Sunday, November 30, 2008

Running in the Rain Prt II

I told my partner to “run your race” acknowledging that I’ll see him at the finish line. The gesture meant nothing more than to run how you want to run, not how I run, knowing that he hadn’t put in enough training hours to keep up with me. Being much younger and notably faster when he trained regularly, I knew The Kid would have a hard time letting me go ahead of him when his conditioning, or lack of conditioning, got the best of him. We all have our egos, no matter how close the friendship. In fact, I might even argue that being closer friends makes us that much more competitive. But eventually, barring a miracle from the running gods, he would have to let me go.

Earlier in the year I formally identified my goals for the year. They were as straightforward as I could be: a 1:50 half marathon, a 1:40 half marathon and a 1:30 half marathon. Rather lofty goals for someone who had never raced a half, but they seemed reasonable to me. I wasn’t yet a fast runner, but I believed that with more consistent effort this year and more intelligent training maybe I could become one.

So here it was early February, and I was about to wage war on my first goal: the 1:50. This was to be my first formal attempt to race a half marathon. Why not attempt a 1:50 I thought as I test the water? In spite of the unfavorable conditions, it still felt reasonable.

As we set off racing I intentionally held back the pace, allowing many runners to pass. This is admittedly one of the most difficult aspects of any race, letting people go up front. I’d learned from my race experience though that it pays huge dividends later in the race when it’s a lot more meaningful to be able to pass people because you have some fuel left in the tank. So I console myself with the thought “I’ll see you again” as what felt like the majority of the runners in the race made their way around me. My first mile was a very casual 8:45 pace.

I noticed about this time that my breathing wasn’t regulated yet. I hadn’t been laboring heavily enough to create a pattern that naturally gets in sync with my stride. My usual one inhale to two strides, one exhale to two strides wasn’t yet necessary. This felt more like a casual long, slow distance weekend run, or dare I say jog. Again forcing myself to listen to my inner common sense and not my race ego I decided to keep at the casual pace and see how things unfold during the race.

The Kid managed to tag along during the first few miles. In spite of his labored breathing he was actually hanging tough, always on my left or right but seldom behind me.

I realized that being completely soaked was somewhat liberating. You lose the fear of getting wet. And once your feet are soaked you no longer need to avoid the puddles. As far as wetness was concerned, there was nothing left to lose.

The wind had seemingly subsided as the racecourse turned away from the ocean. I no longer felt the sting of the droplets of rain against the few areas of exposed skin, mainly on my face. Or perhaps the wind was now at our backs, but I could not really be sure. Either way it was no longer a factor that contributed to making us miserable. The cold was sufficient. My toes began feeling numb around mile six. I imagined it was from the cold, and not fatigue. I had found my regulated breathing pattern somewhere past mile five.

As we made a turn at mile marker eight onto the final straight away, I realized we had five miles to go. A clear shot along the Pacific Coast highway to the finish line. No more turning and weaving through neighborhoods, wondering which way to turn as we approached an intersection. As I checked the time I realized that my pace wasn’t going to suffice if I were to make my 1:50 goal on my first race. I wished my partner well and congratulated him on running eight miles with me in ungodly conditions, and told him I was surprised he held it together this far in lieu of any real training. But it was time for me to go.As we made the turn to head back toward the starting point I realized what had happened with the wind. It hadn’t died down, but apparently it had been at our back. How come we don’t notice the wind when it’s at your back, yet there’s no denying it when it’s in your face? The rain drops once again felt like they were creating tiny piercings on my face as they landed yet somehow I managed to put the pedal down. Still locked into a fairly packed crowd I noticed The Kid was gone from sight within ½ a mile.

Running a 1:50 half marathon requires an 8:23 average pace per mile. My pace to this point had been consistent with my first mile, about 8:45. I needed to come up with some quicker miles, and I needed to do it now. As I headed into the wind, feet completely numb, water covering my glasses so heavily that it was difficult to see, I began pushing myself faster all the while thinking how much this sucks. It sucked that the day before was picture perfect. It sucked that I managed to run a smart race and set my self up for negative splits, or a faster per mile average pace on the later miles of the race, and now it was questionable how much longer I could run in general.

