Enjoy the mystery

In the first chapter of Endure, Alex Hutchinson describes how a race-timing snafu paved the way to the breakthrough performance he had been seeking for years: running 1,500 meters in under four minutes. He’d come close as a high school athlete – 4:02 – but the needle had barely moved since then. “As a twenty-year-old junior at McGill University,” he writes, “I was starting to face the possibility that I’d squeezed out every second my body had to offer.” He was headed to a race at a school where he would face the added (and suboptimal) quirk of racing on a 200-meter track. This, he thought, was the wrong place to make another run at the sub-four, but after watching a female teammate crush her own personal record in the event before his, he decided at the last minute to just go for it. “I knew I needed to run each 200-meter lap in just under 32 seconds to break four minutes, and I had spent countless training hours learning the feel of this exact pace. So it was a shock, an eye-widening physical jolt to my system, to hear the timekeeper call out, as I completed my first circuit of the track, ‘Twenty-seven!’”

 Waiting for the gun at the start of the Reebok Boston 10K for Women, October 8th, 2018

Waiting for the gun at the start of the Reebok Boston 10K for Women, October 8th, 2018

On Monday, as I approached the 4-mile marker on the Reebok 10K race course, I got my own eye-widening jolt. I expected the clock to say something between 36 and 37 minutes – accounting for the 9ish-minute per mile pace I assumed I was running as well as the brief lag between the starting gun and my own crossing of the start line. Instead, as I drew closer and the numbers slowly came into focus, I saw 34-something, ticking over to 35:00 as I passed. No way. If I was correct in assuming that I had crossed the start line about 30 seconds after the gun, that meant I had just run four miles in 34:30. Back in November, I had finished a 4-mile race in 34:40, shaving four seconds off my previous personal best. I had executed a precise, smart plan for that race, carefully calibrating my effort over every mile and eking out that finish with absolutely nothing left. Had I really just beaten that time by a full ten seconds?

My mind went immediately to Alex Hutchinson and what went through his head after he heard that thrilling “Twenty-seven!” from the timekeeper. “As I started my second lap,” he writes, “I had to reconcile two conflicting inputs: the intellectual knowledge that I had set off at a recklessly fast pace, and the subjective sense that I felt surprisingly, exhilaratingly good.” 

To add to the confusion, I was dealing the additional input of a slight suspicion that the Boston University boathouse turnaround had come a little too soon. In past years, I remembered running most of the way up the overpass before the hairpin turn back down Memorial Drive, whereas this time we had only gone about halfway up. Between that and the implausible 4-mile PR, I had reason to question the information I was receiving.

And yet…I did feel good. Really, really good. I was expecting the hard work of 10K effort to feel like a discouraging slog, as it did back in April at the James Joyce Ramble, where I had been ready to swear off the 10K distance forever. Why did it feel so different this time? It was impossible to know the answer, because I had absolutely no information about how fast I was going other than the race clocks at every mile. Determined to run by feel and to eradicate my dependence on splits and data, I had set my watch for the Reebok 10K to display only one metric: altitude. For a famously flat race, at sea level. That’s right, I told myself, if you look at that watch, all you’re going to get is a random number that makes no sense and has no relevance to the work at hand. This race is all about feel. Am I holding back enough in mile 1? Am I picking it up in mile 2? Am I wanting to drop out at mile 3? Am I…setting an all-time personal record at mile 4?

I had my intellectual reasons to suspect that something was off, and I was prepared to let the 5-mile clock wake me from my reverie. But here’s the thing: that stretch between the 4 and the 5 mile markers is the part where you throw down. Crossing the Massachusetts Avenue bridge back to Boston for the final haul is where the magic happens. It is not the time to question your performance.

 It was at this point that I shouted, “look, the leaders are on the bridge!!” to no one in particular, and exactly zero people acknowledged that I had said anything. #nerd

It was at this point that I shouted, “look, the leaders are on the bridge!!” to no one in particular, and exactly zero people acknowledged that I had said anything. #nerd

One of the things I love about this race is that those of us who are on pace to finish in under an hour or so get the special thrill of seeing the lead pack turn onto the bridge as we’re returning from the first turnaround. I love this moment. I think of where they are in their race: this is a crucial point for them. This is where somebody’s going to make a move, if they haven’t already. When I reach that same point, I am making my own move. I know that if I can hold on until the middle of the bridge, I then get to cruise down the very gradual downward slope of the back half, a boost that will propel me onto Commonwealth Avenue, and that’s where I know it’s okay to really jump the electric fence and enter the pain cave, because I’m that close. I didn’t want to deprive myself of that last, burning effort that I knew from years of running this course. So, I made the decision to live in the world where I had just PRed over 4 miles, and I let the grin spread across my face as I pushed onward. I didn’t need data to know, like Alex Hutchinson knew as he finished his second lap in 57 seconds, “that something special was happening.”

I reached the 5-mile marker: 43:30-something. Subtract that 30-second lag at the start line, and I had now set a new 5-mile PR. I was, again, suspicious, but at that point, I was eager to finish just so I could finally see what my own watch said (besides, of course, the altitude). All I knew for sure was how I was feeling, and I was feeling like I was barely holding on, which was exactly what I knew I wanted to feel at that point on the course. Alex Hutchinson, again, in the 1,500: “As the race proceeded, I stopped paying attention to the split times. They were so far ahead of the 4:00 schedule I’d memorized that they no longer conveyed any useful information. I simply ran, hoping to reach the finish before the gravitational pull of reality reasserted its grip on my legs.” 

