Monday, January 26, 2009

3M half-marathon: Race report

Also known as "Is she going to bitch about her foot for thirteen miles? Yes, she is."

It was a dark and chilly morning...

Actually, scratch that. It was cold as hell. Granted, this is Texas, and we are all kind of pussies about the cold. Just come and see us power through a hill workout in 100+ degree weather in August before you hold it too much against us. The human body can acclimate like a mother, can't it?

I met up with my team mates at 5:45 am at Rogue headquarters.

Huevos, pre-race
[I apparently have the biggest head on the team. No comment.]

The race is a one-way downhill slalom from the beginnings of "way up North Austin" down to Waterloo Park in downtown. The route sort of looks like a lightening bolt, and it's billed as the fastest half-marathon in town. We met at headquarters so we could carpool up to the start.

Our wise coaches recommended that we get there by 6 am so that we could find parking, and as with just about everything else, they were right on the money. We parked with no problem and headed over to the support tents. Did I mention it was cold? The rumor had it just under 40 degrees. The good news was that it wasn't supposed to warm up too much (so we wouldn't be over-dressed while running) the bad news... was that it wasn't supposed to warm up too much.

I dropped off a bag with an extra sweatshirt at one of the drop off vans and we made several trips to the porta-johns (and the bushes once the line got too long) before we headed over to the Rogue coaches for our pre-race warm up. They were recommending a one mile warm up. Before the HALF MARATHON. Ugh. We begrudgingly started to jog, and we all had to admit, we were stiff and probably in need of a warm up, though we cut it short at maybe three-quarters round trip. Our little group was in high spirits and there were many attempts to take group shots with cell phones... Some more successful than others.

from Kate's phone... take 1
[This is about the time we named our group "los huevos rancheros"]

huevos rancheros
[Back row: Joe, Kate, Winnie; Front row: me, Laura, Jen]

from Kate's phone... take 2
[We are crazy from brain freeze!]

It has come up in every report, but having some team mates makes all the difference. Because of the fasciitis, I was pretty nervous in the back of my mind. But with all the carrying on and people peeing in bushes, it was just too good of a time to be too worried.

Most races have signs with paces on them, and you "seed" yourself in with the rest of your pace group. We couldn't see any such signs except for one dude carrying what looked like a homemade sign that said "2:00". It was going to take us a bit longer than that, so we bunched in a bit behind him. We were pretty far back.

Once the horn sounded, there was enough of a bend in the road that we could see the front of the pack take off... They were FAST! Suddenly, it felt good to be a bit toward the back. As the moving column of people crept toward us, the pace got a bit more manageable, and by the time we were moving, it was downright acceptable.

It is hard not to get carried away by the flow of people and start off too fast. The coaches told us over and over to start slow, but the excitement, the loudspeakers playing Eye of the Tiger, the spectators cheering and it is almost impossible to not leap into high gear. Luckily the Huevos kept each other in check (except for Joe, who all the time is trying to set a new land speed).

With the first few steps, my foot started to hurt a little. Just a bit, on the outside edge, where one's footprint makes a sort of land bridge between the meaty ball-sprouting toes and the comma-shaped heel. It just felt.. tight. I practiced stretching my toes out inside my shoe. I sent relaxing waves of thought down my leg to try and smooth out any knots in the muscle. I willed it to stop hurting. But mostly, I kept running.

The last time we did a long run my little iPod shuffle died about 3 miles from the end. My tactic this morning was to not turn it on until after we passed mile three. This was pretty easy because several of the Huevos kept up a good chatter. We first split up after the first aid station. A couple of the team got in line for the bathroom, a couple more just went behind a short wall and I (the slowest by about a half minute per mile) kept going after a quick drink of water and some vigorous calf stretches.

I caught up with Joe and Kate about a quarter mile later and we chatted for a bit. I confessed to them that my foot was sort of hurting you know, just a little, but that the stretches helped. Kate recommended not thinking about it, which seemed wise, if impossible. I cranked on the 'Pod just after they sped off. I wouldn't see Winnie and Laura and Jen again until just before mile seven.

It was a cold morning, thankfully not a windy one. It was kind of cool to enjoy the sensation of being able to run. A year ago, running took every ounce of effort I had: within minutes I would be gasping raggedly for breath and my heartrate would be skimming 200 bpm. Here I was able to breathe normally, and still move, my HR was hovering around 174 (for me this is a sustainable level of hard effort). When I passed the mile 5 marker, I did some quick math and realized I was running well under a 12 minute mile.

