On March 29, I lined up for my eighth straight Ocean Drive 10 miler. In 2008, that event was my first long distance race, and my first big step into an activity that would become a major part of my life.
I didn't really want to be there, though. I'd woken up at 4:30 a.m. to get there. I was tired. And cold. The wind chill factor made it feel like 17 degrees at the start line in Cape May.
I signed up because I was supposed to run 10 miles that day anyway, and I wanted to keep the race streak alive. My plan was not to set a personal record - not even close. My goal race, the one where I wanted to floor it and go all out, is the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run. That's on April 12, two weeks after this 10-mile race from Cape May to North Wildwood.
"Go slow," I told myself. "You're not trying to prove anything here."
But that's easier said than done. I can slog through a slow, steady 10-mile run by myself when the only creatures around me are geese but not when I'm surrounded by a pack of runners, many trying to meet time goals that day. Knowing that I was being timed, and my time would be public, stuck in the back of my mind.
For the first half of the race, I kept up with the pack around me. I knew from years of racing that, based on the strain on my legs and lungs, I was pushing it, but not too hard. I was only slightly uncomfortable - a good sign.
I didn't wear a watch. When I hit the five-mile marker, though, which had a course clock, I realized that I was running about thirty seconds faster per mile than I wanted.
I did ease up, just a bit. I let people pass me, and mentally wished them luck on whatever their goal was that day, and I looked around. The middle of the course is over a road on a salt marsh, with birds and plants and boats. Aside from emergency services workers, who smoked on the sidelines, these are some of the prettiest and nicest miles to race in New Jersey. The brown plants there would soon turn green, but on a bitter cold day in March, the marshes still slept, waiting to bloom. I didn't charge up the last bridge in the race, but glided over it, telling myself again that I was not hoping to do anything fantastic that day.
At mile 6, we left the marsh and turned into Wildwood Crest. There, spectators returned, as did my urge to press. After the seven-mile marker, I told myself I could speed up only to pass people who annoyed me, like the woman who spit once a minute, another woman in an obnoxious t-shirt, the man telling a loud, bawdy story. Right before we turned onto the boardwalk in Wildwood, I fell into step with twins who were running their first marathon that day - the 10-miler is part of the Ocean Drive Marathon course. I knew their pace was what I wanted, but after a friendly chat, my legs and lungs told me that I could run faster, do more.
After mile marker 9, I gave up trying to run conservatively. I passed runners by the handful, streaming past t-shirt shops and pizza joints just starting to open up for the day. I came through the finish line with a charge. Those jaunts of passing people meant that I ran the entire race 30 seconds per mile faster than I wanted, and I've been paying for it with legs pinched with pain through the middle of the week.
It may not have been smart, but I look at that time, and how much I still had left in my legs at the finish line, and know I can do much better next weekend.
And that next time, when I want to run slow, I'll skip the racing and head out to a course populated only by geese.
Jen Miller is the Inquirer's Running Columnist and author of RUNNING: A LOVE STORY, to be published by Seal Press in Spring 2016.