Do or do not. There is no try.

It was a dark and stormy …. no wait, that’s for people running the Marine Corps Marathon this morning. For my race, it was just dark. And cold. And early.

Just after 6am, I parked my car a block or so from the starting line. But it was 45 degrees so I took my time getting my stuff together, futzing with my race number (I hate those pins), and making a decision: sweatshirt, or no sweatshirt? After standing by my car for a few minutes, I decided it was cold but not intolerable, so I left it.

Fortunately I spotted a little building where some of the runners were hanging out–it was a bit warmer in there, and I sat on the floor stretching. I saw one of the women from my training group, and as we headed out to the starting area, we met another. They’re a bit faster and I knew we wouldn’t stay together long, but it was nice to have some moral support!

I had to laugh when the announcer said they’d be doing the awards at 8:30–at that point, I’d still have four miles to go! Yeesh.

This race benefits a charity that builds water wells in Burundi. The charity’s founder was the sole survivor of a massacre in his village in the early 1990s, and now he lives here, training runners and giving back. At the start, after the American national anthem, he and his cousin sang the Burundi national anthem.

And then we were off.

It was still dark as we crossed the bridge and headed west. The first three miles were pretty flat and the road was completely closed, so runners spread out, making it easier for me to settle into the fastest pace I could manage. I’ve driven this street thousands of times, so it was an interesting perspective to run it going the wrong way.

The 5K race started 15 minutes after the 10-miler, and their course followed the same route for the first mile and a half. As I passed the 5K turnaround. I was kind of jealous of those folks who had the luxury of only running 3.1!

Around 3.5 miles, we turned north, into the hills. This is a beautiful part of the city. The lake was to our left, lots of historic old houses mixed with sprawling mansions to our right. One house had a bridge extending over the roadway to a boathouse, complete with helipad, on the lake side. Just ahead, a couple of runners stopped at a little overlook to take pictures of the sunrise over the lake. It was gorgeous, but I didn’t want to stop, lest more people pass me.

For the next four miles, I wound down and up, around and over and down. I passed a dad and daughter sitting on lawn chairs in the front yard. The daughter had a sign cheering for her mom, clearly running the race, and the dad’s sign quoted Yoda: Do or Do Not. There is No Try. I waved and kept going.

I kept looking for a park I knew was on this street, to give me an idea where I was, but eventually I realized I’d already passed it–I hadn’t noticed it because I’d focused on the water stop. What a great feeling to discover I was further than I thought and had nearly finished the hilly section!

From here, the course looped back onto the flat, straight road and headed back in the direction we’d come. There was more traffic now, and the sun shone brightly, but it was still pretty cold. I was comfortable in just my long-sleeved shirt and was glad I’d left my sweatshirt in the car.

Mile eight took us across an overpass that normally sees thousands of cars per day, but was eerily empty now with just a bunch of people on foot. By this time pretty much all of my lower extremities hurt, but I was better off than the two roadkill opossums I sidestepped on the overpass.

The volunteers at the last water stop had stuck it out for stragglers like me, and I was grateful. I don’t usually like Gatorade, but it was nectar of the gods at mile nine. I had hard time getting started again though. It’s funny, this section of road is really familiar to me–it’s the homestretch for the Capitol 10K and the Turkey Trot, and like I said I’ve driven it thousands of times over the years. But wow I had a hard time putting any speed into that last mile.

Finally I reached the bridge. A couple of spectators cheered me on as I made the turn. I passed the three-mile marker for the 5Kers, and more people cheered. I was alone on the bridge–I couldn’t catch the runners in front of me, and the ones behind me couldn’t catch up. The announcer read my number and called my name. As I crossed, two men stood there high-fiving every finisher. It took me a second to realize they were the gentlemen from Burundi. What a powerful moment.

I finished in 2:22. Not quite my crazy goal of 2:15, but not last. I’d say a good 50 people finished behind me. Do or do not. There is no try.

