Rock the Parkway Half Marathon 2015 recap
In what seemed like a good idea last July when I signed up, I ran the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon in Kansas City on Saturday. This was my second time to run it, and you’ll no doubt recall my thrilling post giving last year’s account. Since I knew the route, and since I had done so well (for my ability) last year, and since I’d been having a series of pretty good training runs, and since I’d been carb loading all week, and since I’d actually been doing some exercises and cross training, I decided to try to run this one really hard and see if I might set a new personal record.
Realize, of course, that really hard for me is an easy Sunday stroll for many (most?) runners. I make no pretense that I’m an elite athlete or swift runner. But as I’ve said before, the only runner I’m trying to beat is myself (and that jerk constantly tells me I can’t do it).
I rose ridiculously (and typically) early on Saturday (3:15) and got about my usual routine of iced tea (unsweetened, of course) and web surfing. I put a lot of time and effort into flossing and brushing my teeth. (This is something I do every day certainly, but I give it extra attention on race days because there’s little that’s more annoying than finding a bit of popcorn or a thread of spinach leaf stuck in my teeth at about mile 8. It becomes a serious distraction when I need to keep my focus. Trust me on this.) Then I began my routine of slowly climbing into my running gear. I’d been shaking down my intended gear for a couple of weeks, and everything seemed a go. In addition to what you see above, I wore compression shorts, calf sleeves, my Nike running watch, and, of course, socks. I chose a gray outfit mostly so I could be overlooked. A lot of my running friends do this race (it’s one of the most popular in Kansas City), and they are all so much faster and more fluid than I, so I wanted to simply get my run in and drink some chocolate milk and then slip away. (It even almost sort of worked.) The red long-sleeved shirt was mostly for keeping warm in the early morning before the sun rose. Oh, and I guess I should mention that I also wore two band aids in a pair of personal places to avoid chafing.
My wife was my support crew, and she drove me to the start, stopping first at our local bagel shop so I could do one last bit of carb loading. We arrived long before dawn and long before the start. We stayed in the car for a half hour or so, but hundreds of people were already streaming toward the starting area, and once I could see the shimmer of the dawn through the morning clouds, we emerged from our cocoon and joined the stream. I think it was about 45 degrees, and it was a bit chilly to me (I’m always cold), but I hoped that once the sun made its appearance, the temps would creep up to about ideal running weather.
As I said, I had done this race before, so I knew what there was to see and do beforehand (nothing). Instead, I used the portable toilets (something you should always do before a run, whether you think you need to or not), and then we wandered over to the area just outside of my starting corral and waited. There were 7,000+ runners in this event. We tried to stay out of the way as individuals and groups moved past us to get to here or there. I saw two random people wearing Portland Marathon shirts and reminisced with them a bit. And though I knew that many of my friends (and even extended family) were there somewhere, I didn’t see any of them (which was fine with me — see gray outfit discussion above). Eventually the music came over the loudspeakers and the announcer started chatting up the crowd. The time ticked away, and with about fifteen minutes before the official start, I gave my wife a kiss, shed my jacket, and slipped into my corral. My wave would start about ten or more minutes after the official start, so I hugged myself to keep warm and watched the eastern sky for the sun to come through the clouds.
We were assigned to our waves based on our estimated finish times. I based my estimate on my best performance to date (last summer when I registered) and then shaved some minutes to challenge myself. In our wave were the pacers (runners who will get you across the finish line in a promised amount of time) for a speed that was even more ambitious than my challenge to myself. I had no intention of trying to keep up with them.
I was in Wave E, and there was a five-or-so minute break between the start of each wave. We shuffled forward, and long before we were at the start, I could see runners on the other side of the parkway, already digging into their first mile. I wasn’t racing with any of them though. Start we eventually did, and I managed to get my watch to find some satellites in time to engage the clock as I crossed the starting mats. (In two of the halfs — I can’t call them “halves” — I’ve done, I came up short of 13.1 miles according to my watch. I don’t think it was due to a late start of the watch, and likely it wasn’t due to a mis-measured course. I suspect my old watch just isn’t very accurate any longer.)
