Olathe Half. 1:34:54

As I began training for the Olathe Half, my goal was to improve my pace by 5 seconds per mile to 7:10. If I managed to do that and if I ran 13.3 miles on my Garmin (you can’t run just 13.1), I could finish with a 1:35:19. That’s a couple of ifs.

Training went pretty well, with some disappointing long runs and inconsistent tempo (mid-distance) runs; but for the most part, my speed work went well. During the very end of my training, several of my tempo runs came in solid. I had a five mile run that was 7:10 per mile, which felt good, and another at 7:00, which felt like a fluke, a gift. I also had a three mile tempo that came in at 6:56 per mile. That was incredible. Historically, the pace from my 5 mile tempos has been pretty close to a good half-marathon race pace for me. Those five-mile tempos gave me some confidence, but not a lot; while the long runs really caused me some concern.

In the days before the race, I looked over my training and decided I would go for the 7:10 pace and the 1:35:19 finish. My plan was to go out with the 1:35 pacer group and hang with them until at least mile 7. And try to forget that I was running with them.

If I didn’t make it, there would be some soul-searching to do, some training to change, and disappointment. The upcoming race was exciting and anxiety inducing.

On race day, I was awake at 4:24 AM, before the alarm; it was 59°. It was a good start.

At 5:00 AM I drank a cup of coffee with 1/2 Tbsp instant added. Something to prime the pump, warm up the engines.

The race would start at 6:45, giving me plenty of time (almost two hours) to digest a small breakfast. So, I had Quaker apple & cinnamon oatmeal with some whey and peanut butter.

I got my race fuel ready: coffee, sugar, and three pinches of salt. And I prepped my rocket fuel, which I would drink just before the start: 5oz coffee plus 4 tsp instant, 1/2 Tbsp sugar, and a pinch of salt. Place in an empty plastic bottle and shake.

I have a cousin, and he had come up for the race with his girlfriend. He was running, she was sleeping in. He joined me in the kitchen and followed my lead on oatmeal with some coffee. He helped distract me and chill me out. That was a big help.

Planning for race morning, I was worried about traffic and getting to the start (at Ridgeview and K-10, at the Embassy Suites in Olathe). Even though it was less than two miles away, the city streets were going to be closed just prior to the race, and it was only going to be accessible by highway. I thought about riding bikes; but with an out-of-town guest, that was challenging. I thought about leaving later and taking the highway, but that would not have saved much time. I opted to get to the start before the streets were closed. That meant an early departure. What I didn’t think to do was plan our escape.

So we left the house at 5:30 and had plenty of time to park. There was not much traffic, even though a lot of people had already arrived. We hung out in the hotel lobby, and we were early enough to get a prime spot on a white leather couch. People began to come in, milling around, being nervous, using the indoor plumbing. It was cold outside and a bit windy. I violated the nothing new on race day rule and tried a complimentary Red Bull energy drink, but it was terrible and I only had a couple of sips.

At 6:15, we headed outside with the throngs and got in line for the porta potties. At a race, there is a certain flow to the crowd. You wind up taking your cues from everyone else.

As I was standing in line looking around, I realized that I was not there to compete with any of these people. I thought every one of these runners has a goal. And we might all reach them. And I didn’t have to stop anyone from reaching their goal in order to get to mine; there were plenty of goals to go around. I had no rivals; I had no aspirations of placing. I wondered how each of us would be different tomorrow depending on whether we reached our goal or not. Is it better to arrive? Or is it better to come up short? To strive harder next time?

At 6:30 I drank my starter fuel, and put the bottle in a recycle bin. Usually, I make sure to keep it, reuse it. But it was race day!

At 6:45 Bang! Or maybe it was a fog horn. “Wawh!” I don’t recall. I walked for a while and was loping along with my cousin when we hit the start line. We parted ways soon after that. He headed out just a bit fast on the slight, rolling downhill, and I stuck with the 1:35 pace group. Just after the first mile we caught him, and I didn’t see him again until the finish.

After the first mile or so, I ran ahead of the 1:35 group. On the downhills I would beat them; on the uphills they would catch me. At one point, after I had left them behind for a while and was into a sustained climb, I could hear their footfalls like the ripples in a creek, sneaking up on me. As they pulled even and came into my peripheral vision, I checked my watch and they were right on time. I thought, “Okay. I need to go with them, or I can kiss 1:35 goodbye.”

