They must always stay in the moment.
They must face their greatest fears.
With all of the above, I could be talking about the long distance runner.
Or I could be talking about the boxer.
I’m talking about both.
For the last four years, boxing has been an integral tool in my long distance training kit. An all-body workout that requires combined leg and core strength paired with hand-eye coordination and mental toughness, the aerobic and anaerobic training potential boxing provides is as varied as its practitioner is creative.
And you don’t even have to take punches.
In fact, most people who train in the sweet science don’t take punches. They train to be in shape, to burn calories, to de-stress. I love running long, no doubt, but I admit, there is no stress reliever quite like punching something. Walk into any boxing gym and you will find people of all sizes — all backgrounds and states of fitness — doing just that: enjoying their stress relieving workout.
For the long distance runner, boxing is a low impact cross trainer that takes advantage of strong, seasoned legs. With proper technique, it also builds upper body strength with a conscious core and allows for increased blood flow during those “off” days where one would need to rest from pounding pavement.
For many boxers, the hardest part of training is conditioning. Sustaining an elevated heart rate with sudden bursts of explosive movement can prove difficult, even for seasoned vets. Long distance runners tend to have a lock on this aspect of training, and therefore set themselves up for success.
At some point the long distance runner who boxes may decide he or she is ready to spar. It’s not for everyone, I admit. I remember the first time I was hit in the face. I didn’t like it very much. But I didn’t like the fire in my legs at mile 21 of my first marathon either, yet I keep coming back.
And so here I am, 36 years old, a seasoned distance runner with two Boston finishes, a 100-mile buckle and a 3:03 marathon PR, signed up and ready to fight in the Chicago Golden Gloves boxing tournament. It begins March 4.
I knew sometime last year, during my training for Pinhoti, that the next big challenge would be to test my might against other boxers. I had been enjoying my sparring sessions over the last couple years, seeing them both as mental chess matches and larger tests of anaerobic endurance. But around mile 80 of my 100-mile trek through the Talladega Forest — my master class on pain management — it became clear to me, that if I could withstand 100 miles of affliction, something that would take me 28+ hours to complete, then I could certainly handle 6 minutes in the squared circle.
So I will.
Indeed, I, Jeff “The Iron” Lung, will get in the ring and let my hands go.
My training for this event began in earnest on January 1st. I have to make weight (fighting at a maximum of 139 lbs), so I decided to cut out all alcohol and as much sugar as possible from my diet. I keep a close track of my food intake. I make an effort to eat as healthy as possible, staying within 1-2 pounds of fighting weight while all the time living my mantra: the better you eat, the better you feel, the better you train.
Running (what boxers call “road work”) is the crux of my conditioning. I run about 30-35 miles a week. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I generally run 3-5 miles as a warm up to my concentrated boxing training. I hold 2 lbs weights in my hands as long as I can during these runs, usually for 20-30 minutes.
On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I run 6-7 miles, whatever I can accomplish in an hour, but I mix in three or four intervals of 5-8 minutes of speedwork. On Saturdays I run longer, about an hour and 15 minutes or 8 miles, whatever comes first. I avoid the traditional long runs of distance training. I need to maintain my endurance, but I can’t afford to waste energy on additional miles when I will need that energy in the ring. Just as it can be for the long distance runner, overtraining is a real threat to peak performance.
In addition to the running, I do boxing-focused strength training on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as well as technical boxing drills. I choose to work on different aspects of my game on different days. Like in any athletic discipline, variety in training is key.
On Tuesday and Thursday nights I spar.
On Sundays I rest. Completely.
I practice yoga. I get regular massage. I sleep a lot. I even take naps if I feel like it.
And I watch lots and lots and lots of fights, in person, on TV, on YouTube — wherever I can.
But like in my long distance training, perhaps the most integral portion of preparation occurs in my mind, usually just before I fall asleep. I envision myriad “if/than” scenarios in my head, calculating countermeasures for catastrophes and methodologies for exploiting weaknesses. Most of all, I try to embrace the nerves that I know are bound to come.
Even in the comfort of my own bed, I can close my eyes, hear the crowd, and feel the nausea that threatens to throw my concentration. It’s the same sick feeling I had before my first marathon, before my first ultra. It’s that same uneasiness I felt toeing the line for each PR attempt at 13.1 and 26.2 miles.
Pre-race jitters. Stage freight. Terrified of getting hit the face.
It all goes away once I’m in the moment.
And after all, that continues to be the thing that keeps bringing me back: living in the moment.
Whether it’s running for hours, working through a yoga practice or squaring off with someone trying to punch me in the face, the thing that keeps me coming back is the very real experience of the now. Nothing makes me feel more alive than being present.
And you can bet I will be present on March 4.
Hands up. Chin down. Mind focused.
The last time I raced to my maximum potential, I set a personal best in the half marathon. In the aftermath of that hard effort though, I also found myself crippled by the apex of bilateral Achilles tendonosis, an injury that would bury the rest of my lofty 2013 race plans and humble me to reevaluate my training.
That was six months ago.
Now I’m ready to give it another go when I toe the line this weekend at the Armadillo Dash Half Marathon in College Station, TX. I have been Boston Marathon training for ten and a half weeks now, slowly building back up to quality speed work and long, slow distance runs. I still don’t feel like I am in optimum speed running shape, but I do feel good. I feel strong. I feel focused.
