Yesterday saw me return to racing for the first time since February, at a local one-mile track race held in memory of a highly talented and much missed runner, teacher and coach at St Joseph’s By The Sea High School here on Staten Island.
A week ago I returned home (to New York) from a visit to my “other home” (England). It’s hard for anyone to get back to the everyday routine of work, chores and the like after a vacation; when it also involves saying goodbye to your family and not knowing when you’ll see them next, that makes it that little bit more difficult. So I needed a pick-me-up, and what better than to try out my doctor-cleared knee and enter a race to really feel like a runner again.
The weather was scorching hot as we arrived, the sun beating furiously on the track with no clouds or shade. The organizers however had an endless supply of iced water bottles available, along with a sprinkler, and the PA announcer encouraged runners to hydrate often.
After some apparent glitches with the timing system, the event got off to a delayed start, starting with a kids’ half-mile race and then moving to one-mile heats with progressively faster paces.
Along with most of my teammates, I opted to try my luck in the 5:45-6:00/mile heat. I really had no idea of what I might be capable of, having not run a mile quicker than 6:30 since February. There’s a saying in running, which I might be mangling, which is “if you want to run fast, you have to run fast”. Which sounds stupid, but the essence is that you can’t just run a bunch of easy-paced miles and then expect to be a speedster on race day. Still, I expected to be able to run sub-6:00, so hopefully wouldn’t disgrace myself too much.
As the 6:00-7:00 heat ended, we were blessed by a cloud finally obscuring the sun. Relief! “No excuses now”, noted one of my teammates, as we assembled on the start line.
The gun fires, and we’re off! I’m a racer again! This thought sustains me through the first turn, and then as we settle onto the back straight I switch to more tactical thinking. The runner in front of me seems to be holding me up. Do I blow past him to get some space? No, too early for that. Move out a bit, hang on his shoulder. Yes, that’s better.
I should mention that this is my first track race ever…
By the end of the first lap I’ve settled in, the time looks good (84 seconds), I’m well placed. I settle into my rhythm, voice my appreciation for the support of my teammates on the back straight – always the loneliest section of the track – and end the second lap pretty much in the same spot as the first, though with a bigger gap behind me (not that I looked back at the time to realize this).
And then my “pacemaker”, one of the younger runners on our team, suddenly takes off, and I can’t respond. Now I’m going to have to get myself home without help. On the last lap, I try to will a little more pace from my legs, but they don’t respond. Not surprising considering my lack of training. Still, they’re churning away at the same pace they’ve given me for the last three laps. I can’t complain. Finally, into the home straight. I’ve been expecting someone to come past me and it’s not happened yet. If I can surge even just a little, now’s the time. I give it everything I have, for an 85-second finishing lap, and I cross the line with the clock showing 5:41. I’ve not embarrassed myself or the club. Mission accomplished!
My teammates followed me over the line with equally impressive (and in some cases prize-winning) performances, and then it was time to avail ourselves of the free BBQ burgers and hot dogs and settle into our spots on the bleachers to watch the elites show us how it’s really done. The elite men clocked a 62-second final lap with a desperate fight to the finish, really something to see.
All in all, an enjoyable afternoon, a well-organized event, a rare opportunity to run a track race, supporting (and being supported by) my team, renewing my competitiveness, and reassuring myself that my knee can hold up to running fast.
Now to sign up for a fall half-marathon!