I’ve wanted to run the Blessing of the Fleet for several years. It’s a 10 mile race in Narragansett, Rhode Island. There’s a festival, where they actually sail the ships into the harbor and bless them, rides, a band, a great summer atmosphere. It’s a Friday night race in mid-July so weather is likely to be challenging. With this year’s Boilermaker postponed until October, I decided to run the Blessing instead. Have to get my fix of iconic-summer-races-of-unusual-distance! Allegro Fuerte had already run this race twice and he was ready to give it another go. Chewie also decided to run. I’m coaching both of them so it was shaping up to be an exciting race!
By the middle of race week, though, I was not feeling much excitement at all. We’ve switched up my training quite a bit this cycle (more on that in a future post). I’m really enjoying it, but I’m feeling kind of out of touch with what kind of shape I’m in. Plus, pandemic racing is weird, y’all. The Blessing is my 8th race of 2021 (more on that later too, maybe) but most of these races have been a bit strange in one way or another and I have only raced well once. I was also somehow feeling a little lonely. Thank goodness for my family, who always stand by me, no matter what. With all the pandemic weirdness, I haven’t had my family at a race since the Jim Thorpe marathon last September. I *really* love having them there! Rose is doing circus camp this summer so we cruised by to watch her Friday show and left straight from there. Aidan had to work at the bike store so we had to leave him home.
It’s Olympics season again (finally!) so we have plenty of stories of elite runners to inspire us right now. One of my favorites is Heather MacLean, a Boston girl who runs on Dunkin Donuts coffee. Heather is a first-generation college graduate of UMass-Amherst, who didn’t start running until she was a junior in high school. My favorite story I’ve heard about her is that her family didn’t have the resources to come to the Olympic trials in Eugene, OR. With no family in the stands, Heather made t-shirts for her friends, creating her own cheering squad. If you heard from me last week, that might have been some Heather MacLean imitation on my part. By Friday afternoon, I was feeling less lonely, so thank you to everyone who reached out. You can create your own cheer squad – thanks for reminding me of that, Heather.
One person I got in touch with was High Power Running Mentor #1, who is consistently subjected to and puts up with all of my angst as a runner. What? Angst? From Professor Badass? You betcha, and plenty of it. I just don’t show it all the time and certainly not to everyone. But HPRM#1 got an earful last week and he responded with his usual quirky insight. Did I remember the plot of Frozen 2? Um, no, and looking it up didn’t help much because the plot of that movie is bonkers. I thought for sure he must mean Anna’s wisdom of “Take the Next Right Step?” But no, he meant Elsa’s song, “Show Yourself.” Elsa’s journey to her own truth reveals that what she’s looking for has been inside her all along. She just needed to prove it to herself. I can be dense but even I was able to discern the message here.
Because I felt pretty lost about where my fitness level was, I was also struggling with how to approach the race. I knew I wanted to run feeling strong instead barely hanging on by my fingernails, which had often been my approach this spring. The course lends itself to a negative split, which is a good strategy anyway. I was very much aware of my 10 mile PR (1:19:35) from April 2018. Probably too aware. I thought about trying to convert my results from past Boilermakers and somehow beat those times? Maybe just start at an 8:30 pace and work my way down? Yeah, I was pretty dang lost.
Luckily, on the drive to the race, Coach Mick chimed in with some wisdom: He thought I should run #nowatchme, in other words, without looking at my watch. He reminded me that I had done this my first 5K back after the plantar fasciitis saga. He didn’t mention that I had ended up PR’ing that race, but of course he didn’t have to. I decided to go for it. I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself and #nowatchme would help relieve some of it.
We arrived about 4:30pm and the traffic was already chaos so we just decided to leave the car at the start. A quick word on fueling, which can be tricky for an evening race. I had my usual lunch around noon and then a peanut butter and banana sandwich in the car at 4pm. I know that sits well with me and I won’t be hungry or overly full. I had a Maurten gel at the start and another one at mile five. I’d meant to have a couple of caffeine pills at the start too, but I forgot. I grabbed water at most water stations, but the cups were plastic and I found them a little hard to drink from. I’m pretty sure the Berlin marathon also uses plastic cups so maybe I’ll practice with them before September, but that might be too anal, even for me. In any case, this plan worked fine and I’ll try to remember the caffeine next time around.
