February was, overall, quite a solid month of training. I consistently got myself to track practice vs. doing workouts on the treadmill which was definitely an improvement. I had one long run that almost ate my soul, 18 miles of awfulness in the remnants of a previous snowstorm + additional snow coming down through the first half of the run + snow turning to slush in the later stages. I don't think I ran on solid pavement for the entire 2 hours and 30 minutes of slogging misery. I texted Andrew at maybe mile 4 or 5 saying there was no way I was going to finish my run, yet somehow I plowed through basically every mental trick in my arsenal to complete exactly 18 miles. One nice thing about Boston training in Boston is that even on a totally shit day when you're sliding half a step backwards for every step forward you take, you see plenty of other runners out there. Normally when I'm out on the course everyone's smiling and waving and cheerful. On this day, we acknowledged each other with the sorts of grim faces usually reserved for prisoners of some sort. It was not an enjoyable time, to say the least.
Last weekend's long run was the complete opposite - it was my first 20 of the cycle, and despite my usual hemming and hawing and procrastinating and totally psyching myself out, it was awesome. I took the train out to Woodland, did an out and back to Wellesley and then came back on the course. It was one of those bluebird days for running - 45, sunny, not a lick of wind, just incredible. I started off at a fairly conservative pace but quickly found myself easing into the low 7:40s without putting much thought into it. As is my custom, I decided to roll with it and see what happened. I kept clicking off around that pace until around mile 10, where I hit the hill coming up over the highway and suddenly got really tired. I didn't particularly care - I had actually bagged the idea of doing any marathon pace miles earlier in the day when I woke up with some annoying sinus congestion - so I slowed down to 7:5x for a couple of miles. But something weird happened when I hit the Newton Hills. I decided to really push myself on the uphills since hills are NOT a strength of mine, and I have a bad habit of giving up halfway up because I'm tired and it's hard and wahhh. As I pushed the uphills and cruised the downhills I found my pace dipping into the 7:30s, and later on, the 7:20s. It was amusing and wonderful because unlike my previous attempts to run at marathon pace, I wasn't going overboard with TRYING to run marathon pace - it was just happening. Which I think is kind of the point. I wound up with an average of 7:38 pace, one of my fastest 20's ever and the type of run I'd typically expect to do riiiight before taper, not randomly in the middle of February. My mind has a hard time adjusting to changes in it's framework for running, and the fact that 7:38 pace might actually be a not-insane pace to run 20 miles at was a little hard to take in.
Unfortunately I did pay a little bit for my hubris - my recovery miles on Sunday were fine, and I took Monday off, but I developed a very bizarre knee issue during my track workout on Tuesday. I've had a similar issue before but this was it's worst iteration yet - the pain isn't really in my knee joint proper, but more in the back and lateral, kind of around my fibula and popliteus tendon (my guess as to the culprit). It essentially feels like something is getting trapped when I'm in a certain range of knee flexion and it hurts like hell within that range. Outside of the range? A little annoying, but overall OK. I dialed back the miles pretty significantly from Wed-Sat, although by Friday things seemed to have turned the corner. And just in time, because Sunday I had made the silly mistake of signing up for the Amherst 10 miler, known throughout the land as a really, really hard race.
My decision to do this race was part general insanity, part not feeling like doing another long run by myself, part loyalty to my team (while I am certainly not the person GBTC wants to have to score at a Grand Prix race, I am a person who can cross the finish line and therefore am better than not finishing a team), and then cemented by the fact that my friend Taylor was also running. So we set off for Amherst at a delightfully early hour on Sunday morning. Aside from the course of death, this is the type of race I love - so low key, with it's start at the local high school and it's minimal fanfare and the fact that when you look around pretty much everyone you see is some level of serious runner. As a Grand Prix race this year, that serious runner number went up significantly, and definitely explains why running 7:11 pace for a very hilly 10 miler barely even got me into the top 40% of the total field, or the top 1/3 of women! The weather was pretty nice - a stiff wind for sure, but good temperatures for running - and I ended up going with capris, singlet and armwarmers. I considered shorts but figured given the questionable knee it made more sense to give my legs a little extra TLC.
After doing a quick wardrobe change and scampering around trying to figure out which school our bags were in (the middle school...not to be confused with the identical looking high school a couple of blocks down) we got behind the line just in time for the gun to go off. The first couple of miles were OK. Taylor and I were running together, which was great - our plan was to stick together through 5 miles and then see where we were at, but I had a feeling (which would later be proved correct) that I wasn't going to be able to hang for quite that long on the hills. Mile 1 was 7:06 which was a little slower than I was hoping for, but I also thought it probably paid to be conservative because I knew what was coming. Mile 2 was a 6:52; in hindsight I actually wish I'd gone a little faster there because it was all downhill and I don't think it would have made a difference later. Mile 2 to 2.5 was sort of OK...AND THEN came the worst mile I think I've run in any race ever....
