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30 for 30

March 5, 2011

Thirty Thoughts for Thirty Miles

Things about running I wish I could share:

  1. The sight of thousands of people starting a race: an ocean of heads moving together, seemingly as of one accord, in the strange light of predawn, with the jarring colors of hats and visors and bandannas and the bright, bold signs of the pacers as the race gets underway. The wonder and the thrill of the first few minutes, as it all begins.

  2. The sound of thousands of feet striking the pavement together, like some gigantic drum. Though the frontrunners are heading out at sub-five minute miles and the back of the packers will be happy hitting twelve-minute miles, for one brief moment we’re all one big pack, running together, and the sound is mighty and strong. And during the race, as you move with the group, the sound remains, the constant striking of feet. Everyone should volunteer at races, just for the privilege of hearing that sound.

  3. The camaraderie between runners, regardless of ability or goals, that develops as we battle the racecourse together. As we share miles of difficulty, we become one against the course, against the heat, against the insanity of the spectators who tell us that we’re almost there when we have another three miles to go in 84-degree weather. As we approach the finish, we’ll become competitors again, pushing against each other, straining to reach the finish line first, but out there, on the course, we are fellow runners.

A few of my favorite things about training and traveling with Little G:

  1. The rituals of racing, and sharing those with her. Laying out the outfit we’ve picked out, from clothes to socks to shoes. Thinking through just how much fuel we’ll need during the race, and packing the fuel belt, leaving everything ready. Then race morning, the quiet, still moments of dressing and putting ourselves together, pulling our hair up, pinning the bibs on, putting our Garmins on. In races like this one, where we have no real time goal, we’re downright chatty, but on races with a time goal we’re silent and focused, intense and thoughtful.

  2. Leaving the hotel, and entering the massive current of runners moving toward the start line. The beautiful sight of people coming from every corner, wearing the oddest outfits, people of every color and size, because running is a sport that doesn’t discriminate.

  3. The way Little G and I can train together, then arrive at the race and run our own races, without hurt feelings, only to reunite at the end. We have no pressure on one another to perform well on the same day, and though I’ll always be thankful to her for staying with me during that last 8k, this is not our habit.

Race #1: 15k (9.3 miles):

  1. The stats: my chip time was 1:23:31. I finished 1479/5030, or top 30% overall. I was 82/416 in my age group, and 445/2537 of women.

  2. I only finished thirty seconds slower than last year, which maybe wasn’t a good strategy. First of all, I had to run five more miles this year, so I should have started slower, even assuming the same state of health. Instead, I was 75% at best, and with the longer distance, I should have definitely gone out more conservatively.

  3. I really like the 15k distance. 9 miles is just long enough to warm up and still race, yet short enough not to kill you.

  4. Memo to runners everywhere: if you should forget your headphones on race morning, your entertainment for the race that day is limited to what’s around you: the scenery, the friendship of other runners, and the uplifting encouragement of cheering spectators. At Gasparilla, none of these is in short supply. Which is why, running friends, there is no excuse for the assumption that just because your headphones have gone MIA, we’d all be pleased as punch to listen to your music on the course. Just because your phone has the ability to play music out loud, that doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate. Keep it off.

Race #2: 5k (3.1 miles):

  1. The stats: my chip time was 29:44. I finished 2470/10824 (top 25%). I was 102/845 in my age group, and 788/6386 among women.

  2. Yes, this is a gigantic race. Did you see the numbers? Almost 11,000 people on a course only three miles long. And because we were running easy, for the first time in my life I got lapped by the leaders before I was finished with mile 1. Humbling, very humbling.

  3. In spite of the size of the race, there is no separation in the chute, save a “sub 30-minute finish” flag and, ahead of that, a “sub 25-minute finish” flag. Had I been racing this, I would have lined up just ahead of the “sub 25-minute” flag. Instead, Little G and I had agreed not to kill ourselves on this race, but to run it as a recovery run for the 15k we’d finished about an hour earlier. We lined up between flags, and still tripped over walkers. Which leads to . . .

  4. Memo to runners, #2: people, line up properly. I have nothing against your walking a 5k, and in fact I’m glad you’re doing it. But I’ve never seen anyone finish a 5k in under 30 minutes by walking, so every walker in the race should have been somewhere behind that flag. Lining up incorrectly causes traffic problems. In a race as massive as this one, the problems are magnified. Every runner you trip trips the runner behind him. It’s running’s version of dominoes, and it ain’t pretty.

  5. After this race, Little G and I got the 20-minute post-race massage we’d signed up for when we registered. Best $24 I ever spent. The massage therapists were trained in sports massage, and once I said the words “shin splints” and “tight IT band,” my new friend did exactly what my physical therapist would have done if she’d been around. I felt much better prepared to face Sunday’s events after that.

  6. I finished this race better than I thought I would, though there would be little joy in the victory. Two hours later, I was lying in bed, as still as possible, trying my darnedest not to lose my cookies. Dehydration hurts, people.

  7. Sweet Little G left me in a darkened hotel room so I could recover, and set out to find us a meal. We reunited around 3pm and ate an incredible amount of food. We told ourselves we were eating like endurance runners, and were happy to do it.

