Yes, I know the title looks like the name of a Prince song. Yes, it was intentional. No, there is absolutely no reason for that. It’s just been a crazy week, I’m nowhere near getting caught up (which is why it’s taken me so long to get this out), and I’m feeling a little silly.
“Life is the only art that we are required to practice without preparation, and without being allowed the preliminary trials, the failures and botches, that are essential for training.” –Lewis Mumford
Other than the occasional high school coaches asking the 6’4”, 225 lb new kid if he plays ball, no one has ever confused me for an athlete. And those coaches were never all that impressed to find out that I was more inclined to sit quietly in the corner of my art or math classes than I was to put on uncomfortable clothes and stay at school one second longer than I had to in order to try out for whatever team(s) they were trying to fill. I sometimes said “no” before I even heard what ball they were talking about. I got really good at saying “no” to things without trying them first. And that ability to so quickly refuse new experiences is certainly the strongest part of the foundation on which I would eventually build a mountain of regrets.
I’ve NEVER been terribly athletic. And until recently, I had in no way trained for any kind of physical activity before. I’d never really trained for anything at all. I’ve never challenged myself enough to require that kind of effort. I’m a natural born underachiever. Six months ago, I would’ve said that as though it was some comically charming facet of my character. It wasn’t. It isn’t.
Anybody can do nothing. It’s fucking easy. Ask me how I know.
“Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
Around Thanksgiving of last year, two months into my new running life and having not yet run a single race, I registered to run a half marathon in the spring. I had no clue what to expect. But I knew that I needed to challenge myself. I knew that I needed to prove to myself that I was capable of setting a goal and actually working to accomplish it. I researched and studied as many resources as possible trying to find half marathon training plans designed for beginning runners. I finally settled on one that I liked and that I was confident I could achieve. One with only three running days a week seemed a good idea. I adjusted that plan to better fit my other work/life responsibilities. And on December 17, 2013, a few weeks and two 5Ks after signing up, I officially began my training for the Shamrock Half Marathon…with a two mile run. I was still a novice runner. But I was already hooked and determined to finish the race as respectably as I possibly could. Putting any less than 100% effort towards my goal was no longer an option.
Last Sunday, I ran my very first half marathon. And it was amazing.
“It is because the body is a machine that education is possible. Education is the formation of habits, a super-inducing of an artificial organization upon the natural organization of the body.” — Thomas Huxley
I am a creature of habit. Not for any deep philosophical reason or genius theory about more efficient time management. My memory just sucks, so if I don’t develop a pattern of activity around the important things in my life, I’ll forget shit. I park my car in roughly the same place every day at work because when I don’t, I end up walking to that area anyway before realizing my car is somewhere else. I empty my pockets into the same bowl every day as soon as I walk into my apartment. And if my keys aren’t in that bowl in the morning, I’m going to be late for work. Why? Because I will have no clue where to start looking. They’re supposed to be in that bowl. If they’re not there, they could be on the moon for all I know. Maybe I’ll start looking there. This could take a minute.Because I’m aware of this ridiculous part of my personality and because I have not yet run enough races to have developed a solid ritual, on the nights before races I have to make long lists of things to do, or pack, or wear. I lay out the clothes I’m going to wear stacked in the order that I’m going to put them on. I pin my bib to my shirt on the night before the race because doing that still seems to take me an embarrassingly long time (my OCD about it being straight doesn’t help). I make a “things to bring” list so detailed that it includes my running shoes. Am I really worried that I’m going to head out the door without the most crucial piece of equipment? Yep. That’s why it’s on the list. Running shoes, HR monitor, Garmin, flipbelt, hat, gloves, protein drink, peanut butter & banana sandwich, coconut water, water bottle, regular water, towels, hoodie, sunglasses, compression wraps for my ankles, jelly beans, a power bar, iPod, and headphones. Yeah, that should just about do it. I hope I didn’t forget anything.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve packed less stuff for two day trips out of town. I’m nuts.
