Army Ten Miler

The Army 10 Miler (2016)

Our plan and our reality are often different beasts.

I ran my first ten mile race back in February. I went out too fast, which is my habit, and suffered greatly in the back half of the race. I ran 1:01:45, which is a great time for most every human on the planet Earth but a source of embarrassment and shame as I watched comparable runners crush that by a few minutes (or more). It would be eight months, two marathons and a dozen shorter, smaller club races before I would have another crack at this distance. It would come in the form of the Army Ten Miler.

The Army Ten Miler is something of a classic. It begins, like the Marine Corps Marathon, at the Pentagon, heads over the Memorial Bridge and winds through the Washington, DC city core before heading over the Potomac and back to the Pentagon for the finish. The 2016 edition featured cool temps in the upper 50s/low 60s and a biting wind that cut through the field of nearly 25,000.

My plan was simple: conserve my strength and energy early with 6:00 - 6:15 per mile pace and then turn it on for the second half in the hope of coming in under sixty minutes. That was the A goal for this B race (this season’s A race being the JFK50 on November 19). Having battled a nagging pirformis injury, I wasn’t sure this was achievable and I think I was OK with that. My B goal was finishing ahead of my previous PR of 1:01:45 and my C goal was finishing upright. 

Training had been going well. I’ve been steadily improving my aerobic threshold with a smart mix of long, slow endurance runs and shorter VO2 max sessions. I feared I may have overdone this training block last week when my 22 mile long run turned into a 26 mile long run and an aggressive (but far from best effort) 5k the day before the Army Ten Miler. I woke up on race morning feeling tired and sick and not at all confident in my body.

My morning routine was altered a little bit by virtue of the fact that I was driving an MCRRC teammate to the race start. It meant all of my prep was moved up a little earlier and I got a little less sleep. It also meant I had company before the race and a friend to warm up with. I feel like it was a net gain and I’m glad to have had that experience.

After an easy warmup jog (2 miles, a little less than 20 minutes, which seems to be my sweet spot these days), I hit the bathroom one last time and made my way to the start line.

The starting corrals at these big races are always a little uncomfortable for me. It’s packed and loud and I always feel like a fraud standing near the front. I never know if I’m in the right place or the wrong place. The eyes of the runners around me always seem full of judgement. The race organizers counted down. Two minutes. One minute. Less than thirty seconds. Here we go:

The howitzer blasted and we were off. Right off the bat, my pace felt good. I was spending a little energy weaving around other runners so, with respect to the previous paragraph, I clearly seeded myself too far back. No problem. I was comfortable. I looked at my watch about a half a mile in. My pace was around 5:30. Way too fast. I slowed a little to try to get back on track but as I passed the one mile mark, my old habits took over. I got caught up in the notion of banking time in these early miles. To stay on target, I thought, every mile below six bought me a mile over six. I would run 5:40ish a mile as long as I could and hope I didn’t break down too early. The plan was out the window and I just went with the flow and focused on achieving consistency. I didn’t care that the pace was above what I thought I could sustain for an hour. I felt good and I thought the math would work in my favor.

5k in and I was sitting at 17:30. That was thirty seconds faster my time in the club 5k the day before. I was winded after that run but here I still felt pretty good. Great even. I had more in the tank. I was relaxed. I didn’t feel like I was running outside of myself. Nothing really hurt. I felt strong and I felt focused. Maybe it was stupid to be running this fast but I was still banking time. I clocked splits of 5:39/5:39/5:47 in the first three miles so I knew I could run the last three miles at 6:15-6:20 and still be on target. Why not keep it going? Hope I don’t break down. It didn’t feel like it would happen anytime soon. Mile 4 was my fastest yet: 5:35. Mile 5 was 5:40. I wasn’t breaking down. I was rolling. I was happy. This was feeling great. I clocked Mile 6 against a wicked headwind in 5:47. My slowest mile of the day but it felt like my strongest. I wasn’t cramping. I wasn’t spent. I wanted to run sub sixty, I was well on my way and I didn’t want to have to do this again so I kept going!

