Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bright Lights, Big Post

Warning: This post is long. I won't apologize for it, but I don't expect you to read it. If you want, you could divide it up to before race day and after, though I think you'll miss the theme if you do. I don't even have it in the headline.
Enjoy. I guess.


My life feels like it began after I had kids.
This is a cliche turned on its head (you see what I did there?) because it's not meant to be a caption for "The Family Circus." My life feels that way because of the way it seems to be rushing by without me getting so much as a glimpse of it. Time flies when you're having fun. It flies even more when you're too busy to have it.
When Jayden was born six years ago, I began to notice that whole chunks out of the year just seemed to vanish. I distinctly remember three things. Finishing the 14ers, the first time I played online poker for money and Jayden's birth. The rest, even when Kate told me she was pregnant, is a smear. And then life seemed to get smooshed into globs of seasons without any kind of a calendar to mark it. It was hot, then cold, only we were inside most of the time, changing diapers and collapsing into bed. Vacations were the same every year, a trip to Kansas to see Kate's grandmother and my parents. We'd put the tree up at Christmas. Then we would take it down.
The girls were born a couple years later, and I'll be damned if I can recall much of anything in that first year. I remember being tired.
Time, by then, was indistinguishable. Songs I loved felt like they were released just weeks ago, and someone had to tell me it was a couple years ago. Metallica's "Death Magnetic," my favorite recent album, came out in 2008. That's a high school career ago.
My high school career, those four years in high school, still feel like 20 to me. I can tell you what albums came out then and what I was doing every month in my life. I can point out the grocery store that let us buy beer and the other that almost had us arrested. I know all the movies.
I was busy then, too, almost as busy as I am now. But I marked my life with moments. There were so many moments. There were moments in my life that I'll remember forever.
I love my kids dearly, but when you're a parent, at least in the first six years I've done it, I've found myself so bent on surviving them, and life, and all the crap that comes in between, that it's easy to forget to have moments.
There are a ton of milestones, but most of them are your kids', not your own, other than their births. And if you don't have anything to write down anything significant on the calendar, how do you know when it's time to turn the page?
Which is the longest lede you'll ever read from me, in perhaps the longest blog post I'll ever write.
Other than a few times in my life, say, Jayden's first day of Kindergarten or my first marathon, I had run out of moments. The #wpbt started to feel that way as well. Even those special trips sort of blurred together. And then I decided to run the Vegas Half Marathon.
Well, we did.
That's kind of the point.
• • • 
It's hard to explain what the #wpbt is to people, and so I treat it like Fight Club. You know the first rule of Fight Club, right? I followed it.
My life is so different back home. I don't drink much, play poker much or even stay up past 10 p.m. much. When I had a 40th birthday surprise party, I didn't get drunk, to the crushing disappointment of one of my best friends.
I also find it hard to explain to people why running has taken over my life. I hated it for so many years. I always thought it was because I had to shave my mountain climbing down to a nub after the kids were born, and I needed something to keep me motivated to stay active. But I've thought about this trip a lot the last few days, and I've come to two conclusions why both things mean a lot to me.
The first is the milestones.
The second is the people.
• • •
Sure, the roads were snowpacked Thursday morning, even icy in spots, but the thought of my plane being cancelled never occurred to me until I heard it announced over the loudspeaker in the small airport in Fort Collins.
Running's taught me more than anything else how to deal with adversity. Climbing laid the groundwork, but when you're running, adversity is only a few steps behind. Cramps, side stitches, unplanned trips to the bathroom, hunger, thirst, cold, heat, dogs, wild animals, your balance, your sense of direction, nausea, black ice, injuries, 5 a.m. wake-ups, bad food, your GPS, a leaky Gatorade bottle, other runners and even your very breath (really, especially that) all conspire to screw you over, probably when you least expect it.
Whatever running hasn't taught me how to handle, being a parent takes care of the rest, like dealing with puke and poop or a bad night's sleep.
So I can handle just about any situation, and I was handling it. I was handling it like a motherfucker as I shuffled back to my car, until I heard the message that another flight wouldn't be available until Friday evening.
