The wheels fell off on this one.
I didn’t feel right about this half marathon for the week before and certainly the morning of. I can’t put my finger on why, but I suppose such a vague feeling can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know.
Running with the Cows was the third in the Heartland 39.3 Series that I had signed up for last summer. I expected this series of half marathons to be tough, and I was surprised when I managed the first two races, on consecutive weekends, with my legs and lungs still intact. I thought I would be destroyed by two such long runs so close together, yet I wasn’t.
As I reflect, I think Running with the Cows went so badly for me because of a perverse, oil-and-water mix of over confidence and lack of confidence.
I should tell you right now that I did finish the half marathon. In fact, of the eight half marathons I’ve now run, my time was better than three of them and very close to another. I found a kick at the end and ran across the finish line as fast as I could, but when I did, I was ready to be done with it, to walk away and not look back. Such was the mess I felt it to be.
I’ve said here several times that I’m trying to make the half marathon my distance. I want to get confident and competent with it. I want to feel assured that I can lace up and accomplish that distance, not without effort and concentration, but with a knowledge that it is in me. I also noted above that I had done surprisingly well on the two prior halfs in this series (Rock the Parkway and the Garmin Half). I think that’s where my over confidence came from. I think I believed I had reached my mastery point with the half marathon. I think I believed that Running with the Cows would be simple, especially since I got two weeks of rest before it. I trained, but maybe with too much confidence and not enuf doubt. Nor did I take my fueling seriously enuf. In the week before the other races, I was slamming a bottle of Gatorade each day, eating more carbs, rolling my leg muscles, and getting more rest. I didn’t do that with Cows. That was a mistake.
But I was also talking myself into a near panic about this run. I had driven the course two weeks prior and saw the long, rolling hills that were on the agenda. They aren’t steep, but they are long. (This is not in the flat part of Kansas that every thinks is the case statewide.) I dreaded those hills, and somewhere within me I “knew” I couldn’t run them, that I would have to walk at least part of them to get to the top. I don’t know if I would have run better if I hadn’t known those hills were coming. If I had gone out on the course as an innocent and just taken whatever came, maybe I would have done better because I wouldn’t have already excused myself from tackling them.
Running sure can be a road to self discovery. Or self doubt.
So all of that was swirling in what passes for my mind as I got to the race early Saturday morning. The forecast had called for thunderstorms then, with up to a half an inch of rain (“except higher amounts in thundershowers”) and I resigned myself to getting wet and perhaps cold. When I rose on Saturday (3:15 of course) and let the dogs out, it was 63 degrees, and though I knew that might drop some before race time, I was comfortable that at least I would not be cold. Parking was going to be iffy because we would be using farm fields, and they were already sodden from the week of storms before. We took my truck (named the “Prolechariot” by my third son) rather than the little red Honda just in case we needed the four-wheel drive. But it turned out that we were directed to park on the side of a road far from the start and then get bussed in. I didn’t like that at first, especially since my wife, who would be waiting as I ran, would be far from the car if she needed anything (like shelter from the storm). This arrangement didn’t turn out to be a problem however.
So we rode the school bus in and got off at the Catholic church that was hosting the runs. (There was also a 5K.) We passed through the school cafeteria, where they were already setting up for the big, well-regarded after party. I looked around for people I knew but didn’t see any. I used the portable toilet three times (always prudent and evidently very necessary this time). I wandered about more. I found my wife on a bench, passing the time with a runner from Iowa. (There were runners from 46 states and several countries. That’s pretty good for an event having only 1500 runners altogether.) I waited for the time to pass. The sun had risen but was behind the gray clouds. The latest forecast said the rain would likely hold off until 8:00, so I’d be at least a few miles into the run before that particular misery visited.
Eventually I got myself into the starting chute and waited. There were no waves or corrals. We would start as a mass and sort ourselves out later. I was far enuf back that I could not hear whatever announcements there were (or might have been). A drone flew over. (These are getting ubiquitous at races.) I did hear a countdown, but several minutes after that, our mass of humanity had not moved. Then I heard another countdown and realized the first must have been for some special runners. Generally wheelchair racers are let fly before the rest of us. But we were finally off, and I started my watch just as I crossed the mats. On my way.
