I’ve always wondered why they call it “grilled cheese,” when it isn’t made on a grill. It’s almost always fried in a pan. Griddled cheese, maybe. Anyway, this lunch took the misnomer to a whole new, delicious level. Katie and I stopped into Olive for a late lunch, and treated ourselves to the special. It was a deep fried grilled cheese made with Havarti, Cheddar and Parmesan, served with a bowl of outstanding tomato and black bean soup. It was a deep fried middle finger to our normally careful eating habits, and it was worth every minute I’ll spend sweating it off later.
It struck me today that, while running is an individual sport, our best performances still come with the help of others.
I was up well before dawn on the second consecutive Saturday for the Live Out Loud 5k and 10k, a memorial race for Janet Adducchio. Janet was a wife, mother and nurse who fell victim to thymic carcinoma earlier this year, and as with so many victims of the disease, she inspired those around her by her life and attitude before she passed. Her kids organized the race in her memory, to raise money for the Jack and Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation.
10k races aren’t as prolific as the ubiquitous 5k, so while both distances were offered at this event, I chose to establish my 10k instead of trying to hammer my 5k time deeper under my goal for the year. I don’t race at the 10k distance much, so the pacing was going to be a little bit of a challenge to figure out, but I’ve been wanting to establish a PR at this distance for awhile now.
Crisp, clear fall air awakened me as I slipped out of the house at 6:45am, and a pleasant sunrise greeted us at the registration desk. Near the gazebo that housed registration, they had a chalkboard with the heading “BEFORE I DIE I WANT TO…” I looked at that board for a long time, trying to think what to write. A side effect of living life as emphatically as I do is that I don’t have much in the way of a bucket list. Don’t misunderstand, I have many, many things I want to do before I die, but I couldn’t come up with anything I must do before then, which is usually the point of these questions. They are meant to prompt introspection, to awaken the inner dreamer in all of us, and encourage us to go to the grave without regret. But I can say with all honesty that I am living life as fully as I am able, and if it ended tomorrow, I wouldn’t be unsatisfied by the experience.
I took my time warming up, careful to be gentle with my hips, which have been bothering me again for the last few weeks. I left my warm-up pants and hoodie on as long as I felt was prudent, and then headed down for the start. But the start was delayed for some time due to an issue with the timing company, and I had started to get cold again by the time they were finally ready. At last, the race director ordered all the 10k runners to the front, and then we were off!
I set what I felt was a conservative pace for the first mile, staying with the lead pack but not trying to get to the front of it. At a larger, more popular race, the faster runners would have left me immediately, but the smaller turnout for this inaugural event meant that most of the field was much closer to my level. A couple runners I had been chatting with at the start stretched off ahead of us, but there was a small group of about 6 of us giving chase, and I kept them in touch as my legs came in. That took longer than normal on this chilly morning, due in equal parts to the temperature and time between my warm up and the start.
Just after the first mile, I decided that the gap to the runners ahead of me was getting too large, so I dialed it up a bit. I wasn’t sure how much I should push, with so little experience at this distance, but I at least wanted to take advantage of a tow, if I could get one. I took my time catching the runner ahead of me, then hung around for the next mile, “resting” before trying my next push. My legs were feeling good now, but I still wasn’t sure just how fast I should be going, and we hadn’t yet reached the turn-around at the half way point.
A small cluster of runners had formed now. I had pulled myself up to two guys who were chasing a girl with impossibly long legs, and a couple guys behind me had towed themselves forward to me, in turn. I decided to make my next move at the turnaround, the half way point in the race, where I would at least be able to make an educated guess at the pace I could hold to the finish. The course angled south along Dye Mill Road, and then abruptly, there it was. Two guys stood next to a card table full of water cups and a cluster of cones, unmistakably a turnaround. It felt early, and everyone in our little group was a touch confused. I yelled ahead as I approached to ask if it was the turn for the 10k and they said it was, so I shrugged, pivoted around the cones, and headed back toward the finish.
