Yesterday I ran our local Turkey Day Run for the first time in 9 years. This was my first race of any sort in 2 years, and only my third in the last 5. I didn't really know what to expect, but my brother-in-law kept on encouraging me over the last month as I debated whether or not to really do it. He told me, "once you pin a number to your shirt, muscle memory will do the rest."
It turns out that he was 100% right. On race day, I felt exactly like I have for every other race I've run in the past 27 years. Despite all my talk about lower expectations, running "just for fun," and all that, as soon as I pinned on a race number and laced up my racing flats, I might as well have been 17 years old again according to the butterflies in my stomach. And even though I told anybody who would listen that I really didn't expect much, and that anything under 23 minutes was an acceptable time, inside I was praying, "just let it be 21:59."
The race-day conditions were as perfect as they come. 55 degrees and overcast is what you hope for if you're a world-class guy seeking to set a record, and that's what we got. Additionally, the course is flat and fast, and the only challenge comes during a portion of the 2nd mile if there's a stiff headwind. This year was calm. My pace goals were simple--try not to be stupid in the first mile, run just under 7 minutes, and then try to hang on for dear life and average around 7's for the next two. I hit the first mile in 6:39. Although I felt like I had tried to hold back, the time scared me. I was sure I'd pay the price for that exuberance the rest of the way. I told myself, "stay steady," but mentally I reset my goals for a pair of 7:10's at best. But the second mile split said 6:53. Suddenly it was within my grasp to break 22:00 if I could just buckle down and run a 7:20 last mile. At the beginning of the third mile, a friend who runs consistently in the 21's came up from behind me. Two thoughts came to mind. First, I could tuck in with him and almost certainly meet my goal. But then another idea popped up: I haven't beaten this guy in years, and I've been ahead of him for two-thirds of the race. If I can turn it up just a notch, maybe I can pull away from him. I did, and managed to run the third mile in about 6:50. The last 200 meters is where I used to catch a lot of people, mostly because I would have too much gas left in the tank from poor pacing and because I had sprinter speed back then. Yesterday, not so much. I rolled up just a few souls in my feeble "kick," but only because I had just run one of the most evenly-paced races of my life (6:48 a mile, 21:05 total).
The numbers guy in me spent the rest of the day hoping for the results to be posted online so I could fiddle with them. I plugged my time into every online calculator imaginable. Turns out that my age-adjusted time would have been 20:10, less than a minute worse than I ran on the same course 9 years ago. I wound up placing 197th out of over 4000 finishers, and 18th in my age group (out of 188 men aged 40-44). I was also about 48th out of all the men aged 40+. None of those are great--it's the low end of what might be called "local class." Just like a decade ago, I'm right below the guys who can plausibly be called "pretty good." Indeed, the same folks I used to run with back in the 25-29 age group are still right ahead of me, by roughly the same margins. But that's fine. What's exciting is that I thought I had fallen out of that pack altogether, and it turns out that I've more or less jumped back in right where I left off.
I don't know if this means I'll get serious and try to move up in that pack, but it does validate what I've been doing for the past 7 months. The biggest difference between this "comeback" and many previous ones has been consistency. I haven't done any "workouts," I haven't even really had a training plan. But what I have done is get out the door regularly and just run (usually at a pretty easy pace). What has made that possible is having a regular "appointment" with consistent training partners. And with every run, the habit of consistency becomes stronger.
Anyway, I'm very, very pleased. This step will hopefully help me to stay motivated throughout the winter, when traditionally my training has dropped off. We'll see.