When I read accounts by others of races I’ve done (or intend to do) — recaps or reports, they’re called — I find that what I write about them is more about my personal experience than about the race itself. Others’ accounts tend to be about how well the race was conducted, the water station set ups, the course conditions, the quality of the cheering fans on the side of the road, the after party, that kind of thing. I tend to give an account of the state of my unraveling mind along the way. My recaps tend to be about my run rather than the run. That’s generally all I have for you, and if you’re a runner considering a race, my account may not be useful to you. But if you’re fascinated by anguish and mental breakdown and eventual giddiness, then I try to deliver.
The Garmin Half Marathon (there were also a full marathon and a 10K) was the second in a series of three I’m doing this spring. It’s a local tradition, called the Heartland 39.3 Series, and I’d known about it for about two years before I thought I might be trained enuf to actually accomplish it. As you know if you read my account of the first race in the series, Rock the Parkway 2015, I had signed up for this last summer, believing I had most of a year to get trained up and mentally conditioned.
Conventional running wisdom is that you should allow yourself one day of recovery for every mile after a big run. Thus, after I ran 13 miles two weekends ago at Rock the Parkway (and did well), I should have allowed myself nearly two weeks of rest and recovery time before attempting another big race. Didn’t happen. Since the Garmin Half was exactly one week later, I only got six rest days. (And if you add the two days I ran — total 10 miles — during that week, I really only got four rest days.) But I’ve never given much credence to conventional wisdom.
I will confess that I was nervous about this race. I’d never done this kind of thing, running two challenging races so closely placed. I’d once read an account of a man who ran a full marathon in the morning, then joined his friend to run another full marathon that afternoon. I suspect some people just have the musculature, the metabolism to run this way (and live), but they aren’t most people, and they certainly aren’t me. I didn’t know what to expect of myself, and once again, the only goal I set for myself (aside from finishing) was to run past mile 8 before taking a walk break. I thought that might be too optimistic though given my lack of sufficient rest.
The Garmin Marathon of 2014 still figures large in running conversations around Kansas City. The weather then was horrible, with rain coming down in buckets, ankle deep water puddles to run through, cold headwinds, and horizontal sleet in the face! Given that the race is held in the spring in Kansas, the weather is equally likely to be ideal or horrific. Thus I studied the weather report the entire week before the 2015 race, watching each day as the updated information showed an increase in the likelihood of not just rain but thunderstorms, an increase in the amount of rainfall expected, and a decrease in the predicted temps at race time. The closer the day got, the worse it looked. I don’t mind running in the rain — if it’s not cold. But it didn’t look like that was going to be the case. Plus, I had less than a hundred miles on my new shoes, and I wasn’t eager to trash them so early in their life. (I try to get at least three hundred miles out of a pair of running shoes, and one pair gave me six hundred miles before I noticed the ankle ache that told me it was time to trade up.)
I rose early on race day (3:15, of course) and let the dogs out. No rain had fallen in the night, and I stepped onto the back porch to get an early sense of the day I would be facing. Surprisingly, it was warm. Warmer than the predicted high for the day by about ten degrees. This was encouraging. I poured myself some iced tea (unsweetened, of course), swallowed a multivitamin, ate a banana, then went upstairs to surf the net (and check the weather reports) for a while before getting ready to go.
The race was to start at 6:45, which is the earliest I’ve ever seen. I suspect that since most of it is run on city streets (in Olathe, Kansas — Olathe has three syllables, by the way — o-LAY-tha), the organizers wanted to get the runners off the main streets as soon as they could so they could be reopened for car traffic. (The last third of the half marathon was on paved trails, and the full marathon managed to squeeze its last third on these trails as well, though in a different arrangement. That clever set up got the runners off the roads sooner even though they still had miles to go before they got their free banana.) I wanted to be on the road (for the twenty minute drive) by 5:00 because I didn’t know very clearly about the parking at the start (at Garmin headquarters) or even how to best get there given that some of the streets around the start would be closed. Thus I was brushing and flossing earlier than normal and squeezing myself into my running kit more quickly than I was comfortable with. I prefer to dress out slowly so I can think through each step and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. It’s part of my ritual to feel confident about the run. Still, I felt as though I had forgotten something.