Angst

I ran 13.1 miles last weekend, and I’m reasonably confident in my ability to finish my half-marathon two weeks from now.

So why am I anxious about tomorrow’s 10-miler?

Because for the half, it’s a huge event–my race number is five digits and starts with a three. I can fall in with plenty of others running a similar pace, blend with the pack, do my thing. It’s one of the reasons I loved going to school at The University of Texas: I could get lost in those 50,000 students and not have to be anything to anyone.

But this 10-miler is small. Last year right around 1500 people competed, most of whom finished in under two hours. My über-ambitious, crazy-thinking goal is 2:15, which is almost insanity considering the middle four-mile stretch is another heely sonova. Just for reference, the fastest woman in last year’s race finished in 59 minutes; the slowest came in at 2:32. I’ve never run a race of this distance, but my double-digit training runs have been slower than that.

I signed up for it because I’m supposed to run ten miles this weekend anyway, and this race is well-timed as a dry run for the half. Race day conditions are different from solo training runs, and I felt like this would be a good gauge of my preparedness. In the back of my mind, I’ve known it will be tough, in sort of an off-in-the-future, I’ll-be-ready-by-then kind of way. But after picking up my race packet and driving the course, I’m wondering why the hell I thought it was a good idea. These people are all serious athletes, and I feel waaaaaay out of my element. Yeah, if I can maintain something near that magical half-marathon pace from training, I won’t make an ass of myself. But I’ve only done that for short distances, a couple of miles at a time. What if I get too tired, too early like I did last weekend? What if the hills slow me down too much? What if my hip hurts and I have to walk the damn thing? Then all bets are off, and it will be psychologically devastating to me.

My friends have chastised me for being worried about my time, or how I do compared to everyone else. They say it doesn’t matter, that race day adrenaline will help, that I should be proud of how far I’ve come. But the prospect of being last still haunts me, obviously, considering this is my second consecutive post on this topic. I guess I don’t want to stand out as That Girl Who Finished After The Winners Got Home and Ate Lunch. I want to come in with the pack, not as some pitiful lone straggler with a police escort.

I know I can (eventually) finish this race, this distance. My confidence fails, though, when I think about the details.

Dig deep

Now that I’ve reached that 13.1 milestone, in training anyway, I can focus on another rapidly-approaching challenge: a 10-mile race this weekend.

This race is a source of some anxiety for me. The hilly, scenic course is tough, and it’s not a huge event like the Capitol 10K or the Army 10-Miler so I can’t get lost in the crowd. Online timing records show about 1500 people ran it last year–a lot of serious, elite athletes, with more than half the pack finishing with staggeringly great times. Me? If I run the pace I held for the first ten miles last Saturday, I couldn’t beat those who finished the 2011 race dead last. I know I’m slow, but I’m also kind of a perfectionist (these two characteristics are clashing horribly at the moment) so I cannot wrap my brain around the thought of being the last person out there.

Yes, I know finishing = winning, I’m lapping everyone on the couch, and it’s an accomplishment just to finish ten miles. I know Scott Jurek wins 100-milers, then waits for hours at the finish line to congratulate every person who crosses it. I know the graduate with the Z last name gets the loudest cheers. But still, I hope some of the roughly 3000 registrants are walking this sucker (and none of that speed walking, either) to save me from what I feel would be a psychologically crushing embarrassment.

Or I could, you know, step it up a bit in training tonight.

Our workout was the same one we did a few weeks ago. And step it up, I did. I ran the warmup mile a good three minutes per mile faster than I averaged on Saturday (which isn’t necessarily a reasonable gauge, since the distances were very different) and was stoked that I could finally pass the speedwalking woman from the marathon group. That sounds kind of pitiful, but she is FAST.

