Return to Racing at Grete's Great Gallop
Grete’s Great Gallop HM is one of the highlight races on the NYRR calendar. Always a large, competitive field due to it’s timing as a set-up race for the NYCM (and a club points scoring race), sizable crowd support - especially thanks to the enthusiastic FRED’S TEAM supporters, post-race treats, and prize money. All of this adds up to an event that has a ‘big race’ feel, befitting its namesake - 9-time NYCM winner: Grete Weitz. 2014 was no different, though some familiar, fast local racers were notably absent from the field.
As this was my first road race back after a 3 year break - mostly due to a series of false starts derailed by injury (mostly attributable to the adjustment of my new running-reality of training a 'mature’ body), I was excited to be back and experience the challenges and strategies of running a competitive road race.
Before the gun went off, I noticed the NYRR has implemented 2 new classy touches to the start of the race - 1. Men and women with very low bib numbers get some space to breathe in a cordoned off area. 2. They separate the lead men and women runners right down the middle so the two groups don’t get tangled. Nice. Not sure how long they’ve been doing this, but it’s smart.
With my 21-minute warm up and 3 strides completed, I positioned right behind the speedy front-runners, feeling ready to go and eagerly awaiting the starting horn. As such is the norm with these races, the first 800m feels like a kind of silly charade where people are jostling and surging then slowing, surging and slowing. It’s always comedy - that is until you have a guy drop right in front of you (wearing strong cologne?) and then slowing down, forcing a quick reaction and awkward change of stride to avoid tripping. Anyway, after that mess was sorted out by the around the first mile marker - 5:58 for me, it was time to get in a groove and enjoy the ride for the first 6 miles.
Unfortunately, for me, that wasn’t so easy to do. For the first 4-5 miles, my legs seemed unsure, slightly weak, and my stomach had that slightly uneasy feeling - the one that is usually accompanied at much faster pace than my current breathing rate would indicate. I tried not to focus on that disconcerting cue, rather instead paying attention to staying relaxed and monitoring my effort/pace. Sandwiched between old teammates and occasional training partners - experienced distance runners: Jim McQuade and Brad Weiss, I felt comforted that the pace was within my current fitness level.
Soon enough, on the steep decline around the Harlem Hills, McQuade, with his skilled downhill running dropped Brad and I - within 10 seconds putting 75 meters on us. That would be the last I’d see of ol’ Jimmy. I was telling myself I’d see him again in the last 5k - but only briefly as I passed him - though that would not come to pass. Jim would finish in a fine 1:16:32. On Jim's surge, Brad quietly remarked “that’s a nice move by Jimmy;” in a way that expressed what we both felt - the eye-opening ease with which he moved away - but a complete lack of surprise, as that’s what Jim does.
By mile 5, on the straight near Engineers’ Gate, I started to feel like myself and my stride came easy. Now was when I started to play around with seeing if I could move up without blowing up. I was cautious, though, as I respected the course and my lack of racing sharpness. Looping around the lower part of the park, twice I was cheered on by Big Walt, one of the runners I coach at Hunter College, which kept me loose and focused on having fun and embracing the challenges of racing.
So, up the west side for the second time we drudged, I would split a 5:46 mile on the downhill mile right before the Harlem Hills. I was pleased to see it, not worried as I’d done my homework on the hills, and was focused on picking up all the dead bodies that lay ahead of me. I will admit, I was especially looking for some CPTC guys to take down - for the fun of it. Unfortunately, that will have to wait for future races, as per usual: most of them ran smart, gutty races.
Coming out of the Harlem Hills, back on the straight by the Gate, the race was to be over in a blink of eye. There’s 2.1 miles to go now, mostly downhill. It was then when I felt my race instincts (at first unconsciously) kick in and I could feel my turn over quicken. Now I'm motoring, basically not holding back down Cat Hill and around the lower loop, and then up the final turn to the inclined marathon finish. It was that hard, but gratifying feeling of racing that I felt - that I missed, and that was so recognizable and familiar. Racing against yourself, the clock, those in front of you. Within moments, you’re enveloped in that post-race bliss. It's all over.
Later in the evening, I checked my splits and was pleased to see I averaged 5:39/mile for the last 2.1m of the race. Surely, a good sign as this wasn’t a goal race, but just another stepping stone to the big day on Nov. 2nd. Overall, I averaged 5:55/mile, about 10 seconds faster than I want to run in the marathon.