Sunday, November 27, 2011

Two races, two tactics

Sometimes racing isn’t about the time on the clock, but the strategy employed to get to the finish line. A good race doesn’t always mean it was a fast race. My last two races have been more of an exercise in tactics, and while one of them did result in a PR, that was not the original intent.

As I boarded the train, and then the bus to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx last weekend, flashbacks of high school and college cross country road trips played in my head. What I remembered about racing at the park 10 years ago was that it was pretty hilly and the Burger King across the street could boast the most disgusting bathroom I have ever been in to this day. I’ll spare you the vivid description.

The New York Road Runners Cross Country series is a pretty chill group of races. Even at this race, the series championship named for NYRR legend Fred Lebow, the entry fee was a bargain basement $10. Runners milled about their respective teams until it was time to make our way to the makeshift starting line in the middle of a field. All of this looked vaguely familiar. As the starter described how to navigate the first 400 yards of the course, I was zoned out, thinking about the cup of coffee I’d be having when the race was over. In what would be a tactical race, this was a mistake. When the gun went off, I found myself in the lead with no idea where I was going. I slowed up, hoping someone would pass me, but no one did. When we got to the cones, I headed off course taking several hundred runners with me (after the race, one NYAC runner would jokingly say, “oh, YOU were the asshole!”). The screaming commands of NYRR volunteers got us back on track and we were off.

From the beginning, it was a runner from the Central Park Track Club (who I later learned was going to the trials in the 800) and me alone up front. We were, for the most part, side-by-side, as we headed onto the narrow trails that make up Van Cortlandt’s back hills. After a 5:02 first mile, we slowed dramatically. He was in front of me, and even though I wanted to pick up the pace, he cut me off at every attempted pass. It was smart racing on his part and frustrating racing on mine. I knew I was the better hill runner, but I kept having to slam on the brakes as the door was slammed in my face. Further complicating my stride was a series of embedded logs in the trail that you can either jump over or trip over. I chose to jump at the expense of any sort of rhythm.

By the time we completed a painfully slow second mile (6:00?), a third runner had caught us and had enough momentum to sling-shot past me. It was one of my teammates, which softened the blow, but it was still disappointing to go from being in contention to win to being a spectator of the battle up front. Heading into the finish, I realized just how much energy I wasted being impatient. I couldn’t dig myself out of third and finished about 15 seconds behind the winner. It’s tough to complain about a podium finish at the XC Championships, but I walked away with a lesson learned. I wasn’t upset with what was my slowest 5K time in three years, but vowed to save myself in a situation where someone else is dictating the pace.

The 35th Annual Newark Turkey Day Run is a different story all-together. In the weeks leading up to the five mile race in my hometown, I knew exactly who would be in contention for the coveted frozen Butterball Turkey, but I could only guess their fitness level. I was certain it would be a contentious race and was confident I was in shape to hang with last year’s winner, a 26:30 guy (Marv) who runs for the University of Buffalo. I wasn’t sure how well my buddy and high school teammate Jesse was running, but I knew he was putting in the work and is a naturally talented runner.

Sure, the Turkey Day Race is not one you’ll see featured in Runner’s World, but it’s the only road race held in my hometown of Newark, New York and I am usually not able to make the trip home to be on the starting line. Plus, it's organized by my former High School Cross Country Coach who I credit/blame for this whole running obsession. So, it was important to me to make the most of a rare opportunity. When the command was given, a group of four of us immediately formed the lead pack. It was Marv, Jesse, another college XC runner and me behind the police car headed straight up the hill on Route 88. By the top of the hill, Marv and I had split off and were duking it out. He’d lead for a couple hundred yards, then I would pass him back. By mile 2, I knew one of us was going to win the race. Of course, I wanted it to be me. I had a hunch that if the race came down to a kick, I would lose so my best bet would be to open up a gap early that would be too big to overcome at the end of the race. As we crested the next hill on Silver Hill Road, I took the lead and threw in a surge. At mile 3, I had clocked a 5:07 and had creasted a gap of 50 meters. This was the easiest part of the course and I decided to take advantage, widening the lead to 100 meters by the time we started climbing the last and steepest hill at the start of mile four.

As difficult as it was, I didn't back down going up the hill, knowing that anything was possible with a strong runner behind me. With a half-mile to go, I was still feeling strong. I knew the race was in the bag barring breaking my leg, but I kept the pace steady wanting a strong finish. I crossed the line in 26:19, a new five mile PR on what I consider to be a very challenging course. I won by 23 seconds to a runner who might have beat me if I hadn't gambled on the second mile, betting on my ability to keep a challenging pace instead of allowing the wheels to fall off.

(True story, the last time I finished the Newark Turkey Run, it was in a much slower time and there was a police officer waiting for me at the finish line to hand me a subpoena concerning a certain gnome-theft ring. That's another story for another day).

My last four races have been enough for me to reclassify 2011 as a successful season, but I want to give it two more gos before shutting it down. I'm learning with each race, and maybe the last two races won't be PRs, but they could be new knowledge I'll have in my arsenal going into next spring.

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