Can you spot the mile that made me want to go cry in a corner?
I don't even know what I can say about this mile. I wanted to fling myself on the side of the road and just give up. At one point I was fairly confident that I was running slower than I could have walked up the hill, and I felt terrible about myself, until I realized that no one was passing me and everyone around me was on the exact same struggle bus as I was. It was AWFUL. Mile 3, which at least started out flat, was a 7:29. Mile 4, which consisted of the culmination of the hill, was 7:55. 7:55!! I can't even tell you the last time I've run a mile that slowly in anything other than a marathon. When I saw that split I went down into a deep dark rabbit hole. Never mind the fact that we just climbed like 400 ft in that mile. I felt terrible, I was mad about my split, and my brain totally went to that place that I'm trying to convince myself to stay out of when I race. Taylor was gone out in front of me and all I could think was "never again. I'm never doing this race again".
Having essentially given up on the idea of running any sort of reasonable time, I got down to the business of completing the damn race. We turned onto a dirt road that bounced bizarrely - it wasn't muddy, but I think it was partially frozen or something, because there were points when I sort of felt like I was running on a trampoline. Mile 5 was a 7:29, and by then I basically was like, welp, if you average 7:30s for this one, I guess that will just have to do. But just when I had resigned myself to that, something odd happened (looking at the course elevation, it's not really that odd, it's the fact that I started running downhill. BUT WHATEVER.) I started feeling a little bit better, then a lot bit better, and then all of a sudden I felt AMAZING. Mile 6 was a 7:03. Mile 7 was a 6:45 and I almost burst out laughing, then nearly laughed again when I came through mile 8 in 6:43. Sub 7 miles in the late stages of double digit races isn't really a thing that's happened to me, particularly when the first half of said race consisted of soul crushing hills. I was passing people like it was my job, laughing in the face of the minor uphills, and all in all, suddenly, having a great time. I think I closed at least a little ground on Taylor in this phase, although she still finished just under a minute ahead of me. I had heard that there was one more big hill coming but I convinced myself I was ready for it. I was ready to take that hill on!
Orrrrrr not quite, because as I turned into the face of another steep, half mile long hill and was immediately hit with a 20 mile per hour headwind, I cursed every decision I had made so far that day. The GBTC coach, Tom, actually designed this course, because he is a sadistic person. And of course he planted himself, smiling, smack in the middle of this hill of death. I made sure to tell him he was evil as I ran by, grimacing. My left leg seized up pretty badly right near the top of the hill, and I was actually reduced to a walk-shuffle for a second or two, but thankfully I knew that once I got over the crest I could barrel down, around the parking lot, and to the finish. I finally crossed the line in 1:11:52. In more amusing news, I thought I was close to a PR but didn't realize I'd actually run one until I looked up the results from that race - I guess I had it in my head that I'd already run a 1:11 when it turns out I hadn't! My previous PR was 1:12:41, so that's a pretty nice chunk of time off, especially on a course where as far as I can tell NO ONE PRs. So I was pretty happy! A hard effort and digging myself out of a mental hole - all in a day's work. The best news of all was that my knee strangely felt BETTER after the race - like I finally knocked whatever was out of whack back into place. Can't complain about that!
Before I wrap up this meandering post, I feel like I need to tell one more story. Last night I went to track and as usual, the workout intimidated me - a 2 mile tempo followed by 1200s (prescribed 7 but let's be honest the workouts are made for people doing like 80 miles/week, so I decided to do 4). The tempo felt GREAT - 2 miles in 6:45 pace felt like the easiest thing in the world. The 1200s were another story. I was watching the faster group including Taylor and another girl who had just run a 1:24 half and kind of thinking to myself "man, if I could just hang with them..." But I tried to jump in with them on one interval and was pretty much immediately off the back. I was running perfectly reasonable paces but I wasn't quite fast enough for the group. Finally, everyone was wrapping up and it was just me and the 1:24 girl doing one more 1200. I made some self deprecating comment about running behind her, and we began. Almost immediately, I dropped back and thought to myself "well you aren't fast enough to stay with her". And then, I impressed myself. Because my very next thought was this (a hilariously inspirational thought to come out of nowhere): "STOP BUILDING WALLS IN YOUR MIND". And with that, I forced myself back up with her. I didn't make it the whole interval right behind her - she pulled away at the 800 and finished about 50 meters ahead. But I'll be damned if I didn't run that last interval 9 seconds faster than the previous one, including coming through the 800 in 2:59. I absolutely would never have done that if I hadn't found a way to convince myself that I could stay with her. I do genuinely believe that a fair chunk of my barriers in running ARE mental, and are based on my mental image of my physical capacity which I surpassed a long time ago.
All of this to say, I think I'm going to go ahead and try to run a 1:30 at the New Bedford Half in 2.5 weeks. It's time for some of those walls to start coming down.