Monday, September 29, 2014

Lungstrong 15k, 2014: Turning a Corner

This is the fourth consecutive year I've done Lungstrong 15k, and (spoiler alert) it's the fourth consecutive time I've set a 15k PR at the race.  In 2011, I was recovering from a nagging case of double ITBFS, so I ran at an easy pace for fun.  Still, having never raced 15k, it technically was a PR.  The 2012 Lungstrong was the first time I tested myself at the distance, and I was in the peak of the fitness I had built for what was (and still is) my best marathon to date.  2013 Lungstrong was a year in which Dave Munger and I chased the lofty goal of breaking 1 hour on the reputably long course.  We came up short (or long, as it were) of our goal, but I still managed to squeak out a 3 second PR after a miserable last 3 miles.  You can find Dave's recap of that race here.
After a gut-wrenching effort for what amounted to a fairly negligible improvement during the 2013 race, I did not go into this year's 15k with high expectations.  Once again, I am in the peak of my marathon training cycle, and I have been logging some hard workouts and taxing long runs.  Therefore, I approached Sunday's race with working-on-race-strategy mindset.  Sure, I would run hard, faster than I would for a half marathon, but I had no intentions of targeting a PR pace.  I enjoyed a nice warm-up along the 5k course with several friends from DART, and I felt pretty loose for the start of the race.  The lack of PR-chasing pressure made me actually look forward to toeing the start line.
At the start, I lost a few seconds to elbowing for space and I settled in with the traffic.  As always, the first 100 meters or so were deceivingly fast (5:30ish pace), so I made a conscious effort to dial back to something in the mid-6 range.  The crowd eventually thinned out, and I weaved my way through patches of familiar faces.  As we hit the first mile marker well into Jetton park, the clock read 6:35 (although my own GPS mile beep was about 10 seconds earlier).  Perfect.  This was brisk and sustainable.  10 meters ahead of me, I saw John McCormick, Clayton Venhuizen, and unnamed shirtless runner with 1% body fat, and the eventual 2nd overall female.  I had run with John and Clayton respectively in different pacing efforts for longer races, and I knew both of them to be just on the fast side of my wheelhouse.  This pack was not pulling away, and I figured running a second or two faster per mile to stay with them would be better than staying in the no-man's land in which I was running at the time.  For the next 1.5 miles, I made a very methodical effort to close the short distance with them.
Staying with the pack proved to be advantageous.  We naturally ebbed and flowed, with each of us drifting to the front occasionally to share some of the wind-blocking duty.  The camaraderie of running with familiar faces made the miles go by more quickly as well.  Before I knew it, we were at the mile 5 marker in 33 minutes, which meant we were maintaining even splits from the beginning of the race.  I was feeling better than I had at mile 1 or 2, so I figured I would at least hold this pace for the duration of the race and maybe get a sub-62 finish; not a PR, but a great time and fantastic training effort.
Mile 6 of the 9.3(+) mile course is where the race starts to wear on you.  This year was different.  I was feeling relatively good.  According to my watch, I passed through 10k in just under 40 minutes, which is where I was at the same point in 2013, but I was feeling quite fresh this year.  John must have been feeling it too, because he made his move at this point and pulled away from our group decisively.  I still wasn't quite in the chasing mindset, so I did not pursue him, but I did keep him in sight.  Our makeshift pace group began to disintegrate not long after.  Clayton's footfalls faded behind me, and while I could still hear the rapid cadence of 2nd Female, she was retreating slowly as well.  Shirtless had faded a while back, I believe.
There were a handful of hills left in the course, most of them long and gradual, but one short, steep hill before the mile 7 marker was the last real "high-heart-rate" challenge.  I almost died on this hill last year.  Watching John's feet cycle up and down ahead of me helped me crank out the hill without hemorrhaging time, and I caught my breath within a few short moments after.  I was feeling confident and knew I had gas in the tank, so I decided to open the throttle a little bit over the last couple of miles.  It was doubtful that I would catch up to John or the other runner on which he was gaining, but I was keeping them from opening up any more distance from me.  I heard nothing behind me, so I assumed I had broken off completely from what was left of our pack.  I dug in with purpose up the hills, and I turned my legs over as smoothly as I could on the descents.  I was rewarded with some faster splits, despite the increasingly rolling course.
When I turned off four-lane Jetton Road about 3/4 mile from the finish, I glanced over my shoulder back down the road to see what had happened to my running buddies.  2nd Female was about 100 meters behind me, and Clayton was out of view.  I would be in no danger of being sniped from here to the finish.  I milked the last long descent that led to a final climb through the residential back end of the course.  Dave, who won the 5k, was there to snap a photo of me at the bottom of the hill.
Photo courtesy of Dave.  Rarely will you see me smile this far into a race.

With 1/2 mile left, all there was to do was dig.  I glanced at my watch and realized that I had a definite PR in the bag, maybe a sub-61!  I hugged the last couple of turns and bird-dogged the race clock above the finish line on the last straightaway.  By the clock, I was going to miss sub-61 by 4 or 5 seconds, so I just cruised in at the same, steady pace I had maintained for the last mile.  Only after crossing the finish line did I realize that the gun clock was probably 3-4 seconds ahead of my chip time.  Had I sprinted the last straightaway, I likely would have recorded an official sub-61.  My official race time was 1:01:01, which has a nice symmetry to it.  It was also a surprise 30 second PR.
Cruising through the finish.  Photo courtesy of Dave.

I was beaming after I caught my breath.  I ran far more strongly than I figured I would be able to, and I had the impression that I could have kept it up for a little while longer if needed.  If this race was indicative of my fitness, than I can surmise that my marathon training is turning a corner, and I am beginning to reap the benefits of the program.  Lungstrong was a huge confidence builder, and an excellent high note to be my last race before Marine Corps Marathon in a month.  Now, I just need to get in one or two more quality long runs and nail some hard workouts, and I'll be ready to tear up some roads in DC come October 26th!  Run Reckless!
Great Day!  Bring on MCM!

P.S. For what it's worth, I do believe the 15k course is long by anywhere from .15-.20 miles.  According to my Suunto GPS data and Strava, I ran  15k in under an hour.  Hurray for that!  It may not be official, but at least I know it's within my ability, and that's all I need to know.