In 30 years of racing, my goal is to start every race in peak condition; rested, well-fueled and trained. I don’t win any race I enter, but I give it my best and I can’t expect anymore than that.
In 2008, I did start one race where I knew I wasn’t feeling 100%. It was a half marathon in Central Park, New York City. I knew something wasn’t right with my knee. I sought out a variety of treatments and taping contraptions. I hoped and prayed that I could find my way around the pain for one race, one long 13 miles. I started the race and lasted no more than 3 minutes. I knew that if I continued running for 13 miles the damage that I would incur would be much worse than just my knee. I stopped running the race. I learned an important lesson that day. Ever since, I have made it a priority to get to the starting line of every race prepared and healthy.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. My training schedule and life in general conspire against my staying in top condition. This year, for the first four months of 2016, I have traveled, a lot. Since January 1st, I have been on 15 flights. One flight from South America, two west coast trips and several flights ranging from 3 to 5 hours. I armed myself with bacterial wipes, water, vitamin C packets, and noise-cancellation headphones to get as much rest as possible. I did everything I could think of to avoid the myriad of germs flying around at 10,000 feet!
I have also been quite successful at keeping up with my training. My on-the-road workouts consisted of a humid run in Guayaquil, Ecuador, a few treadmill runs in rainy Portland, Oregon, some warm and sunny runs in Florida and Mexico, a long run in Cleveland, an ocean swim in Playa Del Carmen and hiking in Utah. This helped me prepare for a spring half marathon. I chose the goal of the half marathon to keep me motivated and moving all winter long…no matter where I was.
It was mid-April and the race was 7 days away. On my last flight returning from Cleveland, I thought I was home free. I had done it! But 24 hours later…I felt a tickle in my throat. I thought, “This cannot be happening…I made it this far!”
I immediately began taking Zicam every 3 hours, Vitamin C, drinking lots of water as well as napping twice a day. As the week progressed, I found that I wasn’t getting worse. I wasn’t getting better overnight, but I’ll take “not getting worse” any day.
I took a few days off from swimming, biking and running and rested even more.
As race day neared, I was still a bit skeptical that racing was a good idea. I did a short 2 mile run on Saturday morning to test how I was feeling. To the left is a dialogue I had with my coach. We discussed a strategy for race day.
My plan was to run the 13. 1 miles with no expectations. The race would be a supported-training run with water stops, bathroom breaks, even walking, if necessary.
My college friend Bruce was meeting me at the race. While we’ve known each other since 1985, I never imagined we’d ever run a half marathon or even a 5k together! In some way, I think that if he wasn’t meeting me at the race, I might never have gone. Knowing he would be there, was the extra motivation I needed to get to the starting line.
On Saturday afternoon, I reset my Garmin watch and turned off the Lap Distance notifications. I laid out my clothes and Honey Stinger Gels and Clif Shot Blocks on my closet floor. I was happy with my decision to run, not race. I would not get a PR tomorrow, but I would get in the distance that I needed and be proud of my effort. I could ask nothing more of myself.
I showed up on race morning with little time to spare, much to Bruce’s chagrin. I don’t usually cut things that close, but for some reason I just knew it would all work out.
We started running together, zig-zagging our way through the mass start of 3,000 runners. I was careful not to start out too fast and hold a comfortable pace. At about 2 miles, Bruce ran ahead and I never saw him again. I was running my race, at my pace and that was more than okay. As I approached each mile marker, I didn’t even look at the numbers. I didn’t do the math to figure out my pace. I just kept running. As I neared the water stops, I actually WALKED to drink and swallow my gel or chew my shot block. I even availed myself of a port-o-potty right on the course.
I was feeling good. I was enjoying the course and the weather was perfect.
With about 2 miles left, a young woman ran up beside me.
“Excuse me,” she said, “Do you have a goal time?” (She was the politest runner I have every encountered).
“No,” I answered, “I’ve been fighting a cold all week so I’m just happy to be here.”
I knew she was trying to finish in a specific time so I told her that we were definitely going to finish under 2 hours. I thought she’d be happy with that. She was young and I assumed this might be one of her first half marathons.
“Great!” She replied, “I was hoping to get under 1:55.”
“Oh,” I said, “That’s going to be tight. The 1:55 pace setter is just in front. I can see the sign that he is carrying about 200 yards ahead of us.”
“Okay, thanks.” she said as she proceeded to pick up her pace and chase down her goal.
I kept running. I felt good. I knew I was going to finish. I had listened to my body and didn’t rely on any data or technology. I ran a steady race. I learned that even if I’m not in my best condition, I can still get out there and learn what I’m capable of. Not every race day will be perfect. It’s good to know that I under sub-par conditions, I can still do what it takes to finish and feel proud of my effort.
Without even trying, I caught up to my polite runner and finished a second or two after her, right around 1:55.
In the end, we both met our goals!