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I really hadn’t planned on being here, yet here I was, at the starting line, wondering what the heck I was doing.

Having just come off my first heavy mileage week since late March, I wasn’t sure how my legs were going to react.

They felt heavy.

What the heck was I doing hopping last minute into a half-marathon?

***

One of the things I “love” about the half-marathon and marathon distance is that at some point, if you are a mid-packer like me, you will be tested.  It is not a question of if, but one of when.  Usually the test comes in the second half of the race.  In a marathon it is often during the last 10K (though mine at Boston came at 17).  In the half, I usually find that I must overcome my brain somewhere around miles 9 or 10.

Yesterday my test came during the first 4 miles.  I had jumped into this half-marathon on a whim.  I hadn’t trained for it, AND I had just started a new training cycle that already had me at over 40 miles for the week.  That isn’t a lot for some, but it is a full week for me.  My legs. were. tired.

As the starter yelled, “Go. Go! GO!” I got sucked out by the front of the pack.  I had run into RaceMenu/Mix1 teammate Greg (when he showed up I joked that everybody’s projected finish had just dropped one spot) and had made the mistake of hanging out with him near the start.  When the starter yelled go, I knew to let Greg go (he’s fast).  I didn’t give chase and I thought I was running at a smart pace.  Because of the threat of rain, I had left my iPhone (my de facto GPS device) at home, so I had no idea really what my pace was.  As we passed the first mile marker I tapped my watch and looked down.

6:09.

Um, what?!?

My goal for the half-marathon I had signed up for 2 weeks from now was to run 7:00 minute  miles (and that would be an almost 2 minute PR).  I had no business running a 6:09 first mile in an impromptu half-marathon.  I slowed myself down a bit which resulted in me watching several runners pass me by.

It’s never a good feeling when you get passed, even if you know in your head that it is the smart thing to do – it is discouraging at best.  As the faster runners continued to pass me, I quickly spiraled into a dark place wondering what I had been thinking.  I hit mile 3 in 20 minutes flat, but my legs felt like rubber.  I was spent.  I had gone out too hard, too fast and with  little over 10 miles to go, I was done.  By the time I hit mile 4, I actually had thoughts that maybe I needed to stop road racing – for a while anyway.  What was the point, really?  I mean, seriously, I am not fast enough to have a shot at winning any of these races; why in the world was I putting myself through this kind of hell?  Miles 4 and 5 were significantly slower and I started to think about walking or quitting.  The problem of course is that if I did that, I was stuck in the middle of nowhere and I’d still have to make my way back to the start.  On top of all of that, my right foot fell asleep between miles 4 and 5 (and would remain so for most of the race) and it felt like I was running on a stump of a right foot.  Yes, things were moving along swimmingly.

When I hit mile 6 I looked at my watch.

41:59.

Just under 7:00 per mile.  Granted there were still 7 miles to go, but a PR was not out of the question.  We were almost done climbing Heartbreak Hill and I notice that I was now starting to pass a few people.  I saw Greg coming in the other direction.  We slapped five as we passed each other.  He had a good 40 – 50 second lead on the second place runner.  Encouraged, I tried to quicken the cadence a little and push up the hill.  As we hit the turnaround and started heading back, I saw one of the runners who had passed me early on off in the distance.

I stopped thinking about my sleeping foot.  I stopped thinking about the pain and how tired I was.  Instead I focused on this runner’s tan shirt.  There were other runners in between us, but for some reason I did not want to lose to this guy.  It was time to go to work.  He was to be a good 75 – 100 yards off, but I slowly started to reel him in.  Coming down Heartbreak, a young kid pulled up next to me and I latched on.  Moments later I heard a loud, booming, “LUAU!!!”  I looked to see Kim from Tales of an Endless Runner working her way up Heartbreak.  I yelled back and carried on.  Running downhill felt good.  I finally caught tan shirt at around mile 8.  As I started to pass him, he surged, as did young kid.  I pushed along with them.  Tan shirt briefly opened up about a one meter gap before fading.  Young kid and I pushed on.

I still felt terrible.  My legs were sluggish and my breathing was labored.  My mindset, as it had been from about mile 5 on, was “just finish”.  Forget the PR, just finish.

I kept thinking if I could just hang with young kid, I would be all right, but I very quickly realized that in this particular case, youth was going to win out.  At mile 9 I felt young kid quicken the pace.  He was trying to reel in a group that was about 50 yards ahead of us.  I thought about coming along for the ride, but I knew I had spent my surge energy catching tan shirt.  I quickly glanced behind me to see if anyone was closing on me and saw no one.  I decided to keep my pace and let young kid go.  It was a move I would partially regret later.

