I raced a half-marathon on Saturday. It was the first half I have raced since last October. And yet, until this post, I have not made mention of its result anywhere. True, I’ve been lackadaisical with blog posting in general – I have a long post mostly written from my trip to Pittsburgh back in May (including participating in the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay). At this point, I have a feeling it will never see the light of day. Too much has happened between then and now.
I could just write about how this race went in brief summary. I could post a couple of photos from it (not many – it was a tiny race, with 300 participants, and no photographers that I noticed). I could give a mile-by-mile summation of what I can remember. I could post about my time, and how, while it wasn’t a PR, it was the closest I have come in more than two years, and the downhill brutality of the course was tougher in ways I had not anticipated. I could talk about how GPS seemed to struggle extra under the dense foliage of the mountain, the steep and winding paths. About how the mile markers did not seem to even remotely line up, and that made pacing to the finish line and knowing when exactly to kick, to try to PR a bit difficult. I could write all of this, and leave it at that.
But this was not just a race day, a race weekend. It hardly ever is. Our running never exists in a vacuum, and this race perhaps least of all.
I went into this event with a couple of thoughts: that perhaps I could finally crack my 1:40:40 PR (old and dusty from the May 2014 Pittsburgh Half), and that I would have a person in my mind to fight for. When I struggled, while my mind could still function outside the pain cave of racing hard, I thought of Russ, the twin brother of my stepfather, who passed away suddenly at the very beginning of this month. I learned of his passing the evening before the Peachtree Road Race, and I raced in the heat the next day, thinking of him and honoring his memory as I pushed on the hills. I have these legs, these lungs, this heart, this life. Keep going.
Getting to this race was a bit of a stressful ordeal, but such has been life lately, life this summer. Things happening at the last minute, cobbling together a plan. A few weeks ago, I ran 17 miles in the Georgia heat and humidity, wolfed down food, and drove to Atlanta to hop on a plane to scorching out Arizona. I was there to see my grandparents; my grandmother, not yet 91, was fading fast. We knew time was short; we were not sure how short. I did not wait. While I was there, I ran in the desert heat. I felt alive. I felt my life in my footsteps. I felt the bones in her body when I hugged her – gently, lest I break her.
On this last Friday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to leave work as early as I would have liked to head to an out-of-state race, and we were not on the road in earnest until 3:30. We stopped in Spartanburg, SC, and had a lovely pasta dinner with my friend and teammate Erin, whom I was meeting in person for the first time. In chatting about running and racing, and life in general, my mind finally started to acknowledge, at least a little, that I was heading up to a race. I was so disjointed, so disconnected from the coming reality. I was going through the motions, moving forward without aim or certainty.
We had an hour and a half of the drive remaining, and we were losing the sun. Deep into the mountains, the “low tire pressure” light came on in our car; we pulled off at a gas station to check the pressure, and determined it was fine, perhaps a false alert light (particularly since we had just taken the car in earlier that week for service, including oil change and tire rotation). We arrived at the hotel and turned in too late, but such is life. We kept on. When I awoke the next morning, among my first tasks was checking the tires – they were again fine.
I tried to find the right mind space. Eating my usual pre-race breakfast. Donning the outfit that made me feel fast and powerful. Thinking of the tough workouts I had conquered lately. Of how much cooler it would be on the mountain than all of my long runs lately – by a good 10 degrees – even if the humidity was merciless.
We drove 35 minutes to where we were to park, and quickly boarded a bus. Shannon and I sat across the aisle from one another, each chatting with our seatmates on the drive up. The woman I sat with had run this race a few times before, and we talked about the course, about other races, about our training, about injuries and pitfalls, about our families.
Packet pickup took place at a little mountain shop attached to a gas station – small, unassuming. I dropped my bag in the designated van all of 10 minutes prior to the start. It rained briefly before the race, a welcome result of 100 percent humidity. But the drizzle left, and the humidity remained.
As we walked the 600 yards down the road to where we were to start, one of three hound dogs in the yard of the nearby house was alerting the world to our presence; he kept baying and baying and baying, tail wagging furiously. One remained more hidden, with only its wagging tail visible in the shadows. A third repeatedly popped out of the bushes and silently stared us all down. Perhaps we were all distracted by these pups, perhaps it was the noise of the one, but I do not recall a call to “go” or “start,” and I quickly realized there was no start mat. I pushed START on my watch, several seconds late, and started to run. I tried to find my pace, my rhythm. My mind was in upheaval, unsure of how to race a half-marathon, so long out of practice. How strange, since this was my 14th time racing the distance.
