Monday, October 18, 2010

Denver Half Marathon

The time just sang in my head. 1:41. It was like the gold that drove men to chase metal in the mountains.
I had my eyes set on a PR, and not just any PR, but a personal best of almost four minutes.
It was, of course, very aggressive, and probably not within my reach. But I didn't care. I was going to go for it.
The plan, Sunday, was to hang with my training partner as long as I could. It's something I've worked on this year in my race. It's OK to let people pull you. Someone as fiercely independent as me always believed that I should rely on my own fire rather than let someone else stoke it for me. But that's not only stubborn, it's a little foolish. The best runners pace off others. Going at it alone, in fact, is considered foolish until the end.
OK, but I knew it was going to be tough, if not almost impossible. I'd had a tough year. Even though I'd done many races, including a marathon, the Pikes Peak Ascent and the recent trail half, none of them seemed to go particularly well. I had cramps in the marathon, nausea in the ascent and wilting heat in the trail half marathon.
A PR is like fool's gold. All courses are different, and I was getting too wrapped up in times this year. So I decided to enjoy this one. But enjoyment, for me, is going after a goal and attacking it. Maybe that's a little sick of me. It's probably more than a little sad.
It's also who I am.
• • •
We got in the elevator to head down to the starting line from the hotel and were joined by a mother and what looked like her two older daughters. I was struck by the different cultures that exist even in the running world.
They had on sweats and jackets. We had on shorts and a tank top with arm warmers and a light pair of gloves.
The message was obvious. They were hoping to finish. We were hoping for a PR. They were hoping for a good time. We were hoping for a good time. They're probably happier people, I said to my partners.
We slipped into the second wave (out of many) and waited.
I love those last few minutes before a race. Runners bounce up and down like kangaroos. They stretch. They shake their hands. They snuggle up against each other against the chill, and no one files a sexual discrimination suit. They listen to music. They hug good luck and give strangers fist bumps. And then the Star Spangled Banner starts.
You don't really realize what a beautiful anthem we have until you hear it moments before you are preparing yourself for pain and suffering and fun all at once. I always remind myself how fortunate I am to be there during this time, and that's meaningful on so many different levels. And then, almost right away, the gun goes off and the stampede starts.
I was worried about the 1,000 people ahead of me, but they moved forward quickly. I'm not an elite runner, not really, but I am fairly fast, and it's amazing to me to see so many people moving as quickly as me in a long race. It's heartening, actually, and a good balance to the constant, depressing news about our obesity rates. There are SOME people who still care about their bodies, I thought to myself, and wished all the other fellow runners behind me good luck for they were there, too, even if they were not as fast, and hoped the ones kicking my butt already wished the same for me.
The race went fine. It was a good day and I was moving quickly without much effort. The temperature, probably 40 at the start, helped a ton, as I would not have to stress about drinking a lot of fluid. I still haven't really got that, and if that sounds stupid, run for a mile at a fairly hard pace, then grab a cup of Gatorade, keep running and try to drink it.
The trouble - there's always trouble, isn't there - came at mile 4 or 5, when we crested a big hill. The hills came like paper cuts, and by the time that big hill hit, I was bleeding oxygen and unable to catch my breath. I can handle that for a while, even all 6 miles of a 10K, but I thought to myself that I still had 7 or 8 miles to go. And that's when I made the painful decision to let them go.
It was tough, but I knew it was a stretch, and honestly, I don't know if I'm a 1:41 runner. Not yet. I may never get there, and that's OK if not. I have improved every year.
Still, these are thoughts that don't come to you when you're in the heat of a run. I was discouraged, and any sense of discouragement is deadly when you're trying to run hard because all your body wants to do is quit.
Still, I looked at my watch and this time, the tough part of me won the mental battle against the Troll and told me to relax, settle down, have fun and, oh, by the way, YOU CAN STILL PR.
Oh. That's right. I wasn't dead or even bonking from the aggressive pace. I was just out of breath. It was a cool day, with a great atmosphere, and I had friends along the course all day.
So I looked for someone else to pace off. I traded positions with a couple people all day, but they didn't seem right. The metal in my head helped, but I still needed some motivation. I found it on the back of a T-shirt on the back of a 20-something guy.
"You'd better dig deep because you're falling behind," the T-shirt said.
I battled waves of nausea - I almost puked twice - and the occasional cramp as I pushed on, but they always were just waves, not tide pools (huh?), and I kept the T-shirt in my sights.
I passed him at mile 12.
Still, I knew it would be close after I plodded up a mile-long hill. I was proud not to have to walk this year, but a hill a mile long is always a killer when you are close to red-lining it anyway.
I was needing a fast, last mile, and I didn't know if I had it in me. I inched up to a 7:30 pace, a half-minute past my normal pace of 8-min miles, and hoped for the downhill to take me.
That's when I saw three of my good running friends, friends who are way faster than me, heading up the hill.
And I knew, when they settled by my side, that I was going to be carried to the finish.
It's unreal how much that helps, and my pace crept up to 7 minutes per mile and beyond. I was flying, and I felt OK. I was ready for the finish.
The last tenth of a mile is always the easiest and the hardest in a race, and it was almost as if the racing Gods were screwing with me, as the course was a bit long. Still, I sprinted in at the end and crossed the line a minute ahead of my best time.
That's 1:44:32, or a 7:59 pace, if you're scoring at home.
It's a good finish - 600th or so out of 9,000 runners - but it's nothing to brag too much about. Some of my friends are now invited to elite races. My running partners finished in the teens in their age groups. I was 87th out of about 600.
But this was my race, my good race, and the feeling you get from it, the good feeling, is overwhelming the soreness I'm feeling today.
Well, now it is, anyway. The aches, I'm afraid, may start winning here tonight.


kurokitty said...

Congrats! You have to be happy for improvement in the same race in successive years, from 1:46 two years ago to 1:45 last year!

kurokitty said...

I also saw this in a NY Times story today, thought it was applicable -- you know the course!

One trick is to try a course before racing it. In one study, Dr. Swart told trained cyclists to ride as hard as they could over a 40-kilometer course. The more familiar they got with the course, the faster they rode, even though — to their minds — it felt as if they were putting out maximal effort on every attempt.