Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Into The Wind: The 2012 Other Half Marathon

 I'm happy to share a classic Freddy Jones Band tune to accompany the blog today from the Chicago band's eponymously named album. 

 Over the weekend, The Other Half Marathon, a rite of autumn-for me, anyway-came to pass. This was the first half marathon I ever completed, back in 2007. Then, I initially set a goal of simply finishing the race. As training went on, I set a goal of a sub-2 hour finish, squeaking in just under that mark. Moab, and this race in particular, are special to me. I've completed The Other Half every year since then except for 2008, when my first marathon was scheduled within a week of the race. Besides being my first, this was also the site of my best half (2010) where I ran a time that qualified me for guaranteed entry into the New York City Marathon, and my worst half (2011) where I just had one of those days when nothing went right. You could say I've had a lot of experiences-positive experiences, learning experiences, on the race course from the Dewey Bridge to Sorrel River Ranch. 

 When race weekend arrived for the 2012 edition of The Other Half, my base was as strong and balanced as it had probably ever been since starting to run. The speed work, trail work, hills, long runs, recovery runs, and some cross training to boot have been yielding consistently good results for me this fall. In taking on new challenges and dropping self-imposed boundaries, I've been able to do a lot of things I didn't think I could do in the past. 

 Running has also been my rock and my strength as of late. Though I hesitate to bring it up, I can't NOT mention anymore that I am in the midst of a lot of big changes in my life. There's no pretty way to say it. My marriage is coming to an end, and it's a sucky, emotional experience for everyone in my family. Some days are good, but a lot of the time, I've felt awful. Focusing on my children, and on my running are always two bright spots that can bring me up from a low point. My two big challenges for this weekend were to a)bounce back from a very poor 2011 race, and b)tune out any negative emotions and outside stress. If anything, I needed to draw strength and resolve from those personal challenges to get through the race, and channel that energy positively. I needed to focus solely on trusting my training and translating that into the best race I could run on Sunday. It sounds weird but I had no pressure on me, and all the pressure in the world at the same time. 

 Before even leaving town, messages starting coming in from friends already in Moab. Every year, the race program features some sort of article or runner profile, and this year, I was honored to be the subject, with a piece about my running journey, and the way The Other Half and Moab races have been woven into the history. I'd done a phone interview with the writer about a month prior but hadn't read it yet; still, it was quite humbling to hear the positive feedback and comments. Even though blogging is a public forum, I am an outgoing introvert deep down, so to be "out there" in the program and have people identify with the weight loss and fitness journey was a strange-feeling yet very cool thing.

 I was staying with a group of friends that included both first-time Other Half-ers and racers contending for the very top spots in the race, and the energy within our group was great the night prior. Everyone was excited, joking, being silly, and having a good time with one another, and everyone fed off that energy. I decided, while walking around with Angela (a first-time Other Halfer) and Kristin (a first-timer halfer) that we needed mood rings from a gift shop on the main drag. Realizing I was serious and they weren't going to get out of the store without a mood ring, they relented and we left with cheap rings on our fingers that constantly changed color. Moving on to dinner, we met with about a dozen friends at our now traditional pre-race haunt, Miguel's Baja Grill. Later, it was a soak in the outdoor hot tub at our place, a "racey" pedicure for my toes, and a few bangs of the Grand Junction gong, which was here for our entertainment and good mojo for the race. I have to say that each of the people in my company that evening have been tremendously positive influences on me lately, whether they know it or not.  Being able to laugh and joke was a huge win tonight.

I did not sleep awesomely, but did sleep that night. It was rather warm outside when I walked out to do a temperature check very early in the morning. Usually, one could count on it being pretty chilly pre-race, but this was not bad at all. I walked around with my camera and checked out the early scene. This was a place that felt so familiar and good, with the sun rising over the red cliffs, casting long shadows of runners moving about.

