November 6, 2005

One step at a time

Two weeks ago, I was in great shape for the Nike Half Marathon. Unfortunately, I started a pace group too slow and the race was too crowded to catch up to where I wanted to be. So, I called it training run for today's half marathon.

Unfortunately, life called a few times over the past few weeks, and made sure that I was not in the best physical shape for today. I was short on miles and sleep, and long on work, stress, bad food, and various other debaucherous activities that take their toll on the old body. Knowing how poorly prepared I was, part of me considered giving up on the run altogether. I could use the time to do some much needed studying or finishing up the journal responsibilities I promised to do before I can officially resign.

But, I'd committed to doing this race, I wanted to run across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, and I'd already paid for the privilege. So, yesterday, bright and early I made the final decision: I drove to and from San Francisco to pick up my race packet. If I was willing to do that, driving up to run the race was a sure thing.

So, in the spirit of making sacrifices for my goals, last night, I left E and friends at 9 PM after pounding water galore and "carb-loading" on a beer, hamburger, calamari, french fries, some of M's nachos and a salad. The server at the pub loved me and my constant, "could I please have another glass of water when you get a moment?"

Today, at 5:40 AM, I woke, stumbled into my running gear and drove to San Francisco on auto-pilot while drinking a gatorade. I arrived about 15 minutes before the race started, parked the car, put on my chip, bib, and garmin, and jogged to the start. In a bit of foreshadowing, I had the good fortune to be one of the very last people to get to use the porta-johns before the start -- it was already looking like I may just be lucky.

My plan was to shoot for my original goal of clearing the 2 hour mark, which meant that I needed to average about 9m10s miles. I figured I'd be consistently slower than that for the first 5 or 6 miles, I'd do the math, realize how fast I'd need to run to make up the lost time, and set a new, more reasonable goal on the course.

Mile 1 went as suspected: I finished warming up, and completed a 9:32 mile. 22 seconds to make up. Mile 2, however, surprised me at 9:05. "Huh," I thought, "only 17 seconds behind..." I didn't consciously speed up, but the chance of actually meeting my goal must have encouraged me, because I ran 8:51 for mile 3. And, there I was, 2 seconds ahead. All I had to do was maintain 9:10 minute miles for the next 10.1 miles and I'd have done it.

Thanks to the spitting fog, I wasn't that hot. Thanks to the short mileage weeks, my legs were fresh. And thanks to some decent downhills and the excitement at the prospect of running over the bridge for the first time, I didn't even realize that I sped up again to finish mile 4 at 8:35.

From wednesday's workout, I knew that pace was barely sustainable for 4 miles, so I had to slow up if I wanted to finish. My legs were happy for the slower pace, and it turned out, so was I: as I was slowly jogging along, R, a friend I used to work with and hadn't seen in over 1.5 years passed me. We stayed together and caught up for a nice 9:26 mile 5 and 9:41 mile 6.

R wanted to walk, so we parted ways, and refreshed, I ran mile 7 at 8:52. I met another runner, J, at this point, because he also was shooting for sub-2-hours, and he liked the pace I was keeping. We ran together for what my watch claims was a 6:50 mile 8 (I'm suspicious and will verify against the chip results when they are out), and an 8:57 mile 9 (more like what I expected).

Somewhere around mile 10, I really started to focus and J disappeared. The running faster thing really takes a toll on your legs. While they were fresh, they were also unused to long distances, and had never gone this far, this fast. I found that it took quite a bit of concentration to keep the pace I'd set as my goal. My body truly did want to slow down. But, I was so close to actually meeting my goal, that despite my failure to maintain my training, I somehow found the force of will to push my legs. I sustained myself with alternating thoughts 1) encouraging: almost there now, and 2) good-old-fashioned-reality-sucks: the marathon will be so much more difficult than this, so I'd better suck it up and get used to pushing myself if I plan to finish.

It worked. Mile 10, 8:58. Still on track. Somewhere in mile 11, people around me started grunting out loud. Thankfully, I've done that before when I've been pushing myself through intervals, so it didn't scare me. But it did make me realize how gross I must sound.

Occasionally, someone with a ton of juice would blaze past me. Slowly, I was passing some of the grunters, and a few of those who'd been keeping pace. We were all looking straight ahead, focused, and breathing hard. My watch beeped and I realized that I'd finish mile 11 in 8:42. I was surprised. Given how hard I had to work for the 8:58 on Mile 10, I figured I'd just keep getting slower for the rest of the race. But hey, no complaints here.

And then, I only had 2.1 miles left. I looked at my watch and realized I had 22 minutes to finish if I was going to meet my goal. I thought of the Nike race and how I had so much energy left at the end that I finished the last two miles in 15m13s. I knew that was not happening with these 2 miles. This was the hardest I'd ever run 11 miles and my legs were burning. I thought, "this must be what they mean when they say don't race too often because it takes too much of a toll on your body..."

I decided to shoot for finishing in 21 minutes. "10-minute miles," I told myself. "Just two ten-minute miles and you can stop." Like most things, deciding you can do it is more difficult than doing it. So, I actually ran mile 12 at 9:01 and mile 13 at 8:51. I even had enough to sprint the last bit at a 7:19 pace.

They announced my name, I crossed the finish line, and I wanted to cry, partially because my legs hurt, but also because I was so impressed with my mind over matter. Next time, I'll be in better shape, I swore to myself. Happily, I limped away with my medal and the memory of the 1:57 on the timer as I crossed the finish line.

Now, I'm home and need to hit the books. But before I did, I wanted to write about this because I've been so overwhelmed lately that I'd forgotten how amazing it feels to accomplish something that I'd set my mind to do. I need to remember that I should be honest with myself about my limits so that I don't crash before the finish, but when in doubt, I should keep going at the goal pace. It was absolutely worth it.

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