I passed a couple people at this point and decided to put in a little push, to see if I could drop them and get out on my own. We did drop the girl, and one guy in a Tough Mudder shirt. But another guy, in a white shirt, stuck with me. The sun was at our backs as we strode northwest, and his shadow was always just behind mine. I could hear his footsteps, and every time I tried to push the throttle up, he responded and stuck with me. I just couldn’t break this guy! I knew, even as it was happening, that this was the best possible scenario. In a race distance that I haven’t practiced much, it was to my advantage to have someone pushing me, as I tend to be too conservative on my own.
When we reached the turnaround for the 5k, things got a little sporty! The 5k runners were already through, but a huge number of walkers were arriving just as we were, and the bike path suddenly got very narrow. I spent the next half mile engaged in an obstacle course of strollers and small groups of chatting friends, few of whom seemed to have noticed there was a race going on in the middle of their social event. To be fair, their entry fee supported the race’s charity the same as mine, but the other runners and I sure would have appreciated if they had tried to stay to one side of the path. “ON YOUR LEFT,” I called ahead of me whenever I could spare the breath. Most people got out of the way the best they could, but it was still a little dicey.
I quietly hoped that the traffic would allow me to slip away from my pursuer, but it just wasn’t to be. As the traffic thinned I checked over my shoulder and there he was, only a yard or two behind, with a determined pace that seemed to almost threaten me with its consistency. I pushed harder. My pace dropped into the 7:30s, and I gained a couple yards. The finish was nearly in sight now, just over a slight rise by a bridge. I made up my mind to drop the hammer as soon as I could see the finish arch, but I could still hear footsteps behind me. Was it just my imagination, or were there several sets, now? Was I going to get passed by a whole group just before the end?
We were at the bridge now, me and the mob I imagined was just behind me. I let loose, easing my speed up by increments, intentionally increasing the pace of my breathing to keep up with the demand. My pace dropped more, to 7:00, 6:30, 6:00 as I mentally pulled the finish line back to me. I was pulling back the lone runner in front of me as well, something I didn’t at all expect, as he had been out of reach for the whole race. He was kicking to the finish, but I was kicking harder, and the gap was closing fast. The carrot of beating one more person was fuel on the fire and I was at a dead run, every muscle and fiber straining with whatever power it had left. We flashed across the line, the man with the wild, gray hair and I, side by side and breathless. I thought I had got him, but only just!
I was elated. The post-race endorphin rush hasn’t been that strong for me in a long time, and the euphoria had me laughing before I had even caught my breath. I shook hands with my two close competitors, who had pushed and pulled me along, without a word, for the whole race. My GPS revealed that the course was indeed short by nearly a mile, but no matter. That was a race the way races are meant to be, and the minor detail of not establishing a proper PR took nothing away from the experience.
I stuck around for the awards, hoping that the results would be posted and I could see how I had done. But they were only going to announce the male and female overall winners for both races, so I wandered over to the snack table and started munching on a couple granola bars while I listened. When they got to the Men’s 10k, I was surprised that the third place finisher was a kid I had passed, and who I was fairly sure hadn’t passed me back. Then they called my name! I had finished second overall, which was a complete surprise to me, even having as good of a race as I did! I got my medal and stood next to the third place finisher as they announced the winner, the man with the wild gray hair, who had just held on at the line to beat me by less a tenth of a second. Less than a tenth!
It would be easy to be mad about being beat by so small a margin, but I felt enormously lucky just to have done as well as I had. The two runners who had gapped the field at the start had run right past the turnaround, ending up in Tipp City before they figured out something was wrong! So I had been gifted at least one place already, and I knew I owed my performance to other runners, anyway. Without them to pull and push me forward, forcing me to run harder than I ever do by myself, I would have been nowhere near as fast.
A coach and a group of like-minded people at a running club make fast feel easy. A stranger with a sign on the side of the road cheers you on, giving you just that little push you needed to keep going. A random stranger pushes and pulls you through an entire race, shakes your hand at the finish, and you go your separate ways. Running illustrates our dependence on each other in ways not unlike the rest of life, often in beautiful and deeply meaningful ways. When people ask me why I run, or how I’ve improved so much over the past couple years, I often find myself struggling to give the individualistic answer I think they’re looking for. Today reminded me that it’s because it was never just about me in the first place.
