Cherry Blossom 9.39 Miler

On the morning of the Cherry Blossom 10 miler, as I drove Mark in the pitch dark to Reagan so he could catch his flight to Haiti, I asked him what my race plan should be. He laughed. “Shouldn’t you have one already?” Good point. I didn’t.    

Sure, I was excited to finally toe the line of one of the nation’s most prestigious races—and certainly one of the most iconic in DC. But I was completely lacking confidence in my abilities to race well. While I could have coasted into the race on a wave of blind optimism, I had every reason to keep my expectations tempered. There was that nasty, painful case of pink eye (and a subsequent cold) that cost me three days of training. There was (what I felt, at least) a lack of long runs. There was the trip I took to Florida with the kids and my mom the week of the race, which, while very fun, was not restful (the term “vacation with kids” is an oxymoron). There was the entire bleak winter in general, which relegated me to the treadmill for 90 percent of my run workouts, leaving me with a huge question mark as to what pace I could actually hold on a real-live road.

And yet. I’ve been swimming a ton. I had some quality workouts at the LUNA Summit in Berkeley. And I’d seen good results from the longer speed sessions I did do, including a couple in Florida’s heat and humidity. Coach Bec believed in me. Our text exchange the night before went a little like this. 

Me: I think I’m going to go for 7’s. My PR is 7:08 pace.

Bec: You can run faster than that. Go for 6:45. Run strong. 

I read and re-read her race tips, hoping some of it would stick. But when I closed my eyes (well past midnight) the night before, I committed to the idea of sticking with that 7-minute-mile pace and just having a “fun” race. As fun as running ten miles can be, that is. 

After a quick (and I mean that literally, we ran 8-minute pace!) two-mile warmup with some of the MCRCC teammates, I made my way over to the yellow starting corral. It was then the race director made the announcement that the course would be shorter due to an accident involving the police on the race course. There went my hopes of a 10-mile PR. But there also went any pressure I’d placed on myself to actually get that PR. I felt a sudden, renewed sense of energy wash over me, and when the gun went off and I was completely relaxed. I ran that way, too. Runner after runner passed me, but I stayed focused on maintaining a sustainable speed. 

As I passed the big clock at mile 1, I saw 6:42 flash in red. I freaked. Way. Too. Fast. I took a few deep breaths, shook out my arms, and tried to settle in to a slower pace. Before I knew it, I was at mile 2 in 6:33. Something wasn’t syncing. I still felt relaxed. True to Bec’s advice, I ran without looking at my watch, keeping it covered by my arm-warmer until mile 3. When I heard the telltale chime indicating I’d run another mile, I glanced down and saw I’d clicked off a 6:31. Then I hit mile 4 in 6:31.  

It was go time. With the shorter course, I was nearly halfway through the race and feeling fresh. So I made it my job to start chasing the women in front of me. With about six miles to go, I told myself “this is how your legs are going to feel when you’re starting the run of an Olympic-Distance triathlon. Stay strong and pass people.” Mile 5: 6:18.  Mile 6: 6:25. I revisited this approach when I had three to go: “Sprint triathlon.” Mile 7: 6:23. I downed a CLIF Shot and sipped water. Mile 8: 6:32. Mile 9: 6:30. With one mile to go, it was “last mile repeat,” and I thought back to the many workouts I’ve done where I’ve run my fastest on the last interval to propel me over the final hill up and into the homestretch in the shadows of the Washington Monument.  Gone was that negative chatter plaguing me all week and in its place were powerful messages drawn from my many months of training and the goals I’ve been working towards. Mile 10 (.4 miles): 6:23 pace.

1 hour, 1 minute, and 13 seconds—and 9.39 miles, according to race officials—after the starting gun echoed, I crossed the finish line with my arms raised towards the sky. I did not win or even come close to winning. In fact, I finished within a thick pack of runners, an anonymous face in the crowd. But I felt victorious. Not only was my time the fastest I’d ever run over nine miles, I’d also clocked lifetime PRs in the 15K (1:00:29) and the 10K (39:54)—in the middle of the race! Photos show me smiling at a point of the race (around the 7 mile mark) where I’d typically be grimacing. Who is that girl?  

So what came over me? I’m not really sure. Ideal weather, a flat course, and quick competition had plenty to do with it. But, to be frank, I’ve never worked so hard leading up to a race. Bec has invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort into my training and I should have known she had calculated things just right in her precise, exacting way. Lesson learned: If you’ve put in the hard work—no matter how many hiccups you’ve had along the way—you have to quell those negative thoughts and trust that things will go to plan. Even if you don’t really have a plan to begin with. --Sarah