CAUTION: Long post full of self aggrandizement.
I don’t think I was being too coy about the struggle I had completing my first half marathon last fall. I recounted it in two posts: here and here. It was tough. More than tough. And so it was with considerable anxiety that I signed up for Rock the Parkway, another half marathon here in Kansas City. But I knew I had to do it.
Of course I was full of fret and anxiety in all of the months leading up to RTP. I had “bonked” on the earlier half; I had run out of fuel and had to run on little more than determination and the muscles my body apparently had to consume to keep me going. It was the hardest, most grueling thing I had ever done (and that includes the calculus course I took in college). Yet I was going to attempt to do it again.
So I spoke to as many of my running friends as I could — those who would listen anyway — and asked what went wrong before and what I could do right this time. The bottom line was that I had likely fueled inadequately for that last run. I hadn’t eaten properly in the days before, hadn’t kept my body sufficiently hydrated in advance, and hadn’t consumed enuf energy during the actual run to sustain my effort.
And so I set about correcting all of that for this run. In the week before I had been slamming bottles of Gatorade (lemon-lime G2) each day. I had two pasta dinners on days when I generally never ate dinner at all. And I organized plenty of GU (chocolate outrage and salted caramel) and energy bites (Honey Stingers and ShotBloks) to carry with me on the run. I was determined to get my glycogen and electrolyte levels as elevated as I could in preparation. (I barely know what I’m talking about.)
And I watched the weather report. Early in the week, the forecast called for a chance of rain and possibly thunderstorms on Saturday. But unlike when I’m planning a trip to my little cabin in the Ozarks, as the week progressed, the threat of rain diminished. By Thursday, all chance of rain was removed from the forecast and the temps were expected to rise into the upper 70s. Maybe a little hot for a long run, but pretty close to ideal, at least to me. I decided to do without the long sleeve shirt and risk being a little cold at the start. That would correct itself once I got moving. And I would wear a cap because the sun was expected to be out and likely in my face both directions of the run.
The Parkway of Rock the Parkway is Ward Parkway, a pretty, divided boulevard that runs through some very nice neighborhoods and terminates at the Plaza, Kansas City’s upscale shopping and dining district. The course would take us north on the Parkway (more or less uphill until mile four despite what they say), then around a beautiful urban park, taking us back to the other side of Ward Parkway for the return (which is correspondingly — and blessedly — more or less downhill).
I slept well on the night before, though I remember having a dream about being unable to find the timing chip I needed to add to my shoe. I woke before the alarm and decided not to fight for any more sleep. I let the dogs out, drank another bottle of Gatorade, got online to surf a bit and reduce my anxiety, and slowly dressed myself in the kit you see in the photo above. (After a winter of layers and long clothes and hats and gloves, it’s nice to travel light once again!) About two hours before the run was to start, I swallowed three Advil and ate the entire packet of ShotBloks. I also ate two slices of bread with peanut butter on them and a banana. All that was left to do was to drive the few miles to the start where I could wait and fret.
The temperature was already 60 degrees when I arrived. I knew I would not be cold as I waited. Just shivering with fear. I met with some of my running friends, but with more than 6,000 runners at the event, I didn’t hang around and instead wandered over to my starting corral. I had reported my expected finish time based on my performance at that earlier half, and that put me at the back of the pack, which was fine. That meant there would be fewer people to pass me since most were already in front of me. (See how I think these things through?)
Being at the back of the pack (of 6,000) meant that even though the race started at 7:30, I would not be starting until at least twenty minutes later. The start of the course headed south for a short distance and then turned and ran up the other side of the Parkway. So as I stood there, waiting to start, I could see hundreds and hundreds of runners already underway, across the boulevard just to my left. Well, that was fine. I knew I had only one runner I needed to pay attention to.
The shuffling eventually got my wave to the start. I started my watch and hoped it could grab some satellites before we were ushered across the starting mats. And though I always worry that this won’t happen, it always does happen. I crossed the mats at a trot and settled in, knowing I had a great deal of time and distance I had to manage.
