Saturday, March 9, 2013

My Running Journey, Part 7: Phoenix

The Phoenix Half-Marathon was fantastic!

If you'll recall, I injured my Achilles tendon a few weeks ago, so I flew down to Phoenix sure I would get to visit my brother and sister-in-law but unsure about anything else.

Not only did I end up running, I had a wonderful experience.


With my do-a-race-per-month goal for 2013, I jumped ahead in my "distance" schedule with an early half-marathon. That's 13.1 miles for the uninitiated.

I originally planned to run/walk/run/etc for a 2:30:00 finish time.

In keeping with my norm, that's pretty slow.

Ultimately, because of my Achilles, I opted to walk for as long as I wanted and as slowly as I needed which effectually made an already long finish time potentially much longer.

In total, the organizers told me I had 6 hours to cross the line and still get a finishers medal.

You pay for the shirt. You earn the medal. 

The day before the race, my sister-in-law Christina was SUPER helpful and drove me around all day. 

First she took me to get my race bib (2686: a lovely even-looking kind of number). 

Many of the sponsors had set up tents in the collection area, festively hawking their wares. Christina and I had a good laugh that fully half of them were about injury management.

Their banners basically read the same:

"Hurting everywhere!? Joints completely shot!? Can't cope with the extraordinary pain!? Afraid you'll be limping for life!? We have the (supplement, treatment, supplies, medicines, expertise) to help!!!"

Nice lead-in to the next day. Makes you wonder about your sport.

I took advantage of the free RockTape station.
You can sorta see my Achilles tendons taped up in the photo.

By-the-by, Christina is actually pregnant (see Ironman Baby). Her baby, as of this photo, is approximately the size of a fig. I'm really excited to have another niece o/r nephew.

Of course, the poor woman hasn't completely overcome the first-tri misery yet, so don't even think about eating or cooking chicken within 8 miles of her. She'll smell it, guaranteed.

Next we drove the half-marathon course which seemed AWFULLY long, even in a car. 

Oddly enough, the route jutted out and around the hotel where I had stayed last year for Jon and Christina's wedding, comprising several miles of the course. It was extra nice to be familiar with the area and recognize some landmarks.

It made running the race much easier mentally because I could sense where I was compared to the finish line. 

Nothing is harder for me than turning corner after corner and never knowing when/where (if) it will end.

After that Christina took me to Tempe to review the Ironman course for November. It was there I jogged across my favorite footbridge at the west end of Tempe Town Lake, testing my Achilles for the first time in weeks. 

There was part of me that hoped it would be really painful.

Unfortunately (?) it felt almost fine.

Two weeks of no-running added to three-a-day ice-packs, massage, taping, elevation and compression must have done the trick. So I laced up my shoes (metaphorically -- my shoes don't actually have laces), and set my head to run-mode.

That night I spent the night with Marathon Mindy at her cousin's house.

In the wee morning hours we had to drive to the finish line at the Riverview Shopping Center from where we took a bus to the start line, located by a small airport. Buses ran from 4-5:15AM. So we got up and got ready around 4AM.

I had fallen asleep around 2AM for rather unusual reasons. That means I did the race on 2 hours of sleep.

I do not recommend this, but I've been told by racers that it's the night before the night before that really counts. Sleep then. And I had.

We exited the highway for the shopping center and were immediately waylaid by a traffic jam. There were so many racers that we blocked each other in our cars long before we ever hit the pavement with our feet.

The good thing about the traffic mess was that everyone was stuck in it, and it provided a good warm-up as we all then had to race to the buses before the last one left at 5:15.

My friend Mindy being a sport, like always.

Some of Mindy's other Utah runner friends joined us up, and we stood around at the start line for an hour before the gunshot. The event organizers pumped Eye of the Tiger and other wake-me-up music down the street.

It was chilly, and people were chill. But there was still an unmistakable pre-race buzz.

A few minutes before start, you place any paraphernalia that you don't want to keep in hand while running (overclothes, food, phones, etc.) into your race bag, marked with your bib number. You take them to a drop-zone, and they are driven to the finish line for you to pick up later.

In this pic, Mindy was kindly collecting our stuff and bags to take to the drop... which in this case was a moving truck. Well, not a moving truck. A truck one uses to move things.

