Sunday, June 2, 2013
My 6th Dam-to-Dam
When I began my journey 5 years ago on distance running, Dam-to-Dam was my first long-distance event. It required me to plan out my running a couple months in advance, gradually increase my distance and start building my endurance. And, I had to prep my mind for the absolute exhilaration of crossing the finish line after running the course.
Fast-forward to June 1, 2013, and I crossed the finish line for Dam-to-Dam for the sixth consecutive year. As much as I love the distance, each long race presents a challenge and this race was no exception. Looking back, I can safely conclude most of the challenges of yesterday's race were things I ultimately had control of.....and that is a good thing.
First of all, for most races I have the challenge of getting enough sleep. Not only am I a night owl, but most races I do are at least an hour drive away...so I have to get up extra early to get to the race location. I have a difficult time falling asleep before 11:30 most evenings, and it's even more difficult if I'm excited about racing the next morning and worried about missing the alarm going off in the very early hours. I know I am relaxed as I contemplate the events of the race...but I am not in the deep REM sleep necessary to be fully alert the next morning. This race began at 7:00, and the shuttle buses left from downtown Des Moines at 5:00-5:45 to get the racers to the start line at the Saylorville Dam.....so I was up at 3:30AM, to allow for a 4:00 departure to get to Des Moines by 5:00, park the car and make our way to a shuttle bus. Myself and Bill, a friend and fellow runner, made the (not too) bright and early journey together.
The weather was absolutely perfect. I have done this race for the past five years, and the weather is never predictable. It has been very hot and humid, it has been cool and breezy, and one year it rained. Yesterday, it was around 60 degrees at the start of the race, ideal racing temps but a tad bit chilly for an hour or so prior to start time when the sun hasn't risen very far in the sky.
I love the excitement of seeing all the racers lining up at the start line. I feel some anticipation and anxiety, but for the most part, I'm just glad to be there and eager to run. For this race, we line up on the Saylorville Dam, and as we look to the south, we can see the Des Moines city scape....12.4 miles off in the distance. It's really exhilarating to know that in a couple hours, I will be there amongst all those buildings. A local high school band played the Nation Anthem, and the race began.
Since this race begins on a dam, it is pretty narrow and crowded for the first mile. I know the first couple miles will be a little slow, and I have learned to just go with it. I also know if I start off too fast, I will pay dearly for it later, so a crowded start such as this actually helps ensure I will conserve my energy. As predicted, my first mile was a little over a 9-minute pace, but by the time I finished my second mile I had already made up some of that time and was back on my "normal" pace (between 8:30-8:45).
I was able to keep a decent pace (well under a 9-minute pace) for the first half of the race. Unfortunately, I was already experiencing some minor distress from my shoes. I could feel a few blisters forming on the balls of both feet, and the toe nail of left big toe was rubbing on my shoe. Not good. I was wearing some shoes I'd had for a couple years, and I had worn them quite a lot for recent training runs. Apparently, the short runs were all these shoes had left in them...and by mile 3, I was really regretting lacing them up that morning. So, with every step I was dreading the next. Again, not good when there's 12.4 total miles to be run.
The route for Dam-to-Dam starts in a rural setting, north of Des Moines. There are some curves, and very gentle rolling hills along the first half of the course. There are water stations at every mile, and lots of spectators along the road. Just before the halfway point, we cross Interstate 80. I always wonder what the casual tourists think when they see all of the runners on the bridge over I-80 before 8:00AM on a Saturday morning. Most of them honk at us, and I always make a point to wave at them.
Despite my shoe discomfort, my split for the first 10K was 56:25, just barely over a 9-minute pace. I was starting to have doubts if I'd be able to PR, though. Last year, I finished in 1:55 and I was hoping to finish under 1:50 this year. I would really need to stay on pace and kick it into high gear to finish with my goal time. Having done this race before, I knew what was coming up at mile 8...a big hill that I had only successfully ran the entirety of it once in my 5 previous Dam races. It is a long hill, probably most of a mile, and by that point of the race I am starting to feel some fatigue. I usually do an energy gel at the halfway point, but the water station was in between mile marks at this location...so I didn't get my gel until after the 7-mile mark, and it didn't seem to take effect in time. So, much to my disappointment, I walked for some of it. My feet were on fire, but I knew I still could pick up my pace after this hill was over.
