So, calling my first half marathon ‘eventful’ immediately brings to mind Danny DeVito’s famous line (to me) in Romancing the Stone (1984) … ‘understatement of the year ass hole.’
I think to have a chance at improving my time at the Urbanathlon I need to get stronger at further distances (not speedier at shorter distances), which is why I reached for the half in the first place. And boy was it something. I’m not exactly sure where to start, so I’ll just plow through it.
Lola’s Half Marathon is the third run in a small series of races put on by Podium Sports Marketing, and if you compete in at least three of the four signature races you earn an attractive runner’s fleece (so, ya know, that’s all I needed … I’m easy). Now in its second year, it’s held in Waconia, MN, a quaint town of about 10,000, framed around beautiful Lake Waconia, about 45 minutes southwest of the Twin Cities, complete with a Main Street that runs through downtown.
It’s been cold and rainy for weeks on end, and Saturday morning was sunny and about as perfect as you can ask for. What a gift.
Coming in, I knew I could run 13.1 miles (I hit 13.5 once during one Sunday long run), but I wasn’t sure if I could ‘race’ 13.1 (big difference). But with some racing reps, and mistakes, behind me I’m starting to feel smarter as a runner. I planned to be far more strategic this time around; start slooow (no matter how good I feel), settle in and find my rhythm for the long haul, and then bring it home. And with an official pacer at 7:15/mile to boot (which is where I anticipated running), the guesswork on what to do was all but obsolete (the next pacer was at 7:40/mile, which I thought was safe, but maybe too doable).
As we lined up and I’m soaking it all in (just my second race of the season), a sinking feeling hit my stomach (like when you forget your bank card in the ATM). I realized I had a small breakfast at 5 a.m., (toast, banana, coffee … a modest appetizer for me) and it was now 8 a.m. Whoaboy. I started to do the nutrition math, and sheepishly rationalized that the two homemade gels in my Spibelt would sustain me. Before I could fully get my head around a plan to power up the starter casually yelled ‘okay go’ and the tidal wave of spandex blew down Main Street.
Miles 1-3 were glorious. About 6 of us stuck like glue to the pacer, and we held at about 7:04/mile weaving throughout town. Past the hospital, past the school, along the main road, back in through the neighborhoods and bell-ringing kids in wagons. I felt great and was brimming with confidence. The course meandered back to the start/finish area for a final boost from the crowd before we hit Main Street again and get released to the lake portion of the run.
Miles 4 and 5 were strong. I felt like I could run harder, but shadowed the pacer stride for stride, finding comfort when he’d pull back (with a somewhat quick pace I assumed we’d dial it in the last mile or so and coast). But this is where the course took a bit of a turn. Once we hit the lake we veered off the beaten path and ran a good portion on gravel and trails before being spit out on a county road.
Late into miles 5 and miles 6 is where I should start my class action law suit. The hills. My goodness the hills. Those looooong slow inclines, one after the other (‘a few rolling hills on this mostly flat, fast course,’ I think was the course description … Fe!). The pacer kept me grounded, reminding us that we were a bit ahead of pace and could take the hills a little more slowly, which we did. I’m still feeling strong, and at about 6.2 miles we pass the transition area for those running the two-person relay. Having these kinds of milestone markers was really helpful. All the pomp and circumstance from the awaiting relay runners briefly upped our pace to about 6:54 until we settled back into 7:08 or so.
Mile 7 and we’re back on hilly gravel roads (I keep hammering home the point about these trails because I expected just a paved walking or bike trail around the lake, which is common around here, but not in this case). Sweat rains off the brim of my cap, and I’m making mental notes to drink as much water as possible at any upcoming water stop. My head’s a faucet at this point and I know I have to replenish.
Miles 8 and 9 I’m feeling heavy, but I tell myself to stick to the pacer no matter what. That it is easier to stick with him than it would be to let him go and try to make up ground later. We’re also now starting to pass the back end of the 10 milers who took off just before us (but they went straight to the lake and did not go through town).
The mind games start to come into play at around 10 miles, when we pass the marker and I think, ‘damn, I should have just run the 10 mile, I’d be done.’ With every painful hill I remind myself that no matter how tough it is, everyone else is going through the same thing, so just keep moving (you don’t have to go faster, and it’s okay to slow down, but just don’t stop). I start to lose my grip on the pacer, and he and the remaining runner in our group open up a gap of about 10 feet after a crucial water stop, then 20, then when I pick my eyes off the road I can just barely see his sign bobbing amid the cluster of 10 milers and half marathoners, now colliding in one sweaty spandex stew. I let him go, but tell myself that I at least need to keep him in sight.
I’m on my own from here out.
Mile 11 just feels long (I remember this feeling from my long runs and it brings only dread), and my breathing is a far more labored. I clumsily weave between the gassed 10 milers, and have barely enough in me to clumsily swerve away from the occasional road kill (a snapping turtle hear, a scary something there). All I want at this point is to stop. I’m weak. I’ve come a long way. I tell myself that it’s two miles, and that you can do anything for two miles. I still want to stop.
