Like so many things in life, the experience of a race is bitter-sweet. In some intellectual recesses of my mind, I can take my finished race, roll it around my head like a piece of clay, and look at it ... objectively. In the end, every part of the experience, bitter or sweet, is a positive. I love to race.
Saturday I toed a starting line free of any pain or injury for the first time in well over a year. I was lacking in race fitness perhaps, but other than that, and maybe the beginnings of some kind of developing cold virus, I was ready to make a go of it. I had been looking forward to the Gaucho Gallop 10K since the doctor gave me the OK to do a race. It was my first opportunity to jump in with both feet so rather than my usual build up of nervousness and tension, it was all excitement. Perhaps I had forgotten how painful a 10K can be. Well, I was soon reminded.
About 6 weeks ago, after a 6 week total lay-off from running, after a year of pain, attempts at running, breaks from running, mental anguish, my doctor who has been working with me to overcome injury, gave me the green light to begin SLOWLY re-introducing running back into my training regimen. He was strict in his instruction and warned me gravely that if I am not careful, my injury could be career-ending. Diligently I followed his rules and slowly came back toward my old form. Each running workout gave me hope and I prayed the pain would stay at bay and that the healing would solidly take hold. The slow runs on the track soon gave way to short tempo runs, and as the healing continued and the therapy worked, the tempo runs gave birth to harder intervals. My 2 runs per week led into 3 runs per week, nothing real long, but each week being able to run harder. Finally I was able to officially join in the tri-club track workouts on Tuesdays and have done that now for three weeks. So was I really fitness ready to run a 10K ... no, but I was ready to test myself, test my Achilles, test my mind. That's what the Gallop was for me ... a test.
The weather on the morning of the Gaucho Gallop was so much improved compared to the previous days of wind and rain. For me it ended up being a bit on the warm side (I am not a good warm/hot weather runner), and was a bit breezy out on the course, but certainly nothing to complain about. There were many smiles on the faces of runners as chatting and joking ensued while we waited for the start. It was a nice non-pressure crowd of happy runners.
The Gaucho Gallop course is ... well how shall I put this ... not a PR type course to say the least. It loops through the UCSB campus in ways that I couldn't even begin to describe, and although it was well marked and had ample volunteers pointing the way, it would have been easy to go off course and therefore it was impossible to let your mind go to that "happy place" of race concentration for even a moment. Unfortunately there was a group somewhere behind me that indeed went off course and added about a mile to their race. I, however, thankfully found my way to the finish line. Not only was finding your way a challenge, as well there were many turns, some of them sharp, some subtle ups and downs, some areas of wind in your face, some times of confusion before a volunteer gave me confidence that I was on course, and there was the challenge of having to run the race ... alone. For much of the time I couldn't see the runners ahead, and heard no one behind me. It was just me and my watch. And after a while I wanted to throw my watch in the trash and just sort of crawl through the final miles without the reminder that I was running too slow.
10 K races hurt. I've never run one that didn't. After running this one I decided that I hate 10K's. That is a looooong time to flirt with that red line. At least in a 5K you can talk yourself through it by saying "almost....there...you can.....make it......just....one more.....mile." But in a 10K, at least this 10K, the statement that most often entered my mind was "what the.....are you kidding me.....I still.....have.....another....5K....there.....is no.....way." Even though I hadn't put in the miles to build back my endurance (a fact that also often played in my mind throughout), I still went in with some goals. Goals? Well maybe they were hopes. I didn't know the course ahead of time, and had no idea how I would feel, so, yah, I'll call them "hopes." I hoped I could maintain close to a 6 to 6:05 minute per mile pace. I also hoped that I would feel somewhat in control of my race rather than let the race control me. I hoped I could at least break 38 minutes. All my hopes were dashed and replaced with, "oh my goodness, I hope I can just finish this thing with some semblance of dignity."
The first mile felt lovely and right on pace, 6:05 and was a bit uphill to start. The structure of each mile was inconsistent so keeping an exact pace was not possible, however, I though a second mile of 6:26 was a bit ... off. Ah, but that third mile redeemed my hope, a 6:03. This is where my lack of endurance reared it's ugly head. As the 5K runners peeled off into the stadium to finish, us 10K'ers turned the other way for our second loop of pain. I twisted and turned with heavy, labored heaves of breath through the next miles, following the campus bike paths and pedestrian paths which too closely resembled the Universal Studios Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster, looking desperately for the next mile marker. My pace fell off and I didn't care (the race was in control, not me). There was really nothing I could do about it except to keep going. When I hit the 5th mile marker I had an ever so slight second wind. There were no women ahead of me and I was fairly certain that whoever was behind me was far enough back that they weren't going to catch me, so I settled into the idea that I could win. Since I was so far off my intended pace, winning was the next ideal to hold onto. To be honest, I'd rather lose a race to other women but run a PR, than to win the race but run poorly, but the worst thing of all is to run poorly AND lose. So I wanted to at least have the win.
Finally came the last few hundred meters, the journey through the tunnel onto the Harder Stadium Soccer field and into the finishing chute. Ah, at last I get to stop ... and lean over ... and perhaps collapse ... yah, collapsing sounds good. I scowled at the clock as it flashed my 38:39. Darn, my watch says the same thing. It wasn't what I had hoped for, but it wasn't long before I began to roll it all around in my head and look at it objectively. I just ran without pain. I just ran a 6:14 pace on a hard course without adequate training and preparation. I just beat all the other girls. I just finished the race. I stood at the finish line with other finishers, many of whom ran much slower than is typical for them. It was a hard day for everyone. Some talked about the course structure being a huge challenge. Some said it was just harder this year for some reason. Everyone was happy it was over. I waited for a few moments and watched John finish a strong race. His assessment of the race was consistent with everyone else and we simply enjoyed the fact that we raced, gave it our all, and finished.
I wasn't disappointed in my race. If anything, I am disappointed that I hoped for something which was unrealistic. I'll probably do the same thing next time. So, the Gaucho Gallop is a wrap. It was a good test. So Monday I will be back at it. I am finally able to add some mileage so will do some hard, faster runs but also some longer runs. I will return to the track on Tuesday with great running partners, eager for more intervals. Bring it on because I think I can finally take it.