Sunday, March 31, 2013

#421: Race Report: 2013 Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon

After your first time on the course for the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon, it's easy to pick your favorite mile: it's mile 8. Those long, gentle rollers are as close as you get to flat and straight, and the last quarter is a lovely downhill coast that finishes at the mile 9 post and the most hellish climb on the course: a 100 foot, quarter mile climb that John's Striders just call the S-curve. Knowing it's out there makes you savor that beautiful preface even more.

Yesterday, as the 2:30 pace group and I rounded the corner that starts that lovely mile, we were greeted by a foal and his mother. They were running along the fence, following the runners as we gasped out on the road. The thoroughbreds would mirror our progress all the way to the corner of their pasture, then turn and gallop back to escort another lucky group of brightly dressed humans. They reminded us of two things. First: RTB's billing as one of the prettiest half marathons in America is an understatement. Second: there are creatures who love to run even more than we do. What a beautiful reminder that a race track is a pale parody of the free, generous spirits of these glorious animals.

The morning started before dawn, like all race days. My clothes were laid out on the bathroom sink, waiting for me to shower and apply all the necessary lubes and tapes that protect my skin on a long run. Carrying my race shoes and socks, I padded carefully to the kitchen to make coffee without waking Mrs P. My pre-race rituals are part of the fun for me, and that includes the paranoid fear that I'm going to step on a sharp dog chewy in the dark and ruin my foot. The week before my marathon, I put my shoes on before I got out of bed. This time, I chose to live a little more recklessly.

My pre-run breakfast hasn't changed in a long time. One cup of coffee and two pieces of toast with jelly. Sugar and carbs for fuel. Caffeine to open my eyes. Again, I chose to try a new strategy. I super-charged with a second cup of coffee, and two gooey apple fritters. I knew it would mean extra bathroom trips before the start, but I also knew how long those hills were. I didn't want to run out of gas before the end.

It was around 39° as I started the Honda, its windows covered with condensed fog. As I drove the back roads to Keeneland, I passed hollows and creeks filled with gray mist that turned the bluegrass fields into a dream. An hour before the race, the parking lots were nearly full, and the roads were packed with carloads of runners waiting patiently. None of us were in too much of a hurry to get out onto that frosty grass. I parked in the field and made my way up the hill to the Keene Barn where the expo had been. This morning, it was full of drowsy athletes, stretching, hopping, and occasionally napping, seated straight legged on the floor, their backs against the wall, even in sleep they were stretching the hamstrings. I made a quick stop in the men's room, determined to beat the rush, and then walked out to the starting line for a little jogging to ease my jitters.

The air was simply magical. To the west, the fog cleared for a moment to allow the nearly full moon to peek through the blue morning skies above. To the east, diffused through the thick fog, the sun glowed, it's outlines indiscernible:  not a rising disk, but a slowly warming glow above the horizon. There are runners who like to sit quietly before the gun. There are others, more nervous types like me who just want to keep moving. A big old diesel takes a little longer to rev up than a zippy little coupe. I joined another senior runner just past the starting line. We nodded greetings and jogged along quietly together for the first half mile of the course. We did a couple of hill repeats and I studied my Garmin as I went, reminding my legs of the 12:00 per mile pace I had planned. The road ran us directly into the rising sun, and I followed the silhouette of my partner as he trotted toward the sky, then turned and coasted easily back down to the base again. After three or four times up and down, I felt myself starting to get warm, and headed back toward the car where I would put on my race shirt, the numbered bib pinned on since last night.

By the time I reached the car, I knew I was in trouble. 25 minutes till start time, and I really needed to pee. I looked around the parking lot. Everywhere I turned there were engines running, trunks popped open, people dressing. I stood behind the Honda with the back window up and the tailgate open. Screw it. We were all runners here. We were used to training early in the morning and jumping up into the cedars for a quick one when necessary. Just as I was hooking my thumbs into my waist band, a man walked out from between two cars. "Bob, right?" "Yeah, hi." "I recognize you from the Y. Good to see you here. Gonna be a cold one, huh?" We chatted briefly. I was wearing the logo on my shirt, and was particularly glad that he hadn't caught me with little Pennsy at work in the dawn's early light. Once the coast was clear. I quickly did what needed to be done in the shelter of the open tailgate, carefully avoiding both the back bumper and my shoes.

