Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mile by Mile: the Half-Marathon

Mile One—And the runner's are off! As I past over the starting line, my MP3 player was streaming “We are the poets/we are the dreamers/we are the soldiers,we are the screamers; we want the fallen to rise again . . .” The song choice was random, just the next thing in the playlist, but so appropriate. Surrounding me were people of all walks of life, ages, and sizes—an ocean of differences and likenesses, cresting the same challenge. The first mile was all emotion and awe of the race. My heart rate climbed, first from excitement and then from exertion.

Mile Two—So much to see! The pack thinned just slightly, and I struggled through the first twinge of hard work that comes at the beginning of a long run. The twinge was more mental than physical, because I knew I still had so far to go. Part way through this mile, we rounded our first ninety degree curve to head east toward the long stretch of Highway 17. The sight was inspirational—a rainbow of runners stretched out into the distance as far as I could see.

Mile Three—Water station! Every two miles of the race, volunteers line the side of the road and filled tables full of cups with water and Power-Ade. Then, as the river of runner's swept by, the volunteers held cups out to our sweaty hands. We took what they gave us greedily, chugged it down, and tossed the cups aside. The first water stop was just one of many mile markers during the race, and at that point I began to pace myself according to water stops—two miles running, and two miles of intervals.

Mile Four—Don't eat the power gel! Around the beginning of mile four, I started to feel hungry, so I pulled out my Espresso Flavored Power Gel. Uuuuuuh. First mistake (and learning experience) of the day. I hadn't trained with power gel, and apparently you're not supposed to try anything new on race day, so I should have stuck with fiber one bars. My insides rebelled for the rest of the race, but they didn't stop me from keeping on, keeping on. The race was about endurance, and gastric pain was now just part of the enduring.

Mile Five—Starting into mile five, I had good news from the time clock. Having done so much training at the track, it was really hard for me to gauge how I was doing pace-wise. As I approached the end of my fourth mile, I saw a time clock on the side of the road that read 37 minutes and a few seconds. I knew then that I was keeping a good pace—a normal pace for me. My mind set at ease, I settled in and really enjoyed the fifth mile. For a while I kept pace with 70 year old Aldrick Smith who had been running marathon events for many years. We exchanged encouraging words and after a while, went our separate ways.

Mile Six—Three minutes waiting for Jon. Arg. At the five mile station, I just had to stop and use the Port-a-Jon. My time was still less than 10 minutes per mile, so it broke my heart, but my body was making it clear that it was not running another step without a potty stop. Of course, I had to wait my turn, so by the time I rejoined the race, the clock was at nearly 52 minutes. I increased my pace, hoping to make up some of the lost time.

Mile Seven—Up and back. As we approached the end of the Highway 17 stretch, I pictured the race map in my mind, and I knew we would turn temporarily west and double-back east again, until we got to Ocean Boulevard. The neat part about this portion of the race is that as you ran west you could see all the runners on the other side of the grassy median heading east. At one point, I was touched to see a husband and wife who looked to be in their late 60's, meet in the median, kiss, and check on one another's progress. They spoke briefly, then she continued east and he continued west. They were together in purpose, even if they weren't at the same point of the race. I think there's a deeper lesson in that somewhere.

Mile Eight—Celebrity runner! The sun was up now—warm and golden—but a flamboyant sea breeze kept us cool. I zipped my runner's vest to keep it from catching the wind and resisting my forward motion. The last thing I need was a “sail” pushing me in the wrong direction. To the contrary, when I reached the water stop, I was feeling the need for some wind in my sails. So. God bless the person who handed me my Power-Ade as I stepped into mile nine and said, “Go Liz Taylor! You can do it!” Let me tell you, that did it for me. If I could run eight miles, sweat like a pig, be red in the face, and still have someone think I looked like young Liz in my running gear and sunglasses; by golly, I could finish this thing!

Mile Nine—All about finishing now! We had made the big turn north onto Ocean Blvd, and between the buildings and businesses, we caught glimpses of the ocean. We were now running parallel to the beach, and it was hard not to think how easy it would be to detour into the sand and sunshine. The road was lined with spectators and well-wishers, and at one point, I had someone hand me a business coupon attached to a string of red Mardi-Gras beads. I knew I'd be taking that home to Maggie!

Mile Ten—Getting close! I knew that mile nine and ten would be my last two mile stretch of solid running, and believe me, I was starting to count MP3 player songs on my fingers. I knew that at my pace, approximately three songs would play per mile. I had to focus on the music, to keep my mind off the muscle pain that was beginning to break my concentration.

Mile Eleven—Gluttimous Panimous, Calfimous Strainimous! It is very fair to say that my backside has never hurt so much in my entire life—and that includes the season of life that involved the board of education on the seat of learning. My legs were lead; my calves were rocks. My belly was reliving the gel. My thoughts were becoming disconnected, but I saw the left turn sign for the half-marathoners, and my mind acknowledged the home stretch.

Mile Twelve—A painful blur. I turned every small corner, willing the department of transportation signs to be the red flag announcing mile 13. And then there was pain. Yep, pain. Not much else to report.

Mile Thirteen—As I approached that longed for red flag at mile thirteen, I had begun to tell myself that I could just ease off for the finale, but then I saw the time clock. It read 2:04:04. And I knew that I could finish this race in 2:15. I had to try. So I started to push. My legs refused to register a faster pace than the music, so I started to “chase the rabbit.” I would pick a runner 10 feet in front of me and push hard to catch up, and then I did it again and again. I wasn't even seeing people anymore. I knew that because one of my “rabbits” was Aldrick Smith from Mile 5, and I wouldn't have even realized I passed him, if he hadn't cheered me on.

