Thursday, June 9, 2011

Marc + Half-Marathon = Humbled

As I mentioned earlier this year, I signed up to run the Rock 'n Roll Half-Marathon in San Diego, which was this past Sunday, June 5th. I always said I had wanted to complete a half-marathon, and this was the year I committed to the training and race...or so I thought.

Back in March, my training started off as one might expect, with short mileage runs a few times a week. I slowly started to increase my mileage to four runs a week averaging between 3-5 miles. I had a very solid training plan in place, as well as consistent motivation from my roommate/coach/girlfriend. I was feeling good about my commitment to the race.

Then in mid-April, nagging injuries started to rear their ugly head. I developed some pretty gnarly shin pains, which then made their way up my leg to my knees and hips. I ended up developing some tendinitis in both knees, and my training began to suffer. Over the course of the next two months leading up to the race, I was only able to extend my long run to 6 miles. Yes, SIX, as in less than half of the target distance of 13.1 miles.

And then, before I knew it, it was the week of the race. How the heck was I going to pull this one off? The stress levels the weeks leading up to the race got worse and worse for me, worrying about whether I should run the race, how my body would hold up, would I be risking worse injury by running, etc. But I was resolute in my decision to run this half-marathon, regardless of the physical toll it may take on my ridiculously unprepared body.

I am lucky enough to have three of the most awesome friends in history of the planet. About three months prior to the race, I had convinced my friend Heidi to complete the half-marathon RELAY with her husband Tom, who happens to be my best friend. Now I'm pretty sure Tom still fosters some hatred toward me for convincing his wife (over a beer) to make him run this relay without him being there to take part in the decision, but nonetheless, these two wound up being integral to my race-day strategy.

So on race-day, Heidi ran the opening leg of the relay (which, by some sick twist of planning, ended up being 8.2 miles...not the 6.5 miles one would expect for half of a half-marathon relay), and we decided that since I no longer had aspirations of beating a certain time, but rather just finishing, I would run with Heidi and try to enjoy the race atmosphere with a friend. So Miss Positive and I took off at 6:15am and she hung right on my hip for all 8 miles of her leg, smiling and keeping my mind off my legs the whole time.

At the relay transition zone, Heidi passed the baton (which by that time, I'm pretty sure I was the baton) off to Tom, and he decided to forget whatever time goals he had, and dropped back to stick with me for the remainder of the race. I feel bad for Tom...cuz he got me when I was hurting bad and not a happy guy. Heidi had me when there was still some adrenaline running through my veins. So Tom and I set out on my tortoise-speed pace for the final 5 miles, all of which began to feel miserable, as my legs started to give.
*SIDE NOTE* - At no point did I have problems breathing or side-aches or wheezing. My endurance seemed fine. I attribute this to a much slower pace than I had intended when I started my training. I am certain that if I went out faster in the beginning, I would have suffered in more than just my legs.

As Tom single-handedly pulled me from miles 9-11, my condition suffered greatly. By the time we passed the 11-mile marker, my body was spent. I had lost the "bounce" of the running pace. I was literally dragging each leg for every step. And worst of all, I had broken down mentally. I did not think I had another step in me, and certainly not another two miles! I told Tom to leave me at my pace and go on and finish the race, as I continued to slow my pace. With a look of minor disappointment from Tom (I couldn't blame the poor guy after he tried agonizingly hard to keep me motivated for two miles), he took off to finish his leg of the relay.

I then found myself facing the biggest physical challenge I'd ever encountered...and I was on my own. No positive Heidi. No best friend Tom convincing me to dig deeper, believing I had more in me. And my own motivation to finish was wavering, as my mind wandered somewhere between the pain, the seemingly endless distance to the finish line, and a rapidly increasing feeling of disappointment in myself, as I found myself actually walking. For a grown man to realize he doesn't have what it takes is a tough thing to stomach. But I could not let myself just walk this race the rest of the way...I had to find something inside, but I had no idea where to look...I felt done.

I walked for about 25-30 seconds just past the 11.1 mark, and then gave myself a spirited pep-talk (although the people around me were almost certainly thinking I was suffering from mild delusions and had turned into one of those hobos that curses the world, while never really directing his words at anyone in particular), and tried to re-gain the running pace. The speech worked, as I began to rally (although I'm not sure what I was doing at that point could actually count as "running") and trolled my way through the remainder of the course...very slowly.

And then, right when I was coming to the conclusion that I had nothing left in my legs to continue running, who should appear but my kick-ass girlfriend who, after finishing the half-marathon in 1:26 (12th fastest woman), decided to weave her way back through the course and find me. There I was, looking like I was running in place in quicksand, when Julie came flying into the course, looking as if she hadn't yet run her race, and somehow found a way to get my legs moving again. All of a sudden, I had the third person of the day helping me get through this damn race, and I needed every one of them.

So Julie and I trudged the final 1.5 miles together, sometimes in spirited running, sometimes in dead silence after I told her "no more talking the rest of the race" (yes, I actually said that to my girlfriend trying to coach me...I know I know, I'm a dick), and sometime just trying to see straight. At this point I knew I was going to finish, but with no clue when or how.

And then I saw the clock.

Now before I go any further, I should say that because my training did not go as I had hoped, I no longer had any idea of how long this race would/should take me. I figured it would be somewhere between 1:50 and 2:20...with no real clue which of those ends was more likely.

With about half a mile to go, I saw that I had about four minutes to break two hours. At this point, this was neither exciting nor was just the easiest goal to set for myself at that point in the race. So I looked to Julie and said "Make me break 2 hours." She nodded (I think she was still shocked she had been told not to talk the rest of the race) and kept running. The pace picked up, then slowed dramatically, and I had no clue if I was going to break the 2-hour mark. Then, as Julie and I got to the final chute, I saw the finish line within close distance, and I yelled "C'mon!" like a crazed war-cry, and turned on (what felt like) the jets and floored it down the final turn. I kinda scared Julie with the shout, and before she knew it, she was trailing me as I dragged my 50lb shoes through the finish line.

The Final Time - 1:59:35

My body started cramping as a volunteer put the medal around my neck, but I was proud to have finished my first half-marathon. And then I was immediately humbled when the volunteer went to give Julie her medal and she responded "Oh, I already finished earlier." F-M-L. I love her, but F-M-L.

I walked through the runner area, grabbing all sorts of bananas, raisins, power bars, water (and air), the whole time Julie sticking by me telling me she was proud of me for finishing, despite my training setbacks. I probably acted like I didn't hear her, but I did. And I was proud to. But not of myself....

I was proud to have the three friends that were the sole reason I finished that race. Heidi kept me smiling and my mind off the daunting distances that lay ahead for those first 8 miles. Tom gave me the necessary kick in the pants combined with positive encouragement you could only get from your best buddy. And Julie gave me hope and reason to finish. By the time Julie basically picked me up off the floor when she found me, I had to finish the race because I owed it to those three to finish. They sacrificed their own races, their own days, to make sure I finished, regardless of what it did to their times, their bodies, and their expectations. They had one goal in mind, and it was to help me meet mine.

Those are some good friends. The best friends, actually.