Commonwealth Ave felt interminably long to me. 1.2 miles to go; might as well be 12. So I broke it up: one cross street at a time, in reverse alphabetical order. Hereford, Gloucester, Fairfield, Exeter, Dartmouth, Clarendon, Berkeley, Arlington. Names I had memorized as a kid. Then the rapid right, left, left, around the Public Garden, and then I would see the finish line and barrel towards it. My breathing was shallow and totally out of control around the turns and towards the chute. I stopped my watch as I crossed the final timing mat, and the moment of truth was nigh: 54:02, over a minute faster than my 2009 PR of 55:06. I was completely stunned. My mind flew back to that weirdly-placed turnaround, the implausible 35:00 on the 4-mile clock – this wasn’t really happening. But then I turned on my phone and I had an e-mail in my inbox containing my official time: 53:59. I started weeping.

Alex Hutchinson finished his 1500 that day in 3 minutes, 52.7 seconds, “a personal best by a full nine seconds. In that one race, I’d improved more than my cumulative improvement since my first season of running, five years earlier.” A teammate who was also timing the lap splits later told Hutchinson that his first lap had taken 30 seconds, not 27, and the second was 60 seconds instead of 57. It was unclear why the lap timer had been so far off, but as Hutchinson puts it, “he’d misled me into believing that I was running faster than I really was, while feeling unaccountably good. As a result, I’d unshackled myself from my pre-race expectations and run a race nobody could have predicted.”

 Sigh. At least I wasn’t totally unprepared for this news.

Sigh. At least I wasn’t totally unprepared for this news.

Later that day, my suspicion about that fourth mile was confirmed via email from the race organizer: the second turnaround had indeed been moved at the last minute, shortening the course by an estimated 300 meters. Emily Sisson, who won the race in 30:39, summed it up pretty well: “I felt really good [at mile four], and I wondered what I ran; [my watch read] 4:05 and I said, 'I don't feel THAT good.'” By then, though, Sisson was already in the process of dropping her competitors and would continue to do so decisively over the Mass. Ave bridge and beyond, eventually finishing 33 seconds ahead of the second-place runner. Maybe she could have run an actual course record that day – on the shortened course, she crushed Molly Huddle’s previous 31:21 record by 42 seconds – but she’ll never know. Regardless, she is on her way to an exciting Olympic start in 2020.

 Mile 4 was actually  slower  than mile 3, according to the eventual non-altitude-related data I got. How would I have reacted to that information in real time?

Mile 4 was actually slower than mile 3, according to the eventual non-altitude-related data I got. How would I have reacted to that information in real time?

The automatic question for me, too, is that of what might have been. Would I have run a PR on a full 10K course? I am confident that I could have. I ran a gorgeous negative split despite my total lack of a precise pacing plan, and by the time I got to the turnaround where the course was shortened, I had picked up my speed considerably since the start. Had I run an extra 300 meters at my second-half pace, I could still have finished faster than 55:06. But would I have run such a strong second half without the benefit of that psychological jolt I got from my fictitious fourth mile? It’s not a guarantee, and I will never know. Remember what I wrote before the race, though: I guessed that if everything went right and if I successfully executed the race strategy I wanted, the Reebok 10K of 2018 would be my fourth fastest, somewhere between 58 and 59 minutes. I finished an almost-10K a full four minutes faster than my best-case-scenario 10K projection. I don’t think I actually need to know anything else.

This is not the race story that I expected to share. I thought I would be writing more about the tears in my eyes as I crossed the start line – why do I always cry when I start this race? Probably because it means more to me than any other event I have ever run. I can’t believe I almost skipped it this year out of some worry that I would find a way to disappoint myself. This is the race that my mother ran for years before her breast cancer diagnosis. This is the race where, in 2009, I ate dinner with Molly Huddle, shook hands with Joan Benoit Samuelson, and met Jane Rasmussen, the woman who later rented me her beautiful property in Maine for my wedding. This is the race that I wrote about in my first contribution to Another Mother Runner in 2016. That year, my 13-month-old baby skipped her nap so that I could hug her at the finish line, my first Tufts 10K finish as a mother runner. I could never have gone wrong in lining up for this race and laying myself open to the possibilities it had always provided me. I have to credit my “pain of a brother” Henry, a seasoned racer himself, for the following, which came out in a text exchange last night: “it’s so fun to start with a plan and then promptly let it fade to the background in favor of adventure and unreasonable ambition.” There’s that word I have tried to eradicate from my racing vocabulary – “fun” – but I think he’s using it correctly here. I didn’t line up on Monday to have fun, but some sort of painful, thrilling and life-affirming fun found me, and I don’t really need to know what it all means.

 My mom, Ann Roy, and me, age 2, on October 10th, 1988.

My mom, Ann Roy, and me, age 2, on October 10th, 1988.

 Me and my daughter Rosalind, age 13 months, on October 10th 2016. I hope this race stays in our family for many more generations.

Me and my daughter Rosalind, age 13 months, on October 10th 2016. I hope this race stays in our family for many more generations.