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Fastest four

Yesterday’s race had me thinking about my best-ever four-miler. It was the Greenfield Winter Carnival race in 2002, the year I ran all my best races since college. I hunted up my (lengthy) write-up of the race from the day afterward, and discovered that the race was actually on February 2nd: 2/2/02, for 22 miles. I ran just over 22 minutes. And the race started and finished on Route 2A.

The full report, slightly edited as usual, is included after the jump. For perspective, you know.

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After I picked the race, I started looking at the results from [the previous] year, which were posted on Cool Running, and suspected one of two things: either I was going to be accused of cherry-picking in a big way, or something went seriously wrong then, since the winning times were over 24 minutes. I checked my log, and I happened to have been in Amherst that weekend; good weather, according to that. Then I looked at the course map, observed that the course appeared to make switchbacks, suggesting a steep hill, and considered a third option: maybe it’s just a slow course.

Anyway, after my surprisingly quick 5-miler the weekend before, I thought maybe I could lower my 4-mile PR, a 22:10 from ‘92 or ‘93. But with the beginnings of a cold, a predicted windy day, and a less-than-perfect course, who knew?

I headed up to Greenfield anyway, and drove the course before parking. Sure enough, despite the mostly downhill start, there was a pace-busting hill before the mile mark and a steady climb out to the turnaround. What’s more, there was significant ice on parts of the course.

I parked in the designated parking lot, making sure my black car would be in the sun, warming during the race. Signed up and jogged the first mile out and back for warmup. I reflected that a downhill start meant an uphill finish. Quickly stripped off my warmups and made my way to the starting line.

Since we were starting right on Route 2A, the RD moved us out to the line and started us rather quickly. He made a note of how the course was well marked, “so nobody should get lost like last year.” Hmm, maybe that explains the slow times.

I jumped out in front, with one or two guys close behind me, but when we turned onto Hope Road, which was most of the first mile, I pushed the downhill and moved out in front. I hadn’t seen anyone in the crowd at the start who looked like they would challenge me, but sometimes the visual scan isn’t enough! I could still hear footsteps and when we made the turn off Hope Road and started up to the mile marker I peeked. Not one set of footsteps—a pack of four, probably less than ten seconds behind me. I slogged up the hill and immediately kept pushing over the crest of the hill. One mile, 5:40. Not great for total time, I thought, but I was twenty seconds faster last week, so even if that pack catches me, I should have some speed still to play with.

The second mile was a gradual rise (like the “1” slope on a treadmill) to an abrupt, wide “U” turn to the right (two right turns in rapid succession, in a car), followed by the steepest uphill on the course. There were large patches of ice on both turns and the uphill. I tried to find the dry and/or rough spots and pushed up the hill. At the top we ran through what seemed to be a park, where the road conditions were really bad; there was very little dry pavement. I kept up full pace, trusting that I wouldn’t slip enough to go down, and tried to find the best traction on the road. I was thinking to myself, if those guys can’t catch me going uphill, they’re definitely not going to catch me going down.

Two mile split, 11:16. I did the math later: 5:36. In retrospect I’m impressed with that. At the time I was busy: right after the marker there was a lady on the left side of the road with a puntable-sized dog on a leash on the right side of the road. I had no time to think—in fact, no options. I hurdled the leash. I didn’t even have time to give her the piece of my mind she so richly deserved. I just kept going. As I came out of the (brief) lollipop turnaround I saw my pursuers going in; the pack had broken up into four individuals. I liked that; a pack, if the individuals were focused, could work together to reel me in, but separately they would have a hard time. And now I was going downhill.

I was cranking out of the park. I think the idiot lady with her waste-of-protein dog got my adrenaline flowing, though I’d forgotten her already. The rest of the race was streaming in, maybe sixty or seventy people, and every fourth or fifth person would clap, or call something to me. I was blatantly hogging all the best pavement I could find, even if it meant switching sides of the road with the oncoming runners. By the time I was out of the park and heading down, most of them were past; I took the U (left, this time) wide, watching for ice, and peeked over my shoulder again. Nobody. I could swear I heard footsteps, though, so I kept pushing. Three miles, 16:28. Yes, that’s roughly a 5:12 mile. I’m not really sure how I managed that, either.

Down the pace-breaking hill, back onto Hope Street. The volunteers were almost comically expressive about showing me which way to go, even though the course was clearly marked and I had a pretty good idea what I was doing. I suppose I prefer that to the alternative; after all, here I was keeping warm and moving, while they had to stand there.

I really noticed the wind here for the first time. I also remembered my maxim about downhill starts. I’d figured all I needed was a 5:41 fourth mile for a PR, but once I’d used all the downhill in the fourth mile I was beginning to wonder about that. I also had no idea how close the pursuit was, and I didn’t dare look back. To add insult to injury, I hadn’t done a good job programming my mental soundtrack for the race—it was playing a Charlatans tune: “…and if I fall by the wayside, I’m coming down with my hands tied…”

I told myself, just get to the crest of the hill at the corner you can see. Over that, you go down a little, then up to the finish. Then I reached the crest, and there wasn’t any down—a flat spot, yes, but then up to the finish. I kept pushing. The course was directed onto the sidewalk and I stepped over one last patch of ice. Up to the corner, hard right. Someone with a cell phone hollered urgently, “What’s your name?” I gasped it back at him, and sprinted for the finish. I think he said, “Thanks.” The finish seemed to be too soon, but there it was. I stopped my watch and grabbed my knees. Looked at the watch: 22:11. SO CLOSE! I burst out, “Aaaauuuuwww…” and then immediately thought that nobody was expecting disappointment from the winner. So I clammed up. Prompted by the RD, a girl who hadn’t really understood her role in the race until just now came over and gave me a card that said, “1”. “Just in case you didn’t know your place,” said the RD, and he pointed me over to where they’d take the numbers for results.

I jogged back to the car (which had warmed up very nicely), put warmer clothes and not-racing shoes back on, handed in my card and went out for a much warmer cool-down than my warm-up had been. I returned for the awards, in the basement of the library. I won a modest little plaque and a $20 gift certificate to the People’s Pint, a brewpub in Greenfield.

I can come up with any number of excuses for not picking up that new PR, starting with the conditions and including my own health, which isn’t as good as my running conditioning. But hey, I won. And then I looked back in my logs to find exactly which year I ran that PR in; was it ‘92 or ‘93? Neither, according to the logs: I ran 22:16 in ‘93, and 23-something in ‘92. Hey—maybe that was a five second PR today! Did I run 22:10 some other time?

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