I launched into the intervals and made the 1.1 mile loop, which is downhill going out, then uphill coming back. Fun times. The second loop was at that mythical half-marathon pace. I’m about as likely to maintain this pace for the actual half marathon as I am to adopt a unicorn (although I might make more of an effort if its tears really could heal things like sore muscles and hip flexors) but because I’m working this training kind of the same way I got through college (bust my ass all semester, then panic at the last minute anyway and cram in a bunch more studying) I figured I could find another gear. In the end, after a warmup mile and a mile of 30-second intervals, my tired legs ran another mile at a pace 1:30 faster than the unicorn pace.

I’m still concerned about earning a respectable time on Sunday, but I feel a little more confident than I did yesterday. Perhaps it’s the unicorn tears.

Test run

I was supposed to run 14 miles today, and I followed the map to do so, but somehow I didn’t quite get that far. However, I did, for the first time, run further than I drive to work each day. Here’s today’s run by the numbers:

  • miles: 13.1
  • time: 3:36
  • calories: 1,650
  • podcasts: two ESPN-U and three How Stuff Works episodes
  • number of cyclists with non-walking dogs: two
  • number of muscles that hurt now: all of them
  • times I will train for a full marathon: zero, zip, zilch, none.

Today was the longest of our scheduled training runs–next week is 10, and the week after that it’s seven. This was the only time I’d hit the half-marathon distance before the race itself, so I figured I’d know one way or the other how prepared I really am for this thing.

It was a beautiful, cool morning. Somewhere during my first two miles, the sun started peeking up above the horizon. I was kind of retracing my steps–today’s route went back towards my house, down the same roads I’d used to get there a few minutes before. At 7am, there’s not a lot of vehicle traffic, but there were a lot of runners out, most of them passing me.

The first five miles, I maintained a comfortable, even pace. The course was flat, somewhat downhill, and I felt pretty good. No walking, no hip or foot issues. I paused a couple of times to cross busy streets, and I stopped  twice for water, but that was it.

It was here I spotted the aforementioned cyclists with dogs. The first woman wore a little teacup dog in a chest carrier as she rode, and the second pulled a large boxer-like dog in a trailer. I also noticed two houses, next door to each other, with Romney-Ryan signs poked into the grass next to empty lawn chairs. One of the chairs had a big hole in the middle, and I couldn’t decide if that was some kind of symbolic gesture, or just that they used a cruddy old lawn chair to make a political statement.

Near the halfway point, I noticed my leg muscles were feeling kind of sore. I knew at the time that my pace slowed a bit as a result, and looking at the stats from my Garmin proves it–right around the halfway point, I lost about a minute per mile, pacewise. But I stuck with it, slowing only to wait for traffic signals and to refill my water bottle. By mile nine I was definitely hurting, but it was soreness as opposed to the sharp pain of injury, so I soldiered on. Slowly. I’ll admit to walking some around mile eleven, up a long, sloping hill, but ran (if you can call it that) the rest of the way. I got water at mile 12, negotiated the increased traffic at the last four-way stop, and listened for my Garmin’s beep. I knew I wasn’t going to make 14, but I would definitely finish 13.1, and that was good enough for me.

By the time I got back, everyone else was done and gone–even the full marathoners who ran 24 miles. The place was quiet as I drank the bottle of lime water I’d left in the ice machine, stretched, and contemplated this run. On a relatively flat course, similar to what I’ll see in San Antonio, I had finished nowhere near my 3:00 goal. My legs hurt, my feet hurt, my lower back hurt, I had a pounding headache, and I wasn’t sure I could get back up off the mat on which I was lying. I thought after three months of training, I’d have gotten closer to this being easier.

I managed to drag myself off the floor and to my car. I drive a six-speed though, and every time I pushed in the clutch on the eight-mile drive home, my left leg hurt. It hurt to stand in the shower. It hurt to get off the couch. And I’m sure it will hurt to walk up and down the hills to and from the football stadium tonight.

The good news is that I know I CAN complete 13.1, mostly running, at a pace just fast enough to beat the four-hour cutoff. Finishing = winning, right?