We left the school parking lot and got on the two-lane blacktop road that, a hundred blocks to the north (in my neighborhood), swells to eight lanes and is lousy with traffic. Out here in the rurals, it was just a country road. A country road with a mile and a half uphill incline. It wasn’t long before I found myself crowding against a thick pack of people who were taking up the entire width of the two lanes. It took me a while to realize that I was stuck behind a pace group. In part because of my negative self talk, I didn’t intend to run this race hard or fast, but this pace group was going more slowly than my legs and lungs wanted. Compounding this was the chatty nature of the lead pacer. Her job is to encourage those who have chosen to run with her group, to advise them on how to tackle the hills, how to get through the water stations, how to outsmart their fatigue. And she was doing this, keeping up a nearly constant patter of words to the people depending on her to get them across the finish line at a given time. And boy was it annoying to me!
I figured if I could get ahead of this group and put some distance between us, I could still fall back to their pace if necessary and yet not have to listen to the encouraging words. So that was my plan. To get around them, I had to run on the narrow gravel shoulder, and then when I was back on the road, I had to hustle to get that distance. Because annoying patter!
My plan worked. Soon I could only hear the pacer when she had her group shout at each mile marker. This was the last time in the race when I felt like anything was working for me.
At mile 3 I took my first walking break. As much as I really did not want to do this, I didn’t see how I could keep running, not with the many long hills still to come. It’s possible that I had been running too fast. I wanted to leave that chatty pacer well behind, and regardless, I wanted to finish faster than her group’s promised time, even with a slower run for me this time. So maybe running too fast to get ahead of her had caused me to walk too soon, which would allow her, ironically, to close the distance between us. Plus, walking revealed to me that I wasn’t (yet) a master of the half marathon, at least not on a challenging course.
This was not my only walking break for the remaining ten miles. There were plenty. And as the miles passed, the breaks came more frequently. Had I been on a flat course that morning, I think I still would have needed (or taken) walking breaks. My overconfidence blended with my lack of confidence was visiting me repeatedly. With a smirk.
I ate my GU every three miles. I took the water and Gatorade at each of the (well staged and staffed) water stations. I ran all of the flats and downhills, and I powered as far as I could up those long hills. But I was disappointed with myself. I was disappointed that I was exhausted and panting. I was not going to turn in a good time, and all I really wanted by the halfway point was to stay ahead of the chatty pacer.
The halfway point was a turnaround. We had climbed what seemed like a two-mile hill to get there, and I relished the thought of returning that distance going downhill. (Of course I forgot that it was a rolling stretch.) As I made the turn and saw the runners behind me still heading toward it, I was encouraged to see how many there were. I guess I wasn’t as pathetic as I feared.
By this point, any goodwill or milk of human kindness was drained from me. I didn’t care about much except finding the flattest part of the road and sticking to it. Often this required me to run in the empty lane (we runners having thinned enuf that most were just using one lane). All along the run, service vehicles were zipping up and down the course, mostly staying on the shoulder (when there was one) but sometimes coming into the lanes that were supposed to be dedicated to us runners. I don’t know what it is that was so urgent, but plenty of ATVs and mules were going back and forth. Some were apparently delivering things to the aid stations. Some were, I guess, looking for runners who could not finish. Some seemed to have no other purpose than to cheer to us, but they were using the road that was supposed to be ours. So I got feisty and decided I wasn’t going to yield my empty lane to any of these vehicles. They could pull over and let me pass, or they could grind through the gravel shoulder to pass me. But I paid to use that road that day, and I was going to use it. I suppose you can guess what happened next. I heard a vehicle coming behind me, in my personal lane of blacktop, and I just stayed in the way, plodding along and letting it deal with this.
Fortunately, I happened to look back (thinking I might make a rude gesture) and learned that I was impeding the progress of an ambulance with its lights on. Um. Oops.
I was better behaved after that. Fortunately, we runners were well thinned by then, and I could find my flat part of the pavement in the other lane with the other runners.
Somewhere around mile 11.5 I looked to the south and could see the steeple of the church that was our finish. Only a mile and a half to go, and yet it looked so very far away. There were no uphills left, and since we were returning on part of the same route that was at the start, we had mostly just gentle downhill before us. But so very far away. There was more walking in this last mile and a half. I didn’t care any longer. I hated the world by then. Sometime in the last ten miles I had caught up with the next faster pace group and even got ahead of them, but they passed me and left me behind within sight of the finish. Sigh.