When I hit mile 10 I looked at my watch.  70:16.  I started to do some math.  My PR was a 1:33:14.  That meant if I ran the next 3.1 miles in just under 23:00 minutes, I could PR.  My heart and my brain went in two different directions.  My heart said, “GOGOGO!!!” where my brain said, “be smart, run smart!”

I divided 23 by 3.

7 2/3.

7:40.

But that doesn’t take into account the extra 0.1!

23 divided by 3.1 is…

oh crap! too hard. I can’t even do that when I’m not running.

I arbitrarily assigned the 0.1 mile stretch 45 seconds.

22:15 divided by 3.

3 times 7 is 21.

that leaves 1:15…divide that by 3…that 75 second…25!

7:25!!!

I need to run 7:25 pace the rest of the way to hit a PR!!!

Yes, this is what was running through my brain as I covered mile 11.  When I hit the mile marker I looked at my watch – 7:18 for mile 11!

Re-calculate! 

Nononono!

Just run!!! Keep pace.

Mile 12 came in 7:19.  1.1 miles to go.  If I could just maintain my pace I would beat my previous best.  I looked ahead.  I had pulled within maybe 75 yards of the guy ahead of me (young kid has disappeared out of sight).  I thought about trying to make up 75 yards over the course of a mile, but I was spent.  That said I did manage to pick up the pace.  With less than a few hundred yards to go, I heard RaceMenu Chief Alain cheering me in.  There was no one behind me and there was no way I was catching the guy in front of me, but I picked up the speed with one last push.  I knew the PR was mine.  As I made the final turn and ran through the chute, I saw the clock – 1:32:23 – a PR by 51 seconds.

1:32:23 - 22nd overall, 4th AG, 51 second PR

I. was. beat.

Alain handed me a mix1, congratulated me on my PR and told me that Greg had won the race in a course record 1:14.  Man that guy is fast!  Greg and I posed for a picture for our sponsors.

So, I finished in 1:32:23, 22nd overall and once again, as it seems to be my fate in these things, 4th in my age group, just off of the podium.   Maybe if I had chased young kid back at mile 9 – 10 I would have caught the 40-something that finished ahead of me – of course, maybe I would have crashed and burned before even making it to mile 11, who knows.

I’m glad I chose last minute to hop in on this half-marathon.  I’m glad I passed the test early on in the race.  Did I learn anything? Maybe that even when it feels like it’s all going down the tubes, if you put your head down and battle through, sometimes good things can happen.   Makes me feel pretty good going into the Boston Run to Remember Half Marathon over Memorial Day Weekend in 2 weeks.  That race is MUCH flatter than this was, so I’ve actually got a shot at another PR.  We shall see.

***

On a tangentially related note, it seems that Sunday may have been National PR Day.  Many of my running friends scored personal records in the races they ran, none more joyous to me than my buddy Brendan (@mainerunnah on Twitter) who ran the Pittsburgh Marathon and got his BQ in a 3:19 finish.  Those of you who read this blog regularly may remember Brendan from my Smuttynose BQ.  At that race we were both shooting for 3:19’s as part of Team Kinvara, but he unfortunately came up 33 seconds short.  Getting the text that Brendan had achieved his goal actually brought a tear to my eye.  Congratulations Brendan, you have caught the Unicorn!  I will see you in Hopkinton in 2012!

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This past Sunday I ran the Providence Marathon. This was the marathon I had been training for all winter in hopes of qualifying for Boston 2011. Instead, plans changed, I ran Boston 2010 two weeks ago and was forced to change my approach to this marathon. Running 2 marathons in 2 weeks, especially when you haven’t specifically trained for it, is just a tad nuts. Many of you let me know that two weeks ago when I announced that I would indeed run Providence. I did manage to give Sunday’s run some purpose with my $22 for your favorite charity post (and the 22 of you that participated truly helped me through the last few miles), but in retrospect, I don’t think it made it any less crazy.

As crazy as it was though, I came into Providence with a plan – start slooooooowly.

Which I did.

Kinda.

The thought of running Providence as a Boston qualifier did in fact cross my mind in the past week, but if I was going to be honest with myself, I knew that my body was still not fully recovered from my run at Boston. It didn’t help that I was still in the midst of fighting a nagging chest cold.

So the plan on Sunday was to run a steady, strong race. Start slow, pick up speed if I felt like I could, but not push myself to the point of serious injury. I figured a 3:35 – 3:40 was not out of the question.

As I drove down to Providence I heard a weather report on the radio state that the temperature for the marathon was going to start around 60° (Yes!) and climb to over 85° (NO!!!).

85°? Really? 85 frakkin’ degrees?

Any and all thoughts of a possible BQ vanished completely.

Sunday was going to be a test of survival.

