Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I'm much tougher than I thought I was...

When I woke up on Sunday, at a mere 4:45AM, I was every bit as nervous as I'd worried I would be. I could tell I was nervous because I shot straight up as soon as the alarm went off, I could hardly eat anything at all and try as SoxFan might to strike up a conversation, I could spare very few words. I did manage to nibble down a piece of toast and a banana, and then we were off.

As soon as we got downtown, as we neared the race start/finish, both sides of the street were lined with cars bearing "Marathoner" or "26.2" bumper stickers. I hadn't even seen my first runner of the day and I was already intimidated. It was still dark out, and only about 40 degrees, so when SoxFan dropped me off at the start to go and park the truck, I mainly just wandered around and tried to keep warm and tried to look like I belonged there. Mere minutes seemed to pass before the announcer was telling us all to line up according to our pace. I quickly found the "Fast Walkers" sign and figured I might as well start there, as most likely even if I ran the entire way, I'd be finishing with the "Fast Walkers." It was cold and crowded and the sun was starting to come up.

I couldn't hear the National Anthem. I couldn't hear the gun go off. But all of a sudden, we were moving toward the start line. I hit the play button on my iPod and I was instantly glad I'd started my HM playlist with "Freedom" by George Michael. I was overcome with a rush of adrenaline and when I crossed the start line, it was with a huge goofy grin on my face. I was happy to be running. I felt strong and proud of myself for everything I'd done. And I knew I was going to finish.

We ran through a canyon of buildings for the first few miles, and I instantly noticed that somehow my Garmin had experienced some kind of glitch. At one point it said 0.73 miles, then a second later it said 0.6 miles... I didn't know what was up, but I knew I probably couldn't trust my splits for the rest of the day. It didn't matter. The sun was fully in the sky by this point and I was running really strong, and I was still in the thick of the back of the pack.

Around mile 4, we hit the first (and most significant) hill. I knew that SoxFan was going to be meeting me at mile 4.5, so there was no way I was going to start walking. Finally, I crested the hill and sure enough, there he was, waiting for me with my backpack full of sport beans and gatorade and bandaids and ibuprofen. He was a trooper for carrying my bag all day and traipsing all over Denver to watch me participate. But he wasn't the only one. I had 4 other amazing friends come out to support me on Sunday (they even made a sign!), and their support kept me going at times when I felt sure I'd quit.

After I saw my friends the first time, the course took us a long way through City Park. I have history with City Park. I ran a 5K there last year and it was horrendous. This trip was not a lot better. The course doubled back on itself in this area, so I got to see all of the people who were running faster than me. It was in City Park, around mile 6.5 that I came to the Clif Shot stop. Unfortunately, this was not coincident with a water station, and even more unfortunately, I got Double Espresso flavor. BLEGH! I held onto the atrocious stuff until I got to the next water stop, then I forced myself to choke it down. My toast and banana were starting to leave me.

Around mile 8, we finally got to leave City Park. I saw my friends again around mile 9, at a water/gatorade station, and I figured that I wouldn't see them again until the finish. At this point my spirits were still pretty high. I'd run 10 miles already, after all, so I knew I could do 10. I was still feeling pretty strong.

But by mile 11, the tide had turned. I no longer felt strong. I no longer felt confident. I felt like I might puke. I felt like I wanted to give up. I felt like every step forward was a struggle. I'd forgotten that I'd voluntarily signed up for the race. My hips were hurting. My elbows were hurting. My feet were hurting. It was a mental battle. And then I saw my friends. They were so supportive they even managed to get a smile out of me. This was at mile 11.5:

Looking back on it now, if I'd been able to logically realize how close I was to the finish at this point in the race, it would have been enough to lift my spirits. But, being that I was out-of-my-mind exhausted, I turned the corner and continued to feel terrible. I wanted all that strength and confidence back that I'd had in the initial miles. I tried every trick in the book. My mental conversation was this, verbatim: "My hips hurt so bad. Pain is nothing. I do not even know what pain means." I tried to banish all thoughts of pain and fatigue from my mind. And I kept going.

I knew when I got close to the finish. I knew the course map well enough to know when there were two turns left... then one... And by the time I saw my friends again, with only a few hundred yards left in the race, my tank was empty. I felt like there was a hole where my stomach should have been. (Next time: eat more than toast and a banana before a race of this length.)

Finally, I made the last turn, and the finish came into view, a mere hundred yards away. The finish was still lined with spectators, and as I inched my way closer and closer, I cried.

I cried because I was proud of how far I'd come in a year. I was proud because, when given the opportunity to take the easy way out, I said "no thanks, I'm tough." I was proud because I was able to push beyond the threshold of comfort.

In the days that followed, several people have asked me my time. One person even asked "did you win?" Hmmmm, NO! (Coincidentally, a friend of one of my friends did win the HM that day! What are the odds?) But all the emphasis on my pace and how I placed overall/within my age group made me feel really self-conscious. Though I'd started this whole journey with the specific goal of just finishing the race without walking, I felt like I hadn't achieved enough. There were, after all, thousands of people there on Sunday who'd done twice as much as I had. And most people did what I did faster than I did it and with more ease. Just a day after I felt so proud I was moved to tears, I suddenly felt like I wasn't good enough.

