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On Tired Legs

December 17, 2011

2011 Palm Beaches Half Marathon

December 4, 2011
Bib Number: 2721
Overall Placement: 311 / 1543 (20.2%)
Age Group Placement: 13 / 139 (9.4%)
Gender Placement: 105 / 884 (11.9%)
Chip Time: 1:53:01

As I think I shared before, this race wasn’t originally on the calendar. I’ve never run it before, having heard from others that the course is excruciatingly boring and the weather frequently spotty. When I do race on the first weekend of December, I usually run the 5k at this same series. That race has a fantastic course, fast and flat, and in fact when I was in a younger age group I twice placed in the top three in my age group.

But, this year, we hadn’t gotten a decent race yet. The Halloween Half was horrific, very windy and extremely lonely. I came in just over two hours, which is rare for me these days. The 13.1 Fort Lauderdale was a little better, since we were at least running in daylight with much more crowd support, but it was still very windy and left me a good four minutes over a personal best. Though both my training partner, Little G, and I were satisfied with the results we’d accomplished, considering the conditions we’d faced so far, we agreed to give the 13.1 distance one more try in 2011.

The race was scheduled to start at 6:45, a little late for a South Florida race, even in December. It’s been warm this year, and by 6:45 it was already well into the 70s, and we were all thankful that it was cloudy. Race organizers said they’d decided to hold off the start–this was historically the latest race start for this event–so that the marathon, half, and 10k (all starting together) could be run in full daylight. But full sun would have also meant climbing temperatures. Because of the cloud cover and breezy conditions, I only faced a top temperature of 75. A four-hour marathoner finished in a balmy 77.

I say conditions were breezy. At the start, winds are reported to have been blowing out of the east at a consistent 17 mph, gusting up to 30. Did I mention that we were running on the beachfront road? When you run on the east coast, on the waterfront, facing a wind coming at you directly off the water, that wind is never at your back, whether you’re running north- or southbound.

It was an interesting run.

It was made more interesting by my own strategy, which, apparently, was to ignore any wisdom I’ve culled from the last four years of running and just run like a fool. I ran the first half of the race entirely too fast, and knowing I was doing so, passing people like the world was my own personal sieve. I tried to pace myself, spotting people and telling myself not to pass them, and then finding myself–sure enough–passing them. My mile splits in the first half: 8:42, 8:23, 8:22, 8:16, 8:29, 8:31, 8:34.

In spite of my over-fast legs, I might have been able to salvage my race, had the water stations been placed in a more predictable pattern. I’m accustomed to take my nutrition at miles 4, 8, and 12, and water at 2, 6, and 10, or thereabouts. At this race, the stations seemed awkwardly placed, so that my nutrition plan was thrown off from the get-go. I didn’t take any salt replacement until mile 10 or so, and it may have been too late by then. Though I was still passing runners, we were all slowing down by then, so any advantage I was gaining on the clock was illusory–my splits starting at mile 8 were 8:42, 8:43, 8:30, 8:31, 8:45, 9:00, 8:19.

If you’re wondering about that late-race 9-minute mile, it may be explained at least in part by my failure to put in salt and minerals earlier in the race. You see, I was starting to move up in position at mile 12, after a sloggy mile 11 when I thought I couldn’t move anymore. I was finally beginning to feel my trademark late-race kick, pushing through my dead legs, knowing that somewhere up ahead was the finish.

There is a point in every race where the blood leaves my head. I stop calculating my own finish time, stop trying to figure how fast I have to go to achieve a personal best, and become nothing but legs. It’s probably not pretty, but in that moment, I just run. I sometimes zero in on the runner in front of me, and focus on closing the distance between us until I can pass cleanly.

I was zooming through mile 12 when I was leveled by a cramp so severe I was left flat on the ground. That has never happened before. I’ve had races where I cry out with pain with every step, but I’ve never been rendered motionless. Until that day. I was a little humbled by it, and a little saddened that not one of my competitors slowed to ask if I was okay. But I remembered where we were–this was mile 12. At that point in the race we’re exhausted, and driving for the finish. And I’d passed them mercilessly in the last mile or half-mile; I deserved no consideration from them. So I picked myself up, gritting my teeth, and hobbled back into a semblance of a running stride.

In my own defense, I eventually caught the pack I’d been running with, though I had about a half-mile to do it, and finished–disappointed and broken–just one second over 1:53.

No, it’s not a personal best. But it’s a victory of some kind.

Some races are triumphs of time–you run like the wind, shattering your time at the distance, and finish, arms spread wide, feeling victorious over the course.

And some races are triumphs of the will. You run ugly and finish with arms held close, feeling victorious over yourself.

I had so much more to say today, about what running’s been like since that race, and where running’s going next, and my disappointments of the year and my goals for 2012, but for today, that’s enough. 

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