Running is funny. Just when you wonder if it still has the capacity to teach you something new, or help you realize something you were missing, it’s there to remind you that yes, it always can. Today was one of those days for me. One of those days when running rewards with its surprise rather than beats down and humbles.
I set a personal record in a 10 mile race today at the Red Shoe Run. I’ve covered the distance in less time, so it’s an odd thing to claim, or might seem hollow, but nonetheless, in a dedicated 10 mile race distance, I’ve never gone fast than today. Perhaps I’ve bettered the time in longer distances thanks to the additional training that has gone into half marathons, as almost every 10 mile race I’ve run has been in winter, at the beginning of training season. But I digress.
I was looking forward to running the Seven Bridges Marathon last October, until a neck injury derailed training in August. Since then, running has been hit or miss. Training has certainly been nonexistent. My mileage dropped from 25-30 miles per week to eight. Or maybe 12 if I was lucky. Winter set in and I let things slide even more. I’ve never trained well in the winter, and if I’m being honest, I’ve been unmotivated since the neck injury. It’s made me hesitant and uncertain. Maybe I wallowed a bit.
With a new year however, I was determined to renew my effort. Until work, a sinus infection, and a neck flare-up sat me on my ass. Winter. It sucks. Rather than train for Mercedes, I decided to delay a bit and set myself up for a strong return to the Tuscaloosa half. In the meantime, there would be a number of races to use for warm up, including Mercedes.
The first was the Adam’s Heart 10k. I’ve run it in the past, actually setting a PR in the distance last year (00:50:58). Though, again, I think it’s not as fast as I’ve run the distance as part of a well-trained half marathon effort. Though I ran without training and with a nagging cough that I’d had for a week or so, I was within a minute or two of my PR (00:52:40). Not shabby I told myself.
Then, just a week later, I toed the line at Red Shoe, this time for 10 miles. Before the race I’d checked the McMillan race calculator, plugging my 10k time from Adam’s Heart into it. In theory, it claimed my projected 10 mile time as 01:28:02 at an 8:48 pace. Interesting I thought. That would be a PR. Maybe I can give it a go, who knows.
I set off, monitoring my watch, maintaining a slightly faster than 8:45 pace. Typically a cardinal sin to start too fast, the first half of Red Shoe is a net downhill, and the second half recovers all that lost elevation. In the last two miles. So I wanted a bit of a buffer. Approaching those last couple of miles however, my average pace was already hovering around 8:45. But, I had a couple of runners nearby who I’d been pacing with for most of the run, and together we managed to stay motivated, and mile nine was one of my faster splits. Around the final turn, up a little hill, and down to the finish line to cross in 01:29:48. My first sub 01:30:00 10-miler. My average pace, 8:47*. Dead on the pace calculator. A pace I would have said I wasn’t capable of just a week or two ago.
Like I said, sometimes running can actually build you up, remind you that you can do things you didn’t think you could do, accomplish all those things, etc. Yeah, this sounds perhaps a bit schmaltzy, but it’s true, even if it’s running a race 5 minutes faster than you expected to be able to run it. Right now though, it’s pretty much exactly what I needed.
*Yes, you are correct, the math doesn’t seem to add up there. That pace should have meant a 01:28:00 finish time, but my watch also measured the distance at 10.24 miles. Apparently, I did not run the turns efficiently.
This morning was the first time it really hit me, emotionally. Watching the Chicago Marathon, that itch started, the desire to be out on a course, running. And next Sunday the Seven Bridges Marathon will start, and though I registered for it, began training for it, I won’t be there to run it.
In August I set off on a 15 mile training run. It was midday, not the best idea, but it was mild for early August. It was a normal run. My friends on the patio of Good People having a beer took great pleasure in my suffering—something all runners do, knowing next time it will be themselves suffering. After finishing, it was a normal evening, everything going according to plan. I woke up Monday and everything was wrong.
