In a July blog entry, I wondered whether I would be able to turn an old cruise ship into a mean speed boat. The answer is no.
After about two months of training focused on short distances and speed, I ran the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challenge championship in London in a disappointing 23:13, a pace of 6:38 a mile for 3.5 miles. To put things in perspective, I ran the Boston Marathon three months earlier at an average of 6:46 a mile — for 26.2 miles. And Boston is hillier than London. I still can’t explain why my pace can’t be much faster over about 20 minutes than it is over almost 3 hours. I’m still as regular as a metronome, or a clock, no matter how long I run.
So back to the sturdy cruise boat. Although I haven’t given up trying to improve my speed on short distances, I have reverted to my comfort zone: marathon training. At the end of August, I became antsy and started to look for a goal. I know better than running more than one marathon a year — I usually pay for it with an injury — but this year I was feeling strong. So why not tempt the devil? Within a few days, I had entered the Bucks County marathon, a low-key, no-frills race on a path along the Delaware River, thinking the pressure would be lower than for a big-city races.
Except the pressure is never lower. In the past week, I have been somatizing as much as I do before Boston or any major marathon: a mysterious, acute left ankle pain made had me limping the other night. My calves and plantar fascia are tight. I have a sore throat. I obsess over which shoes I should wear, second-guessing the choice I made several weeks ago. I’m anxious about the flat course (I train on hills). I’ve watched YouTube videos of certain portions of the race several times, yet I’m afraid of getting lost. In the woods, it’s still a race. Amid a few hundred runners rather than tens of thousands, it’s still a race. Low-key or not, a race is a race.
To prepare, I peppered October with races of increasing distances. First was a 7.8-mile, hilly trail race on the beautiful, 230-acre estate of a local conservationist. The race, in homage to the Dipsea Race in California, is handicapped by gender and age, giving me a unique chance to start alongside two 15-year-old girls, and five to 10 minutes ahead of the speedy 20- or 30-somethings. Unfortunately, I knew that my real competition was ahead: my 45-year-old, friendly nemesis started 3 minutes before me and finished more than 3 minutes before me. Even without the handicap, she would have beat me. No surprise here: she’s been regularly trouncing me in local races, most recently a 5K in Philadelphia.
Next up was the Delaware Distance Classic, a 15K sanctioned by USA Track & Field. The flat course and cash prizes usually attract a lot of fast runners. Not on that sunny October Saturday. To my surprise, finished first female. During the race, I felt like a golden egg. An official on a bike was my escort (“I’m staying with the first lady”) and a fellow male runner paced me throughout (we paced each other: the incentive of running with the “first lady” made him push himself a little bit harder). My time, 1:00:52, or 6:31 a mile. The prize: $150. (“Honey, I won the grocery bill!)
And finally the Oktoberfest half-marathon in Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park, a joyful affair whose motto is “Why not run the race in lederhosen to enjoy the spirit of the Oktoberfest?” There was a mild letdown when the organizer told us at the start that, due to the lack of license from the city in the park, no beer would be offered post-race. (He did give us the directions to a good pub less than a mile away). The course was advertised as not easy nor fast, “but the hills are short,” and fast runners could expect to run within 3 to 5 minutes of their regular time. My main concern was the 2.5 mile trail portion “with the occasional root or rock often hidden underneath leafs on the ground.”
Alongside me at the start was Dylan, a fast triathlete and colleague who ran Boston in 2:47 this year. Because of a hip injury, Dylan said he had barely been running since September and suspected he “would have a hard time keeping up” with me at the Bucks County Marathon, which he will also run. I don’t know about the marathon, but at the Oktoberfest half, I saw the back of him for about one minute after the start, if that. He finished a cool 5 1/2 minutes ahead of me, by far the fastest master (and only then casually mentioned he also had a broken toe). For the second time in two weeks, I came in first female, in 1:27, or about 6:38 a mile.
Yes, with the (short) hills (plural) and evil roots lurking under the fall leaves to make me trip, my pace at the Oktoberfest half-marathon still matched that of the London championship. The prize? An authentic cuckoo clock. Not that I need one.