Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Joy of Racing

The air was a little painful. We Coloradans call it "crisp," but really, it was ice cold, the air in meat lockers. It was far too cold, at the very least, for shorts and a tank top, even with gloves and arm warmers. And yet, as we made our way out into it, with the sun lingering in bed, refusing to help, I smiled.
Hell yes it was cold. We could see our breath and the breath of those around us. Later, after the gun, we'd see the breath of thousands of runners, even if they were as far away as a trip to first base.
But the butterflies were swarming my stomach, and I had an empty bladder, which is far more reassuring than it probably should be, and I felt good. I felt really good. There were no aches, and after a season of racing and running, when aches occupy your morning coffee, that was a gift. I thought back to last night, during my last pee before bed, when a spark shot through my bloodstream. I felt good, and I was ready, and I said on Twitter and Facebook that I was an idling engine just waiting to be gunned.
If this sounds cocky, I won't deny it, except to say that days when you feel like this as a runner are rare, so numbingly, sadly rare. Most of the time I enjoy my training runs, but only after I peel off the scabs of a couple dreary miles and my body creaks itself awake. Not every race feels this good, either, but races bring out the best in you. It's a chance to gun that engine. It's a chance to show yourself what you can do.
I love these chances, and I love those butterflies, and I love the electric anticipation both those elements combine to create. Fit people everywhere are crackling with energy. The corral is full of people who get it. And after a day of rain, sleet and wind, we had a clear sky and cold air, the kind that would feel good, incredible even, like clouds kissing your skin, once we got this underway.
I was warm. It wasn't until I heard the Star Spangled Banner, and I reminded myself how fortunate I was to be there, something I always do before a race, that I noticed something springing up on my arms.
* * *
Races are exciting for their unpredictability. I knew I'd feel good, and I also knew that I'd finish, and I figured I'd probably set a PR. I was shooting for 1:42, which I'd have to run my miles in 7:45 to get. I also knew, though, that that was probably pushing it, given that last year's time was 1:44, and that was also a PR, and that's, honestly, pretty darn good, at least for me.
What I didn't know was how it would go.
A half marathon is a long way, and as much as I love that because a race like that is an adventure, not a short, hurried event that ends before it really begins, well, a lot can happen. So I took it easier at first, settling in my first three miles at a 7:50 pace. We went by Coors Field, home of the Rockies, and through downtown Denver. I said hi to a few friends, looking around and smiled. A cramp hit my side, but I wasn't worried about it, as the pace didn't feel labored. It was almost easy. It passed after a half mile.
My first test came at mile 4, a steep but short hill that gassed me last year. I reminded myself that races were about even effort, not an even pace, and I told myself I didn't want look at my watch as I crept up the incline. It was over and I had my breath with me. Good.
I glanced down at my watch again and noticed I was hitting 7:30. Even a year ago, that was a pace I'd run in 10Ks, which are half as long as a half marathon. But I told myself it felt good, and I also told myself to run on feel, not what my watch was telling me.
In a race, you are constantly assessing how you feel, what you're facing and how far you've got to go. So far, despite an aching hamstring that I prayed would hang with me, I was feeling good. As long as my breathing wasn't too labored, I knew I could stick with it.
* * *
You are running with hundreds of others around you, even at my pace, but racing is also lonely. You're in your head, and no one wants to talk, as they need the air. Me either. Other than a word of encouragement to a girl who wore a ballet outfit that matched a girls' whom I passed at mile 2, telling her her partner looked strong, I said nothing to nobody.
So I was ready, more than I wanted to admit, for mile 8, when you run an out and back. This lets you see all the runners ahead of, and then, later, the runners behind you. Many from my running group were doing this event, and so were my running partners. One clapped at me as he wooshed by. Then I heard my name. And I saw two others. And I yelled a word at them. And I found a running partner and then the other. We slapped hands. By the time I turned the corner and made my way back to mile 9, my heart was full again, and I turned back to my music.
* * *
Around mile 10 is the danger point in half marathons. I think doing a marathon helped with this, but it's around this time when you start to think about the end. And if you think about it too much, you start to crave it. The end, after all, means walking, food, friends, that feeling of accomplishment, cheers and the joy of being done. But even if you're running fast, the end is 24 minutes away. That's an episode of "Phineas and Ferb." That's half of "Breaking Bad" or Van Halen's "1984." It's longer than my 5Ks. It's no time to be thinking about the end. So I told myself not to think about the end.
My timing was perfect. The hills were approaching.
The Denver course is a great one, but near its end, a brutal stretch of long, somewhat steep hills await. The reward is worth it, a downhill finish that begs to be stormtroopered, but those hills aren't easy. Even effort, I told myself, not even pace. Enjoy passing other runners. Don't gas yourself. Do these, and you're done. Do these, and the fun begins.
Well, the hills came and went. I crested them and started running hard, as hard as I would in a 5K. I pointed my nose downhill and enjoyed the ride. I was stunned when I saw the clock right before the finish.
I shivered against the cold not long after I finished. I think it was the cold, but it did remind me of a lab puppy who wiggled with pleasure during a game of fetch, who moved with the kind of electricity that comes from knowing that all is right with the world.

Postscript: I ran 1:40:25, which was a PR by four minutes. I finished 450 or so out of about 9,000 runners.