Runner’s World Half Marathon
The Pressure Builds
The Runner’s World Half Marathon was supposed to be something of a last hurrah, a final celebration of my life in between surgeries, because I’ve come to find that my life is now dictated by the space in between each. It’s just impossible to predict what happens after each operation, so the only time to make is the space of ability between the end of one and the beginning of the other. When I woke the first time, into a world of pain, I thought I was going to be cancer-free, only to find that certainly wasn’t the case. I woke the second time expecting a period of recovery that would stretch for months, again, only to find that wasn’t the case, fortunately. So where I would like to hold to some expectation of what is to come, I simply don’t anymore, and am left to just make the most of the time I have in the present…which brings me to this race.
As my running abilities progressed over the last year plus since my last surgery, I found the potential to run faster and faster, even forcing my pace into legitimate competitive racing territory, if against myself and no one else. Motivated by this realization of experiencing, if only fleetingly, this past self lost to the cancer experience, I set my training and my eyes on a fast half-marathon, maximizing the potential within by running it as close to my next surgery as possible. That was supposed to be this coming Tuesday (the 27th), but as mentioned elsewhere, an insurance change has delayed the operation until January. Although that does afford me some more time to squeeze in a few more focused runs, this half might still be my last competitive go, to see what I could do with my body despite cancer. I penciled in the Runner’s World Half on my calendar and set to dedicated training.
As exciting as this was, I won’t deny it was also stressful as the days cut down to the race and the pressure of performing began to mount. I had been training for both the ultra run benefit and this half at the same time, and when the ultra was cut short due to “injury”, that put this entire half into jeopardy. I actually committed to NOT running this half when three weeks after my ultra I still couldn’t run more than 30 minutes at a time.
And then, well, I’m not sure what happened. I kept working on my strength training and periodically tested my legs when it all started to come together and I could run for extended periods…and quickly. But I still only had a month and a half to prepare for this half, with no idea of what abilities lay deeper within me. If I was going to run this race, I needed to maximize every day of running I had, and that’s when something really changed. I went back to my roots.
Prior to my first marathon, I ran differently. Or I should say, I trained differently. Before appropriate mileage, dedicated pacing, and sufficient recovery times had rigidly entered my headspace, I ran more free. I ran my workouts on a schedule similar to now – Tuesday / Thursday workouts and Saturday long runs – but all my other efforts were run without concerns about “slow recovery” or within a certain range…I just ran. If I felt tired, I ran slower. If I felt good, I laid into it, sometimes bounding through 6:00 per mile easy runs with little effort. I just enjoyed myself. This was also the mentality I took to my races. I didn’t really go by per mile pacing, hell, I didn’t even wear a watch. I just stepped to the line and ran how I felt. Admittedly, this didn’t always work out. Sometimes my workouts failed because I couldn’t sustain the effort and sometimes my races were compromised when I blazed through the first two miles at 5:00 pace. But overall, I was enjoying myself…and I wanted to get back to that.
Effectively meshing the lessons I learned about reservation with the more joyful efforts of running without worry, I started training for this half with a new excitement and a satisfaction that extended far into the day when the runs were complete. Somewhere in the midst of all that training I also started to realize that a sub 1:20 half might be in my abilities. I began training around 6:00 pace when necessary and continued to assess how that might feel over 13.1 miles and with the appropriate recovery and adrenaline that comprises the body on race day. I never knew if that was an attainable goal during all my efforts, but it was exactly how I like my goals, enticingly difficult and potentially just out of reach. Each day I would put in workouts that touched at the pacing, and make sure to throw in sufficient paces into my easy runs as well, slowly picking up pace until I dipped below 6:00 for a bit, just to build the effect into my body and train me to gauge how it felt in the moment.
Bit by bit, day by day, week by week, race day neared and the pressure began to build. Like, really began to build. Like, began to build so much that it surpassed normal nervousness and became near crippling. Mind you, I’m used to worry and fear and tension before a race, but this one seemed to hold a little more significance than all the others in the past, as it was my last chance, so to speak. Every race prior was just a stepping stone to another, while this, for all that may happen post-surgery, could be my last. I wanted to make the most of it, and so the potential for failure was weighing on me to a degree I had not really felt before. And with the ultra run cut short still gnawing at my ego, the last thing I wanted prior to surgery was another failure. I NEEDED this to go well. But needing and doing are worlds apart.
At some point, this self-imposed pressure built so much that, for my own emotional stability, I needed to release some of it. I had taken myself from a valuable nervousness to an unhealthy tension. So, in an attempt to release some of this pressure, I changed my finish time expectations. Actually, I erased them. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to dip under 1:20 anymore because even though my workouts were going well and I was feeling great about running the entire distance with strength, that didn’t mean I was going to make it count on race day. Maybe the distance would break me down. Maybe my IT band issue would flair up again and cause me to DNF. Maybe…who knows…I just wasn’t ready to say, “Yeah, I can run sub 1:20, no problem.” because I didn’t want to go into surgery with my last hurrah being a last “meh.” With that consideration, I relied on the elusive well of ability that lay deep within my body to dictate my finish time…and I decided to go back to my roots again, getting rid of my watch on race day. I wouldn’t look at it through any splits, any per mile pace, for whatever was in my body was going to get me to the finish, not what my watch would say.