IN THE SHOOT! Suddenly metal barriers thinned the run-way from the size of the whole road, to a black carpet pointing the way to the finish line. Vaguely, I saw the people lining either side, cheering us on! I felt like the shoot went on forever, but finally I saw the finish, and I willed my legs to keep chugging forward. Somehow my arms shot into the air as I passed over the line. Through a fog of exhaustion and finality, I looked down a saw the finisher's metal dangling from my neck—sparkling in the sunshine. I had run a good race. I had finished the course. Now where was the water table?!

Off to the Races!

O.k. So we fell asleep to pixie-dust dreams, but both Larissa and I slept like it was the night before the big test. The alarm went off at 4:15, and though I'd set an alarm for a five minute snooze, there wasn't going to be any snoozing this morning. I dragged off the covers and made a b-line for the coffee pot. My brain was in high-gear, but my body wasn't moving fast. I hoped that would change before the race gun popped at 6:30.

At 5:00, we met the Team-in-Training Group in the Lobby, enjoyed a light breakfast, and took lots of pictures. I got my first stretch in, because I was really worried that I would FORGET to stretch in all the excitement. Around 5:30, we all boarded a shuttle that took us to the starting line.

I have never seen anything like what I saw when I got off that bus. There were people everywhere, and the air was laced with excitement. I walked over to the bag check with another runner named Lucy. She was with TNT, and she was also doing her first half marathon just like me. After bag check, Cathy, Easterlan, and I exchanged good luck wishes and headed to our separate starting lines.

The next fifteen minutes were super-charged. People were prancing in the chill air, getting in last minutes stretches, glancing at their watches. Finally, the countdown to the starting cannon came. In a moment, thousands of sneakers launched forward, finally released to do what they had come to do.

The Show's on the Road

Friday morning, February 18th, found me restless and out of bed 7:15. For the past three nights I'd dreamed crazy anticipatory dreams, all tinged with doom. I dreamed I'd lost earrings. I dreamed we got to the race and couldn't find a place to park no matter how long we looked. Yes, it was time to do this thing. My suitcase was packed, and I was ready to get going. I had done all I could to prepare, and I was ready to find out what I was made of.

By ten o'clock, I was leaded up on thick coffee. The dishes were done, we'd taken a family walk, and my bags were out on the porch. Around 10:20, a gray Prius pulled into the drive, and I got to meet walking Coach Cathy for the first time. We'd been e-mailing a bit, and I already had the idea that she had a great sense of humor. She'd warned me that she drove slowly; I'd written back that as long as I didn't have to feed her goldfish crackers and wipe apple juice off her chin, she could drive as slow as she wanted to. A few minutes before her arrival, she texted me not to forget the goldfish and apple juice. Yes, we were going to get along fine.

Also riding along with us was another new friend to me, Easterlan Rumer. Myrtle Beach was going to be a “first” for both of us—only she was walking the full-marathon. And I, I was secretly hoping to come away from this race a runner. After nearly six weeks of power-walking and resting my knee, I had started to feel stronger again. I'd gradually worked back to running by alternating power-walking with running in intervals, and in the final week of training, I was running strong three and four miles at a time. I was going to try to run.

Soon, the bags were loaded. I had kissed Wade and my little people. Now came the adventure. In the hours that followed, Cathy, Easterlan, and I visited, laughed, and talked about the race. The weather was beautiful, and unlike last year's MB marathon that was canceled due to snow, we were supposed to have a gorgeous day in which to sweat! By the time we drove over the city limits, I was extremely excited about everything to come. Enthusiasm replaced all the anxiousness that I had felt over the past weeks.

When we arrived, it should be noted that no nightmare was allowed to creep into our adventure. We promptly found parking. I had left all my earrings at home, so that I could not lose one. Our first destination was the runner's convention, and I was about to get an education. I learned about sweat-wicking clothing and headbands; I learned about enery drinks, gels, and chews; I learned about cast away hand warmers; I learned about runner's socks and body glide. I learned that I was runner 4775.

We left the convention officially registered for the next day's event. We had our race bibs, our timing chips, our shirts, and our free Myrtle Beach towels. With our luggage now increased, we checked into the Sheraton and found our rooms. Cathy and Easterlan were on the 8th floor, and I was on the 9th. Off to meet my roommate, Larissa!

I was the first one to arrive in the room, but Larissa was only about five minutes behind me. She was a very pleasant person, about my age, and also running the half-marathon for the first time. She was in Myrtle Beach with family, but wanted to stay with the group in the hotel. We both had just enough time to get settled, before heading off to the Team-in-Training Pasta Party!

What a racket greeted us! All the mentors and coaches were standing in the doorway of the Ballroom blowing whistles and clanging cowbells. They were already cheering us on! The room was dim-lit and comfortable, and we were seated at round tables that made getting to know folks easy. We got to sit with the Landreth family, and I enjoyed getting to see Caden again. Her father was running his first marathon the next day, and he was also the inspirational speaker.

Back at the room, my belly was full (maybe a little TOO full), and I started to lay out my clothes for the next day. We would have to be up EARLY, so I didn't want to have to think too hard about what needed to be done before I headed to the lobby to meet the group. I tried on my new socks and pants, and I experimented with different layers of clothing. I hooked my race bib and my MP3 player to my light-weight belt. I laid out my gloves, my headband, and my sunglasses. I read a few chapters of the Psalms and thanked God for bringing me to this point.

I was as ready as I was ever going to be, so I crawled into bed and fluffed the pillow. About that time, Cathy sent me a “Goodnight John Boy” text, so I knew they were headed to bed as well. It was 9:30. As I drifted to sleep, I felt like I was a part of something really good, with a lot of good people, for a really good reason. Now that's the way to drift off on the night before the big race.