Katie and I recently had the chance to check out Press Coffee on Wayne Avenue, downtown. One of the joys in my life is checking out little independent coffee shops like this, and Press did not disappoint. They pull off the hipster atmosphere without seeming pretentious, have a friendly staff, and put out a very quality product. They brew coffee from Dogwood, a craft roaster in Minneapolis, and I was suitably impressed with their product, as well as their witty website. I was most excited that Press had a Cortado on their menu, something I haven’t found since we were in Nashville earlier this year. It was definitely good enough to try again, and close enough that I could even ride my bike down (how hipster!) to do so.
Today brought an opportunity to do something I love, with people that I love. And I love it when that happens.
My niece Hannah is home-schooled, but that doesn’t mean she’s home all the time. In fact, she’s out and about, learning about the world by being in it, far more than a typical pupil in your average student factory. Today, there was a field trip with her home school group (socialization what?) to Carillon Historical Park to learn about local innovations and innovators. It was close enough to my sister’s house for an easy pedal, so she asked if I’d like to join them for the trip, and stop somewhere close by for lunch after.
I decided on taking the mountain bike for the sake of comfort, and (as is my routine) left the house about 20 minutes after I intended in the morning. That meant an all-out sprint to their house, something I haven’t done on pavement, on the mountain bike, in quite some time.
I just went to running club yesterday, where I turned in a puny 5 miles in two sets before calling it quits, as I wasn’t fully recovered from the Air Force Half yet. But despite my aches and pains on this morning, my legs felt strong, and I powered up the climb on Lower Valley Pike almost like I was on my road bike. Almost. I was generating more power (if Strava’s calculations are to be believed) than I usually do on skinny tires, pushing out nearly 300 watts to make it up the hill. Again, this is calculated instead of measured, so several grains of salt are required.
I made it to my sister’s house in under 45 minutes, averaging almost 16 mph. That’s not bad, especially considering I was pushing a thirty pound, full-suspension mountain bike with knobbies, and slowing to navigate my way through an unfamiliar neighborhood between the Creekside trail and her house. It was fun, but not the sort of fun I see myself doing regularly. It’s a lot of work for not a lot of speed.
My sister has recently re-caught the biking bug. Hanging around her daughter and me this year has proven to be a pretty strong influence, and she’s started racking up some very decent mileage on her Trek hybrid. She’s even taken a few rides just for the sake of the ride, which I recognize as one of the early signs of addiction. Welcome to the club, Jen! There’s a shiny seat for you just over there.
Her work showed pretty quickly once we hit the bike path, on a recently-opened connector between Kettering and the UD campus. She zinged out ahead of us, and soon we were sailing along, three kids out for a bike ride on an idyllic early fall morning.
The trail dumped us out in the back of the campus housing, and we zigzagged our way through, stopping at a traffic light on Brown Street. I was fooling around, trying to get fancy by rolling into a track stand as we stopped. I unclipped my left foot as a bail-out, but unexpectedly lost my balance to the right, and toppled to the ground, taking my niece with me. She was unscathed, but I managed to take the skin off my right knee for about the thousandth time in my life.
My ego hurt worse than my knee, of course, so we pedaled on to the park, enjoying the crisp air in equal measure with the exhibits, while Hannah was led through the field trip by a park employee. After a tasty stop at Shish Wraps for lunch, we all headed home, me by way of Jen’s house. There were 35 miles on the clock by the time I was home again, bloodied (again!) but happy to have spent the day on my bicycle, and better still, with family.
Although I did have a picture of it in my post about the Air Force Half, I figured the meal I prepared for my pre-race dinner was worthy of its own post.
You may have noticed that I do plenty of eating for pleasure, but eating the night before a race is all about fuel. That doesn’t mean it has to be a boring, unattractive meal, but the focus is different. There are ingredients I’ll leave out, like heavy applications of cheese, and ingredients I’m looking to emphasize, like starchy carbs and lean protein. My sister (whose blog you should be following) and I have had many passionate discussions about eating for fuel versus eating for pleasure, but we both agree that there’s no reason to exclude one for the other.