I do feel compelled to clarify that, at the very least, I had myself grounded enough to keep perspective, to recognize that, “Hey, dude, you have cancer. And hey, you are just over a year out of surgery. And hey..dude…you have cancer.” because there was a point that a 1:20 half wouldn’t have been a reason to celebrate. It would have been a reason to determine what went seriously wrong. Pre-diagnosis I was running 1:12 half’s and then trying to figure out what went wrong in my training as I should have been in the 1:10’s, so at the very least, coming to terms with running a 1:20 half was a victory in itself.
But hey, I’m a competitive runner, so I’m not going to pretend that I would be happy with anything, come what may. I had verbalized a 1:20 to myself and it was hard to get away from that, even if I later said, “anything under 1:30”, etc. To myself, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I kept repeating…”1:20. 1:20. 1:20”.
Which might help explain why all of a sudden my stomach was a flurry of knots and folding in on itself as race day neared.
I prepared, but wasn’t sure I was prepared…if that makes sense. I wanted to perform, but first I had to make it to the start.
The days leading up to the race involved a great deal of driving out East as we bounced to a wedding and a couple other locations before finding our way to Bethlehem PA where the race would be run. I’m sorry to admit, but the nervousness was so intense that I had trouble concentrating on the moments at hand, whether it was the wedding or celebrations. Until I found my way to the finish line, I was going to be a distracted mess. The endless miles of driving out East were an effort in distraction, trying to think about anything but the race as every time I did my stomach would twist and turn with butterflies. And each day closer meant more and more moments of near crippling worry.
And that’s when we found ourselves driving the actual course to more closely determine how this race might go, and whatever worries I had about going 1:20 were heightened out of control. The course was hilly. But not just hilly as most courses rise and fall, but the hills were abrupt, steep, and the primary efforts would take place in the first half of the race, meaning that a solid time and a strong effort would rely on a very focused reservation…something I’ve struggled with since I stepped to my first start line. Suffice to say, when we completed driving the course, any idea of running 1:20 was out the window. A successful race the next day would hinge on one thing, running a SMART race. I don’t exaggerate when I say running a smart race, for me, is probably more difficult than running at my abilities. To run in a way that beats the course instead of your time takes strategy, reservation, pointed surges, and a conservation of energy that is let go at just the right time. It’s no small thing to pull off.
After we finished driving the course, my mental state had completely changed. Instead of repeating the image in my head of what a 6:00 pace felt like, I had to continuously imagine running reservedly, making adjustments as each hill dictated recovery, and digging deep to throw down in the second half. I stopped thinking about redlining it and started thinking about how I was going to push hard after the hills had been passed and the course let me open up. The race suddenly felt less like a fight and more like an art. I went to bed memorizing my strategy and woke repeating the same.
Laura and I found our way to the start line under a dark sky just beginning to lighten, my type A personality getting us there so early I wondered if anyone else planned on running with me. The temperature was a solid 35 degrees, the absolute perfect air temperature for running, allowing the body to concentrate entirely on transporting oxygen to the legs and lungs and not to cool the internal core. Any effort today would be determined by our maximum abilities and not compromised by external excuses. I nervously sat with Laura at the start staging area, my warm sweatshirt creating a place for me to hide my worry along with my face. I popped my ear buds in and went into a different mental and emotional space, building adrenaline at the rate of my concern, trying to prepare for a smart fight as much as a reserved start.
As each minute ticked away like an hour, I found myself in my own head again, the tension mounting to an apex.
“Why do you do this to yourself? This is crazy! I mean…look at you…you’re a basket case. Dude, this is just a run and nothing more. Seriously, this is it. This is the last time. This just isn’t worth it. This sort of worry isn’t what life is for.”
But…yeah…that’s not true. I don’t always have the words to explain it, but i know many of my distance running friends feel it. This IS what life is for. This incredible worry and concern means something. It feels out of control sometimes, and for such a simple, momentary physical effort, and nothing else, but for some reason it means the world. It’s SO HARD to let go. Hence, having cancer, having surgeries, and being here at the start. I don’t know, in that moment I felt crushed. I felt obsessive, ridiculous, completely ungrounded…but I knew that’s EXACTLY WHERE I NEEDED TO BE. Less than 30 minutes away I knew all that insane, crippling fear would subside into a physical effort that is all mine, that is only mine, that is the culmination of months and months and months of dedicated training…and recovery from a crazy surgical procedure.
I wanted to perform to my best, because this was it. This was my last chance to make something of the time between surgeries, to put all that training into a moment that would define what I can be capable of despite everything that says I shouldn’t be. If it wasn’t even about not failing, it was more about succeeding to my greatest potential in this moment. All that stood between that final moment was about 30 minutes and 13.1 miles of race course.
—————— Part 2 to come ————