Good morning Utah!
Kelly, Kelly, Mindy, Heidi, Heidi

As long as we were standing around, Kelly-the-other suggested we might as well stand in the line for the porta-potties. 

In fact, I believe we were actually each in a porta-potty when the race started at 6:30AM. Fortunately, your timing chip doesn't start your personal time count until you cross the activation line.

The star-shaped porta-potty conundrum.

Somebody in a field near us shot off some fireworks while we waited, so that was entertaining. Not sure what the locals thought about fireworks at 5:30AM.

From this point on the only pictures I could access are the official race photos.

FYI, runners do not buy official photos. It's soooo novice.

But I'm a newbie! Plus, I do what I want.

And I want to introduce you to this guy.

Hello, James.

So, the hardest part of the race was NOT running.

I had told my companions I was planning to walk for an undecided amount of time. But when there are fireworks exploding to the beat of Eye of the Tiger and on-lookers surround you with mega-phones yelling, "Go! Go! Go! You can DO it!" and suddenly 2000 adrenaline-pumped racers who fill the street ALL take off running... well.

It's anticlimactic to walk. And that's putting it mildly.

Not only was I one of three people walking (all pictured above), but I was the final person walking, a-la our memorable porta-potty start.

But this was never a race for me. It was an experience.

It was also a test. A test of everything.

Elevation. Climate. Potential allergies. Food/water/fuel intake. Injuries. Gear. Mental fortitude. Physical capacity. Emotional capability.

And James helped me start the day out right.

I asked him if I could walk with him, and he seemed surprised but shrugged and said, "Okay."

So we chatted and walked and walked and chatted and came to the first photo op still walking.

For a proper warm-up, I knew I should be walking faster, but suddenly the race became more about keeping James company than worrying about time or warm-up speed or anything else.

Honestly, that mindset helped carry me through the rest of the morning.

At Mile 2, after a very leisurely beginning, James took a break and I bid him farewell. "See you at the finish line!" Never happens, right? But it would have been cool.

(He did finish with a time of 3:53:45.)

At mile 2, I began to run and never stopped.

It was so fun!

Now to be clear, "run" in my world means jog. But I never stopped jogging! From mile 2 to mile 13.1, I just kept on moving forward. And also to be clear, that is the furthest I've ever run/jogged in my life.

Around Mile 8: randomly pictured with the only woman on the course wearing socks that could possibly compete with mine.

The benefit of starting dead last (you know, with the traffic cone movers and police motorcycle right behind you), is that anyone running at an equal or faster speed is ahead of you.

And you'll never catch them.

This is okay.

It gave me the opportunity to feel what it's like to pass people.

In fact, the very moment I started running at Mile 2, I caught up with a long line of racers who could only run 2 miles.

I had written Ndimusanyufu on my left leg which is Lugandan for "I am happy." So then I wrote I Am Happy on my right leg.

And I was.

I found myself running and smiling, and thinking of James walking a half-marathon because... "Might as well. Seems better for me than sleeping in."

So I made it a point to talk to all the people I passed.

Many of them were walking. Some walk/jogging. Some jogging.

Each interaction was brief, and admittedly, it was impossible to talk to everyone. There were too many participants and not everyone was listening.

But with my breath in rhythm and my heart rate in control (thank you lower elevation!) I had the perfect opportunity to focus on everyone but me.

I especially tried to talk to the racers who were struggling.

I said stupid stuff like, "You're awesome!" and "Way to go! Don't stop!" The kind of stuff you say when you don't know the person you're talking to and will only see them for .2 seconds of your lifetime.

I turned awkwardly and gave a lot of double thumbs-up to people with earphones.

But it was honestly gratifying to see how many people smiled and picked up their pace after just the tiniest bit of encouragement.

In the end, I'm sure I could have run the entire race. And even though I snailed the first two miles, my finish time was 2:41:51, just 12 minutes off my original goal for this race.

With two miles to go, I was still feeling great, so I picked up my pace. 

You might be wondering why I hadn't done this earlier, given my comment about easy heart rate and breathing.

In actuality, my cardio wasn't my biggest worry. One muscle cannot outdo another, and even if my heart could handle the run, my legs weren't ready to smash this distance.

In terms of muscle mass and muscle memory, I've got a lot of hard work to put in. I certainly didn't want to shred my quads or injure new ligaments or tendons.

At the last 1/2 mile there was a tiny downhill, so I took advantage and opened up even more.

