This past Saturday I finally ran my first 10K race (6.2 miles)! I’ve been avoiding this distance…roughly since the 1980s.

After all the beautiful weather we’d had, it was in the thirtes when I got up at 6:30 AM, and I was freezing. I ate my pre-race yogurt (brrrr!), then put on the lightest, silkiest tights I own, running shorts over the tights, a  long-sleeve technical shirt, a medium-weight poly jacket with sleeves that hook over your thumbs, and a fleece neck gaiter and ear band. And, of course, my racing flats. No gloves, no additional fleece. They say the rule of thumb is that it feels twenty degrees warmer when you’re running, so I dressed like it was the mid-fifties, although this left me shivering when Mom pulled in at 7:15 AM.

A dense fog hunkered down on the highways and around the rivers. We got to Lunken Airport early, before 8:00 AM for the 9:00 start, and the sign wasn’t out yet by the golf course entrance, so we drove around Beechmont Levee over the Little Miami trying to find the race. I was jazzed on my pre-race can of Starbucks Double-Shot. It’s amazing what a morning person racing turns me into! We finally came back across and found the location at the golf course, and Mom knew several of the volunteers from her catering jobs. Cincinnati has been so much more like that than Chicago ever was, and it’s kind of cool.

I pinned my number on my shirt and laced the timing chip into my shoelaces, and Mom and I sat in the warmth of the Edith Lindner house while I looked at my course map and tried to come up with a pacing strategy. I decided on a goal of 7:35 minute miles, knowing I’d just done a four-mile threshold run in training at a 7:41 pace, and a 10K should be run slightly faster than threshold. It was all guesswork. Then I took out a ballpoint pen and carefully wrote each mile’s split down my left forearm. What a bizarre person running turns you into.

Around 8:25 AM, I decided I’d better warm up a bit, though I didn’t want to get too sweaty before a cold race, nor too tired considering the distance. I ran out for ten minutes, about a mile or so, then ran back, interspersing thirty-second fast pickups. I was worried by aches and pains I felt in areas I don’t usually — my right knee, especially, and my shins and hips. Maybe it was the cold. I got back right at 8:45 AM, in time to roll my muscles at the car with my new stick roller, and do my dynamic stretches, where you swing your legs in the motion of running to loosen them up. (Static stretches, where you hold a stretch, are bad for cold muscles and also cause your muscles to move slower temporarily, so you don’t want to do those before a race, though plenty of people still do.)

At the starting line, it was still only in the upper thirties, foggy and damp. There were fifty-four runners registered for the 10K, and additional walkers at the back who were doing 2K. I was  worried about whether I was wearing too much, because a couple of the men had on shorts. I managed to refrain from stripping down to my underwear in the parking lot to change right then and there, though running has killed my modesty in most respects; I’ll take off my shirt anywhere I have a sports bra on, and I’ll pee in a backyard.

Julie Isphording, the locally-famous former Olympic marathoner who organized the race, spoke a bit about the charity we were sponsoring, the Swan House women’s shelter. She mentioned that they call their efforts “restoration” because people can be restored too, and that the women there comment how much they love coming home to the house because it’s made to be a real home, with a dining table and family atmosphere. I would have liked to have heard more, but she must have been sensitive to starting the race. Steve from the race management company told her to say “Go!” in just ten seconds, and suddenly — very suddenly — we were on our way.

Writer Matt Fitzgerald says that your runner’s brain is capable of calculating the maximum pace for your fitness level just by knowing the distance to be run. That was about all I had to rely on, despite the splits on my arm, since I didn’t know what a 10K pace would feel like. I’d seeded myself toward the front at the start line, and some people passed me in the first couple hundred yards, many of whom I’d see again later as I passed them. We ran down the sidewalk from the golf course, and onto the airport loop clockwise, just briefly, to a turnaround that sent us back out the loop counter-clockwise (apparently to add enough distance to make the full 6.2-mile course out of the 5-mile loop).

My aches and pains were soon gone in the rush of race adrenaline. A tall 21-year-old girl had started ahead of me at a fast pace, but I passed her well before the first mile. Briefly there were no other women ahead; then a 32-year-old woman passed me at a pace I knew I couldn’t keep up (it turned out to be 7:17). As I passed the first mile marker on Wilmer Avenue, a volunteer gave my split at 7:33, right on schedule.

The airport came up on my left very quickly, much sooner than it seems to on my training runs. I felt strong and my breathing was under control. I still didn’t know if I was setting a pace I could keep for six miles. There was a short uphill to get to the second mile marker, where volunteers were plying us with cups of water, which no one racing at the front ever takes. One guy tried to take one, and I heard him and the volunteer apologizing to each other for the collision! My split was 15:06, another perfect 7:33 minute mile.