Uncle Ernie Peel:
Godfather of Strider Nation
The start was simply epic. A stream of 4000 registered runners from all over the country stretched colorfully in the fog as far as I could see in either direction. We started in waves, each corral leaving the gate two minutes after the one before. The course is narrow and traffic was thick, even with the careful logistics. As usual, I found myself swept along in the early wave of runners, much faster than my intended pace. My friend Chris pulled along beside me around Mile 1 and I noted that I was going much too hard. She is a more experienced runner than I, and smiled in recognition of  my early blunder. I switched my interval timer on and started the 2:00 run/1:00 walk plan I had made during the week. The early hills rolled gently by, water stations, mile markers, Canada geese, horses, dogs and chickens. It's all part of the beauty of this course. I felt warm and strong, my brown jersey gloves the only concession to the chilly morning air. Otherwise, I was dressed for spring in my shorts and tank top. I decided to ignore my time for the first 10 miles of the race. The only thing I thought about was moving smoothly, keeping my core strong, and reserving some of that sugar I had eaten for fuel once I hit the S-curve. Around mile 6 I found myself running with Ernie and the 2:30 pace group. That was about 10 minutes faster than I planned to go, but I was still feeling strong, and the walk breaks let me keep with them without straining. I would trot past them on my run intervals, then they would pass me on when I walked. Rather than try to pull away, I decided to stick with them for a while to see if I could keep up. They just might have saved my race for me.

Pennsy loving mile 8.
Coming down the hill toward mile 9, I pulled along side Shayla, a Zumba instructor from the Y. "Ever run this course before?" I asked. She said she hadn't. "This is the toughest hill on the course coming up. Take your time." She thanked me for the heads up and I eased gently ahead of her. As I passed the mile 9 marker, I took a quick inventory. Feet? Pain free and comfy in my new lime green NikeFrees. Legs. No cramps, no chafes no heaviness. Core? Strong and tight. Breath? Smooth and even. Teeth? The adhesive I put in had given up the ghost around mile 6, so I had adjusted to their flopping by this point. I decided it was time for a test. I knew from experience that walk breaks on a steep hill are tough and slow. I had a great rhythm going and didn't want to break it out of fear of the long climb. I remembered the Lance Armstrong quote I had put away in my heart for this very moment. "Pain is temporary, Quitting is forever." If I was to finish strong, I would have to start right now. I shifted into low gear and began jogging slowly up the hill, ignoring my interval timer. I was going to run the whole hill, or send for the paramedics. Runners passed me on both sides, breathing hard. We could all see the top of the hill, and I'm sure most of them thought I was over-reacting. What they didn't know was that the S-curve isn't a hill, it's three hills. You hit the hard right bend at the top feeling like a conqueror, only to see the second climb ahead of you. As we started this part of the curve, I started passing gasping runners. Many more were walking, now. Their eyes were either gazing at the asphalt ahead, or else glued to the hard left turn that promised the crest and at last a chance to catch their breath. I plodded on, my mind alternating between Coach Carrie's exhortations to keep my abs tight and my thoughts of my friends who had passed or were fighting relapse. The pain in my legs was nothing compared to Becky's chemo or Jan's terrible surgeries. They had never quit. Neither would I. As I reached the second turn I heard the familiar words I had once spoken myself. "Oh, my God." All around me, runners were realizing that there was still more hill to climb. This is the part that can break your heart, and I heard hearts breaking all around me as they watched a fat old man in bright green shoes plod past them to the crest of the hill. I won't say nobody caught up with me after that, but I never saw most of those runners again. At 10 miles, I glanced at my watch. I wasn't just on plan, I was on my best Half Marathon pace ever, with less than a 5K left to run. I started cheating on the walk breaks. Using every down hill to run, cutting the rest intervals to 45, 30, 15 seconds. I felt my cadence quicken. With each run interval, I would pass someone and choose a new person to pull me along. I knew these hills. At mile 12 I checked my watch one last time. I   guessed that I had around 17 minutes to hit a time of 2:30, much faster than I expected. Then I checked my lap time for the last mile. 10:47. I wasn't going to break 2:30. I was going to PR. My fastest Half was 2:24 and change. If I could hold pace, I was going to come very close to that. No more walk breaks now. Pain is temporary. For Becky. For Jan and Doug. For the Five. For the Eight. For my coaches. For my trainees. For all the people who had told me that I inspired them. For Kim, who started running on the other side of the world after reading my blog. For James and Raynee and Jaspal and Marian and more names than I can list. I saw their faces. I heard their voices. I picked up my tempo and passed the last runners in my group. I was going to finish ahead of the crowd, and I would finish strong. Friends called my name as I came through the gauntlet of spectators. I crossed the finish line and clicked my watch. Couldn't read it. No bifocals. I took some chocolate milk from a volunteer and walked away in the sort of numb funk that comes with the endorphin rush at the end of a long race. When I finally got to the car and my glasses, I didn't want to trust my Garmin. It was too close, and I had fumbled with the buttons at the start. It wasn't until I got home and saw the official times that I knew for sure.

