Tuesday, January 17, 2012

California International Marathon

I was bouncing around in my seat surrounded by conversation and laughter.  Some of the people had been training together for months, others had just met, but obviously found an instant bond with people that were on the bus with the same goal, to run a marathon.  We were heading NE 26.2 miles to the starting line in Folsom, CA.  It seemed like everyone was relaxed and having a great time, everyone but the two people in the 5th row back on the right side.  To my left was my sister in law, her forehead pressed against the edge of the seat in front of us, mine, was burried in my hands.  I had my headphones on, trying to take Bob Marley's advice "Don't worry, about a thing....."

My sister in law, Becky, was 11 months out from having my beautiful niece, Annabelle, and was gunning for a long time goal of qualifying for the Olympic trials in Houston.  She needed to run a 2:45:59 or faster.  My goal, was 2:59:XX, a 6:51 min.mi pace and 25 min PR.  Too be perfectly honest, I was terrified.  On the outside I looked stone cold, on the inside I was drowing in doubt, questioning my sanity, and realizing that I may have finally bitten off more than I could chew.  I was wrestling with thoughts of easing up on my race goal and just aiming for the new Boston standard of 3:05, afterall, kicking out 26 consecutive 7:03 minute miles was a much safer (and much less painful) bet.  There was no fire, no passion, no courage.  Just nerves and fear.  To make matters worse, the 26.2 mile drive seemed like it took forever, and I have to run this?  When we were arriving to the start I turned to Becky and asked if she was ready.  She looked at me with a look of nervous confidence and replied "There is only one way to find out."

When I made my way up the the start, I found myself standing among some very thin runners in team singlets and Boston paraphernalia, they all looked fit as hell.  "Did I really belong up here?"  After the national anthem, the mayor started the countdown, 10, 9, 8....I bowed my head and said my runners prayer.  "May this run give hope, courage, and strength to those in need, and in turn, may I have some of yours"  The gun went off, I went for it.

As I crossed the finish line, everything seized up.  I was quickly wrapped in a space blanket, and given a finishers medal.  I heard my name being yelled, and saw my brother and niece waiting at the fence for me.  His smile was ear to ear.  I limped over to him to see him oozing with pride.  Pride for me, pride for his wife.  I asked how Becky did.  The same as you, AWESOME!  She got it!  2:44:14!  He was beaming, and with good reason.  He again told me how proud he was of me too, and gave me a big hug.  As he squeezed, I burried my head in his shoulder and lost it.  Between sobs I managed to get out a "I, I couldnt do it".  It was the first time I had missed a running goal.  Failure, I thought, was a bitter pill to swallow.  Most people wouldn't understand....why would anyone be upset at a 22 min PR and qualifying for Boston?  The answer?  6 days and 70 miles each week, alarms going off at 3am, lonely 6am track session where you push yourself so hard you vomit, and gut wrenching tempo runs that test the very fibers of ones soul.  We pour our energy, time, and passion into training for a dream.  We spend hours mentally preparing.  My brothers next words were powerful, he is a competitve cyclist in TX, which means he understood.....

He grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in my exhuasted and tear soaked eyes. The look was serious and demanded respect.  "You ran a gutsy race.  You know that right?"  He could sense my reply was going to start with "but....." and he cut me off.  " Did you go for it or did you back off?".  I mustered a "I tried, I tried so hard, I just coulnt do it."  He then hugged me again.  His tone softened, and he whispered "You went after an unthinkable goal in your second marathon.  You have nothing to be ashamed of".   We stood there at the finish line, hugging for the next few minutes.

I was lined up with the 3 hour pace group, and as the gun went off, so did they.  The first mile was a quad busting downhill, I was already running a 6:47 pace and they were still pulling away from me like they were riding bikes, I let them go.  This was going to be a lonely race for me, and I was fine with that.  I went over the game plan....start out slow (oops), ease into race pace, come thru the halfway point anywhere from 1:30:15 to 1:30:45, then negative split this b!#@*! 

I came thru the 5.9 mile mark at 40:14, a 6:49 pace, feeling good and right on track.  The course is touted as downhill, but it is full of hills.  Especially the first half.  The biggest hills were between miles 10-13, and they were steep!  I got thru them very well, just running on effort, not actual pace.  I would ease up on the uphill, and open up a ground eating stride down the backside.

My Garmin told me I was at the halfway mark in 1:29:56, I then crossed the line around 300 ft later.  I was losing some ground.  I came thru the actual halfway point EXACTLY where I wanted to be, at 1:30:13, a 6:53 min.mi pace.  I did a quick check.  Breathing, controlled.  Form, relaxed.  Stride, good.  Legs, a little sore.  They were starting to feel not only the uphills, but the steep downhills, too.
mile 11

Most of the race was run by feel.  I rarely looked down at my watch, and when I did, I would only look at the overall pace for that mile, making sure I wasnt going either too fast, or too slow.  I did everything I could to not even think about distance, especially how much farther I had to go.

It was mile 17 when my breathing was getting a bit labored, and my legs started getting tight.  I stayed as relaxed as possible, and pushed ahead.  Each mile was getting a little harder than the last, and my legs were really starting to hurt.  Thats when the reasoning started.  At 18 it was getting very dark, so I told myself that I only had one more hour of this.  Mile 19 I told myself if I could just make it to 20, I could reasses from there......

My Garmin told me I got to mile 20 at 2:17:12, right on pace.  I didnt actually cross over the mat until 2:17:44, a 6:53 pace.  I was now starting to suffer.  Like good old Mike Tyson says, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face".  In other words, most people have a plan, until the going gets tough.  I did an honest assesment of my body, and I knew my legs were toast.  The only thing worse than getting punched in the face by Iron Mike is getting punched in the legs by the marathon.  After its 20,000 punch combo on your legs by mile 20, it steps back to see what you will do.

It was my moment of truth.

I could ease up to a 7:15 pace, by doing so I could still float in under the new BQ standard, or I could go down swinging, possibly losing the BQ as well.

I closed my eyes and once again repeated my runners prayer.....May this run give hope, courage, and strength to those in need, and in turn, may I have some of yours. I was trying not to think about it, but I already knew the outcome of my decision.  I tried to summon the fire, but it was not there.  I tried to let slip the dogs of war, but they were gone, too.  It was just my exhuasted shell staring down 6.2 more miles.  I knew I needed to push in around a 6:48 min.mi pace to sneak in under the clock.

I grit my teeth went for it....

mile 21

It was mile 22 when I fell apart, finding myself physically suffering to just hold a 7:09 min.mi pace.  It was the fastest my legs would go.  Then the next mile was a 7:25 pace, then a 7:35 pace, then 7:45.  There was nothing I could do.  I was pushing them as hard as I could, they would revolt, and I would push again.  This went on for the rest of the race.  The last mile seemed like it went on forever, I saw runners stopping to stretch or walk, and although it was tempting, I fought off the urge.  I pushed myself until I crossed the line....in 3:03:47.

the finish

My brother kept hugging me until his words really sunk in.  After a minute or two, they did.  My tears eventually stopped, and so did my dissappointment.

That morning I learned that a clock is made by man, so are BQ standards.  They are empty measures of what it means to be a runner.  For months I would get up before the sun, drive out to a local track, a popular running trail, or an adandoned road and chased after the runner I wanted to be. 
When someone says "Dan, do you know what it means to give it your all?"  I can confidently reply "Yes, I do."  And THAT, is my ultimate running goal.  On Dec 4th, 2011, I thought I fell 3 minutes short.  Turns out, at mile 22, I had already caught him.