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In the Middle

November 25, 2011

2011 Run 4 the Pies

November 24, 2011
Bib Number: 404
Overall Placement: 311 / 1488 (20.9%)
Age Group Placement: 15 / 107 (14%)
Gender Placement: 96 / 809 (11.9%)
Chip Time: 32:19.50

This was my first time running our local Thanksgiving Day race. It’s a four-mile race run through the streets of the town north of us, and fairly popular. The first 900 finishers get a ticket for a free apple pie, and I’d been warned by the Boss that I was responsible for at least part of the dessert at that evening’s dinner, so I had to sustain a quick enough pace to be in the first two-thirds of the field.

Earlier that day, Little G and I had decided to sign up for the half marathon at the Marathon Festival of the Palm Beaches, which is on December 4, so I figured this four-miler could count as my last true speed session before race day. Though my pace on race day at the 13.1 Fort Lauderdale, just ten days ago, averaged about 8:30, I didn’t want to be too ambitious. First of all, I didn’t want to get hurt with another race that I’d already paid for; secondly, this wasn’t a goal race, just a workout; thirdly, the race started at eight, on a hot day, so the odds of hitting a low target pace were against me anyway.

I decided I’d be happy to average eight-minute miles, or an overall 32:00 for the race. We got the kids warming up for the 100-yard dash, which was run before the adult race, and I realized if I had any shot of hitting 8-minute miles after a week of very little running I had to get moving myself, so I set out for about a mile of very easy warm-up. I got back just in time to see the kids run their dash, hug them, and then got into the chute, where I made my first mistake.

Having run lots of races before, I think I underestimated how many novice runners would be showing up for this race. I will say this: the number of runners in costume should have tipped me off. Instead, I lined up in the crowd about where I usually do, and this would prove to be part of my undoing. I had to maneuver through a lot of traffic in the first mile. I should have lined up closer to the front. I wouldn’t have done this in a typical race, where only the lunatic runners show up, but in this kind of race we had a lot more recreational runners than we usually do, and the pacing was way off. It took us a long time to shake ourselves out.

Having said that, that early mile was fun. I tried to focus on keeping my pace steady, reminding myself that I just had to work through the crowd and let time and distance be my sieve. Eight-minute miles, I told myself. I have four of them. If at mile three these turkeys are still with you (in some cases, I literally meant turkeys), then so be it.

Indeed, I started gaining on runners steadily, and I passed the first turkey (headpiece decorated with construction-paper feathers) before the first mile marker—mile 1 in 8:25. We turned some sharp corners and headed down a new straightaway, where I saw my family for the first time, though cute little kids shouting their little hearts out: “Go, Mommy!” They haven’t seen many of my races, mostly because they’re early and kind of boring. They seemed happy to see me run. The Boss pointed forward and said, “Catch that turkey!” I slowed down for the water station just ahead, then pursued the new quarry with renewed motivation.

I passed the second mile marker (8:06) with that turkey in my sights. This one had a very large cardboard tail, with craft feathers glued on. She grew larger in my field of vision as I gained, then left her behind just as we passed the fire station and charged down the straightaway. It got incredibly hot, and we noticed that the crowd grew sparse. This part of the course was intensely lonely, and as we approached the train tracks and prepared to make the turn north, I noticed my heart was doing a funny thing.

I’ve spoken about this before—I measure my effort in races by my breathing and my heartrate. In this stretch of the race, my breathing was still under control, but my heartrate was doing something funky. My heart started skipping beats and dropping while I was running, even though my pace was staying steady. It was an odd sensation, and I was bothered by it because of where I was in the race—I was at about mile 2.5: dead center.

It’s everybody’s favorite part in the race, right? In the middle. I was listening to my pastor teaching about this last Sunday and was so reminded by it during the race: these are the difficult strides of the race. The beginning is easy. You’re excited, you’re ready and raring to go. And the end is easy, because you don’t care if they carry you out on a stretcher.

Let me tell you about the middle. After we turned north, when my heart calmed down and we turned to run along the train tracks, that portion of the course was absolute deadness. We were all tired, and hot, too tired and hot, to be frank, to even encourage one another. We were too tired and hot to pick up the pace toward the finish line. It was all we could do to try to maintain a steady pace. In fact, if you study the data, I didn’t maintain a steady pace: mile 3 would come in at 8:11, so in fact my pace dropped in this terrible part of the race.

It’s like this in life a lot, I think. Parenting gets painful. Marriage gets monotonous. Your job is joyless. Your family is funny—and not in a good way. In the early days you had the energy and the optimism to push through it, but those days were a long time ago. And the end isn’t in sight; to work toward a resolution takes more energy than you have in store.

This is what I remembered, as I ran along the train tracks on Thanksgiving Day. I remembered that the middle miles are always the hardest. I remembered that both in physical life and in spiritual life, endurance isn’t a gift, it is worked out in the middle. You must determine to finish the race well, to earn your medal, to hear from your Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23).

I ran on, and a young woman decided to keep pace with me running as close as possible to 8-minute miles. We ran through some traffic, but we kept shoulder to shoulder. I knew what my plan was: when I saw that mile-3 marker, flying high and blue (this race used bold flags to mark the miles), I would go. If my young racing partner chose to go with me, she could; I would do what I had chosen.

And here I must make another spiritual observation: God commands, and we follow. Too often I look around at what my culture is doing and choose to keep pace with them, observing the tides and setting my sails by them. God has called me to set my pattern by what His Word commands; why am I looking around at what anyone else is doing?

The third mile marker came, and I dialed in my pace. My racing partner stayed with me for a few strides, then dropped off as we turned the next corner. I started passing people, and as I realized I had a straightaway to go and could really speed and close this thing, I remembered who I was all those years ago, running relays: the closer. I love this portion of the race. I like to reel people in. On this day, having run so short a distance at a pace that was maybe slower than I should have, I had a lot of steam left, and I pushed down Seabrook Boulevard for the last of the race like a hand was pushing on my back. I saw my family again, heard “Go get us a pie!” and closed my race off with a grin, closing mile 4 in 7:31.

The apple pie is delicious, and the four-mile distance was a treat. I’m thankful that we got to sign up for another half, and though I’m hopeful it won’t be another windy day, I’m already not planning on setting a PR, though I am absolutely planning to race it. This will be our third half marathon in 36 days, and I’m almost giddy with the knowledge that we’ve been healthy and happy enough to race this distance so often this fall. God has been good to me!

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