Last year's time: 02:43:26. Cut it by almost 10 minutes.
Official time: 2:23:45. 10:55 per mile. 38 seconds faster than I had run on the much flatter, much faster Iron Horse last fall. A new Personal Record.

I'm not sure what the implications of all this are for my Marathon in May. I learned that I'm faster than I thought. I finally made a race plan and followed it. There's a world of difference between 13.1 and 26.2 miles, and I have a little more than a month to bridge that gap.There's one thing I know for sure, though...

I woke up this morning a better runner than I have ever been in my life.

The cancer warriors in my heart are my inspiration. They are the reason I run. Thanks to them, I will never let pain make me quit. Thanks to them, I will never run alone.

Because "Surviving" just isn't enough...

Monday, March 18, 2013

#420: A 3K Weekend: Short and Sweet

Living Strong... Every day.
Before I start my looooooong race report, I want to ask you to please consider giving to Living Strong at the Y 2013. This is my fundraiser to support LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, a program that has transformed my life, and that helps cancer survivors to become cancer victors every day.
Please click the button and give what you can. Thanks, Pennsy >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

I am well past the point in my life where I can even dream of leading a race, let alone winning it. My race is against the Fat Man I was; the sick man I became; the runner I have become; and the disease that tried to take that all away. I didn't win any medals or cups or awards this weekend... but I was victorious twice in two very different races.


And... they're off!
I love the Shamrock Shuffle 3K in Lexington. It is a St. Patrick's day tradition around here, and was the first event I ran after my cancer. It's 1.8 miles of music, laughter, costumes, and Kelley Green. It is a time for reunion with old friends who only race once a year, and with fellow runners you haven't seen since the ugly winter weather started. I arrived at the registration area about an hour early to look for friends, and found bunches of them. We talked about our plans for the spring season, and rejoiced at the weather. This race is usually run in weather that is... well... Irish. Cold. Rain. Lead gray skies. The temperature at race time yesterday was an impossible 59° and the threatened rain gave us a reprieve. This year's course sheltered us from the winds and was practically a straight out and back: level streets and one hairpin turn at the halfway point. It was going to be a great day.

I was shooting for an 18:00 race. The mistake that changed my day, not surprisingly, involved math. Instead of setting my Garmin to keep me at a 10:00/mile pace, I set it at 9:00/mile. I don't know. It made sense at the time. At the gun, I was lined up just behind the 16:00 pace. I figured the quicker runners would pull me off to a good start, then I could settle into my target speed. We squeezed through the narrow starting gate, guided by that paragon of wellness and healthy living, Ronald McDonald. The pace was quick, but comfortable as we headed off into the morning air. Most of us were running in shorts and a tee shirt for the first time all year. Strollers. Dogs. Kids running with their parents. I didn't have much trouble weaving through traffic because I was running with a fast crowd: much faster than I was used to. The little Virtual Partner on my Garmin showed me just behind pace for the first .75 miles, but by the turn, I had caught up and was on target. I never saw the 1 mile marker, but when my watched beeped, signaling the first mile, I was shocked to see I had run it in 9:00 flat. That was way too fast, faster than I had ever run a mile in a race before. I decided to hold on, and see how I felt at 1.5 miles.

