Racing in the time of social distancing? An unofficial virtual race? A not-race race? What to even call what I did last Saturday?
This year’s Middletown 10 Mile race was scheduled for April 5th. It’s been postponed to September when we are all hoping to be back to racing with other people. With the collapse of the spring racing season, runners have had to decide what to do. When the Middletown race was postponed, I let Coach Mick know and figured he’d rearrange the training schedule accordingly. He *did* rearrange the schedule, but somehow I ended up with a 10 mile run at 8-8:15 pace for Saturday. I kept hoping it was going to get “rearranged” right off the schedule, but no such luck. Finally I realized I was either going to have to say I didn’t want to run it or just suck it up and do it. Of course, I chose the latter.
I was working to get my head around the idea of 10 fast miles when I realized I could just run the Middletown race course. We aren’t supposed to be running in large groups, but Middletown streets are very quiet right now. On my normal runs, I don’t see many people or even a lot of cars. Maybe I should run the race course? Maybe I should even try to run it pretty fast? My 10 mile PR is 1:19:35 set in 2018 on this same course. It’s fairly likely that under the right conditions, I could beat that. Maybe I should try?
As the weekend got closer, I wondered about running with someone. We are still finding our way here. Meeting up to run is enormously reduced. Small groups of 2-4 people sometimes still see each other while running. I describe this as “running in the vicinity of each other” because we are generally 10 to 20 feet apart. We can still talk but there’s a fair amount of “What did you say? Couldn’t hear that!” Is this okay? No one knows. I feel weird even admitting to this practice. It’s definitely not against current Connecticut rules, but there’s a lot of shaming going on in the running community right now. There’s also a lot of caution when people do see each other. In any case, I considered texting Coach Mick to say, hey, I’d like to run with a couple of the girls this weekend and they don’t feel like 10 miles at 8-8:15 pace. I knew he’d say that was fine. I also knew it was *me* who didn’t feel much like 8-8:15 pace.
Instead I texted Speedy Girl to see how she felt about 10 miles at 8-8:15 pace. Speedy Girl is a newer local friend who is looking to run a lot of miles and can apparently run any pace for any distance. She was up for running the Middletown course at whatever pace I felt like. I rallied to the idea of 10 faster miles and a potential PR attempt.
Now I had a series of decisions to make. PR attempt or not? First I had to run the idea by Coach Mick. Totally fine with him, of course. I let the Incredible Mervus in on the idea and I told Speedy Girl. Race morning I decided I wanted *someone* else to know what I was up to, so I texted the Fabulous Femmes. Go get it, they cheered! I didn’t tell anyone else, but next time I do something like this, I’m going to let people know. It always helps me to know my friends are cheering, even if it’s virtual.
I had a series of other decisions to make:
Eat my traditional pre-race pasta dinner? No. I had planned to make shakshuka with chickpeas and homemade whole wheat bread. Plenty of carbs there and much tastier than pasta sauce from a jar.
Should I wear my racing outfit? Sure, why not? Pink Sub-30 shirt, Nike capris with the pink stripes, stripey arm warmers, pink socks.
WHICH SHOES? I had a private conniption fit on that question. The Zoom Flys that High Power Running Mentor #1 says most closely mimic the Next%s? The actual Next%s? I settled on my original pair of Nike Vaporfly 4%s. Those shoes are too old for a serious race, but they are still plenty bouncy and they would help make the whole thing feel more real.
Should I make a pretend bib for myself? No, that felt too weird.
Yes, to my regular pre-long run breakfast of oatmeal and coffee.
A compromise of one caffeine tablet, not two.
No, to showing up an hour ahead of time – no bib to collect, no parking issues, I would just warm up with Speedy Girl.
Speedy Girl and I met at the YMCA parking lot. We did our dynamic warm-ups and I equivocated about how fast I felt like running. We had both dressed to run fast – light-weight clothes even at 42 degrees with a wind chill of 35 or so. Except for a bit of a wind, perfect racing weather. She suggested a few miles at 8:30 and then move to 8:00, finishing faster. The course ends with 3.5 miles of downhill and I readily agreed to this plan. Let the record show – this is the first real moment of “taking the deal.” HPRM#1 would definitely have recommended starting much closer to 8:00 pace and I would have agreed with him under normal circumstances. But these weren’t normal circumstances.
We jogged up the hill to High Street. For my next non-race race, I’ll do a better warm-up. It’s really hard to take a non-race as seriously as I take an actual race. A mile isn’t really enough of a warm-up for me. Anyway. We “lined up,” said GO and started running.
Let the record also show that we maintained the recommended six feet of distance at all times. Indeed, since there are almost no cars on the streets of Middletown at the moment, it was no problem to simply run on opposite sides of the road. Since there were no other participants in the race, we had no risk of getting tangled up in traffic at the start. We just kicked things off, running down High Street and taking the left onto Washington Terrace.
I peeked at my watch to check our pace after we rounded the corner: 7:45. Hmmm. That’s nowhere near the 8:30 we said we were aiming for. It’s a good deal faster than the 7:57 I needed to PR. Whatever – I figured we’d settle after a mile or so. I had completely forgotten my 5K technique of switching to kilometers. Something to consider for my next not-race race. The first mile clicked off at exactly 7:57 pace. A few thoughts crossed my mind simultaneously. I felt pretty good. Maybe I was going to PR today after all, despite my quick willingness to take the deal earlier. Also I remembered – Speedy Girl doesn’t wear a watch. If I wanted to be aware of pace, that was my job. The next mile clicked off at 8:01 and I still felt good. Hmmm.