We met Allegro Fuerte and his wife and Chewie with introductions and hugs all around. HUGS! Fully-vaccinated hugs! HOORAY! Allegro Fuerte and I did our warm-up together while Chewie used the facilities and then it was time to line up! Allegro found a friend near the front so we joined him. I looked around and said, hey, there are almost no chicks here, only dudes, I am moving back. I did and then I moved back again, trying to stand near people who looked about my speed. The start was crowded and happy with no masks or even mention or thought of them. Glorious! They fired the gun and off we went! Mervus and Rose were waiting with the banner at the half mile mark and I gave them a smile and blew them a kiss! SO good to have them here!
The Blessing course is mostly a loop, except the start and finish aren’t quite together. The first mile is a little downhill, then a little uphill, a couple of flat miles, and then miles 5 and 6 are a long straightaway with a little ascent and a lot of potential for sun exposure. Possibly a place to lose heart, mid-race. But going into mile 7, the course turns off the main road and goes through a shady residential area with a slight descent for the last four miles. A good place to turn on the gas, if you’ve got anything left in the tank, and an ideal arrangement for negative splitting.
Coach Mick had advised “sentences pace” for the first couple of miles – run easy enough to get a couple of sentences out, but not more. I tried to stay relaxed as runners streamed by me – that’s fine, maybe they’ll come back to me or maybe not, doesn’t matter. Then I felt it. That spark of joy that can come with racing. The realization that we finally, FINALLY, really have this back and also the feeling that’s been missing all spring. The JOY of running together, working hard, nervousness dissipating, finding a shared groove as the pack of runners thins out and everyone settles in. Absolutely marvelous. I focused on my breathing and said a couple of quiet sentences to check I was at the right effort. Everything seemed good. Actually, better than good.
We arrived at the first mile marker, which unexpectedly had a clock: 7:41. Thoughts flashed through my head all at once. Ooooo, that is WAY faster than I planned, but I feel pretty good, keep it relaxed and hold here. Also: WTF, Allegro Fuerte must be ahead of me, therefore running even faster than that? I hope he doesn’t flame out! Runners were still streaming by me, which can give you the illusion that you’re running slower than you are. I focused on my breathing, the pattern of my footfalls, staying relaxed. Ten miles is a long way to go and you want to feel pretty good at the beginning. I did feel good! We got glimpses of the ocean – the course is really lovely!
Right around mile 3 I saw something no one wants to see. A runner down on the road, flat on his back, with emergency personnel administering chest compressions. Oh no! Again, thoughts flashed through my mind: It’s so early in the race and less hot than it might be! That guy looks really young! Will he be okay? He had a lot of people with him already, including EMTs so I just kept running, but that was very sobering. Later I read that he had been in cardiac arrest, but the EMTs got him to the hospital and he is going to be fine. Whew. Somewhere in here I also saw my mile 3 split by mistake: 7:50. Hmmm. A tad slower, I still feel good, this is PR pace, but try not to think about that. Just focus on how you feel and don’t worry about pace.
We turned right and then right again and came to the two mile stretch on 108, up the hill. I thought about Allegro Fuerte and Chewie again. I had told them to increase effort here, but with the expectation of maintaining pace. Route 108 is not the most beautiful part of Narragansett, let’s just put it that way. I was tempted to look at my watch, but didn’t. I was thrilled to take my Maurten at mile 5, just for something to break up this long stretch of road.
Then I spotted Allegro Fuerte! That was a surprise! I tapped him on the shoulder and said something like “Let’s go!” hoping to be motivating and not annoying. I wondered if he would come with me, maybe sit on my shoulder and out-kick me at the end? I really didn’t have the energy to spare to look back though. My legs felt like they were banging out a rhythm that I didn’t have total control over. I was pretty sure I hadn’t slowed much, but speeding up also didn’t seem to be an option. I could almost feel the massive aerobic engine I’ve been building by running so many miles. I thought about two mile repeats on the track. This whole stretch is just one of those, just get it done. Just as I was about to lose heart, we turned right and the course changed dramatically.
We turned off what felt like a highway and onto what seemed like a green path, under cover of friendly trees, slight downhill. Thank goodness. I had told Chewie and Allegro Fuerte to pick it up a little here and Coach Mick had told me to do the same. I wasn’t sure that was going to be possible, but then the downhill and the shade and the no-more-highway started to feel a lot better and I started to roll. Now it was my turn to pass people instead of getting passed. I thought again about All Those Miles and I thought about unhunching my shoulders, running tall, all the form cues and the rhythm of my feet. I thought about Show Yourself. One of the last things Mervus had said to me before the race was “You deserve this” and I thought, yes, I do deserve this. C’mon, show yourself who you are out here. Prove it to yourself. This is why we race!