My neck, my shoulder, my upper back. It all hurt. A lot. Work was difficult and by Tuesday I was sitting in a sports medicine office being diagnosed with an aggravated nerve, likely C5 / C6 in my neck. A couple of weeks of rest and muscle relaxers, an MRI, and confirmation of a slightly bulged disc. More steroids and the beginning of PT. And just like that it had been three weeks of no running. The emotional and mental equivalent of going off antidepressants cold turkey. I was an unpleasant human. With some time, my brain chemistry managed to rebalance a little, and I was able to supplement with rowing and cycling before finally getting the go ahead to continue running. Easy. Low distance. No training.
I accepted fairly early on that Seven Bridges wouldn’t happen, but maybe I could get back in the swing of things and run the Four Bridges half instead. But no, getting the go ahead, but only easy low mileage, that was pushed off the table as well. Again, not a big deal, always another race another day. This morning was just a bit difficult. Last year I was in Chicago to watch a friend run. It’s one of the best spectator events in sports. It’s wonderful. I was training for Memphis at the time. A race that didn’t go as I’d hoped, a race I was hoping to make up for in Chattanooga at Seven Bridges. So, it all circles around.
Not everything about this experience has been negative. It’s been a time for reflection, rethinking the role of running in my life, exercise in general. As soon as I was allowed to return to running, I was more thankful for running than I have been in a very long time. And, as my physical therapist pointed out, I’m hitting the age where running alone isn’t enough. It’s time to consider my core strength, especially considering the long, and delicate neck, I’ve inherited. I’m learning how to stand again, with correct posture. Same for sitting. And running. It’s all new again as I focus on form in a way I haven’t in years. It’s a little awkward, sometimes frustrating, but in the long-term, hopefully it will make me a better runner. And help me avoid further injuries.
A storm shelter sign in a hotel hallway in Auburn. The night before the Auburn Running Festival Half Marathon. My third half marathon in six weeks. A streak started with the Mercedes in Birmingham, followed by Tuscaloosa, and ending with Auburn. And seeing the sign in the hallway, I was amused at first. It’s an odd sign when compared to the typical “Emergency Exit” signs you expect to see. Hindsight, 13.2 miles later, and perhaps the sign serves as a decent allusion to the sense of refuge created by running.
Mercedes was a slog. The weather was far from ideal for a race, temperature in the mid to upper 60s, the humidity creeping above 90%. Jokes about swimming instead of running. I’d also barely slept the night before. Cynthia and I had an argument the evening before, one I wasn’t sure we’d recover from. So, I began the race exhausted physically and mentally, had difficulty focusing, and the weather just wore me down.
Tuscaloosa was possibly the best distance race I’ve run in spite of missing a PR by a mere three seconds. For the first time I ran a negative split during a distance race, running the second half of the race two minutes faster than the first half. Most of that time made up in the last three miles of the race, also my fastest. It didn’t hurt that the weather was perfect. Low to mid 40s at start, drifting into the low 50s. I was rested and in a better mental space, able to focus on the task at hand—pacing, hydrating, taking in calories, and so on.
And then there was Auburn. As the pendulum swung from low to high in the previous two races, Auburn certainly fell somewhere in the middle. I ran an acceptable race. Again, the weather was adversarial, I hadn’t slept particularly well, but I wasn’t exhausted in the same sense as I had been at Mercedes. In part, I was accepting the sense of refuge that running can provide.
A week before the Auburn half, Cynthia and I broke up. I wasn’t sure about running the race, but in the days after the break up, it seemed a reasonable way to get out-of-town and think about something else. Refocus, occupy my time. Again, that little notion, refuge.
I wasn’t sure about my chances of doing any better than Tuscaloosa from the beginning, but I took off from the starting line with the intention of giving it a good try. I spent a lot of the race thinking about the previous few weeks. The ups and downs of the races, the fits and starts in the relationship of almost a year that had just ended. Race strategy. Observations on the course, the weather. The many things that can go through your mind on the course.
In the early portions the focus was on maintaining my PR pace. The rolling hills soon started to make me question my ability. Relatively early in the race my legs were not feeling fresh. Even trying to avoid pushing hard between races, the effort of the challenge was catching up. I run what many consider a lot of miles, but not nearly enough to make serious race efforts a couple of weeks apart easy. Shortly after the turnaround of a long out and back, I passed my friend David, who shouted an encouraging, “Eye on the prize, PR, you got this!” It was a nice sentiment, but I was already dreading repeating the hills we’d just run.
