Middletown 10 Miler – Race Report

Getting to do something you love with people you love and getting an outcome better than the best one you imagined. Is this not the stuff that dreams are made of? That was this year’s Middletown race.

This is the sixth year of this race, but the Hartford Marathon Foundation keeps changing it. The race started as a four miler. They added a half marathon. They changed the course. They changed it again. One year it got postponed because of a huge storm. This time around it was a 10 mile race plus a 3.5 miler. Of course most of my friends and I were doing the 10 miler. Plus, North Shore Strider was coming for the race and staying with us overnight. We went to dinner Saturday night with the Retiree.

Racing at home makes me nervous. Racing is supposed to make you nervous, but racing in Middletown can send me right off the edge. I had a long talk with Coach Mick Friday night and that helped, but by Saturday night, I had a new attack of nerves. Coach Mick had suggested a goal of 1:21 or thereabouts and that seemed pretty reasonable to me. My PR for a 10 mile race was 1:25:25 from Broad St. 2016. So 1:21:xx would be an enormous PR and I’d be happy with that.

But North Shore Strider hadn’t picked this race randomly. The Retiree was pacing the 1:20 group and she planned to run with him. Could I join them? That seemed like a big stretch. Not completely impossible, but a stretch. Using my time from the Bunny Rock 5K, the various race time predictors were saying 1:21:30-1:22:30 depending on which calculator you used. But, the weather at the Bunny Rock race had been truly awful and as HPRM #1 put it “There is no reason to believe (I mean really, none) that you’re some kind of 5K prodigy who can run 23:20 in ATROCIOUS weather off of literally ZERO training specific to a 5K.” I didn’t mind this since I have no claims or plans to be a 5K prodigy. But bad weather and lack of 5K training meant I might actually have under-performed at the Bunny Rock race? That was almost too much for my brain to handle. But I did really want to run with North Shore Strider and the Retiree. Then it turned out that Ghostie was joining them as well. I love running with Ghostie. But 1:20?

So, my wheels kept spinning until they were ready to fly right off my bus. Should I start with them and hang on as long as I could? Maybe run just the first mile with them and then revert to my race plan and run my own race? Surely running your own race is always a good idea? Or, try to start with them and see how long I could stick it out? But the race predictors, but Coach Mick’s original plan, but the bunny race, etc. Eesh, I just couldn’t settle.

After texting with Coach Mick again Saturday night, I asked what he thought about aiming for 1:20-1:21. Was that crazy? He said, he would not use the word “crazy.” Maybe “aggressive.” Ok, aggressive but not crazy. I touched base with HPRM #1 and he asked: How did I feel about “aggressive?” I had no idea. Maybe scared would have been the more honest answer. We had been chatting about running and faith earlier in the day and he noted that the thing Jesus says most in the Gospel is some variation of “Do not be afraid.” He said: Christ calls us to live life with a bold and unafraid spirit.

I have sometimes raced conservatively. I know this about myself. I have often run to within the minute of the time predicted for me by my coach. Often within 10 seconds. That might be because I have had the privilege of working with some truly excellent coaches and I give copious feedback so they know where things stand. It might also be because I run to meet expectations. But not to break them. I suspect my inner running circle knows this about me. Now I was getting nudged to run more aggressively. When people ask me what I have learned from running, I always say: To stop being afraid. Now I was looking at fear in running again. I went to bed not knowing how I was going to handle the race.

Things were not much clearer when I woke up the next morning. This race doesn’t start until 11:30am so North Shore Strider and I hung out and chatted and enjoyed our oatmeal. I got to see her prep her UCAN, which she’s been trying for races. The Incredible Mervus and I did a bit more clean-up for the post-race party. Suddenly it was time to go and the only thing I had really decided was not to look at my watch during the race. I’ve done a lot of running by feel or effort this year, often following Tina Muir’s policy of #nowatchme. I don’t always run that way. But now, I was making myself crazy with my internal battle between 1:20:xx and 1:22:xx and I needed to shut that down, so no looking at pace was the way to go.