And I feel like it’s time to see what I can do right now. But I also know that this feeling comes with a conscious finger hovering just above the abort button.
After my experience the last six months, my ultimate conclusion is that I would rather run slow than not run at all. To me, running is a gift. It’s a privilege. I am not guaranteed the ability to run, to have full use of my legs, to live this spry wonderlife each and every day. So each day that I get deserves my respect. If something goes wrong, I need to address it, immediately, and not just keep running anyway, just because. Like Stan Lee reminds us: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
I don’t expect to be swinging from building to building this weekend, using wrist-projected webbing and spidey sense, but I do expect to give my best race effort, using every bit of what is in the tank on that day.
Here’s to hoping I don’t run into any Green Goblins.
Or achy Achilles.
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
Patriot’s Day is only six weeks away, which means my long awaited dance with the World Series of marathons will soon be a dream come true. The natural excitement and nervous energy that come along with it will only escalate.
But I’m down with that.
Yesterday I nailed a 16 mile long run with 11 miles at 7:15 pace, with no aches or pains — yet another promising sign that my ITB issues are finally far off in the background. I wasn’t going to celebrate my lack of ITBS symptoms until I was able to sustain a good month of dedicated speed and hill training alongside the general aerobic long runs that are the staple of any solid marathon training plan.
Five weeks and counting, no residual aches, pains or soreness. I’m feeling damn good.
My buildup for this race, albeit unorthodox due to the limited training and mileage prescribed by coming off of a serious injury, has been about as much as I could ask for. I’m not overdoing it. I’m resting when my body directs me. But most of all, I’ve adjusted my mind to allow for a fun, possibly once-in-a-lifetime race experience. Rather than being hellbent on time goals, I’m focusing on toeing the line healthy, ready to deliver on whatever my body seems capable of on April 15, 2013.
This is in large contrast to my normal marathon training as I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I instinctively marry myself to routine, to nailing splits, to chasing down the guy ahead of me. And while I know quite well that outside of myself, not one single person on the planet really cares what time I get when crossing the finish line, I still feel like if I don’t throw down a personal best in every race then I’m not doing it right.
I’ve set some modest goals for Boston 2013. I haven’t regained my Chicago 2012 fast legs yet, but I’d like to finish somewhere between a 3:15 and 3:30, mindful of the fact that finishing and living in the moments presented by the most storied marathon in the world are, above all else, the most important things. If, on race day, my abilities push me beyond the 3:30 mark, then so be it. I vow to cross the line with a smile and a triumphant fist.
The cliche “it’s not the destination that matters but the journey” comes to mind. In my case, the journey has been profound in what it has revealed about me, about how I handle adversity both instinctively and through contemplation.
For someone like me, opportunities like running the Boston Marathon are certainly the exception, not the norm. I will treat the experience as exceptional, from Hopkinton to Boylston Street, and everywhere in between.
For a temporarily pruned long distance junkie still unable to run much past 6 miles without any run-stopping lateral knee pain, a short, fast trail race in the city seemed to be a perfect match. Of course, when I originally signed up for the Universal Sole Trail Challenge 5.25 mile race, I did so thinking of it more as a social event. Several of my fellow New Leaf Ultra Runs club members signed up at the same time (as evident by our ascending numerical bib numbers) and I wanted to be a part of the action. Homemade chili and a bountiful supply of Goose Island’s 312 beer were also calling.
Besides, who knew there were actual trail races in the city?!?
Schiller Woods on Chicago’s northwest side was the venue and the sparse city field of runners was a welcome change from the typically annoying and inappropriately overpriced short distance races that seem to get all the attention. Hanging out at the start/finish area prior, the atmosphere was very similar to that of a small high school cross country meet, which caused me to lament not opting for my short shorts.
The race started and 148 of us took off into the woods at a blazing pace. I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing something wrong running that fast. The trail race setting and my association of it with ultras has always dictated a long and slow strategy, so throwing down right at the start felt like sneaking out of my house late at night when I was a teen, hoping I didn’t get caught.
Unfortunately, in the race, I was getting caught. There seemed to be a good mix of fast, tall and lean guys at the front and I was happy to let them by me. While my only real goal was to put in a hard effort for the entire distance, my watch told me I was maintaining between a 6:40 and 6:45 pace and I was completely at peace with that. Knowing the race would be over very soon, I reserved to admiring the barren trees, to jumping over logs with a spartan step, to ebb and flow with the trail as best I could, like I was the trail.
About halfway through, as I was contemplating the supreme simplicity in the wide open Schiller Woods trail, a short, stocky dude crept up and passed me who, in my in-the-moment cocky opinion, did not look like a fast runner. What the…
Oh well. Let him go, I thought. I’m still gonna get beer and chili at the finish. That’s all I care about right now.
Except, I kept the dude in my sights. I couldn’t help it. That inherent competitive spirit I have kicked me in the ass and I was moving at its mercy. The guy was in my sights as I twisted and turned, as I slipped (but saved a fall), as I scrambled up one of two tiny little bumps reluctantly called a “hill”.
He was in my sights and getting reeled in as I passed the little aid station not far from the finish. And as we dumped out of the woods and back out onto open grass, I slammed on the gas, intent on catching him. I came up short. By four tenths of a second.
My time was 34:58, 6:40 pace, 16th place overall. I was happy with that.