And in short time, the hills got me. I slowed. There were a couple of people I’d been pacing off of, leapfrogging each other through the first six or seven miles. As the hills wore me down, I watched them slip further away. Without needing to look at my watch I knew I was off pace with no real chance to make up the time. This day would be no PR.
But this is where a less than ideal race day turned into a moment of drizzle weathered painful clarity. I was not kicking myself in the ass for missing a mark, not making a goal. It became aware to me, thinking back to the other two races, and often running in general, that it’s one of the few arenas of my life where I am compassionate with myself. I can acknowledge the times when my efforts fall short without being angry or judgmental towards myself. Sure, if I completely muff a race, don’t try hard enough, I know that. I don’t let myself off the hook. But when the conditions aren’t in my favor, when I know, through the suffering I go through on the course, I can accept it. I can accept that I didn’t accomplish what I wanted, but that in the ongoing lesson that running is, I did alright. In fact, I might have done as well as possible all factors considered.
I’ve always considered it my safe means of self-destruction, coming from a family of self-destructive tendencies. But, perhaps, the greatest thing I can learn isn’t a safe means of exorcising those demons. Instead, it’s a time to practice self compassion. An area of refuge.
Someone who wants to race a 10K instead of all the 5Ks, and the pickings are limited, so roads at a state park will have to make do. At least that was my internal response when I saw that question. There just aren’t enough 10K or longer races around, and sure, it makes more sense to trail run at a state park, known for great trails no less. But I wanted to get a race in to test my pace before the Mercedes Half Marathon next weekend, and the Adam’s Heart Runs 10K was a good place to do it.
Weather was good, a little brisk in the shade when the wind picked up, but other wise perfect. And I ran a decent race. It was a little off goal. I wanted sub-50 minutes. But it’s still a 10K race PR at 00:50:57. About 30 seconds quicker than my existing PR. And considering the course, I’m ok with it. After all, this was around seven and a half minutes quicker than the last time I ran the same race in 2013.
The funny thing about running and PRs, is that I’ve run 6.2 miles faster than 00:50:57. It’s just been as part of a longer run. In fact, the fastest I’ve ever run a 10K was either the first 10K of the Statue 2 Statue 15K, or the first 10K of the Tuscaloosa Half Marathon. Which is to say, after a few months of downtime after the Memphis Marathon, I’m not in peak condition.
Training is an interesting process. And it’s so much different than maintenance. It’s easy to marvel at runners who are exceptionally fast, even the local guys and not professionals and elites. The friends I have who are quick run a lot more than I do. They put in more miles (it’s easier when you’re fast after all cause it takes less time). Their baseline performance level is higher. So when they do kick it into training mode, it’s not quite the leap that my maintenance to training is. At least this is my perception. They could tell me I’m dead wrong. Either way, my base is lower than theirs, as is the base of a lot of casual runners (base meaning the average number of miles run per week as maintenance of fitness).
Which all comes back to the question of why. I don’t want to assume the motivations of my friends or other runners. For a lot of casual runners it is community, or general fitness. Others it can be much more about proving something to one’s self. I’ve maintained for a long time that I run for my mental health. Which is still true. I never had aspirations of running a marathon, though now I’ve completed five. I never really expected to keep a blog detailing the experiences I’ve had training, though I have now for nearly five years. Of course, the more interesting part of keeping the blog is that it’s allowed me to dive into the deeper elements of running for mental health. It’s given me time to reflect on the insights gained from pursuits that a lot of people deem crazy. Certainly I thought marathons were crazy when I began lacing up my shoes for three mile runs that were difficult to finish when I began running. But, running ten or fifteen miles a week slowly, or running that far on just one day of the weekend during marathon training, the point has always been mental health.