I spent most of Monday and Tuesday trying to figure it out. And finally I came to the realization that it all hinges on the word "win". The conventional definition requires me to compare myself to other people, which isn't what running is about for me. I have to figure out what that word means to me before every single race. I have to re-define it every single time. Because I'll never win a race, in the conventional sense of the word.

But if I abandon that definition altogether, and establish my own definition of win...

To win is to
A) Finish
B) Finish without walking
C) Finish without walking with a smile
D) Finish without walking with a smile and a sense of accomplishment
E) Finish without walking with a smile and a sense of accomplishment knowing that I gave everything I had...

Then I can say "I most definitely won this race."

Just an hour post-finish, I felt great. A little sore, but great. And now, 3 days later, I feel like I want to go for a run. I will definitely do this again. I am definitely entertaining ideas about doing a full marathon, as well. Thank you again to all of my amazing friends who came out and trekked all over downtown Denver in an effort to keep my spirits high. And thanks to all of you friends from afar who emailed and left comments with your well-wishes. You kept my legs moving when I wanted to quit. Thank you.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Catch you up and here we go

It is officially the day before race day. Half marathon day. And I am ready, but before I launch into all that, here are some things I've been doing.

The week after Moab, I was in California for business. While I was there, I genuinely tried to get a few good runs in, but I was largely unsuccessful. I did one on the treadmill at the hotel, but it was at least 195 degrees in the workout room. Then I drove up to San Francisco one day, with the hope of getting a chance to run at Golden Gate Park. But by the time I made it up there it was too dark to get a run in. The third day, I just threw in the towel. I felt terrible about it, but I'd searched all over for a place to run outdoors and didn't have any luck at all.

The weekend after I returned from CA I ran the Hope with Every Step 10K. It was a really hot day with a nearly cloudless sky... and not an inch of shade in sight. As I lined up with the other 10Kers (all 49 of them), my iPod (of course) crapped out on me. I was only about a mile in and a horse trailer pulled right in front of me, so I had the lovely view of two stinky horse's butts to enjoy.

And, after a miserable 6.2 miles, here's my finishing scene:
Yes, that is the sweep bike right behind me. He is carrying all of the course direction signs, and he was riding my huge bumper because I was DEAD LAST. He might has well have been carrying a huge sign that said "And here comes the SLOWEST runner of the day."

I was slightly mortified, but afterwards, it sort of dawned on me that being DFL wasn't as bad as I'd always imagined it would be. Sure, I was last... but I ran a decent race on the day that I was given. Sure, I could have been a little faster if there'd been a little shade, a little gatorade on the course, etc. I was slow, but I'd done a good job, and I'd just finished my first official 10K. And it helped that no one pointed and laughed, too.

In the week that followed, I did my weeknight runs (well, most of them, at least), and SoxFan's dad came to visit the following Thursday. We had a great time fishing and driving in the woods and playing board games, but I split from them early Sunday morning to do the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure with a friend. On the way there, I heard a radio advertisement for a pair of Lee jeans that instantly give you "a tighter butt, slimmer thighs and a flatter stomach." Well, that was just about enough to get me to turn the car around. Alas, I decided to head on to the race anyway, and it's a good thing. Here's a picture (taken at 6AM):

Before the 5K, I ran 6 miles out and back on the Cherry Creek Greenway. On the way, I figured out where approximately half of Denver's homeless population resides. I tried to time it just right so that when I finished the 6 miles I'd be at the starting line for the 5K. And, hands down, this was the best run I've had since I started training for the Half Marathon. The run was easy. I felt strong. I felt confident. It was... the best run of my life.

Then I did a few more weeknight runs on the treadmill at work, then the weekend came and it was time for me to do the dreaded 10 mile run. But when the day came, it was about 30 degrees and raining. Boo. I thought I'd wait until later in the afternoon in the hope that it would warm up. It did not, however, so I did not run. This was the first time since I started that I'd skipped a long run, and I was none too pleased that the first one I'd missed was also the first double-digit run.

I did it on Monday evening. And I didn't do any walking. And on this run, I figured out where the other half of Denver's homeless population resides: the other side of the Cherry Creek Greenway. I ran out and back 2.5 miles, then out and back in the other direction 2.5 miles, and then it was DONE! And even though it was just a long run (not a race or anything) I felt very proud of myself for the double-digit accomplishment. I felt like I could have kept running. I felt like I could run a Half Marathon. After 9 miles, I just sort of went on auto-pilot and I felt like I could have run 100 miles.

Which brings us to today. It's the day before the Half Marathon. And all that confidence that I earned on Monday has slipped through my fingers. I feel unsure of myself. Unsure that I can run even 2 miles, let alone 13. I went to the expo yesterday and picked up my race packet and in the middle of that room full of incredibly fit people, I felt like a complete and total fraud.

But, I expected this. I am ready. Sure, I've missed a weeknight run here or there, but I can do this. I know that I can do it because I knew it on Monday. I knew I'd feel nervous the night before the race. I knew I'd feel even more nervous the morning of the race. But I also know that I've got enough excitement about that last 100 yards to carry me through. I'll do this tomorrow.