The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL keeps bringing me back. I PR’d there in 2011. I did it again in 2012. And since the quaint little town is so welcoming with its serene course and opulent post-race party, I couldn’t help but toe the line for a third year in a row. Besides, the race fits quite well with my Chicago Marathon training and, for the last two years, has accurately projected where I can expect to finish in an all-things-being equal mid-October 26.2 mile contest.
Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.
I am up and stuffing my face with bananas, toast and coffee. Despite the early morning butterflies, I actually slept pretty well last night. But now, just a few hours from the start, I begin to go through my regular cycle of self-doubt and reassuring affirmation. With this year’s Chicago Marathon goal being the loftiest I’ve ever imagined, the plan for today is to run all 13.1 at marathon pace, somewhere between 6:50-6:52 minute miles, finishing in 1 hour 30 minutes, which would be a new personal record by more than two minutes.
The weather doesn’t look too bad. It will be in the low 70s for most of my race with the type of humidity one can expect for the Midwest in August. If I can pull off a 1:30 finish in today’s summery conditions, I will spend the next 6 weeks feeling pretty confident about what I can do on October 13. Luckily, there will be a 1:30 pace group for today’s half, and having run this race twice before, I know the last two miles are essentially all downhill. As long as I can get to the 11-mile marker without dying, I should be able to accomplish my goal.
But 90 minutes at sub-7 minute pace… Jeff, you’ve NEVER done that before. You hear me? NEVER.
I’m only warming up and already my subconscious Debbie Downer is picking a fight.
And you don’t have the miles this year. Your heels are still wonky. Your speed work has sucked. Remember last week when you couldn’t hold 6:50 for two miles in a row!? And the week before where your legs just felt heavy and non-responsive? Yeah, good luck with that.
My subconscious Debbie Downer can be a real drag sometimes. I vow to shut it up. I’m coming in today off a mini-taper, feeling strong, feeling determined. I’m going to stick with the pace group as long as my body allows — and that means grinding through the pain.
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
I read that off someone’s Facebook feed this morning. I’m going to use that mantra when the going gets tough.
And it will get tough.
“Hi, my name is Jeff,” I say as I enter the chute and position myself next to two fluorescent yellow clad men holding the 1:30 pace sign.
“Hi, I’m Eric,” says the side burned leader, “and this is Kyle” he says motioning to his younger counterpart. I shake both of their hands and size them up. Both appear confident and svelte — two characteristics I usually look for in pace leaders.
“Do you plan on running even splits today?” I ask.
“Yes, 6:52 pace the whole way. Even splits,” says Eric. “I will be keeping track of the average per mile pace and Kyle will keep track of the actual mile splits each mile. If it makes you feel any better, we came in last year at 1:30:01.”
Awesome, I think to myself. Not only do these guys seem confident about their plan of attack, but they have also done this before, with success. I’m game.
“Okay, well I’m going to stick with you as long as I can,” I reply. “I just hope the heat and humidity don’t get to me.”
As soon as I say this I realize I’ve just given myself an excuse to abort if the going gets tough — an excuse my more determined self can’t accept right now.
Stick with them, Jeff. The whole way. The only thing that is going to stop you from achieving this goal today is a broken body part or a trip in an ambulance.
3… 2… 1… GO!
This is my third running of the race and the third variation to the start line I’ve experienced. In 2011 we began by going up a big hill. In 2012, that hill was gone. Today, there is another hill at the start but it’s in a different location. I think. Hell, I don’t know. I just know that we’re starting up an incline and it’s time to wedge myself into the group and get comfortable.
Eric and Kyle are in front. I tuck in directly behind. All around me are about 15-20 individuals who seem determined to hold pace.
This is your team, Jeff. Look around. Get used to these people. Stick with this group. Do NOT lose this group.
My subconscious voice is obnoxiously loud, but equally determined. Who am I to argue with what it wants?
The first couple of miles are a blur. We’re moving along right on pace and the folks in this peloton are focused. No ones seems to be huffing and puffing yet. Our footfalls create a natural, appealing rhythm. No one smells particularly awful.
This is work in motion — a thing of beauty.
Other than Eric and Kyle’s casual conversation, there isn’t much chit-chat. I can’t hold a conversation going this fast. I definitely admire those who can and the fact that our pacers seem to do so without losing a breath or a step is extremely comforting.
As we weave through the quiet neighborhoods of Batavia that remind me of the small town where I grew up, I notice everyone seems to know our pace leader, Eric. Course marshals, aid station volunteers and excited race observers alike are quick to shout out his name and wave a friendly hand.
This, combined with his detailed course preview assures me that Eric knows what he’s doing and that I should just stick on his heels. Right now, with the temperature still hovering right around the low 70s, I feel okay, but I am sweating a lot.
So when the first two aid stations only offer water and no sports drink, I begin to panic just a bit.
DOH! I need carbohydrate!
