Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Race Report: Hawk Hustle

Saturday marked the third time I've run the Hawk Hustle. Every time it's happened, things haven't gone quite according to plan.

The first year, I hadn't planned to run a race at all that day. I signed up spontaneously and had a great time... but the hills kicked my butt.

The second year, I slacked off on my training and suffered for it. Despite a tough race, I came home with a second place trophy for my age group and promised myself that in year three, I'd be prepared.

That brings us to that third year. Thanks to the injury in my shin, I was lucky to be able to run at all, much less train hard on hills and rock it out like I'd planned to.

Still, I took the line feeling excited. I had a new plan: run a smart, tough race. Four miles would be the longest I'd run since my ill-fated half marathon trisko. Knowing how challenging and hilly the course was, I planned to make judicious use of walk breaks. Short steep hills I'd tackle; long slow slopes would be broken up with walks. My finishing time? Irrelevant. I just wanted to get through the race.

Ready? Go!

The first mile featured a few giant downhills, which I used to build up momentum and zip up some uphills. It was one of the easier miles of the course, so I ran the whole thing in a surprisingly fast 9:05.

Shortly after the first mile marker was one of those gradual uphills. I did a brisk walk in the middle for 9:36. It must have been a short break.

By the third mile, the course was getting tougher and I was getting more tired. A couple of walk breaks slowed me to 10:06.

Mile four is the toughest of the course and was also my slowest at 10:15. With half a mile to go, runners head up a very steep hill, and just when you think it's over, the trail turns and you're confronted with yet more trail. I leapfrogged back and forth with several other runners, all of us trying to find a sustainable pace.

When we were finally (and literally) out of the woods, I told myself that with just a short amount left - and all of it flat - it was time to reel in and pass some runners. My first target was a woman in a black jacket who had been in my bubble for the entire race. I passed her and worked hard to keep up my pace so she'd stay behind me. Then I went after a young woman whose purple shirt had been ahead of me for the entire race. Passed!

I crossed the finish line in 39:02. It was the slowest I've ever run the Hawk Hustle - and the proudest I've been. While I was injured, one of the things I missed most was being able to challenge myself physically. To do something that I knew would be hard, and to tackle it. Finally, I was able to do that again, to dig deep and to push through.

That feeling was a victory for me. As icing on the cake, my efforts were good enough for a second place age group trophy. That trophy will remind me of how good hard work feels.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Ready to Hustle?

Because my hurt leg survived last week's race, I've been thinking about attempting another cross country race: the Hawk Hustle. I've run it twice before, so I know that it's tough.

The first time I ran the race, I wasn't quite ready for how hilly and challenging it would be. I ended up adjusting my goal times on the fly. I also had a great time.

The next year was no easier. I slacked off on training before the race and wound up struggling through it. However, it was a small race on a day with lousy weather, so I ended up with a second place age group trophy!

This year will probably be my toughest experience and slowest time. Since I messed up my leg, the longest distance I've run was two miles, and that was with walk breaks. Could I really do a four mile race that's tough when I'm not coming off an injury? Should I just sign up as a walker and figure I'd place in the top ten and get a trophy?

I decided to do more research and actually run the course. Yesterday, I lined up pretty much where the starting line was and traced the course as best I could. I got it mostly right- there were some hills and paths that I remembered, but I ended up short on distance, so I obviously cut things too much.

I ran at a relaxed pace and took walk breaks, but it was still tough. The hills taxed me, both up and down. I figured if I did decide to run the race, it would be slow going; walking would be relatively easy.

At the same time, I couldn't imagine myself not running it. It has been really taxing to not be able to run. Going out and tackling something difficult would feel great - no matter what my finishing time is.

I started forming a strategy, looking for long flat stretches to run, downhills that would allow me to coast the uphills, and steep hills to use as walk breaks.

Before I knew it, I was signing up for the race and clicking "Runner."

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Greatest of All Time

Runners' World's December issue features "The Best of Running." It's a fun list, and I'm in agreement with almost everything listed there. Badwater as the hardest race? You bet - the more I read about that race, the less I ever want to experience it. Bananas as the ideal runner's food? Sure - portable, tasty, cheap, full of potassium. Pre as the coolest runner of all time? Shoot, that hardly even seems like an opinion; nobody's cooler than Pre.

But then, on page 70, they claim that Haile Gebrselassie is the greatest male distance runner of all time. Runners up (no pun intended)include Kenenisa Bekele, Frank Shorter, Roger Banister (debatable whether a miler counts as a distance runner, but no matter), and Jim Ryun.