North Shore Strider and I got down to the South Green for packet pickup just after 10:30. We got our bibs and shirts, found our friends, and did a quick warm-up. As we dropped stuff at the van, I grabbed a pen and scrawled “Be Brave and Unafraid of Spirit” on the back of my bib.

We found Teacher Runner and Snarky Girl at the starting line, but hanging back a bit. I dragged them up to the front and introduced them to the Retiree. In my sometimes-bossy way, I announced: Hey friends, we are running 1:20 today, this is our pacer, the Retiree, he’s fabulous, just stick with him. We heard the national anthem and off we went.

I have run every single foot of this race many times. These are the roads we train on constantly. I know the mile markers from place to place. I know the potholes. I know the hills, even the ones that are so gradual you can’t see them. These streets are the tapestry that make up the backdrop of my daily running. Before the two mile mark, I had seen friends from church handing out water and been passed by twin boys I have known since before they could walk. I love being integrated into this small town of mine but it also freaks me out a bit on race day. They are going to see me out here running. I look ridiculous, I am such a poser. Who do I think I am and what do I think I’m doing? But I feel this less every year and much less this year. I have become more public with my running and even my non-runner friends know about my crazy hobby now. I’ve been at this long enough in a serious enough way that I am starting to look the part a bit more. This year, more than any previous year, I am more comfortable with this aspect of my identity being public and that feels good.

We started the race with a great crew. The Retiree had his special pacing singlet and his sign that he had to carry the whole race. Also present and accounted for were me, North Shore Strider, Teacher Runner, Ghostie, and Snarky Girl, and a woman named Sue, who seemed to know the Retiree from previous races. We came through the first mile split in 8:11, just as planned. I pulled my arm sleeve over my watch so I wouldn’t look again by accident. I did peek one more time – in the second mile, the pace felt too hard and I checked. 7:50. Sorry Retiree, I can’t hang there. But a second or two after I backed off, he also noticed and slowed down. After that, no more looking at the watch.

The course is two loops, a shorter one around campus and a longer one, out towards our house. I had decided to check in with myself at mile 3, when we passed by the start again. I felt fine and I could tell I was running pretty smoothly. In fact, having become comfortable running close to High Power Running Mentor #1 last weekend, I found myself frequently right at the Retiree’s shoulder and happy there. As we passed mile 3, I told the Retiree that HPRM #1 thinks I should race more aggressively. The Retiree said he wouldn’t disagree. I said: Remind me of that around mile 7.

The next few miles passed by pretty well. I was starting to work now. The Retiree and I are very good friends and apparently that meant I felt comfortable cursing at him while we were running. I can drop F-bombs with the best of them, when I’m I the right frame of mind and I guess that’s the frame of mind I was in!

At the five mile mark, the Retiree checked in with his crew. How were we all doing? I was right on his shoulder again and said, I am just going to take this mile-by-mile. To be honest, I had not expected to still be with the pace group. I knew his pacing plan was 8:10-8:15 for the first few miles and then dropping to 8:00, and speeding up the last few miles which are downhill. I figured when the 8 minute miles started, I would be done and the trick would be to drop back intelligently, meaning not too much. Instead I was still with the group. Right on the Retiree’s shoulder. Ghostie was saying I looked like a machine – “In a good way, of course!” But I also felt like one. Just hammering away at it.

When I got scared, which was often, I repeated what Coach Mick and HPRM #1 had told me. This is aggressive, but not crazy. Run with a bold and unafraid spirit. This is aggressive, but not crazy. Be bold and unafraid. God’s eye is on the sparrow and also the long distance runner. Don’t worry about the end of the race. You are running fine now.

We came up Long Lane and Long Hill. I have run these streets so many times. I know the dips and the crests in the road. I know how to run them feeling smooth and happy. I know the right turn onto Daniels and the sudden steep climb that is shorter than you expect. Suddenly we were at the 6 mile mark and I know this course is downhill from here on out. Much to my surprise, I was still with the 1:20 pace group. It occurred to me for the first time that I might run under 1:20. In fact, I was quite certain that was possible.