I was going to miss half the fun after not being at #wpbt last year.
I was instantly, totally crushed.
I said so on Twitter.
Then I started getting tweets back.
I had to pull over my car to read and respond to all of them.
They were offers to get me on another one-way flight using their miles.
I can think on my feet when I'm a reporter, a runner or a climber, but in the rest of my life, I'm a planner. 
It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.
I didn't know how I'd get home, and I wasn't sure if I'd get a refund from this flight, and if I didn't, I'd have to suck it up and go Friday night. My head was swimming. Did I have time to get to Denver's airport? Could I still make it that Thursday night? Was it worth it? How much more money would it cost me?
A small voice whispered to me. This is like the race you are about to run.
I was home maybe five minutes. I called the airline and (woot!) and got a refund. I was packed, my bag was in the car, and I was ready to go.
April's offer was the best. With her 25,000 miles, she could get me off the ground at 3 p.m. 
Book it! I Tweeted, as I was on my way to the airport, in the car, with Christmas music blasting through the speakers. 
She did. 
First Class.
For $75.
It wasn't lost on me that this reminded me of two other times when people did something completely selfless and unexpected that required a sacrifice, and both those other times involved the same sense of community I got from climbing and get now from running. Once was just after the time a decade ago when I got trapped in a rock avalanche and barely escaped with my life. I was beaten up, bloodied and a bit broken, and I had a long way to go. Eight miles. A quarter-mile into the hike, someone offered me his hiking poles. I turned them down at first, until my Dad chased the guy down after I stumbled down the trail a couple times. I could not have made it without them. We returned them a week later.
The second was during my first marathon, and I was at mile 20 when I got hit by severe cramps. People gave me their bananas, pretzels and drinks. I made it across.
In both cases, these were adventures that people planned far in advance, and they brought that food and drink (and the poles) in case something bad happened to them. Instead, they risked their own well being to give them to me.
April took time out of her day and gave me a shitload of airline miles just so I could get there Thursday night and have dinner with some bloggers.
I bought her meal that night.
• • •
By now you're wondering why I decided to run the race. Or, most likely, you no longer care and have moved on to Angry Birds. I don't blame you.
Still with me? Wow.
A couple years ago (oh man, I'm REALLY trying your patience now, aren't I, I mean, how much exposition can one blog have), John, aka Bad Blood, wrote me, wondering how he could run a 10K in 48 minutes. It was for a bet. Rob, aka Gordon, aka um, G-Rob, was losing a bunch of weight, and Blood bet him some pounds against his time. 
I knew Blood a bit, mostly because we both liked music that scared most people, but I was happy to help because, well, I love talking about running, probably way too much. So I put him on a plan, taught him how to run speed work and tempo runs, and he crushed the race. It was really fun. So when he wanted to do a half marathon, I helped him with that, too, and it turned out to be really, really fun. He got hooked on the running, and I got hooked on the help. We stayed in touch throughout the years.
When Rock and Roll sent me an e-mail stating that the race would be held that night, I registered, not knowing, or caring, how it would work with #wpbt. I had a feeling John would want to do it too. He did.
Only he had a surprise. Others were interested too.
They were only interested at first. Brad, aka Otis, seemed especially nervous about it. I knew Brad a bit, too, as I had met him during a trip two years ago, while Steel Panther blasted in the background, and he was kind of a legend among the #wpbt, and he was a pretty darn good writer and was really supportive of my own writing, which, of course, meant a lot because I tend to write long, rambling sentences with a lot of commas.
So, OK. I wrote him an email, explaining that a half marathon really, truly, honestly wasn't as hard as it sounded. At least the training wasn't. You didn't have to run all day, every day, while whipping yourself like a monk. Really, for what you get out of the race, it's a pretty good deal.
John just told Brad to pull his head out of his ass and sign up.
I'm not sure what worked more.
G-Rob, fresh off losing 100 pounds, which would leave me weighing about as much as my 6-year-old, and Doc signed up as well. We had a group.
I volunteered to help right away just like I helped John. Part of me likes being the guru. But mostly I do it because I remembered when I first started running, and so many great runners, people who were destroying me in races, turning in times I never thought I'd run, helped me. They waited for me on group runs, talked to me about different ways to run and introduced me to the concept of runs having a purpose, not just strapping on shoes and getting out there. I remembered that, and I thought it was time to pay them back by (sigh, I hate this expression) paying it forward to others.
