(13.1 Miles) Outside My Comfort Zone

On September 26, 2015, I did something I never, EVER thought I would do:  I completed a half marathon.  Going into it, I had exactly three goals…

Goal number one:  just finish.

Goal number two:  just finish.

Goal number three:  be physically able to drive myself home after.

This time last year, I couldn’t run a mile.  Hell, I couldn’t even run a half mile.  Over the course of the past 12 months, I’ve managed to get myself to a point where I could regularly run between three and six miles.  Not fast, mind you, but I could make it.  So when someone I used to know invited me to join them at the Park2Park Half Marathon, I took it as an opportunity to challenge myself to make the distance.  Again, not fast, but just to make it to the end.

I slowly began to increase my distance with each successive run, gradually working my way up from three, to four, to five then six miles.  I still needed to take periodic walking breaks, but that was ok.  I knew I wouldn’t make the change overnight.

I eventually got to a point where I could run a full six miles before needing to walk. It was then, in July, that I decided to take it literally steps farther, and go for a nine mile distance. I was ecstatic to find I COULD make it nine miles if I alternated walking and running after making  it through the initial six miles walk-free.  This gave me the confidence to try for 12 a couple weeks later.

The spirit was willing, but the body was weak.  My right leg fell victim to painfull cramps and muscle spasms.  Friends in the know suggested some changes to my diet, stretching, and hydration – all of which I heeded – and tried again a week later.  I was able to last 12 miles that time before the legs cramps and spasms returned.  So, I decided to run “only” three or four miles at a time for a while, and a couple weeks later I gave it another try.  Just over a week before the big day, I was finally able to complete a distance of 13 miles without needing to quit completely.  I still needed to walk quite a bit, but I was able to go the full distance.

The Big Day

The morning of the race, I was sure to get up plenty early to do a TON of stretching, eat a couple of bananas, and drink loads of water – all of which I hoped would keep me from cramping up 3/4 of the way through the race.

I got dressed, and headed out on the 45-minute pre-dawn drive to Holland, MI.  Even with more traffic than I expected for that early on a Saturday morning, I made it safely and in great time.

To say I was nervous would be an understatement.  Not knowing if I would be able to finish, and being there alone left me feeling a bit anxious as start time approached.  I filled the empty moments doing more stretching, and listening to music.  I headed to the start area, made my way to the back of the pack, knowing I would be slow enough to warrant being behind the 12-minute pace group, and braced for the start…

Start of the 2015 Park2Park Half Marathon in Holland, MI

Trying To Keep Up

The start was the usual cattle drive of people rushing forward into a bottleneck, then exploding into the open road beyond.  I lagged back, very comfortable in letting everyone sort themselves out before I reached the line.

Just ahead of me was the 12-minute group, with the sign-carrying pacer in their midst. All my previous runs averaged in the 14-minute range, so all I wanted to do was keep them in sight, if I could. If not, no biggie. I just wanted to finish, regardless of my time.

Sure enough, about three miles in, I noticed I’d lost sight of the sign.  I could no longer see the 12-minute group. A part of me was disheartened, but I reminded myself of goals one and two, and trudged on.

Bacon?  REALLY?!

Five miles went by, and I was doing pretty well – by my standards.  I was tired, of course, but had not yet needed to take a walk break.  I had also made good use of a water station in an effort to stay hydrated, and stave off cramping that was sure to hit me later.

There were a couple pairs of women who passed me regularly.  They would run past, then start to walk and I’d pass them. Then they ran past me again, and I’d pass them when they walked again. Then one time they passed me, and I exclaimed “Oh, what the hell!!!”

But I wasn’t referring to their repeated passing.  I could smell bacon. Strong and clear. Delicious bacon. It smelled glorious.

“Oh, what the hell,” I said, “who is cooking bacon?!”

The two women who had just passed me said, ” oh, yeah, you’re right!”

We shared a laugh. I never saw them again. And I didn’t get any bacon.

Halfway Home

As we neared the 6-mile mark, we entered the state park where the photogenic Holland Lighthouse sits.  Having studied the course map thoroughly, I knew this meant I was halfway, and would soon be entering neighborhoods that included some slight hills.  The course is pretty flat, overall, but I was beginning to feel some discomfort in my left leg, so even slight hills were something to which I was not looking forward.