I’ve gone ’round and ’round with pre-race meals over the past few years. What works for one will not necessarily work for another, so this post shouldn’t be construed as advice, so much as anecdote. The basic premise of dinner the night before an endurance event, which I define as anything longer than an hour, is to “fill up” your body. Give it plenty of starchy carbs, water and electrolytes to top off your ATP/glycogen and salt stores, and make sure it has plenty of water to make everything work. Being deficient in any one of these areas at the starting line can mean painful and even disastrous consequences later in the race, so it’s best to pay careful attention the night before.
I’ve gone the routes of huge bowls of pasta, big sandwiches, various salads and casseroles, potato dishes and more. But for my basic carb, I keep coming back to quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah). It’s light, it’s healthy, and it packs a nutritional punch that few other grains can. Besides being a great source of those happy, slow-digesting carbs we’re all looking for, it brings a substantial amount of protein to the fight, backed up with considerable measures of potassium, healthy fats, and even a little vitamin B-6. Better still, it brings water into your system rather than taking it out for digestion, which means you aren’t playing catch-up with the water after eating it, as I’ve found to be the case with a lot of pastas. The side effect of this is that it also doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to explode after eating a substantial portion of it, and you won’t still feel uncomfortably full the next morning.
For this weekend, I cooked up some quinoa and mixed it with a quick mango salsa, and served it with some simple, pan-fried pork chops that I prepared with a dry rub. Most of the recipes you’ll find for pan-fried pork chops call for breading, but I find that an unnecessary complication. If you buy quality meat and cook it right, it won’t be dry, and the flavor will stand up just fine with simple seasoning. For the dry rub, I used some garlic powder, salt and pepper. Simple, clean, quick, and tasty. All together, it’s a meal that makes you feel ready to tackle whatever the next day might bring.
The end of the riding and racing season is fast approaching now, and there’s no denying it. For awhile, it seemed like summer would hang on forever. But now the trees are turning, the woods have that musty smell, and the shadows seem long, regardless of the time of day.
I have always disliked autumn, as a general rule. It leads directly to winter, which season I have no real use for. As a kid, it also meant the arrival of hay fever and school, the two things I hated more than anything in the world. I’m mostly over the hay fever now, but the onset of fall still means cool, wet days, which means less riding and being outside.
The athlete in me, on the other hand, is ready for the break. I’ve reached the point in the season where all of the intensity is taking its toll a little, in terms of injury and fatigue. My right hip has been acting up again, my back isn’t where it should be, and all the races have put a damper on my weight lifting, so I’ve lost some strength. Winter is the time I use to heal up and bulk up, training to be stronger and faster for the next season, and part of me is ready for that. It’s true that I train all year ’round, but there’s no denying that racing is far harder on body and mind than just training.
So I’ll get what I can get out of the remaining warmer days, knowing they’ll be in short supply soon. But this year, when they’re gone, I might regret it a little less.
If you’ve been reading all year, then you know that I’m sort of a geek for stats. I track my miles and times obsessively, and after a big race, I’ll often spend quite a lot of time breaking down my performance, to better understand my progress and hoping to glean lessons for future races. All of the technology available today makes this really easy. Strava tracks my efforts by GPS on my phone, and logs my heart rate data via Bluetooth, generating minute-by-minute data for later evalutation. Race results are posted online, usually the same day as the race and sometimes even as they happen. I can use them to gauge how well I’ve done against similar athletes, and sometimes against the conditions.
The breakdown from my race at this year’s Air Force Half Marathon provides an extra wrinkle of complexity, because I can compare it to last year’s race over the same course and distance. The course this year was slightly modified, but not in a way that would affect my time much either way.
Of course the biggest standout statistic was that I dropped nearly 26 minutes off my time from last year, which means I shaved nearly two minutes off my mile time. But more telling was my placement in the field, which accounts for the conditions of the day. The weather on a given day can speed up or slow the field dramatically, so my performance relative to them is a useful metric. This year over last, I improved by some 1760 places. Among just the men, I finished 945 places higher. The field this year contained some 1200 members of the military and their families, and among them I placed 181st. My run placed me just outside the top 10% of the field, and while it’s certainly an eternity between me and the winner, being near the top 10% is something. If I can drop my time by another ten minutes next year, I’ll be in the top 250 overall, and pass 100 runners in the military category.
Some people daydream about what they’d do if they won the lottery. I daydream of where I’d finish if I was just a little bit faster.
