Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hare of the dog

I’m writing this post having drunk probably slightly too much in business class somewhere between Madrid and Boston.

Last week I was asked by a friend, Carlos, if I would be interested in being a pacer for the Proniño 10K race taking place this weekend. I told him that I’d love to but that it might be a bit complicated given that my flight for Boston was leaving at 12:45 the same day. But then I did the maths and realized that it was just the right side of crazy and, with a little help from my wife, it was actually doable.

I’ve been sleeping very badly all week now that the temperatures have soared. It’s a choice between being bitten by mosquitos, sweating your head off or getting a dry throat from the air con. My preference is for the third option but, in practice, I tend to suffer a mix of all three ailments. I suppose I must have been a little nervous – after all, it is a responsibility being a pacer and it’s not as though my 10K is so much better than 40 minutes that I can just breeze it.  As I was finally dropping off I started to fret that I might not be able to remember what a 4 minute per kilometer pace feels like or that, with the heat, I might find it too hard. To think that I ran a Marathon at that pace not all that long ago. I like that pace, it is fast enough that I have to put a bit of a spring in my step but I don’t get out of breath (at least, not for 35 kilometers or so).

It is probably not the best preparation for a day that is going to be about 6 hours longer than usual, to get up at 7 am (1 am Boston time). I got a taxi down to the start, in the mega complex where Telefónica has its headquarters; my wife would pick me up later with my suitcase and take me to the airport.

The time I would normally spend warming up before a race was spent with the other pacers, tying on balloons and sticking on the transfers with the various time targets: 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60 minutes. I remember the first races I ran, how I would seek out the balloon and try to get ahead. The number of times the balloon man passed me by and, with him, my chances to get a sub 40 minute finish: I haven’t forgotten what it means. I thought I would warm up by doing my usual bouncing up and down on the spot. Unfortunately, this proved too much for my balloon which bid us “adios” and floated up to the blazing blue sky, never to be seen again. I wasn’t the only one to have technical problems: several people burst their balloons while putting the stickers on. (An aside: I can't help but be reminded of a game I wrote for the ZX Spectrum when I was 10, called "Burst the Balloon". I recently went to the trouble of typing it in from the magazine in which it was published. You can now even download it from here and play it on an emulator.)

Finally, after much ado we congregated on the podium with Chema Martínez for a quick photo opportunity (this makes two with Chema in one week for me). Juan Carlos and I, as the two 40’ balloon bearers, eased in to the crowd somewhere near the front (balloons have a certain amount of kudos). We opted for holding the balloon string between or teeth so that we would clear the relatively low starting gate.

Off we went and we quickly settled into a rhythm. No more than 100m from the start some firemen were spraying cold water from a hose that was very much appreciated, even if it did fog up the sunglasses that Juan Carlos had leant me. Shortly afterwards someone pointed out to Juan Carlos that one of his shoelaces had come undone so he dropped back to fix the problem, leaving me on my own.  Of course, he didn’t take long to catch back up but I pity anyone that tried to keep up with him, thinking that he was running a 4 minute kilometer.

The course is not a very difficult one as races in Madrid go, but it is anything but flat, which makes pacing that much more of a challenge, especially as hills effect different people to different degrees. Nevertheless, we went through the halfway mark in almost exactly 20 minutes. I remembered what Carlos (not Juan Carlos) had said to me about pacing. He’d recommended me to go slightly faster than the target pace so that there was some margin left at the end for anyone struggling to get under 40 minutes. I hope I didn’t make too much of a brusque change in rhythm but I was conscious that we needed to up the ante just a smidgeon.

I had hoped that we would form a little group of people aspiring to break 40 minutes but I think it is a sufficiently competitive time that those capable of it want to get in front of the balloon. I felt bad every time I overtook someone because it is a bummer when the balloon man goes past – I know from personal experience. But some people were fading and it was important to keep the foot on the gas pedal.

Around about the 6 km mark I had my first casualty (that I was conscious of). A guy who had been sticking to my left shoulder was starting to breathe more heavily and I could tell he was in trouble. Of course I told him the complete opposite, that he was doing really well and that most of the work was done, but I wasn’t surprised when he dropped back a few meters. Of course, I didn’t let him off easily but it was too late.

I still had one guy running with me of whom I was conscious, at any rate. I’ve no idea whether he was running a Personal Best or not but I decided I would make it my mission to get him across the line before me. I hope it didn’t come across as patronizing or anything like that but I tried to encourage him by simply saying out loud the things I say to myself when I am in a similar situation. “Focus on your running form, run lightly”. “This hill is very short, it won’t affect you – think of all the training you have done”. “That long hill was a real bastard but now we’ve done the hard bit”. “Only 15 minutes to go, think of it like a long interval training”. “Only 1 kilometer to go, think of what you are going to tell your friends, make sure you squeeze out every last drop of effort”. Just then he swore as his watch had run out of batteries so I told him to forget his watch – I said that in any case the GPS could be a false friend - and just run. He sprinted ahead of me and finished very strong. Again, I’ve no idea what his objectives were but I enjoyed his achievement by proxy.

The last kilometer marker was about 100 meters ahead of where is should have been which made me wonder whether the last kilometer would be 1,000 meters or 1,100 meters. Either way, by this stage, no one was interested in the balloons and was engaged in their own personal battle. As I approached the line with the clock ticking mercilessly, I turned back and saw that there was quite a gap between me and the next runners. I started shouting at them that they could still make it and a couple of them changed up gears and managed to sprint through just in time. Again, for all I know, these might have been runners capable of a much faster time on a better day (or maybe they were just training) but you have to assume that most people are giving it their all.

One really nice thing was that a lot of people came up to me afterwards and shook my hand, presumably satisfied with their performance. A couple of people were under the impression that I had finished somewhat faster than the target time (in the end I did 39:52 which was pretty bang on) – I think this was due to the time they took to cross the start line relative to me, which meant that their relative time was much faster.

Now I had to think about my next logistic challenge: find a spot where my wife could get to with the car, in spite of the roads being blocked for the race.  Eventually we managed to find each other with a bit of help from our GPS devices. The kids are still just (but only just) young enough to appreciate being given a helium balloon. I suspect that next year they will be more interested in exploding it or simply not at all. I got changed in the street, slapped on some generous helpings of deodorant (sorry for those sitting in seats 3C and 3H in the 12:45 Madrid to Boston Iberia flight). I kept my Vibram Seeyas on as they are probably the best shoes to wear for a long distance flight.

I was offered the chance to be a pacer at another 10K race next Sunday – the “North to South” race which is a good one for getting a Personal Best as it is downhill all the way – but this would mean going directly from my flight (which arrives at around 6am) to the start. Tempting as it might be, the deciding factor is that next Sunday is our 12th wedding anniversary so I think sport will have to take a back seat (for once).

I’ll be in Boston and New York this week so I hope to be able to do some nice urban runs, as well as popping into the flagship Vibram store to stock up on next season’s footwear.

1 comment:

  1. Next time try to remember that there are some showers available in the VIP room at the airport, taking into account you were flying in business class...poor 3C and 3H guys!! ;)