Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Half-Marathon Man

I am yelling one of three things in this photo:

Post half-marathon (2)

a) "I want action photos! Take some action photos!"

b) "Where are the medals? I was promised a medal!"

c) "Chocolate milk! I was told there was chocolate milk!"

This isn't really a multiple choice question, of course. I yelled all of those things. I just don't know which one, specifically, I yelled as Bernadette was taking that photo. Multiple photos were taken, I was given a medal:

Post half-marathon (1)

and there was eventually chocolate milk, both provided by the race and purchased at IGA on the way back to the hotel:

Post half-marathon (3)

Before all of that, though, there was the race.

Actually, I'll back that up even further to the drive to the race. Remember the scene in "Nightmare on Elm Street 2" when the bus goes flying past all the bus stops and then drives into the desert and everything is terrible? Our shuttle bus driver who was supposed to take us from the parking lot at the end, where we left the car, to the race start at the beginning did that, too. Maybe she didn't turn into Freddy Krueger and try to kill us all, but she definitely got lost on the way to the starting area, and I knew she was lost because Bernadette drove Cat and I to the starting area the night before.

Bernadette and Cat also spent the night before the race filling me with terror, as they explained... The Sag Wagon.

"The what?"

"The Sag Wagon. It follows along at the end of the race, and if they decide that you're in trouble or you're not going to finish in time, they put you in the Sag Wagon and drive you to the end of the race."

"Do you still get a medal?"


The Sag Wagon came up in our discussion of pacers. I've never done a race that had pacers before, but everyone was talking about them at the race expo the day before, and the race booklet had a whole section on pacers, too, explaining that there would be pacers for every ten minutes, starting at 1 hour and 40 minutes, and then there would be a 2:45, 3:00, and 3:30 pacer, and that we should seat ourselves near our expected finish time.

"So we just stand in our pacer zone?"

"No. The pacer walks in the race and they have a sign with their time on it. You have to stay near your pacer. If you get too far behind the last pacer then you go in the Sag Wagon."

Just like that? They just throw you in the wagon? There was nothing in the book called a Sag Wagon, but they did have this ominous statement on page 7: "If at anytime we deem it unsafe and need to pull a runner off the course we would hope for understanding and immediate cooperation."

It's real, I thought. The Sag Wagon is real. The book says you only get three and a half hours to finish, and then they pull you off the course, and if they pull you off the course they throw you in the Sag Wagon.

Three and a half hours is plenty of time to walk 13 miles, though, right? That's a 16 minute mile pace, and I've been doing that pace or better for a while. At my last 5K, just a couple of weeks ago, I did a 13 minute and 20 second mile pace the whole way, but that's only for three miles. I had no idea if I would be able to maintain that pace for 13 miles, especially since I'd gotten up to 11 miles in training and knew that I get slower the longer the race goes. I have the endurance to finish, and I was certain of that, but could I finish it in the amount of time given?

Now, at the last minute, I had to shift my goals. Mentally I had been preparing myself for two: finish, and don't be last. I didn't care if I was almost last, or if I took four hours. As long as there was still one person behind me, I was fine. Now, I had to finish before the 3:30 pacer, or men were going to grab me, pull me from the course, and throw me in the Sag Wagon whether I wanted to go with them or not. Failure to cooperate would result in a lifetime ban from race events, according to the book.

So, there we were in the morning, slightly off course, and mentally slightly out of balance. Still, we were there, and as ready as we were going to be.

Pre half-marathon

Cat, me, and Bernadette. I declined their offer of a tutu.

We decided that the best thing for me to do was to start with the 3 hour pacer and stay with him the whole time. Three hours would give a 13 minute and 85 second mile, which was a little slower than my fastest time, but definitely a decent finishing time and more than enough to keep me out of the Sag Wagon. Bernadette and Cat were going to stay with me, but after the first few minutes of the race I convinced them that I was fine and that they should go ahead and finish at their own pace, and they agreed and ran off. They both run fairly often, and are faster than I am, so I felt bad that I was slowing them down, and to be honest, I walk better alone.

This is the dirty secret I've been keeping since I started my journey: I don't want to walk with you. It doesn't matter how good of friends we are. To walk any kind of distance I have to put myself into my zone, and the window for that zone never seems to open with other people talking to me and forcing me to engage with them. I can still walk if the window never opens. My legs still work and move my feet in front of each other, but it's miserable and I have to force myself. I can't get into the zone where walking feels more automatic, more like autopilot and less like work, if the window never opens. Every time over the past year that someone has said, "We should walk together! Call me! I'm right by the Greenway!" I've smiled and said, "Yes, we should!" and then never called them.