The e-mails among our group started back in the summer. They didn't stop until it was time for the race. They meant far more than I thought they would when they started.
• • •
No, I'm not breaking this into parts. Deal with it.
• • •
As excited as I was for the race, I felt conflicted when I got there Thursday night. I was eating with Astin, Heather, April, Dawn, Ryan and later Michelle.
(By the way, I liked how we sort of ditched the nicknames for the most part this year and called each other by our real names. I occasionally referred to them if I needed them or wanted them, aka Bad Blood is such a badass name that it fit before we headed out to the race. But for the most part people went by their actual names. It was time).
The food was fantastic, but I chose not to drink, and I worried about eating too much greasy or fried pickings. It was like that most of the weekend. Vegas is usually the one place I don't have to be on guard all the time, and yet I had to be. I focused on eating rice, pasta, breads, pancakes and fruit and not drinking, in addition to drinking a lot of water.
The race doesn't happen until you hit the starting line, but really, it begins a few days before, when you load your body with carbs, try not to eat anything that will screw with your stomach on race day and try to get rest. You also probably shouldn't drink a lot.
What helped was not only were my running partners following the same program, but many of the rest of us bloggers were too. This time seemed far mellower than any other. I even saw AlCan'tHang sober a few times. I preferred it that way. We're all older now, and it's nice to act like it a little bit. There were no wheelchair stories, and as disappointing as that was, acting like adults does mean sacrificing a little fun.
So Thursday and Friday were fun, but they involved poker (with Jordan and Carol, mostly, which was awesome). Then Otis came to town Friday afternoon. You all know the story by now. I'll let him tell the bulk of it. But his father died suddenly earlier that week.
I'd already written him off for the most part, though a part of me, selfishly, really wanted him there. We all did.
Otis/Brad had really embraced running, and I got as much joy out of coaching him than anyone I've ever helped. He was thankful, of course, but more than that, I could see what it did for him spiritually. I told him for weeks as he got on the program that running really would become enjoyable, and one day, after those many weeks, I got an email from him, explaining how he'd finally had that day. Running, the outdoors and mountain climbing are much more to me than a way to exercise, and finally Brad felt that way too.
I hoped he was going to go, but our group let him make that decision.
He sent us an email that he was coming when I was on my way to the airport.
We spent Friday night, after an appearance at the mellow blogger mixed game, at the Monte Carlo poker room. It's a run-down place, close to the opposite of the Aria poker room.
It was exactly what we needed.
John arrived late that night.
It was good to have our group together.
• • •
You won't find many details of the nights here. I"m not afraid to share them, of course, as they were fairly tame, especially by Vegas standards, but this post is long enough, and there were some special times that don't need to make the Internet. We had a wonderful pasta dinner Saturday, the night before the race, picked by Brad, where we reflected on our training and the guys surprised me by buying me dinner. I was so touched I forgot to say no.
The place was located next to the Palms, and we played a wild game (one of several that weekend, and those wild games meant me picking my spots while they splashed around a lot of chips), and I'll just say two words: Jose Canseco (the guy's kinda a whiner at the table).
That Saturday was especially mellow: We picked up our number for the race, played the tournament and cheered Brad's min-cash before we went to the runner's Expo that night and then dinner.
We got in fairly late but slept until 10 a.m. Sunday. After a pancake breakfast, we decided the best thing to do was play a little poker to take our mind off what we were facing.
I'd never run a night race before, especially not something as ardrous as a half. I grabbed a large Gatorade to drink over the afternoon with Brad. At the last second, he picked up a couple black pens.
When I sat at the poker table, I instantly pulled off two huge bluffs and was betting like a maniac. In other words, I was playing exactly like I usually DON'T play. What was going on? I didn't even realize what I was doing until someone whispered, "I'm gonna get this wild guy." I laughed to myself and snapped out of it.
I'm an aggressive runner, and just a few hours before the race, I was ready to tear it up. I was in running mode.
