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Winning the race against yourself

In the end, it's the glass in my foot that saved me.

In the end, it's the glass in my foot that saved me.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, instead of spending my summer putting in long miles to train for another fall marathon, I pulled back and prepared for what I hoped would be a fast Fifth Avenue Mile, run in New York City on Sept. 13.

I did this for a lot of reasons. I have eczema, which goes into hypermode when I run in the heat. I'd lost a lot of speed in shorter races when I switched to running marathons in 2011, and in that time slowly gained weight, in part because I thought that because I ran 15, 18, 20 miles in a day, I could eat whatever I wanted. I bloated, and I hated the bloat. My last great race performance had been in the spring of 2013. I figured a mix of speed work and weight training would kick out those extra pounds, and maybe get me back into racing shape.

And that's what happened, dropping nearly a minute off my 5k time from March to July. On hot, early mornings on the Haddonfield Memorial High School track, I turned out faster and faster 400 meter repeats. In four and a half months, I lost 20 pounds. When I ran a mile time trial in August and hit seven minutes, two seconds - two seconds above my goal - I thought I was close enough that I could reach that goal in a race situation.

Then on Labor Day, I ran a five-mile beach race in Ocean City. The race was on the sand, and since I always run barefoot on sand, I raced barefoot on sand. Two days later, I limped into my doctor's office for him to take a small piece of glass out of my heel. My mile, I thought, was doomed. I pulled back on training runs. I didn't go to the gym. I only did light ab workouts on my living room floor while my dog tried to lick my feet.

But when I sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday, waiting for my race to start, I felt good. The glass had lodged itself in the thickest part of my heel, which made it easy to remove, and I didn't feel that spot anymore when I walked. Because I hadn't run much the days before the race, my legs were fresh. Instead of hunching my shoulders at the starting line because of nerves, I danced along with the "The Cupid Shuffle" as it blared out of the event's speakers.

I felt a little awkward in the first strides of the race as I tried to find my pace, but I settled in and blew past my first expected 1/4 mile split time. I hit the half-mile marker fast too, then set my sights on the finish line, which I could see from that point since the race is a straight shot down Fifth Avenue. I tuned out what was around me: crowds lining up early to watch the pro race, the runners I passed and those who passed me, and stared at the finish line.

When I saw the clock at the three-quarter's mile mark, I thought I was hallucinating because the time started with a 5, not a 6. But I didn't feel terrible. My legs held. My chest didn't burn. I knew I was going to beat my goal, and then decided in that moment that I wanted to destroy it. I wanted to throw out all the junk that accumulated in my mind - self floggings about having gotten heavier and slower, two and a half years of bad races, and a string of bad breaks in my personal life too - onto Fifth Avenue, and trample it. I pulled in my abs and swung my arms, drew on the strength I built in those muscles and in my legs in hours I'd spent in the weight room since May, then burst across the finish line in six minutes, 32 seconds - 30 seconds faster than my time trial.

That may not be a big margin in a marathon, but in a mile? It's a moon shot.

Could I have met that goal if I'd trained hard the week leading into the race? Maybe. But it's probably the glass that lodged itself in my heel - the one thing that I thought would blow my race - that saved it. It didn't hold me back. It helped me pause, then surge forward.

My time didn't set any records, or win me anything on Sunday (Jenny Simpson, who won the women's professional race, ran the mile in four minutes, 29 seconds). But that's running. For most of us, we're running against ourselves - our whole selves: mind, body, doubts and all. And on that pretty fall day, I won.

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