I came toward the finish and made the turn into the school parking lot. What little energy I had left I poured into my legs. I think I made a decent enuf finish of my run, and I was still coherent enuf to hear the announcer mispronounce my name as I came hurtling across.
And that was that. I turned off my watch, waived away the proffered bottle of water, and only remembered that I needed to have the chip removed from my shoe when I saw a line of people having this done. I had to find the table where I was (unceremoniously) handed my medal (see below). The thing hanging from the cow’s neck is a copper bell with the number 6 on it, this being the sixth year of this run. (I understand the church makes something close to $100,000 from it. I’m not sure how since there weren’t that many runners times the race fee to reach that number. But I’m sure races are money-making rackets or they wouldn’t be held.)
I staggered around for a while, hating the world and myself most of all. Somewhere ahead was another tent where I could collect my special medal for completing all of the races in the Heartland Series (see below). It was handed to me unceremoniously as well.
Then I made my way to the school cafeteria where the after party feed is legendary. The whole community apparently has a hand in it, and the church ladies are busy baking and cooking and fixing food a week in advance. I’d heard again and again about this spread, and I was eager to see it (even though I am not generally hungry after a hard run).
Every runner had a support crew, and since I imagine this event is the biggest thing to happen in Bucyrus, Kansas all year, every little kid in the community was there for the excitement and glamor of sweaty runners shouldering each other for free food. Thus the cafeteria was packed with people, most of whom I suspect weren’t actual runners. I stood in a long line just to stagger up to the table to see what was being served. Unfortunately, it was mostly nothing that I wanted to put on my stomach at that time. Burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, BBQ, potato chips, nachos, burritos, fajitas. There was a table dedicated to baked goods, but they were all so thickly sugar coated that I knew that wasn’t going to work for me either. About the only thing they had that I wanted was CHOCOLATE MILK, and I drank five or six cartons of it before I pulled myself from the throng and decided just to go home to a hot shower.
Remember that the Prolechariot was miles away, and I had to fold my weary, adult-sized legs into the seating of a school bus then drive most of a section of land to get off relatively close to my truck. But I managed. My wife drove us home, and I was about as cranky as I could be the entire way. It was not a good run, and that weighed on me. (And my grandson, Kenneth, never did send me his customary congratulatory text. I guess he was busy planning Mother’s Day stuff.)
But the rain never fell. There was a constant mild breeze throughout the run, and that relieved us of the oppressive humidity. The water stations were very well staged and well run, and I think every high school kid in the county had turned out to help and offer hydration, encouragement, and smiles. The course was challenging, and maybe if I had trained more intelligently and diligently, I would have welcomed the challenge rather than merely endured it. My knees did not give the slightest hint of complaint, and when my hips began to bark, I swallowed the Advil I had brought along. I didn’t see a single cow until the last half mile, but I guess they fulfilled that part of the deal, so no complaints there. I beat the chatty pacer in. I now have my eighth half marathon behind me as well as some lessons learned. And at least it wasn’t a really bad event like the Garmin half. (Ugh!)
There are only three things I would have done differently on the course had I been race director. I would not have allowed all of the back and forth of the support vehicles. And I would have not had us cross the path with faster/slower runners at mile 5. This was where we began the out-and-back stretch with the turnaround. The monitors on the corner needed merely to direct us to the left side of the road (after our left turn), and we would have come back on the right side of the road. As it was, this was switched, and though it didn’t affect me as far back as I was, many of the runners ahead of me had to find their way through a line of runners crossing directly in front of them. Finally, I would have asked the police and sheriff staff and other security people to turn off their engines as they idled at intersections. I realize it may be protocol to leave their engines running in case of sudden need, but there were several intersections I ran through where I sucked in nothing but exhaust. Did ALL of their vehicles need to be left running? Did they ALL need to be parked immediately beside the course?
So I completed the Heartland Series and got the bling (plus the special shirt that shows I’m badass). But I don’t think I’ll sign up for it again next year. When two-thirds of the events are disappointing, that doesn’t encourage me to come back. Maybe I’ll Run with the Cows again someday to prove to myself that I can deal with long hills over long distances. We’ll see.
In the meantime, I have nothing on my dance card until the Plaza 10K in September. Yes, it’s likely that I’ll do some races between now and then, but I think my regular training runs will probably keep me happy for a while.