“Success is blocked by concentrating on it and planning for it… Success is shy – it won’t come out while you’re watching.” — Tennessee Williams
I spent the entire three months leading up to my first half marathon under the delusion that the race started at 9:00 a.m., and didn’t realize until the Friday before the race that it was actually at seven. That meant I’d have to get up around 4:30 in order to eat some kind of breakfast, get dressed, and get to the Virginia Beach ocean front early enough to find a parking spot remotely close to the race. Parking in Va Beach can be a pain in the ass on a random Thursday. It was certainly going to suck on a weekend where tens of thousands of runners and their families would be in town.
I woke up late, fumbled around in my kitchen trying to toast a bagel, make my vitamin smoothie, get dressed, and finish packing my dry bag all at the same time. And my amazing multi-tasking paid off. I only left the house 45 minutes later than the time I wrote on my hand-scribbled race day itinerary.
If I had not gone to the beach the previous day to watch my mom kick ass in her first 8K (still super proud of her), I would have had no clue at all what to expect. But thankfully, I had just enough familiarity with the situation to avoid any real anxiety. I got there just before 6:30 but didn’t even mess with the traffic bogs angling for close parking spots. I headed south away from the start until I saw a good spot, parked my car, and started hoofing it towards the race. I was hoping to get there early enough to throw a good luck high-five to Kathryn of Run Eat Play RVA and find a few other people that I knew were running that morning. But after schlepping my freezing bones 18 blocks into a welcoming head-wind, stopping to use the bathroom twice, dropping off the world’s heaviest dry bag, and knocking out a solid 90 seconds of quality pre-race stretching, I entered my corral a massive five minutes before the scheduled start of the race.
I was nailing my first half marathon already. All I could do was laugh at myself. Well, laugh at myself and shiver. Because of an unspecified obstruction on the course, the start of the race was delayed roughly ten minutes, so there was plenty of time for shivering. And I did. We all did.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
Finally it was time to start the race. As is the custom around these parts, Team Hoyt starts first. If you don’t know who they are, click their name. I love seeing them out there and always make sure to let them know it when I see them along the road. A few seconds after Team Hoyt took off; they started releasing the corrals one at a time. My training had officially ended two days prior. Now my waiting was over too. It was finally time to run.
I originally signed up with a completely uninformed guesstimated finishing time of 2:30 and been placed in corral number eight. While picking up my packet at the expo however, I asked the organizers if there was any way to be reassigned considering I’d finished my 20K a few weeks earlier in 1:56:41. They very kindly moved me into corral number three instead. I cannot explain how much that helped. I essentially passed thousands of people before I ever put on my shoes. And starting in corral three allowed me to settle into my pace within the first mile of the race instead of having to bob and weave my way through thousands of people in order to get free and on pace. That was a HUGE bonus.
I knew the Shamrock was going to be the largest race I’d participated in by a huge margin, and I really didn’t know what to expect along the course. But I just settled into my pace, kept my back straight, my head up, shoulders relaxed, arms swinging, and my feet under me. Basically, I just ran.
My ankles were not 100%, and my left one was already a little sore before the race even started. But once I was moving, it was very ignorable. I settled into my pace early, even if “my pace” was 20 seconds faster than I really intended. I checked my watch pretty often during the first two or three miles and I was always running “too fast,” but I felt great and could not justify slowing down. While adjusting my watch at 0.45 miles, I accidently pushed the “lap” button and offset all of my lap markings and alarms after that, but I still got pace updated every mile and it was always right around nine minutes per mile. And because I felt so comfortable, I just decided to keep that up. Why not, right? Just keep running.
There were spectators scattered all along the course, including some friends that had set up their own water (cough…and maybe beer) station along the route. I threw a low-five as I passed a very loud and animated gentleman cheering us on our way early. I hollered out at a friend standing atop a small wall not seeing me as I passed. I said “thank you” to every group of volunteers and spectators that I passed close enough to speak to without shouting. I gave props to every funny sign. Oh, and I ran.
