I was walking back to my hotel, wrapped in my space blanket and eager to be reunited with my cell phone. I would have skipped back but I didn’t want to jinx what I thought had just happened. Also I couldn’t really feel my legs well enough to command them to do skip. So I walked as quickly as possible.
This was a race that was on my bucket list. There’s something about the Kentucky Derby that I love and the marathon and half marathon (called the mini-marathon here for reasons beyond my understanding) is the weekend before the Derby. It’s part of a week-long festival celebrating Louisville’s most renowned time of year. Through a series of crappy life events, my friend who was going to do the race with me had to back out a few months ago. I couldn’t find anyone else doing the race. I couldn’t find anyone else to be my travel buddy. But I had already registered and booked the race hotel. I had put in the months of training. So what the hell. I went by myself.
My training had been solid, so solid in fact that my original race goal was almost a given. My coach and friend, Sue, helped me plan to run strong in Louisville with an eye toward possibly running a personal best at the Buffalo Half Marathon in late May. After much debate, I decided to run with my trusty Timex not my fancy, schmacy Garmin. My race plan was based on effort, not on pace. After 15 minutes of running tempo I would run six minutes hard effort and then back off for six minutes for the rest of the race. I didn’t want my mind to be thinking too much about pace. I needed to get out of my head, to counteract my instinct to overthink, pause, and overthink some more. Regular old-watch it was.
Race morning brought temperatures in the high 50s along with 87 percent humidity. The humidity intimidated me, but I decided that being from Buffalo, I can deal with pretty much any shitty weather you want to throw my way — even if it’s weather I haven’t experienced since last summer.
There were 16,000 runners and while running to the start line wasn’t a problem, trying to get to my corral was another story. There was no room to move. The race was going to start in five minutes. So I ducked into the first break in the gate I found. I’m from Buffalo. We don’t pay attention to where we’re “supposed” to lineup.
The race began promptly at 7:30 and I was about five minutes behind gun time when I finally crossed the start line. It was a pleasant start. Crowded, but not impossible to find running room. I was able to mostly find my groove for those first 15 minutes of steady, tempo running. We ran a straight shot down Main Street, past the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, before taking a series of turns through the downtown area which weren’t necessarily what you would call “scenic.” But people still came out to wave to the crazy runners. And the runners in the field were chatty. They were talking with their friends and I got to listen to conversations, such as the one from the group of guys running the marathon who instructed their friend that he was to wait until the park to pee, which gave me an entertaining source of distraction.
At Mile 4 I checked my watch, just to see where I was. Seemed like I was on a pretty decent pace. So I focused on my plan — six minutes on, six minutes off. As we made the turn up Fourth Street to head out to Churchill Downs, I was grateful for the six minute “rest” interval. And by Mile 5 I was starting to lose track of my intervals, mostly because of the introduction of water stops. I used each and every water stop along the way. Wait. Was I on a hard interval? Or an easy interval? Oh crap. Well, let’s do the rest of this one hard and then pick up an easy one.
Yes, while I executed my race plan, I wasn’t getting obsessive over it. Thirteen-point-one miles is a long way. I had plenty of time. And at this point, I was starting to feel it. At this point the spectators were starting to get interesting. We passed a series of senior housing complexes and men and women in their 80s and 90s were sitting along side of the road, clapping, cheering, ringing cowbells. The runners ended up cheering louder for them.
Then there were the frat boys, who clearly had not gone to bed yet, wearing t-shirts which said something to the effect of “You keep running, We’ll keep drinking.” They started the wave. If I wasn’t running so hard I would have laughed.
At Mile 8 we entered Churchill Downs. A short but steep down and up took us under the grandstand then around to the infield. As we turned the corner horses were streaking by, getting in their morning workout in preparation for a week’s worth of racing. It was magnificent to see. Some runners stopped to take pictures, or use the bathrooms. I kept on chugging along. Because it was starting to get hard. Really hard. And if I stopped, I may not start again.