I was determined not to look at my watch as I ran, and by that I actually mean not to look at the pace reported on my watch. Generally one of two things happens when I do this. Either I am disappointed that I’m not running fast enuf, or I’m instantly exhausted because I see I am running too fast. Rather, I intended just to run at the pace my legs and lungs (and determination) set and do that for as long as I could (preferably 13.1 miles). I did occasionally look at the distance my watch reported, and by the first third of a mile, I was already hot. There was nothing I could do about that, no clothes I could shed or water I could spray on my face, so I just pressed on.
I was laden with GU. I had four packs of this energy gel pinned to the waistband of my running shorts. I also had a packet of Honey Stingers in the tiny back pocket of my skimpy running shorts. And I vowed to grab a cup of Gatorade and a second cup of water at each of the aid stations along the course. I intended to stay hydrated and nourished this time. My plan to was suck down a GU at miles 2, 4, 8, and 10. I would snarf down the Honey Stingers at mile 6. I hoped that regular infusions like this would satisfy my long-term energy needs. (On that half I ran last fall, I had only eaten some ShotBloks at mile 9, much too late to restore the lost energy in time.)
And so I ran my plan. The first four miles of this run are pretty much one long uphill adventure. There are some level spots, and two or three places where you go downhill briefly (only to recapture that elevation soon after), but for the most part, it is uphill. At the top of that hill is a very nice fountain in the middle of the parkway. (You can sort of see it on my bib and medal in the photo below.) This is, of course, where the photographers sit and wait for the runners to pass. It’s very photogenic: your smiling face with the fountain in the background. Except that you’ve just run four miles uphill. Now I’ll grant that for many (and perhaps most) of the runners on this course, four gradual uphill miles at the start are not much at all. They arrive at the fountain looking fresh and frisky, and they probably look fine in their photos. Me, on the other hand, not so much. I think I saw most of the paparazzi, and I did my best not to look too frumpled and frazzled. I tried not to gasp as I passed. I don’t know if I succeeded. In fact, I don’t know if they took any shots of me at all. The pack was still a little dense at this point, and I may have been lost in the crowd.
But onward. After this point, the course was mostly level. I was mostly tired, and I was already negotiating with myself about where I would allow myself to stop or walk or somehow rest. I knew that the highest point on the course was around mile 7, and I thought that if I achieved that, I had really earned a break. But then I remembered that I had made it to mile 8 on that earlier half marathon before stopping, so I thought maybe that would be a more respectable point. Whatever, it seemed like it had to be done.
I had been running on the far right of the roadway most of the time. This left plenty of space for the swifter runners to pass me without breaking a sweat. I noticed around mile three, however, that my right hip was beginning to send me messages of complaint. The camber in the road meant that my right foot was striking just a tiny bit lower on the ground than my left, and I think my hip was trying to make that clear to me. So I changed my route a bit. I moved to the left side of the road to give my hip a break. I realize that might seem like high-level thinking for someone in the grueling early miles of a road race, but the fact is I had experienced this before and worked out the solution then. I hadn’t anticipated this happening, but I also realized that the benefit of those three Advil I had taken early in the morning was probably gone by then. Regardless, the plan worked.
Until it didn’t. At mile 6, my left knee began to register its complaint. Apparently the lower footfalls on the left were now wreaking their havoc on my body. Worse, mile 6 was exactly where my left knee had begun to bother me on that earlier half marathon, and that was a sign that my IT band had had enuf. But I was on the run, and more importantly, I was still running at mile 6, not having taken one of the breaks I allowed myself, so it was back to the right side of the road. This seemed to work, more or less. The ache in the left knee diminished, and the ache in the right hip did not return. I figured that if it did, I would just run down the middle of the road where there was no slope either direction. And some of the time I did that.
