Ugh, two bad races in a row (bad and then worse). I’d rather keep the bad news to myself but I promised races and recaps so here you go:
The Bad Race: Originally I’d planned to run the Lincoln Park Run for the Zoo 10K June 4, but my legs were feeling heavy all that week so I decided to skip it. They were feeling a bit better the next week so I signed up for The Run for the Pig 5K in Milwaukee June 10. On the drive up from Chicago I was optimistic, but during the warmup I felt sluggish. No matter, at 8:30 it was time to go. On the first flat half mile, I felt okay. For the next two miles the course was all up and down, nothing too steep or long, and all I knew was that I was working very hard. After the mile marker (6:12, though I suspect that marker may have come too soon) I was all alone in 6th or 7th place (obviously a small race). On every uphill I just kept telling myself to pump my arms and get to the top and on every downhill I’d try to recover before I had to start punching up the next hill. I was able to find a better rhythm on the final flat half mile, but was too spent to really speed up and I ran right at my limit all the way and finished in about 19:50. It was humbling to see that time on the clock as I pushed to the finish line, but after I caught my breath I told myself: ah, it’s not that bad. I hadn’t felt good, I was undertrained on hills, and I hadn’t been racing, so it made sense. And I was really aiming for the Steamboat Classic 4 miler in Peoria the next week. That course fit me perfectly. I’d always run well there.
The Worse Race: In the short term, I recovered well from the bad race, actually going for a 1 mile swim in the lake later that morning then meeting with friends for a hot, windy bike ride in the afternoon and slogging my way through a steamy 10-miler the next day. Early the next week I was feeling a little dull so after some moderate effort 400’s on the track on Wednesday, I took off completely the 2 days so my legs would feel good for the race. But on my warmup in Peoria, I was heavy again. It was a muggy, humid morning so when I got to the start line, a gloomy 3 miles warmup behind me, I was already drenched in sweat and didn’t even do any strides—I just wanted to stand still for those last five minutes and hoped my body would generate some energy. Things were not looking good.
But when the race started, I told myself it was still on, my goal of 25 flat, or 6:15 per mile. No matter what had happened in the past, there was no reason I couldn’t do it. The Steamboat is a big race with a lot of fast starters so I just found myself a spot in the pack and tried to find a good rhythm. I told myself to hold back a bit on the first mile and then start racing, but by the time I got to the mile mark, in about 6:22, I was already dragging. Still, that’s not terrible, I told myself. The first mile included the uphill start and I knew if I could maintain close to that pace for the next two miles, I’d get to finish with the fast downhill last mile.
On mile 2 things really started falling apart. I didn’t realize it at the time, focused as I was, working on good turnover, staying on top of my breathing, maintaining good posture, all the things I knew were key when running got hard. I passed a few people, but others passed me. As we all huffed and puffed our way up, I was struck by the odd assortment of runners around me. There were a few that looked like runners (like I hoped I also looked), but one guy just ahead of me for most of that mile was thick and leaned back and had a comically short stride. How can this guy be ahead of me? I thought. He is moving so slowly, so inefficiently, how am I barely inching by him?
After that a young girl went traipsing by on my right. She looked to be 11 or 12, long and skinny, and I know some kids are pretty fast and serious runners, but the look on her face wasn’t one of determination, it was more like she was asking herself, am I doing this right? Am I going too fast? Should I be passing all these people? Lucky girl, I thought then watched her disappear into the crowd of runners ahead of me.
Another guy passed right by me after that. He was wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt. He also had really nice hair, right in place and his face showed no effort. He looked like he was steering his boat into its slip after a day on the lake. He seemed about my age, but instead of a grizzled vet who’s been running all his life, looked more like a guy who’d been sitting around the night before, heard about the race, went to Target to buy some running clothes, and decided to see what it was all about. He left me behind too.
At this point I didn’t pause to consider how I fit in with these other runners. I was taking it all in, but staying focused like a real runner. Just before the 2 mile mark there’s a short uphill and then a 180 degree turn, both of which required all my concentration. But no worries, I told myself, all that matters is the 2-mile split. 12:45 would be great. 12:50 would be acceptable. Hopefully, not much slower than that.
But as I approached the clock, I saw it was already over 13 minutes. By the time I passed it, I think it may have been 13:10, which meant I’d run nearly a 7-minute mile. A 7-minute mile. In a race! And I’d been working so hard! Now there may have been a good reason—worn out from hard training, the dew point too high, something in the air contributing to my asthma, but I have a “no excuses” policy during races, which means if I feel good enough to sign up, to start the race, I tell myself I should be able to run at least pretty well.
Because I was not allowing any excuses, I had to face the facts: I was straining, but moving very slowly. There was also no indication this was going to change, so I decided right there, just a few steps past the two mile clock, that it was futile, that I could never run fast again, and that my running career was once-and-for-all over.
So I retired. Yes, there in the middle of the race, I retired from racing. I realized this was funny, in a pathetic sort of way, but that’s what happened. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I was mostly angry—why couldn’t I run faster? And I was also ashamed–I’d spent a lot of time training for and thinking about the race. For the couple days beforehand I’d been mentally preparing myself, excited about the race, visualizing a good one. But all of a sudden I realized it was so selfish and pointless. I began to think of all the other more important things I could’ve been thinking about, could have done with my time. I mean, all for nothing? To just be disappointed in myself? What was the point?
