At some point during the parade of athletes at the Opening Ceremonies, the NBC commentators noted that the flag bearer for some small delegation was extremely honest about his chances in this Olympics. He said he was going to finish last.
I relayed this story to my friend Colleen at the start line of the Lockport Y10 Saturday morning.
“Someone has to be last,” I said. “And this time, it really might be me.”
She thought I was sandbagging but in all honesty I had zero expectations for this 10-mile race which is notoriously difficult. The course itself is a challenge physically (see Market Street hill later in this post) and mentally (see Miles 6 and 8). Add to it that it’s February in Western New York. Thankfully the windchill advisory expired just before race time, when it was a balmy 12 degrees. The streets were plowed but areas had poor fitting with sloppy slush and the occasional (or more than occasional) pot hole to dodge.
So it’s a tough race to start with and my run training hasn’t been all that impressive lately. I’ve been more consistent in creating my own training plan the last few weeks although the gusting winds and single digit temperatures have had me on my bike trainer more than in my running kicks. And when I have gotten outside my pace has been slow, my triumph being in getting miles in not in the quality of the workout.
Nothing in my training journal pointed to me having a good day. But what the hell.
The start of the race was very sloppy footing. “Don’t fall down,” I told myself. “And don’t get caught up in everyone else.” The first mile is all downhill, including a section down Market Street, a short but steep hill. I let gravity give me a boost but allowed myself to warm into the run. When I saw my time for the first mile, I consciously slowed down. That first mile was going to be faster with the downhill but I had nine more miles to go. Pace yourself.
The next few miles felt steady and pleasant. The wind was at our back and while the first half of the course is overall downhill, there are some small hills (mere inclines to stronger runners) which need to be managed. By Mile 2 my toes had defrosted. That was a good sign. My core was starting to hurt a little bit. That was a bad sign. I pulled my fleece neck warmer over my mouth to warm the air going into my lungs and slowed my pace down just a bit.
As we ran down an open stretch in Mile 3 a deer bolted across the road, taking advantage of a gap in runners. It was quick and beautiful and a good sign. It’s good luck for me when I see a deer on a run. Something good is going to happen. I’m going to be OK. I felt happy and confident even though I was sure my breathing is what startled the deer out of the woods in the first place.
Mentally I kept counting to Mile 5. The halfway point of the race was the lone water stop and also a place with plenty of support. It’s the end point for those running the 5-mile race and the exchange for those doing the relay. With the aid station in sight, I pulled out a gel (Salty Carmel. Mmmm.) and was happy it wasn’t frozen solid. I stopped momentarily for a sip of water and carried on my merry way, secure in the knowledge that my best five miles of day … were now behind me.
Shortly past the aid station came the turn. Hello head wind. Hello long road of open farmland. Hello horrible mile. And while physically I had to battle the wind and cold, mentally I had to battle the increasing heaviness of my legs, the ache in my core, the loneliness of the long road and the increasing desire to say, “screw this.”
The Mile 6 marker appeared and a guy came up on my left, slowly making a pass. “Four miles left,” I said out loud. “You’ve got this,” he said to me.
Yes I did. I’m in it to finish. All I want to do is stay strong, stay focused, stay in the game.
Then came the Mile 7 marker. We were now in the eighth mile of the race. And oh yeah, I had forgotten this mile. I had blocked its existence from my memory. Because while Mile 6 was horrible this was the most heinous mile. The road ran parallel to the Erie Canal. The wind was still coming at us and it was just a long, long, endless, for-the-love-of-god-will-this-mile-ever-end stretch of the race.
Along this mile I started chatting with a woman named Ann Marie. She was taking a walk break and then started jogging next me. Her music had stopped working and after trying to fiddle with it, she just gave up and gutted out the race. It was her first time doing the Y-10 and she was all smiles. “I’m not doing this for time,” she said after I learned she did the Mighty Niagara Half Marathon in September. We chatted for a good portion of that heinous mile, making it not so horrible.
Shortly after we hit the Mile 8 marker, I started yelling.
PANCAKES! I WANT PANCAKES!
True story. Go find Ann Marie and ask her.
She pulled slightly ahead and I made a decision not to attempt to keep up. There were two miles left and I just wanted to run strong and steady. Also, I’m not sure I could have kept up with her. But I didn’t let that ignite a negative thinking gremlin. I noted that every mile beep of my Garmin showed a mile pace that was below my expectations. I was doing something right.
The downhill to start the race is the uphill to end the race. You can see the Market Street hill coming for nearly a mile. The road has been gradually rising for the better part of a mile and a half at this point as a sort of warmup to the short but steep and horribly cruel hill with the wind in your face. At one point I was pretty sure I could have walked up the hill faster than I was running. But I tried to turn my grimace into a smile while I kept my legs moving.
I finished the steepest part of the hill, but the hill wasn’t done yet. You continue uphill then make a turn up a side street for the absolute worst footing of the entire course. I tried to pick the least sloppy line. It wasn’t easy and my eyes were totally focused on my feet.
But then, alleluia, clear pavement and flat road. I kicked it in. I kicked hard finding a level of energy I didn’t know existed. I saw the time on the clock as I neared the finish line. I heard my friend Colleen screaming for me and my mother’s omnipresent cowbell.
Hello finish line.
“Did I win?” I asked, grabbing my knees as a teenage volunteer cut the timing chip off my sneaker. I didn’t win. But I wasn’t last. And quite frankly I shocked the hell out of myself.
On one level, I had no business running as well as I did. Compared to the field it was nothing to write home about. But I’m not worried about the rest of the field. I’m worried about my journey. I ran this race a few seconds faster than last year, with less structured training and absolutely no game plan. I don’t recommend that as a consistent approach to racing (and well, to life) as I am a big believer in the axiom that you have to have a plan to change a plan. But there is a certain freedom that comes from following your gut and trusting yourself. It’s about understanding what it is you want and embracing it. It’s about passionately being yourself. It’s about letting the result take of itself while you put your focus on what you can control, on what you love.
Race director Jeff Tracy asked runners and volunteers to do their happy dance throughout the day at the Y-10 and he put together this video. (Can you pick me out?) There is really no better capstone to my race recap than dancing to a song called “Happy.”