Dealing With Life’s Ups and Downs

The scenic, flat downtown belied the torturous hills that awaited us.

The thing about inching towards the edge of the abyss and taking a look down – if you do it enough times, you’re bound to fall in.  Nearly everyone that’s run a few halves or full marathons knows that the strategy of  ‘going out fast’ can be tricky, even downright dangerous.  You walk that tightrope between PR and disaster.  But sometimes if you want to excel, you have to flirt with disaster.   Saturday, I did more than flirt with her, I walked right up to her and kissed her squarely on the mouth.

After comfortably running a low 1:34 at the Racefest half marathon in April, I began toying with the idea of running a half marathon in less than an hour and a half.  A sub-1:30 is an automatic qualifying time for the New York marathon for someone my age and wouldn’t that be a nice little feather in my running cap?  The 1:34:04 felt so easy at Racefest that I believed a sub-1:30 was doable.  I thought perhaps all I needed to do was to go out a little faster – I had gone out rather conservatively at Racefest.

When my buddy Todd told me about the half marathon in Hickory, I was all over it.  I had been running well of late, I felt strong, and here was what appeared to be a great opportunity to shoot for that sub-1:30.  But I’d run my first marathon in Hickory and it had been a hilly beast.  So I asked Todd, ‘Is it crazy hilly?’  When he answered, ‘It’s hilly, but no worse than any of the Charlotte halves’, I decided I’d run, even if it meant giving up any chance of a solid age group finish in the Run For Your Life Grand Prix.  After all, ultimately, I’m trying to qualify for the Boston marathon and a half would be a better training run than another 5K.

Saturday arrived and Team VanSandbaggers (the name we dubbed that part of our Blue Ridge Relay team that had ridden together in one of the team vans) – friends Derrick, Dean, Todd, and myself (Christi, as usual, was apparently off pacing somebody at another race) – Laura, and several other familiar faces from the Charlotte running scene, mingled around Hickory’s Union Square with some 600 other runners.  I spotted Dean, then Derrick, and we took off for a little warm-up jog.

My first indication that things were not going to go as smoothly as planned came from Derrick when he said, ‘Guys, I drove the course last night.    Apparently, Todd and I differ on our definition of a hilly course.  This course is very hilly!’  I mulled this over as we finished our warm-up and then toed the starting line.

When we started, I felt great.  The first mile began with a flat, shady stretch and ended downhill.  I ran comfortably, keeping an eye on my heart rate, and came through in 6:21.  Basically, that was the end of any significant flat stretches and any significant shade. It was also the only mile that I ran under my planned pace.  From there on out, this excursion felt more like a climbing expedition than a road race.   My old joke for this kind of run – I needed a sherpa to help me finish.  To add to the brutality of the race, the temperature skyrocketed, and the sun held us down while the humidity punched us in the gut.

Either Todd forgot or he downplayed the hilliness of the course.  Maybe he wanted to convince Team VanSandbaggers to run with him on this day, his 43rd birthday.  I suspect that this course is so painful that he subconsciously repressed it.  In telling us about the course, he had said that if you can just make it through mile 7, you’re home free, that there was only 1 significant hill from that point on, at mile 11.  By the time I reached mile 9, I was a beaten man who had long ago abandoned his sub-1:30 pipe dream.  When I looked up to see what appeared to be about a 600-meter cliff, I audibly, loudly, dropped a big F-bomb.  I took half a Gu and then slammed the rest to the ground in disgust at the prospect of climbing yet another hill.  “Okay”, I told myself, “Let’s just finish this thing.  Gut it out.”

There was about a quarter mile reprieve at mile 10, a nice shaded little bit by the Lenoir Rhyne college campus.  A pleasant breeze blew across me and I was ever so grateful for this much-too-short bit of relative comfort.  As we ran by the LR track, I dreamed we were finishing there.  But unfortunately, back in reality, I still had another daunting 5K to go.

Yet another brutal hill awaited at mile 11.  I actually laughed at this point.  I slogged my way up and chuckled at a kid holding a sign that read ‘The End Is Near’.  Nice double entendre.

And then at mile 12, one more long hill (or was it just a continuation of the one at mile 11 – I had lost track) emerged right around the corner.  This is the point where I asked myself, “Why didn’t you just run the King Tiger 5K?  You’d already be home in bed, taking a nap.’  Nothing to do but keep dropping one foot in front of the other.

Several people passed me in these final 2 miles, and I passed a couple of others who were so spent as to be walking up the last of the hills.  I fully expected one of my Team VanSandbaggers teammates to pass me at any second.  Every time I heard footsteps, I hoped it was one of my friends so we could commiserate.

When I finally, mercifully, crossed the finish line, I looked up at the clock and felt mixed emotions – supremely grateful to be finished, yet disgusted with the time of 1:38 and change, nearly 9 minutes slower than my goal.  I grabbed a sports drinks and waited for my pals to finish.  Derrick came through shortly after me, then Dean shortly after him, then Todd a few minutes later.  Dean made sure that the announcer said ‘Happy Birthday!’ over the loudspeaker as Todd finished.  Later, looking as fresh as a daisy, Laura trotted across the finish line.  Of all of us, she had the best run, crushing her projected time by about 6 minutes.

After having tortured the runners, the race organizers attempted to make it up to us in the post-race.  This race has about the best assortment of post-race goodies I’ve ever seen.  I challenge any of you to name another race that has livermush biscuits and beer!  Sports drinks, doughnuts, Italian ice, Biscuitville biscuits, and on and on, awaited the runners upon completion.  It almost made the torturous course worth it.  Almost.

Somehow, I miraculously managed  second place in my age group and 19th overall.  Dean scored the third place award in our division.  As I distanced myself from the race with the passage of time, I loved the post-race more and more.  Laura and I drank a couple of beers and chatted with Todd and his girlfriend Kathy.  Believe me, we needed this recovery downtime before attempting the hour long drive home.

Later that day, I was as physically beaten as I’ve ever felt after any race other than a marathon (or the Blue Ridge Relay).  And while I didn’t meet my goal, I’ve got to believe that a tough run like this can only help me in my quest to qualify for the Boston marathon.  It’s just these kind of desperate physical struggles that ultimately prepare you for those last few miles of the marathon.  Or so I hope.

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