When it was time to strip off layers and throw my gear bag in the truck, I stopped taking pictures and got in a good warmup. Moving down to the bridge for the start, there was a bit of a delay. As it turns out, there had been a snafu with one of the buses to the start, and I was starting to get antsy and shiver. Soon, though, that bus arrived, and I blocked everything out of my mind but my own race. I hopped around to stay warm, and focused on staying loose. When the starting gun went off, I had nothing in my head but a resolve to run this whole race like I meant it, and not back off or give up if I started feeling bad or like it wasn't my day. It was time to run MY race and find my pace.

The Garmin I'd received as a top GOTR fundraiser several months prior had decided to crash on me shortly before the race, and I thought about going sans watch, but in the end borrowed one from a friend just to be able to check my time at key points during the race, and look at data later. After hitting "start," I stayed true to my plan and settled in to a short stride/high cadence that was now muscle memory after nearly a year of speed work. The 1:40 pace group leader was ahead of me and I was having a hard time keeping up, which seemed weird. I soon realized that he was going MUCH faster than a 1:40 pace, and felt pretty good about being able to keep him in my sights. I relaxed and moved down the road, with my friends Ilana and Ernie running nearby. 

Coming around a bend, I got a long, wide view of the curving road. Off in the distance, I could see Kenyon Neuman, who was here trying to break the course record, a tiny dot already far down the road. A minute or two later, I could see a small white speck-our friend Marty, running solidly second, with nobody else near him. Then, I focused back and assessed my running. I felt good. Not bulletproof, but I suppose feeling bulletproof would mean I wasn't working hard enough. 

Continuing down the road, I took a peek at my watch each time in beeped to let me know another mile had passed. I got through the first 5 miles on what was well under a 1:40 finish time pace, and stayed disciplined to a "run the mile you're in" approach. Taking time to look around here and there, I marveled at the beauty of this place. A whirring noise in the distance got louder and louder; it was a small airplane, zipping close to the river and red cliffs. It was cool and kind of took my breath away to see it zooming up and down along the river, circling and doing tricks. I'm not sure if it was legal for the pilot to be flying like that, but it was pretty spectacular.

By now, Ilana had pulled ahead of me but I could still see her. Ernie and I seemed to keep leapfrogging, and that 1:40 pace group leader kept getting way ahead, stopping and jogging in place. I carried no water bottles but instead took a cup at each aid station of Gatorade or water, pouring off the top, and then sloshing the rest into my mouth. There had been a woman or two who passed me in the first few miles but I was now passing back a few men and women. It wasn't so much blazing a trail as outlasting people who started too fast or were having trouble as we entered the second half of the race. Coming into the 7th mile and beginning of the hills, I was ready to get to work, and kind of happy to see the hills. Running flat routes is its own challenge, and despite the pain of some of the climbs, the rhythm of the hills, and constant up and down can be a good thing. I got a little speed on the gentle downhill before the climb, tucked my head, and just kept moving. I could feel some wind now, but didn't think it would last. 

Cresting the top of the hill, I could feel that the wind was not going to let up. It was whistling loudly in my ears, almost taunting me. I remembered the year prior when I almost quit in the hills-well, that wasn't going to happen today. I was pissed at the wind-didn't it know I was going to run sub-1:40 today? I felt like I was working twice as hard now to move half the speed I was in the first seven miles. Bullshit. I wasn't going to be done in by the wind today. Some woman kept leapfrogging me and it fired me up. I worked to stay with her on the next hill climb. When the downhill came, I flew. Oh, man, did it hurt. I wasn't sure if I would have anything left in my legs by the end but I needed to race hard all the way through no matter what. On one of the uphills, I climbed with Ernie but then he said something in the wind that I couldn't quite hear, and I pulled ahead. I expected he'd leapfrog back up but that was the last time I saw him during the race.

Now came one of the toughest stretches of the race. The course still had roll but much was uphill. And that wind! I thought of the scene in Forrest Gump with Lieutenant Dan on the shrimp boat in the storm...the one where he "made his piece with God." I knew I'd slowed down but I wasn't going to let that wind ruin my race. I was going to use it to fire myself up and get kind of angry, and turn that anger into energy. I turned and could see my shadow running-I tried to pull up use good, strong, fluid form, and checked the shadow. I wouldn't say I was winning against the wind but I wasn't letting it defeat me today. Soon, I could see the Taiko Dan drummers on the horizon. I couldn't really hear them, though. That wind was just too fierce. I broke the course up into smaller sections, focusing on getting to the next sign or next divot in the road. Then, I'd reached the drummers. As one racer did to the mountains at the Imogene Pass Run, I looked at the drummers and gave them a Namaste and small bow, as I ran past, thanking them for sharing their musical gifts with us today.

