Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Risking It

Here's TriSaraTops Cleveland Marathon race report, where the lessons learned in 26.2 miles most times are not about running at all...

"So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life's A Great Balancing Act."--Dr. Seuss, in Oh, the Places You'll Go! and me almost every night when I read this book basically by heart

"Yeah, you know, technically I'm not even really supposed to be here right now. So f-- it...might as well make the most of it."--Eminem, Cinderella Man, the first song to come on my iPod when I put the headphones on at Mile 14

I've had a little more time here to think about everything that happened on Sunday and why I am still so happy about it. I know it sounds strange. Conventional wisdom would say that one should not be happy unless things are a PR, right?

But occasionally, for me, racing isn't all about time. It is a lot of the time, but for me it's also about more than that. I mean, seriously. I'm not winning these things. If it was all about time for me, I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.

Sometimes in our little circles, our little stories, our little heads, we forget how amazing it is that we can do these things to our bodies. That we choose to have this pain; that we choose this fight. That many of us do in a morning what most people do in a week. I know I forget that sometimes.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself. And Self? You've done some great things. It's okay to relax every once in a while.

In the past ten years, I've done somewhere in the ballpark of 20-30 sprint and olympic distance triathlons, countless 5Ks and 10Ks, I don't know--6 half marathons?, 5 full marathons, 5 half-ironmans and 1 Ironman. And I haven't won any of them.

That's a lot of stuff to do, too.

Sometimes I forget that this in and of itself is a pretty big deal. And I chose to do all of it. ALL of it. I put myself through what it took to get to all of those start and finish lines by choice.

I say this, because the night before the race I found out someone I know who has two little children--one just a few months old, and a little boy just a few months younger than Jackson--was given 2-4 years to live. Cancer.

Two to four years to live.

It made my heart sink, and I thought what it must be like for her to have gotten this news this past week. For her husband to get this news. To know that she won't see her daughter's first day of kindergarten. Or her son's little league games. Or her 15th wedding anniversary.

Somehow, my little saga, my self-created struggle, seemed rather insignificant.

I had been mulling in my head my options all week. What if I played it safe? Ran with the 3:50 group--an 8:46 pace--which I was completely positive I could handle? Clock myself down a few more minutes and chip away at the PR a bit?

Or what if I just went for it--3:40, knowing that I didn't get in the miles I wanted to....knowing what that might mean later in the race? This spring has been, to put it mildly, pretty awful for me. To get in the miles that I did required a minor miracle. And I knew that my long runs were not as numerous as they had been in the past. That the marathon is a huge nasty gorilla who will either tolerate you being in its presence, or grab you by the hair and bash you against the wall, depending upon the day. You never quite know until you're in the middle of it.

I thought of her, of this news she just got this week. And that sealed it.

3:40 for sure. I choose this risk. I choose this pain. I choose to do this because it reminds me of how much joy I get when I push my body beyond the limits I set for myself.

I fully understood and accepted what the outcome would be. Either I would do it, puke, and collapse at the finish line, or I would try and absolutely blow up.

Either way, my sun would still come out tomorrow.

There's really not much else to say. I could go mile by mile, but you'd probably laugh out loud. It's actually kind of funny to see my mile splits. Just looking at my mile splits, you would deduce that no one has ever ran a more stupid marathon than that chick. And on paper, this was not a good race for me.

But I do believe that this, in fact, was a good race for me. It reminded me why I do this, and that I have, in fact, come so far from where I started.

In this race, one where the wheels started to fall off around mile 12 and were completely rolling behind me by mile 14, where my first half was right on pace and my second half was horribly painful and slow, I still ended with a 4:05.


As short as three years ago, I did not think I was capable of a 4:05. I have now reached the point where my horrible marathon--my worst-case-scenario marathon--is a 4:05.

That alone is kind of blowing me away right now.

I thought of quitting. As we ran through downtown all I could think of was why, why whywhywhy did I not sign up for the half? I am in fantastic half shape. I could have knocked this half out of the ballpark. But my right hamstring was already seizing up on me by about the half marathon point, and I knew then that it was not going to happen today.

Part of me wanted to stop.

I was ready to stop when I saw my family. They were going to be somewhere around mile 17. I was ready to just collapse in a heap when I got there and be done so that it didn't hurt any more.

But they were early. They caught me off guard. And I couldn't stop then. They gave me the encouragement to keep moving forward.

So move forward, I did. Slowly, painfully, but I vowed I would make it somehow to the end.

At mile 18, I stopped at the medical tent. At this point, I was stopping to stretch my hamstring about every half mile or so. Each time I would say in a hushed whisper, "come on, hammy...come on hammy, hang on..." But it didn't seem to be listening. The two guys in there gave me a few stretches to try so I did.

"Do you need any help? Are you sure you want to keep going?"

Yes. Yes, I am.

Miles 18-25 had pain in almost every step. I was so glad at least I threw my iPod in the race belt at the last second, so I tried to step with the beat. I just kept thinking about how pain is good, how I feel just fine!, to block out the pain in my hamstring and the one slowly developing in my right knee.

Somehow I can salvage this race. I can learn something here. I can show myself something here, wrapped up nicely in this disaster.

The last thing I wanted to do was to go to school the next day and tell my students I quit. The very thought made me tear up. I didn't want to say it to Jackson, either. And I really didn't want to let my teammates down. I felt like I already had a bit, as I know they were rooting for me and for most of them this stuff comes much easier than it does for me. I wanted to be the success story that they were hoping for.

Maybe I still could be.

The last two miles hurt so badly. I had already watched the 3:50 group come and go after making a desperate attempt to latch onto them. Then the 4:00 group came. I tried, but had nothing. But I reminded myself that I chose this pain. I knew this might happen. This was not mental, this was physiological. I knew I hadn't done what my body would need to do to run a 3:40. Many, many people can get by on a lot less than I can, but this confirmed that for me to do this time would require somewhere in the ballpark of 50-60 mile weeks, minimum. Multiple 20+ mile runs. No triathlons, because I wouldn't have time to do anything but run, breathe, teach, and raise two children. And even then, there's no telling what the gorilla might do. But that would be what it would take for me to have a shot at it.

And about mile 25 I made peace with that. I made peace with the fact that I cannot do that right now. No, actually that's not really right. I will not do that right now. This is my choice. I am happy with it.

And it was like a big weight was lifted off of me. The gorilla let go and stopped bashing me in a bit. I high fived all the kids I saw. I stopped and chatted with a former student at the last water station. I screamed like crazy at my two friends on the corner of East 9th and St. Clair.

The weather was just the same as Ironman Wisconsin. Almost exactly the same, down to the wind and rain and 53 degree temperatures. It didn't rain much the first 3 hours and just misted which was actually pretty nice, but that last hour it started to really come down, and I remembered that finish line that day in Madison.

In short, I remembered why I do this. Because of how fun it is, and how alive it makes me feel.

I ran down that finisher's chute, with a smile on my face and a hard-fought, well-earned 4:05 finish. And now I know. I know what I can do with the time I am willing to give. I know that setting realistic goals is probably the smart thing to do, but going hard or going home also makes a better story.

That reaching far too high is much better than not reaching at all.

I have absolutely no regrets about the way I raced this race. Don't let my splits and my 7:50 second mile tell you any differently. It was absolutely reckless. It was full of wonder. It was full of pain. It was something I am very happy not to even try again for possibly years. Because I can walk away from this and say, for the very first time, that I raced a marathon.

And that makes this story, in my book, a happy ending.