I wanted to cry out "SUR-prise. SUR-prise. SUR-prise!", channeling the best Gomer Pyle I could muster. It was hard to keep it in. But I had to keep running. The shouting would have to wait.
A year ago on this weekend, all I wanted to cry out was tears. I hated every step, every cruel foot plant in the popular Virgina Ten-Miler. I entered only because I coached a team of energetic, motivated kids who embraced the concept of chasing each other on this rock'n, roll'n road course. I, however, did not embrace those ten miles. My running was lack-luster. Every workout during practice was so difficult, almost tortuous. I walked uphill often under the guise of waiting for lagging runners. I assigned my other coaches to run with the faster groups. Me? I often chose the novice runners because I could at least keep up with them. Most of the time I put on a hopeful face, but it was a masquerade. Something was wrong and I doubted a road race was going to help. Still, I threw my name in the hat because I need to be an example. I think I ended up that year as the third grandmasters woman (ages 50-59) but was not pleased with the agonizing moments it took to complete the course. Besides, it was slower than the year before which was ten minutes slower than my fastest time a dozen or so years before. It was demoralizing (although not unanticipated) to be faced with declining performances.
But this year something was different. I'm not saying I cheerfully sent in my registration money. (I would rather spend it on a trail race.) Still, I signed up early enough to have assigned the least expensive fee. I even did so before being pressured by the kids. As a coach, maybe I was growing into these shorter racing distances.
The team practices had been going well. We had added a key weekly workout that I hoped would build that deep-down toughness: mental and physical. We also ran lengthy workouts over the miles of rock-strewn ribbons of trails that wait patiently on the mountain above the school. On more than one occasion, I arrived home excited to tell Gary that I ran every step and felt good, perhaps even strong. I didn't know why. What could account for me running better than I had in years?
On race day for the Ten Miler, I dutifully journeyed into town and found a parking spot. Oddly, I wasn't that anxious. Rather, I felt a kind of calm though I had no realistic expectations of running any faster then 82 or 83 minutes. I wandered around, ran a warm-up on some quiet side streets and then made my way to the start, along with the 1298 other runners in the 10-mile race and the 1113 4-mile race runners.
The gun sounded, sending the masses down Langhorne road. Though many zoomed passed me, I chose to run conservatively. I think the first mile (mostly downhill), was checked off in about 7:10. Not blistering, by any standard.
Then came the lengthy climb up to Rivermont Avenue. In loathed this hill in previous races. But on this particular Saturday, I looked forward to it. I downshifted into my granny gear and chugged my way up the hill. My breathing was strong, not labored. My legs felt able. I passed many who struggled against the incline. I wondered when the race would become more difficult. Wow, I marveled. I think I'm running smart but I never expected to feel this good and in control.
Continuing to pass people right and left, my pace remained oddly consistent. The timing clocks at each mile marker told an unfamiliar story. I was running an average pace of right under 7:30 miles; perhaps 7:28 or 7:29. Could it be? My mind leaped and twirled in mental gymnastics. How is it that I could be on track to run 75 minutes? Could all the clocks be wrong? Were my calculations off? But when I passed the 5-mile clock in a little over 37 minutes, the reality of my race began to sink in.
Strong and steady. Be smart. Push it on the downhill. Goodness. I just passed Lindsey. Oh my. I'm in front of Cecil and I'm running with the lead runners from our team. Hum. How old is the girl right in front of me? I don't think she's in my age group but she sure is popular. Everyone keeps calling her name. I can't believe I feel this much in control. Yep. Still on pace. Maybe I can even get in under 75. Oh my. Am I dreaming?
No. I wasn't dreaming. The big push up Farm Basket Hill got a little harder as I watched my two runners gain ground in front of me. Still, I was making good time and passing people on the climb. As I closed in on the finish, the crowds grew and the cheers became loud and boisterous. My official time was 74:51. I was delighted.
Delighted, that is, until a woman approached and asked me my age. Shoot. I really thought I had grabbed the overall Grand Masters title. But alas, a woman less than a minute in front of me had just turned 50. I had to settle for a 55-59 age group win. Still, before the race I thought it unrealistic to ever run under 80 minutes. I was the 26th woman out of 551 and 159th out of the 1299 ten-mile runners. Not a bad day.
But the question remains: why? How did this happen? Is it the iron and general nutrition plan I started back in February? Is it the 7-day-a week running? Is it training with my team? The answer? Who knows? But then again, who cares? I'll take it any way I can get it.