What is “respectable”?

When I first entertained the thought of training for a half-marathon, my only goal was to finish and not die. I was slowly rebuilding endurance after an injury, and just getting through the race in one piece was my primary consideration. But the last three months, somewhere in the middle of burning through hours of podcasts and music, drinking (and sweating) gallons, and wearing out both a pair of headphones and a pair of shoes, I started to have greater aspirations. Nothing crazy, but just finishing before the time cutoff is no longer good enough.

Some of the people in my training group will complete the race in the neighborhood of two hours. I’ve improved a lot over the last few weeks, but I’m a bit of a commute from that neighborhood. I really want to run it in three hours, but I don’t know that I can maintain the pace to make that happen. So while that’s my goal, just saying it doesn’t make it so. I’m starting to get a little concerned about finishing with a respectable time.

So here’s my question: what is a respectable time? Or does it matter? Is finishing my first half-marathon in 3:30 an accomplishment just by virtue of finishing, even if it’s slower than I wanted? Slower than some people running the full marathon?

Vote of confidence

My training has coincided with election season–which really means election season goes on faaaaar too long, but I digress. My race is the weekend after the election, and I got home from tonight’s training in time to follow the second presidential debate, at least via my Facebook feed.

We are still working on increasing speed and pace, and tonight’s workout was another rendition of Straights and Curves: run about 1.25 miles to the middle school track, then speed up on the straight parts of the track and jog or walk the curves, for eight laps. I kind of like interval training–I’d done three miles of intervals on Sunday–and the temperature was cool, so even though I have some residual soreness in my foot, I actually looked forward to this.

Because of my wonky hip flexor, I tend to walk up the little hill around a half-mile out. But tonight, I guess I wanted to prove that I could power through the workout, prove that I’m not a whiny kid trying to get out of P.E. class with random weird injury complaints. So I ran the whole 1.25, took a 30-second breather to refill my water bottle, and hit the track.

Of course I was behind because it always takes me longer than everyone else just to get out there. And by the time I’d finished lap five, the fast guys in my group were done with their eight. Another training group was there too–elite runners sprinting like Usain Bolt, their fluorescent team shirts glowing in what was left of daylight.

Lap six, it was just me, one of the women from the marathon group, a woman training for a 24-hour race, and the coaches. I sprinted and jogged the final two laps in the dark, then with only a minor case of jelly legs from the sixteen stretches of hard running, ran the whole 1.25 back as well. It wasn’t super-fast, but it was solid. I only needed two ESPN-U podcasts for the whole workout, nearly five miles. I still can’t keep up with the others, but I didn’t give up either.

The real test will be Saturday’s 14 miles. But I feel pretty good about my progress so far. I’m not looking for a landslide victory. Just enough.

The right stuff

Yesterday, on the anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s Mach 1 flight, I watched Felix Baumgartner ride a hot air balloon 24 miles straight up to the edge of space, then jump off. I don’t even like to dive off the high dive, and this guy hurtled to earth–practically the distance of a  marathon–faster than the speed of sound. As his altitude climbed to 128,000 feet, he ran through his pre-jump checklist. Near the end, Joe Kittinger from Mission Control said, “Now we’re getting serious.”

Well, my task isn’t as gargantuan as disconnecting oxygen hoses and double-checking my parachute before flinging myself into the sky. But still, with under four weeks to go, now we’re getting serious.

This Saturday, I’m scheduled to run fourteen (!) miles in the morning. I’ll have a little time to recover before heading to a football game in the evening. The following Sunday, I am signed up for a 10-miler, which runs through a beautiful part of the city, but the middle section is hilly–I hope they don’t throw me off the course for being too slow! Then, a week out, my last long training run is seven miles. The day before the half, I’ll be at another football game (I hope it’s not a night game!) then we’ll make the trip to San Antonio for the real thing.

T-minus four training workouts with my group and three long runs to go. Now we’re getting serious.