But when I found out the guy I was gunning for was Peter Sagal, I felt like I could have — should have — would have done better. Had I known. Or not.
Who is Peter Sagal, you ask?
Wait, wait, don’t tell me! <—- Lame but obligatory throwaway line that you will forgive me for using. I hope.
All NPR jargon aside, I am reminded by Universal Sole’s Trail Challenge that short, fast races are fun too. And the hangout session after with my friends was great. As was the chili and beer. Hopefully, someday chili and beer will be as much a staple of the post-race vibe as salt-crusted foreheads and quartered bananas.
As my summer of ultras comes to a close (but not definitely… yet), I begin to turn my attention back to what made me such a running fanatic in the first place: RUNNING FAST.
There is just something immensely rewarding about moving my body as fast as it will go, powered on its own, that hypnotizes me, calls me, begs for me to do it. Even though it hurts.
My ultimate “things-I-must-do-before-I-die” goal is to run a sub-3 hour marathon. My current personal best is 3:15 and my first valid attempt at cracking three will be this coming January, again in Houston. While I know the chances of me pulling off such a feat in such a short amount of time are almost as insane as they seem impossible, I figure the bar is better set high than not high enough.
Challenge is good. Besides, I keep surprising myself with what I’m able to do, on any given day, so I might as well keep crawling deeper into the caverns of my mind to slay every last dragon of doubt.
Enter the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL. I ran this race last year and had a blast, so I made sure to sign up again. This time I would be joined by two new friends: Dan Solera, who is just past the halfway point in running 50 half marathons in 50 states; and Dan “Otter” Otto, who impressed the hell out of me by downing six Old Style heavies WHILE RUNNING a sub-2 hour race at Batavia (more on this a bit later).
Pre-Race 4 a.m.
I’m up before the alarm. I went to bed at 9:30 last night, so I wake up feeling fully charged. Ready to rock. I sip a half a cup of coffee, eat a banana and some toast with jelly before checking the weather report. It’ s already 72 degrees, so I slap on my 1:30 pace bracelet knowing it’s pretty much a given that I won’t be hitting these splits today. But I’m wearing it anyway because I think a PR is definitely possible. I haven’t run too many half marathons; and I’ve never trained to peak for one, so I enter Batavia with a 1:34 best, confident that, as Ice Cube reminds me via my laptop, today always has the potential to be a good day.
5 a.m. and I swing by to pick up Dan and Otter. We are leaving Chicago, on the highway by 5:20 a.m. All is well. There’s something comforting about company just prior to a race. It lessens the nerves, distracts the mind from busying itself with senseless worry. I enjoy the conversation, especially as I learn Otter’s race plan to carry a pack with six Old Styles stowed, with the goal of downing them all prior to the finish.
6:30 a.m. and I’m jogging my warm-up. Holy Nikes! I bump into a friend of mine from high school whom I haven’t seen since the late 90s! It’s so cool to see her! We make plans to meet up at the finish and I go on my merry way, feeling out the legs, wondering Do I have it today?
Early signs point to… probably not.
6:55 a.m. I enter the chute and stand next to Dan towards the front. We fist bump, the horn blows and I… am… ruuuuuuunnnnnnnniiiiiiinnnnnng!!!
This is just four 5Ks and a jog, Jeff, I tell myself. Run four decent 22ish 5Ks and you’re good.
Thanks, me! I appreciate that!
I also appreciate the course. Though the beginning has changed a bit from last year (they got rid of the big hill at the start), I am still impressed with how quiet and quaint this little town of Batavia is. Its river-centric, historic downtown and sprawling neighborhoods with lots of green reminds me of my hometown of Quincy; and the people who are standing out on their lawns at 7 a.m., though not in great numbers, are especially awesome in my book.
Thanks for coming out, everybody! I yell with a smile. I like your town! It reminds me of home!
And boom! Just like that I look down to see I’ve come through the first 5K mark in 20:44. Not too shabby. The 1:30 pace group is about 3o yards ahead of me, running ahead of schedule, but already I can tell that today will not be a 1:30 day for me. I’m totally cool with it though because I feel fine right now and know that holding on to 7-minute pace will be more than enough for me to consider this a solid performance. It’s warm. The sun is blaring down on me at certain points along the course. But I feel fine. My legs are moving in a rhythm that seems sustainable.
I hit the big downhill section just before the 6-mile mark, build speed then bang a hard left onto the bike path that runs alongside the Fox River. Ah yes, this is where I built momentum last year, I recall. Time to push it a little bit.
Covered by the abundant shade, this sudden injection of conscious speed should be sustainable… except that, well, it isn’t. Around the 7-mile mark, the voice of fatigue makes a home between my ears. I take a GU and down some liquids, hoping to shut its ugly face, but alas, here it is, still talking shit.
Okay, dude, you can chill out now, you’re not going to PR so… yeah. It’s too hot. You haven’t been speed training. You can’t even see the 1:30 pace group anymore.
I run harder to shut him up.
Oh, so you think you can shut me up, Jeff? You know who I am, right? I’m your central governor and I make the decisions around here. Just try to get anything past me.
I push. I push again. Yikes! Pull back.
Haha! See. Told ya. I, am, the master.
I look at my Garmin, which tells me I just ran mile 9 in 7:29, a number I don’t like right now. Who’s the boss of who? I decide it’s time to stand up to Mr. Central Governor.
