I settled into my new place easily. We were in Alexandria, near the convergence of several running/biking trails. It was relatively easy to cruise south/east on even the major roads, with destinations 20 km away that weren’t knotted entirely with traffic, stop lights, and pedestrians.
My job was in Ashburn, 30 or so miles away on the W&OD trail. Which I had to get to first. I didn’t have time to ride 60+ miles daily during a normal work day - especially since we moved in that November - so I started getting up at 7 to drive to Falls Church, where I would park the car and ride the other 22. That kept me in shape, saved me probably 30 minutes each way, and eliminated the most stressful part of the ride to and through Shirlington. (Eventually the city built out its trail system, which might have saved me that half hour without having to get in the car. Alas, too late for this old man.)
Rides were great and got me in great with my biking boss. But the running! I kept running kit in the office and went for mid-day treks around the burgeoning neighborhoods of exurban DC. Unfortunately, infrastructure was lacking, so in winter the roads weren’t consistently cleared; also, most of the trees had been cut down, so in summer the heat was brutal. And trails were - well, they were often whatever I decided was a trail, which meant running across fields and ducking through what were probably backyards or across land cleared for development that wouldn't see a sheet of Tyvek for a half decade. It was a compromise.
The summer after we moved, I ran a couple local races.
First up was the Hugh Jascort 4-miler on the C(hesapeake) & O(hio) Canal path. I had run on this path once or twice before, or maybe ridden on it, but it didn’t hold any particular charm. It’s mostly a flat, compacted dirt pathway along a straight waterway. The redeeming features: it doesn’t feel super-urban; it’s softer than pavement (though not by much); there are occasional path-disrupting water features that don't require particular skill to get by with no more than a splash; and the race cost $5.
It all felt a little Ithacan, and I was hopeful that this new locale had something to offer. The 4-miler was put on by DC Road Runners, who don’t charge much for any race (in fact, they don’t charge at all if you’re a member) and put on several each season. Strangely, they seem to have a fetish for the unusual 4 mile to 8 km range, as looking at their annual races I immediately see 3 at that distance. Maybe they figure they can pull in $1 per mile but don’t want it to cost more than $5 for any race. Who knows?
Digression, digression. Wasn't I about to extoll one of my heroic exploits?
Oh yes, the race. First off, I rode to the race course, so I felt like I was keeping to my trademark style. It was an evening race, starting at something like 6 or 7 p.m., and my wife met me afterwards so we could go out and do something on the town or whatever it is we did back before kids. Those days are so long gone that I can only vaguely remember them. Kids: the ultimate panacea for memory.
So there I was at the race start, in a crowd of people I didn’t recognize or know anything about, trying to figure out where I would likely finish. I hadn’t done a race in a year, and this felt like a universe of difference. New place, new distance, new crowd, new fitness. So new it should have come with a warranty.
I pressed my way near the front -- but not too overly confidently far forward -- and came out of the gate a little hot. I passed several people on the way out and established my place in 5th, tailed by some youth. At the 2-mile mark, I felt my legs start to slow, and the kid behind me passed; I held on as long as possible, then finally let him go and established myself in 6th. My time was apparently 24:02 on a non-chip-timed course.
Not too bad, but certainly not the elite level I was hoping for. Then again, I’d just ridden 8 miles to get to the course and hadn’t trained for the distance. (More excuses coming, maybe?) Let’s get real, though: my performances were slipping. I was no longer running at the pace of the top 2%. There were 93 runners in that race, and I had managed 6th, or about the top 7%. That seems about right for my athletic situation those days.
Having dipped my toe in the competition scene, I did my race prep at an event put on by the Potomac Valley Track Club on the 4th of July. This 8k traversed a portion of the George Washington Parkway Trail, which eventually gets you to the old Washington estate at Mt. Vernon.
I remember riding to the race start and feeling a little wary of the competition. I was 27 at the time, coming off some major life changes, and not only did I once again not know anybody running, I also felt like the 4-miler result needed improvement. As usual for a race under 10 miles away, the bike was perfectly fine transportation. When I rolled up, everybody stared at me like I was a crazy triathlete. No guys, swimming is so out.
Once again, I went out too hard, burned myself up in the first 3k, slowed significantly for a couple kilometers, then finally found my rhythm for the last 2 miles. End result: 30:19, good for 10th out of 200+ runners.
At the time, that may have been the largest race I had ever been in. I don’t know how many people did Wineglass or the Lake Anna half, but neither one felt that crowded. I was definitely in a down-South urban area away from those low-entry-fee, high-personality races from my way-upstate New York days.
I ran that 8k as a warmup for the Blackwater Traverse, a duathlon held on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (the dangly peninsula east of the Chesapeake Bay, also known as the Delmarva Peninsula because Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia each claim a portion) on July 8. Again, I don’t remember these being so close together, but according to the internets, they were.
My wife and I went to the race packet pickup together the day before (July 7), busting down the peninsula in some kind of ugly traffic and stopping to eat our weight in crabs. The Maryland crab scene is awkward: while many places claim to serve “Maryland crabs”, most of these are, apparently, imported, causing the users to proclaim menu items as “Maryland-style”. It’s weird.
But we ate them anyway, because that’s what you do on the Eastern Shore.
I chatted up a couple people at the packet pickup hoping to find some neighbors who might anchor a future relationship. The DC area is big, though, so it was hard to form any lasting alliances. Back in Ithaca, everyone lived within 10 miles of each other and would meet up on a whim or just end up on the same trails once or twice a week. That meant it was easy to get to know the regulars. The duathletes at this event were from all over the Chesapeake drainage.
We drove back late in the afternoon, stopping for dinner to wait out some even uglier traffic, and I slept as usual in my own bed that night.
The next day broke warm, with the humidity rising quickly. I hopped in the car and made it to the race site with over an hour to spare, but it was clear the event would be done in a slogging heat. At the race start -- inside a stadium -- it was still possible to find a small amount of relief by leaning against a wall. But the course was set up to do an out-and-back along a road with one side lined with trees (the evening shade) and the other completely open (morning and noon sun). It was uncomfortable.
I ran hard enough to feel good but not so hard that I would burn myself out. The first leg was 12 km, and I ripped through it at a sub-6:20 pace. Hopping on the bike, I was convinced the course must have something more to offer. But it didn’t: the bike ride went through open country, searing hot and muggy, around humidifying ponds and lagoons, up small rises and across long, blistering flats. Halfway through, my 38 kph pace dipped, first to 34 kph, then to 32 kph. I limped across the line in just under 2 hours for the 70 km ride.
But now I was back on foot with the end in sight. I chugged some water and headed out the road, being careful to take on more water at each opportunity. The heat was devastating. My pace was much slower than it normally would have been, shriveled from baking in the sun. I somehow managed to pass about a dozen runners during that event, though, and finished the 8 km at a respectable (if not spectacular) 7:30-ish pace.
It was one of my worst showings in a race: 38th of about 180. Top 20%, sure, but not exactly what I was going for when I signed up.
It didn’t seem right to be that far behind the leaders, especially in what should have been a “sweet spot” competition for me. Sure, the duathlon was a distant event put on in brutal weather. But it still left me with a hollow feeling; I had no desire to follow it up. The runs were fine, but the whole event lacked joie de vivre. It wasn’t just that I had lost a step (though that may have been a part of the problem), but finding races around the area had proved difficult, and finding races that looked interesting had been exceedingly hard.
Sounds like a future me problem.
Next up: Reflections of the untrained.
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.