At the bottom of the hill with a little over 1/4 mile left in the race, I went from feeling like pssh-I-could-have-done-the-marathon-see to feeling like everything in my body broke simultaneously.

My hips hurt, my knees hurt, my ankles and feet hurt, and my intestines began seriously cramping.

Thus, my smiley 13.1-miles ended with me semi-hobbling over the finish line. Whether I "bonked," hit my "wall," touched the mental-end, or what, I don't know. But after I was handed my medal and went wandering, slowly, away from the finish line, I felt light-headed and "uncomfortable."

For a few seconds tears pricked my eyes and I thought I might cry.

Then I decided that would be dumb, and I didn't.

And that's that. Thankyouverymuch.

A distinguished-looking volunteer came to my side with water and asked if I was okay. I said yes, was just looking for some people I knew, and he said, "Okay. Are you sure?" Yes. "Are you sure?" Yes. "Okay. Are you sure? The medical tent is right there if you need it."

Really? Did I look that bad?

When I laughed at his medical-tent directorate, he went away. A laugh must be an important indicator in post-race field triage.

Okay, so also hey!

See that woman behind me in the blue shirt?

I had a running friend tell me that at the very, very end of a race you should pick someone ahead of you and beat them to the finish line.

So I did.

But the best part? I totally picked her nose.


After skirting the medical tent, I hobbled to the post-race "party" and got a protein-drink and a massage.

The massage was FAR more painful than the half-marathon, but I can't believe how much better I felt afterward.

The rest of the day I had a hard time going up and down stairs because my knees kept screaming obscenities. I was afraid I might have really damaged them, but I woke up the next morning (Sunday), and they were perfect. Like I'd never run a minute in my life.

I think that's because, sometime in the night, the pain crept out of my knees and snuck down sinuous hidden paths to nest in my quads and calves instead. I haven't felt that sore since the first week of volleyball camp my Junior year of high school.

Stairs were still a problem.

I took Sunday and Monday off to wince and whine. Then it was back to the grinding stone! Tuesday night spin class (ow) and Wednesday morning swim (ow), etc. Actually, by Thursday I felt great.

Mindy looks tough because she beat me by an hour.
I'm smirking because I finished. Take THAT!

A few noteworthy moments:

1) I tried grabbing a Clif Shot at Mile 6, wherein I learned that I cannot chew my energy.

Nothing has ever felt so wrong as biting down on something thick and gummy while running. I immediately spat it out and threw the rest of the Bloks away. A waste, but better than choking.

2) At Mile 9 I was passed, in haste, by the first and second place men from the full-marathon. This was astounding, and I barely saw them before they were gone. They were like Olympic gods. Number Two was nipping at Number One's heels (and apparently passed him to win).

I've never seen such real, untelevised speed in my life. They had run 22 miles in the time it took me to complete 9.

Jake Krong from Salt Lake City wins 26.2 at 2:23:55.7

Whereas, I averaged a 12 minute mile over 13.1.

3) At Mile 10, I was blocked to a halt by police in order to let traffic through.

(For the second time, I might add. Grrr.)

It was super annoying. At that point it hurt a lot more to stand quiet than to run. And as much as I wasn't racing for time, the thought of an extra 5 minutes officially on the clock bothered me since I wasn't taking them by choice or by need.

(So really, my time was more like 2:36:51.)

But for me? Not a big deal. I wasn't going to qualify for the Boston Marathon or come in first overall. For heaven's sake, I was 207th in the half in my age-group alone. Stopping me for traffic wasn't going to change that.

However, about then, the 4th place marathon man came careening by. He was so fast, I guess no one had seen him coming.

I'll never forget his face, in part because he was so mad, and in part because he didn't stop, cars be damned.

It was just like a movie, 5 lanes of vehicles slamming on their breaks, him cursing the police, trying to dodge hoods and bumpers.

I'll admit that the policeman who sat on his motorcycle had personally apologized to me for the extra time curbside (which was nice, I guess), but after one of the top racers almost got hit he was so flustered that he let me move through, too... and I was glad.

4) As I stood in the drop line afterward to recover my race bag, the lady in front of me turned around and said, "I remember you! You ran by me and told me my calves were like rocks! Do you really think so? I'm not very fast, but I'm trying to run. I don't love it, but I want to."

You and me both, friend.

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