I had some fans on the course. Melanie was at 116th and Ridgeview, about mile 1.4, right outside our subdivision. And I saw a friend from work once, then twice. Tad, my running buddy, met me at some point on the course in the early miles and ran with me for a while. Then he dropped. I figured he headed home, but I would see him again.

At one of the aid stations, a guy picked up a bright-orange traffic cone and blew into it like it was a trumpet or a bugle. He was really good. He made a lot of noise and waved the cone over his head and was cheering us all on. It was inspiring. The cone made me think of a shofar, which is a “ram’s-horn trumpet used by ancient Jews in religious ceremonies and as a battle signal, now sounded at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” (Dictionary.com) It reminded me of the shofar we blow at my church, Grace Covenant, during Advent, which is a tradition I adore.

There were several people at different points holding an interesting sign: “Do Epic Shit.” It was printed, not hand-lettered. I riffed on it, trying to remove the profane; but it didn’t really work. Do epic stuff. Do epic deeds. Set epic goals. Do the epic. Just do epic. Do epic justice. Do justice. Love mercy. Run humbly. Run nimbly.

But none of that was quite right. I could feel it. I knew that epic was not the same as awesome (my generation’s superlative) and that stuff could not take the place of shit. When my kids first started using “epic,” to describe nearly everything good, I found it annoying, but it quickly grew on me. I soon found it endearing, and I began using it as well. I dig that epic as a noun is a story, and it is also an adjective, a modifier. It leads a double-meaning-life. After the race, when I mentioned the sign, Tad thought it might be the November Project, since they revel in the profane. Then I looked up “epic shit” on urban dictionary; “When someone does something outside their comfort zone, or overcomes their inner battle to support others.” Ah ha! That made sense! But it’s too big to squeeze onto a sign.

As we turned from Lone Elm onto 119th, at about mile 8, at the four way stop, there were cars piled up along 119th, east to west, both ways, as far as the eye could see. There was an officer, talking to the driver in the first car. He gestured to the north, south, east, and west. I imagined him explaining, nicely, “You are going to be here for about an hour. There’s really no good way around this…”

I thought I am glad to be here, in myself, running for the next hour, instead of stuck in a line of cars waiting for unknown-to-me, mysterious runners to pass. But I was glad for the drivers’ patience, I was glad for the officer. I knew that this is one of the reasons that people do not like runners and races. Since the race, logistics have been on my mind; and I’ve been wondering if there’s some way to run a course through downtown Olathe without messing up traffic too badly, because that would be awesome, epic even.

Watch out. Irony ahead.

Later in the race, I was getting low on my coffee-fuel; so at an aid station, I took some Gatorade, took one sip, and said, “Weak!” Worthless. As I tossed the cup and what was left into the trashcan, I resolved, “From now on I carry my fuel.”

I was hanging with the 1:35 group, but I had no desire to pull away, to leave the safety of the herd, the school of runner-fish. In the group, there was woman who turned out to be the second female finisher. As we turned east, into the sun, at mile 10 (about three point one to go), she pulled her sun glasses off her forehead, out of her headband, fumbled them, and they went flying. If it wasn’t mile 10, or if I was a better person, I would have stopped for them (I was closer) and gotten the thanks and the smile; but I thought, “That sucks for you.” She said, “Shit!” and moved to retrieve them; but the pacer said, “I got ’em!” And he pounced, snatched ‘em up, caught back up with us, handed them over, got the breathless “thank you,” and was right back on pace.

That’s his job? Maybe. But it seemed above and beyond the call of duty. It was heroic. If it didn’t save her race, it made it a whole-lot better. That was some epic shit. And I missed a chance to do it.

Soon after that, the pacer dug in, heading for home. He said, “Watch out for 10K walkers,” and he pulled away.

He was right. It was like trying to navigate an asteroid field. 10K runners and walkers were everywhere: on the left and right, three-abreast down the middle. It was taxing to deviate even a little from straight.

In the final miles, along College, I was surprised to see Tad again, up ahead. He was finishing a long tempo run, and he was trying to beat me to the finish. I didn’t know that he had seen me or that he was trying to beat me. But what I really wanted to do was catch him. He was my rabbit. As I tried to close on him and realized I wasn’t, I thought, “Run, Rabbit! Run!” And he did. He pulled away.