I am the boss of me, Central Governor. Not you. Not anyone. Just me! And look! I’m almost done!
Ha! Yes, this is the beauty of the half. Ten miles into the race and I’m almost done! After the summer of ultras, where training runs regularly lasted 4-6 hours and races 8-10 hours, oh what a glorious feeling it is to know I am an hour and eleven minutes into a race and I’m almost done! With so few miles to go, of course I can go faster!
So I do. The central governor tries to stop me but I pick out a guy ahead, the guy in the green singlet, and reel him in. Concentrate, I tell myself. Catch that green man!
I catch him, he speeds up to race, I go a bit faster and then I’m by him.
I pick out another. Guy in red. I look down at my watch and see I’m cruising at 6:40 pace — something that felt hard just 20 minutes ago seems so easy now, because I have focus. I am here to do something.
Mile 11 and I realize it’s all downhill from here. Literally. The last two miles of this course are a continuous downhill. Ideal for building speed and passing people.
I do both.
I can’t believe how good I feel right now. Who does that central governor jerk think he is? I’m gonna have to learn to shut him up quicker next time. Maybe I’ll train to do just that.
Up ahead I see the big orange sign instructing runners to turn left. I know that once I get there, I’m at mile 13, with just one tenth of a mile (the “jog”) to go. A quick glance at my watch informs me that I AM GOING TO PR TODAY, marking yet another victory over my Debbie Downer subconscious.
Eat it, Central Governor!
I turn left onto the bridge, turn right then left onto the last bridge before making the hard right turn to the finishing chute. I blaze in with the emcee announcing my name, across the line at 1:32:37.
Ice Cube was right. Today was a good day.
There’s something uniquely awesome about eating pizza and drinking Sam Adams before 9 in the morning, so I take full advantage of that as I meet up with Dan, whom I learn had me in his sights for the first half of the race before trailing off a bit. He still finished with a solid 1:36 and was smiling at the end so all signs point to GREAT JOB!
We both look out for Otter, wondering if Dan might get the call from the county jail that he’s been picked up for public intoxication WHILE RUNNING A HALF MARATHON. Luckily, Otter’s drinking on the run made him a race favorite, a point the emcee even brings up as Otter chugs his final beer, crossing the finish line in under two hours.
I am extremely impressed.
High fives are had.
– – –
The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon proved again to be a great event. It’s just small enough that it doesn’t feel crowded and big enough to feel like each runner’s needs are being met. From the big downhill after mile 5 all the way to the finish I think the course is just fantastic. The aid stations were a bit small for my liking, but the volunteers more than made up for that and everyone out there was extremely positive and energetic. Also, just like last year, the hardware doubles as a bottle opener, which may be the running gods’ way of telling me that, indeed, beer and running do make a beautiful couple.
The Chicago Chinatown 5K will always hold a special place in my heart. It is the first race I ran post-transformation, and it was the springboard for my running obsession — one that never seems to let up. The 2012 edition was my third running and it has been fun to see the same faces come out, not to mention the joy of watching my finishing times drop from 24 minutes to 21 minutes to 19 minutes.
This race is always hot. It’s in July, and there’s little shade along the course. But I showed up perky as could be, ready to do a little speedwork.
– – –
I park the car at my office on South Michigan and run a 20 minute warm-up to the start line. It has been a year since I last ran a 5K, but I do remember the importance of a warm-up. If I’m going to start hard at the beginning, the legs need to be ready.
I haven’t tapered for this. I’m just doing it for fun. In fact, for the week, I’ve already run over 40 miles so I’m not sure there’s much steam left in the engine, but I do want to go hard and see what happens. My mind thinks I can get done in the 18:30 range, and as I slowly churn the legs, priming them for a hard effort, it seems they aren’t so sure. It’s warm. 80-something degrees. There are no clouds in sight.
At the start line, I look around and can’t help but think snobbish thoughts (when did I become a running snob?).
Is a 60 oz. Camelback really necessary for a 5K?, I wonder as I count three of them in the crowd of 500+ runners. And what’s with all the Nip Guards? How long do these guys plan to be out there?
But to me, the most hilarious thing is being pushed out of the way by some, er, “bigger” runners who feel they need to be right at the front when the gun goes off. The starting chute is already narrow enough, I don’t see how blocking the faster guys who are going to run them over anyway is going to make their race experience any better. I’m chalking it up to inexperience.
Thankfully, some race official with a megaphone instructs those out-of-place runners to move to the back.
3… 2… 1…
We’re off. I’m through the chute, fighting my way past a few ambitious 12-year-olds and a slew of overzealous adults. We fly east down Archer, take a sharp right turn on Wentworth and head towards Old Chinatown. I already know, from years past, that the Old Chinatown section is the worst part of this race. In fact, in my training runs that take me through Chinatown, I make sure to always avoid the old section on Wentworth. I love Chinese food and all, but when red-lining, the toxic combination of Chinese food + garbage + old men chain-smoking on the street is just lethal.
Sure enough, my nose is hit with the aforementioned poisonous waft and I do what I can to breathe through my mouth so I don’t die.
Just off to my right, it sounds like someone else is dying. I look behind me and it’s a little kid. Couldn’t be more than 10 years old or so, yet he’s sticking with me at 6 minute pace. He’s huffing and puffing and struggling and coughing.
You okay? I ask.
Maybe you should slow down a little, I offer.
