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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Short Distance - Big PR

As I huddled in the concrete irrigation channel looking at all my coworkers soaked and shivering I had to laugh a little. It's not often you're cold in Hawaii and yet somehow we'd managed it quite nicely.

It was the morning of the mock PRT (Physical Readiness Test), a full length practice to get us ready for the full test in November. Our command is really focused on having everyone pass and therefore used this preemptive test to see where the overall fitness level was before we' actually get graded.

I knew I could pass, it'd been years since I'd had an issue finishing the 1.5 mile run within my age-group time requirements, but I was still a little jittery. Most of the time if you blow a race you just get upset, if I had a poblem with this run I'd have a black mark against me in my service record and get put into the command's mandatory fitness program (probably more likely to hurt than help).

This mock PRT was broken down into two sections, one starting at 6 a.m. and another at 7:30. Apparently they didn't think that anyone would voluntarily show up to the earlier run and half the administrators hadn't shown up on time, the course hadn't been ironed out yet, and they had planned on less than 30 people doing the run (about 90 of us had the same idea to run it early and avoid the Hawaiian heat which starts aggresive and early).

At 6 in the morning, Hawaii is still pitch black. We stood around the field in groups, chatting amicably, waiting for the head administrator to show so we could get the show on the road. Then it started sprinkling.

We laughed about it at first, our testosterone showing. Bring on the rain! Ha ha. Then the wind started to pick up and the sprinkling turned to pouring. Testosterone went out the window, we started scrambling for some cover. Some people had parked close enough that they just sprinted for their vehicles (probably the fastest they would run all day), others like me opted for the closer concrete drainage. There was a small hill with a concrete gap build in, it looked like the entrance to a bunker or something but didn't go anywhere. What drainage value it has, I don't know, but it did provide a semblance of shelter from the rain and wind.

About forty of us piled into the crack. For a couple minutes we were laughing at ourselves and how Hawaiian rain storms typically only last a few minutes. Then we were shivering and joking about huddling together for heat. Five minutes later, rain and wind still going strong, we were joking about the headlines the next morning across the nation "Dozens of Servicemen Die of Hypothermia in Hawaii".

Eventually the rain died down and the requisite people showed up. We attempted to get warmed up, jumping jacks (a military staple) and some ineffective stretches. They obviously weren't prepared for the number that showed up as everything took forever. It took a good portion of an hour to do the push-ups and sit-ups portion. No one ever worries about those, they're run on an honor basis. That is, you count the push-ups and sit-ups you complete in the time frame and report how many you've done. Unless one of the administrators notices a person having problems with the exercise they're just about impossible to fail.

The only good thing about these delays was that by the time the run portion was started the sun had peeked over the mountains. Our shirts started to dry and the temperature had risen enough (thankfully) that I didn't feel too stiff when I lined up at the start.

I'm always nervous before the physical readiness tests for the reason I listed above, but this one had a little extra riding on it. I'd recently, somewhat jokingly, challenged my supervisor to beat me in the PRT. So I'd started treating this mock PRT like a practice for a race; not only did I worry about messing up and having it go on my record but I was also anxious for it to go well to avoid potential embarassment in front of my coworkers.

I'm not much for speed running, never have been, but I run quite a bit so I thought that was a pretty good foundation for having a good run. I figured I'd start out at about 80% of my top speed, keep it up as long as possible, and hope for the best. It was only a mile and a half so I could push myself pretty hard and not have to worry too much about blowing up before I finished. I hoped.

They shouted "GO!" and we were off. One of the nice things about running in smaller 'races' is that the crowd thins out pretty quickly and getting into your groove isn't as difficult. That was definitely the case here.

I started out with my 80% in mind, running as close to a maintainable sprint as I could. I thought there was no way I could maintain it for the full distance but I was going to go as far as I could.

Then I reached the 'quarter' marker and the volunteer yelled out our time as three minutes. That was depressing. I mean, running harder than I ever had for a PRT and only being set up for a 12 minute time? I was still running at my goal pace, body feeling good, and I was barely going to beat my normal-easy time? I wanted to yell.

When we reached the turn around point another volunteer was yelling out times and we realized that the 'quarter' marker wasn't close to the actual quarter distance. I heard this second volunteer yell out "5:15" and felt my spirits return a bit.

You see, I've never beaten the 11 minute mark in the 1.5 mile PRT. Partially it's that I'm not a particularly fast guy and partially it's that running shorter/faster races never appealed to me. This time, though, if I could keep the pace up I would beat my personal record (PR) of 11:09.

We reached the same 'quarter' volunteer on the way back, I was still on pace. I ignored the time, knowing that it wouldn't be an accurate guage of pace. I just needed to focus on my feet and keeping them moving the same speed they'd been going.

Then my feet started really burning. I'd gotten a few twitches from them since the start. Apparently my stride changes a little bit when I'm pushing my speed and I was getting some blisters in weird places. They were really hurting when I rounded the last corner and saw the finish 80 yards away.

I thought of what it would feel like to beat my PR (and my supervisor) and pushed it out. There was one guy about twenty feet in front of me and I focused on passing him. I had this nagging suspicion that I'd slowed down when my feet started to really hurt and I knew that if I didn't pick it up, and quick, than I might end up close-to but not better than my best time.

He sped up as we closed in. I sped up. We flew through those last 80 yards at a dead sprint. Apparently I had a little more gas in the tank because I managed squeeze past him a few yards from the finish. We grabbed our cards and crashed in the nearby grass.

One of the techniques the administrators came up with for the PRT was to simply record finish times in order and hand out cards to the finishers. Then you'd go up after everyone finished, give them the numbered card and they would know what time you had by what place you finished.

We waited around. I felt pretty good, I knew I'd passed with time to spare but was really interested in finding out what time I had. In my heat I'd finished 6th. I knew my supervisor had been on duty the night before and wouldn't be running with us, but for some reason I wasn't concerned with him at all. PRs aren't something I generally track and pursue but this one had been such a difficult one over the years, so elusive, that it had developed it's own deep meaning.

Once the last person finished we all crowded around the guy with the clipboard as he called out finish places. He wasn't calling out finish times unless the person failed but I managed a glimpse over his shoulder as he took my card.


I couldn't believe it.

This is one of the great things about running. I'll never break a world record for my speed but it meant the world to me. When I had finished in 11:09 I'd been 23 years old. Now, almost exactly five years later, I beat that time by 22 seconds! And now that I know I can break 11 minutes, now I'm thinking that with a little more training I could break 10:30 by the time the real PRT rolls around in November!

There won't be any headlines like "Guy Breaks 1.5 Mile PR!" or even "Irony: Frozen Servicemembers in Hawaii!!", but I won't forget this for a long, long time. Or at least until I break this PR.

(Originally Posted 19 September 2009, Runners World and Myspace)

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