Friday, April 22, 2011

Race Report: First Gear XC Race 4 - Pawnee Prairie

So, um. This race was in February. Yeah, I'm a little late on updating.

But! But! I promise it is a very good race report and totally worth the wait!

I have been planning to run some of the XC races in Wichita for the past two years, but never get around to it. Mostly, it's because the dates kind of sneak up on me, and I've usually already scheduled other things on Saturday mornings. But Pawnee Prairie Park is one of my favorite running locations in ICT, so I made a point of getting to this.

I was not, how you might say, exactly trained at this point in the year. In fact, I was out of shape. I'd probably run a total of 10 miles in the past two months. So I fully intended to go into the race and treat it like an $8 training run.

And that's exactly what I did. Wait! Wait! Don't leave! I promised you an exciting race report, and I will deliver.

I started in between packs: too slow to keep up with the front runners, but much faster than the next pack back. So I started towards the front, got dropped quickly, and didn't see anyone other than the occasional male as they passed me by . . .

After about a mile, as we were reaching the main turn-around, I heard heavy breathing and footfalls coming up behind me. We were about to get into a narrow section of the trail (moving from pavement to dirt track), so I slowed down and moved to the right so the guy behind me could pass before the path got too narrow. He didn't pass, didn't pass, didn't pass . . . He sure was breathing heavy! He sounded like he was breathing hard enough for two people! Finally, we were well and truly on the dirt, and at that point I wasn't going to let him go around, so I picked it up again and led through the trail section. I know those trails really well; I feel great running soft tracks in my Vibrams; so I figured he could go around me if he wanted to try it.

As we re-emerged from the trees, back onto the pavement, he finally started to pull up alongside me. As he did, I realized that I had actually been hearing three people breathing: the one guy and two women (one of them 5-6 months pregnant). And I didn't really want to be passed by other women--I'd only been passed by men up to that point!--so I picked it up a little bit and ran harder, pacing myself off of them. No one pushed the pace, at that point. I was still running comfortably.

As we got farther into the race, one of the women (the not-pregnant one, let's call her Jill, 'cause that's her name) started to push the pace a little bit. I stayed with her. Suddenly, this was not a training run. This was a race. And I wasn't going to drop off so easily. We set a sharper pace and started to leave the other man and woman behind us. As we came out of the park and onto Pawnee (unpaved, limited-access road), she really started to push. I was feeling okay, so I kept going with her. And then, a good three-quarters mile from the finish, as we were in all but a dead sprint, she gasped to me, "The finish is right ahead, right?" I replied, with some shock, "What? No!" And so she slowed down a little bit. And so I slowed down a little bit (although, in retrospect, that may have been the time when I should have pushed my advantage more).

I did push her over the next half mile or so, trying to break away and drop her, break her spirit, so to speak. But she was very tough and very resilient, and she hung with me the whole time! As we came back into the park, on to the XC course that the race organizers had bush-whacked through the prairie of Pawnee, there was a slight incline. Of course, you realize that slight inclines in Wichita are basically like mountains to anyone from a place with hills, and I was huffing and puffing! Meanwhile, Jill was pulling ahead slowly but surely. I fought to maintain contact, to stay with her, but I was really feeling the effort of the last 1.5 miles (not to mention the previous six months' complete lack of training). She was about 20 yards ahead of me as we came in to the last quarter mile, and turned (what I thought was) the last corner. Still within striking distance, I picked it up, and got to within a hand's reach of her. Then we turned another corner, and I realized there were still about 200 yards left to go. With the finish looking so distant, I gave it up and decided not to kill myself. I let her get away.

Still! I came in fifth out of all the women (34 total). My time was 27:41 (Jill finished in 27:34). Not a stellar 5k time, I will admit, but not bad for untrained, and on trails. I was happy with it.

What I learned from this 5k was a new racing mentality. I have never been able to summon the strength of will to do more than survive in the last 5k of a tri. I've pushed myself to the point beyond pain in an effort not to get passed (at the Easter Sun Run a couple years ago). But I had never before really considered the strategy of racing. Do I go now, or hold back? Should I try to drop her here, try to break her so I don't have to worry about her? Do I have the strength? Do I have the speed? Or is she better than me?

And when I finished, I felt like I was as strong and as fast as her. But she ran a smarter, better race that day. And I know that some of my readers are going to scoff, and think, "Um, hello? You ran a 27-minute 5k! You don't need to think about strategy and 'racing' when it takes you 9+ minutes to run a mile!" And maybe you're right. But I learned something, at this race, so watch out. I might be running 7 minute miles in a couple seasons, and then you better watch your back!

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