Crazy talk!

Okay, yes, Haile is a great runner, with a pile of wins to his name. But he is not the greatest male distance runner of all time. That honor clearly belongs to Emil Zatopek.

In the 1952 Olympics, Zatopek won THREE gold medals: in the 5K, 10K, and his first ever marathon, which he entered at the spur of the moment. That is hard-core awesome. Even more awesome, he was generous with his fellow runners, offering training advice to men attempting to break a four-minute mile.

Emil Zatopek is the greatest male distance runner of all time.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Race Report: Governor's Cross Country Race

After a few successful sessions of running in quicksand, I decided to brave a race. And not just any race: the Governor's Cross Country Race. I ran this race for the first time last year, and it was probably the most fun race I did all year.

Sure, running through extreme, hilly, muddy trails and diving through creeks isn't exactly an easy way to come back from an injury. But, the race had a two mile option, the ground would be softer than a hard road, and it's not a race anyone tries to run fast. I figured it would be a great way to go out and have some fun.

My fellow two-milers watched the four milers take off, then the race director (my running coach from the training program, Russ) lined us up in the opposite direction. He told us to keep the blue flags to the right and said there'd be a pink ribbon marking the first mile. Throughout the course, we'd find shortcuts marked with yellow flags. Russ told us that they would be shorter, but not necessarily faster. And like last year, there were ribbons hidden throughout the race course that could be redeemed for prizes afterwards. With those instructions, we were off!

After just shy of a quarter mile on the dirt next to the road, the course took us into the woods. We followed a narrow trail that darted in between trees and scraped past bushes. Every single runner stopped to walk up a steep hill, then started running again at the top.

It felt glorious to be out there. The weather was perfect - in the 60s and sunny. The park was beautiful, and the experience of running through the woods felt natural, primal. We reached a clearing, and a volunteer stationed there told us all, "There's a big fallen tree here. You decide: over it or under it?"

I stood and looked at the tree for a moment, considering my options. The space under it was small. I'd have to get on my hands and knees and crawl under it. Climbing over it didn't seem like a good option, either. It was pretty tall, and it wouldn't be easy to get started. I also thought I'd probably scratch up my legs if I tried it. Under it was, and it worked fine. A few minutes later, I snagged a blue ribbon hidden in a grove of trees. I saw another ribbon nearby and called out to my fellow runners, in case anybody was still looking for one.

There were several creeks along the course race that we had to cross. I stepped into the first one and was surprised to see that the water was over my knees. At the next one, I followed the yellow flags and found a volunteer holding a rope that I could use to swing across. Tellingly, a man with a video camera was stationed at the other end. I grabbed the rope and swung... right into the deep water. I laughed and crawled out of the creek.

At the next creek, there was another rope swing. This time, I was ready for it. I knew that I needed to grab onto the rope as high as I could to avoid landing in the creek again. I held on as high up as I could and... SPLASH! Right into the water!

By this point, I was, naturally, soaking wet. Last year, I didn't know what I was getting into and looked a bit silly in really nice new running clothes. This time, I wore a sweatshirt that already had mud stains on it from running Living History Farms in it. Twice. I wore my good shoes because I didn't want to mess around with an injury, but I wore a pair of gloves that already had mud stains on them. I remembered from last year that knee socks were a good idea, but did not remember that a skirt was a bad idea. Just like last year, my skirt ended up sopping wet and clinging to my legs. Maybe the third year will be the time I get it right.

I ran along at a relaxed pace when a dad, decked out in an Afro wig, and his son (who was probably about eight) ran towards me. "Come on," said the dad. "We don't want to get beat by Pigtails here." I laughed, and he added, "And she probably doesn't want to lose to a guy in an Afro." I told him that was true, but that I didn't mind losing to a kid because kids are fast.

I took a walk break so that I could be sure my leg wasn't taxed too much. Two more women passed me... then I realized that the finish line was near. I picked it up, passed both of them, and closed the gap a bit with Afro.

I happily crossed the line in 24:40, then went into the lodge to reap the rewards of this great race. First, I grabbed a beer. Then, I turned in my blue ribbon. Prize choices included a water bottle (just like I got last year), coffee cups, and Snickers bars taped to lottery tickets. I snagged a coffee cup with the logo from the 2004 Pumpkin Dash on one side and my running club logo on the other. Finally, I hung out by the blazing fire and warmed up.

It feels wonderful to be out there again. It will take a while before I'm back at real racing speed, but I don't care. I'm just happy to be running.