As I was told and as I saw from the elevation chart online, the first mile was mostly flat but with the slightest uphill grind. I relaxed. I told my legs to go no faster than an 8:00 pace to start off, to save my legs, to ease into the effort. My watch beeped exactly at the race marker for 1 mile in 8:01; I was never synced up with the markers even remotely ever again.
By the end of the second mile, the road was switching to crushed limestone; as I noted how rocky it was in places, I recalled our long run in Forest Park in Portland, OR, the weekend before training officially began, and hoped it would not be quite that technical the whole way. Mile 2, I clicked several seconds before the mile marker, which seemed more typical GPS behavior; 7:50. Getting there. A controlled first two miles. Now it was time to find my race pace.
I can honestly say I was not really prepared – mentally or physically – for how this course would feel. The third mile was by far my fastest – a screaming 7:26 – and I was trying so hard to hold back, to find a controlled pace at a high cadence. Over the subsequent miles, my mind floated between intense focus – on my feet, on the path, on the tangents, on forgoing tangents in favor of the smoother sections of trail to save my feet – and exhilaration – I could do this, I could PR and by a lot if I played this right – and panic – I was out of control, I was going to crash, how the hell was I supposed to be racing this? I was not tapered. I was not prepared.
Calm. Calm. Think of Russ. You have strong legs and a healthy heart. Your breathing is controlled. Calm. Calm.
Mile 5 was borderline terrifying in its descent at points. I kept tapping the metaphorical brakes. I wondered if I would crash and burn and implode. I wondered if my legs could handle this much stress, this much eccentric contraction. I was already half-rolling my ankles quite frequently in places, barely retaining control. A few such rolls were more out of control – none hurt, but all were startling and disarming. I knew we had some light uphills coming up; I had been warned, and I had been trying to save my legs. I was not sure it was working.
It was during mile 7 that the hills first came. I passed a few people who stopped to walk, though later they re-passed me, and I wondered if their walk breaks were wiser than trying to push through at a slightly slower running pace. But the road screamed down again, and some of the turns were absurdly sharp. Whenever the trees gave way, I looked out at the views, the shadowy, foggy mountains in the distance. As we descended through mile 8, I took note that we had lowered into the fog, and the humidity grew all the more thick. I kept passing mile markers while reading X.85 or so on my watch; some were even X.75 or so. I shook this off and tried to read my effort, but knew I was going to have difficulty pacing the last 5K, knowing when to kick, knowing what marker to trust. I kept to my watch, knowing it would be gut wrenching to expect the finish to show up early just because the markers were doing so, and have it read beyond 13.1.
During mile 9, another appearance of hills almost buckled me. People in front of me and behind me had dropped to a walk. I pushed through, trying to breathe, trying to relax, knowing I still had to conserve. All told, it was still a downhill mile, but the beating those downhills were giving my legs made every uphill, even every flat, feel like running up a mountain. When the course finally went back down again during mile 10, it took a little extra time for the coasting to feel good; at first, it felt awful and out of control. I rolled my ankles a few more times, then berated myself for my own lack of focus and control. Strong legs. Strong ankles. Eyes forward. Support the core.
The course turned and turned and turned as it continued to barrel down, but in the last mile and a half, we switched back to road. I felt my body begin to kick. I passed the couple who had kept dropping to a walk for the uphills and then re-passing me on the downs. I passed them for good. I crossed a bridge across the creek, and my kick was taking its toll. I thought I heard a volunteer say “last hill up ahead.” It was a lie, but an effective one, and I pushed up it. I switched my watch to overall time briefly at the 12 mile mark. I could see I would have to all out sprint to get under 1:40, and I was pretty sure I was not going to make it, not unless the course truly was reading short on my watch. The thought that my watch would read 12.9-something in the end because of GPS issues crossed my mind, but I shoved this idea aside. I could not count on that; there was no guarantee I was really that far ahead on distance. I kept pushing. We climbed up one more little hill, and I saw we were coming down the other side, past a larger throng of people, screaming louder, past the buses that would take us back, and up ahead I saw a squad car with lights on, and the tent, and the timing mats. I gave it everything I had, asking myself, How bad do you want it?