I played with some numbers in my head as I pulled into the hotel to park the car and check my bag. 3:32 in Boston, under almost perfect weather conditions meant, what? a 3:40 in Providence? Maybe a 3:50 with the soaring temperatures? I shut the brain down as I went in.

I started looking for people I knew through my online running community and almost immediately ran into twitter friend @IronmanLongRunr. I had actually met him at the Manchester Marathon back in November and I was pleased to see that he was attempting to run his first marathon in Vibrams. We chatted on our way to the start, getting funny looks from people looking at our funny shoes. It was great to have a fellow Vibrams runner along for the ride.

What a different perspective from Boston. I wish I had the foresight to take a picture, but suffice it to say I started near the front on Sunday as opposed to the absolute rear. While waiting for the starting gun, two more dailymile friends tapped me on the shoulder to introduce themselves (Melissa C. and Martin A., both of whom were running the half – I also met Ryan D. after the race). It is such a neat moment to be able to put voices and body language with the faces and names of the people you have been following online.

Although I had placed myself in the 7-8 minute/mile pace area, I was determined to start slow. As the gun went off I could hear myself say out loud, “Go slow”.

IronmanLongRunr laughed. His approach was actually going to be similar. Despite having run nearly 1000 races and several marathons, this was his first in Vibrams.

We hit the first mile marker at about 8:00. Perfect. My goal was to hit 10 miles at about 80 minutes and see how I felt. Unfortunately, not much past the first mile marker I hit my first speed bump. The course took a right turn down a hill and the moment I hit it, my right knee buckled, I mean seriously buckled.

Sharp pain! Sharp pain! Sharp pain!

Frak! No Frakking Way!!!

I didn’t change my pace. Two strides and I was upright. I tried to ignore it. I looked over at IronmanLongRunr and forced a smile. We were pretty much maintaining the same pace so I decided to distract myself with a little conversation. We made small talk while we waited for the course to split and send the half-marathoners in another direction (on a complete side note, I loved that the organizers of this marathon split the course in two different directions early. This way I knew that anyone who was running with or around me was running the entire race and not peeling off at 13.1 – see my Manchester experience to see why this mattered).

The pain was not going away. It wasn’t getting worse, but it definitely was NOT going away. I gritted my teeth as we approached the first real hill at mile 5. Going up was fine. In fact, I incorporated a little of my falling uphill move with very nice results. But every step coming down sent a sharp pain through my knee. I tried to adjust my stride, but didn’t want to do anything too dramatic and cause something else to give. Fortunately, the marathon course overall was the flattest I’ve run so far. About two miles later we hit another hill with the same results. Going uphill I gained some ground on some runners, going down I whimpered with every other step.

As we approached a turn around at about mile 9, I got a peek at some of the leaders. I saw my buddy Brad (the runner who patted me on the back at Eastern States). He would tell me after the race he crashed and burned and had to walk the last few miles…he finished with a 3:27…right, a 3:27 walking the last few miles. Anyway, after I made the turn around I spotted one of the runners who had encouraged me to run Providence, my dailymile/Twitter friend, and fellow blogger, Robyn. At that point, IronmanLongRunr dropped back, I shortened my stride and picked up my pace.

At that point I latched on to two runners who I would find out are both Ironman competitors as well. John was pacing Steve for a 3:30 race. I followed them for several miles, chatting about my shoes and their training. They tried to convince me that doing triathlons actually hurt less than doing marathons – that the recovery time was much shorter for triathlons.

Yeah, right.

Turns out that I wasn’t the only crazy one in the group. John had run Boston just two weeks before as well. At around 16 or 17 I picked up my pace for no good reason and left them behind. I was happy to see that my fear of the 16th mile seemed to now be completely obliterated.

I picked up a young woman named Steph. Steph was running her 4th or 5th marathon in hopes of running a sub 3:30. At this point we were on pace for about that so we chatted for a while. Turns out she had qualified for Boston this year, but had been unable to run it. She was hoping to run a qualifying time again. I told her I’d hang with her as long as I could to push her along, but I knew that there was really no way I was going to keep up. About 2 miles later she dropped back. I probably should have followed her lead.

The pain in my right knee continued to bother me. There was just no way around it. IronmanLongRunr had said to me early on around mile 3 or 4 when I mentioned it, that the body and the marathon were strange things and that pain that was bothering me at mile 3 or 4 could suddenly disappear by mile 10 or 15. I had kept that thought in mind the entire time but to no avail. Although the pain wasn’t getting worse, it was still not getting any better.

Although the pain never caused me to think about quitting (aside from that first mile or two), it was definitely starting to get to me at this point. The mental fatigue of fighting the pain was wearing me down. I looked at my arms and shoulders and saw all those who were riding with me and picked up my pace.