Because we were on the road so early, I didn’t get to stop at our local bagelry to do my last bit of carb loading; I had to be satisfied with two slices of multi-grain bread. (I had managed to eat a lot of pasta meals in the week before though. Part of the hardship of being a runner; don’t feel sorry for me.) We got to Garmin headquarters and had no trouble parking but did have to walk perhaps a half mile to the start area. The clouds were thick and ominous, and it felt like rain was coming, but nothing was falling. There were various tents set up that were still empty in the pre-dawn, but as the minutes passed, vendors arrived and began moving in. My wife and I wandered around. I used the porta-potty. I looked for people I knew (and didn’t see any, but Monday was the Boston Marathon, and many of my running friends were already there so they wouldn’t have been at this run). I ate a GU for a last-minute energy boost. And then I realized what I had forgotten in my hurried dressing.
I hadn’t applied band aids to two personal places on my chest. On a long run, these places can chafe so badly that they bleed. It was certainly too late to drive home. But I did apply some lip balm to them, which may have helped. Plus, I was wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt (see above) underneath, and it is more form fitting than a regular running shirt, so I hoped that would reduce the friction. Other than that, I would have to rely on scabbing.
With about fifteen minutes before the official start, I gave my wife a kiss and made my way over to the starting chute. There were no waves for this run. We were all to start as a pack of 4,500 people. (We shared the first three miles of the course with the full marathoners. At that point they would split and grab some of their extra miles before rejoining us.) I settled myself behind the pace group that I thought would give me a relaxed but still challenging run. And I once again looked around for people I knew but only saw one just seconds before the start. She was dressed as a Flying Monkey, and she was with others dressed as Dorothy (a guy), a Tin Man (a woman), and a Lion. There were many runners dressed this way, and it’s part of the tradition of the run (but more on that later).
The run started about ten minutes later than the stated time. I think that may have been due to the long line of people still waiting to check their bags before the start. Their line bisected the starting chute, so they had to be cleared before we could shuffle forward. (Had I been waiting in line so close to the start, I would have been angry. None of them seemed to be though.) I never heard a horn or gun. I only knew we were underway because, far ahead, I could see runners on the road, past the starting arch. Several minutes passed before we back-of-the-pack runners could move forward, and I took that time to get my watch going and grab some satellites. About fifty feet from the arch, I started trotting. As I crossed the mats, I told the watch to GO, and I was underway.
My controlled pace in the half the week before had paid off well, and that was my strategy for this race. I settled in to something slower than my “race pace” and kept peeking at my watch to make sure I was sticking close to it. People were passing me, of course, but I was running my race, and I was fine with that. Oddly, not even a quarter mile from the start I saw people already walking. Perhaps they were doing the full marathon and this was their pacing strategy. Regardless, they get points for being out there!
One of the ways I keep my mind off of the agony of running during these races is to listen to the conversations around me. All kinds of things get talked about, some of them quite intimate. There were primarily two topics that I managed to overhear on this Saturday. One was recent Easter visits with family. The other was the weather at the 2014 Garmin Marathon. So far the rain was holding off. The sky was thick with clouds, and the sun never made an appearance, but nothing was falling on us.
The first mile was a straight line going up a mild hill. I always doubt that I can complete the first mile without stopping, and I always make it through. I think I did well this time in part because I had the example of my performance the week before at Rock the Parkway when I ran the entire thirteen miles without stopping or walking once. (Okay, I tried walking through a water station then, but I quickly got back to running.) Somewhere in this first mile, a random woman running beside me turned with a big smile on her face and we exchanged a fist bump. I’m not sure where that came from. Maybe she does that with every runner she encounters.