By now, we had been running east, into the sun, for almost two miles. These were my slowest, hardest miles. The pacer was well-ahead of me. It seemed weird that he took off so aggressively, because I knew from my effort that I was on pace to reach my goal. The woman was still within reach, but she was not my competition. My competition was on my wrist; it was my watch, which displayed my virtual partner running a steady 7:10 per mile, paying no heed to the hills. He was several seconds behind but unphased, still a threat.

The last climb, up College Boulevard to Ridgeview, is the steepest portion of the race; it is a seventy-foot grind over about a quarter mile. Tad is a hill runner, and I watched him power up that hill just ahead of me. Not me. I put it in grandma-gear (I slowed my pace and took quick, short steps), and I went to my mantras, “You are a well-trained runner.” And, “You are on pace.”

By the time I got to the top, Tad was nowhere in sight; the pacer was way ahead, cresting a hill; and the woman was out of reach. But I was still ahead of my virtual partner, and it was less than a mile to the finish. I had passed the twelve-mile mark right at twelve point one on my watch, so I had run a straight race. I let the woman and the pacer go. They were after their own goals.

The sun was now on my right shoulder, easier to enjoy. And the course was a gentle uphill roll, with a dog leg at the finish. And that’s when I knew I was going to make my 1:35:19 goal. I just stayed in flow. I thought, “You’ve got this.”

At 8:20 I finished. Chip time 1:34:54. Success! I met my goal. I met the person I hoped I was, the person I thought I could become. And Tad was right there, too. My cousin finished a few minutes later. He was happy with his effort on the hilly course after training through the winter in Wichita, where it is just plain flat.

According to my watch, I only ran 13.23 miles, instead of the 13.3 I had planned. This accounted for the sub-1:35 while still meeting my pace goal of 7:10 per mile.

In the recovery chute, the pickings were slim. There was no chocolate milk! The bananas were green. There were some nutrition bars; and I got a Tyson turkey sandwich that was salty but not bad. I got an IPA that I meant to open but didn’t. In the beer tent, I drank my recovery shake, and I ate the turkey sandwich. It was a wonderful second breakfast.

Tad asked for a ride home, and I said, “Sure!”

At 8:50 (2:05 after the start), we were back at the car. We could see that traffic conditions were grim. Cars were solid in the parking lots and in the feeder streets. The race crossed the exit traffic, and there was only one way out. We had gotten close to the start for parking, but we were blocked in by runners.

Tad could have jogged home faster (just three miles!); but he was tired. My cousin and I could have walked the two miles faster, but the car had to get home, too.

I said, “This is why we should have ridden bikes.” My cousin said, “Yeah.”

I backed out into solid traffic. We were bumper to bumper and moving a car-length about every three minutes, once per song. We were in the parking lot for 20 minutes (six songs, six car-lengths). It was not a big lot, but I have never been in a parking lot that long in my life.

It took another twenty minutes, inching along the feeder road, to pull out onto Ridgeview. All the while, we were listening to my greatest hits CD, and the crowd pleaser was Rock You Like a Hurricane. The car, filled with three recently-sweaty guys, smelled like a locker room. The windows were rolled down, but it didn’t help much, but it was fine.

Once we were northbound on Ridgeview, traffic opened up. I drove Tad home at full-highway-speed. Then, I drove home, crossing the course as I turned onto College with a minimum delay.

At 10:01 AM (more than an hour and about five miles later), I was home again to take a shower, and I needed to deliver a kid to a birthday party at 11:00. He got there at 11:10; he was late. Then I was meeting my cousin and his girlfriend for lunch at KC Joe’s at 11:30. I was thirteen minutes late.  The only thing that I did on time that day was finish the race.

Standing in line at KC Joe’s, my cousin’s girlfriend realized that we could get a beer from the bar. We did, and that made the wait a lot more enjoyable. Lunch was great. Then, they headed back to Wichita.

At dinner that night, I drank the IPA, and it was awesome. That was one of the first IPAs that I really liked, and I’ve forgotten who the brewer was. But it is no loss. There will be beer flights in the future, and my tongue will remember.

I began thinking that doing epic shit is like being heroic. So, I’m wondering if “Become Heroic” could be my goal. And for me, the ultimate hero is Christ, who stepped outside of his own battle to support others.

Maybe “Become Christ-like” or “Follow Christ” could be my race sign. Nah. That’s too goofy; people wouldn’t get it.

But maybe the next time I’m looking at a bunch of runners before a race, I will wonder if I can help them reach their goals. Maybe I could be somebody’s hero.

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