Mile 12 was horrific. Physically, my legs just started to lock up (and I couldn’t stop it) and my breathing was out of control. This was a new feeling/experience so I’m not sure how to respond (I think among runners the technical term for this is ‘bonking’). I looked at my GPS watch no fewer than 12,368 times. I told myself I can do anything for one mile. I fidgeted with my hat. Take it off. Put it on backwards. Take it off. Put it back on. I’m scanning the occasional spectator to see if they have a spare bottle of water, so I can just stop and replenish. Nothing. A guy about my age is running a good 20 feet ahead of me with two fully loaded water bottles on his belt and I think of trying to catch him. I’m a little dizzy, and this is no longer fun. I just want it to be over, and that’s not happening without a great deal of effort and pain. The hills just keep coming, too (yes, this will also be in my class action law suit).
An unforgiving hill greets us at about mile 12.8, and I’m a wreck. I’m trotting, barely, and I know if I stop to collect myself for the final ascent that there’s no way my body will get back in motion. We hit the opposite end of Main Street and run a final slow incline to the town center. I see my crew on a corner about 800 meters from the finish. Instead of the usual fist pump and high fives I great them with a labored stride and defeated shake of the head. My girls, per our custom, hop out and stride with me, which lifts me momentarily, but between my heaving and lurching I urge them to ‘let me go.’ They fall back (this crushes me still).
The last 400 meters are a quick right for a block, hang a left for a block, and then hang a left for a half block through the finish (essentially just running around the town center through a strong crowd). I hear my name over the sound system as I cross, pump my fists, and then collapse (later I told my wife that if they had moved the finish line back 5 feet I wouldn’t have made it … I wish I were joking). I loosely recall grabbing my medal (by far the coolest medal I’ve earned), and then a bottle of water. I found a spot off to the side and spread out on the concrete, dousing myself, trying to snap into focus, but half joking in my head that ‘hey, you can pass out now’ and almost obliging.
My crew finds me, and my wife knows I’m not well. We wait it out, trying to get a read on how I feel. I tell my wife (out of earshot of my girls) ‘they can have the f&#@*!% half marathon! This is crazy.’ And perhaps did another 10-minute rant about the hills. I’m still sweating buckets, and while my breathing is in check I just can’t shake the light headedness. A medical staffer comes over to check on me and urges me to keep moving and take in fluids (but to ‘avoid the yogurt!’). I do both. They check on me again. I’m about the same. They come by a third time and notice that I’m looking pretty ‘pale’ and sweating waaaay too much (I finished 30 minutes ago), so she calls it and has me sit down for fluids.
I expected some Gatorade or other medical-grade replenishing hooch, but instead a small team swarms to get an IV in my hand (a bloody mess). What I didn’t realize is that you don’t just get your IV and then go on your way. Oh no. They then put you on a stretcher, stuff you in the back of an ambulance, and take a leisurely ride to the ER. As a high-functioning introvert who hates the spotlight, I was mortified. But everyone was great and kept the mood light.
The moment of high comedy for me was being wheeled in and seeing all of the running shoes sticking out of the occupied bays in the ER. I tipped my water bottle to a despondent dad, who was not amused with my attempt at ironic humor. The staff filled me with a second bag, monitored my vitals, did some blood work, and sent me on my way.
For my troubles I finished in 1:35:58 (since it’s my first this is a PR!), earning 54th place overall. As kind of a subtle twist of the knife I earned 4th in my division. Had I taken care of my body I know I could have reached that third spot. Lesson learned.
Physically, I know I can run, and compete, in the half. For Lola’s I was so laser focused on making sure everything was in order (wake up early, get kids up in time, feed the dog, print directions, pack bags, make sure I have all of my stuff, plan my warm up, etc.) that I neglected the obvious … fuel properly before the race. Doh! And I get so excited for race day that I lose it a little (I obsess for at least two weeks prior).
It took a few days to start feeling like myself again, and I took a full week off before diving back in.
I had planned to run a half on July 4 (The Red, White and Boom in Minneapolis), but will instead take the next 7 weeks to more specifically train for The Minnesota Half Marathon on Aug 4 (the last race in the Minnesota Running Series, and my jacket qualifier!). Get my miles up, do more with speedwork and tempo runs, and get my Sunday long run consistently at 14-15 miles. I’ll work out the nutrition piece, too, and try a few of the commercial gels, like Cliff Shot and GU Rocktane, to see if those give me more in-race fuel than my homemade gels.
Plus the Minnesota Half is back in my hood, in downtown Saint Paul along the Mississippi River. I may even run it once or twice (or thrice) for a Sunday long run to better scope it out and get a few reps in. In the meantime I have a pretty detailed 7-week training plan that I hope will put in me a good position to race the half more comfortably come August.