See after I had blown through the first 10K at a pace which surprised me, I was starting to get tired and starting to get bit nervous about getting tired. I decided that Miles 7-10 were about being strong and steady, not about killing it. My six-minute hard intervals didn’t need to be a sprint — they just needed to be a bit faster than the previous six minutes. I put together a few back-to-back easier intervals, just to mentally regroup.
As we hit the Mile 10 marker, I noted out loud that we only had 5K to go. The marker seemed to give everyone in the field both a sign of relief and a sign that they could pick it up. I heard a couple talking behind me:
What’s your PR in the 5K?
It’s 28 minutes.
Well, if you do that, you’ll finish in 2:05. Good luck with that.
And two thoughts went through my mind: First: Jackass. That wasn’t a very nice or appropriate use of sarcasm. Time, score, situation, dude. Second: There might be a sliver of a chance that I can PR today.
But as we approached Mile 11, I wasn’t so sure. I was completely drenched in my own sweat. The humidity was taking its toll. My legs were starting to revolt and I wanted water. The medical tent was handing out some water just ahead of the official water stop. I grabbed a cup and started walking. I sipped the water and took some deep breaths. This was my decision time. I could give into the pain or I could embrace it. I looked down at my right wrist which still bore the admission bracelet from my visit to the Muhammad Ali Center the day before. It read “Be Great. Do Great Things.” I decided it was time to be great. At least to myself. And I started running the rest of the interval nice and steady. The beeps went and I picked up the pace.
As we moved closer to the center of downtown, closer to the finish line, the spectators started to increase in number and in volume. I started to get a energy from that. I started to pick it up, looking forward to that last mile. I kept running. Kept running. Kept running. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHERE THE HELL IS THE MILE 12 MARKER? Did we pass it? “Mile 12 is just ahead,” a woman told the crowd of runners. Thank you kind woman. Thank you.
There was Mile 12. Last mile. I started to pick up my pace. Everything hurt. Every. Thing. Then someone yelled something. I wish I could remember what it was. It was a line of encouragement, but not something I typically hear at races. Whatever the man said triggered something in my brain. It was time to dig deep. I turned my watch to race time. There was about a quarter mile to go in the race and my PR was in sight. For the first time, I let myself really believe I could PR in this race.
“One more turn,” spectators started yelling. “One more turn and you’re done!” I started to kick it into high gear. My stomach felt like it was being repeated punched. My legs, well, I couldn’t really feel my legs at this point. I turned that beloved corner and … saw that the finish line was all the way at the end of the street. My heart sank for a moment. I was spent. And the likelihood of beating my best time in the half marathon seemed too far away. Instinctively I slowed. But then something inside me, said “What the hell.” I had worked too hard. I had invested too much in myself to just cruise through the finish line. I may or may not break my PR, but there was no shame in giving an all-out effort at the end and falling short.
And so I picked it up. Every. Last. Thing. I. Had. I crossed the line. I tried to smile. I looked down at my watch. I was pretty sure I had done it. Holy crap. I think I just set my PR. I pulled over to the gate immediately after the timing mats.
“Are you going to throw up?” three different medical professionals and volunteers asked me. I felt like I was going to throw up but I knew I wasn’t. I just needed a minute, away from the crowd, to catch my breath and calm my body down. While pushing back the puke factor, I had not stopped my watch properly (which means at all) so I wasn’t sure what my finishing time was. But even if I missed that PR, I was pretty darn pleased with myself. I ran my race plan. I ran hard. I didn’t give in when the challenge arrived. I trusted my training. I trusted myself. I went into the pain cave. And I laughed along the way.
When I finally returned to my hotel room, I called my mom.
“What a great race!” was her greeting, but I had no time for such pleasantries.
“What was my time?”
She told me. I raised my arms in victory, jumped up and down and started dancing around my hotel room.
Confirmed. It was PR. By 46 seconds. A month ahead of schedule.
Amazing things happen when I stop talking myself out success.