After the first mile, I found myself crowding the back of the pace group I had intended to stick with. I really wanted to throttle back my pace in the first half of the run to save my energy for the long haul, but the relaxed-but-challenging pace this group was maintaining turned out to be a little slow for me. I watched for breaks in the pack and wove my way through it then just settled into a pace I thought I could maintain. Not long after this we came to the first water station. We were running down a two lane road, so there was plenty of room, but even so, I had to dart around people just to grab the tiny cup of water or Gatorade as the others strolled through the station. The congestion wasn’t too bad, but it presaged most of the water stations the rest of the morning.
We were going up a slight hill once again, through a neighborhood of modest homes. The streets signs identified the neighborhood as “Original Town.” Original, for Olathe, goes back 150 years, during the Westward Expansion (land grab). At one point we crossed the route of the Santa Fe Trail. If any of the houses in Original Town dated to that period, they’d since been covered with vinyl siding or such. They looked old, but not that old. Up the hill I went, which heartened me. Hills are a runner’s bane, yet somewhere along my running life, I decided just to face them and keep going. That’s a good thing to have in my bag of tricks since there will always be hills.
At mile three came the second water station. That’s about a mile since the last one, which seems too close, but I was glad of it. I was carrying packets of GU, and my intent was to eat one every three miles. I understand the energy gel will metabolize faster if it is chased with water, so I gobbled the GU just before I turned the corner toward the water station.
I was also glad it was there because it was staffed by members of the Olathe Running Club, which I’m a member of. I didn’t slow to a walk or stop to visit, but as I grabbed my cups of Gatorade and water I saw many familiar faces and exchanged greetings with as many as I could. But I had ten miles still to go, so on I went.
I had driven the course the weekend before (sometimes a good thing, sometimes not), so I knew that the three biggest hills of the course were soon coming up. Just before that fun began, the full marathoners split from the rest of us and headed off to the hinterlands in the west. We turned east not long after and pretty soon faced two of those bad hills. This was about mile five, so it was much too early for me to even consider taking a walking break. Plus I wanted to meet the challenge of these hills, even if it meant my running pace was little better than a walk. They say (whoever “they” are) that you use different muscles when you run up a hill. Maybe that is true because my pace actually improved as I went up these two hills. I was going (slightly) faster up the hills than I was elsewhere. I was passing walkers and runners. Of course I wanted to conserve my energy — I wasn’t even halfway through with the run — but the pace felt good, so I didn’t throttle back. At the top of the second hill we turned right and began a long descent, greeted by another water station just after mile five. I managed to get some hydration and kept going.
Although I don’t live in Olathe, the Olathe Running Club does many of its summertime Saturday runs in this very area, so I knew what the conditions were like. It was all familiar and that may have given me some encouragement because as I reached mile six I barely noticed that I was at the highest point (in elevation) of the half marathon. I knew we were creeping up a long hill, but it didn’t feel like that. Probably this was due to the fact that the worst seeming hill of the course began at mile seven, and that was what was on my mind.
A pesky Interstate highway gets in the way there. We had to cross it on a bridge that soared over it. All I could see when I turned the corner at mile seven was the bridge going higher. Even as I started up it, the top never seemed to appear. It always got higher the farther I went. But there will always be hills. I kept at it, and there was a vague wish to walk, but I was easily able to resist it, which was encouraging in itself. The whole bridge, from where it first rises in the west to where it finishes in the east is only a half mile; it’s not much distance at all, and half of it is downhill. The challenge of it was in my mind rather than my legs and lungs. And with it behind me (and nothing more than downhill and flat course ahead of me) I was feeling pretty good. Exhausted and sore, but pretty good. Somewhere along here I downed two Advil (small pocket, skimpy running shorts) because my hips were starting to bark at me. Odd how my knees used to be my problem. Now it’s my hips. But there are exercises for that.
