There are a lot of things we worry about on race day: what clothes to wear, if we should eat something, what is the weather going to do, how hilly is the course? The one thing that most runners take for granted that I am learning is the most important ingredient for success: Oxygen. It has been 2 months since I left the perfect environment of San Diego and moved a moved a thousand miles East and 6000′ up to Colorado Springs. The first couple of weeks I gave myself an out because I had taken a 6 week break from running to allow some persistent injuries to heal, then I gave myself a few more weeks of excuses because of the altitude but here we are, 2 months in and I still can’t handle any kind of incline.
Even the gentlest of up-hill now leaves me winded in about a minute, never mind any kind of prolong climb. And I am not talking about Soledad-level 3 mile climbs, just little inclinations that are barely above the level of a false flat leave me wheezing. Last week I turned around a mile early on my run because the 250 feet of elevation gain over 2 miles just wrecked me. With that in mind I decided to sign up for the end-of-series run of the local Winter Series. My thought was that after I plunk down $25 and pin a bib to my shirt I’m committed to running the 20K so there is no backing out.
The night before the race I was at Red Leg brewery enjoying their special release thin-mint flavored stout (it is quite delicious). One of the women at the bar heard that I was doing the 20K and had only recently moved from sea level. She helpfully informed me “It’s going to hurt” and talked about how hilly the course was before going back to her friend. Great. I got up morning of and had time to kill; the 20K didn’t start until 10AM so I wasn’t planning to leave the house until 8:30. The weather at the start was supposed to be low 50s and climb to just below 60 at noon so I decided to go with a long sleeve shirt, shorts, and a ball cap. I considered putting on a compression base layer but decided against. Inevitably when I have too much time in the morning I forget something, this time it was my Garmin.
I arrived at the start line ~10 minutes before start time and loitered about, trying to stay both in the sun and out of the way of the runners warming up. After listening to final instructions the race started and we were off. I tried to start Strava on my phone but I kept getting a pop-up about background refresh. (Note to Strava: maybe include a button that will take me to the screen to allow background refresh, 10 seconds into a race is not the time to be fooling around with navigating to the settings screen) I gave up on trying to enable Strava and got the Nike app going instead.
The first mile was representative of most of the race: dirt roads and uneven terrain. Most of the roads we were on were dirt that was slightly muddy because of melting snow; even the parts that weren’t mud were still on the soft side. Because we were running on open roads the RD had a very strict “No Headphones” policy. Aside from the slightly treacherous conditions the biggest problem I was going to have quickly became evident: pretty much none of this course was flat. The entire race we were going up or down, almost none of it was level. I had to remind myself several times the first couple of miles that I was just doing this as a training run and that I wasn’t racing. It was hard letting several guys who looked like they were in my age group go but I was already starting to suffer and we were only 3 miles in.
It wasn’t much longer before I started walking on one of the longer climbs. My breathing was becoming very labored and it was way to early into the race to be red-lining my system. Once I got to the top I continued running although it was much easier to convince myself I wasn’t racing 😛 The next several miles were a perfect representation of “rolling hills”; we went up, we went down, we went back up again. Miles 4-7 were a veritable roller coaster and I just did the best I could to hold on. Fortunately none of the climbs was very long so I was able to keep within myself. Miles 7-9 we lost most of the elevation we had gained in the early section of the race. I was feeling pretty good at this point (running downhill helps) and even started wondering about where I was in relation to the rest of my age group. Don’t worry, I didn’t have much time for thinking such thoughts because from 9.5-11.5 was another long steady climb that I was not really prepared for. There were two steep sections that I walked until they reached a plateau , then I would run until the next steep section.
Even more insidious than my brain saying “hey, it would be cool if I had some of that sweet O2 I love so much” was the fact that around mile 11 we merged back in with the tail end of the 10K runners. The last quarter of the 10Kers were the walkers so it would have been real easy for me to blend in among them. I fought the urge to walk and just kept struggling along as best I could. I started getting a little dizzy and lightheaded so I wasn’t running fast but it was at least a jog.
Just when I was beginning to question my place in the world and how on earth I was going to run 26 miles in this oxygen-starved wasteland we finally stopped going uphill and hit a downhill. I knew I was damn close to the end so I tried to stretch it out as best I could (not very). The race has about a half mile slight downhill followed by a right turn and then a nice downhill sprint to the finish line. I felt like I was going to die and would have killed a man for one of those oxygen tanks that they have on the sideline for football players.
There aren’t many positives to take away from this race. I got crushed on the uphills, my lungs are still feeling a little bit of a burn 3 hours later, and even the sections I felt great on I wasn’t really running that well. As someone who is used to routinely going sub 1:30 on half marathons having a time just under 1:36 on a race that is a kilometer short of a half marathon is pretty humbling. I have a long way to go before I will be ready to run a full marathon and I only have 11 weeks to get there.