I switched that off for the moment and settled into my usual careful play, and soon enough, I looked over at Bad Blood, and he nodded at me. I smiled and my mind began to travel down a darkening tunnel. I love it when my brain does that on its own and I don't have to force it. It usually means I'm going to have a good race. Pain, nausea and weariness can't penetrate that zone.
We got up to go to our rooms. It was time to get ready.
• • •
Before the race almost makes racing worth it on its own. The anticipation is incredible if you let it be that way. If you don't let the nerves and doubts take over. Your stomach rumbles, your tapered legs tingle and your lips snarl.
I told the guys during our incredible dinner the night before that I go over in my head what Kansas' coach Bill Self said to his troops the night before the Final Four, when we eventually went on to win the title in 2008. It sounds cheesy, but when you're going through something like a long race, cheesy works. In this case it's a pretty simple statement, not a Gipper cheer.
"You can't hope good things happen tonight," he said. "You expect them to."
There are always things in a race you can't train for. Maybe there's stomach problems, weather, injuries, other runners and the crappy unknown, like a small piece of broken pavement that's just big enough to trip you. But what I've found, and really love, about running is if you do the training, it pays off in a race. It really rewards you with the time you put into it. Many sports aren't necessarily like that. Football and baseball rely too much on the circumstances. Even mountain climbing, my first love, isn't that way because the weather and the altitude play such huge roles in whether you make your goal or not.
So if you do the training, it's foolish to hope good things happen during a race. You should expect them to.
You may want to skip this next part. It's a race report and will include my thoughts on my time during the run. You may find this the most interesting part of the blog. But I doubt it.
• • • 
Brad and I were silent as we got dressed for the race, which I took as a good sign. It meant he was sure of what he was wearing, carrying and using for the race. That's the first step to keeping your nerves under control.
I was most worried about Brad. G-Rob seemed to be as self-assured about the race as he is about everything else in his life, including his hair. He wasn't cocky by any stretch, but he seemed to know he would run relatively slow but also that he would finish. Bad Blood looked sharp and was going to run well and fast, and I knew he knew how to focus (in fact, there was an outside chance he would beat me, I thought). Doc was exactly like G-Rob and had already run a half earlier that year.
But I not only expected Brad to be emotional before the race, I thought he might push it a little hard and let the moment overtake him. I was hoping he'd run an even, fun race where he didn't have to walk. Running an even race is harder than it sounds. I've rarely done it.
I had concerns about myself, too, namely whether my bitchy hamstring would hold up. I expected it to hurt. I just didn't want it to prevent me from running. I didn't know if the crowds would hold me back a bit. And I really wanted to PR, but a lot has to go right. We'd been up late every night even if we got a good night's sleep.
The bloggers wished us well, and OhCaptain took over photo, which was sweet, but I was already in a zone. I allowed one smile for Iggy, who shouted my old blogger name as we left. 
After the promised shuttles didn't deliver, we started walking to the starting line. I tried to look out for my runners as best I could, but I failed miserably as a coach in this spot. We were rushed, as were 25,000 other runners, it seemed, and so it was crowded, and I would like to blame the race officials for that, and I can and will, but ultimately it's up to you to get to the race in enough time. I barely got us there before the start, and Blood didn't even get to check his bag. 
All this robbed us somewhat of the electricity before a big race. It was still there, but a good portion of it went to worry and concern of us reaching the starting line. It's the one thing I still regret about the way things went.
I had planned a small speech for them for days, but I also had to pee, bad, and I saw some bushes to the side. It would be my only chance among the crowds. I pulled in my runners and said to them to not start too fast, have fun and remind themselves how thankful they should be before the start of the race to be there. Then I gave them a hug. It was too fast of a goodbye.
I dashed off to the bushes, hoping an officer wouldn't see me. 
I was now on my own. 
I entered corral 2 and was immediately thankful for it. Even the runners corral 3 were bunched together like cattle in the pens, but they let us spread out, and there weren't very many runners. I knew right away that I wouldn't get trapped behind a crowd, and that thought relaxed me.
I'll admit that I was annoyed at first when Mike McCready from Pearl Jam began to play our national anthem. I use the song as a final way to get focused before what's facing me. It helps remind ME how lucky I am to be at the line. But I shook off the irritation after the first few notes. I mean, look at where I was. I was in VEGAS, about to run the strip at NIGHT, and the guitarist from PEARL JAM, one of my favorite bands, was there, tearing it up. If I have one flaw, it's that sometimes, I forget to have fun. I told myself this, above all other things, would be really, really fun.
So when I crossed the line, and my chip beeped, and I was off, I held back that first mile, running at a conservative pace of 7:45. It would be the only mile that I didn't run by feel. I held back and held back, almost to frustration, because that's when I have my best races, when I let my body ease into it. 
I was pleasantly surprised at how amazing it was, even better than I thought, to run the strip. Seeing the lights of Vegas in the middle of the strip makes you realize how overwhelming, and, yeah, beautiful in an obnoxious way, it all is. And the PEOPLE. There were so many people watching us and cheering for us like we were athletes, like we mattered. I've never had half that many spectators. Many people called for my Colorado shirt, and I loved it.
Iron Maiden wrote about the loneliness of the long distance runner because it IS lonely. You are there, in your head, with your doubts and your courage. Sometimes a little cheer goes a long way to quieting those fears, even from people you don't know.
And yet, a lot of people I DO know who where there.
I was silently thrilled, even flabbergasted, at how the #wpbt embraced the race. Not only did they volunteer to talk to us about it (which is dangerous since I might keep you for a while), they seemed generally interested in what we had to say. A good chunk of the group showed up for it, and though I didn't see them, I looked for them as the miles got tougher, and knowing they were probably out there helped in ways I can't explain. I love running, but I also know it's not a spectator sport. I would imagine watching a bunch of runners stream by is probably about as exciting as watching someone play live poker without the hole cards. But they showed up, shook our hands after, and Pauly even told me he had fun being out there. I wonder what he was on. I may want it next year. Drizz packed us beers! Beers!
Anyway, once I got to mile two and saw the Bellagio on my left, I threw off the shackles and decided to let my body tell me what I could run. I was looking for a pace that was just beyond comfortably hard. A half marathon is a long way, so I couldn't run completely balls out, like I do many times in a 5K, and yet it's still a race. I settled on a pace that left me breathing hard, but not gasping, and that got my legs moving, not straining. It would hurt, bad, to trip, but the motions felt relaxed yet quick. It's probably the same pace I would use if I were dashing away from a pack of zombies.
I looked at my watch. That pace was 7:15 per mile.
That's over 8 miles an hour if you're scoring at home.
Shit. Really?
I knew I'd run faster. The elevation in Vegas isn't sea level, but it's not 5,000 feet, either. And it's the flattest course I'll run, so I knew I wouldn't bonk on a hill. Still. It was a little scary to see that pace. I have run races too fast at first, and by the end, you're so miserable, you want to burn your shoes. My 10K split was the second-fastest 10K I've ever run. Even in this year, by far the greatest I've had running, I ran two 10Ks that weren't as fast.
Fuck it, I thought. I know I can finish. I know I can run below 1:45 (I ran 1:40 a month ago in Denver, which was a PR). I know that if I get back to mile 10, I"ll have the Vegas lights to lead me home.
I took a deep breath. And then I ran.
• • • 
By mile 7 and 8, as we darted through the darker areas of downtown Vegas, both in lighting and in humanity, I felt tired, and my chest tightened a bit, but I felt all right, mostly thanks to the incredible, 40-degree weather most of the night. The pace, regardless, was torrid for me and would put me close to a crash. I resolved to do what I could to avoid it. I ripped open a Powerbar gel and gulped it down and hoped for an aid station to take away the taste. I took a salt pill. I did find a station, got pissed when they didn't seem to have any sports drink and tried to focus on the next step. I needed that dark tunnel in my mind back. Arch Enemy came over the iPod. That's what I needed. "Battery low," it chirped at me. Oh please don't give out, I said to it.
I got caught up in a group as we swerved the corners, and I fought for space with some dude who refused to move over an inch so I wouldn't have to hop the curb. He gashed my wrist with an elbow and got an elbow in the ribs in return. I can be a polite runner, but if someone tries to cut me off, it's Braveheart time. I would never shove a runner - that's like ramming a car on the highway - but I will throw elbows. He got the message and backed off. 