And I think I can get faster, still. Looking at my splits on Strava, I was far more consistent in this race than past races. At the Xenia half in April, I started out at a 9-flat mile, which ballooned to 10 after the first few miles, and was nearly at 11 by the end. At the Heights Half in June, I started strongly enough with five miles that were about 8:30. But then the wheels fell off, thanks to the heat and the lack of water stops mid-race. My last several miles were in the high 9s or low 10s, and my last mile was an 11-minute limp to the finish. On Saturday, at the Air Force half, my first ten miles were in the mid-to-low 8s. Miles 5-7 were within three seconds of each other, and represented my fastest segment of the race. After we lost our pacer to a cramp, my time slacked by about 30 seconds per mile, but that was also largely down to the problems my right foot was having. Even then, the difference between my first mile and my last was only a little over a minute, which is great news.
I owe a lot of that to running with the pace group, but it proved that I can do it. What this means is that I need to learn to hold a pace like that by myself, probably with the use of yet another gadget of some sort, or audio cues from my phone. If I can hold to the 8 minute miles I was turning in mid-race last weekend for a whole race, that will take another six minutes off my time. That doesn’t mean I’m in any danger of winning, ever, but I will have beaten myself. In the end, that’s all I’m racing for, anyway.
I’ve not kept it a secret that one of the reasons I train so hard is so that I can eat and drink how I like. My relationship with food is maybe just a notch off of The Oatmeal’s, so that means if I don’t want to almost instantly explode to a 500 pound walking land mass, I’d better keep at the running, riding and lifting.
Well, yesterday I ran a long, long way. And I had a pretty spectacular result, for me, so that meant it was time to celebrate!
After a shower and a protein shake at home after the race, Katie and I met up with family and friends at Sima in Kettering, where I proceeded to eat my bodyweight in sushi. After soup and salad, I think I ordered four rolls for myself. I’m not sure, because it all happened sort of quickly. And then I finished the rolls that the rest of our table couldn’t. There are no pictures of this sushi, because I was rather busy cramming it into my face-hole as fast as my chopsticks could manage. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how the chopsticks survived. The only thing stopping me from scavenging off of other people’s tables was that we were in a corner booth, and I wasn’t seated on the end. It was a sushi massacre.
I’m sayin’ I ate a lotta sushi.
Also, I drank giant beers, because they are more fun than little beers!
Today we realized that there wasn’t much of anything in the way of food in the house, so we went out again. We tried out a newish place called Lucky’s downtown, and found their fare to be pretty dang tasty, if a little short on portion size. Or was that the race-fueled glutton in me? Hard to say, but I definitely ate two entrees while we were there, on top of a few incredibly heavy beers.
After that, we ended up at the Dublin Pub, my favorite place to eat and have a beer in the whole wide world, and I finally satiated myself with a piece of cheesecake, paired with Guinness and followed by Irish coffee.
If I ever stop training, I will be in serious, serious trouble.
It seems strange to me that I can feel humbled by something I did, but that’s exactly how I feel. I had an outstanding race today. Despite all my worries about under training, despite having run only 5 times– at all– in the last two months, despite the rain and the clouds, and a hurried start, and almost no warm-up, I turned in a half marathon race that I didn’t know I had in me. And while I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, and of the hard work I’ve put in to get here, the overwhelming feeling in my heart is one of being blessed, like I’ve been given a gift. I can’t explain it.
It had been three months since I ran for distance, when I hit my PR at the Heights Half Marathon. I’ve done some running since (ten runs, to be exact), but nothing near a simulation distance (~9-10 miles). I’ve hit a couple of 5ks, done some interval training with my running club, and put in a few easy jogs, but nothing like what most training plans would have you doing to get ready for a race of this length.
I’ve already hit my goal for the year at this distance, so the self-induced pressure to go fast has somewhat relaxed. With the 5k being cancelled last night, that pressure returned a little, but I still wasn’t terribly worried. I wanted to beat my previous PR, but if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The Air Force Marathon features pace groups, led by experienced runners whose job it is to help you maintain level splits and hit your target time. My strategy was to go out with the 1:50 group, see how long I could hang with them, and then drop back when I had to, still finishing ahead of the 2:00 group, and setting a new PR.