He takes off, past me. But he doesn’t get far before he just stops. Completely.
I zoom on by.
And now I’m already halfway done!
I hit the turnaround aid station just north of Sox Park on Wentworth. I’m going too fast to drink anything, so I just dump all the water I can on my head. It helps. Barely. I try to run along the tiny bit of shade that the highway barrier offers there, but so are most runners, so as it crowds, I just hop back in the sunlight. I’m almost done anyway.
I hit the 2-mile mark and the clock says 12:00 exactly. Damn. I’m doing pretty good, I think to myself.
So I start calculating in my head and start thinking about how this will end up being a great race for me and how much I’m going to brag to my old man about it and then, I’m back in Old Chinatown, struggling to not puke from the food/garbage/second-hand smoke onslaught.
I feel… gross.
Just before I reach the turn on Archer to head for the finish line I look at my watch and see I’m at 19 minutes and change.
Oh well. I sprint through the finish line at 19:47 — not terribly excited but not terribly disappointed either. As I grab some water and a banana, I think my lack of concentration towards the end is what slowed me down. But I’m not gonna dwell on it. I ran sub-20, bettered my time from the year before and I have to get in the car to meet my ultra buddies for a whole day of running yet anyway.
This was just a warm-up.
(for the main event, continue reading *here*)
Yes. 7K. Your very non-standard 4.34959835 mile race.
Since my recent 5o mile training has focused mostly on tough, hilly long runs, a short distance race seemed like a nice change of pace. Besides, when well rested, running fast is fun! The 7K distance made it so I would PR no matter what and the Get Lucky! schwag (a kelly green zip-up hoodie) was pretty sweet.
My goal going into the race was to just run hard from the beginning and hold it as long as I could. I wanted to focus on high leg turnover and a smooth cadence throughout. With nearly 800 registrants, I didn’t figure I’d have much of a chance at a top three finish, so the thought never entered my mind.
Until I lined up.
There was a half marathon (The Chicago Get Lucky! 21K) run in conjunction with this race. 20 minutes after the half marathon began, the 7K racers were told to line up.
Wanting to run smooth 6:30s, I got in the 7 minute per mile corral. It was the fastest one next to the one labeled “elite” — one that, astonishingly, no one was standing in. I quickly looked around to see that indeed, I was standing alone, that most people were lined up way behind me. Then there was an athletic looking youngster dressed in green who approached and confidently stood ground next to me. We smiled and said “hi” to one another.
I think both of us knew that we might be in for a special day if we were the only ones in the front of the pack. You could almost see the both of us salivating, sizing each other up. Then along came a Mary Keitany lookalike. I quickly let her in front of me. Just a few minutes before the race was to start, it looked like only the three of us would start out at the front.
Competitive spirit override. Race strategy chucked.
Hell no. If I have a chance to win — AN ACTUAL CHANCE TO WIN — I’m going for it.
The horn blew and we were off, the three of us in front along with a guy dressed like a leprechaun, whom if beaten in the race demanded an ancillary cash prize.
The starting pace was about 6:20. Not too bad. The Mary Keitany lookalike made it appear effortless though, so I immediately figured she was my main competition.
We hit the first turn and boom, there took off the leprechaun and the athletic dude in green. I wouldn’t see them again for a while. Mary Keitany lookalike gave chase, I looked down at my watch to see I was under 6 minute pace and thought, nah, I’m gonna stick with 6:30s. I eased off but kept her in my sights.
For the next 2.5K I slowly reeled her in. But before I did, I looked behind me to see… um… no one! I was way out in front of everyone else, virtually guaranteed a top three finish if I just didn’t crash and burn. I kept a steady pace and it seemed pretty easy. Cruise control.
I caught her on the weird downhill just after the aid station between 3K and 4K. On the Lakeshore Path, it’s the abrupt bridged hill before going under the road, south of Illinois Avenue. I’ve run that part of the path about a bazillion times in my life, so I knew I could fly on the short downward section. I made my move and BLASTED DOWN past her. She didn’t counter, seemingly content with the idea of a 1st female finish rather than 2nd place overall.
Sounded good to me! I kicked it up a notch.
But then I encountered a series of weird, poorly marked turns and… yes, no course marshals. Not long after seeing a 4K mark banner, I came across a mess of oddly grouped orange cones, but no people. The leader and the leprechaun had already started the back portion of the out-and-back-esque course, so I wasn’t sure where the turnaround was. Is it still ahead? Is it here? Oh shit.
I was flying. And starting to panic. I made it about a quarter mile further before I realized there was no one around and I’d definitely gone off course. I stopped, turned, and boom, there was Mary Keitany lookalike. We both threw our arms up in the air. Confused. She said, “that must’ve been the turnaround, back there.” I nodded, said, “Sorry”, and dug deep in a concentrated spurt past her, back to the right spot, back to those oddly grouped, messy orange cones. Back on course.
To my horror I saw: NOW TWO PEOPLE IN FRONT OF ME!
Competitive spirit override. Again. Harder.
DIG DEEP. Vrrrrrroooom.
Zoomed by the first guy, unsuspecting. Clearly, he did not care. “Good job, buddy!” he yelled. Thumbs up, I gave. Head down.
The second guy in front of me was moving slow. I knew I’d catch him. “Lookin’ good”, he said. Thanks, bro! I passed. I focused further down the line on… the bike!