Rounding the turn to head back the opposite direction, I spotted a photographer.  I mustered up the strength to give a thumbs-up, and did my best to grin. Didn’t turn out *too* bad.  You be the judge…

Yup, I’m That Guy

At each water stop, I thanked the volunteer who handed me a beverage.  At each intersection, I thanked the police officer(s) directing traffic and making sure we didn’t get run over. Each time I passed a group of people cheering, or family in their yard simply watching, I waved and said “good morning.”

And sometimes those spectators had cowbells.

Two things about bringing cowbells to watch a race. First:  don’t underestimate the power of a spectator. Even though I knew zero of the people I saw, it was such a motivator to keep going, and to not give up. It sounds cheesy, but it really did help. And, second:  if you’re gonna ring a bell, ring it like you mean it!

Several times I passed someone halfheartedly jingling their bell.  So I shouted “Hey!  RING THAT THING LIKE YOU MEAN IT!”  Each time the person replied with something like” YEAH!!  WOO HOO!!  WAY TO GO!!”

But as I was leaving the state park with the the lighthouse, I got an even better idea. I was about to pass a lackluster group of young spectators with a pitiful sounding cowbell. So I mustered up my best Christopher Walken, and said his line from the famous SNL sketch as I ran by…

“I’ve got a fever, and the only cure is MORE COWBELL!”

The group started howling with laughter. “I NEED MORE COWBELL,” they replied, and began to ring with gusto!

For the remaining seven miles, I repeated that line each and every time I passed a cowbell. And each and every time, it worked.  Each and every time.

Halfway point, with the Holland lighthouse in the background. “I need more cowbell!”

A Mirage?

After seven miles, I began taking short walking breaks.  The running app on my phone was telling me I was making great time – again, by my standards – but I didn’t really pay much attention to it since I was pretty sure I had lost signal somewhere near the Lake Michigan shoreline, and the split times were wrong.  Had to be.  Then, something miraculous happened.  There, in the distance, I saw it.  Like some beautiful mirage, I could see the sign of the 12-minute pacer, and the small group of runners who had keep up with her.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d *never* come close to averaging a 13-minute mile for this distance, much less a 12- minute mile.  Yet, here I was, a mere two blocks behind them! I was stunned!  I resisted the urge to speed up to catch them, knowing that if I’d already caught up this far, I’d already gone far faster than I likely *should* have, and was increasing my risk of not making the finish. I decided to bide my time, relax, and slow it down a bit.

Funny thing, though.  As I continued, my pace remained right in the 12:10/mile range for a few more miles. I was FAR exceeding my own expectations.  For a little while.

Limping To The Finish

By the time I reached mile ten, I was exhausted.  I’d already started sprinkling in walking breaks long before, but now those breaks were lasting longer.  I was passing fewer and fewer people, and getting passed more and more. My left knee began to ache, and my left foot started to exhibit signs of pain.  I was walking more than I was running, and limping more than walking.  My foot was now searing with pain.  I was beginning to doubt that I’d finish.  Then I heard something wonderful…

“Distance: 12 point zero miles.”

My phone app alerted me to the fact I was a mere 1.1 miles from completing my first ever half marathon.  I got a tiny jolt of adrenaline. I tried to run again, but could only manage a hundred yards or so before I needed to throttle it back down to a brisk limp/walk.

“Distance: 12 point 5 miles.”

I SO wanted to start running, but knew better.  But then I made the turn into the fairgrounds, and knew I was close to home.  A chill rose up my spine as I realized I actually WAS going to finish.  This time, I felt a rush of adrenaline, and began to jog.  With a full limp, I turned onto the racetrack surface, and turned for the finish.

As I strove on, I could hear the cheers of those still in the stands, and imagined they were cheering for me – knowing full well it was a group of onlookers cheering for one of the people I had just passed.  I pushed myself onward, and kept sprinting to the finish.

Time – 12:41:56 12:21/mile

Last year, I couldn’t make it one mile.  Last month, I finished my first ever half marathon.

I was exhausted.  I was in pain.  But I finished.  The metaphors are plentiful:  don’t give up / believe in yourself / focus on your goal / where’s the bacon / etc.  But a big one for me was this…

Even when enduring great pain, we can make our way through that pain in order to reach our goal, and even exceed expectations.

Mission: accomplished!

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