I recall this being an issue last year, that not all the aid stations offered sports drink and I had to just deal with it. I don’t know why I assumed that would change this year, but it didn’t. Am I being too snobbish by expecting that in a half marathon? I don’t know. I just know that the best fueling strategy for me is to take in carbohydrate and electrolytes from the very first aid station on through.
But a key element in distance running is adjusting to problems on the fly. I try to relax and know that I’ll get my electrolytes soon enough.
We get through the first 5k under 21 minutes and as I look around I see that our numbers are already dropping off. And so it goes with pace groups. Some days ya just don’t have it. I hone in on my constant mind-body feedback loop, keen to check my breathing, legs, feet, ankles. My wonky heels are aching a bit but that’s just going to be how it goes today. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. For now, I feel about as comfortable as I can expect to feel considering what I’m doing.
Somewhere around the 5-mile mark, we hit the steep downhill into downtown Batavia where the crowds are big, loud and supportive. The easiness of running decline combined with the cheering support and a MUCH needed Gatorade-rich aid station make the left turn on to the bike path a great relief to my tiring body.
We tuck in a little closer now as our path narrows, running alongside the picturesque Fox River. This well-shaded portion of the race is a welcome relief from the rising sun, and now that we find ourselves closer together, I marvel at the fact that no one has tripped yet. We are so close together that one slight misstep from anyone could cause a colossal crash and burn.
This is so cool, I think to myself.
But what is it specifically about running fast within a group that gives me goosebumps? Is it the sense of togetherness, the creation of community that is born of it? Maybe it’s the notion that I wouldn’t be able to sustain this type of movement just on my own. Or, perhaps it’s simply benefiting from less drag and focusing on the heels of the guy in front of me.
No matter what, I’m in the zone now. My only concern is right now. Right. This. Minute. Staying with the group. Sticking to Eric and Kyle.
“Eric and Kyle,” I say. “All we need now is Stan and Kenny to be complete.”
No one gets my bad Southpark joke/reference, but that’s okay, because we got work to do. A quick look around and I see we’re still about 8 strong. There are several fluorescent green and yellow shirts. There are also a few women among us and everyone is FOCUSED.
We pass the halfway mark and Eric briefs us on what is to come in the last half, which includes a couple of climbs.
Only 6.5 miles to go now, I tell myself. Just hang on. You’re doing great.
Oh yeah, you’re doing great, says my mischievous Debbie Downer self, if you consider feeling like shit doing great. You really think you can hold on to this pace? Ha!
I take a much needed gel, feel a bit more energized, and remind myself to pump my arms when the legs seem unresponsive.
The love and support our group gets from the people who came out to cheer us on along the course does wonders for my mind and body, but somewhere around mile 9, both start to suffer.
I don’t want to do this anymore.
No one cares if you run a 1:30 or a 1:35 or a 1:anything. No one cares. You can stop now.
It’s too warm. Too humid. You can chill out now, man. It’s okay. Seriously.
My Debbie Downer side bombards me just as my body starts to slow down. As we charge up an incline, I begin to fall off the pace. Actually, our whole group starts to fall apart. And while I entertain negative thoughts and consider just taking it easy from here to the end, Eric heads to the rear of the group, motivating those of us struggling to survive to stick to it, to pump our arms. His words and actions encourage me to dig a little deeper.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
And it’s only 4 more miles… the last two are downhill so just stick with it. STICK WITH IT, JEFF! NOW IS NO TIME TO GIVE UP!
The old adage of holding on through the rough spots because they’ll go away soon comes to mind as I find a little something inside to chase down Kyle up in front of me. My 30 meter surge is matched by a few others in the group and slowly, we come together again. By the time we crest the last of the inclines and hit the bike path for the last section, including the pacers we are a strong group of six. Eric and Kyle resume their leader spots, giving us much needed encouragement and support.
Holy cow, I can’t believe I just got through that, I think to myself.
“Isn’t this great?” Eric asks aloud. “A nice, steady decline here.”
Great? I think to myself. This is effing brilliant!
Properly shaded again and moving along the gradual downhill path, I look at my watch to see we’re less than two miles from the finish line and for the first time today it hits me: I am going to make that 1:30 mark. I’m going to PR and I’m going to finish this day satisfied that my marathon training is right where it needs to be to do exactly what I want to do.
The hairs on my arm stand up and I feel a cool breeze of satisfaction wash over me.
“You guys, this is going to be a huge, 4 minute PR for me today,” says the woman to my right, arms pumping, legs turning over at the high cadence which has locked in to all four of us surviving runners.
This is awesome, I think. This is simply awesome.
“If anyone is feeling good and wants to get by, just let us know,” says Eric. I definitely consider it, but when I try to accelerate, I got nothin’.
Nah, just stay right on their heels, Jeff. Just ride this out to the end and save that jolt for the finish line.
