Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My First Half Marathon Race Report

Its hard to start this report with anything other than ... Wow! I set an esoteric goal for myself to do something I thought was impossible by my 40th birthday. I started running and then this goal just formed itself into this wonderful opportunity to run a half marathon just 6 days after my 40th. The timing, the location, everything worked out and all I needed to do was put in the effort and get it done. What an effort it was. As I sit here now, two days later sipping a margarita, my mind is torn between two opposing thoughts. The first, just overwhelmed with the fact that I was able to pull this off. The second, yearning to do it again!

Lets start with a recap of the events and then I'll try to put my deeper thoughts into words. My in-laws and my own mother live in Palm Beach County Florida and this race, the A1A Publix Marathon and Half Marathon in Ft. Lauderdale on President's weekend gave me a great opportunity to bring the children down for a visit and have some support at the race without too much disruption of their schedule. The kids were off of school Friday and Monday, so we added one extra day to drive down to Florida on Thursday. I was able to take a few days off from work as well and the plan was laid. We drove down to Florida on Thursday and we'd return Monday. I reserved a hotel room in Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday night for my wife and I to stay, leaving the girls with the in-laws so I didn't have much to worry about Sunday morning but to run.

We clean up pretty well I think.
We made great time driving down on Thursday, ran some errands on Friday and spent time with my wife's family. My mother in law planned a surprise birthday party for my father in law on Friday night as his 70th is next month. He was caught completely by surprise and everyone had a great time.

On Saturday my wife and I headed down to Ft. Lauderdale and checked into our hotel. I think this spot might have been one of the hottest on the strip in 1967, however it hadn't been updated since then. That's what I get for choosing the cheapest hotel I could find in the area of the race, but we wouldn't need it for that long. Plus, it did have a really cool dockside restaurant. We got checked in, enjoyed some conch fritters and coconut shrimp overlooking the gorgeous yachts come and go and waited for a friend to show up to take us to the expo.

This was my first real race expo and it was pretty cool. We picked up our race packets which were loaded with free stuff and then walked around to browse all the vendors. My wife bought me a magnet for my car, but I wouldn't touch it until the next day. No reason to jinx myself! We had a lot of fun checking out all of the things you can buy to run with, and all of the silly gadgets they were trying to sell, from sleep juice to magnets. Then we went off to meet a couple of more friends for dinner. Had a great dinner with some fantastic friends and returned to the hotel to hit the hay by 9. I slept pretty well, considering, only getting up twice during the night. Of course, the alarm went of at 3:45.

What's a beach race without a sand castle?

Now, the hotel might have been a dump, but it was super convenient. Not only was it right across the street from the race finish, but the shuttle busses to the start were parked not more than 100 ft. from my hotel room door. I got up and dressed and was out the door at 4:30 and onto the first shuttle to the start. My wife opened her eyes long enough to take a quick picture of me before I headed out the door.

Now, you'd think because this race was in Florida that it would be warm. Of course not! This was the coldest day of the year, with the temperature at the start only 45. I didn't mind the cold so much, but there was a lot of wind coming off the ocean. I decided to wear my jacket and check it at the start, which in the end was a good idea because I needed it.

I got on the bus and found a couple of co-workers who were also running so we headed out together. Because my company is headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, there were a number of people I work with who were running. I wore my company shirt too and it got me some recognition along the way.

As we waited in the cold for the start, I was anxious but not nervous. Most of the fears that I'd thought I might have had for race day morning just weren't there. I'd hydrated all week and my body felt good. I had 4 packs of hammer gel and I ate my honey stinger waffle about an hour before the start. I talked a lot with my friend about starting slowly and made it a point to continually remind myself that I'm going to be passed a lot in the early miles and that I shouldn't worry about it.

Finally the time came and we headed into the start corral. It was packed! More so than any race I'd been to, even the Peachtree. I made my way towards the back, but I stayed with my friends. I just kept thinking to myself that this is my race, not to worry about what anyone else was doing. It took us 4 minutes from the gun to make our way to the start line. I hit go on my Garmin and started running.

