So there I was, in Mile 4 of the Sallie Mae 10K yesterday morning, and all I could hear was the heavy breathing - wheezing, really - of the tall, skinny man I had passed moments ago, as he caught up to me.
Well, almost. He stayed a few feet behind, hanging by my left shoulder. I quickened my pace a little. He started hacking and spitting, and I reflexively ran even faster, out of striking distance.
If there's one thing men hate, it's being beaten by a woman.
It was a gorgeous spring day in Washington, and I ran the race almost on a lark. I hadn't really trained for it, so I used the race as a fitness gauge. My friends L., K., and H. also ran the race with me, though we lost each other after the starting gun fired.
Remembering Austin: I ran the race a tiny bit conservatively, as the memories of bonking at Austin, Texas's Go for the Gold 10K in March are still fresh.
And I almost gave up on actually racing the Sallie Mae in the early miles. I got stuck in the very back of the 1,322-person pack, and I had to weave my way through clusters of folks, running along the perimeter, jumping curbs, and wasting precious energy. I crossed the first mile marker a whopping 45 seconds off pace, at 8:35.
Whoa! I felt like I was running slowly, but not that slow. I got discouraged, my mind already tired from navigating through throngs of runners. My pace slowed even further.
After about two minutes, the crowds thinned, and I thought, "C'mon! Don't be a wimp!" I fixed my eyes on a woman about 20 yards ahead of me, and reeled her in, willing my legs to eat up more road. The second mile went by in 7:45, and the third in 7:50. Back on pace.
At the turnaround, I resolved to keep running strong, but I wasn't sure if I had it in me to run negative splits. I didn't want to run out of steam at the end, as I did in Austin.
Nobody talked. All you could hear was heavy breathing and the pounding of thousands of rubber-clad feet on asphalt. We ran on Haine's Point, an outcropping of land bordered by the Potomac, with clear views of the monuments, but we could've been running in a tunnel for all the attention we paid to our surroundings.
I slowly started picking off people. Every time I passed a man, he tried to catch up to me. Perhaps so did the women I passed, but I couldn't hear them breathing hard while doing so.
Blondie and Bex: Except for one. A muscular blond woman with sturdy legs and blue shorts. A little after Mile 4, I passed her. A few minutes later, she returned the favor. I passed her again. Thirty seconds later, I saw her rapid arm swing as she ran past me again.
Fine, I thought, letting her go. I wasn't going to turn on the few jets I had until midway through Mile 5. She stayed about 15 yards ahead.
Then she did something that made me almost do a double-take. She started walking! I almost yelled at her, "Keep going! You're almost there!" But I kept my mouth shut. I wanted to beat her, didn't I?!
Sayonara, baby, I thought as I flew by.
But I was starting to really tire. Even though I was running at the same intensity, I hit Mile 5 in 7:58, 8 seconds off pace. The volunteer manning the clock at Mile 5 looked at our red, straining faces as we passed and said, "C'mon folks, turn up the heat!!"
Well, all-righty then. Still a bit wary of bonking, I started to run faster. I passed some more people. Then someone caught up to me and hung on my shoulder. I couldn't shake him or her off.
I glanced over: Blondie!
She had me in her cross-hairs, and must've sprinted to catch up. Her ponytail bobbed jauntily, but her jaw was hard-set and her eyes grim. We crossed a final bridge, rounded a last corner, and hit Mile 6 together, stride for stride.
We were on a straightaway, with the Potomac on our left, the Lincoln and Washington monuments on our right, and the finish line dead ahead. I thought, Less than a lap to go, and hit it as hard as I could. I lengthened and quickened my stride. My lactic-acid-engulfed thighs screamed in protest and my stomach started to cramp dangerously. I had to ease up a little, lest I vomit (or worse) all over myself.
But apparently my pace was still strong, as I heard Blondie grunt and pound her feet faster on the pavement. I kept going, eyes a bit unfocused, and finally lost her for good. I ran the last .2 in 1:33.
The race clock said 49:33 as I crossed the finish line. I was happy. Then I became even more pleased when I saw that my real time was 48:48 (7:50/avg mile pace). It turns out that I didn't cross the starting mats until about 45 seconds after the starting gun fired. My friends also did well, finishing the race between 56 and 58 minutes.
So I PR'ed. I took almost 1 1/2 minutes off my last 10K PR, in November. I must be doing something right.