Monday, October 24, 2011

#372: The Iron Horse Half Marathon

It isn't going to be easy to write about this race. There's a lot about it that I don't really remember. I think I was just so caught up in the moment that I forgot to keep mental notes. Here are a few scenes that I managed to hang on to.

Saturday Night
I've been concentrating on eating more carbohydrates for a couple of days. Tonight, I want to eat light so I don't have a belly full when it's time to run. The only thing worse than not having a port-a-potty nearby when you need one is having to sit on that 40 degree seat at 7:30 in the morning.

I've chosen my gear for the race. I'll wear the Adidas. The Nikes are prettier, but my best runs are all in these gray trail runners, and I almost never get blisters when I wear them. I'll wear my new, UK blue compression shorts under the black and gold Livestrong shorts. I'll decide on the tights in the morning. I picked them up for about $12 at Meijer and they look like they'll be just as good as the $60 ones on eBay. The brown jersey work gloves for my hands. The white wrist bands and sweat band. The fancy Feetures socks. Other than my shoes, they're the most expensive thing I'm wearing. If they take good care of my tootsies, they'll be worth it.

Pin my number on the front of my shirt. Pin the Once for the Five banner I've created on the back. I have it tucked into a zip lock bag so I don't smear it during the race.

Bed time. Shower. Powder and tape the feet. I put a half-inch wide strip over the end of the three middle toes, then wrap a 1 inch strip around each one. One wrap. No seams. No overlaps. No bumps. At 9:00, I kiss Mrs P good night, turn out the light, and stare into the dark wishing I could get up and start the race right now.

Sunday Morning
5:00 AM, and the alarm goes off. I've been watching the numbers change since about 4:30. Jake, Clare, and I go out to the yard for a pee. Well, you know, I watch and they... never mind. The moon is beautiful, a sliver turned on its back like a glowing bowl in the sky. Standing there in my pajamas, I realize that yes, I will be wearing my tights today. It is about 38 degrees outside.

A Gift from Eric
Turn on the coffee. Toast an English Muffin. Check the email and Facebook. A friend send a contribution over night. One for the Five,  our fundraiser on Crowdrise is sitting at $3480. If no more comes in, I'll throw in the last 20 bucks after the race. Eric sent me a graphic he created that was inspired either by John Updike, Pink Floyd, or Eminem. I download it as my desktop background at once.

Lots of good wishes from friends. I've promised to carry them all in my heart. I'll actually be carrying them in a little plastic bag pinned to the back of my tee-shirt, but I've decided that still counts.

Get out the jar of Aquaphor to grease my feet before I put on socks. Tape the nipples. Damn. Forgot to shave again. That's going to hurt coming off.

At 6:00, Mrs P stirs. I've told her I want to leave by 6:30 so we can park and I can warm up. She is a remarkably good sport about it. Double check to make sure the camera is in my bag with dry, post-race clothes. Feed the dogs. Hit the road.

Sunrise over Midway
A few miles outside of Midway, I notice that there are lots of headlights behind us. They all make the left turn off of Leestown Road into town. It occurs to me that this is the last time I will lead this race, so I may as well enjoy it. In town, the scene is eerie. Police direct traffic in the headlights. People in sweats and warm up suits, and a few Viking souls in short are jogging around or stamping their feet in place. Lots of people sipping coffee. We drive around town for a couple of minutes, finally settling on a parking spot on Main Street. Mrs P give me a kiss. sets her alarm for 7:50, and curls up in a blanket on the front seat.

I walk down the street, toward the starting line. There are already a couple hundred people gathered. Some are chatting and smiling. Some are staring with that, "What the hell am I doing awake in the cold in short pants?" look in their eyes. The sound of port-a-potty doors slams echoes across the square. Poor girls.