Running for mental health. It’s an easy thing to say, people nod, they seem to get it. Certainly a lot of of people run to clear their mind, focus on something other than work, or home life. Or, as some runners have said, if you’ve got a problem, it’s hard to get back from a run without a solution. It’s a great time to let the body work and perform functions, which takes some focus obviously from your mind, but allows it to deal with things in a different way than sitting at a desk, stewing, focusing too much conscious energy on it. And I certainly have days where running provides that for me. But on a deeper level, I run because I don’t want to be medicated. The pharmacological effects are what I’m after. The space to ruminate and think through things, or distract myself with the “positive self destructive” qualities of running is a nice benefit.
Which belays a slight contradiction in my approach to mental health. I’ve considered my depression to be in remission so to speak. There have been times of acute onset that were incredibly difficult, times when I sought treatment. Through both medication and therapy. And I went through the process with great dedication, trying to solve the things. That approach worked to give me the false sense that depression was curable, in as much as cancer is curable. It can be beaten, but it’s gone, you’re good for some time, but there is always the chance for a recurrence. So for me, running was a prophylactic to prevent a recurrence. So long as I ran, and followed a few other coping techniques, I was in remission. Cured as it were. In essence I’ve been performing the maintenance of day to day coping and running. Severe bouts required the heavier training of therapy or what have you, akin to preparing for a bigger race.
But that’s just not an accurate way to look at this disease. Or at least, for me, I’m realizing that it’s not an accurate or complete picture of things. I was asked recently why I looked like I was miserable all day, and there was a follow up question to which I responded that miserable might be my default affect a lot of the time, even if I don’t feel miserable, I might display that affect.
Reflecting on it after an epic 11 hours of sleep, when said I think “miserable” might just be a part of my affect, I wasn’t quipping or being sarcastic, or trying to make a joke. I think I’m becoming more aware of the chronic aspects of depression. It’s not in “remission” like I’ve wanted to believe, it’s just at a baseline manageable state. And I think some of that manifestation is that my affect is generally going to be baseline lower than a lot of people. It seems more obvious in relationships, which is tough, because I just don’t seem as excited or happy as social conventions imply one should be in a relationship. But it’s occurred that people at work generally have a pretty similar take on me. Prodding every once in a while about my general distemper, or displeasure at things. How I always look or act exasperated… even when I’m not feeling those ways. I’ve coped to some degree by embracing a “crotchety young guy” persona and trying to maintain it as something of a joke, but it’s tiresome. I’ve worked with some of them for a decade and they genuinely seem to think I’m always angry and unhappy, which just isn’t true.
But, taking all that in, I’ve just become a little more acutely aware of it lately. In part, thanks to a podcast I just recently discovered: The Hilarious World of Depression. It’s a guy who just interviews comedians to talk about their struggles with depression. And they really dig into the chronic aspect. And even though I think I had good therapists, the approach was always sort of tackling the problem, resolving it, and moving on, as if it could be “cured.” And I’m starting to accept that isn’t true. Oddly enough it seems to dovetail with my appreciation of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The online show where Seinfeld interviews comedians. And the deeper thing I appreciate about it is the perspective that comes up a lot. A dark, kind of pessimistic view of things, where the only way to cope is to make a joke or laugh at it.
I’ve made jokes about being a nihilist, but I think it’s kind of not that far off. Accepting the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe, in a sense alleviates some of those depressive thoughts. If nothing matters, well, my low affect really isn’t that uncalled for, right? Realistically I’m probably some odd mix of nihilist / Buddhist. And so I’m struggling a bit now with finding intent with what I do. Work, relationships, life in general. In all of that there is a choice, encapsulated in one of those trite sounding potentially cliche driven quips, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
For a while these feelings have been a lot like a toddler who’s sleepy. That “Shit feels wrong and I’m going throw a tantrum” thing kids do before bedtime. When they literally don’t know what tiredness is, or how sleep will make them feel better, so they are just mad and angry at the world.
So… I have a low affect and I get asked,
“why, what’s wrong?”
And my higher level functions look, and there’s nothing particularly wrong.
“Nothing,” I reply.
“But you looked miserable.. (or at work insert mad / frustrated / etc)”
Higher level function triggers actual frustration with what seems like a lack of understanding the words coming out of my mouth.
“No, really, nothing’s wrong.”