The buildup to a race like this starts days in advance. I stay away from the beer fridge, start loading up on water and salt, and limit my dairy intake. My workouts taper off, generally ending with a gentle bike ride or a long walk with Max. The night before, I have a larger-than-normal dinner, heavy on complex carbs and protein, to make sure my body’s stores are topped off. The morning of the race, I wake up 3 hours before the start, have a small breakfast and a little coffee, and get together my stuff for the race. Cell phone, arm band, shoes, socks, heart rate monitor, lucky shorts and shirt… It’s a careful, well-rehearsed ritual that I’ve developed over the dozens of races I’ve done over the past couple years. When it all goes right, it almost always leads to me having a good race.
This morning’s ritual went mostly according to plan. I had wanted to ride my bike to the start, since it’s only five miles from my house, and thus avoid the traffic. But a rainy early morning nixed that plan, so we drove the truck down, instead. The parking situation was the usual level of chaos, made more exasperating by the cops not allowing left turns into the gates. We finally got parked 45 minutes before the race was scheduled to begin, but had well over a mile to walk to the starting area. The field we were parked in was a veritable swamp, so I chose to hand carry my shoes in and walk in my flip flops, which cost me more time.
To warm up before a race, I usually like to jog a mile or so. A slog through a muddy field in flip flops wasn’t what I had in mind, but it had to do. At the start area, I took a quick detour to the porta-johns and then changed into my shoes, trying to wipe as much of the mud from my feet as I could. This wasn’t the calm, relaxed start I like to have, but sometimes there’s no helping it.
I arrived at the line in a rush, a cough drop tucked in my cheek and my phone still booting up Strava. I found the pace group sign for 2:00, and was surprised at how far up they were in the crowd. I presumed the next sign I saw was for the 1:50 group, but couldn’t get close enough to tell. Soon the announcer was calling “1 MINUTE!”, and the crowd crushed forward in anticipation. This is normally one of my favorite parts of the race, as the building tension of thousands of runners surrounds me. But due to my late arrival, all I could do was try to get in a notch for a good start, get my GPS running, and wait for the gun.
Starting a race with almost six thousand other runners is an amazing experience, but the first few moments are always a little strange. The crowd presses forward toward the line, the anticipation builds, the gun goes off… and nothing happens. There are so many people ahead that it’s often a couple minutes before you can do anything but shuffle forward, and sometimes you can barely jog even after crossing the line. I was far enough forward in this race that there wasn’t an awful delay to get across the line, but it still seemed anticlimactic.
The first half mile was an obstacle course. I’m normally happy to just roll along with the crowd while my legs come in, preferring to make my first moves once things are a little more spread out, but I had to catch that sign. I weaved in and out of traffic, putting in little bursts of speed when I had an opening, until I was running just a few feet from the pacer. There was a huge cluster of runners around the sign, and I realized that the mental benchmark of coming in under two hours was a powerful draw for a lot of runners. The herd thundered up Springfield Street to the top of Huffman Dam, angled slightly left, and started down a gentle descent. Our pacer, sensing a lot of us were holding back, said “if you want to let loose, go for it!” And I did, allowing my stride to stretch out and gravity to pull me forward. Soon I could see the sign for the next pace group up, and I momentarily toyed with the idea of reeling them in, but cooler thoughts prevailed.
Just after the water station at the bottom of the hill it started to rain. The sky hadn’t given any clues as to its intent all morning, and I had worried that I might spend the whole race getting wet, but this turned out to be the only real precipitation we experienced. The rain spritzed us gently for a quarter mile, and then stopped.
I was running easy, making sure not to waste myself in the early stages, and paying attention to my form. I kept listening behind me to hear if the 1:50 pace group was catching me, but I was surprised to find that they were still 25 yards or so behind. I thought I was going to have to work much harder just to stay with them from the beginning, so when I was staying ahead of them without pushing at all, it was encouraging.
They finally caught me at the water station on Skeel Avenue. I only started using water stops this season, preferring to run with a pack before. My relative inexperience was costing me time at each station, something I’ll have to remedy in the future.