My strategy for this run was to keep my pace under control. I nearly always get going at a moderate, sustainable pace and then find that I’ve gotten going faster and tire myself out. That’s not so bad on shorter training runs, but I had 13.1 miles ahead of me (with some challenging hills) and I needed to marshall my energy for this long run. This meant that plenty of people were passing me. That was fine, especially since our side of the parkway was three lanes wide; there was plenty of space for everyone to find their groove. I started with a slower pace than my average and committed to sticking to it at least until mile three (the top of the very long hill at the start). From there I could evaluate my energy and mental toughness and decide what to do. When I had run this race last year, I’d made it all the way to mile eight before I had to take a short walking break. My only real goal was to get farther than that this time so I could feel that I had improved. Keeping my pace under control was how I hoped to do that.
The first mile is the worst mile. At least for me. This is why many runners will do some warm-up running right before a race. They want to get the heart pumping for the real thing. I agree with that, and it’s worked for me before shorter races like 10Ks, but with 13.1 miles ahead of me, I thought it was better to conserve every bit of energy I had for the real thing. I think it was the right choice, but it meant that my body was going to get full-load demand right away and not get a break for a long, long while. At least I hoped. Usually it’s my lungs that aren’t in the game at the start. The legs are generally good (especially at my pace), but my lungs will burn and feel as though they’re going to explode and keep telling me to stop the foolishness, and I have to push through their naysaying. My goal was to get to mile eight, but I was already worried that I wouldn’t make it to one-quarter of a mile before I had to take a break. And some people were already walking. We were still within sight of the starting arch yet they were walking. Perhaps that was part of their own strategy. I don’t know, but it gave me the will to keep running and pushing and reminding myself that after mile three (mile three!) the course would be mostly level and I could get some kind of rest because I wasn’t fighting gravity so much.
My fueling plan was to eat a GU energy packet every three miles. I was carrying four of them, so that would feed me through mile twelve, and by the time I got to mile three I was pleased that I was still running. People were passing me, but I was passing people as well. Half of running is mental, and I was proud of my fortitude to press on. Soon after this I came to the first water station. I used to be disdainful of these. I almost never feel thirsty on a run. The trouble, I eventually learned, is that thirst isn’t always the first sign of approaching dehydration. The first half marathon I ever ran (in 2013) was my hard lesson. I hit the wall on that one because I hadn’t fueled properly and scorned all of the water stations. Now I visit them all (at a run) and take whatever they’re offering (usually Gatorade first followed by water). My idea was that I could allow myself to walk through the water stations (about thirty feet or so) and take the tiny cup of hydration handed to me without splashing it all over my hand, my running watch, or my face. (It would also give me a brief rest as I walked.) Great idea, if I had only remembered it. Instead I grabbed the offered cup at a run, splashed some of it into my mouth, then manfully crushed the cup and tossed it to the ground. (There were trash cans placed after the stations, but through the morning I think I was one for six in actually hitting them.)
The course leveled (more or less) at this point, and we were running past some gracious homes and by sculpture and fountains. All of which was lost on me because by then I was concentrating on the three feet in front of my two feet. I was working hard to keep going, fighting the screaming in my head to walk just a little. There was no shame in that, I could hear myself assuring to myself. And then something unexpected happened.
The pack thickened. We had three lanes of road to spread across, and I was at the back of the pack, so we were a thin crowd anyway, but suddenly it was congested. I didn’t get why at first, and I was surprised when I did realize what had happened.
I had caught up with that pace group that I knew was too fast for my ability. I realized that I certainly could not keep up with them for long, and I chastised myself for letting myself go as such a fast pace (mostly uphill too) that I could catch up with them. Still, I trotted along with them for a while, mostly because the road was flat and I was feeling pretty good. And a little proud.
The trouble was, I kept running up close behind them. I’d unintentionally close in and then have to back off lest I stepped on someone’s heel or such. This kept up for a while (perhaps a quarter mile) before I wondered if maybe I should just try to push through this pack and get ahead of them. It was a silly notion, and even if I did it, I knew they’d soon be passing me because I would wear out and possibly even compromise my ability to get past mile eight.
But I did it. I squeezed through, making apologies as I zigged and zagged for the openings, and then I was ahead of this too-fast-for-me pace group. And I just kept going, never looking back.
At mile five the course left the Parkway and did a little wandering through one of the upscale neighborhoods. Somewhere along here I felt confident that I would get past mile eight before I took a break. That felt great. I was having a very good run so far, and I wanted it to make it last as long as I could.
