For all of my hours spent in training, I forget that I’m still pretty fresh when it comes to actual racing. Yesterday I finally raced my first 10K.
How is that possible? What about triathlons???
To be fair, I have covered the 10K distance several times––about 2-3 times a week to be exact––but never a straightforward standalone street race 10K. I’ve raced a couple of Olympic distance triathlons with a 10K off the bike, and one 10K trail run turkey trot. Neither of which felt like a true test of my racing abilities when it comes to running. Yesterday I had the chance to learn something new.
I love the Pacific Palisades. My swim team (Tower 26) practices at Palisades High School and I’ve got quite a few friends who live in the area. It’s also situated perfectly above the beach and makes for a great swim + run workout on warm summer days. When Coach Jim told me to sign up for the 10K, I was excited to do it and then spent the interim days fussing over race strategy.
Based on the simple fact that the race is located in the Palisades, I knew this would be a tough course (for those unfamiliar, the Pacific Palisades is a sprawling community nestled into the western slopes of the Santa Monica mountains. It’s hilly. Like, canyon hilly). But like I do with all things that concern me, I obsessed. I studied the elevation profile (which so closely resembled the tachycardia that it sent me into) and committed the peaks to memory. I found this really nifty split calculator and memorized the splits for my goal time. Did I mention that I get obsessed when it comes to racing?
As far as the physical preparation, I did my usual. My own neighborhood of Mar Vista is also pretty hilly, but with nothing approaching the elevation seen in the Palisades. It’s fairly difficult to train in Los Angeles and not encounter hills, so most of the time hills don’t scare me. I did sprints. I did repeats. It sucked. I did them again. There’s a pretty cool line from Braveheart that I’ve always appreciated, and I use it as my internal mantra whenever I’m climbing a rough hill:
“The English won’t let us train with weapons, so we train with stones.”
As evil as they are, hills are a great way to embrace the natural gifts of the world to grow strong, and, as strange as it sounds, they are part of what I love about training. Finding a way to accept what life presents and then get beyond it and be stronger for it.
Okay, enough about hills. On to the actual race.
One of these days I’ll learn how to get there early. I thought I planned well enough––woke up early, ate my usual race breakfast, watched Tour de France for some additional inspiration, found decent parking––but I still somehow found myself waiting in an endless bathroom queue while the race director fussed over a loudspeaker for us to hurry up. Maybe that’s every race.
I didn’t warm up but I wasn’t planning to anyway (don’t tell Coach Gerry). Since I had a fairly solid idea of the course, I knew that our first mile would be a downhill free-for-all and I planned to use that for warm up. I wasn’t able to slip into the corral I wanted so I was forced to start at the back with the Dogs and Strollers. I told myself that this would also force me to take it easy for the first mile or so. The Race Director told us that they’d had a record 3000+ sign ups and I felt the full field of all 3000 participants. For what has always seemed to me to be a sleepy little neighborhood, I had never seen the Palisades so bustling.
Finally, about 90 seconds after the gun start, I made it to the start line and took off. As predicted, I was besieged by dozens upon dozens of dog walkers, stroller pushes, shuffling children and slow runners. My fault. I knew what was I was getting into. I spent most of the first mile on simple navigation and tried to run light and not push my pace, especially knowing that going downhill would keep me on track for my goal time. Mile 1 went by in a breeze and then we curved at the bottom of our downhill getaway to an upward moving Mile 2.
I’ve been paying more and more attention to heart rate while running these days (especially after the redline event that was my first Half Marathon), and while I did not like the fact that my heart rate was already pushing 170bpm, I was not surprised. I knew it would be a long race. Mile 2 passed, mostly uphill, and as Mile 3 approached the 5K runners split off from the pack. As they left, the field cleared considerably and I found myself comfortably surrounded with other like-minded individuals who were ready to get to work.
Mile 3 into Mile 4 was heavenly. We ran under cool shade across a winding Sunset Boulevard. I got a cheer and a wave from some friends and even caught a glimpse of Coach Jim chasing hard after the number 1 race leader.
For the Heaven that was Mile 3, Mile 4 was Hell. I knew from memorizing my pacing splits that Mile 4 would have had to feature some hills (there was a 90 second split differential between my predicted 1st mile and predicted 4th mile). Unfortunately, for all my obsessing and fussing and predicting, I still couldn’t anticipate what came next. Mile 4 took us into Will Rogers park onto a winding, spiraling trail that can only be described as purgatorial.
We kept going up. We didn’t stop. I thought surely there might be a gentle downslope that would allow mere seconds of relief but it never came. I started hearing poetry in my head as I often do in times of stress––particularly William Blake–– “Fiery the Angels rose” and all that. I looked up above and saw the staggered steps of runners up ahead of me who for all their suffering were sᴛɪʟʟ ɢᴏɪɴɢ ᴜᴘ.
But as much as I wanted to stop going uphill, I wanted to stop running even less. I focused on my goal time. I thought about all the runners I had passed so far and how it would all be for nothing if I walked. I refused to look at my heart rate, knowing that the magnitude of it would scare me into submission. My mind went blank. For the first time I surrendered to the lizard brain which didn’t think about lofty poetic things or running paces or heart rates or incline gradients. I just ran. Ran and prayed.
As all hills do, this one did eventually come to an end and I embraced the downhill with everything I had left. Only at the bottom did I check on my heart rate to make sure that I was recovering properly, and everything appeared to be in working order. I took deeper breaths, reminded myself that 6 miles minus 4 miles is 2 miles and that this race was almost over. We returned to Sunset Boulevard and got back to work.
I saw my friends again on the way back up and let their cheers return me to my full strength. I checked the distance on my watch and was glad to see what I only had about half a mile left to go. We turned off of Sunset with 1000 meters left to go and came upon another hill. This one had nothing on the previous one but my legs were fried to a level I hadn’t experienced before. They were also likely still worn out from a possibly ill-advised several hours of bike climbing only a few days before, but I refused to think about that. The rest of this race was all mental games. I was still within range for my goal time, but only if I worked for it, and I doubted my ability to “work for it” uphill any further.
We came upon a quarter mile left in the run and I tried to think about my fastest quarter mile sprint time and came up blank. We came upon 200 meters and I tried to calculate how long that should take and couldn’t remember. I tried to kick to the finish. I had nothing. As hard as I’ve ever gone in training or races I’ve usually had enough to bust out a tough 30 seconds of work but this time it was completely out of the question. It wasn’t until I was about 20 steps from the finish that I was able to spur my legs into faster motion and then finally push across the line.
The first few moments afterwards were hard. I saw people I recognized but didn’t have the breath to say hi. They asked how I did and I could only point to my watch. Fortunately, this period of extreme exhaustion (which felt much longer than it was), was over within a minute or so and I was back to normal. By the end of 20 minutes I was ready for another run.
This race was the hardest event I’ve done (and quite likely the hardest run I’ve ever done as well), but paradoxically felt really short. I missed my goal time by about 1 minute, but was proud of my effort and for doing what I could to stick with my goal splits even on the tough hills. Having lived in Los Angeles for the past several years, I’ve always made it a point to do something exciting and exhausting on holidays (8 mile sand runs on Thanksgiving, 30 mile beach rides on the 4th of July). The Palisades 10K was a nice addition to the tradition and one that I will look forward to doing again next year.