“Sometimes, you just do things,” is the mantra that Scott Jurek (celebrated ultra-marathoner, winner of 7 straight Western States, etc.) repeats throughout his book Eat and Run. I highly recommend it, and it is especially good as an audio book. The mantra comes from his father, and it is informed by the many experiences of his hard scrabble youth.
I adopted this mantra recently, and I have focused on the perspective of “Sometimes, you just (are able to) do things.” I first thought carefully about this as I was running the Corporate Challenge Half two weeks ago. It was an out and back, so at some point you got to see all the other runners. There were a couple of runners from work who blazed the course, and as they came tearing back from the turn around and were passing me on my way out, I could tell that they were loving it. They were totally absorbed in what they were doing. And I thought to myself, they are running that fast because they can. I’m pretty fast, but I’m NEVER going to be that fast. Still, I can enjoy running that much.
“Sometimes, you just (are able to) do things” is the attitude I took during the taper. I tried not to over think the race. I had put in the training. I knew breaking 1:30 was a possibility, that it would not be easy, and that it would be a gift. As Nike puts it, I would “just do it.”
Race day started the evening before. Or it might have even started earlier than that. But I was not in my usual distracted and manic mood. I was strangely relaxed and present with my family. I played catch with my son and watched an episode of “Star Trek: Next Generation” on Netflix with my wife. Then, I realized that I hadn’t done some of my race prep, like getting my rocket fuel ready. Rocket fuel is 1 tablespoon of Folgers instant coffee and 2 teaspoons of Sugar in the Raw in 4 ounces of water. By 9:00 or so, the final preparations were done and I was in bed reading. Lights out about 9:45, and I slept pretty soundly until 4:00, when I woke up for my pre-race breakfast of oatmeal, ½ banana, some peanut butter, and honey. Then it was back to bed until about 4:50.
At 4:50, I got out of bed, got dressed, and headed over to my running buddy’s house, T. The weather was just about perfect. At 65 degrees and not too much wind, it was going to be a good day to run. It was God’s gift on that day.
We carpooled with 5 runners in a mid-size sedan. (As T put it, we were “loving the Earth!”) The best thing about being with other people that morning was I didn’t get too focused on the race too soon. They gave me a hard time about my “rocket fuel”. I drink it out of a used 8 oz water bottle, and (as they said) it does look like I’m drinking out of somebody’s spit bottle. We also rubber necked at all the other runners who were on the road. One guy was eating a banana and totally into his tunes. Another guy was obviously being driven to the race by his wife who was not racing. Everyone was staring straight ahead and seemed just barely awake. It was fun to be looking around and realizing that so many people were making the same trek. We were all on our way to Crown Center.
After a couple of trips to the porta-potty, T and I made our way up to the A corral. This is when it starts to hit me. I am planning to run faster than a lot of other people, and it makes me both happy and a little bit scared.
As the National Anthem started to play, I noticed that people around me had turned to the right and were looking up at the flag. I turned as well and put my hand over my heart. I felt it beating. I was a little amped from the coffee, but my heart was definitely at rest. After the National Anthem, the gun went off.
As we hit the street and started to spread, I became mesmerized by the feet of the people in front of me. For some reason, I zoned in on the foot falls of a few runners and just let myself be drawn into the rhythm. I was running with the 1:30 pacer, and my plan was to try to hang with him to the top of Rockhill, at about mile 4. If I made it that far, I was going to decide whether to push it or not. I was feeling spectacular, so I knew I needed to be paced until I warmed up.
The first mile is a slight uphill to Truman. My plans changed as we rounded Truman and headed (literally) down Oak. I was feeling good, and I felt like the pace was too slow. I was falling behind the Virtual Partner (VP) on my Garmin, which I use a lot in training runs. With the VP you can set the pace, distance, or total time of your run, and then you can get the distance between yourself and the VP. I had set him to run a 1:32:30 half, and I became worried that the pacer was running a little slow. I also knew (from previous runs) that my breathing headed down hill should be a little harder than it was. My body was telling me that I was not running as fast as I could because I was not in my usual 3 steps inhale / 2 steps exhale (3/2) pattern. Headed down hill I decided to drop the pacer and start running my own race sooner than expected.