We came upon the 4 mile mark in what seemed like no time at all. I said “wow, already?”, mostly to myself. A girl running next to me heard and agreed, and we struck up a conversation. She was from Canada, and this was her first half marathon, although she had benefited from training advice from her father, who was running his 66th full marathon this morning. Crucially, the small talk kept me distracted, and the Blerch off my back, for the next several miles, until we got separated at a water stop and I couldn’t reel her in again.
The second and last little hill, climbing up State Route 844, wasn’t nearly as steep or long as I remembered it being. A death metal band was jamming for all they were worth at the bottom, giving us a little boost before we started up. An interesting side effect of running in a much faster part of the race this year was that there weren’t nearly as many people struggling to make it up that hill, either. Last year, it seemed like I passed half the field going up that hill, as so many people in my speed bracket just weren’t prepared for any sort of climb.
Things got serious for me right around nine miles. I was having to really work to maintain the pace of the group, and joints were starting to hurt. This isn’t unusual for me, as things usually start to hurt around the 9-10 mile mark, but then I’ve never had such a strong anchor pulling me forward through the pain, either. I had drifted back from the group by about 20 yards, and felt that I was in serious danger of being dropped, if I didn’t catch them and hang on through the next water station. I had to hang on as long as I could, and I was starting to think I just might be able to make it all the way to the finish with them!
But right at mile 10, the unthinkable happened. We reached the top of a roller and the pacer pulled up and limped off to the side. He had cramped, and couldn’t continue. He called out to us to press on, that we had this, but I wasn’t so sure! The pace group had been my life boat for the last couple miles, keeping my speed up and pulling me forward, but in the absence of that little sign on a stick, it fell apart. I hadn’t been paying much attention to my pace for most of the race, as I just allowed the group to do my thinking for me. Now I was forced to reengage, and I have to admit I was a little disoriented.
I looked ahead for other people in the pace group, but couldn’t find any. I had slowed considerably and I knew it, but I was having a hard time picking back up to the pace we’d had. My right foot was starting to become an increasing problem, as a blister was forming under my arch and one of my toes started to feel funny.
Strava would show, after the race, that I lost about 30 seconds per mile on my last three miles. Not all of that was down to having lost our pacer, but that did allow me to concentrate on my own problems more than I had been. Without the ability to focus on staying with the group, I was left to focus only on myself. After running over ten miles, that’s not a particularly good thing to focus on.
I was getting passed by a lot of runners now, which added to my mental struggle. I hadn’t been passed much for the whole race, but now that we were nearing the home stretch, other runners were picking up their pace, just as I was struggling to maintain my own. I knew this part of the course well, since I’ve biked and run countless miles along this stretch of road, and I tried to break it down into smaller pieces in my mind. As runners came past me, I tried to latch onto them for a tow. I calculated the miles to go, and how long that would take at what I guessed was my pace. But try as I might, none of my tricks were working. The throttle was as far forward as it was going to go, and I just had to keep trying.
I had been looking forward to going down the Springfield Street hill on the way to the finish, as a way to make up a little easy time and pass some people. But with the problems my right foot was having, each step on the downward slope was excruciating, and I barely gained any speed at all. Whatever pace I did pick up didn’t stick with me as the ground leveled out again, and I was back to what was becoming a survival jog.
We passed the one-mile-to-go mark just as we turned back into the gate to the base, and I wanted to kick, but I just couldn’t. I got some water from the final station and tried to pick it up, tried to talk my body into some sort of acceleration, but my body wasn’t answering the phone. In a way, it was a satisfying feeling, because it meant I had put in everything I had to this point, and I wasn’t leaving anything on the table. But racers race, and I wanted to pass some people before this thing was over!
I was in the loop now, the 3/4 mile finishing area that takes you between the Air Force Museum’s outdoor display aircraft and thousands of cheering fans. I saw Bonnie, an old family friend and my second mom, and she cheered me on as I rounded the final corner. Finally, my body responded to my demands for more speed, and my stride lengthened. It wasn’t much, but I was kicking now, and passing people on the way to the line and picking up steam.