I begin trotting gently around the square. My body starts waking from my feet up. No little aches or pains. Everything seems to be working as it should. My arms are a little chilly under my warm-up suit. I'm glad I threw a long sleeved technical shirt into my bag. Of course, after resolving not to wear anything new for the race, I'm now going to be running in tights and a shirt that just came out of their wrappers. Thank goodness for baby powder and adhesive tape.

The Land of the Sparkle People
At around 7:30, I make my way back to the car. I pull off my warm-ups, strip off my white cotton shirt, and put on my racing top. Sweat band for my head. Wrist bands to hold the sleeves closed. Gloves to keep me warm and to use for handkerchiefs along the way. The cold I brought home with me from Pittsburgh is not bothering me too much, but my nose is running and shows no signs of slowing down. Got to remember not to shake any hands till I take my gloves off.

I settle into what seems like the back of the pack at the starting line. Before long, several hundred more runners are behind me. I should move back, but the road is plenty wide enough for them to blow past me. Just before the start, Mrs P appears, camera in hand. She is so proud of me. It feels terrific. The flash of her camera lights up the whole crowd. Seems like everybody is wearing something that's reflective.

There is no gun at the start.
I guess they figured that 1300 people in the front yard is enough to ask the good folks of Midway to endure at 8:00 on a Sunday morning. The elite runners head out, and we mortals follow behind. It only takes me about a minute to get to the starting line. I am way too far up in the pack. Race etiquette dictates that the slow-pokes stay to the rear. So does common sense. I need to start slowly if I'm going to make it to the end. The tide of stronger runners carries me along through the first mile about a minute and a half faster than I planned to go. I put the brakes on and find a lower gear.

What the Well-Dressed Marathoner is
Wearing this Year
As we pass the beautiful campus of Midway college, the road is filled with runners as far as I can see. This is one of my favorite moments in a race. We are a river, flowing through the countryside in our brightly colored clothes. We wear crazy hats. A couple of people are in costumes. A handful of us imagine we can actually win this race, but the rest are here to share this thing that we love with a few hundred friends and strangers. Soon, the pack will begin to string out as the stronger runners pull out ahead, but for now, we are a crazy quilt of panting, sweating joy. It's great to be alive.

I start to hear beeping all around me. I am not the only Run/Walk devotee in the crowd. One fellow is running for 30 seconds and walking for 30 seconds. He is funny at first, but then the sound gets a little annoying. 30/30 seems kind of excessive. How is he ever going to finish? After about five minutes, he disappears around a turn up ahead and I never see him again. I'm going to have to try shorter intervals for my next race.

From time to time, I tuck in behind another runner whose pace seems to match mine. After about two miles I've settled in to the 12min/mile pace that I planned. I have a good enough feel for it that I know when to let a runner go when they're pulling me along too fast. I make friends with another Galloway runner from Chicago who is doing 60/60 intervals. We run along together for most of the middle of the race.

At the half-way point...
...there are people by the side of the road cheering the runners on. A cowbell thunks in the morning air. I guess most of the townsfolk are awake by now. I run through a scheduled walk break during this stretch, the only time during the race that I skip one. My ego wouldn't let me stop in front of all these nice people. Hope I don't regret it later.

The second half of the race is made up of long rolling hills. I think to myself that they should re-name this race the "Just One More" half marathon. I keep whispering "just one more" to myself, which tickles me, and helps me get to the top.

I'm feeling strong at mile 8, and start testing my legs a little. I slowly pull away from my companion from Chicago. I'm just going a few second faster, but if feels really good. "I eat hills," I think to myself. I'm looking for just the right combination of confidence and humility.

The humility part is easy. The leaders have long since begun passing me going the other direction. As a matter of fact, the winner finished before I got to the half-way point. I never even saw him. I start seeing other people from John's Striders. We point and smile and call each other's names. It lifts my spirits. Never even occurs to me how much faster these runners are than I am.