We were on a major street at this point, a divided boulevard with one lane coned off and dedicated to us. Many of the drivers across the median were honking and cheering to us. Nice, but I was concentrating. At mile eight, we turned off this street and onto a neighborhood street. We had a nice, long, gentle downhill, and I was grateful for that. I was also pleased that I had gotten past mile eight without stopping or walking once. I had met my goal for the run. Yet we were going downhill, and I knew what waited for us at the bottom: the paved running trail I’ve run on many, many times. I knew this part of the course well. And I knew, at that point, that I was going to push all the way to mile 13.1 at a run. I knew I was going to run the entire half marathon just as I had the week before (and as I had done last year in Vancouver, Washington). That pushed aside my fatigue and filled me with a sort of giddiness.
I still had five miles to go however. Nothing to be dismissive about.
At the bottom of the hill we left the street and got on the paved trail. And then someone started yelling at us. “HALF MARATHONERS TO THE RIGHT. FULL MARATHONERS COMING THROUGH!” This paved trail is about seven feet wide. After running on streets, we back-of-the-packers were accustomed to being spread out, faster runners slipping ahead, slower runners and walkers staying reasonably out of the way. But on this comparatively narrow trail we couldn’t have that luxury. Plus, the first of the full marathoners were quickly coming up behind us. (I had seen the police motorcycle escort not long before, so I knew the fastest ones — the front runners — were coming. I’m all for giving them their space. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the way of one of these athletes doing the thing they were best at. And I did get over to the right margin of the trail. But I didn’t like being yelled at. Yes, that is how the man had to speak in order to be heard in an urgent situation, but I felt as though the “important” runners, the “real” runners (the 1%?) were being favored while we were being grudgingly tolerated. That’s not the case, of course, but at mile nine, your mind is doing everything it can to demoralize you and get you to stop. (Or my mind anyway.) Had this been my run to organize, I would have set up cones down the middle of this part of the path with signs directing the two kinds of runners their respective directions.
This stretch where the two running groups were squeezed onto the path only lasted a couple hundred feet. We half marathoners soon turned right while the full marathoners turned left for an out-and-back that would get them more miles before they returned to this point and finished the course on the same route we did.
Several things happened here. I crossed mile nine. I could hear the announcer at the finish line (close, but still four miles away by the route I had to take). And the rain finally began to fall.
This part of the trail follows Indian Creek. Given the copious rain we’d had in recent weeks, the creek had flooded several times, covering the path and leaving mud and flotsam behind. The flotsam was brushed aside, and the mud had dried since the last flood, but with the rain coming, I feared that the dry mud would quickly turn to wet mud and be challenging and even dangerous to plow through. Again, had this been my run to organize, I would have had a front loader out there scraping the dried mud away. (This is how the city of Olathe maintains the trail.) I don’t know why they hadn’t done this.
I had further incentive to keep running then. I wanted to beat the heavy rain before it ruined the course (and my newish shoes). At this point, the rain was nothing more than a sprinkle. It made me no wetter than sweat would have on a hotter day. But the clouds were thickening, the wind was picking up (including a headwind channeled by the trees along the trail), and the temperature felt like it was dropping. I had pushed up the long sleeves of my shirt at about mile one, and at this point I was considering tugging them down again to get warm. That wouldn’t have worked though. Bare skin will stay warmer than skin covered by wet fabric, especially fabric designed to wick away water (and thus body heat). Still, the hard rain was holding off. My engine was running hot. I was determined. And the cold wasn’t really too bad.
I passed familiar landmarks along this path. I counted down the distance. I peeked at my watch and saw a miserable pace (though some of that I can attribute to running under trees — that’s not supposed to affect reception, but it so consistently does that I’m convinced it’s true). And I kept on. The lowest part of the path, and thus the stretches of thick, dried mud, was soon enuf behind me, but the more elevated part I was on is terrible in its own way. Its cracked and patched and slopes toward the creek. I hate this stretch, and had the road beside it not been busy with cars, I would have just jumped over there to cover this bad half mile.