The leader and leprechaun were too far ahead to be seen, so course marshals (who magically appeared after my detour) responded by sending a bike out to lead second place. At the 5K mark, that was me. I wasn’t even looking at my watch now. I could care less about my time. All I wanted to do was finish strong with nothing less than second place. I was content with that.
Until I saw the leprechaun in my sights with 1 kilometer to go.
Did not think about it. Just dug in and told my legs to catch him. I turned off my mind and let instinct kick in. I was surprised at how easy it seemed. I passed him on the first of a couple sharp right turns in the last half kilometer, got a huge buzz from the cowbell-ringing, shamrock-clad crowd who came out in strong numbers cheering and clapping. I slowed a little, soaked it in. Crossed the finish fist pumping with a smile. I was handed a medal and a mug with CASH MONEY in it from beating the leprechaun. I’m told a top three finisher prize will be in the mail.
I’ve said it before, but it’s still true so I will keep saying it: I’ll never take a pitch in the big leagues, or drive the lane in the NBA. The NFL will never see my touchdown dance. But today I ran the Chicago Get Lucky! 7K race and finished 2nd out of 797 competitors, and for that I’m claiming baller status.
I don’t get the runner’s high anymore. I haven’t for about a year and a half now. When I first started running, catching the “high” was a frequent occurrence, especially during hard efforts like long runs or speed work. But nowadays it’s something I’ve learned to do without. The only runner’s high I get now is after the run, when my knees are iced, my feet are up and I’m able to reflect on the satisfaction of having done work.
Of course, beer helps.
Oh how far I’ve come!
During my early running days, when I didn’t really know what I was getting into, breaking down on a desolate country road, overcome with emotion was rather common. I’d often feel like I made some poignant realization about myself. I’d get that warm, cozy feeling I used to get during my MDMA partying days. I used to think: if only EVERYONE were a runner, to know this special feeling!
Then, as soon as it came, it was gone. Forever.
I don’t know why. But I’m over it.
I’ve traded the high for zen, the emotion for being present. Of course, for me, catching the zen isn’t as easy as simply going for a long run or running intervals. It takes a combination of speed and distance for me to tap into it. It demands a pace fast enough to be uncomfortable, and a distance far enough to make maintaining that pace hard as hell. It requires supreme focus. Splits, muscle aches and what I’m going to have for dinner that night cannot jut into my consciousness. Everything must go, everything except the present.
And even then, reaching zen mode is not a given. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve found that when I think about it or try to force my way into having one of those experiences, it just doesn’t work.
The good news is, every run — no matter how present or how off in space — brings me happiness. Even after those really awful runs, the ones where I felt slow, felt heavy, felt off, felt crampy, even those make me smile.
Just moving, doing work, going forward in time… that’s awesome.
–Anonymous, quoted by Rachel Toor, Running Times, Feb/Mar ’12
Nothing beats the pure satisfaction of setting a high goal, working hard to reach it, then kicking some serious asphalt ass. On Sunday, January 15th, 2012 — one of the single greatest days of my life — I put the exclamation mark on all of the above. As a result, the Houston Marathon will be running on a forever-loop in my mind.
After clocking a 3:20:49 finish at the Chicago Marathon in October, on an unseasonably warm day in my first legitimately speedy attempt (read: not running to just finish) at the distance that killed Pheidippides, I realized that the potential for logging a 3:15 was probably there if I was willing to work for it.
I know that every runner has his or her own personal reason for running these stupid long distances; one of mine just happens to be an incurable curiosity to see exactly what my body is capable of doing.
So with 12 weeks to prepare, I upped my mileage, learned to love the tempo run and swallowed intervals in massively uncomfortable gulps. I was gonna run 3:15 in Houston. No doubt.
My dad lives in a Houston suburb and I knew having him along for my PR attempt was going to be a plus. I blame him for my running addiction (he’s been running his whole life) so I felt it fitting that I try to go faster than I’ve ever gone before right in his back yard. If I blew up and looked stupid, at least he would be there to make me feel better. Dad has been my strongest supporter in everything I set out to do, and I know that for him, watching my transformation over the last few years from an unhealthy smoker to fit distance runner has been something he’s taken a bit of pride in.
I wanted to continue that streak.
When I told him goodbye and entered the starting corral, it was dark and chilly. I gave him a hug, walked inside the gates and tried to quell the butterflies in my stomach by jumping up and down for a bit. I can’t help but get nervous for all the mega races, but this one in particular, where I was attempting to run at least a solid 7:25 pace for the entire 26.2 miles gave me a few more jitters because it was something I hadn’t ever done before. Tempo runs from 6:30 to 7:00 pace were common, as were even faster intervals, but to string it all together — without stopping and despite all the intangibles — sorta freaked me out.
But then the gun went off and no more thinking. Just run.
The weather was perfect — mid 40s at the start and dry. As we runners crossed the start line, I couldn’t help but find some bit of peace in the relative quiet of the first overpass (Houston’s course has a lot of them). Contrary to the loud and fiery start of Chicago, Houston’s first few miles were virtually spectatorless and serene. The only noise I could hear was the orchestra of feet pounding the pavement. Before I knew it, I was already at 5K.
