The first mile is always the worst for me. My legs are stiff and I struggle to find a breathing rhythm. I jog the three blocks to Finch Elementary School and start on my regular route around the school and nearby Audubon Park. It's a one-mile circuit (so I'm told) and I've run it so many times that I know where the pot holes and the muddy spots are. On evenings like this -- when I'd rather be parked on my couch -- I use little mental tricks to keep me going. "Just get past these four trees and you'll be halfway up the hill," I tell myself.
I'm preparing for my 14th Bloomsday. Last year my time was about 1:07 and I thought that maybe with a little more training I could sneak a little closer to that magic hour mark. I started running in January on days when there was no snow on the streets. But then I got sick in February and didn't run for two weeks. And then, in March and April, it snowed and snowed and I just didn't have the mental strength to drag my body out to run. Most years by now I'd have extended my long runs to six or seven miles. So far this year I'm up to five. With the race only a few days away, I'm in deep sheep dip.
When I ran my first Bloomsday in 1986, I was 23 and fairly serious about preparing for the race. I ran 20 to 30 miles a week on the trails near Albi Stadium. That year my time was 1:02. The next year I finished in less than 58 minutes and was pretty pleased with myself. I envisioned breaking 50 one day. At the time I actually enjoyed running. I still remember an eight-mile run in the twilight one evening on Tuffy's Trail, near Spokane Community College. It was such an effortless trek, one of those "runner's high" experiences.
Alas, life got in the way for the next several Bloomsdays. I either found myself working on race day or without the motivation to train. I loved the race, but preparing for it was a bear. One year I ran despite having put in only one training session. For several years I wasn't too pleased with my results. I even questioned whether I wanted to continue running the race -- that is, until Bloomsday morning, 2005.
At the time I was living in Washington, D.C., a few weeks into a three-month fellowship at National Public Radio. I worked on NPR's Sunday morning program, which meant I had to report to the studio every Sunday at 5 am. During the walk at sunrise from my apartment to NPR on Bloomsday Sunday it hit me that I'd be missing the race and, for a few minutes, I felt homesick. Bloomsday was in my blood.
Most years, sometimes at the top of Doomsday Hill, but usually on the seemingly endless stumble down Broadway, with a stitch in my side and my lungs and thighs burning, I wonder why in the world I'm doing this. And then I cross the finish line, catch my breath, collect my T-shirt and it becomes clear. Bloomsday forces me to stretch my physical limits. It allows me to feel good about myself and my community. I participate with thousands of people I don't know but with whom I feel a brief kinship. And in 2005, I vowed that as long as I'm healthy and able I would run the race every May.
My curse is that I'm competitive enough that I hate to do poorly. So, late in the winter or early each spring, whether I want to or not, I break out my sweats, shoes, stocking cap and gloves and get back on the road. It's not something I look forward to. Running is a chore for me, one of those activities where I'm fine once I get started and warmed up.
A couple of years ago I promised myself that I would train harder, but within reason. I no longer covet the fantasy of breaking 50 minutes (though I still think an hour's reachable). I'm not willing to work that hard. Now my goal is just to run the whole thing. I've accomplished that the last two years and my times (1:08 and 1:07) have been acceptable.
This year, even with my truncated training, I may still be able to reach my goal. I walk several nights a week, whether out in our neighborhood or on our treadmill, so my fitness level is higher than when I was younger. And there's the adrenaline of competing with thousands of others. I know I'll have to break out my mental tricks ("If I can only make it to the courthouse, then I can make it to the corner and then it's all downhill to the end!"), but I'm confident that all those after-work training sessions will pay off and I'll finish another Bloomsday in one piece.