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All in the Breathing

August 1, 2011

Dreher Park Dash

July 23, 2010

Clock time 26:19

AG: 7/41 (17%)

G: 41/239

OA: 151/451

Allow me to start by pointing out that this race is run in late July. I really like this race, for some unfathomable reason. Little G hates it, and I can understand why: it’s always incredibly hot. It’s run on a twisty, narrow trail, so it’s not conducive to good times, even if by some miracle you could run well in humid conditions.

So don’t ask me to explain why I like this race. It’s irrational.

Little G and I got there early, as we always do. We went over our training program, as we were heading into summer and getting ready to start training for our fall half marathon season. As we finally got ready and thought about warming up, the whole idea of intentionally RAISING our body temperature seemed insane, but we know ourselves enough as athletes by now to know that there was no way we could stand at the start of a 5k without having run a single step. We ended up running about a mile around the park, but we didn’t do too much speedwork. It was very warm and humid, as we expected. As we rounded back toward the start and joined the crowd getting lined up for the start, the heat off the asphalt combined with the accumulated body heat of the hundreds of people running the race.

Between the heat and the humidity, Weather Underground noted that the heat index at gun time was 101. It wasn’t conditions I would normally have been choosing to run in, so I find it interesting how much I was looking forward to pushing the pace and finding out what I could do on the course, even though I knew I was in no shape to race. Since the March races at Gasparilla, my training had been less than consistent, and I had done a grand total of two sessions of mile repeats. Since becoming a runner, 2011 was the year I’d logged the fewest training miles. In spite of all this, as I stood in the chute, I was ready to test myself against the clock.

This is the kind of race that times runners only at the end, so as one mass group of people goes off, there’s no telling how much time you lose at the start. The start was pretty messy, and I was glad I hadn’t started too close to the front when we all had to run around a runner who had fallen and was laid out flat within the first quarter-mile of the course. I was thankful to be on the far side of the road from him.

The Boss had brought the animals down to watch the race and run the kids’ fun run, and it was fun to have someone to cheer for me as I took the first small slope that starts this race. With my lackluster preparation, it had been very difficult to pick a target pace for the event, so I’d chosen to run the event purely by effort. I knew I couldn’t go out too fast, not only because of my own total lack of speed but even more so because of the absolutely dreadful conditions. If I worked too hard in the first two miles, I knew I’d become dehydrated and useless in the third mile.

I should probably interject that we’ve noticed that I’m experiencing different side effects on my second go-around with topiramate, the drug that I’m using to help keep me migraine-free. The first time I tried it, I got some cognitive side effects that lasted for a few weeks, as well as some tingling in my hands and feet and some loss of taste. I also lost quite a bit of weight (not that I minded). On the advice of my neurologist, who felt the dosage was a little high for my size, I then tried staying off the medication for about a year. That didn’t work—by the end of that period my migraines were back to being unwelcome, almost twice-weekly occurrences. I am now back on topiramate, though on a lower dosage. I have not suffered the dumbing-down effects this time around, nor the weight loss (bummer!), but I have discovered that I don’t always sweat as I should. Sometimes, in hot conditions, I can complete a difficult or long run and hardly break a sweat. I’ve also experienced night sweats. Both seem to be connected to the topiramate, though I’m experiencing with supplements, especially on summertime runs.

As you can imagine, therefore, I was being somewhat cautious during the early miles of the Dreher Park Dash. Not only did I not want to destroy my chances to be fast during mile 3, I wanted to make sure I was still sweating and not setting myself up for an exertion headache.

As we crossed the street and entered the park where most of the race takes place, I consciously decided to settle into a comfortable race pace. For me, most of that work centers around my heart and my lungs, not my legs. I’ve been running long enough to know when my legs can carry a pace—the key is to know whether my lungs and my heart can carry it. As I run these races and concentrate on “settling in” for the duration of the race, that’s what I check in on—my breathing. While my breathing always feels different during mile 1 of a race than an easy run (and different for mile 1 of a 5k than mile 1 of a half marathon, of course), I know what that breathing rhythm should feel like. And I know as I pass other runners if they need to take a walk break and get their breathing back under control before they start again. Once you lose your lungs, it’s hard to get them back.

As I reached the first water station (walking through it, as I always do), Little G caught up to me. She was taking this race kind of easy, since it was only her second or third week back since her foot fracture. As she caught me, I commented that the pace I was running felt easy; I felt like I could run it for a long time. She encouraged me to push it a little harder, and I took off as we left the water stop area. This part of the course is loopy, making it hard to pass or get into a groove, so I settled back into my race breathing and went to work. I knew I wasn’t in any shape to push hard yet; I just wanted to settle in. I found someone I thought  was running smooth and easy and tucked in behind her.

Okay, yes, I was breathing hard. However, it’s a race, people, and it was a hundred degrees. I think as she heard me breathing behind her she thought I was coming to pass her, and Pink Tank started to make a move. She started to push the pace, picking it up by about ten seconds. I wasn’t looking to race, but I didn’t want to lose her, either. I covered the move. She stayed ahead of me.

Now, this is what I mean by it’s all in the lungs. I knew, listening to her, that she couldn’t hold that pace for another mile and a half. She was barely hanging on as it was. All I had to do was stay on her, and I’d have her. While my breathing was hard—did I mention it was a hundred degrees?—it was totally under control. I hadn’t even started pushing yet. Just like I thought, within the next quarter-mile Pink Tank blew up. The 8:20 pace she was trying to hold was too much for her, and she went from that pace to about an 8:45, all of a sudden. I passed her without incident, and used the momentum to give me confidence for that third mile. At the second water station I threw water over my head and took a cup of water. I don’t usually take water that late in a 5k, but under the conditions I felt like it was the best thing to do.

The third mile was tough, and I didn’t really push hard until I was into the last half-mile. I remembered the truth of the last portion of the race, that everyone is slowing down, so unless you’re passing, you’re slowing down too. Garmie is useless here as pace is deceptive; the only thing that matters is whether I’m gaining ground. The curvy nature of the course alters perception too, and distance is hard to gauge here; the finish line is hard to see. I pushed, noting I was passing most runners and closing in on all but the most determined masters’ competitor at the front of the pack.

In the end, cheered by the animals in the last quarter-mile, I finished far from a personal best, but delighted that I crossed the line with nothing left. I measured out my energy, for this distance, on this day, exactly right, giving each mile the right amount of effort. In some ways, I am happier with this than if I’d finished a minute faster but with gas still in the tank: while I wasn’t fast, I was smart, and I executed my race strategy as I intended.

In the end, that’s what this year is about, not necessarily being a faster runner, but a smarter one. And on this day, I was.

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