I went out a little fast — around 7:15 for the first three miles, but I felt okay — or rather, I didn’t feel awful. In fact, this would be the physical theme of the race. I never felt “good”. In other races or training runs I have felt good, like “I FEEL GREAT!”, but in Houston, that would not be the case. I had several bouts of feeling gross, feeling leg-heavy, just feeling blah. But through the first 5 miles I was still hitting 7:15 splits on the dot and feeling fine enough to keep going.
So I did.
My right piriformis was achey. Stop, it would say. Shut up, I would reply. Kept on going.
The crowd started to pick up and the song in my head (M83’s “Midnight City”) continued to get louder so I wasn’t able to hear myself think (was I even thinking?) about what exactly I was doing, but I was cruising right along. Drinking on the run. Gelling on the run. High-fivin’ folks on the run. Through 10 miles I looked down at my watch and noticed I’d built a nice, comfortable 2-minute cushion under a 3:15 finish pace. If I kept that up I was going to beat my goal and then some!
Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to think I was going to keep up at that pace without issue. I was already beginning to feel quite fatigued and I knew I had a long way to go. But before I could really worry about any of that, I reached the halfway mark and my pea-sized bladder decided to bring me back down to earth.
I’d been holding it, but holding it for 13 more miles could mean disaster. So for the first time in an hour and thirty-four minutes, I stopped. To take a leak.
Maybe it was the leak that saved me, because after that 30 second break, I surged out of the port-a-john with a renewed sense of purpose. I’m gonna PR by at least five minutes today, I told myself. I have some cushion. I don’t have to kill myself. Just keep running. And enjoy it.
So I did. I took pleasure in knowing I was in the middle of a 26-mile journey, that I was covering more ground in one day on my feet than most people do in a week, that I was being treated to the honor of running in one of the country’s biggest cities, without traffic, in the middle of the street. I noticed my surroundings, the beautiful buildings all around, the kind folks cheering me on, making me smile with goofy signs, handing me Gatorade.
I sucked in the air. I looked up into the blue sky. I smiled knowing that this was an honor, and I was doing some pretty seriously honorable shit.
Running does that for me. It gets me high on BEING ALIVE.
I slowed up a little, not as a sign of retreat, but rather as a tip of the cap to the sport. I wanted to be sure that I finished with enough juice to get to the end strong. So I knocked it down to about a 7:25 pace and decided to keep it there until I got to Mile 20. From there I’d see how I felt.
From my research on the course, I learned that the biggest physical obstacle it had to offer was the big overpass hill at Mile 14. I knew it was coming so mentally, I was prepared for it. I made sure to hit the aid station at the bottom of the hill pretty good before charging up and over. I found a guy who looked a little stronger than me and tucked into his wind blockage as we went up. He flew and I just hung on.
On the down hill, I flew by him. We did this dance with each other a couple times throughout the second half of the race. It was pretty cool and we both knew it. I eventually passed him for good in the last mile.
But before I got that far, I had to get to Mile 20, and when I did, reality hit. I wasn’t feeling so hot. My stomach was acting weird. My bowels were messing with me. Another six miles of hard racing looked a bit intimidating, especially after I realized I’d given back those two minutes now. I was gonna have to kick it hard to the end at some point if I wanted 3:15. I took an extra gel, took two Gatorades, a water and then I doused my body in more water.
A few minutes later, I was fine.
This happened a couple of times. I felt bad at Mile 22 and again at Mile 24, but I bounced back quickly each time.
To me, that’s what the marathon is: just see if you can go 20 miles before you have to really crawl into your own head and see what’s in there. Those last six miles had me battling myself, over and over. Take it easy, dude. You’ve come this far. It’s all good. Just relax, while the other guy is saying: No! Don’t stop now. GO!!! You’re gonna feel so good for so long if you just do this!!!
This is gonna sound stupid but it’s true. With about a mile and a half to go they had the Rocky theme song blaring on the loudspeakers. And it worked. I picked it up. I started to move.
I zipped by one, two, three, four-five-six, seven… more. The streets were all so full of carnage, people blowing up and walking and sitting on their butts. I heard a guy blazing in front of me tell his buddy: “From this exact spot we are one mile away. Let’s do this.”
And boom. They were off.
I chased them.
They were faster than me but I got to the last section where the crowd was fantastic and the last few minutes were run on someone else’s legs. I guy in a Luke’s Locker singlet, actually. Dude reeled me in and I thanked him for it at the finish.
When I crossed that line and saw 3:15:19 on my watch I tried to scream victory but nothing came out. I’d given it all I had. And some tears fell out of my face.
Now, the vitals:
The course was flat and fast with easy hills that can really be utilized for speed on the down sections. I think being prepared for this was helpful to me in the first half because I was able to get some early speed and build a cushion. There aren’t many turns. It was well marked, accurate with my readings. The big hill is at Mile 14 and then Miles 21-24 are all downhill (which is awesome!!!). In the last couple miles there are some smaller ones too.
The crowd was awesome. While not the size of those in Chicago (which are the best I’ve ever experienced), they were very vocal. I can’t tell you how many kind people read my name on my bib and encouraged me in a very genuine manner. Hearing your name all throughout the race, for me, is a HUGE help in staying in the moment and remembering why you are actually there.
Aid stations were well stocked and the volunteers were stupendous. They were such kind people. Southern comfort definitely has its place in a mega race.
But for me, the 2012 Houston Marathon will always be about learning that even when I don’t feel good, I know I’m still capable of doing wonderful things.
