felt out of breath. I tried to rally on the downhill off the bridge to gain back some time, but the downhill runs right into the last kicker of a hill - 1 short steep block. Mile 9 clocked 6:43.
After hitting the last mile marker during this last short steep hill, it was time to go for the finish. I flew down the hill and prepared for the nearly mile long grind to the finish line straight ahead off in the distance. It was at this point where I took stock of where I was in the race time wise and made the call to hold steady rather than go for broke. With previous miles of 6:37, 6:41, and 6:43, I knew I needed to run a 6:00 final mile to get close to my PR. I reminded myself that I was still on target to finish less than a minute from that PR time, which was run when I was in peak marathon shape and 10 lbs lighter. To be in that ballpark and having run solidly to this point made me feel like I accomplished what I set out to do. So I ran strong through to the finish with a final mile of 6:26 - still faster than average and pushing, but this allowed me to somewhat enjoy the last .25 mi which was lined with people. Since I was running solo, I had a lot of people cheering me home. I simply tried to relax and soak it in as I crossed the finish line with my 2nd fastest 10 mile time.
Final Time: 1:05:41
Overall Place: 65/3297
Age Group (35-39): 7/372
Post Race Thoughts
Over the past six months, I've struggled to push myself past my comfort zone in running, which is a key element to racing well at any distance. Crossing the finish line only 37s off a PR I consider my best distance race result (ie longer than 5k) brings a huge confidence boost of where I stand fitness wise. To go from running a 10k nearly 3 minutes off my PR last year, to running the first 10k of this 10 miler 2:20 faster than that, shows I've made some serious gains back in my fitness. I do plan to return to racing marathons at some point, but I want to continue to build the foundation so that I am able to return to the level I left it at. I'm apparently closer to it than I thought and part of the equation is obviously working to lose the excess weight I've been hanging onto. We'll see how the rest of the Spring/early Summer goes as far as any potential Fall plans, but with another training cycle or two, I know I will be on the right path. For me, the struggle continues to be in mentally coaching myself through getting workouts in and a marathon is only going to increase the mental demands. I know I can do every workout I've assigned, so it isn't a confidence issue. It is the gradual reshaping of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. When you take extended time off, you lose that edge. That seems to be the most difficult element to get back after a break from racing. Focusing on pushing for an hour was a big step in the right direction and one that I'm proud of.
Since it has been so long since I last ran this race, this ended up being a 5:24 minute course PR. Just shows the progress made over the last 5+ years of my running, not so much that I had such a great performance this time versus other years. Its always fun to go back to races you haven't done in a while and crush a performance that at time, seemed like a big deal. And since I started running this race 9 years ago, I've dropped more than 8 minutes off that time. A needed a solid race like this to give me a sense of where I stand and what I need to focus on. A great start, but I have lots more work to do!