My breath was coming fast now. My usual 2-in/3-out rhythm was down to 2/2. I could tell my heart rate was up, but my legs felt strong, and the core strengthening exercises Coach Carrie had been inflicting on me all winter were taking charge. I felt tall and powerful as we rounded the gentle curve down Main Street where the finish line awaited. I checked my watch at the 1.5 mile mark. I was way ahead of pace. I started pumping my arms and heard Carrie's voice urging me on, just as she did every Wednesday morning when she cranks the treadmill up to 9 mph and waits for the color to drain out of my face. I was still passing runners! I was taking a breath every stride, now. My chest heaved, sucking in fuel. My lips puffed , blowing out exhaust. Just as I felt that last, sprinting gear kick in, I blew out something else. My upper denture flew out of my mouth. I gave one hopeful swipe, trying to catch the most expensive thing I own before it fell to the asphalt below. I saw something white fly off of it as it skidded along the street beside me. Barely slowing down, I crouched , picked them up, checked for broken glass, and popped it back in my mouth. No time for delicacies now. I ran hard. My legs started to feel heavier as the lactic acid built up in them. It seemed to me that I was really slowing down, but I kept catching other runners as the finish clock came into sight. 16:00! There was no way I was reading that right. I was running without my glasses, so I obviously had the numbers confused. My arms pumped fast as they remembered all those dumbbell rows I had done at the Y. My legs churned, recalling the hours spent sprinting in the pool with Christy on Tuesday afternoons. I crossed through the finish gate without even a glance at the clock and pushed the button on my watch, hoping I had hit the right one.

The first friend I saw was Sharon, a former fat woman who had just taken 3rd place in her speedy age group. She had been at the finish line for about three minutes when I arrived. "How did you do?" She asked. "Don't know," I gasped. "No glasses. Can you read my watch?"

16:21. Average pace, 8:46/mile. Absurd. No way. But the official time, confirmed it. I had bettered last years time by 3:38. When I started working with Coach Carrie, I told her I wanted to get faster. The woman knows her business.


Quite possibly the coolest race shirt in my collection.
Sunday, after church I went to the Y to train with the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA survivors. This was a very different day. 38° and a nasty looking wintry mix that kept them all at home, safe and warm. I did 7.65 miles on the treadmills at my target marathon pace, a much more modest 11:15. A long, hot shower finished the jog off  nicely, and I drove home to put my race bag together for the 6:00 start of the Run for the Gold 3K in Frankfort KY. The rain was sleet now. My defogger struggled to keep up as I made my way to the state capital. I was about an hour and a half early, and when I stepped out of my car, the wind bit my legs in spite of the tights and warm up pants I was wearing. I stuffed my hands deep into my gray fleece Y Staff jacket and walked to the tents where The Pogues were blaring in the rain from lonely speakers. A DJ shivered in the wind. The sweet lady who handed my my packet smiled sympathetically. She was grateful for my support of the even, but was obviously certain I was insane for being there. I moved my car to the parking lot of the Frankfort YMCA, and slipped in for some shelter and a friendly face. I found plenty of both. I took a little tour of this charming old downtown Y, then went out to the car to decide just how many layers I would be wearing for the race.

It was still cold, but the sleet had mercifully slowed, so I decided against the rain suit. .A short sleeved tech shirt, long sleeved tech shirt, and a long sleeved cotton YMCA tee would do the trick. I left The warm-up pants on over my tights, slipped on two pairs of gloves, and pulled the black and yellow knit "chemo cap" that one of my LIVESTRONG participants had made for me down over my ears. I was as ready as I was going to be. Now to test these legs.

