Monday, January 21, 2013

In which I rediscover my love for running on the 5th lap of an indoor mile

It's a familiar scenario, and yet totally foreign, standing there in the clerking area as "last and final call for the women's mile" echoes through the indoor track. I've stood there a thousand times before, but this time is different. There are no pre race superstitions, no one last song that I just have to hear as I run striders down the backstretch. I'm not even wearing spikes, just some racing flats that I got for free through a Mizuno promotion, and that I've worn for a single tempo run and a disastrous cross country race.  There are no expectations.  I don't know what I'm doing, but somehow I've wound up here, almost 5 years after I figured my track career was over for good, ready to race the mile.

I am standing next to my teammate, Joy, who also happens to be the reason that I am here, nervously hopping from foot to foot and trying to decided if I should retie my shoelaces again. As I told Joy after she coerced me into doing this race between 800s on Tuesday: "I don't think I would ever do anything if it wasn't for peer pressure". Someone else convinced me to run my first marathon, I ran my first 800 to try to impress a distance runner boy, many a long run in my life would never have been had someone not been meeting me. And Joy has lately been the instigator in getting me back to workouts, getting me to race cross country, and most recently, getting me to race this mile. I keep telling her I'm just going to lock in behind her and pretend its a workout, all the while hating her guts. She tells me that she guarantees I'm going to beat her. I legitimately have no clue what's going to happen; I've done exactly 2 track workouts since taking 3 week almost completely off due to bronchitis in December, and I only last week finally managed to pull my weekly mileage over the 30 mile barrier. I also spent 2 hours in dance rehearsal the day before, and my legs feel like lead as I attempt to do some strides. I feel like I could very well run a 6:30 mile at this point.

After spending the entire day trying to deny that I was going to do this ridiculous thing, suddenly I'm standing on the gentle curve of the starting line, bouncing up and down in that pre race ritual that I've never been able to shake. 3 jumps, shake out the right leg, shake out the left leg...from the 55 hurdles to the marathon, some things never change. Step up to the line, and there we are. The girl to my left says good luck, to my right, Joy whispers "don't go out too fast".  And suddenly we are off, and it's begun. Somewhat to my dismay, I find myself running in a pack of about 5 girls near the front of the heat - but I don't panic. Relax, self, just relax, and lock in. I have no idea how fast we're going and am dreading rounding the corner to see a 39 or something equally absurd on the clock, so I am pleased when we come through the lap at 44 or so. Right on target. It occurs to me during the second lap how equally pleasing and obnoxious it is to be running with this pack. I feel extremely relaxed - almost too easy to be racing - but do I make a move? I decide that it's too early to really assess the situation and stick in my groove - straight 45s. On lap 3 one of the girls in the pack abruptly cuts in front of me, and I almost lose my footing and take a dive over the rail, and later I step on someone's lost hip number, which sticks to the bottom of my shoe and makes an obnoxious slapping noise with each step. Of course - I latch on to stupid annoyances like that when I'm racing, so I have to giggle to myself. We come through the 4th lap right around 3:00 - exactly where I want to be...however, the question is, will I be able to hold on to this? What's going to happen now?

I continue on with my little pack through lap 5, passing one or two girls who start to drop back and keeping my focus on the shoulder of the girl right in front of me. Still inexplicably feeling like I am racing, and yet, not like I am dying, I come around the curve into the straightaway and a thought forms in my mind: "Holy shit, I am having so much fun right now!" It's all I can do not to break into a smile, because here I am, finally, racing and pushing and for the first time in so long, loving it. I'm racing. I'M RACING!

It occurs to me at some point that I have a shot in hell of breaking 6 minutes. But things finally starting to catch up to my barely-prepared legs, and while I try my hardest to assemble some sort of a finishing kick over the last 400 meters, I just don't have enough to pass the other two members of my pack, who finish less than a second ahead of me, or to dip under 6 flat. I finish in 6:06, a far cry from my 5:44 PR, but almost exactly where I seeded myself - a seed which I had thought of as basically an impossibility.

I cannot stop smiling after the race. A 6:06 mile - so pedestrian in the grand scheme of track, and even in the grand scheme of my own racing - but still, in this moment, a milestone. There was a time not long ago when I honestly questioned whether I would ever care about running enough again to work for a PR, to really race to the point of making it hurt, that red line. And somehow, what it took to rekindle that spark was the most unexpected of things, and yet so simple: one mile. That's how all running careers start, so in a way it's fitting that maybe this is how mine will begin again - older, wiser, free of expectations and superstitions, and simply running for the joy of the race and that feeling, amidst screaming legs and lungs on fire, that beneath it all you are really having the time of your life.

Photo by Tom Derderian