After the 10 mile sign...
...I really am on my own. I see a few runners ahead of me, but don't hear any footsteps behind. I won't have anybody to help me pace these last three miles. I'll have to just trust my training and put one foot in front of the other. The sun is up, now. The thoroughbreds raise their heads up from grazing to watch me curiously as I trot past. "You call that running?" they seem to ask. Another reason to smile. At least I don't have to carry anybody.

Mile 11
I had planned to really press the tempo from here. I try stepping on the gas, but my legs are getting heavy. I'll keep on taking my walk breaks every 4 minutes. Suddenly 2 miles seems like a very long way.

Mile 12.
Angels Behind Me
A young man in black Adidas shorts sails past me. Where the devil has he been hiding? I have to admire his discipline. I wish I had saved a little more for this last mile. My thighs feel like they are made of stone. My strides are no longer automatic. Each one requires a conscious decision. "Lift. Pull. Put it down. Lift. Pull. Put it down." I struggle to hold my form. My upper body wants to slump forward, but I know that will just make me jam my legs into the pavement and wear me out even faster. I feel the doubt weighing on me. Is this "the wall" that the marathoners talk about?

Then, I remember the sign on my back. The reason I'm running. I remember the Five. With each stride, each time my right foot lands, I begin chanting their names. "Doug. Alan. Catherine. Elvin." I remember Alan's email, thanking me for my blog and how it gave him strength during his chemo. I remember Catherine's son telling me how hard she had prayed for me. Elvin shaking off the fog of the tumor in his brain and struggling to his feet to walk me to the door at his mamma's funeral. Doug smiling on his death-bed, telling us, "It's all going to be worth it." "Doug. Alan. Catherine. Elvin."
"We did it."

They ran with me. They breathed for me. I felt their hands lifting me from behind, lightening my legs, lifting my feet, pumping my arms. A fireman waved me into the last turn. "Three tenths of a mile to go!" he shouted. "Three city blocks," I thought to myself.  "Doug. Alan, Catherine. Elvin." The clock at the finish line read 2:39:50. I was going to break 2:40. I called their names out loud. Mrs P was there with the camera and burst into tears when I sprinted through the arch. "Doug. Alan. Catherine. Elvin...We did it."

A man handed me a bottle of water.
Mrs P ran weeping across the finisher's corral and gave me a sweaty, snotty, tear-soaked kiss. We walked together in the morning sunshine, her holding my now glove-less hand, me waiting for my eyes to focus. A lady approached me and reached toward my face. She hung a finisher's medal around my neck. "I heard you," Mrs P whispered. "I heard you calling their names."

One knick-knack you won't be seeing on eBay
When I got home, I checked online and saw that two folks, one a stranger, one an old friend hand made contributions while I was running. One for the Five had raised $3555 for the Markey Cancer Foundation. I called Mum. I gave a victory howl on Facebook. I drank a smoothie and some chocolate milk. Then I went to sleep. For a long time.

For the Five... for Them All
13.1 miles.
Look, lots of people run half marathons. You see the stickers on car bumpers all over town. It isn't that big a deal. Unless you run one. It's something you can be proud of without bragging. You don't need anyone to know. Because you know. You did it. You can do it.

26.2 miles is a very, very long way. I don't know if I'll ever run a full marathon. But I really want to. Because I've never liked myself quite as much as I did in the morning sunshine of Midway Kentucky with my beard filled with snot and a medal hanging around my neck. It's a feeling I'm going to carry with me for a long time.

Doug. Alan. Catherine. Elvin.

We did it.



  1. VERY WELL DONE !! I love the way you shared the story, and your accomplishment was fantastic. I ran my first half-marathon last weekend as well, and it is a great feeling.

    Enjoy your accomplishment...before that nasty "full marathon" bug bites you and you're in training all over again.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I look forward to following your blog.

  3. Very Well Done In Deed! So proud of you Pennsy!

  4. reading this a couple years later (in prep for my turn at iron horse)
    what an incredible story! love this blog. you've got me excited again about the race. I've been battling burn out for a month. thanks for the reminder of why we do what we do.


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