Four, five, and six miles just flew by. When the road was banked more than I liked, I ran on the more level bike path or off in the grass beside the course. When I needed to take advantage of one of the aid stations, I grabbed a cup, said thank you, and pulled off to the side to walk for the two seconds it takes to swallow a Dixie cup of water. Then I took off again. I ate half a bag of Extreme Sports Beans just before the race started and then ate them in half bag portions every 20 minutes along the way. And I kept running.
“When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.” — Isak Dinesen
As I passed the half-way point, my watch said 58 minutes. I was on pace to break two hours, and even with a sore left ankle, I felt very rested and strong. All I had to do was keep running and avoid doing something stupid, like speeding up. I felt great, but definitely didn’t want to become overconfident. My pace was working, and I wasn’t going to try and fix something that wasn’t broken.
My right ankle started to ache a little bit at eight miles, but nothing too distracting. I was doing a good job of keeping a pretty high cadence of shorter strides and landing on my mid-foot. I just kept running. It was almost time to exit the Fort Story part of the course and head back into the spectators we passed in the beginning. Maybe I’d have one of those beers this time. (I didn’t)
Literally before I knew it, I was passing the 10 mile marker. All I had left was a 5K. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to finish the damn thing. And I was going to do it running strong. I felt great. As I passed my friends’ “aid station” and waved on the way by, they noticed something that I was unaware of. I was now less than two miles from the finish line, and I was in front of the two hour pacing group. Who knew?
I entered Atlantic Avenue and was greeted with a brutally cold wind in my face, but was way too amped to care. And as we all crossed onto the Virginia Beach boardwalk and could see the finish, it was time to start kicking. I could not believe that I had any energy in reserve. But I did. Was I sprinting? Nope. But in the Hollywood version of my life story, I’ll make sure the younger better looking actor does. I was picking up my pace a little bit though. I knew I was going to be under two hours by this point, but saw no reason not to use up that excess energy that I’ve never had at the end of a race before. I was damn near confused. What was going on? I wasn’t exhausted.
I crossed the finish line stronger than in any long race I’ve ever run before, and finished my first half marathon with an official time of 1:58:20 and an average pace of 9:02 min/miles. It was the easiest long run I’ve ever run. It was the fastest paced long run I’ve ever run. And I had an absolute blast doing it.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” – Muhammad Ali
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any mental or physical battles to overcome during the run. That’s because there weren’t any. I don’t think I had to consciously focus on my breathing, my stride, my striking, or anything else more than maybe 10 times during the whole race, and never for more than a few seconds. All of that struggling to finish 10 mile training runs in the rain, or that 20K race in the rain, or that 11.11 mile confidence-run the week before the race had all paid off. My training worked. I couldn’t believe how well it worked. I felt incredible.
I did what I had never done before. I set a goal, developed a plan, followed that plan, and achieved the goal with relative comfort and ease. I was beyond stoked.
Unfortunately being stoked has zero warming qualities because the after party was Fur-ree-zing. There was plenty of beer and good cheer inside that giant tent next to the ocean, not so much warmth though. I was able to track down a few of the people that I wanted to congratulate and of course I managed to drink my four free beers, but there was only so much my frozen bones and chattering teeth could take so I decided it was time to head home for some chili and the warmth of some good friends.
“In general, any form of exercise, if pursued continuously, will help train us in perseverance. Long-distance running is particularly good training in perseverance.” — Mao Zedong
I haven’t run since the race, and intend to stay off of the road until Monday. I was back in the gym the next morning trying to work out the pain in my left knee. I suspect that my sore ankle resulted in my unconsciously tranferring more of the impact to my knee. And it wasn’t happy with me. I’ve been to the gym every day since, and both my ankles and knees feel great. I actually mentioned to a friend Tuesday morning that I thought I could run, but I didn’t. I’m really looking forward to getting back out there next week though, and hopefully with a fully healed and healthy body. I’m trying to be one of those mythical “smart runners” I’ve heard so much about.
Not sure about my long term race plans, but the running will definitely continue. I think it gets even more meditative for me with every passing mile. I love it. I’m registered for a 10K in May and I’m sure there will be many more after that…and maybe before. Happy Shamrock to me. It was a blast. I will do it again.