The felt like they were made of stone. I walked/jogged around the downtown area, feeling like I was pulling a trailer. Jogging was hard. Running was out of the question. I warmed up gently, paying mind to every little tweak and twinge. "What's that in my foot?  OK, it's gone. Is that a cramp in my calf? No, just a little knot working it's way out. Is my knee hurting? Walk a few steps and it smooths itself out. I trotted around blocks and buildings for half an hour, not daring to test race pace. There would be no repeat of Saturday's triumph. I moved my pace clock down to 9:30min/mile. We'll try a couple of blocks and see if I can get up to that speed. Finally, it was time for the gun. I saw my old running buddy DJ, he was way up with the burners. We bumped fists, exchanged good wishes, and parted. I made my way back to the 20:00 finishers. This was going to be a much longer race for me. The gun fired, and as the crowd funneled its way through the gate, there was frigging Ronald McDonald again. Why does McDonalds have such a presence at events that it works so hard to make impossible for most people? My indignation provided the spark that my cold engine needed to finally turn over, and I slipped in behind a guy in a bright yellow running jacket who was passing the crowd along the left side of the road. I didn't try to stay with him long, but he gave me a tow and got me up to racing speed much faster than I would have done without him. The course is pretty on a pretty day. The first half is a long, mostly gentle climb toward the Capitol Building, then a nice speedy descent back toward the Kentucky River and the finish line. I wasn't worried about passing runners this time. I would catch up with one whose pace I liked and tag along for a few yards until I felt strong enough to move by them to the next one. I really don't remember much of the race itself. Only the sensation that it felt much shorter than the Shamrock. The long, downhill run after the turn was as good as a rest stop as I let gravity do the work for me. It was short work making the downtown loop. I had already jogged it several times while I was warming up. I smiled and greeted the heroic volunteers who stood along the route, guiding and encouraging the runners. I wouldn't call my finishing stretch a sprint, really. Maybe 8.5 out of 10. Of course, by then, that WAS my 10. I found DJ, who had smashed his own PR to bits. We sipped water, walked together for a while, then parted ways as he went to find a friend, and I went to find my glasses so I could make out the time on my watch.

16:54. 9:23 minutes/mile. Not bad. Not bad at all.


So that was my weekend. Two short and sweet events that reminded me just how blessed I am to be alive. This is why I tell my story. I want people to know that redemption is real. God has plans for us that we know nothing about. And the love of friends can lift us to heights that we can barely dream or imagine.

Time to put the stopwatch away for awhile. The road ahead is all about the miles. My first marathon took me almost 6 and a half hours to finish. I hope the next one is faster, but I have to be sure I can keep going for as long as it takes. There are some long, long runs ahead of me. But something tells me I'm going to love every step.



Sunday, March 10, 2013

#419: Race Report - 2013 Inaugural Railrunner 10 Miler

Yesterday was my first race of the spring season, a 10 miler on the beautiful grounds of the RJ Corman compound in Nicholasville KY. Mr Corman is a railroad mogul and philanthropist;  a cancer fighter and a runner who generously makes his property available for races like this one. I arrived at 7:00 AM, two hours before the start, for reasons I just cannot explain. It was 36° and the sun was just teasing its way up over the hills when I pulled into the parking lot. I spent a few minutes wondering if I had packed enough layers in my race bag, then decided to take a hike down to the start/finish line for a little re-con. It was much colder than I expected. The forecast was for temps in the 50's, and those would arrive, but not until well after lunch. For now, the air was biting. I shoved my hands a little deeper into the pockets of my gray Y Staff fleece, hoping I had packed a jar of Carmex to protect my lips.

After checking out the site, I headed back for the car, passing a few friends on the way. We were all bundled and shivering; smiling at one another with the demented joy that only runners can understand or consider sane. At the car, I switched some clothes around, adding a long sleeved wind resistant layer to go under my gold Y singlet. I swapped the loosely knit black and yellow cap that had been a gift from one of my LIVESTRONG at the YMCA participants for the thick red toque that Coach Melissa had given me. I had tights on under my black shorts, but decided to leave the warm-up pants on until starting time. I still had an hour before the start, and my choices were to stand around freezing, sit in the car getting tight, or go for a jog before a 10 mile race. Jogging seemed like the least offensive option, so I trotted off toward the start again, figuring I'd check out the first quarter mile or so. It was definitely warmer once I got moving.

Dave Storing Up Heat for the Winter
I had just turned around and started back when I saw my friend Dave coming down the course. Dave and I are among the tribal elders in our running community --  you know, the ones who are so "inspiring" for running "at that age." I hung a U-turn and eased in beside him. Turns out, he was determined to get five miles in before the race. Fortunately for me, he already had three under his belt. We moved along at a much faster pace than I wanted to do, but the conversation and laughter lightened my stride and before I knew it, we had done 2.25 miles together, and gotten a really good preview of the start and finish of the course. This included a trip over the craziest steel bridge I've ever run across. When there are more than five people running on it, the thing flexes like a springboard. If Dave hadn't have warned me about it, I might have broken both ankles when I hit it during the race.

After a heart-stopping wait in line for a pre-race port-a-potty stop (I could have slipped off into the cedars, but I was wearing all those Y logos...) I joined a few friends at the start line in time for the Star Spangled Banner and the gun which was a blast from a train whistle.

The race itself was really lovely. There are plenty of gentle hills and lots of  hollows still full of last weekend's snow. There are a couple of unique features. A busy railroad line runs around the boundary of the property, and the engineers tooted their whistles joyfully as they passed the long line of brightly dressed runners in the morning air. I've already mentioned the bouncing bridge. There is also a tunnel that leads to the most distinctive part of the course. Part of Mr Corman's business is to respond to railroad accidents all over the country, and that means being ready to zoom off at a moment's notice. That's why he has his own jets and his own airstrip. The race included a two mile loop from one end of the runway to the other. The course then looped back through the tunnel, and around the grounds to a long downhill finish. Lots of support. Lots of music. Lots of (unnecessary) ice to keep the water bottles cool and refreshing. And the best part, lots of friends cheering one another on. A great way to get racing season moving.

Some of the Toughest People I Know...
And the Best Job in the World
Before I left the house yesterday, I decided that I would dedicate my run to my friends who are living with relapse. As I spend more time with cancer fighters, I meet more people who have had two or three different diagnoses in their lives. I wanted to honor them with my run. Strangely enough, I didn't give them much thought until the last, lung-burning, leg-aching half mile sprint to the finish line. That's when their names and faces started to appear in front of me. Becky. Jaspal. John. DeeDee. Art. James. There was no way any of them were going to be running any 10 mile races this day, so I would run it for them. I spoke their names quietly as I breathed smooth and deep, just like Carrie had coached me. I ran that last quarter mile in just over two minutes. I wish I could have carried them all on my back; instead I carried them in my heart.

Today (Sunday), I had a nice, easy recovery run. 5 slow miles on my beloved Legacy Trail. 62°. No timing. No pacing. No gasping for air or pushing to the top of the hill. Just a simple run for the love of running on what felt for all the world like the first day of spring. And then I came home to find that Living Strong at the Y 2013 had just raised our first $500.

My God... what a great weekend for a run! Or two. Or three...



Friday, March 8, 2013

#418 Living Strong at the Y 2013

March 8, 2013

Last year, thanks to the love and support of family, friends, and neighbors from all over the country, you and I came together to raise $3685 to support LIVESTRONG at the YMCA: a 12-week program that helps cancer survivors to become cancer victors through exercise, nutritional education, and fellowship with one another. The program includes a three-month family membership to the Y at no charge to the participants. To put it in practical terms: our contributions payed for 10 participants and their families to experience the same program that helped me make the journey from cancer patient to finisher at the 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon last May.

I’m asking for your help again, and this time we have a much bigger plan in mind.

Instead of targeting just one event, we’re assembling a team of cancer survivors who will be running all spring long, starting tomorrow at the Railrunner 10 Miler in Nicholasville KY, and finishing in May at the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati. We are runners who have all known what it means to hear the words, “You have cancer,” and chosen to fight for our lives. I am proud to be training and running right beside them.

Thanks to the grace of God, the love of my friends and family, and the skill of my doctors, I have been able to survive my fight with cancer. I have dedicated my life to helping other survivors to fight their own battles. As a trainer at the North Lexington Family YMCA, I see their courage and will every single day. Since I was a participant in Central Kentucky’s pilot program of LIVESTRONG at the YMCA back in 2011, I have worked with over 100 survivors. There are many more who will need our help in the coming years.

Please join me with a contribution so that tomorrow’s cancer fighters can know what so many of us have learned the hard way: Cancer can kill us, but it can never defeat us if we choose to Live Strong.


Bob Johnson
859 420-9327

Please click this link to donate to Living Strong at the YMCA, or mail your tax deductible contribution to:

Robert Parks Johnson
Living Strong at the Y 2013
North Lexington Family YMCA
381 West Loudon Ave
Lexington KY 40508

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