Some eons ago, I used to run now and then with a group of women in the Bay Area. The abilities in the group varied wildly, as did the temperments. But it was good to have the camaraderie of other female runners in an age where it was becoming more and more popular to (erroneously) believe that if a woman wanted to run fast, she had to train with men. Mostly, I think we got together to talk about what had or hadn’t worked in a race. There were a few women who were supportive and eternally positive to the point of being entirely and enthusiastically unrealistic. Bad race? Oh, cheer up and go shopping! Stress fracture? Well, good heavens. Just take a day off! Today, I imagine these women wear skirts to races.
However, this was balanced out by a few women who were always relentlessly and depressingly realistic about everything—from that last quarter you just ran one second too slowly to that truly ominous wear pattern near the toe of your shoe. These women scoffed at excuses, and they would have kicked the asses of every single Running Message Board Blowhard who thinks s/he is an authority because s/he has read Daniels Running Formula and Once a Runner. If anyone had handed them a packet of Pace Tats, he or she would have pulled back a bloody stump.
One of these, shall we say, less laughy daffy women had actually qualified to run at the ’88 Olympic Marathon Trials that spring in Pittsburgh. This woman (let’s call her “Lauren” for the sake of not dropping names and for the sake of me not remembering her name) could always be counted on for reminding the rest of us lame asses just how truly average we were. This wasn’t done in a direct or rude way. Typically, it was done by her just showing up at a race.
There were a handful of us in the group who ran around 39 minutes for a 10k, and we totally thought we were all that. (Well, not “all that” since that meant nothing back in 1988. I suppose we thought we were bitchin’. Good grief.) Then Lauren would show up and blast out a 33-something and look no more fatigued than if she had just filed her nails. It was maddening and impressive. However, it put things in perspective.
And, then again, it took them out of perspective. Because sometimes I wondered super-secretly if I could ever be that fast. Could I? And if I could, how would I get there? If I could get there by doing the same training Lauren did, couldn’t we all get there? Or would I always just be a B-level, only remotely talented slob because that’s as far as I could go? Was it talent or work? Sometimes I would lay awake at night worrying about all this, popping out of bed now and then to look at pace charts and get uptight.
One afternoon during a group run, one of the 39-minute chicks was chatting with Lauren about qualifying for the trials. And then…
“Do you think I could qualify?” she asked. Pins could have been heard dropping throughout Golden Gate Park.
Lauren ran on for a while, thinking. Then she just shrugged and said, “Not unless there’s some box you haven’t unlocked yet.”
At the time, I thought that was her sidewise way of saying,” No, you idiot. You’ll never be as fast as me because that’s the way it is.” After all, we all talked about how we trained and what we could do to get faster. Granted, Lauren trained harder than we did, but not that much harder than some of the barely sub-40 10k runners. She was simply fast. We weren’t. There were no magical boxes to unlock. It was what it was.
Or was it? Because over the years, when I get back into racing, I keep looking for that next little box of perfect training that I haven’t unlocked yet. In my mind, the boxes are scattered through the years, and they get tinier and tinier like Russian Matryoshka dolls (yes, I had to google that), and harder and harder to get open. But, at the same time, what the boxes hold become increasingly more valuable.
Along those lines, I think the first box that someone new to racing opens is huge, and the key is practically hurled at your head. Out pops something like the dopey giant gingerbread man from Shrek who stomps about saying, “Yup, yup, yup, run some miles! Okey dokey, lose some weight! Oh my word….Running shoes aren’t sneakers!”
Sometime later, the box has a padlock, and the key is somewhere in your backyard. Maybe. And when you open it, maybe you realize that you wish you hadn’t, because what’s inside requires a lot of attention. Some boxes get tossed, others get lost. But you keep looking for the next one.
Which brings me to the 10k I ran last weekend.
2007/2008 had been a great couple years of racing. Before 2007, I had totally gotten out of racing shape. Naturally, when I made up my mind to return to some semblance of a runner, gargantuan boxes with training gems in them were dropping in front of me left and right. Everything I did worked. It was PR Central (masters PRs, anyway) for nearly 15 months—Not because I was all that, but because I had been all nothing for a number of years leading up to my return to racing. It was like beginning again. Complete with the dopey gingerbread man and everything.
Then, things began leveling off in late 2008. As I had done exactly 20 years earlier, I began to wonder, “Is that it? Is this as fast as it gets? Or is there a box unopened?” I tried a few different things and then, nightmare of nightmares, my times actually began getting slower. Then I entered the manic zone of trying 3 billion things at once. I hit rock bottom when I performed surgery on one of my shoes, followed by dabbing essential oils on the sleeves on my running jackets to give me energy.
Nothing seemed to be the box.
Finally, I did something insane. I just ran. More. A lot more (for me). With absolutely no major goal race or plans for a marathon. Half the time I didn’t wear a watch. Of course, I’d always heard that more miles equals faster times, but I had convinced myself that that was not necessarily true. I mean, I’d known some fast people who never ran more than 35-40 miles a week. Basically, that was one of those boxes that contained something that required a lot of attention. But now I’d opened it.
The race (“Purity’s Moosic City 10k Dairy Dash Run/Walk.” Nashville is all about giving races baffling names.) was known to be a fast course, so I hoped to finally get a PR. After all, the only other 10ks I had run in the past couple years were both serious 10ks from hell. One was run on a course that resembled a non-stop roller coaster. The other was typically held on the most oppressively hot weekend available in Middle Tennessee. This course was flat. The weather was cool. Let’s see what happens.
It’s hard for me to break down races and give the ever-tedious Race Report, because so much of any race is run in a state of utter unawareness outside of my little universe of increasing pain and a watch. I could give intricate details of my 20-minute warmup run (exciting!), but not so much with a race. I vaguely recall being happy/worried that my first mile was not too fast. Then there was a lot of wind around mile 2. Some guy with a tremendously huge Garmin began running beside me near mile 3, and I became preemptively pissed in case he tried to chat or give me advice. Around mile 4, it occurred to me that I was in a rhythm…something I’d been missing in races for nearly half a year. Unlike my past 2 races, I had not fallen into the “I just want to finish” zone. I felt like I was racing. It had been a while.
At mile 5, I was oddly comforted by the fact that Big Garmin dude was pacing with me. I don’t know why. Only the day before, I had made derisive comments about people pacing other people in races. For nearly half a mile, I considered how often I’d been wrong, incorrect, blundering, overly-opinionated, ignorant, stubborn, blindered, mule-like about training and racing. This was a truly exhilirating epiphany. If I remained only 57% as pigheaded and unpleasant in the future, think of how much I might improve!
At mile 5.4 I actually asked Big Garmin how much further we had. He told me quickly and said nothing else. It occurred to me that he had wanted me to keep my big trap shut just as much as I had wanted him to do the same. Then at about 5.9, he said, “Corner’s coming up. Then you’ll see the finish line.” It was exactly what I wanted to hear. At 6.0, he began his finish kick, but turned back to say, “Thanks so much!” He was thanking me? I was actually sorry to see him go. I had no kick left, but felt stronger than most finishes. Hard to explain. And there were the mats, the clock, my watch. A blur. Across. Then, *click,* I’m back…awake from the race. Blink and look around. 44:45, a 90-second PR.
In thinking about the race this week, it struck me how similar this experience was to the 10ks of ’88. In the end, I was only the 4th place female masters last weekend. Like Lauren, the top 3 masters hadn’t just beaten me—they’d blown me away. Two of them, in their 50s, ran the 10k times I ran in my 20s. How?
And so, two decades later, I wonder super-secretly if I could be that fast. Could I?
And if I could, how would I get there?