I knew the Incredible Mervus and Rose would be around the 7 and a half mile mark so I started looking for them, much too early, of course. I was so grateful to have them out there. At last there they were! On the right side of the course with the big green banner Mervus had made! Spectators wait for ages for the two seconds it takes for their runner to pass by. But those two seconds are burned into my memory. When my family is on the course, I look and look and look for them, counting down the miles until I hope they’ll appear. Then there they are and my heart is lifted! With Mervus and Rose behind me, I knew I had “only” 2.5 miles to go, less than a 5K. I wish I had thought, YES! I can do that! But actually I thought, oh, that is still so so far!
We passed by the start, going the opposite direction now, and then turned onto Avice Street. Hmmm, if I had studied the course more carefully, I’d have more of a clue where I am now. We turned right again and I spotted the 9 mile marker and….a clock. I had only seen two splits until now, at miles 1 and 3. But I have a fairly good sense of pace and if I’d had to bet, I would have guessed I was averaging 7:50-7:55 pace. The clock read 1:11:XX and confirmed that guess. My brain started trying to do math. Did that mean if my last mile came in under 9 minute pace that I’d be under 1:20? I would surely run that fast – this was downhill! Could I maybe still PR? I also knew the mile markers on the course didn’t match my watch exactly – did that matter? With one mile to go, no point in holding back. Time to really SHOW YOURSELF that you can do this!
A dear friend of mine lives in Narragansett, Runningwhilemommy. She told me she’d be at the last water stop, with half a mile to go. And also to watch out – there’s a green banner across the road near the finish line, but it is *not* the finish line. So now at every water stop, I was desperately searching for Runningwhilemommy. Seeing her would mean this was almost over. Just when I decided I must have missed her, there she was! I was so happy to see her, but oh God, still a half mile to go? Thank goodness the hill gets a little steeper here and I ran as hard as I could manage. Finally I spotted something hanging across the road. Could it be the finish line? It’s surely the damn banner, but maybe runners are stopping there? Maybe that really IS the finish line? No, of course not. It’s the stupid banner and I have to keep going.
Just as I passed under the banner, I spotted the actual finish line and the clock. Which read something like 1:19:11 or so. I knew I had a couple of seconds to spare because of starting so far back, but not many. I ran like a bear was chasing me, a full-on sprint. Through the line, stop the watch, grab the barrier, bend over, try to breathe. I’m always good for the dramatic finish. Mervus and Rose were there almost immediately. Mervus had seen the clock and knew I had come in under 1:20:00. After a minute or two, I found the race email, pulled up the QR code, and Mervus scanned it to get results. Race results in the time of Covid. Gun time of 1:19:48, but chip time of 1:19:32! Three second PR! Three seconds is not a lot, practically a rounding error, but a PR is a PR and I haven’t managed one since February 2020. Plus, I felt great for most of the race. Really strong and controlled and not panicked as has happened some recently. Show yourself indeed!
Once I gathered myself a little, I started to move out of the chute. I ran into an internet friend I call Number One Spider – someday I’ll tell the story about how much she inspires me and why that’s such a special designation. I reached my family, grabbed a water, got a hotdog for Rose and a couple of granola bars (they had Aidan’s favorite kind!). Mervus had been hauling around a protein shake for me so I got that down, plus the water. Then we started looking for Allegro Fuerte. Surely he had finished already? I had a couple of minutes of feeling worried, but then he texted and we managed to find each other. He was only about a minute behind me and ran…..drum roll please…..a 23 minute PR! We found Chewie pretty quickly also and she had come in three minutes ahead of her goal! Plus, she descended those last four miles perfectly. Well done all around!
I had imagined celebrating this race under the beer tent, listening to a great band, hopefully eating a lobster roll. Instead, it had started raining and I was getting pretty chilled. We decided to head back to Chewie’s parents and when it turned out that her family had a full-blown feast waiting for us, we decided to stay in, get showered and warm, and enjoy. It was like coming home to family, good food, great conversation, sweet dogs, amazing people.
After a good night’s rest, Chewie and her mom and I enjoyed a run at the sea wall. Narragansett is really something special. We met Runningwhilemommy for breakfast at Crazy Burger and then headed to the beach. Some Del’s frozen lemonade completed our Rhode Island getaway except for one last stop. A quick stop at the Wakefield Running Company to pick up my prize for 3rd in my age group! Great way to return to real racing!