Thanksgiving and running go together like baseball and hot dogs. And while most people enjoy the casual Turkey Trot 5K as a way to compensate for the inevitable overeating, my own brand of gluttony requires a much longer distance. Enter the Schaumburg Half Marathon — a fun (and growing) event out in the ‘burbs that makes it okay to eat an entire pie (or two) and not feel guilty about it.
I ran this race last year and had a fantastic time. I even set what was then a P.R., so I was hoping I might be able to run my way to another speedy finish, if the setting was right.
The morning was chilly (low 40s) and overcast with a chance of rain, that would later come about halfway through my race in the form of a heavy, annoying mist. Besides having logged a 50K fun run just seven days before, I thought my legs could still get me a sub 1:34 time, which would be a personal best. All through this latest training cycle, I have been routinely plugging away 6:50 to 7:15 miles, so I thought doing something special was not outside reality.
In fact, prior to the start, I forced the issue by lining up with the 1:30 pace group, intent on hanging with them as long as I could. A quick look around the group and it was obvious I was the odd man out. Sure I had on all the right gear and the demeanor of one sure-as-hell determined son of a bitch, but my 5’8 frame — which is somewhat hobbled by a muscular build (something I’ve been unwilling to abandon thus far) — wasn’t nearly as lean and speedy looking as all the rest.
I didn’t care. Just stick with the group. For as long as you can. That’s what I told myself.
And then we were off…
Mile 1. Check. Mile 2. Awesome. Mile 3. Damn! We’re running a 6:15 pace! Mile 4. Look, Mom! I’m hangin’ with the big boys! Mile 5. Oh shit.
That’s all it took. Five miles and I was blowing up.
How do I describe the feeling? For me, it was sorta like back in my partying days, where I’d be straddling the line of being super drunk and having a blast to being super drunk and feeling like death. Without much warning, I went from great to awful.
I had to pull up. I kept running, but it turned into a slog. I looked down at my Garmin:
8:45 pace… 8:55 pace… 9:20 pace…
Bleh. Well, now you know what that feels like, Jeff. Let’s just finish the run. You only have 8 miles to go (HAHA!) and feeling bad isn’t the end of the world.
And suddenly, I didn’t feel that bad anymore. I took a gel, cranked the legs back up to a comfortable 7:30 pace and moved on, reflecting on how my body felt despite what I had just put it through.
Mile 6. Mile 7. Mile 8. I was smiling again and high fiving folks on the out-and-back sections.
Mile 9. Mile 10. Mile 11. I’m gonna finish this in 1:36 and change.
Mile 12. Mile 13. And we’re done. And I’m freezing!!!
I finished in 1:36:30, a pretty decent time for me but not close to what I’m capable of. Doesn’t matter though, because for me, running isn’t always about the time on the clock at the end; it’s about what it does to me as a human being — how it makes me feel, how it makes me a part of something, how it makes me grow.
The people who organize this race are extremely friendly and accommodating, the aid stations were well placed, and the medal/schwag were all worth the entry fee. But for some reason they changed the course from last year’s and the last five miles put runners through one hell of a clusterfuck as the walking 5k’ers got in the way of the finishing half-marathoners (I can only imagine the traffic horrors the elite runners faced as they were trying to run the gauntlet of 5K participants in their way), but I’m sure race management will fix that for future events.
Barring any turkey over-consumption issues, I will be back in 2012.
For the longest time, my weekly long run has been the one run I look forward to the most. I’m a distance runner, and going the distance is what gets me charged. You couldn’t get me to sleep in on a Sunday morning because all I wanted to do was get out there and run long!
That was, until I began seriously targeting a speedy marathon finish. After a personal best 3:20:49 at Chicago in October, I realized the potential for a 3:10 or 3:05 is actually there — that I could get there as early as January if I really applied myself.
To put things in perspective, my first marathon was a 3:52, and less than a year later I cruised to a 3:20 on a hot day, with plenty left in the tank. In fact, I realized that if I really got serious about training, I could even break the 3-hour mark, something that two years ago I would have laughed at!
Of course, I knew that any significant time shaving would entail some real pain and suffering. The only question was: ARE YOU WILLING TO GO THERE?
The answer was yes. I was/am willing. But that also meant that my love affair with the long run would have to adapt, because if I want to run a fast marathon, I have to train at a faster pace. Besides a weekly tempo and VO2 max run, every two out of three weeks requires me to do my long run at race pace for at least 80% of the run. That means logging 7 minute miles for 12-17 miles at a time — a huge difference from the previous 8-9 minute paced long, slow runs I’d previously fallen in love with.
I have found that getting myself up for one of these painful long runs is hard. I mill about and stress not hitting my marks before I even leave the house, continuously thinking I don’t know if I can do this, this is silly, I should just run slow and not worry about my time — all thoughts that have their right place.
But then I get out there… and if I’m feeling good, I just let go. I just… run.
I get in a rhythm. I find that pace and stick to it, as hard as it may be. I try not to think about how much it hurts sometimes and instead focus on being better than my mind thinks I’m capable of being. Because, really, to me, that’s one of the greatest joys running has to offer: OUTPERFORMING THE MIND.
The mind has all these rules. You can’t do that, Jeff. You’re not good enough to do this, Jeff. You’ll never reach that goal, Jeff.
And as painful as the marathon race pace long run can be at times, it’s always worth the satisfaction of telling the mind to fuck off.