Of course, there is the internal toddler reaction starting as higher level function can’t square internal reality with perceived reality and struggles to reconcile the two. What wasn’t anger or frustration becomes anger or frustration at my inability to square away my internal state with the external one, and can’t convey it in a way that makes sense in a world where my affect seems “off.”
The tired toddler analogy might not be the most accurate way to express all of this. But it is a case of not knowing or understanding why the body is doing something, or why whatever is happening within the mind and body doesn’t fit a societal standard. And the tantrum is the reaction to to feeling like the world has expectations of you that simply aren’t possible. And with recent reflection it’s clear my affect appears to others a certain way, which is understandable from their perspective. But internally, it’s just baseline. I used to attribute this to being introverted, but I think it’s as much a function of depression as it is being introverted. And certainly the two working as partners in crime quite often.
It’s difficult for me when I confront those “actions not matching words” situations. Where my outward affect conveys something to other people that doesn’t match my internal situation. Internally, there isn’t necessarily a disparity. One of the most frustrating things I’ve dealt with, or deal with, is the perceptions others have of my thoughts and perspective. I usually feel like I’m trying to fit a square peg in a round hole when I’m talking to other people. Again, I assumed it was living as an introvert in an extrovert biased world. That is probably a part of it, but depression also plays a big role that I’ve ignored by thinking I’m “in remission.”
Saying I’m generally just not “happy” in the sense a lot of peoples’ baseline affect is, or the baseline society expects, is confounding and difficult. Distance from others is the preferred path a lot of times because it means I don’t have to deal with that disparity, or expend the effort to maintain the semblance of “not depressed.”
I know I’m not the only person who deals with these manifestations of depression. One of the insidious aspects of the disease is that it can make one feel very isolated, and as if you are the only one facing these issues. And regardless of how great and understanding one’s friends or family might be, the constant input of media and cultural cues makes it hard to accept and deal with openly. So, here it is. My acceptance that I am depressed, and in the times I told myself I wasn’t, I have been. It is a bit of relief, coming to that conclusion, realizing that my maintenance isn’t keeping it away, just keeping it manageable. That it’s ok that my baseline affect isn’t the general perception of “happy.” It is what it is, and it doesn’t have to take away from the pleasure I derive from my life that my baseline is different than “normal,” for whatever that’s worth.
Perhaps I was more relieved when I crossed the finish line in Berlin. Maybe it was San Francisco. But Memphis hurt, and being most recent overshadows those older memories. Memphis was our version of Napoleon’s march on Russia.
Shortly after finishing, standing with David, Kevin, and Nathan, reflecting on the moment, we couldn’t decide what is better. The euphoria of finishing a race with a PR, or the feeling of salvaging a race, gritting it out, and getting across the line and ending the suffering.
In the days and weeks before the race, our group had whittled down from seven or eight runners down to three starters. Gray skies, and near perfect temperature at the start, everything about the trip had been going well. The expo had been a breeze, we stumbled across a local pizza and pasta dive with no wait for our pre-race meal. Of course David had contracted some kind of upper respiratory infection from a nephew over the holidays. And Justin was gonna go till the wheels fell off, having had a nagging injury issue that wasn’t bad enough to keep him from running, but was likely to prevent him from coming close to a PR. But we were in good spirits in the corral, sidled up next to the four-hour pacers.
After last years error of judgement, running ahead of the four-hour pacers at Chattanooga, only to be passed by them somewhere between mile 20 and 22, I was determined to stick with the pacers. There was concern with our pace early, but they assured us we’d dial it back once the crowd thinned out. After we rattled off the first few miles briskly, we settled into our real pace. And I found myself drifting ahead bit by bit, in large part because I wasn’t slowing through aid stations and the pacers wanted to give the group a chance to walk through the stations. I wasn’t overly concerned, and it was shaping up to be a fun race. Justin and David and I were jockeying back and forth around the pacers, keeping each other on task.
Through the campus of St. Jude, and the moist eyes, a result of hearing the cheers of parents of patients and former patients thanking the runners. It was a little overwhelming, and continued along the course. Rather than just cheering the runners, people stood in their years and thanked the runners. It was a truly unique experience. An incredibly humbling experience. Reinforced by the artwork at each mile marker from children illustrating the A-Z’s of childhood cancer.