Race #3: half marathon / 21.1k (13.1 miles):

  1. Final stats: my chip time was 2:08:31. My time was good enough for 2298th place among 4828 entrants. I was 180th in my age group out of 471, and 896th out of 2499 women. (This is my slowest time at the half marathon distance by over four minutes. That 2:08 on the clock was a little hard to swallow.)

  2. I absolutely love this race, with its early start, its crowded early miles, and the easy, smooth finish. I love the way people have turned out to cheer for its runners every year I’ve run it, whether it was pouring down rain in a driving wind, or cold and gray, or hot and sunny.

  3. From the start, I had to concentrate on fueling well for this race, since I had so obviously failed at doing it the day before. I took my gels based on the schedule I’d created pre-race, ignoring how my body felt. Sometimes, in a race, especially a hot one, your body tricks you into thinking you don’t need fuel when you need it most, so I downed those gels like they were my life’s blood (and maybe, at that point, they were), at miles 4, 8, and 12 (I only managed to take down half of it at 12). I walked through every aid station, taking one cup of water, sometimes two, and sometimes pouring the water over my head.

  4. Someone wise in the race director’s office saw the forecast turn toward “HOT” and made some calls. Along the course, maybe at four spots, giant sprinklers greeted runners near water stations, cooling us down with a spraying mist as we ran through them. What a brilliant idea. Though we did have runners go down, I’m almost sure we would have suffered more heat-related casualties if we hadn’t had those cooling bits of water on the course.

Race #4: 8k (5 miles):

  1. My chip time was 51:21. Good enough for 776/1835 overall, 63/186 in my age group, and 347/1102 among women.

  2. I wish I could have run this one faster because it is, to date, my one and only five-mile race and, as such, it is an immediate “personal best.” I know I could run much faster over five miles if I were in racing shape, and I intend to find an 8k to redeem my time.

  3. I knew this was going to be a difficult race because my legs felt tight as I was standing in the chute. I was practicing all my good physical-therapy patient stretches, trying to get my muscles as limber as possible, though I knew I couldn’t undo the last 25 miles.

  4. As we stood in the chute, we got to watch people still finishing the half marathon, many of them with red “Ultra Challenge” bibs on. I’m not sure how many of these people eventually started—or finished—the 8k. In the end, over 40 of the 330 entrants into the challenge would log a DNF. Many of them never started either of Sunday’s events. Some of those who finished the challenge completed the half in 2:50 or more, which means they went through the finisher’s area, made a u-turn, and kept running. They ran one 18-miler that day, and I applaud their grit.

  5. Little G and I had tucked a gel into our skirts, intending to take it before the race, but couldn’t stomach it. We ran through the first water station at mile 1, taking water, and started nursing the gel at around mile 2.

  6. At the turnaround, the volunteers were picking out the red bibs and cheering for us especially. It was as good as a hand on my back, pushing me along. I was exhausted, and it was good to be reminded there was a reason I was so much more tired than most runners on the course, and it was no cause for shame.

  7. As the slow minutes ticked on, my legs felt heavier and heavier. I’ve run long races before, but in this race I hit a level of utter exhaustion and desperation I’m not sure I’ve ever felt before. I was completely, utterly finished. I was searching for mantras, trying to remind myself of reasons to keep moving. Every step erases distance to the finish line, I told myself, but it seemed walking would be just as good an option. My legs hurt. My brain was drained, so keeping track of the distance was getting difficult.

  8. Finishing this race was incredibly meaningful for me. For the first time that weekend, approaching the finish line was a real finish: when I crossed, arms outstretched, I could say I did it. I didn’t have to think about the next race, just bask in what I’d done and celebrate with my friend.

Overall: the Michelob Ultra Challenge

  1. My stats: I ran 30.5 miles in 4:53:07. I finished 156/290 overall, 42/125 among women, and 10/30 in my age group—women aged 35 to 39.


One final thought: the 30.5, if you will:

Like the finish line of my marathon, this one felt life-changing. It reminded me of my own endurance and strength of will. Though in seasons past my stubbornness has been my downfall, leading to injury, in this case it was a gift, leading to a refusal to quit and the absolute determination to finish this event in spite of overwhelming exhaustion and aching, tight muscles. Little G’s sacrifice on my behalf, when she refused to go ahead of me but instead stayed, pouring water on my shot quads and pulling me along with her encouragement, was a graphic, illustrative reminder of the way Christ provides for me, and constantly walks with me through my difficulties and trials. And it was a challenge, because it made me wonder—how many times am I that kind of refreshing encouragement for someone else? Do I provide cooling refreshment for my husband in times of exhaustion? Do my words fuel my friends along when they’re tempted to quit? And, most of all, do people see Christ in me?

I am thankful for this race, for the way God provided for my needs leading up to it, and the way He has given me the ability to enjoy this sport for as long as I have. And for my training partner, and the blessing that she is to me in running, in life, and in my walk with Christ. I pray, in His grace and wisdom, God may grant that we may both continue to enjoy good running for many years to come—we’re already planning our return to this event in 2012.

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