It turns out I ran a 6:59 mile at this point. It would be my fastest. Things got harder after that. I managed to stay around 7:20 or so, which makes me happy, but probably the toughest thing about a half marathon is also the most obvious: You have to keep running, hard, after you've put on some serious miles. Even at mile 11, when I had the strip back and the bright lights, I knew I was fading. I also knew at this point that I had a shot at 1:37 and didn't want to blow it, and even a pace of, say, 8:30, an aggressive pace for two-thirds of the runners out there, would blow it. I was straining, and my legs felt like a stuffed animal being pulled in a fight between a brother and sister. The only good news was my hamstring wasn't bothering me any longer, which probably was because I was too tired to care.
I apologize I didn't see the bloggers cheering on the sideline. I was trying so hard not to see anything but the lights and the finish line. I was hurting by that point, just trying to hard to seal away 1:37 and knowing I could crash at any moment. I was floating around a 7:35-7:40 pace and was afraid I could not hold even that much longer.
And then I saw the finish line.
I stepped across.
I didn't celebrate when I finished. I bent over and slowly walked over to grab a foil wrap. I grabbed a water and a drink and tried to breathe. Everyone around me was dead, too, barely able to walk or breathe. It felt good to me to be with them. We WORKED. We nodded at each other or patted each other's shoulder on the way to the exit out of the chute. We'd worked against, and with, each other most of the way. I spent a little time at the trash can, with a coin flip's chance of puking, and then the nausea went away and then I felt a tap on my back. He was the guy I fought at the corner. 
Good run, he said. You too, I said.
I waited, far too long, for Blood but knew I'd missed him, and then later Otis and the others. I looked for the bloggers. I finally shivered so hard someone came over and asked me if I needed a doctor, and so I went inside Mandalay to warm up and catch the shuttle. I waited inside there, too, for a long time, but I finally rode the bus home.
I pressed my nose against the glass when I saw an In and Out Burger.
• • • 
I made it up to my room without seeing anyone, which was the plan since I needed to decompress, stretch and become myself again. After touching base via my phone with Blood and Brad, knowing the others wouldn't be far behind, I stripped off my sticky clothes and took a shower. The warm water felt like heaven. 
I was just about to leave the room, texting my running friends back home anxious to hear my time, when I heard the door open and Brad came through.
We hugged each other, unabashedly, and then Brad talked like one of my kids for 10 minutes straight. I knew exactly what he was feeling, but it was so rewarding to see it from someone else and know that I helped him get there. It's that crack-like, addicting feeling of accomplishment. Ultimately it's why we run. It was an emotional run for him, as I thought, but it also seemed to be a great, fun experience too.
And he ran the whole way.
I came back down and got warm greetings from Blood, who crushed the race, and many other bloggers, which felt great. I was almost embarrassed at how much everyone cared. 
We had to eat in the food court, and plans didn't exactly go like we had hoped, but they never do. We ate, played some table games (I broke my Pai Gow cherry; that game is fun) and then, finally, had a private poker game at the Monte Carlo. 
Brad called it an epilogue in an email to us. As usual, he found a great word for it. Though I like to think of that game, the race, really the whole weekend, as something else.
I think, for once, I've got an even better word than Brad for it.
I'm calling it a moment.

  

9 comments:

Kat said...

I read it all.

And it was all wonderful.

DrChako said...

Yep. About sums it up.

-DrC

Ignatious said...

Ditto. Fine read.

Drizztdj said...

I call it a lot of win. Perhaps this Vegas degen will be joining the runners soon.

Brad M. Wann said...

That was Redonkuless!

DrPauly said...

I wasn't lying when I said watching the race was exciting for us on the rail. Running is 10000% more inspiring than any poker tournament.

Astin said...

Great post, and great job. I really wish I had been able to stay an extra day so I could have congratulated you all personally.

BWoP said...

Awesome post! I wish I would have been able to catch a glimpse of you at my building, but the lighting was bad and there were TONS of people. I just kept screaming my head off, and the runners seemed to appreciate it. Great job on the personal best :-) I'm glad we had a chance to play poker a bit during the trip.

KenP said...

Your challenge should you choose...


http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/lifestyle/teenager-jordan-romero-completes-mountain-climbing-challenge/story-e6frg9zo-1226230513361

Nahh, you aren't that competitive. Let me rephrase. I hope...