My training has been sort of up and down. I had missed the last two time trials where we were supposed to be shocked and amazed at our awesome improvement. Because of the trip to Phoenix and the dumb foot, I had missed several quality workouts, and because of general laziness or unemployment-induced depression I hadn't been running as often on my own as our coaches recommended. My first time trial pace had me running just under a 13 minute mile for the race, and in my long runs I rarely seemed able to do better than 13:15/mile. And yet, here I was 5 miles in and my watch showed my mile to be around 11:45. I was a bit worried that I would bonk before the end, so I slowed the pace a bit after the mile 6 water stop.

Mile seven was a long one. My foot was really starting to complain. The last stretch stop had only eased the cramping for about 3 minutes. The only good thing was that the pain was in my arch this time and not my heel. The heel pain had been excruciating with each step. In my arch, it just felt like an impending charlie horse that never quite fully seized. As I ran, I thought of different metaphors to describe the sensation in my foot. Then I focused my attention on my calf, where the problem starts like glacial headwaters, and tried to warm the cold muscles with my mind.

I had to slow down a bit more. I ate most of a Gu around mile seven point something and that helped my spirits a bit (it was a chocolate-honey flavored one, note to self). But the mile 8 marker was taking forever to show up. I was doing math trying to calculate how much time my slower pace was taking, but the marker wasn't anywhere to be found. Finally I could see the white sign up the block, I glanced at my watch and did some math... I was back to my 13 point something pace, not great but not horrible... until I got close enough to read the sign.

MILE 9! That was the second to the best moment the whole race. I hadn't lost as much time as I had thought, AND I had managed to lose a whole mile. There were only 4 miles left! I could do 4 miles no problem! I have run four miles a couple times a week for the past month!

Somewhere around this point is when the other Huevos caught up with me. My foot was so bad that I didn't stick with them for long. Winnie had taken off her pink ear warmer and it was looped around some of her gear, knotted at her back. I kept sight of it for a while, using her as a pink-tailed rabbit up ahead, but I just wasn't able to run quite as fast as I felt like I could. It was frustrating.

By the mile ten water stop, I was pretty beat. I stretched out my calves as much as I could. I paused long enough for two cups of water. I stretched some more. At about this point I passed a woman who was walking with an exaggerated limp, lifting one leg and swinging it out and around to the front to take each step. She still had 3 miles to go, but she was going to finish. I did some more math and figured out that if I kept a decent pace, I could finish just at 2:45.

The last three miles were almost entirely downhill. While that was easier on my hips and back, it was murder on my foot. But we were running through residential neighborhoods and more and more people were out in their yards cheering us on, high fiving runners, telling us how great we looked and how close we were to the finish. It carried me down the hill to the UT campus.

The last mile and a half through campus was quiet. No spectators, and there at the back of the pack, many of us were laboring. My mind was alternating between sending relax-or-else brainwaves to my foot and making deals about how much would it hurt to sprint the finish, and how many yards of sprint did I have in me anyway? When we rounded the corner onto Trinity street, I thought I could see some barricades a few blocks up ahead. About 30 seconds later, I realized it was the finish line.

OHHHH! I actually said it out loud. A woman behind me said, "I heard that, its the finish, isn't it? Girl, there are only FOUR BLOCKS LEFT."

I knew I couldn't sprint four blocks, but I did pick up the pace. I looked at my watch, 2:38. About a block away, I saw one of my coaches. She has been so caring and generous and just amazing that I screamed out her name as I raised up my arms. She came running into the road and hugged me and jumped up and down as we spun a bit. As I let go, I started to sprint. I heard her yell "FINISH STRONG!" And that is exactly what I did.

13.1 bitches!!
[Official time: 2:42:28 -- average pace: 12:24/mi]

The immediate seconds after a finish are a little disappointing (much like any other major rush). A friend was going to meet me at the finish line but (we later realized) he got there one minute too late because I was sure my foot would slow me down so much that my finish time would be close to 3 hours if not over. I wandered over to claim my gear from the truck and started heading toward the pre-determined meeting spot with the other Huevos.

We walked back to Rogue slowly, comparing our many aches and pains. I wobbled on my foot a few times, not able to find a step that didn't increase the cramping sensation. It felt like my foot wanted to curl together at the ends like one of those red plastic fortune-telling fish. I called my friend and we realized how close the miss was (but that's become something of a tradition, so I am glad he was able to uphold it). He met us back at HQ and snapped a quick post race team shot.

Huevos Rancheros post race
[Rogue Running: We run the Eastside]

Later, I had some traditional chicken-fried chicken (at Hoover's, Stalker-Michael, where you and I ate after the Dilloman triathlon, remember?). It was damn good. And then I went home and slept for what felt like a week.

Thirteen-point-one, done and done.

Let this be a lesson to me and anyone else who needs it: Nothing is too hard if you really want it. Nothing at all.

No comments: