As race day arrived, I still had an unanswered question in my gut, in my heart, in my mind. I’d gone through several months of demanding training, and for the most part stuck to a very regimented diet and food strategy. I’d put in the hours of warm-ups, training runs, extensive post run stretching, and even runner’s Yoga. But, even with all of that behind me, as I woke up on race morning, I wondered “Can I do this? Am I asking too much of my body?”. My best real answer was “we’ll see”, but in truth, the only way to know if something is really possible sometimes is to try. You have to commit, to give all that you have, to put the risk of failing on the line to have any hope of tasting success. I’d wondered for months if my half-marathon race pace goal of seven minute and thirty second miles was just too fast. But the thing I didn’t talk about as much, and is just as important is, I knew in my heart that even if I tried with all that I am and didn’t quite hit my goal, I’d still have really won. I wouldn’t be the same person I started out as.
I barely slept the night before. This is common, but it still amazes me that the body can still finish a half marathon with almost no sleep the night before. The excitement is like Christmas eve. The mind races….”What will the weather do? Will there be wind? What music will be playing when the gun goes off? Will I forget anything? Will I share a moment with a fellow runner, …a look and a nod and a smile through the pain?”
I crawled out of bed at 3:40 and threw on my Gear.
I felt good, that nervous excitement you get when you know there’s a chance that something amazing might happen today. Really, that moment is everyday, but I don’t feel this way everyday. I was aware of the feeling today because I know what I was going to have to do something really tough, but that in my heart, I knew I was ready. My mind still tugged at my leg, “Dude, something bad will happen….Why are you doing this? You’re just going to get hurt, there’s no way you can run that fast… you’re just screwing up your knees and you’ll need knee replacements sooner, JUST STOP NOW!”. I’m still amazed at just how powerful doubt in the mind can be. If you let it, it can destroy any hope of greatness, it can kill your dream before it begins. So Cassidy? Don’t let it. Dont’ listen to the doubt, it will only enslave you.
We arrived at the VIP warm zone at around 6:45, and relaxed inside.
They had food, water, and bathrooms, which made me relax a bit. However, I still had no idea how far away the start was, and this kept nagging at me. At around 7:25, I told Kandy that I was going to start heading toward my race corral (races start according to your expected finish time, the fastest being corral 1, and so on…). This was the first time I would be starting in corral 1, the fastest corral. Even on this day I questioned if I belonged in that corral, if I could really finish around one hour and forty minutes. My brain said “probably not”, but my heart said “you’re going to OWN this race”, and I forced myself to listen to my heart, and to block my nervous, doubtful thoughts….kind of.
As I started walking to the corral, I tried to loosen up a bit, some high steps, side skips, and the likes, and I’m so glad I did. As I got closer to the back of the corrals, I noticed that the sidelines were packed, and so were most of the corrals. Although I started to get more aggressive with my path and speed, I only arrived at the back of my packed corral number 1 at 7:45, five minutes before the race start. Worse, there was no space to stretch. I was really worried.
“Would my muscles cramp because of no extensive pre-run stretching? Quads/Hams? Calves?….<sigh>” Would all of that training be a waste on not giving myself enough time to loosen up on the morning of the race? <Great….>”
Even with all of my worry, I was still extremely excited. The moments before any kind of competition like this are electric. You can feel the energy and excitement of everyone near you in the air. You can see in the muscles of other runners around you that they too have put in hours and hours of training, just like you. You share brief glances of runners around you, happy, nervous, excited, but above all? …focus. You can feel the focus, the determination, …the sheer will, the want… they want it, maybe as much as me…maybe more?…palpable… and inspiring… something everyone should experience, not just for the hell of it, but because it’s a good feeling, it teaches you without saying anything…
I prepped my music playlist for race start. I had prepared 28 songs, individually edited to kill deadspace. I ordered them to keep me at a metered pace out of the gate, to get me really moving fast in the middle, and to carry me emotionally through the final miles. It’s truly amazing to me just how much of a different this makes. It’s almost like cheating it worked so well.
Turned my garmin on. I had to decide what kind of data, if any, I wanted to use during the race. The realtime GPS pace data tends to vary so much that if you use it to adjust pace, you tend to go too fast or too slow before you realize it. I decided I’d use two pieces of data: Real-time Heart rate for pacing, and average pace to know how close i was to my goal.
I remove my Salvation Army sweatshirt, and snap-away running pants. The air is chilly, but this is good. It’ll help.
I have this habit of doing one leg hops before the start of the race, left, right, left, right… It gets a bit of the nervous energy out, and it also serves to help me understand if I’ve missed some tight muscle, not that at this point there’d be any time to stretch it out, …don’t worry, don’t worry, just smile and enjoy the race.
Even in corral number 1, there are still two groups that start before you, the folks in wheel chairs (talk about inspiring), and the elite runners. These are the professional athletes. The folks that train most of the time to run. The gun goes off, and my corral is released. You can’t move yet , so, you start jogging in place, start the music playlist, and put your hand on your garmin. You only start it as you pass over the timer at the starting line.
Unlike running a hundred-yard dash, you don’t just go all out on a half marathon. You have to pace yourself. If you start out too fast, you’ll deplete too much of the energy in your muscles, and you’ll spend a good part of the race trying to catch up. This feels like burning in your muscles, and will feel like you’re more winded then you should be. At the start of these races, there’s so much excitement that it can be VERY easy to rush out of the gate and kill some of that muscle fuel. I promised myself that I would carefully meter my pace over the first several miles. This is normally quite easy as many of the runners in my past races tend to bunch up at the beginning, or run in lines of several runners making it near impossible to run at too fast a pace. This time was a bit different.
As I took off, I purposefully aligned myself along the lefet edge of the course as the first turn was a left-hander. I think that also since I was in the proper corral, most of the folks were running near my speed, and so it was up to me to pace myself.
My watch beeped and vibrated. Mile 1 complete, …..7:19?? …Hmmm…That was faster than I had planned on. Did I just fuck it up?…Shit.
I made special teffort o loosen up a bit, lower my stance, use more of my momentum vs forcing my leg muscles to propel me. Focus, relax, enjoy, smile… you got this.
Mile 2 beeps and vibrates…. 7:31? …better! but still a tad quick… Everyone tells me aim for negative splits. Unless i’m going to finish this faster than my I had planned, this isn’t looking good….
I star to notice that things are thinning out. There are now around 4 runners that I’m seeing regularly. I admire their form and focus. They look so graceful. I always imagine myself flailing about, like I’m running away from a horrible monster screaming like a little girl. Why do I do this? …focus.
Mile 3. 7:22? ….Dude… EASY…easssssy… relax…
I’m surprised at just how good I feel. Remember though, more than ten miles left…..easy….
Mile 4. 7:35. Here it comes. I’m done. Pace will continue to fall, and that will be the end of my hopes and dreams (says the Blerch). This is where you really start to feel it. you realize you’ve gone a good distance, but your legs start to feel the steps, and you realize you’re really going to have to dig deep if there’s any hope. What are you made of? Is this a game? Is that all you got? …are you sure? Can I give more?………..yes…….hang on….
Mile 5. 7:27. I imagine that if someone had taken a picture of my face then, they would have seen a tiny hint of hope, and a small glimpse of a smile. Again, I notice the three to four other folks around me pounding away. One guy flies by me at nearly double my pace. Where did that guy come from? Am I slowing down that much? C’mon…. Pull it together, focus… Breathe, smile, relax, shoulders down, use your core, lower your stance… like you’re running on a tight rope… smooth….
Mile 6. 7:30. Almost half way, but not half way. Time starts to move in slow motion here. I feel good, but man…7 more miles of this? WHY, oh god WHY DO I DO THIS? Do I enjoy this?.. .how can THIS be fun???
Mile 7. 7:39. Oh shit. I thought I was closer to 7:30 again. This is where I started to sputter in San Jose. Dude, it’s going to happen again, your pace will fall off, and you’ll start to feel like you’re being water-boarded. You’ll start to walk through water stations. and there will be no comfort. I notice the feel of the sun on my skin, so much for the mild cloud cover. It was nice while it lasted. Shit.
Mile 8. 7:46. I’m slowing down (sigh). That last mile seemed like two or three. Remember, this is just a mental deception. You’re find, calm down. This always happens on your long runs, your brain is just depleted of some of its electrolytes. You’re going to be fine. Relax, breathe, smile. You feel good, you’re okay, you’re still near those three to four people. See, that guy in the white shirt? I start to notice something about this guy. He’s faster on the uphill. Am I slowing down? I’m slowing down… (sigh).
Mile 9. 7:45. I can’t get back to my 7:30 pace. I burned it up too soon.
Mile 10. 7:40. I notice m average pace here is almost exactly 7:30. Damn, I may actually pull this off. I also notice that the white shirt guy is not necessarily faster on the uphill, he’s doing something i Used to do before i knew better. He’s going too fast on the uphills, and I’m killing him in speed on the downhills (smile). I start to wonder if I’ll pass this guy.
Mile 11. 7:26. I passed white shirt guy. Man, what a feeling! And what a guy. I found my second wind. Did I have it all along? How much do I have in reserve? Only 2 more miles to go. This is right around where i start to understand that I got this. It’s all downhill form here (slight, but still, every bit counts).
Mile 12. 7:40. Hang on…. Just hang on, left, right, left right.. breathe, relax, smile…GO! Dont’ save it. USE IT. It won’t do you any good when you’re done. 1.1 miles? That’s only seven to eight minutes. BURN, baby, BURN…USE IT! YES, i timed my music playlist just right.
The theme from Man of Steel comes on:
Mile 13. I didn’t look down, but later realized I’d run a 7:37.
Cassidy, this is where the feeling that I want you to feel someday comes on. The sidelines are full of people cheering EVERYONE who goes by on, they are yelling positive things, yelling! Cheering, they are smiling at you, AT ME! They believe…they want me to succeed even though they don’t know me, they can see the struggle on my face, and this wave of sadness, happiness, joy, relief, thankfulness, and appreciation takes hold of me… appreciation of everything and everyone that has lead me to this point, including myself,….you start to absorb all of the positive energy, you actualize the realization that you are going to finish, that you will do what you set out to do….it’s one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever felt in my life.
I make the last right hander with only a tenth of a mile left. The finish line is in clear view, and there’s only maybe 3-4 people near me running. I turn on every last bit of muscle strength and energy I have.
When you finally step over the finish line, ….the mind is empty, and the heart is full. You want to cry, to thank all of the forces that got you to this moment. You’re thankful for life, for your body, for your family, for every breath. Its one of those moments where you can close your eyes, and have complete confidence that the world is as it should be. Nothing need change.
I’m amazed that I can feel this way even though I’m alone. My wife is back in California, my mother-in-law is still on the course, my father is back home in Arizona, still recovering from major knee surgery, and you Cassidy, you’re back home in California. There was a time when being alone and doing something like this would terrify me, at least when I was younger. Cassidy, don’t ever fear being alone. Some of the best moments in your life may come when you are alone. At least, physically alone. I was never truly alone. When I ran, I carried you, Anna, Dad, Kandy, Melyssa, and Jim in my heart, …at each step, at each thought, in each breath… you may be thinking this sounds corny and cliche,….but it is true. At various times as I struggled through my training, I had doubts, some more obvious than others, some much less so. But each one of you gave me strength, through your words of encouragement, and that encouragement is invaluable. Those words echoed in my head and my heart as I ran this day.
Cassidy, if you never challenge yourself to do something you think you may not be able to do, you will never experience the feeling I’m talking about. And to be clear, I don’t mean simply deciding to participate, this is relatively easy to do. I mean deciding to employ the best version of yourself to achieve a goal. I saw a glimpse of this in you when you would go to the dog park with us in earlier years and run around the outside of the track, not because it was running, but because you were pushing yourself to be better…you knew there was more, and you knew if you dug deep, you’d find it.
Keep digging, Cassidy. There is greatness in you, and all you have to do is believe.