Instantly my friends (even the slower ones) were off in front of me. I made no effort to try to keep up, just settling into my pace. I tried to relax and just let my body warm up and settle into a pace. My plan was to keep the first few miles above 13 minutes and then see how my body felt. I was going a little quick in the first half mile, but I settled myself and just let it flow. I hit the first mile at 13:15 and wasn't even breathing heavy yet. I chatted with some of the people around me as we made our way towards the beach. The sun wasn't up yet and it was chilly, but we weren't hit by the wind that we'd find as we got to the shore. There were a lot of run/walkers around, so I was passing and being passed and just generally trying to maintain.

Around mile 2.5 we hit the only significant hill of the day, a bridge over the intercoastal waterway onto the barrier island where we'd run the rest of the race. As I got to the top of the bridge I felt really strong and at that point I knew that today was going to be ok. I used the downhill to let my momentum carry me and sped up past a lot of the folks I'd been pacing with the first couple of miles.

Slow and steady was the name of the game for me. We headed north on A1A and around mile 4 headed into a park that was just beautiful. The ocean was on one side and then we looped across to the intra coastal, with yachts and beautiful homes lining the race course. Water stops on the course were plentiful and I grabbed a cup at each one, never drinking a lot but just enough to keep me from feeling dry. The hydrating I did all week really paid off for me. We exited the park around mile 6 and I realized that I was almost half way done!

The wind really picked up at we continued north along the beach. It was a headwind from the right. At this point the faster folks were coming back from the turnaround and I always enjoy watching them run by. I saw the fastest of my co workers and gave him a shout. I was really pretty cold at this point but was buoyed by the thought that we'd have a tailwind on the way back. We hit the turn around at mile 9 and I was struck thinking about how good I felt. I picked up the pace a little bit, but then backed off a bit, remembering some of my earlier long runs when I felt the same way and then crapped out before the end.

The sun was up now and the wind was at my back. I passed mile 10 and started to really think about the finish. At this point I started passing some of the people who were fading a bit. At mile 11 I took my third gel and my mind was doing flips. I hadn't hit any of the landmines that could trip me up and I realized now that this was it. 2 miles and nothing was going to stop me.

I passed mile 12 and I started to get emotional, the smile on my face wide and goofy. Tears started to well up and I started to run faster. Every time that I felt like crying I just ran faster because I figured if I was breathing too hard I wouldn't cry. Would you believe I ran the 13th mile in 11:38?!? My legs were burning, my lungs were gasping, my heart was pounding but I was happier than I could imagine. Just past mile 13 as we were heading into the chute my wife was there screaming for me. I smiled and waved and started to break down.

I crossed the line, stopped my Garmin and started to sob. But it didn't sound like sobbing, more like a seal barking and I thought I was hyperventilating. I quickly gained my composure and was handed a medal. I grabbed a bottle of water out of a bucket and looked up to see a group of my friends standing there cheering me on. They hugged me and slapped my back. Then my wife came up and I nearly collapsed in her arms, except that I was soaking wet and it was freezing!

If you've read my earlier posts, you knew that I had very little expectations about my time. I'd hoped that I could finish around 2:45 but I'd fully expected to be closer to 3 hours. When I checked my Garmin, it said 2:46. I was ecstatic with that time. My official chip time was 2:46:49. More importantly for me, I'd run the entire way, save for a few yards at each water station where I drank some water or ate a gel. I never wanted to take a break. I pushed myself hard to the very end and I dont' think I could have gone faster in this body. At the end of the day, what more could I have asked for?

Now, a couple of days removed, I still can't think of much that I would do differently. The day went as well as I possibly could have hoped. For my first half marathon, I couldn't be happier. When my wife handed me my phone after the race, I was even more overwhelmed by the messages of support waiting from Twitter, Facebook and texts. Friends and strangers, fast and slow all wished me well and congratulated me on my accomplishment. I proudly wore my medal for the rest of the day and I'm already thinking about what the next challenge is going to be.

I know this post has gotten kind of long, so I'll just wrap up with a brief thank you, to everyone who's read these posts, who's sent me wishes and who have laced up and run themselves. This has been one crazy gratifying journey for reasons well beyond the personal accomplishment and I assure you, its only the beginning.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Things I Love About Running

Last spring I became aware of an event on Twitter called #runchat. Its an hour long moderated Twitter chat where a great community of people answer questions posed by the moderators, share thoughts, encouragement and laughs. Since most of my Twitter followers are from #runchat, I'll assume that many of you already know that. 

The group of people that I've met through runchat have been some of the most supportive and knowledgable I've met. From back of packers like me to folks who run ultras and even running luminaries like Bart Yasso. To me, runchat has become a place to recharge and share my love of running with people who aren't going to roll their eyes and say "oh there he goes on about running again."

This week in honor of Valentine's Day, the runchat blog is hosting a contest and I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring by listing out the things I love about running. 

So here goes, a list of what I love about running

  • I love that running is hard and that I continue to do it!
  • I love that there is no coasting when running. You can never just stop working at let gravity or momentum take over. You must work to move.
  • I love the quiet time, the time to process my thoughts, the time to appreciate the changing leaves, the mist rising over a field on a cold morning and to not think at all.
  • I love the feeling of accomplishment I get after each and every run. 
  • I love how my legs feel strong again, how hard my calves and thighs have become again.
  • I love the self realization that comes during those tough runs, when you have to dig deeper than you thought you could, or even when you fail.
  • I love the community of runners, the support and encouragement that even a slow guy like me gets from everyone.
  • I love being addicted to something that is not destructive.  

Obvious to anyone who has read my blog, running has played a huge role in my recent transition and as I approach the milestone ahead of me next week, I have no intention of changing that role.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What I've Learned in Half Marathon Training

This past weekend marked two weeks until my half marathon and for the third week in the last four I ran a personal distance record. This time it was 12 miles. A run like that took me close to two hours and forty five minutes, which is a lot of time to think. At one point I started thinking about the journey I've made, how I struggled through my first 3 miles not too long ago, and what its taken for me to get where I am today. I leaned some lessons about myself and about running and I'd like to take a few minutes to share them here.

They say that the hardest steps on a run are the ones out the door. Through this whole process, I'd say about half of the time I had to play a mental game with myself to get going for my run in the morning. Sure, there were some days where I was excited to get out and run, but on other days I'd linger in bed trying to play "change the schedule" with myself. On most of those occasions (though I'll admit not all of them) I'd end up running and being glad that I did. I've never regretted going for a run, so the first lesson I learned was, do whatever you can to get your ass out the door and get started.

Now, just because they say that the steps out the door are the hardest, that doesn't mean they are the only hard steps. Not by a long shot. There were days when I felt like I could run forever, and days where I nearly broke down and just found myself walking for no other reason than I couldn't go on. Each time I had a bad run, my analytical side would look back and try to figure out what went wrong. Sometimes it was pacing too quickly, or eating poorly the night before, or not hydrating enough. But in all of these occasions, I had negative thoughts during the run. As I got into longer and longer runs, I began to notice that if my thoughts started straying into something negative, it invariably led to me feeling worse not too long away. And it didn't have to be negative thoughts about running either, but just negativity in general would trigger it. So I started forcing those out of my head with positivity. I'd think about something good and soon I'd be feeling better. That certainly became harder as the runs got longer, but I found it worked really well to predict when things are starting to get tough.
Just dreaming of the beach made me happy
Everyone has their own struggles. There are a lot of people who I would see every week out on the trail, running fast, putting in way more miles than me. You're tempted to think, "If only I could go like that, then it would be so great." But I'm not them and they aren't me. Running is not everything and it took me a long time to stop judging myself against other runners. I'm a slow runner, but I'm a man who is accomplishing something very difficult, whether I do it quickly or not. The strength of will that it takes to start a run when you know its going to take you close to three hours to finish it, when you know that thousands of people are going to be running ahead of you and very few will be running behind you, that strength has to come from a place that few people get to tap. I've learned that challenging myself and rising to that challenge is the best thing that I can ever do for myself. I've met a community of people who are supportive and understand this very thought. Your time doesn't matter. What matters is that you're putting in the time. You've made the decision to change something and you've put in the work to change it.

Half marathon training has opened my eyes to the possibility that even now, at age 40 (soon), I can still affect change in my life for the better. I've had a ton of ideas flow during the meditative time I spend running. This has shown me that its still not too late to accomplish anything.