Because of the small number of racers, we got fairly spread out on the long back section of the loop behind the airport. It can be hard to keep pace and one’s concentration in that situation. I tried catching the guys ahead of me as motivation, even though it didn’t matter to my place. Over several miles, I passed several men, using my rubber-band imagery — a big rubber band looped around both of us, pulling me closer toward him with no effort. The last guy I passed, about halfway through the race, was a 58-year-old man who goes to many of the local races and who fought to stay with me. After we ran side by side for half a mile, he made a move to accelerate, then oddly, he slowed down immediately and let me pass him. He wasn’t injured and he finished fine; but he must have felt upon accelerating that he couldn’t keep up the faster pace.

My progression runs were paying off, because on each mile split, I was going a second or two faster than the one before. One guy in particular should be thanked for keeping me moving: A young 23-year-old hocking up loogies right behind me for four miles! I listened to him cough, gurgle and spit out gobs of phlegm all over the course, and so I kept trying to get farther ahead of him. I even turned around once to stare at him pointedly, but that didn’t stop anything. Finally, he caught up with me about the time his issues were  subsiding, and went on to finish the race 29 seconds ahead of me, somehow.

The sun finally peeked out a little bit after mile four. There’s no sense of chill in the heat of a race, anyway. One more guy was still visible fifty yards ahead of me, a 53-year-old in a long-sleeved bright red shirt, and I was determined to catch him. Loogie guy caught him ahead of me and they ran chatting together for awhile like we were on a Sunday joyride, which completely irritated me, since I was working so hard. Then loogie guy accelerated ahead and we all turned down a steep hill past the mile five marker. A white-haired mustached man walking the path yelled out, “Use the hill to catch ’em!” like he was my high school coach or something. But I couldn’t; mile five was when it finally hit me. I was out of breath. I checked the split against my ballpointed arm, and I was a good fourteen seconds ahead of my goal for the race, keeping a 7:28 pace by now.

Red shirt man was ahead of me running past the golf course and tennis courts, and his form looked like he was faltering. But try as I might, I wasn’t getting any closer to him! I wanted to walk now so badly; I started bargaining with myself, if I could walk just for a few seconds, then I’d start running again. To counter these thoughts, I kept telling myself, it’s just a mile; but then I remembered it was really 1.2 miles — over nine more minutes — and how that last 0.2 could feel like a very long, very painful time. I finally settled down with the thought that I was on track to exceed my goal, and I didn’t want to blow it now! JUST. KEEP. RUNNING. And, that Mom was waiting at the finish line. I always run faster when someone else is there!

I began to close the distance between me and old red shirt, but he wouldn’t give in. At the six-mile mark, with less than a quarter mile to go, I kicked. I kicked and he kicked, down the golf course driveway, and we both sprinted into the chute. Although I got within yards of him, he beat me by five seconds. As we both hunched over in the chute heaving, he remarked, “You really kept me going — I could hear your feet back there the whole time.” He seemed almost irritated about it, and even when I said he’d set a good pace, and I could never catch him, he didn’t want to converse further.

I was eleventh in the race out of the fifty-four runners, and I was second woman out of twenty-three. The first-place woman and second-place man were in much better moods, and we talked about the difficulty of the featureless course, the small field to pace with, our strategies out there. First-place woman, the 32-year-old who got a 45:06, counts her footsteps to make sure she’s striding fast enough, especially when there’s no one around to pace against. Second-place guy is a 48-year-old triathlete who wanted to get close to forty minutes, but got off-course at the big downhill and added almost a minute to his time. He had to go pick up his son, and my mom had to cater, so one of the nice ladies gave us our trophies early, and urged us to eat up all the bagels.

My chip time was 46:36, or 7:31 mile splits! (My unspoken crazy stretch goal was 7:30 splits.) Last year I had trouble running three or four mile repeats under 7:30 with 2:30 rest in between, as part of 5K training. I debuted at this distance far faster than I have at any other — only 21 seconds from elite status, according to the local club! I even weigh a lot more than I did for the half-marathon last October, even if it is muscle and not fat — the calves and lower thighs of all my skinny pants are tight now, but the waist and hips are still loose — and though I’d like to lose fat to compensate, my training choice to develop strength must be going right. In fact, it was the training — 3-5 mile threshold runs since last winter, strength and hills this summer, 6-9 mile progression runs this fall — that made all the difference to doing well in the challenging combination of speed and distance of the 10K.

Mom was impressed, and she’s seen a lot of my races. Her camera batteries were dead, so she had one of her catering friends take my picture coming into the finish. It’s good to know people sometimes. We’ll see when we get that picture.