Mile 3 starts with a pretty decent-sized hill and we had started running into the wind. But, Speedy Girl also started giving me a series of form cues. Score! I have an amazing team behind me with a fabulous coach, the amazing HPRM#1, my wonderful trainer – but none of them run with me. Here was someone right next to me (well, on the other side of the road, but maybe she could see better from over there?) saying, pick up your knees a little more, relax your shoulders, tuck your hips under, short strides up hill, open up on the downhill. Whoa! YES!
On the other hand, 8:15 for mile 3. Much too slow for a PR. My brain insists on calculating how far behind pace I am already. I tell my brain to shut up, it doesn’t matter, this is all about process. There’s a WHOLE lot of race to go and it is way too early for negative thoughts. I try to imagine the friends who normally staff the water stations cheering for me. This not-race lacks the energy of an actual race and I’m already missing it.
During the 4th mile, we ran past the Wesleyan tennis courts. Speedy Girl called out a hello to a couple of runners getting out of their cars. I see Early Bird! They confirm that they are also running the Middletown course today. Great minds! I wonder who will show up Sunday, the day the race was originally scheduled for. We run past the Bieman Triangle area where Fast Friend used to have her dig and I think how much I miss seeing her. My watch beeps out 8:07 for mile 4.
We turn onto the path by Long Lane and Speedy Girl tells me we are going to pick it up. I look at her like she’s crazy and inform her that we gain 53 feet along this stretch of road. This is where I run mile repeats and I feel every inch of that gain right now. She says she can hear in my breathing that I can pick it up, so I do my best. That’s when I pull the sleeve of my arm warmer over my watch. Speedy Girl doesn’t have a watch, but she knows damn well how fast we’re going. If she’s paying that much attention to how I’m doing, I’m giving this race over to her. I wish she knew me better so she’d have the keys to help me unlock the grip my mind can put on my legs, but covering the watch helps get my mind out of the equation.
Inside, I’m smiling. If we can do this once, we can do it again. Not this crazy not-race race during the Covid-19 pandemic. But this running-hard-together (in the general vicinity of each other!), the joy and satisfaction of seeking speed or helping someone else do so. We are newish friends with so many conversations yet to come and I am so looking forward to them. This is a low stakes not-race race and I don’t even tell her that I’ve just covered my watch and put her in charge.
I love the Middletown 10 miler because these are the streets I run all the time. I know every rise and dip and every pothole. I know where the course used to go when this was a half marathon. The Friday girlfriend runs and our standard five mile loop are both on this course. I take my Gu on the section after mile 5, which is mostly flat and straight. We make the turn onto Daniels and then it’s nearly all downhill. I remember running this with the Retiree as pacer two years ago and our great gang aiming for a sub 1:20 time. Maybe in September!
We come to Laurel Grove, which runs through Wadsworth State Park, Middletown’s only dirt road. This is my favorite road because it’s so beautiful, but I realize immediately that the Vaporflys and slick dirt roads are a terrible mix – something I knew but forgot.
Running down Laurel Grove I remember for the first time what Coach Mick always tells me before a race: Find some joy. I’m not sure there is joy to be found today but I start searching with my heart. I am free. I am running outside on my favorite street. The world is maybe going to hell in a handbasket but right this very second, I am doing what I love. My heart lifts some, but it’s like there’s a damper on it. I think of Mistress Triple M, working in the hospital and sending her kids to stay with her ex-husband so they will be safe. I think of all the fear in the world. I try to remember that right here, right now, I am running fast on my favorite street in this town I love. I truly believe that we owe it to the world to feel joy when we can so I am trying my best.
Finally my watch beeps mile 8. I suspect I have slowed a bit, but I don’t look. I decide to count down from 1000. With two miles to go, that should get me to the finish line. HPRM#1 has told me that counting is a dissociative strategy and instead I should try to tune into my body. I suspect he’s right and I promise myself to meditate more in case that helps. I visualize my brain as a giant latch holding back my body and I visualize the latch lifting, releasing me so I can run faster. I remind myself that HPRM#1 might look at my heart rate data afterwards and he’ll know how hard I’m working. None of this really helps – the counting, the promise to meditate, the latch visualization. I wish instead that this were an actual race with pizza and cupcakes at the finish line. I could really go for pizza and cupcakes. Also, a nap. It strikes me that nap visualization is not a great race strategy. I keep counting, seeing big balloon-like numbers in my head, clicking down.
I think about how very badly I want this not-race to be over with. I also think about how very much we all want the corona-virus to be over with. Sometimes you just wait and wait and wait. Every step forward is progress. This is the only thing to do right now, so do this thing. Endurance athletes are good at waiting. Run and count. And wait. Finally we turn onto High Street and head down College. I think what I *always* think here – Coach Mick says people run the downhills too slowly. Don’t be one of those people. I will my feet to turn over faster. I try to imagine the crowds cheering me even though the street is completely empty. I try to envision my family at the corner where they often stand. I see the finish line that isn’t there.
Finally, my watch beeps. Ten miles. Since I don’t remember where the actual finish line is for this race, I had decided to stop at 10 miles. I immediately check my time: 1:21:15. No PR, but I am mighty pleased to be under 1:22. That was a tough race, for a not-race race. I catch up to Speedy Girl and want to hug her, but can’t. I want to high five, but can’t. We settle for a very fast shoe bump. Stretching afterwards in the parking lot, we talk about the race. About the surprise of the dirt path. About whether I was ok with her form cues [yes, very much so!]. She gives me some great advice on things to work on and I promise I will never get annoyed by too much feedback. It’s simultaneously great and weird. I wish we were headed to my porch for a post-race party, but I’m so happy to have “raced” at all. On the way home I decide that the next time I do this, I’m definitely making pizza for dinner and buying some champagne. And at some point, we’ll have that party on the porch. We endurance athletes are good at waiting.