Next week will mark the first anniversary of when I decided to get serious about running. Before last April, I had never run more than 22.5 miles in a month. Starting with last April, I’ve run at least 50 miles every month.
In fact, I’ve run about 1,200 miles since I decided to become a runner last April. And I’ve run in 10 races. The last of those 10 races was at the end of March: the Spring Forward Distance Run 15K in Mendon Ponds Park, which I ran with Chick Vic and a few other members of our informal running group.
The course at Mendon Ponds Park varies depending on the distance of the race, but it’s always hilly. Very hilly. The kind of course where when you crest a hill, you frequently see a downhill followed immediately by another big uphill. You hear all sorts of comments about the hills when you’re racing. “I hate these hills.” “Don’t look.” “At least we get to go down the other side.”
I love it. I don’t know why, but I’ve discovered I love hilly races. Of my 10 races, three have been at Mendon Ponds Park, and at all three races the hills have been where I’ve tracked down and passed people.
Anyway, on race day I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and went through my standard race morning routine: go to the bathroom, eat breakfast, get dressed, drive to course. The race was at 8 a.m., and I got to Mendon Ponds Park at 7 a.m. and took the shuttle to the starting area. Around 7:30 I ran into Vic and Ray and we made our way to the starting area, where we found Mark.
This was my first 15K, so I was guaranteed a PR. But I was planning to use it as a test for my upcoming half marathon, where I want a big PR. So my goal for Spring Forward was under 1:20. I planned to try to do about 8:30 miles all the way through and then see if I could pick it up even more the last mile or so.
Vic was getting over a cold, so I knew she wouldn’t be interested in trying to go really fast. Ray was doing the race as the first 9 miles of a 16-mile training day, so he didn’t want to push it either. Mark said he’d try to stick with me but warned that he was working through some discomfort and might need to back off at some point.
With our plans in place (Mark and I running together, Vic and Ray running together, and Bill starting up front en route to second place in his age group), we settled into our spots to wait for the start.
The weather was really nice for a race, which was lucky for us considering that it snowed later that day. In the morning, it was cold but not frigid. There was no rain, no sun and little wind.
Mark and I started off with an 8:14 mile and then clicked off back-to-back 8:22 miles. We were a little bit faster than we needed to be for 1:20, but I felt good. We were able to hold a conversation, so the effort wasn’t tiring us too much. Unfortunately, the hills weren’t helping Mark’s injury. On a hill just past the 5K point, Mark told me he’d see me at the finish and slowed down.
Running on my own now, I maintained a sub-8:30 pace for the next two miles (8:27 and 8:23) while enjoying the scenery. The rolling hills in the middle of country and park space make for a beautiful course, and it was nice to just take it all in.
I slowed up a bit in miles 6 and 7 (8:45 and 8:49), but that didn’t bother me. I was feeling strong and I knew I still had a kick left in me. I had no concerns about hitting my 1:20 goal. I sped up a bit to 8:32 in mile 8 and then again for an 8:13 in mile 9.
In races, I don’t really care where I finish in relation to the other runners. I’m competing against myself, and I know I’m not going to place in my age group. But the other runners can be useful props as the race goes on, especially at the end.
Over the last couple miles of the race, an older runner and I had been trading places back and forth a few times. I’d generally catch him on the uphills and he’d catch me on the flats. As we made the turn toward the finish line, I decided there was nothing more important than staying ahead of him. I kicked into as close to a sprint as I could manage at that point and I could hear him pushing to catch me.
I held him off and as I approached the line I saw that the clock hadn’t hit 1:19 yet (my official chip time was 1:18:47). I took a few seconds to celebrate my personal victory, then I walked back along the finishing stretch so that I could cheer in Vic, Mark and Ray. Mark came in around 1:23 with Vic and Ray a couple minutes later. It wasn’t the fastest any of them could run, but they were all happy with their times given their personal circumstances for the day.
And really, that’s what every race is all about: Running the best race you can given whatever you’re dealing with that day.
For me, this race was huge for two reasons.
First, as I mentioned earlier, it was a test run for the Flower City Half Marathon on April 27. Flower City is a hillier course than my first half marathon, so while I know I’m faster than when I ran 1:58:38 in September, I wasn’t sure how fast I should try to go at Flower City. My time at Spring Forward, and how good I felt after the race, gave me the confidence to decide that I’m going to run with the 1:50 pacer at Flower City.
Second, this was my first race since my marathon DNF in mid-February. After how badly that race went, it was nice to set a goal, follow a plan and have everything work out perfectly. It’s been nearly two months since my DNF and I still think about it almost every day. I don’t think I’ll be able to let go of it completely until I finish a marathon, but this was a nice step forward.
And it was a nice cap to my first year of running. Despite the marathon setback, I did more in the past year than I ever thought I could. I can’t wait to find out what I’m capable of doing in my second year of running, and beyond.
Ben is a husband, father, runner and editor in Rochester, NY. He can be found on Twitter at @bjacobsroch.