It takes all the concentration I have to just stick with the pacers. They look back every now and then to see how we survivors are doing and I can’t help but think the face I’m making must be a scary mess. I feel terrible.
But I’m almost done.
We exit the bike path and are close to the finish line because I can hear the crowd and a PA system. We turn left and run under a bridge of some sorts where we are forced to run single file.
Eric drops back and gives me one last “go get em!” as I slide by, steadily chasing the speedy Kyle in front of me. 300 meters from the finish, I feel euphoric — all the pain in my legs and lungs ceases. I feel myself well up as I thank Kyle for his help.
“Dude, thank you so much. I never would have been able to do this on my own,” I tell him.
“You’re welcome, man, awesome job,” he says as he motions me past him for my final sprint.
As I come down the finishing stretch I pass one of the guys who was in our pace group and suddenly I don’t feel my legs at all.
Am I flying? Gliding? Where am I?
I’m at the end. I cross the finish line, arms raised in proud triumph.
Holy shit I just ran a 1:30:10 half marathon.
I take a few seconds to catch my breath from the last sprint before I turn around and look for the rest of the group members. Kyle comes across and I immediately give him a hug, whether he wants it or not.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help. Thank you. Thank you so much,” I gush.
The last woman standing from our group comes across too and I give her a radiant high five for her huge PR. The smile on her face is one that I won’t forget. Those types of highlight smiles don’t wane easily.
Two other guys come through and I greet them with high fives.
Finally, Eric arrives at the back of the group and I make a beeline towards him, celebratory hug included.
“Dude! Eric! Thank you! That was awesome. I really appreciate your help. Two minute PR for me today. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
This enthusiasm, this cheer, this ecstasy… it always seems to find its way into my running adventures.
So I just keep coming back.
The good folks in Batavia host one hell of a post-race party. After my emotions calmed down, I had my share of all you can eat pizza and all you can drink beer. I was quick to thank all of the volunteers who made the event a special one.
Watching this race grow over the last few years has been a real treat. In talking with some of my friends at the post-race party, I learned that the race organizers and volunteers had to fight hard to keep the course winding through the neighborhoods like it does. Apparently there was some opposition. Some entity wanted to restrict the entire race to just the bike patch, which, in my opinion would totally kill the charming vibe of this race.
I love going through the actual town, seeing folks on their front lawns with signs and cowbells and high fives. If I wanted to run on a bike path the whole time I’d just stay in Chicago.
Hopefully, this race will continue its awesome streak and I won’t ever have to worry about that.
In thinking about my performance post-race, I realize it would have been nice to break that 1:30 barrier; however, my goal for the day was to run a 1:30 and considering the conditions, where the race fell within my training plan and the fact that I really gave it all I had, I have no regrets.
All I have is a sore face from smiling so much.
Long have I been a sucker for classic training montages, the cheesier the better. Whether it’s Rocky Balboa racing a boat, Daniel-san whipping crane kicks to get the girl or Frank Dux redefining ninjitsu, I just can’t help but get pumped up watching that all-or-nothing training mentality in superlative action.
And, of course, a nice score doesn’t hurt.
It could be said that race day is just the exclamation point on the process, whether one reaches his goal or not. Hours and hours of training are logged so that race day simply comes down to execution. We reach our goals with compounded hard work, not by a one-day luck of the draw.
The process of training — the long, drawn out montage in real time — is what the whole experience is about for me. It’s about getting up before light to log a lactate threshold run. It’s about strict attention to clean diet while my friends pack away the pints. It’s about daily massage, supplemental strength training and lots of sleep.
It’s about doing everything in my power to make myself as good as I can be, to (as Survivor would suggest) rise up to the challenge of my rival.
My rival is me — the old me, the me who couldn’t run a block, let alone speed through 26.2 miles all in one shot.
And while that old rival self may not exist in the flesh anymore, the doubt and negativity inherent to his being still lingers. The challenge of rising up against it is still very real. I want to put it to rest forever.
My target is the Chicago Marathon; the goal is to break three hours. It’s my hometown course. It’s built for speed. And I know every tangent, every turn, every double-sided aid station.
On August 4th, backed by a summer of long, slow base mileage, I began marathon training in earnest. Right now I have eight and a half weeks to get tuned into high turnover and to make October 13 one of the most memorable days of my life.
Of course, with high expectation comes the risk of major heartbreak. If it’s 80 degrees on race day then I will have to ditch the effort and just survive. If I go out only to blow up halfway through, I’ll have to suck up defeat and look forward to the next opportunity. Or I could get injured, I could get ill, I could spontaneously combust. Any number of detrimental things lurks, ready to stop me from achieving my ultimate running goal.
But one thing is for certain: even if I do get knocked down, I’m gettin’ my ass right back up.
I’m not going to quit. I’m going to achieve this goal.
It’s going to happen.
And by putting this declaration out into the universe for all to see I feel even more driven to get the job done, one 6 minute and 50 second paced step at a time.
It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger