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...

1 comment:

  1. GREAT job yesterday!! My running friend was there running that race too! How cool! I also PR'd yesterday...what a great job, so proud of you!


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