There was a bit of whimsy at this point. There was a park-like median along the route through the neighborhood and in the middle of it was a table with a sign that said FREE BEER. Last year a couple of young men were handing out bottles of beer to runners, and I guess it must be a kind of tradition, though this year it looked like a family (with young kids) was taking on the duty. The beer was in cups and anyone (without ID checks) could swing over and down a half of a cup of beer. A man running next to me thought it was an audacious thing to do given that there was a police officer at just about every block along the way. I suppose there might be something illegal about it — perhaps the fact that minors could snatch a cup. Nothing seemed more unsettling to my stomach than to have a fizzy beer in it as I was running along, and I had eight miles to go. I bypassed this hydration station. (I learned later that the police did shut down this station. I suppose they had to. Sigh.)
Not long after this, we emerged at Loose Park, which meant we were about halfway done with the run. The course took us around the park and then would lead us back to the Parkway. There is a hill on the far side of this park, and it was where I finally gave out and walked last year. I really, really, really wanted to walk this time too, but I guess I wanted even more to go a little farther. The lungs were in the game (and had been since about mile two), and the legs were only complaining slightly (the quads). Instead I took two of the four Advil I carried in the tiny pocket of my skimpy running shorts (to hush the complaints from my right hip) and marveled that my knees were not giving me a bit of trouble. (They — or rather, the IT bands that pass by the knees — were what failed me the most at the Portland Marathon.) I had been doing some exercises intended to address this, and I guess it had. My knees never gave me any complaint the entire 13.1 miles that day. Right about here, another water station appeared and I remembered that I had intended to walk through these things. So I tried. It was weird. The legs wanted no part of that. Walking? No way! Keep running. So I did. It was actually easier to run at that point than to walk. I understand that humans evolved to be the best long-distance runners of all of the animals. I guess I was realizing my heritage.
I’d gotten myself past mile eight and I was still going. I knew I would wear out eventually, but I thought I wouldn’t slow to a walk without a fight. Onward.
Soon after that I was back on the Parkway, on level ground and concentrating on just moving forward. All along there were clots of people on the sidelines, cheering us on and waving signs. Holding out hands for high fives. And saying unhelpful things like “Only four miles to go.” (Don’t do that if you’re ever a spectator at a run, okay?)
By this point, the crowd of runners had thinned. I had an entire lane (of the three) to myself, but I stayed as much in the middle of the road as I could since it was flattest there. It may be hard to believe, but even the slightest bit of side-to-side slope in a road can get painful quickly. With one foot falling even a few millimeters lower than the other, your hips and knees can get wonky. I tried to be mindful of the runners behind me as I weaved around, looking for flat pavement that wasn’t cracked or rutted, and I think I was a conscientious runner for the most part.
Most of the course monitors — the volunteers stationed at the side roads to keep us from drifting off course — had lost their enthusiasm by the time we back-of-the-pack runners came along, but there was one guy who hadn’t, though I wish he had. This guy was in the road, the road that we runners were using. He was clapping and cheering and IN THE WAY. He literally stepped right in front of me and stopped to cheer toward someone else. (I guess my gray invisibility clothing was working well.) I uttered an expletive and then told his companion monitor to “get that guy out of the road.” She laughed. Sigh. But onward.
I was past mile ten by then, which meant I only had a 5K to run and I was finished. Only a 5K. I was exhausted. I wanted so much to stop. I had beaten my goal. There was no shame in walking. And I was ready to do it. Except for one thing. Last June, on Father’s Day, I had run a half marathon in Vancouver, Washington, and I had run the entire distance. I hadn’t stopped or walked once on that half. And I’d never been able to repeat that performance. I thought it might have been a fluke. Yet here I was, so close to repeating the same distance, and I had intended to run this one as well and as hard as I could. I had to decide then. Would I take a much appreciated walking break, or would I set a new standard for myself by running another half marathon all the way through and prove I could do it more than once?
I’m sure you can guess how I chose.
I kept running. I was mostly on autopilot by then. The legs had their rhythm. The lungs were in the game. It was only my brain that was telling me to give up, and I wasn’t going to let my brain make my decisions for me. I think I was running on heart alone by then. But I was still running. And running. I was thinking about the chocolate milk that was waiting for me at the finish. And the medal I would hang around my neck. And, most of all, the pride I would feel at doing this thing.
