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?!

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