We turned right again onto Laurel Grove and a headwind hit us. The Retiree immediately jumped ahead a bit and waved to me to get behind him. This wind was less crazy than at the bunny race and drafting actually worked. I stuck behind him until we got to the dirt road through the park, my very favorite stretch of road in town. The Retiree kept telling me to take deep breaths. We came down out of the park and turned right. Next up are a couple of small hills where you can catch your breath from the steep descent. As we passed seven miles, I asked the Retiree what he was supposed to tell me. He didn’t remember and there was no way I had the breath to explain the whole run aggressively thing.

With about 2 miles to go, the Retiree told us to pull ahead. Snarky Girl had dropped back a bit but the rest of us went. We were now running ahead of the 1:20 pacer, just hammering it. I asked Sue how old she is as it occurred to me we had four different age groups and we might all place. She is 60 and our age distribution is confirmed. We were not competing with each other so much as working like crazy together to finish this race strong.

Our gang running ahead of the Retiree!

We passed the tennis courts and the water station with the church friends again and turned onto High St. I knew the Retiree was behind us, but I had no idea how far back. Just before we turned left onto College Street, Maple Leaf Trail Runner emerged from behind a tree. She snapped this picture and the Retiree said something like “Does everyone here know you guys???” That’s when I realized how close he was. Too close. College Street is a big downhill and I remembered Coach Mick’s advice: Most people attack the uphills and it zaps their energy and they don’t run the downhills hard enough. Better to chill a little when running uphill and really go for it on the downs. I took that to heart and found another gear. North Shore Strider asked something, but I couldn’t understand what and couldn’t answer anyway. Within seconds she was next to me again and we flew down College together.

Then we turned onto Main Street and we could see the finish line. I told myself to expect it to appear miles away so when it showed up, it actually didn’t seem so far off. I spotted the Incredible Mervus in the crowd and he jumped in to run a short stretch with me! He’s never done that! I could see the clock read 1:19:04 and I knew I was going to be well under 1:20:00. Our little pace crew gang blasted down the street. Five of us finished within seven seconds of each other, all but Snarky Girl more than 20 seconds under 1:20 and she’s just a few seconds over!

I got my medal and my water and for the first time in a long time, I cried at the end of a race. I am hugging Mervus. I am hugging Teacher Runner. I am hugging the Retiree (“You are freakishly strong!”) I am hugging Ghostie and North Shore Strider and Snarky Girl and crying. I had a crazy fantasy about finishing this race with these people, probably about a minute slower than we actually ran it and that was my very best imaginable outcome for the day.

Eventually we calmed down a bit and checked the official results. We all came in fourth or fifth place in our various age groups except Sue who has taken first. Somehow this was collectively hilarious. I called Coach Mick for the first time without a text warning. He did not even say hello, but just asked: “Was someone else wearing your watch? That was amazing!” and then “Do you know what your last mile split was? 7:25!” Totally shocked, I tell him I took his advice about running the downhills hard to heart! I was still sort of incoherently happy when a friend from Running 4 Real said hi.

After milling around a bit, North Shore Strider and I got pizza and did our cool down. The running felt completely awful but the conversation was top notch. Back at the house, the Incredible Mervus prepared both dishes we had planned as he realized my ability to cook was severely diminished by my post-race high. For the next three hours or so, runners and their families come and go and life is truly so good.

I’m left stunned. I have run beyond expectations maybe for the first time. I remember Broad Street from two years ago. I was there with a huge group of Sub30 people and a very tiny group of the really fast folks ran under 1:20. Now I have done that too. That’s going to take awhile for my brain to accept, but I am so happy and have not stopped smiling since the race.


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1 Response to Middletown 10 Miler – Race Report

  1. Congratulations on an amazing race, Sarah! I love how you trusted your training and your group, and that you all had each other to push as a big supportive family to the finish line! Also, all your runner-friend nicknames are adorable.

    You are SO strong and I am so impressed!

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