Monday, September 20, 2010

It makes for a story

An inaugural run is the unknown. The course is unknown. Race organizers, as excellent as they are, might miss something, misjudge something. Whatever the unknown brings, good or bad, it makes for a story.

The course of the inaugural Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon, which was held yesterday, was known for the first 8 miles or so, since it covered the same course as the George Washington Parkway Classic 10-mile race.
I knew I’d start downhill and then face hills from miles 2-5. I knew miles 5-8 would be flat. Then I had to trust the course and elevation maps for clues as to how I might feel, the experience I might have. But maps can’t reveal the nitty gritty.

I assumed the first half of the Wilson Bridge would be uphill. Race organizers even dubbed this portion “The Rude Awakening” after “The Awakening” statue that had moved from Hains Point in DC to the National Harbor complex in Oxen Hill, MD, where the race finished. We all ran past a sign announcing “The Rude Awakening” at the entrance to the footpath on the bridge. But that hill was almost nothing, a gradual uphill that was easy to stay strong on – even though there was no shade, and the late summer morning was heating up.

Here is the trick, which I anticipated pre-race, but the rational expectation didn’t much lessen its impact: When we came over the bridge and hit the 10-mile mark, we could see National Harbor and the finish line in the distance, but it was still 3.1 miles away. We were still required to wrap up and around the National Harbor complex. No matter what I know rationally, the sight of the finish line affects me. And my subconscious brain has far too much influence on my body. Sometimes I have to fight to stay in charge. But I sped up, almost without noticing, enough that I felt ill and dizzy for a moment around mile 11. I think I’d run a 7:15 mile (slow to some, fast for me). So I slowed down. Then I felt as if I were crawling. But I fought to stay in control.

Then I was faced with a steep hill going up and curving to the right. I couldn’t see the end of it. I decided to walk for a moment. A very sweaty man (sweat was dripping off of his soaked shorts), considerably older than I, maybe in his 50s, shuffled by me and said, “Come on, just jog up it.” I replied, sounding much more cheery than I felt, “I’ll make it!” I did know I would make it, but I just needed a moment. But I listened to the wise runner, and I jogged. I passed him on the hill, thanking him as I went past.

From there, I knew the course was all downhill or flat. I let myself fly down the hill – leaning in to take advantage of gravity. A fantastic cooling breeze kicked up off the water.

But then I faced the last rude awakening, almost a mile on gravel, a bleak, under-construction stretch. These were grey, chunky stones, deep and loose enough that we were kicking them up, leaving distinct footprints. I felt forced into running on my toes, which I find uncomfortable and tiring. I kept going at a quick pace and just hoped that portion would be over soon and that I wouldn’t fall. Of course, I made it through. I was elated to see the cement sidewalk going along the harbor. I feared a turn to the right was going to be an uphill to the finish, but a quick left averted that and led to another left, where the finish was. The finish line snuck up on me a bit, but I was happy to see it. 

The Awakening statue looked much smaller at the harbor than it used to at the tip of Hains Point. But there was my husband and my two boys, aged 6 and 3. I ran to the side and lifted the 3-year-old up and over the fence. He reached for me, until he realized I was sweaty and scrambled to be handed back to his father. I pulled the 6-year-old up and over, and he, too, wanted to go back. He doesn't care if I'm sweaty, but the statue of the buried giant was more of an attraction. At this point, race volunteers reprimanded me, telling me to keep moving. I didn’t argue, and I got moving, assuming I could find my way back. I’ve done the find-the-family-in-a-packed-finish-area thing many times before.

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