The familiar euphoria of the finish overwhelmed me as I reached the line, and exploded over me when I saw the clock. I felt like I had slowed so much since losing the pacer that I would be lucky to beat my PR at all, but the clock showed me finishing in 1:52, and my chip time would be faster still! I did it, and in grand fashion! The child inside me leapt for joy even as the grown man around him wanted to cry. I slowed to a stop, dumbfounded at the performance I had just completed.
Katie was there at the finish, and she was as emotional as I was. We shared a long, sweaty kiss over the barriers, and her eyes shined at me to underline her words, that she was so proud of me. I laughed the breathless laugh of a man who has cheated death, collected my medal from the throng of officers, grabbed some recovery drinks, and wandered into the crowds of victors to bask in the glow of an unbelievable personal victory.
This same race last year was my first ever half marathon. I had trained hard for it all year, slowly increasing my distances, fighting through injuries, and learning by my mistakes. Last year, I had exceeded my expectations and finished in 2:17:43, which satisfied me entirely. This year I finished in 1:51:49, an improvement of nearly twenty-six minutes! That’s an eternity that I feel represents the hours and miles I’ve done in the year between. It’s a reward for hard work, but one so rich that it’s hard to feel anything but awed and humbled. I am a very blessed person.
It would seem I was granted a bit of a reprieve.
Depending on your perspective, the weather conspired either for or against me tonight. I ate well and stayed loose all day, in anticipation of racing, then refueling and going to bed. I haven’t run on back to back days in a long, long time, but I was fairly sure that if I went easy for the 5k, I’d still be able to turn in a respectable finish for the Half tomorrow.
Then it got cloudy. Really cloudy. A look at the radar revealed an absolute monster of a storm front coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, which threatened to soak the whole weekend. Just what I wanted, right? Not only would I have back to back races to contend with, but now I would get to do them with soggy feet.
I showed up to the Nutter Center early and sat in the truck, checking the radar on my phone. It looked ugly, and sure enough it started to rain as soon as I parked. Then it started to pour. Then there was thunder. After about 20 minutes, it let up some, and I jogged from my truck to the arena to be nearer to the race start.
About five thousand runners were wandering around the arena. Their bibs told me they were also there for the 5k, and the looks on their faces told me that they were looking forward to it about as much as I was. I ran into a buddy of mine and we sat in the stands to wait, trading jokes and people watching.
A voice came over the PA five minutes after the race was scheduled to start, telling us that the race had been delayed, and to remain in the arena for further instructions. Captain Obvious repeated this message periodically for the next ten or fifteen minutes, before finally confirming what we all suspected. The race was cancelled on account of the weather, particularly the lightning in the vicinity. But we were all welcome to head to the arena floor to collect our finishers’ medals!
I thought it was silly at first, but I did pay for the thing. Why not take home the medal? I’ve earned medals in a few races that I didn’t stick around to collect, so on balance I suppose it works out.
In all, the 5k being cancelled is news as mixed as the weather. On the one hand, I’m off the hook for racing twice in a weekend. On the other hand, there went my excuse for not turning in a PR tomorrow…
Early registrations can be a dangerous thing.
Back in January, in the heart of the offseason, registration for the Air Force Marathon weekend opened. They offer a pretty significant discount if you register on 1 January, the first day it’s available, and I wanted to take advantage, so I registered that day for the 5k and the half marathon.
Why two races, you ask? Well, let me tell you about January. In January, I was invincible. I hadn’t run a step in a month, I was eating as I pleased and lifting whenever I wanted, and was seeing substantial gains in the weight room. I was in that utopian limbo where nothing hurt from last season any more, and the real work of the next season hadn’t yet started. The sky was the limit, as far as my ambition was concerned, and so long as I kept working at it, there was positively no reason I couldn’t run a 5k on a Friday night, and then turn around and run a half marathon the next morning!
That was January, and this is September, and now I am not so sure this was a great idea. A long, hard season of running, riding, racing and crashing has left me a little battered and bruised. My joints are complaining at the constant demand with increasing volume and frequency, and I’m developing a very familiar relationship with my bottle of Advil.
Still, there’s not much I can do about it. I signed up for both races to prove that I could do it, and now it’s time to find out if I really can. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel just a little bit like a badass, picking up two different bibs at the Expo this afternoon. Ask me Saturday at lunch if I still feel the same.