Over the next mile I wondered what I’d do with my life. Obviously, never race again, but would I run at all? Maybe. I’d probably spend more time biking and swimming. Maybe I’d even play basketball again, as preserving my knee for running would no longer be important. But besides what I’d do, who would I be? I didn’t know. I’ve stopped running for stretches before, but this seemed different. More permanent. It was all going to be behind me. I started to reminisce about workouts and races I’d run. I thought about my friends who were still running and knew they’d be disappointed in me. Sorry, guys, I thought. I tried, but I just don’t have it anymore.
Meanwhile, I was running down Madison Avenue in Peoria, another mile at just under seven minute pace, though I wasn’t thinking about running anymore, my form or my breathing, I was just waiting for the race to be over. And I could hardly believe it, but no one was passing me. When we got onto the last mile of the race, I noticed that a number of people ahead of me were actually coming back. Not that I cared. I wasn’t racing anymore. But then I spied the guy in the Target t-shirt about 10 seconds ahead and moving slowly and I said, well, I’ll probably catch that guy without even trying, so at least there’s that.
I knew it was pitiful, one last grab at pride, but I didn’t want to finish my last race watching him run. When I caught him with about a half mile to go, the old racing instincts kicked in and I went by him pretty hard (if you are going to pass someone, go by decisively, to get a little gap before the other runner realizes what is happening). When we turned for the downhill finish I just let my stride open up. I passed a few people without trying, just because I have always been good on the downhills, but didn’t go after any others like I normally would. In fact, when I saw my lovely perfect wife and my son standing on the street with just over a quarter mile to go and I steered myself close to them and proclaimed, “This is my last race ever!”
They’d known I was aiming for 25 minutes and surely they’d been standing there wondering for the last two minutes where I was. When I got across the finish line (a couple people sprinting past me on the final flat stretch—I didn’t fight them at all), I paused to take it in, that scene in the chute just after a race, one last time: people smiling, or gasping, hunched over hands-on-knees, giving each other fist bumps and high fives. I’ll never be here again, I thought as I grabbed a bottle of water, walked back to find my wife and son, and repeated my proclamation, “Never again.”
As soon I said this, I thought maybe I shouldn’t have been so cavalier about it, not because I didn’t mean it, but because I didn’t want to serve as a bad example to my son, who had been injured for exactly one year (hamstring tendinitis), had missed both cross country and track seasons for his sophomore year of college, and was just starting to get back into a regular running routine. Even though our situations were very different, I didn’t want him to think quitting was an option. So I began to downplay it, talked about other things, asked him about watching the race, how did the 18 minute 4 milers look when they went flying by? We talked about him doing the race next year. “And I can watch you,” I said.
Instead of pretending to be a runner, I thought to myself. Then I told myself not to be depressed, but just move on. Instead of my traditional post-race run back up to my wife’s parents’ house (which would have been important if my weekly mileage mattered any more), I walked those two miles with my lovely, perfect wife trying to convince her I was really done with running. But I don’t think she realized how poorly I’d run. I’d run 32 minutes for 8K in April and I had stepped up my running since then. I could see no reason why I’d be slower, which I took to mean only one thing: I just am–I’m too old and too slow. Still, I don’t think she quite believed me. And to be fair, it is hard to stay retired. Michael Jordan couldn’t do it, Michael Phelps, Rocky Balboa. Of course, they all had good performances left in them. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case for me.
Anyway, I realize these have got to be some of most depressing race recaps ever, but what can I say? I’m giving you the truth. However, my “retirement” from running has been pretty active. In fact, I’ve been training even more because I am doing a half-ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run) on July 16th in Racine, one month earlier than I had planned to do one. I moved this up to July because on the same weekend as the triathlon in August, I’m doing a 100 mile ride with my biking crew (Race the Lake) and we’ve done this together 3 of the last 4 years and I want to keep the tradition going.
Doing this 70.3 race in July means I’ll be much less prepared for it than I’d hoped. I was thinking of time goals when I was planning to race in August, but since it’s moved up a month, I just want to finish it. I’m sure I can. It’s just a matter of how hard will it be and how long will it take. And why am I doing it? Well, I’ve been wanting to for some time and this summer, well, for reasons I’ll get into at a later date, will work out best.
I’ve got more to say but have gone on too long already and it’s been all bad news so I’m going to let you off the hook. If you are wondering why it took me so long to recap these races, it’s because I’ve been so busy. Besides a bit of work, we just moved into a new house and all the packing, moving, and unpacking has sucked up lots of time. Doing all that and trying to train for the triathlon has kept me too busy to sit down at my computer and send out my dispatches. But I’ve been feeling pretty good lately, had some good runs, I actually did a 2 hour run yesterday in the heat, my longest run in years, and it wasn’t that awful. My knee hasn’t been an issue at all. So let’s all hope these next two weeks of training go well, I survive the Racine 70.3, and then check back in with you with some better news. As always, thanks for reading!