But mostly it sucked because I was making it suck thinking about how miserable I was. And then it hit me. This sucks for everyone. It has to. It was that simple. No one was enjoying themselve. No one was smiling or laughing, or even chatting at this point. Everyone was plodding along, head down to avoid the sting of the rain in your eyes, and avoiding puddles out of habit, not necessity. What would it matter at this point, our feet were completely soaked.

I continued making my move. I removed my glasses to clean them off and restore some sense of visibility, only to be immediately blinded by the raindrops as they stung my face and eyes. Running with them on was going to have to work.

“You call this rain?” I thought as I looked up and laughed to myself. This isn’t rain. This was just an inconvenience.

I managed a 7:50 pace on the ninth mile. Better, but not enough to get me in sub 1:50. So I continued to put the pedal down, extending my stride as much as possible. My clothes felt as if they weighed 20 lbs and the numbness of my feet was extending to my legs. Must be the cold I thought as I continued pushing forward.

“You call this cold?” I declared as I chuckled inside for another mile, trying to be as relentless as possible with my pace. Ironically in spite of the miserably cold conditions, I was getting really hot during my increased effort.

Then with only three miles to go I was hitting a low. A real low. Not an imaginary feel-sorry-for-myself low, but an actual running-out-of-steam low. I remembered reading somewhere that the feeling of fatigue originates in our mind, not our body. Quickly I summoned “You call this tired?” as I smirked again for a few paces, attempting to talk myself into not yielding on the final few miles.

I’d noticed from the moment I said goodbye to The Kid, I had not been passed by another runner. In fact it was at that mile I noticeably began passing other runners. The same people I had to let go up front thinking I’d see again was true. And now was exactly how I’d want to see them, laboring and out of steam as I passed them. If anyone attempted to pass me during my five mile surge, I used them as my pace car. I thought “if they can do this, so can I” as I got on their heels and decided the rest of the race would be a war that is won with a series of battles. And I continued digging in.

Finally with one mile to go I was unaware of my time relative to my goal. I was too tired, and distracted trying to overcome the negative thoughts in my mind to do any further math in my head. I was pacing with another guy about my age for over a mile after he attempted to pass me when he began to pull away. “It’s over” I thought as I tried but couldn’t respond. Chalk this one up to bad conditions. I could no longer keep this pace. He started losing me as he made his way around others still pushing forward at an accelerated pace.

This was the ultimate low. The worst point in the race. Less than a mile to go, by my last estimate my goal was within reach, and yet I didn’t have the strength to keep hustling out the final mile. I thought “hey a five mile move after running eight miles is pretty impressive.” Yet I didn’t feel better. I had no concept how far I had to go. I didn’t pay any attention to my split time, or my per mile average pace, at mile twelve. It seemed like I had been running this mile forever. Honestly I had no idea if I was even half way through mile twelve.

Then I saw it. "FINISH" in large letters waving in the wind on the banner over the middle of the street. Instantly my spirits were lifted. The crowd was small due to the ghastly conditions, which would explain why I didn’t hear it coming. Usually the crowd noise gives a runner some indication they are approaching the line. But there it was. Without a conscious decision my turnover increased. My stride instantly extended to a six minute mile pace and I was off. I no longer cared about my goal time. Or the race in general. I just wanted it to be over. To stop pushing myself, without guilt.

The next thing I know I’m almost full sprint passing people right and left. The guy I had to let go ahead of me earlier hollered “nice move” as I blazed past him, as he was unable to respond. I bound across the finish line, grabbed a medal and had my chip cut off my shoe before I realized the race was over. I went to stand along the finish line and await The Kid before I realized I never stopped my watch. But it no longer mattered. Whatever the time was I was satisfied with my performance under those circumstances on that specific race.

Later as we huddled under a tent to attempt to enjoy a well earned post race beer my hands were so cold I could hardly hang on to the cup to hoist it to my mouth. Out of a sense of entitlement we knocked back a single beer, while in complete misery. Even free beer wasn’t going to make this situation any better. So we agreed to begin our pilgrimage back to the car. The only question now was, should we start walking or wait for the shuttle?

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