As we hit the 20 mile marker, I said to myself, “Just a 10K at this point. You can do a 10 K.” And despite the constant knee pain, the rest of me felt pretty good. The next two miles went along quite pleasantly for having just run 20 miles.

But then the sun and heat came out in full force.

At 22 it was almost like someone had decided to turn the thermostat WAY up. I was convinced that my pace was slowing.

With maybe 3 to go, John and Steven passed me by like I wasn’t moving. I was still catching people myself, but they were in a groove. John paused and asked if I wanted to come along. I shook my head. The combination of heat and pain was too much for me to try and pour it on for the final 5K. Shortly thereafter Steph pulled up next to me. She had picked up another young woman and they were cruising along. She too paused momentarily to see if I wanted to latch on and again I shook my head. They were just going a little too fast for me at that point – 2 marathons in 2 weeks was finally, truly taking its toll. I felt like I had enough fuel to hold steady, but any sudden acceleration would have taken me down to empty.

It was around this time that my phone died on me again. It may have had something to do with trying to pour water on my head and missing completely and hitting my left arm instead. My phone was soaked and the automatic tracking stopped. I tried to guess my distance based in time and perceived pace, but everytime I thought 2 minutes must have gone by, I’d look at my watch to discover that only 60 seconds had passed.

Somehow I missed the marker for 24 and was convinced I had also missed the marker for 25. Imagine my dismay when 4 minutes later I came across mile marker 25.

The sun decided to turn it up even more for the final mile. There was no place to hide. I felt like I was dragging my feet for the final stretch. The air was thick, my body was tired, and at this point my knee had had just about enough thank you. Every small downward slope shot a sharp pain along the outside of the knee. I looked at my watch. 3:20 and change with just 1.2 to go. I knew I had a shot at a second PR in as many weeks and maybe even a sub-3:30. I dug deep and thought of all of you who had donated $22 to your charities to come along for the ride.

“COME ON!” I yelled to myself, scaring the crap out of a poor half-marathoner I was passing. I pushed along, hoping to run close to an 8 or 9 minute mile.

As I came around a bend, I looked for the finish.

Nothing. Just a few runners ahead of me. Around the next bend I went, looking for the finish.

Nothing.

I looked at my watch. Closing in fast on 3:29.

“How far?” I yelled.

“Around that bend,” someone yelled back. I looked. It was so far away, but this was it. I ran as hard as I thought my knee would let me. As I made the turn a kid in a green shirt started to pass me. I looked up – 50, maybe 75 yards to the finish. Green shirt passed me. The finish line was coming up fast now. I hadn’t seen this kid all race. He had been behind me the entire time. I wasn’t going to let this happen.

A sudden burst of adrenalin and the pain in my knee was gone. I broke into an all out sprint, the crowd cheering the two of us on in our mini-duel. I pulled away and finished a few yards ahead of him and proceeded to collapse into the arms of an awaiting volunteer.

I came to a dead stop. I couldn’t breath for a moment but caught my breath just in time to feel the pain return to my knee.

As I hobbled my way to food and drink area, I found John, Steven and Steph. They all had done well, Steph achieving her goal with a 3:28. She thanked me for pacing her along the way and I did the same.

As I sat there drinking my bottles of Mix1 and trying to eat a banana and some pizza, maybe a half dozen runners came over to thank me for pacing them along at certain points during the race. All of them had finished behind me, but each and everyone of them had kind words about silently following me at some point. I couldn’t help but think of “Ilsa”. I recognized some of them, but there were a few I hadn’t been aware of.

In the end I didn’t run a sub-3:30, but boy did I come close.

3:30:11. A PR by nearly 2 minutes. 114th overall out of nearly 1000 marathoners and 26th out 150 men in their 40’s. Not bad for a race that was the second in two weeks.

A couple of things I learned – never do 2 marathons in 2 weeks. I am mentally spent! I’m glad I did it though. I learned that my body can take the pounding of 26.2 miles better than a chest cold can. As of yesterday? No more chest cold. I also learned that maybe there’s more gas in the tank at the end of a race than we think. Looking back, I wonder if I should have latched on to either John and Steven or Steph. If I had, could I have held on to run the last 5K with them? My sprint at the end tells me just maybe I could have. Only one way to find out, right? Yeah, I think the next marathon isn’t for at least 5 months. Of course, that means if I’m going to follow a 16 week program, training starts in a month. I’m tired just thinking about it. Finally, I learned that, in the words of Dalton (RIP), Pain don’t hurt. As bad as my knee was killing me, I was able to run through it, using it almost as a tool to keep me from going out too fast.

I think a week off is going to be necessary, but then it’s right back to road. Next race – Boston Run to Remember at the end of the month…at least this one is just a half-marathon.

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