Still, there were two long hills between me and the finish line. Two long hills just before the finish that could be my undoing. I decided to see what would happen when I got there (what else could I have decided?) and kept going. The first hill soon loomed before me and I pushed myself up it, trying to keep a decent pace and mostly just looking down so I wouldn’t be discouraged by how much of it still lay ahead of me. And with some effort and mental distraction, I finally found myself at the top of it. Only one more to go. This second hill was the worse of the two, but something inside me told me it would not defeat me. I think on some level I am able to assess my ability and my will and sort of “know” these kinds of things. I “knew” I could do it. It was a tough climb, but I was passing people. I was still moving at better than walking pace. I was breathing hard. I was hot and tired. My quads were angry and my right hamstring was getting tight. Sweat was stinging my eyes. And like the other hill, suddenly I was at the top.
That was mile twelve. Just one mile (and one tenth) to go. I was still running, and it was all literally downhill from here (well, except for the last quarter mile, which was flat and straight and lined with cheering people). If I’d had any energy left, I would have picked up my pace, pushed myself for a fast, strong, glorious finish. Used gravity going down the hill to my benefit. But I was beat. I was going to be lucky just to get this last mile finished at the pace I’d managed so far.
What I did, though, was pick up my pace regardless. A mile to go. I knew I couldn’t sustain it for that long, especially in the last, flat bit. But if I could squeeze a minute faster finish time out of the downhill part, I would try.
I got down the hill at my slightly faster pace, and it wasn’t long after that when I could see the finish arch ahead. Who was I going to be after this half marathon? The man who had run well and long and did a good job? Or the man who might have kept pushing to see what was really in him?
I opened up. I was dying. My body had nothing left, but I called on it nonetheless. I pushed to run faster. I was exhausted. I was starting to hurt bad. I wanted to cry. The arch looked impossibly far away. And I kept going faster. Faster. FASTER.
I came into the finish chute at a pace I could not believe. I glanced at my watch and thought my eyes must have been too full of sweat. I wasn’t capable of that kind of number! I didn’t have time to pay attention to time though. I still had a few hundred feet to go and somehow had to keep going faster. Keep my legs moving. I did. I kept going faster as the arch grew closer. My stride wasn’t ragged. I was finishing like a runner.
I heard the announcer call my name as I approached the mats. I crossed the mats. I slowed. I nearly collapsed. I had to hold myself up with my hands on my thighs, and I feared if I stopped moving I wouldn’t be able to start moving again. (Something like that happened in Portland.) I limped. I staggered. I hurt. I may have heard my wife calling to me. I moved forward. Someone gave me a bottle of water and I remembered how to open it. I stopped to have the tag removed from my shoe, beginning to feel alive again. I moved a little further forward and accepted the medal someone held out for me. I joined the flow of people leaving the chute. Somewhere up the hill was chocolate milk. Perhaps other treats. Perhaps people I knew. I never saw that too-fast-for-me pace group again after I’d passed them.
It was much too congested in the after party area. I pushed my way through the crowds until I saw the tent with the chocolate milk and then pushed my way up to it. I grabbed two cartons and found a less crowded spot. Then I called my wife to let her know I was finished. She already knew and was on her way up the hill to find me. I quickly downed the chocolate milk and grabbed a third as the man wheeled cases of them toward the tent. That one didn’t last long, but the crowds were thick and annoying. My wife soon found me, and we decided to skedaddle. I had vague plans to visit some artist studios that afternoon, and I would require extensive foam rolling and a long, hot shower before I could pull off something as daring as that.
So home we went, and I experienced the odd phenomenon I’ve felt before. My wife drove home much too fast. Of course she hadn’t. My brain was just used to a couple of hours of a certain speed before my eyes, and suddenly we were moving at a slightly faster speed. My brain wasn’t ready for this. I told her what was happening even as I assured her it was all in my head.
When we got home, I plugged in my watch and uploaded my run, confirming that I had run well and best of all, confirming that the entire last mile I kept going faster and faster to the end. I had not only beat my time from the year before, but I had run my fastest half marathon ever, by four minutes and twenty seconds. I finished twelve minutes faster than the first half marathon I ran. I guess there’s still room for improvement.
Later that afternoon, I got a text:
So I Rocked the Parkway and set a new personal record and found a lot of unexpected self confidence. And now I could rest of my laurels, so to speak, but another reason I tremble before what seemed like a good idea last July when I signed up is because I didn’t just sign up for Rock the Parkway. I signed up for the Heartland 39.3 series. (13.1 times 3 equals 39.3.) I have two more half marathons to run in the next month. (I also have a nice, downhill four-miler squeezed into that period.) I’ve said before that I want to make the half marathon my distance, and this is going to be the test. Three half marathons in five weeks. And the next one is this Saturday. Just days away.