We lined up, all of us, shuffling around in our brightly colored racing flats a few feet from the white line. No one wanted to be the first to toe it.
No one wanted to be the first one to jump into the fire.
It was July 4, at 6:50 a.m., minutes before the Lenexa Freedom Run. I've run this race for the last three years. You have an option of doing a 10K or a 5K. I've avoided the 5K in the past. This would be the first time I planned to go for it.
Though 5Ks should be a part of any runner's racing plan, I generally avoid them. If you do them right, running a 5K is akin to bathing in the flames of hell. 10Ks are less painful. I actually prefer half marathons.
This year, it would feel like hell for another reason as well. A heat wave had swallowed my home state of Colorado for much of June, torching what seemed like half of it, and decided to follow us across to my homeland of Kansas for my annual summer trip. As soon as we arrived on June 29, temperatures hit triple digits every day, and coupled with the humidity, made it downright dangerous to be outside for too long.
As I stepped outside Dad's porch at 5:45 a.m. on July 4 to make the drive to the start, I honestly wished the race was scheduled to go off at 6 a.m., which shows how much running has changed me but also shows the power of the heat. The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon and would need at least an hour to gather enough muscle to start frying the landscape again. It was the only respite I'd get, and I knew it. Even then, the temperature was almost 80 degrees.
In Colorado, even on our 100-degree days, it's cool enough in the morning to make our runs pleasant, or at least not miserable. But Kansas, like the rest of the country hampered by humidity, cooler morning temperatures are a luxury.
As I finally toed the line, along with my fellow racers, lining up at slot marked for 6:30-pace runners (which would give me a PR), beads of sweat already started to pool on my forehead.
I read in Runner's World earlier that week about an interesting study that suggests the heat really is in your head. Bikers who cycled on stationary bikes in 78 degrees outperformed bikers who were forced to work in 89 degrees in a controlled gym. But when scientists tricked the bikers through a faulty temperature gauge that made them believe it was 78, rather than 89, there was no drop off in performance.
A 5K is painful, but I could probably pretend it wasn't as bad as it felt, especially for just 20 minutes.
It wouldn't kill me. It wouldn't even injure me.
It would just hurt.
The gun went off. The crowd of runner moved me forward, almost pushing me into the flames.
• • •
It's miserable when it's 100 degrees, humidity or no humidity, until you hit up a swimming pool. Then it's the most awesome temperature in the world. The water feels like a bath, and when you get out, your balls don't hide in your stomach. The pavement burns a bit (like fire), but that only makes the water sweeter.
So we didn't go to the zoo, or a park with a bunch of rides, or even a lake in Kansas this year. We went swimming. Every day.
When we visited Salina, which is not only where Kate's grandmother lives but where I worked for my first job, I was flabbergasted at the city's new pool. It's not really a pool. It's many pools. With five slides, including one called the "toilet bowl" that tosses you around a huge whirlpool that, well, kinda makes you feel like a large turd being flushed into the pipes. There was a high dive, a lazy river that led into a wave pool and a kiddie pool.
Oh, yeah, there was a place to swim too.
I hate "back in my day" posts, but back in my day, we had a neighborhood pool, and it was really cool because it had a diving board AND a small slide. They also played music over some loudspeakers. Fancy. We were lucky.
So take a peek inside the mind of a human being, or maybe just an American, as we left Salina's pool. Mom's neighborhood pool seemed weak by comparison. No diving board. No slide even. In fact, later that week at my Dad's, in one of the well-off neighborhood pools, I found myself feeling disappointed because that pool "only" had two monster slides and a smaller lazy river.
• • •
I kept peeking at my GPS, which I've told myself not to do during races. I now believe it's better to run by feel, by effort, rather than by pace because that way you aren't limiting yourself. There's no way I run 1:37 in the Vegas half marathon if I stared at my GPS because I would have held back.
But I was at sea level and didn't want to start too fast. When my breathing was labored enough for a 5K and I saw my pace was 6:30 after a half mile, I was disappointed and reassured at the same time.
I was disappointed because I thought I had a shot at a 19-minute 5K. My pace would need to be around 6:15-6:20 for that. But a slight headwind, which felt great even if it slowed me down, just wasn't going to allow that. This was not going to be the perfect day I'd need. I probably should have known that. It WAS 80 degrees at the start.
But I was also reassured because my 5K PR is 20:40, and that's a 6:40 pace. Keep it here, I told myself as I started to pass groups of runners, and you'll be really happy with your race.
A half-mile later, I was already waist-deep in the fire, and I reminded myself to relax.
I kept shaking my hands out, telling myself not to clinch them. I smiled. I tried to steal deeper breaths every fifth breath so it didn't feel like I was gasping for air all the time. The more I relaxed against the pain, the more I could stave off the panic and the vice that always seems to creep over my chest, as if I'm wearing a corset.
I'm in another place during the most intense races. The music I carefully selected to help me run faster — in this case, fast, hard heavy metal — floated through my ears, as if I could hear it in an elevator (which would be funny actually). I didn't really see my other runners, just felt them, through elbows or their ragged breath. I tried to hitch a ride with them, but I usually wound up passing them or, near the end, they found another gear that I didn't have.
About a half-mile to the end was the hardest, as it always is because it's supposed to be. But I had to claw up two steep hills, and the sun had started its dirty work, roasting the pavement even at 7:15. My legs had no bounce. Hold on, I told myself. Just hold on. Somewhere from space, "Spiral" from Nightrage told me to run faster as I saw the finish.
The finish line is always more relief than jubilation, but that's especially true in a 5K. And as I crossed it, my face felt like boiling water, and I tried not to collapse, walking in stumbles away from the line so other runners could get through. Easing yourself from the fire is almost as hard as throwing yourself into it, and I walked around in small shuffles, desperately trying to calm my breathing and my scorched throat. I grabbed a bottle of water, though I had no plans to drink it yet, and wiped puddles of sweat from my eyes.
I thought my time was 20:40, which matched my PR, so I was somewhat pleased as I waited in line for a computerized printout of my results and where I'd placed. I talked with a guy who passed me at the very end who I'd pegged at 50. Turns out he was 65. Sigh. Then I got my printout and looked at my time.
20:29. I had a new PR. Turns out the clock was the gun, not my chip time. Sweet. I smiled a bit but only a bit. I had survived the fire. This time, I even seemed to welcome it.
• • •
The rain fell hard a few days later, like we were stuck under a waterfall, from outside our Goodland, KS hotel window at 3:30 a.m. Temperatures had dipped into the 70s, bringing storms and cool air.
I ran a couple days later after the race on a trail that winds through woods and across fields and wetlands. It's one of my favorite things to do in Kansas, and yet it was 91 degrees by the time I finished, and I felt at the end like a flank steak.
We drove home in clouds. The air conditioning isn't even on in our house tonight.
It feels like such a relief.
I need a break from the fire. It's the only way to get strong enough to go back in one day.