After running through the hospital campus, I finally settled into a groove. A flow. Miles were ticking off with a near metronomic pace. I wasn’t worried about how far behind me the pacers might have been, I was just running smooth and comfortable pegged on my race pace. As I passed through the timing mat at the halfway mark, everything still felt great, but I slowed a little over the next couple of miles. It wasn’t intentional, but worked to put the pacers back on my heels. I cranked down and was back on pace for a couple of miles, beginning to notice it was a bit more effort than the flow I’d been in 30 or 40 minutes before. My pace slipped a little and the pacers were shoulder to shoulder with me.
One of the pacers made a comment about not wanting to pass the guy in the green shirt. I was running well under the four-hour mark and they didn’t want to get too far ahead of pace.
— You’re looking great she said.
— I’m not feeling that great I replied.
— Oh, you’ve got this. Just another 8 miles, maybe an hour and 28 minutes. You can do anything for an hour and 28 minutes.
Earlier, some time shortly after the hospital campus, David expressed some concern over his head cold. I reminded him jokingly, mind over matter. He was a little incredulous. True, it’s kind of difficult to will an upper respiratory infection or head cold out of existence. I’d even been thinking for a while during the run of the power of the sentiment. On the ride up, I’d read a National Geographic article about belief, faith, the power of the placebo effect. How all of it is intertwined.
But in this moment—You can do anything for an hour and 28 minutes—something cracked. My pace began to deteriorate. My will slipped. Upon hearing a toss away comment, something deep in my subconscious gave up. In a split moment I lost the mental game of the marathon. And the wheels came off. Napoleon’s march on Russia. My quads began to ache. My knee felt tweaky. My Achilles began tighten. Mile 18 began the derailment, and it was in full swing by mile 20, generally seen as the infamous “wall.” My pace was off by almost three minutes per mile. My stride sputtered in fits and starts. Walking. Stopping to stretch a quad. To stretch an Achilles. It was over. Internal monologue became an inquisition. What the hell went wrong? How did this suddenly go so sideways. By all accounts my training had been on par or ahead of my training for Chattanooga. But here I was, the marathon handing me my pride in tatters, kicking my ass harder than it had been kicked since Berlin.
And I came face to face with a dark realization. Perhaps I do not have the mental perspective to overcome the test of a marathon? I’ve been called out for finding the negative, rarely focusing on the positive. Incisive comments on occasion. A critical eye and perspective on the world around me. Whether I wanted to create a positive mental landscape during the marathon. To focus on erasing the pain, looking past it, thinking positively, and just running through it. Instead, the pain begins, the difficulty sets in, and what does my mind do? It begins to mark the decline, document the struggle, critique. You can do anything for an hour and 28 minutes. Nope. Not today. That’s just a bridge too far.
I settled in the despair. A near break down, on the brink of sobbing. And cheering fans. You can do this. You got this. You’re almost there. Thank you heroes. But I was done. Broken down and shuffling. A quarter-mile at an awkward shuffle. Another quarter-mile walking. The gray skies were beginning to mist the course with drizzle.
A small error at the start line, I’d reset the screens on my watch, leaving elapsed time off. The only way to track my time was to subtract 12 minutes off the time on the displays at mile markers. I knew my splits were starting to click off at 12 minutes or so, as my watch chimed each mile and reported my fading pace. But as I passed a late marker, perhaps mile 24 or 25, I realized my time was not destined to be terrible. Unless I just stopped, I had a chance to keep at the terrible pace I was at and end the race with my second best time. My fuzzy, despair laden brain could barely comprehend the thought. But I did the math. I could beat the 04:38 I ran in Chicago. From the darkness of a morale crushing day, a glimmer. Perhaps a small bit of redemption.
I shuffled around the corner. Mile 26. Just a couple of turns and then the baseball stadium. The finish line. The medal. Relief.
435.4 miles // 65 hours 26 minutes
The mileage and time put into this training cycle. In about 24 hours another 26.2 miles and about four hours will be added to those totals. A giddy nervousness is setting in. Replacing the slightly foul mood I’ve been in the last few days.
