Sunday, August 9, 2009

Running a PR in the Big City

Several years ago, someone made the now-famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) statement: "It takes a village." Perhaps there is also truth to it when converted (and modified slightly) to a running outcome: "It takes a city." Such was the case last week when, after several months of coming up just short, I reset my (Karen-era) PR (Personal Record) for the Half with a 1:43:12 in the Rock 'n Roll Chicago Half-Marathon. Let's hear it for the Windy City! (By the way - this nickname has nothing to do with Chicago's winds off Lake Michigan - which are well-known - but rather with the politicians who have been inextricably linked to the city for probably close to a century.)
After running 33 half-marathons with Karen - many of which were on some truly scenic landscapes - I wouldn't necessarily have expected Chicago to rank right up there. However, I must give credit where credit is due. In its own right, it was a very scenic course. It started before 6 a.m. on race morning from our (unexpectedly) deserted parking space on a spit of land extending into Lake Michigan to the Planetarium. The views back across the lake into the city in the early light were truly impressive. The course itself ran through several miles of skyscrapers, across the Chicago River a couple of times, then south out of the city center until it intersected the lake shore, after which it returned north into the city along Lake Michigan. It was flat. The weather stayed reasonably comfortable. The elevation was negligible. The crowds and music were pretty good. And my wheels stayed on! My pace averaged just under 7:53/mile and my time shaved almost 30 seconds off my previous best in Nashville last year. Both were huge races (Nashville nearly 30,000 and Chicago half of that) and both had decent crowds and music. Who knows - maybe there are factors we don't give much credence to; or maybe we just run well for unexplainable reasons. After all, it WAS Chicago - Karen's city - maybe that was also a factor. She, too, had a good race - though not a PR. In any event, I was happy with the race and reassured that I can still turn in a pretty good time. And if I find a small enough race - maybe I can even place, so Karen wouldn't be the only one with trophies! (In Chicago, I was 16 of 211 in my age division, so felt pretty good about that, as well.)
Okay - enough beating my own drum. It was also a good visit. We stayed with Karen's Mom and had some great afternoons and evenings of food and games. The family really enjoys card games and, of course, Karen and I are willing participants. Between the two of us, Karen's siblings and her Mom, spouses and kids, we played many rounds of Pinochle, Injun Joe, and Cribbage. We also watched Karen's nephew play a few games in a regional baseball tournament (which they eventually won) and we enjoyed an afternoon reunion with a group of Karen's friends from her college days. There really wasn't much sightseeing with this trip, but a good one, nonetheless. Karen and Rachel stayed a few extra days after they sent me home to work, with some swimming, more visiting, more eating and general relaxation.

The race also offered up some wisdom in its running. Often - when we set out to accomplish a challenging goal or project - we have a very definite plan. We work hard, we train and when it is time to perform, we rely on that plan and our ability to execute it exactly as we envisioned. However, I'm sure we have also recognized in our efforts that Murphy is alive and well. When something doesn't go according to plan, it is easy to get rattled, lose confidence and before long find ourselves coming up short. Such was the case with this race. I had a plan and knew exactly how I wanted to run the early miles of the race. I also knew I would be relying on my Garmin to keep me on the desired pace and keep me from running too fast too early. What I didn't bargain for were several long tunnels (e.g. a quarter-mile under the Convention Center) or underpasses in the first 3-4 miles of the race. If the Garmin can't acquire satellites, its utility is severely impacted. By mile 3, the anxiety of not really knowing my pace (I also didn't see timer boards or mileage markers until then) was taking its toll. It was then that I had the insight that had escaped me so often in the past. If the tunnels were behind me, I could still find and keep a pace the rest of the way and, ultimately, all I REALLY could do was run, hard,....and keep running. Within another two miles I had figured out how to use the Garmin with the timer boards and mileage markers that were now prominently located along the route. And when I got to those tough miles, 9-11, and realized no one was passing me - my indicator that I was running the race I wanted to run - I knew I had a good shot at the PR. The message? Stay flexible with your plan. They are great tools, but don't let the fact that a deviation occurs take you off course. More than likely your plan doesn't represent the only way to achieve the desired outcome. Hang in there, stay confident and tweak the plan on the run.
It took a big city. Chicago rocks! Thirty-three states checked off.