Despite Mike's superior fitness, could I - the wily old veteran - find a way to overcome the odds and break the tape ahead of him?
That was the challenge. And I had a plan. You see Mike has a long and consistent history of taking things out way too hard and paying dearly as a result. All I had to do was run a smart, patient race and wait for the mid-race Hinterberg implosion. I figured it would happen somewhere around the three-mile mark. If I was going to have any chance of holding off Mike's superior kick, I'd need to put a few seconds on him before the final turn onto College Avenue, 200 meters from the finish. The action, I figured, would need to unfold between mile 2.5 and mile 3.5 on Mountain Avenue.
The race, as always, was waist deep in talent. A secondary goal at this race for me is to try and beat the lead ladies - many of international calibre - so I lined up alongside Mike and a bunch of very fit-looking women a couple of runners deep from the start line.
The gun went off and it was off to the races. I always ... always ... go out too hard through the first half mile of this race. I wanted a comfortable 5:30 to get the ball rolling, figuring this would leave me a good 10 seconds behind Mike at the first mile marker. I kept to the plan and felt good and comfortable doing so, tracking the lead pack of ladies while watching the men's talent gallop off into the distance. To my great surprise, however, it took Mike until about the half mile point to pass me, a clear indication that he too was planning on running a smart race and looking to beat me in the process.
The first mile with the chase pack of ladies popped at 5:33, right where I wanted it. Mike had maybe five meters on me and he looked to be working on reeling in the lead lady a few steps ahead of him. Grinding up Mulberry towards the Bryan Ave turn into City Park, I had to dig just a touch to keep Mike's gap at five meters. Despite ratcheting the effort a touch, a couple of the ladies starting pulling away from me; clearly they were just getting warmed up, and any response from me would have been suicidal. Rounding Bryan and heading into the park, the second mile split at 5:29. The effort still seemed sustainable, so my thoughts started shifting to time goals. The day before, I decided I'd be happy with anything under 23 minutes, but now I was thinking 22 flat might be within the realms of possibility, even with the always tricky third mile to get through.
Turning the corner onto Mountain Ave, with Mike still five meters ahead, I decided it was time to put the pre-race plan into action and I worked on bridging the gap. Somewhere around mile three, just as I'd drawn it up the night before, the bridge was gapped and I found myself listening to some very heavy breathing. I sacrificed a bit of oxygen as I made my move to make it sound like I was out for a Thursday morning jog, knowing full well that Mike - a guy who'll race you through the last 50 meters of any training interval - wouldn't let me go without a fight.
Mile three popped at a thoroughly disappointing 5:47, a number that confused me until I saw how far ahead the ladies I had previously been running with were. The planned-on, and famed, Hinterberg fade was in full effect; the only problem being that I was fading with him just when I was supposed to be muscling my gap. With the race still on, and Mike's heavy breathing still audible off my right shoulder, I started thinking through my long list of excuses.
It's been a long summer. I'm getting old. I've been half ass'ing my recent workouts. I'm coming off a long period of rest. My mileage has been pitiful. Yada, yada, yada. As the weakness started to enter my mind a half mile from the finish, Mike made his retaliatory move. I held on to him until about Laurel Avenue, two traffic lights from the turn onto the final straightaway and then I couldn't hold on any longer and I did what I always do towards the end of these sprint races, I threw in the towel. I knew I had no kick in me and reminded myself for the nth time why I race 100 milers and not 100 meters. Runners flooded by me as I turned onto College as I ground out the final few seconds of the race.
The 5:38 last mile was at least a little quicker than the pitiful third mile split, but it wasn't good enough. Not even close. Mike beat me by a convincing six seconds. Nonetheless, my watch showed a 22:29 finish time, which works out to a roughly 5:37 average. It's a good bit faster than I thought was realistic for my current lack of fitness, but still a good minute off my best from two years ago. I finished fourth or fifth in the women's race, 40 seconds off the winner and something like three and a half minutes off the lead men's pace.
Feeling my age, I ran back through the field to find my son who was full of excitement in finishing his first Thanksgiving Day 4 miler.