A woman was walking across my path as I careened for the finish, and I mustered enough oxygen to say, “heads up” and she moved aside.
The clock read 1:41:01 as I finished. My watch – started late though it was for official time – read 1:40:52. The latter was a mere 12 seconds off my PR. My watch measured 13.09 at the finish.
Shannon and I crawled onto the bus together, laughing and talking with other sweaty runners, who pointed out that the route we drove back to our cars was essentially the second half of the full marathon route, which takes place in October. I winced at the rolling hills and lonely sections; not a race I would like to run anytime soon. We arrived back at parking and hobbled to the pavilion where food was being served and the extremely kind race organizers gave me my age group award before the awards were even able to begin since we had to leave; a Skype call to the hotel revealed that they would only give us until 1 pm to check out, an hour of leeway.
In order to make that call, I had connected to the tenuous wifi in the pavilion; the rest of the mountain was a dead zone. I had not even been able to send tracking to my coach prior to the start (and wasn’t sure until later that the message I tried to send explaining this had even gotten through).
As my phone came to life, I had a few messages, including one from my father.
My grandmother was in her final days. It was going to happen soon. I should be prepared to travel to Arizona soon, some time that week.
I swallowed all of this; there was nothing I could do. Not in this remote place, on this mountain, hours from home, a plane ride away from her side. I said a prayer of gratitude that I had been able to see her so recently.
We rushed back to the hotel, quickly showered and packed. While Shannon cleaned up, I stood in the middle of the dim hotel room and prayed, tears streaming down my face. I prayed for her to find peace. That if the end was here, that she would find it without pain. That those of us left behind would find comfort in each other. That God would watch over my grandfather, who would be losing his partner of nearly 70 years.
We checked out, we got on the road, and as Shannon read me off directions through the winding mountain roads, my phone rang. It was my brother. There was a darkness in his voice – a devastation. One that even his eternal stoicism could not mask. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“It happened, didn’t it,” I said. No question in my voice. “She’s gone.”
It had happened perhaps ninety minutes before. Maybe in the very moment I had been praying in the hotel room.
By that evening, we had booked flights for Arizona, departing the following evening. We would be staying in the same hotel as my brother and his wife (and their three-year-old son, it turned out; how lovely it was to have a joyful little life around – a blessing I wasn’t sure to expect right then) as well as my dad and stepmother. Nearly our entire family was able to make the trip. We took a cab to my grandpa’s house from the airport, the scorching desert heat hardly abating in the early evening. As soon as we dropped our bags and took off our shoes in the hall, we were greeted with embraces, and with each hug and kiss, my heart cracked further. I looked around at the photographs, the memorial candle, the chair that she had lately been sitting in in the den. I thought of my granddad’s passing almost seven years ago, and how in their house, I kept waiting for him to walk in from his bedroom. Here, too, I felt myself waiting. Waiting for the missing piece to be filled.
I said little about my race. I did not volunteer it, only mentioned it when explicitly asked. I did not post about my result anywhere – not until now. The days strung together into an endless Sunday, an endless time of waiting, of bleary eyed pain. I could almost forget that it had happened altogether, except for every time I stood up. My whole body reminded me that I had just raced thirteen miles down a mountain, but the exhaustion I felt engulfing my soul was separate from all of this.
The pain of the race is receding now. I ran a few miles Monday morning – again in the desert heat, this time with my love rather than alone – and a few miles on the treadmill Tuesday morning, my adorable nephew making an appearance in the little hotel gym when I was nearly done, staring at me as I flung sweat and smiled at him in the mirror, trying to climb atop the recumbent bike beside me. I know within a couple more days, the race pain will be gone for good. Perhaps even by tomorrow morning, when I am scheduled to run 11 miles with some marathon pace miles in the middle.
But this feeling in my heart, I know it will keep coming back, ebbing and flowing, receding at times before hitting me with another wave. The first two weeks of this month have been bookended by loss.
Still, I run. I run because it is my normal, my constant: my beating heart, my lungs, my legs. I run because I know she wants me to. Because I know she is proud of me. That she is with me still. I run because I can hold her in my heart in each mile. I run because we do not run in a vacuum. Because we run to and through loss. Because we run to and through life.