I tuned into my breathing and started running with other people who were around me. I reminded myself of my math. With my VP at 1:32:20, I knew I needed to beat him by .3 miles to get a “Garmin” 1:30 at exactly 13.1 miles. Since you can’t run a perfectly straight race, for insurance on the chip time, I wanted to beat him by .4. The whole time I pretty much went with 3/2 breathing. I had a couple rough patches, and I was glad I had so many trips over the course. I think that is what gave me the most confidence. I knew that at the top of all the hills I pretty much needed to be on pace for whatever I was going to wind up with at the end. As I checked my VP, I was wondering if the 1:30 group was going to sneak up on me.
My family was planning to be at the 10K turn (at about mile 3), to cheer for me and other friends, but you never know what might happen in the morning and with parking. So I was disappointed but not surprised when I did not see them. They did show up just a little later, at the top of Rockhill (mile 4) screaming and holding up their signs. Their signs are a secret until race day, and I couldn’t quite see what they said. But it was great to see them. I wondered if they were going to head to the finish or try to catch me one more time.
My moment of hope came along Meyer Boulevard where a woman was holding a sign that said, “You got this! 13.1!” “You got this,” is one of my mantras, and that whispered thought seemed to be confirmed by reading it. As you turn to head north on Brookside, there is a little dog leg at 62nd. I hadn’t done it on my runs (because I didn’t want to turn the corners), and I didn’t realize it was that much of a hill. I’ve started calling it “Arbitrary Hill.” But after that was over, I just knew I had to make time on the flats and run tough up Broadway.
At mile 8, I told myself I had 2 flat, 2 up, and 1 down mile to go. After knocking out the 2 flat, I was coming through the Plaza and ready to turn onto Broadway and start the long climb. And there was my family again, at the JC Nichols fountain with their signs cheering for me! One said, “Trust in the Force you must! Guide you through the race it will!” Another said, “Be careful or be road kill!” My wife shouted, “Race you to the finish line!” as I passed them. As I started up Broadway, I was hovering at .4 miles ahead of my Virtual Partner. Things were looking good.
As I was coming to the top of Broadway, Lay Your Hands on Me (by Bon Jovi) was on my mp3 player. This is one of my favorite songs. Despite any lyrics to the contrary, I always think of it as asking God to lay hands on me. Amazingly, as I was headed to Trinity Hill (which is the last, shortest, and steepest hill in the race) the song ended… and then started again! A double-play! I still had some gas as I got to the top of Trinity Hill, and I was almost .4 miles ahead of my Virtual Partner. As I crested the hill, I saw Elvis! Right there in the middle of the road. I gave him a high-five and cruised toward Crown Center.
As I was rounding the corners into Crown Center, my mantra “Be water,” came to me; and I actually started shouting it out loud: “Be! (step inhale/step step step) Water! (step inhale/step step step)” This is based on a Bruce Lee quote, “Be like water making its way through cracks, and you shall find a way round or through. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” This mantra reminds me to not put on the brakes as I’m running downhill. Flow. Be water.
I remember seeing the clock at 1:29:13. Tick (step step step). Tock (step step step). After crossing the finish line and putting a sponge on my head, I checked my Garmin. Because of the VP, it had auto-stopped at 13.1 miles exactly, so I knew my race time would be more. Also, the distance that I had beat my VP by was not displayed. (That is somewhere in the workout summary. I could have found it, but I was just barely holding it together.) My Garmin said 1:28:42. And that is when I started weeping. (The distance will strip you bare.) A few minutes later, when a kindly stranger scanned my bib, I got my chip time of 1:29:18, and I was elated.
And why does breaking 1:30 touch me so profoundly? I think it’s because it amazes me what God made me capable of doing (with a little practice and self-discipline), and it pleases me to be in the flow of running. I wept because things had gone so well, and I hope that at some point I’ll have a faster race. But that race may never come. The trick is to enjoy it when it happens. And I’m really hoping I enjoy running for a long, long time.