I settled into the low 5:40s in miles 7 and 8 and I finally let myself believe it: I could finish this race without running a mile above 6 minutes. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible forty minutes earlier, but here I was on the verge. I was focused and locked in. I started doing battle with a Scott Jurek doppelgänger on the bridge back to Virginia. Awesome! It was the cherry on top! An opponent who was clearly going to match my current effort stride for stride. A human metronome. Help from above? Who knows? I had somebody to run with, to make it a race with two miles to go. Your plans change in a race. At this point my plan probably changed two or three times but now I knew, now the picture went from fuzzy to sharp. I knew what I was going to do this day: I was going to run sub six minute miles and I was going to beat Jurek-lite. I had my plan of attack and nothing was going to stop me from executing.

(Such aggressive thoughts are not typical for me in a race, really. I try to have fun and be relaxed. In that moment I felt like a killer. I have had too many disappointing races this last year. Too many days I was not only not my best but that I was content not being my best. Today was going to be different. I wasn’t going to fail this day. It was like a dam burst and I reborn. The old me was blown away in the gusts of wind that I would have let cut me down in a previous incarnation. I was not fucking around).

I ran mile 9 in 5:44. The homestretch. I opened my stride. Jurek Jr. and I went blow for blow. He matched my surges and I matched his. We came to the last quarter mile and he started to break away. For five seconds I thought, “I’m going to crush my PR, I’m happy, I feel a little tired, he ran a good race, it’s OK, you don’t have to match him”. The last vestiges of the old me. New me didn’t say a word. He just took over and my body surged. I went upright and found my strength to run faster. I had one opponent now, one test left with a new PR in the bag. I went for it. The finish line was fifty yards away. Forty. Thirty. Twenty. Surging. Leave nothing behind. Go!

I crossed the line ahead of him but more importantly, I crossed the line ahead of myself. The clock read 57:40-something. My chip time wound up being 57:39. I shattered my previous best by more than four minutes. I seem to always forget to turn off my watch at the end of a race. I’m thinking of the mistakes I made, the opportunities I let slip away. It’s telling that on this day I immediately, subconsciously hit my watch the moment I crossed the line. I was tuned in. I’ve been racing for two years and it’s never been like this. It felt incredible. It went better than I would have allowed myself to hope. I gave Jurek clone a heartfelt handshake and thanks. He helped me make it happen. I’d like to think I helped him, too. That’s what it’s about.

That’s the narrative part of the report. Now for some analysis:

When I think of what went well and why I was able to over perform I’ll start with the pre-race experience. Shaking up my morning routine was a real benefit. It got me out of my head and forced me to focus on essentials. The extra time in the morning meant that when the gun went off at 8am, I had been awake for 3 hours and my muscles and mind were primed better than they would have been if I had gotten an extra hour of sleep. Digestion wasn’t an issue at all - there was ample time to hit the portable toilets before the start.

My physical therapist and I have come to the recent conclusion that I’m not hydrating enough so I erred on the side of over-hydrating the weekend and morning of the race. My muscles felt great and the fact that I didn’t cramp or blow up despite the high level of effort is proof enough of the wisdom of my drinking a ton of water It was definitely worth the extra trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

The other big factor is that I clearly had a mental breakthrough. Good enough wasn’t good enough. I wanted to execute. I was hungry for it. Part of it, which will sound silly, but I think is legitimate, is that I was the only male member of the racing team at this event. I felt like I had to represent. Another part of it was that I had a now-or-never mentality. With a few weeks to go until my A race, I wanted to see where I was really at, stripped away of excuses and BS. If I have any hope of achieving my goal at JFK50, I needed to be able to run a sub-sixty here (and - this is important - be relatively comfortable doing so). Mission accomplished. Confidence boosted. 

My goal turned out to be more conservative than my reality. Mentally and physically, I was stronger than I thought I was. There are a lot of lessons to unpack from this race but my key takeaway is that after a pretty disappointing year of injury and subpar performances, it all seems to be coming together at the best possible time thanks to persistence and a smart training plan.

Adrian Spencer