So I pressed on after the hill, still staying pretty much on pace...but I could also tell I was feeling weary from all the foot pain. Mile 9 came and went, and I was really having trouble focusing on the finish line because my feet hurt so bad. I knew the pain was only going to get worse with each step, but I had to continue.
Suddenly, I realized no amount of pain could put a damper on this race for me. Did I really need to try for a PR when my shoe discomfort would make it so difficult? This is a race I have done 5 times before, why not just relax and enjoy the experience of being here? We all have runs and races that don't go as planned or anticipated, maybe this was destined to be one of those for me. I (momentarily) couldn't control the pain from the swelling blisters on my feet, but I could control my experience.
As I approached the end of mile 10, I still had plenty of foot and big-toe discomfort, but I let myself slow down and walk briefly. Of course, when I slow down and walk usually that means my body will want to have a potty break, too. So, I grabbed a water and waited for my turn at a nearby porta potty. I don't like messing with my race time by taking the porta pot breaks, but since I had let the PR goal evaporate, it was a necessary evil. My mind had been cleared of the PR, and I actually felt a brief moment of calm wash over me. After taking my break, I glanced at my watch and noticed it said 1:36 .....quickly my mind did the math and realized I could still potentially finish under 2 hours if I allowed myself to really focus and draw some mojo from deep within. I had approximately 2.5 miles remaining, maybe I could do it!
The foot pain was excruciating, but I took off and eagerly made my way through the remaining miles. I knew I would be cutting it close, but I was going to try. My second fastest time in finishing Dam-to-Dam was 2:02:30 (in 2010), so just maybe I could beat that if not the coveted 2:00:00 mark.
The final few miles go through some neighborhoods (lots of cheering people), along business areas (lots of crowd support and extra water), and finally, along a river (near the "destination" dam) in downtown Des Moines. My "rational" mind kept telling myself that I'd finish "around" 2 hours, so there was no need to stress out over trying to finish any faster. And my "running" mind reminded myself that I would regret not finishing strong and at least trying to finish under 2 hours. I kept telling myself, "just keep going." Just keep going.
Usually, when I do distance races such as this, the second half goes much smoother and faster than the first half. I usually get a huge energy boost for the final 3-4 miles, and that runner's high carries me through to the finish. That was not happening this day. It really took a lot of discipline to keep going and not walk during those last couple miles. But I kept pressing onward, finally reaching the walking bridge over the river and having only about a half mile remaining. That was when I finally got my energy...I was able to kick it in for the final length and cross the finish line.....officially in 1:59:54!
I would have loved to PR and finish faster than last years time of 1:55, but I was very happy and completely satisfied. I was pleased to finish under 2 hours, but even more proud of myself for the power I was able to draw on those final few miles to get to the finish line.
I graciously took my finisher's medal, posed for a quick picture and then promptly made my way to the bag claim area. I didn't even grab a water or Gatorade. I had a pair of flip flops waiting for me in my bag, and time was of the essence. My feet hurt so bad, I was tempted to lose the shoes and walk barefoot...but common sense told me to do otherwise. I found my bag and wasted no time in discarding the shoes and socks...and all was well.
So, what did this race teach me? The great thing about running (or any sport, or life experience) is that there is always something to learn. I trained well for this, but an additional long training run could have been beneficial (I had a serious golf ball injury on my foot, so I elected to not do that final long run to be cautious). I need to seriously work on my sleep habits (and program my mind and body to "turn off" at an earlier hour). Make better choices in race day shoes (even if the old shoes have felt great on shorter runs, they may not hold up for anything longer). Not every race will be 100% great, PR's are great but they shouldn't dictate your entire race day experience. And, even when the race is not going as great as hoped, be thankful to be there running anyways...it just may turn around.