In the meantime, I was devouring my GU on schedule and drinking the Gatorade and water offered at the aid stations. I had those aches, but what I didn’t have was fatigue. I was apparently keeping myself fueled properly. Mile 7 was a chore. The biggest hill on the run hit there. Many people were walking this hill, but I was determined not to. Yes, I was tired. Yes, my brain was telling me what an idiot I was. But I was determined to reach mile 8. The trouble was that despite my corrective efforts, my left knee was still hurting. At that point I was just over half way; I had a lot of distance yet to cover with a knee that didn’t seem like it was going to cooperate. So I made a regrettable but unavoidable decision. I walked two hundred feet to give my knee a break.
I had realized after I topped the hill in mile 7 that I had the energy and the mental fortitude to run the entire 13.1 miles. What I didn’t have was a left knee that was on board for this. So although running the entire distance would have been a great personal achievement, I knew that I had to leave that for the next time. In the end, I only walked about two hundred feet. It was such a short distance that the slower pace barely registered on the pace chart for the run (after I plugged in my watch and downloaded the adventure). And then I was running again.
At mile 9, I was back on Ward Parkway again (having looped around that urban park), and the route from this point was mostly flat and generally downhill, with a few climbs thrown in that mirrored those on the earlier part of the Parkway because, well, we were running along it again. And that seemed to be enuf. I ran. I kept running. I passed the mile markers. I ate the last of my GU at mile 10. I hit all of the Gatorade and water stations. (And, yes, I always did ask if they had Bud Light. “Next station,” they’d say.) And I kept running.
We passed through some very nice neighborhoods, but they were lost on me. I was deep inside myself. Concentrating. Pushing. Ignoring. Running. I was far behind all of my running friends, many of whom were already likely finished. I was alone on the course, surrounded by hundreds of other runners, but no less alone. I could only call on myself for help. Except at mile 11. It was there that I spotted one of my friends from the running club. She was sidelined with an injury but was working as a course monitor (which meant blocking one of the side streets so we delirious runners didn’t accidentally turn down it, and that actually happens more than you might imagine). Seeing her at that point in the long run was exactly what I needed. I felt a kind of emotional recharge that buoyed me for the rest of the run.
The last mile is literally downhill. Not a steep downhill, but a consistent downhill. Because I was fueled (apparently) I was able to coax a little more speed out of my legs. At least that’s how it felt. It felt as though I was running faster and harder, and that I was able to sustain it for a last mile. (And when I downloaded the run later, my watch confirmed that I had.)
I came pelting down that last little bit before the finish arch, running like I knew what I was doing. I thought that some of my friends might be on the sideline to cheer me on, but if they were, I never saw or heard them. It didn’t matter. It was all about me at that moment. I pushed and pressed and ran and ran, and then I crossed the finish mats and it was all done. 13.1 miles, and nearly every inch of it run by my legs and lungs.
I switched off my watch as I crossed the mats, and I fell into a staggering walk, suddenly limping because my left knee asserted itself again. Maybe I exaggerated the limp. Maybe I didn’t. I don’t know. I think I was more pooped by that last quarter-mile push than by any failure of my running mechanism. I stopped at the man who would clip the chip from my shoe and nearly fell over when I tried to lift my foot. He graciously told me to leave my foot on the ground and he would remove the tag that way. Then I greedily accepted the bottle of water someone offered me. And then I stepped up to the man who hung a medal around my neck.
It was a good run. I had been fearing a repeat of my first half marathon, but I ran my plan and seemed to have conquered myself. (I beat my last half marathon time by 8 minutes!) Clearly I need to do some exercises to strengthen that knee. (A day later, my left IT band is tight and still pretty angry with me.) And somehow I need to wrap my poor brain around the fact that I must do twice this distance in October when I run a full marathon in Portland.
But all of that was for later. At the moment there was chocolate milk to be drunk. And a foam roller to be pressed to my flesh. And a hot epsom salts bath to take.
And I need to start preparing for my next half marathon, just over two months away. The boy is insane.