I’m not sure what’s worse. The original fear of finishing my first marathon. The day before, thinking about adding an extra six miles to my longest run ever up to that point. Or today. Facing my fifth marathon. Knowing, somewhere in the back of my mind, how painful tomorrow will be. Perhaps it’s still overshadowed by how amazing crossing the finish line feels. In fact, I have to remind myself of the advice I gave my coworker Meghan Ann just a couple of weeks ago. She was facing her first half marathon after finishing a couch-to-half-marathon training plan. Her longest run up to that point was 10 miles. And it was a run-walk.
—How was she going to finish 13.2? Without walking?
—Trust the training plan. Know that race day is a completely different beast than training. You’ll do great.
We had this conversation numerous times in the week or two leading up to the race. And in the end she was ecstatic after finishing the race, on pace, without walking. Still in post race pain just a couple of hours later she asked, “what’s next?” The beauty of distance training and racing. I never expected to run a marathon, just as she never thought she’d finish a half. I suspect there are many more in her future, just as I’m about to begin my fifth marathon. Which, upon reflection in this moment, still baffles and amazes me.
So, 24 hours until the gun.
Finishing my last leg, the 13 mile “W(h)ine More Leg,” capping off 22 miles in less than 30 hours. I was happier than it looks in the photo. It was a fantastic race with some wonderful people. Van 2 was a well-oiled machine, even with three rookies. And after 22 miles and not a lot of sleep, I felt better than I have after the previous three road Ragnar’s I’ve done; guess peak training is kicking in and I’m feeling pretty good heading into the home stretch for Memphis. Of course a trip to San Francisco is always great, and the chance to venture north was nice. The scenery was amazing, my first leg meandering through a couple of small towns, mountains peaking through the trees. Second leg, in the middle of the night was best for the middle of the night, meandering through a town with far less scenery. And then that third leg. Thirteen miles of fun after a couple of hours asleep in a van, if you can call it sleep. A little scramble to get ready in time, and then away. I got a little lost in a park (the course was marked horribly), but a kind local pointed me towards the place she’d seen a bunch of other runners. And then onto the highway. A bit nerve-wracking at times without much shoulder to run on, but nothing but wineries and mountains to see in the distance. It was a lovely place to put in 13 miles. And, after the stress and sleep deprivation of a Ragnar, I was pleased to put those 13 miles down in close to marathon race pace. In many ways a nice confidence boosting counter point to that Dalton performance. Afterwards this craft beer lover was even able to appreciate a couple of wine tastings. The Irish Car Bombs later in the evening did not go so well. But that’s what happens at Ragnar.
Week ten called for a half marathon or time trial. Last training cycle I recreated a half marathon distance on a one mile loop on 1st and 2nd Avenues South. It sucked. Hard. Possibly one of the hardest runs I’ve ever had. The difference between pushing hard in a race, with other runners, for nearly two hours and maintaining that level of intensity alone. Brutal. It really highlights the mental nature of running, endurance running, and racing. Fortunately Dalton was on the day the program called for a race, and just a couple of hours away. I talked to my friend David, who was on the same training program, and we decided at the last minute, on to Dalton.
Using my goal for Memphis, the McMillan running calculator estimated my half performance at 01:54. Which is a little off my previous half PR (1:50:55) from 2014. That had been a strong spring for me with three halfs in three months, culminating in the PR. I felt great going into training for Berlin, but alas, a serious sinus infection can ruin the best laid plans. All that considered, I was a bit brash toeing the starting line. Rather than take the reasonable approach and line up with the 1:55 pacer, I settled in next to the 1:50 pacer. Training had been feeling better, particularly after a great 18 miler in Chicago in very similar weather to Dalton. Why not try to shave the 55 seconds off my PR and break into the 1:40s? David was a little reticent. Training for both of us has been hit or miss in the past, and this cycle he wasn’t feeling the best. And he, like I, was worried about the sub four goal. But he toed the line next to me.
