Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Miracle on Fall Creek

Photo by Monte Lowe
Say you eclipse five state records in one race; say they were yours to begin with; say you run a 15K at 5K pace. Then you try to explain it. But you can't explain it. It sounds like a lie, but it is true. So you end up calling it a miracle. What else could anybody call it? You might as well put that word in the title, too.

I reprised this race again on Saturday, just four days ago, but not with the miraclous results of that earlier time. At Saturday's start, Running Journal magazine with this story in it had just appeared. That timing was no accident.

From Running Journal, March, 2011.


March comes around, too, just like October, the two months linked like a bridge in my runner’s mind—one edging into the gloom of winter, the other heralding the bright breakout from it. Today it is March I’m thinking about.

It’s hard to get it right when you tell a story like this. You end up looking like a puffed-up fool if you aren’t careful how you say it. Despite that danger, this story needs telling. It comes from astonishment, wild, exuberant amazement, not puffery.

There are times I’ve been broken by races. I’ve told those stories just the same. Maybe I’ve earned the right to tell one about success. Ironically, it’s easier to write about failure—little chance for conceit there. Runners are generous people; if old devil pride rears his ugly head, forgive me.

I ran a miracle race.

It happened in the Fall Creek Thaw 15K at Fall Creek State Park one Saturday morning in March. That race is the last of the Tennessee State Park Running Tour, a grand prix of then-fifteen races. On that 9.32-mile course I ran a time of 62:29, finishing eighth overall. And I want to tell it to somebody who knows something about running. Or anybody who’ll listen.

That finishing time, alone and of itself, is of little note. Until you learn that Porch Patrol, the tan Shar-Pei that lived with us then had recently celebrated his 64th birthday—in equivalent human years—and mine would follow just three months later. Marching into codgerhood, Porch and I were.

So I was already old, and I ran a pretty good 15K. But that’s not the miracle.

The course was kissed by nature, especially so on that morning. Hard rains overnight had downed the trail along the last 1.3 miles. Flowing runoff and stretches of standing water covered portions, sometimes two or three inches deep. I splashed through like a kid in a puddle. My shoes grew leaden, taking on all the water they could hold.

Nature carved a pretty rough course to begin with. Miles 2-5 snake across steep rollers clinging to the rim of the gorges carved by Piney Creek and Cane Creek. Mile 6 spans a steady one-mile-long climb that adds 40 extra seconds. Then you enter a twisting trail that winds through the woods.

So the course is hard, and I ran a pretty good race. But that’s not the miracle.

I was just putting in time that morning. The race meant nothing. It came at the end of a week of high-mileage marathon training. I knew the race wouldn’t change my grand prix points total, since only the best eight races are counted and I’d already won eight: I’d already clinched the Senior Division and couldn’t be upset. Going in, I was four pounds too heavy. I didn’t need anything, didn’t expect much, didn’t care much.

The miracle fully emerged later when I examined the race details embedded in my split times. At the 3-mile mark came a PR. I was six seconds ahead of my pace in a 5K I’d run just the previous Saturday, where I had set a single-age state record of 19:45. At four miles came another PR, 38 seconds better than my last four-mile race, also a state record. At five miles another PR, an eight-second improvement over a record I’d recently set. That trend continued. At the 10K point—interpolating—I was nearly a minute ahead of my 10K PR.

Finally, when I splashed to the finish line I was six seconds ahead of my last 15K, a state record I’d set on the supremely flat Shelby Bottom Boogie course in Nashville. Since the Fall Creek course was certified, I would eventually get official credit, thus breaking my own 15K record.
All those PRs mentioned refer to official state records for a certain 63-year old male runner: me. Dismissing, now, all the annoying—but necessary—numbers, in their aggregate the miracle emerges:

I outran five state records in one race. And those five records were mine to begin with.

I had set each one within the last seven months, running the best I could at that time. In one pyrotechnic blast I shattered them all.

How could such a run happen? You don’t run a 5K pace in a 15K race. It violates a principle of running that racers know down to their toes—the longer the race, the slower the pace.

If gravity suddenly reverses, the furniture falls against the ceiling, the house rips out its foundation and tumbles into infinite space—a startling violation of our expectations. Of course, a principle of running doesn’t hold the same gravitas as a law of nature.

Still...the run astonishes. I can’t explain it, and I didn’t expect it. Was it the shredded wheat I had for breakfast? The coffee?—maybe I need more next time. I don’t know....

Was the race a breakthrough or just a fluke? What did it portend for the Tom King Half Marathon coming up the very next Saturday? For the races following that? Had I used up all my luck in one explosive blast, I wondered?

There was this I did know about the miracle 15K. It wasn’t hard. I blew around the course, silently singing Liz Johnson’s “Blue Prelude,” without myself being the least bit blue. At the 1-mile mark I saw my split, 6:13, and I thought: I got the juice! Set the throttle, hang on.

It was about that easy. And after it was over, I wasn’t tired. My marathon training demanded a 20-mile total that day. To get that mileage I ran around the course again.

The second time I looked at the scenery.

March rolled on, as it always does, as the year always does. I duly ran the Tom King Half Marathon I’d worried about and posted a time of 1:29:21, which was also a state record. And I celebrated the birthday I couldn’t evade. By the end of the year, I’d run 24 races and officially set 12 single-age state records, three times officially breaking my own record.

If my saying that is immodest, forgive me. I felt like it ought to be mentioned.