Then-finally! I could bomb downhill a bit, and start that long, horseshoe-shaped stretch toward the finish. My legs were super noodley now, and my strongest suit as a runner-fast downhill road running-was not there. This was all mental game now, and I went to the arms to try to swing and get some additional forward momentum. I briefly checked my time, knowing that based on past experiences here, I was right on the cusp of a possible age group award, probably fighting for that third spot on the podium. I couldn't let up any and remained singularly focused on an effort that would get me on the podium. My body wanted to quit; instead I told it to shut up and keep moving by keeping my eyes on fence post after fence post, accelerating to one and then moving through to the next, never looking all the way down the road. The wind was pretty nasty and I don't remember it ever feeling this hard to run at the end of the race. I wasn't going to hit sub-1:40 today but my effort and intensity was everything I could have wished for at this point. There was nothing in my brain but RUN...RUN...RUN....finish strong! 

Making the turn into Sorrel River Ranch, I found it harder and harder to move forward but fought the fade. I saw Marty, who had probably been done for about 20 minutes, alongside the course, and he yelled "C'mon! Push, girl!" as I ran past. I fought to put out everything I had left in me and lay it all out on the course. I passed a sign that said "800 meters to go;" usually, this wouldn't bother me that much, but today it was not nice to see that sign.  Lots of people dotted the finish chute now, and I fed off the cheers, plowing through the late race fatigue.

Continuing along the chute and curving toward the finish, I poured it on. I heard a familar "Ka-RAH!" and recognized the voice as Marty's dad Ed. He's a staple at all the races in our city and region, always cheering for and supporting all of us runners. Today, he had two kids racing, with daughter Rochelle running her very first half (I'd see her come in later, looking wonderfully chill and happy despite the wind). Hearing that cheer was a great added boost and I let it carry me closer to the finish. 

Soon, I heard the finish line announcer calling me out by name and mentioning my appearance in the race program. I didn't realize 'til later that it was Kathaleen, wife of Jeff, who routinely does the finish line call but was out of town this week. She sounded like an old pro, reading off names and times quickly, and announcing where runners were from, or other little details. The time clock said 1:42 and I threw myself toward it with everything I had left, crossing the finish line in a time of 1:42:41. It wasn't a grand slam but more of a hard-fought home run in challenging conditions. That was everything I had today, and now it was a matter of waiting for results to see if it was good enough to place. Soon, the results started going up on a wall near the finish area and I went to look with anticipation. I knew I was on the bubble, and checking the results, I learned it had not burst on me today. I'd finished 3rd out of 177 in my age group, and 16th woman overall. This was a hard-fought effort from start to finish, and one of the best feeling awards to receive ever.

The day was a mixed bag of results for my friends. Some had rough days and others had amazing races, yet everybody seemed to take away the satisfaction of just being out there to do this race in a beautiful place, even though the conditions were challenging. The leaves would blow. The 3.1 beer flowed. Smiles and hugs abounded. 

After this amazing emotional high of a day, it's been a busy return back to life of being a mom and trying to get through each day, and find good things in each day. Family and friends for whom I'm grateful, and blessed to have in in my life. My running, and what it does to keep me together physically, and mentally. This beautiful region of the country where I'm blessed to live. There's a lot of uncertainty in my road ahead and it scares me to death. At times I've felt like a failure. A lot of times. I know I have to keep moving ahead, though, and try to do so as positively as possible, even when every fiber of my being wants to cry, yell, or just stay in bed. There's nothing good to be gained from that-for me, for my family, or anyone else. Am I "faking it until I make it" in some sense? Yes, absolutely. And I know there will be lots of times when I'll feel like I've got the fiercest of gale force winds pushing me back. In the end, though, I WILL make it. One way or another, I will get there.

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