The first few miles were great. A crisp fall day. A little breezy. But the pacer seemed cool and confident on a course that seemed to favor the training conditions back in Birmingham. We set out on a quick, but up to that point comfortable, 8:12 or 8:15 pace. Things were looking good. Checking my watch periodically at pace, my heart rate seemed to be climbing slowly, and staying under what I expected to see at that pace. And so things went smoothly through five miles. Shortly after getting my first gu packet down, somewhere between mile five and six, something seemed a little off. Checked my watch. Heart rate was creeping a little. Somewhere in the 160s after being comfortable in the 145-150 range for the opening miles. No need for panic though, sometimes it take my body a half mile or so to adjust to calorie intake. I backed off a bit, keeping the pacer close at hand, but enough to hopefully get my heart rate balanced back out. It didn’t work.
For the next couple of miles I watched the pace group slowly inch ahead as I wondered why my heart rate was climbing into the 170s (veering into lactate threshold and beyond) and would not come back down. I can run indefinitely in the low 150s. My half PR averaged 160. Beyond that and I’m only good for sprint distances. I knew in the back of my mind that I’d had a couple of recent runs where my heart rate monitor had to be off, but after a couple of miles with my heart rate reading in the 170s and 180s, the mental damage had been done. I was in the midst of a serious struggle to maintain pace just over halfway into the race. I buckled down and tried to assure myself that my heart rate was likely not that high, but I just couldn’t force myself to push harder. Too much energy was being directed to not panicking or trying to talk myself through the situation.
The triage worked well enough. I turned the corner for the final stretch down the red carpeted finish line and the clock was ticking towards 1:54. Not a PR, a bit off the last couple of races, but across the line at 1:54:28, putting me right in line with the McMillan estimates. Regardless, it was still a bit of a blow to my confidence after a few really good training runs. But, not every day is a good day, and considering the way the day went, it was a decent save.
Right after the finish line I found David and the pacer. He’d manage to stay right on her side the entire race, the only person in the pace group to manage it. A fantastic result that helped settle some of his pacing concerns. So, a salvaged race on my part, a great outcome for David. All in all, can’t ask for much more in a last-minute race.
Sunday rest for the first day of the second month of training. My race is on a Saturday, hence long runs falling on Saturday and the training week beginning on Sunday instead of Monday. Though just a month into training, rest days are now a relief. A much more deeply appreciated thing. And I’m using an intermediate training plan. I have many friends who put in this kind of mileage off-season when they aren’t training, just maintaining fitness. Which, I became acutely aware of my lackluster base-building on my long run yesterday. It was one of the tougher 13 miles I’ve run. It was warm. I had a minor fluid miscalculation when a water cooler I ran past was empty. I didn’t make to bed as early as I’d hoped. My turnaround between Friday intervals and Saturday long run was 12 hours or so instead of the 24 I suspect my plan expects. And I was off a little mentally. But most of all, in that mental haze, was the thought, “You did this to yourself. During the spring and summer you set maintenance plans and didn’t follow them. You let your mileage slip. You let yourself down on conditioning. And now, each of these long runs for the next 12 weeks will be a struggle. Because you are conditioning and training.”
But that’s the marathon. The mental aspect that everyone talks about. It’s not just what your mind does at mile 20 when you hit “the wall.” Or how you react in that moment. It’s 16 weeks of working through those things mentally. Paying attention to your mind and body on training runs. Getting mad at yourself, critiquing every aspect of training, and lifestyle for that matter. Working out the bugs and exorcising the demons. So that on race day, you know you’ve already put yourself through hell, and race day is simply about executing a plan and following through on what your mind and body can do. This is probably why it takes a few marathons to really get it. The first one will be entirely new, since you never cover the full distance in training. Then, on the second go, you think you have it dialed in, but in all likelihood the race will find a way to humble you. And so you begin to reflect on races, and issues, during training, refining the process. Realizing what different aspects of training really do, both physically and mentally. In some cases learning to trust the system and not over think it. In other situations acknowledging the gaps in knowledge, effort, etc. Room for improvements or better perspective. Self improvement through self-destruction. That’s the core of the marathon for me.
Now that philosophizing is over, how about the stats for the first month training. It was well under the 100 mile mark, something that will likely not happen again until after the race. I’m knocking on the door of 10,000 calories burned in training (according to Garmin at least).