It didn’t last long. Soon the official course did take us on that road, now blocked off for the running tribe. I’d run this before as well, and I knew the hills to come, though they were minor, and I was determined. We wound through some neighborhood streets, which felt odd, but I realize they were trying to get us to the finish without using major streets that would have to remain closed for half the day. By this time (even though none of the full marathoners had reached this point) the cheering crowds had thinned, and there were even some cars inching their way through and around us runners. I was grateful to the good people of Olathe for putting up with us for the morning, so I didn’t mind. Plus, these drivers were being courteous and patient.
As I said, I had driven this route the week before. Once we were finished with these last neighborhood streets, we would get back on the paved trail for a few blocks. Except that the week before there was no paved trail. Parts here had been torn up for some kind of construction. I had asked about this at the race expo a few days before, and I was assured that the city had since paved that part of the trail, so there was nothing to worry about.
I wish that had been true.
There was one slab of fresh concrete (harder on the joints) but the remaining asphalt was cracked, beaten up by heavy machinery, and missing in places. It was a mess. It was runnable, but it was another sign of how disappointing this course was. The last water station was the very worst. They had been getting progressively worse as the miles ticked away. Remember that the path was about seven feet wide. This water station had a few tables, set on opposite sides of the trail, so the runners had to funnel between them and the volunteers standing on the trail to hand out water. I actually ran into a woman who had slowed to get a cup of water. I apologized and went on, but I heard her say that she didn’t get the water she wanted. I felt bad, but it was the stupid design of the water station that was to blame.
Okay, enuf complaining. I had less than a mile to the finish arch. The course took us along a sidewalk for a short distance and then into a high school parking lot. This was, of course, to get us from here to there without the need to close another street. The parking lot was wonderfully clear of traffic and narrow-path congestion, and though it was slightly uphill, it was a pleasure to have the elbow room in the last bit.
The rain had picked up. We heard thunder. And then a bolt of lightning crackled through the sky. Someone near me said he was glad he had not dressed as a Tin Man. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the Garmin people had placed signs along this part of the trail that said “Melting My Pretty?” That was clever, but I would have put a comma between the first two words. And I did have enuf presence of mind to consider how the runners behind me were dealing with the fresh mud that churned up on the trail.
I was nearly finished, but I was also exhausted. Somewhere along the way I had caught up with the next faster pace group and had stuck with them the entire time. That had not been my plan, but I’m glad I had. It gave me a good feel for my progress. I knew I wouldn’t set a personal record for the run, but I was pleased with how I was managing my self and my resources. I could have done without the “encouraging” words of one of the pacers: “You got this!” “You can do this!” “You’re almost there!” I suppose that helps some people, maybe most people, but I pretty much can’t stand it. (Even the cheering of the people on the side of the course bugs me. What do they know about how hard it is to run these damned things?) I just dug in and pushed on.
Once we were clear of the high school, we crossed the street we had started on and up a tiny hill to the finish arch. I ran up the middle of this road (as I had most of the roads that morning because the pavement was flatter there) because they had stuck plastic mats of painted yellow bricks on the ground in the finish chute. (Yellow Brick Road, get it?) I’d heard they were slippery, and I certainly didn’t want to fall in the last two hundred feet.
I was beat, but I pushed as hard as I could. It wasn’t the magnificent finish I’d had the week before, but it was decent enuf, and it was the strongest finish I could manage. And then I was done.
But not happy. Since the rain was falling, the finisher medals were folded inside their ribbons and put in our hands. No ceremonial draping of them over the sweaty necks. I took a bottle of water I didn’t want and a space blanket folded and packaged to the size of a deck of cards. (I never opened it.) And then my wife found me.
Well, this account has rambled on long enuf, so I’ll finish my complaining in tomorrow’s post.