And never intended to.

Sorry, friends.

I didn't want to seem ungrateful for the support, but I was really glad that they decided that it was ok to run ahead, and then I was in the race.

For the first eight miles, I managed to stay ahead of the 3 hour pacer. There were a couple of times that he got close and I sped up, and I jogged a few times on the downhills because I figured gravity could help me buy some time. There were aid stations at the odd numbered miles with Stinger gels, which I've never had before but which turned out to be kind of tasty, and Nuun energy drinks, which tasted like a mouthful of warm saliva and were disgusting. After the first one I switched to water, electrolytes be damned. Eventually, though, right after the eight mile marker, he passed me, and I wasn't able to speed up again.

That was totally ok, though, because I didn't see the 3:30 pacer anywhere. I still had the 3 hour pacer right in front of me, in visual distance, which meant that he was only a few minutes ahead. I was only a few minutes over 3 hours, and everything was going to be fine.

Until right after the tenth mile.

Right after the mile ten marker, when I was thinking, "Ten miles. That means all that's left is a 5K, and you've done a ton of 5K's. You have this. Just 5K it to the finish," I heard another person coming up on my left and made sure I was far enough over. I wasn't worried, because the 3 hour pacer was only a few minutes ahead of me. I could still see him a hundred yards ahead.

But the person next to me was the 3:30 pacer.

"Oh, shit."

The words were out before I knew I was speaking out loud. I was tired, my legs hurt, I didn't want to walk anymore, and she wasn't supposed to be there.

"You're going too fast," the lady behind me said as I sped up, just a little, somehow gaining five or six feet on the 3:30 pacer. "The 3 hour guy is right up there. You're too close to him."

"No," the 3:30 pacer said. "I've checked my watch. I'm exactly on time. He's off. People are probably going to complain about it."

"And there's no pacer after you," I said.

"No. I'm the end."

There was a slight hill up ahead. It was smaller than the hills I climb regularly on the Greenway, but I was hot and tired and ten miles into this and that hill might put me behind her. I might slow down for that hill, and then the 3:30 pacer would be ahead of me.

And then... the Sag Wagon.

For a minute, I was crushed. I was tired, and I was done. There wasn't anything left inside of me. I was past the zone, out of my window, and mentally willing my legs to keep moving, and the 3:30 pacer was right behind me. I was going to slow down going uphill, I was going to fall behind, and men were going to jerk me off the course while I wept and begged. I was not going to finish. I was not going to get a medal. All of my training and all of my work was going to be for nothing, and I would have paid a couple of hundred dollars in entry fees and hotel costs and hours of time that I would never have back just to ride in a van with all of the other people who tried really hard, but just quite make it.

And that's when I got mad.

You should skip the next three sentences if swearing offends you, but these were my next three thoughts, and they were clear, sharp, and definite.

Fuck the Sag Wagon.

Fuck that hill.

The 3:30 pacer? Fuck her.

I stopped looking back. I stopped thinking about being hot or tired. I walked.

And I finished. If you forgot what the beginning of this entry looked like, this happened:

Post half-marathon (2)

I didn't stagger over the finish line. I rocked that shit. A man called my name over a speaker as I crossed, and people cheered, and I threw my hands in the air and demanded a medal and chocolate milk.

I finished 23 minutes ahead of the 3:30 pacer:

Race results

She was at my side, and I put 23 minutes between us. I beat 4 people in my age division, and I finished ahead of 153 people in the race.

That's a hell of a long way from just finishing, and a hell of a long way from 295 pounds.

My next half marathon is in March.


Courtney said...

This made me cry a little bit. Love you, Joel. Your storytelling & your journey is very inspiring.

Marcheline said...

WHOOOOO! Way to go, Joel. I have mucho respect for you, my friend. I am so not a cardio gal. I am going to the gym regularly, and forcing myself to stay on the elliptical for at least 20 minutes before each workout, but every cell in my body is screaming "can't we just LIFT WEIGHTS NOW????" the entire 20 minutes. The fact that you can run and walk for such a long, long time is just so great... I'd have been borrowing a bull horn and begging for the Sag Wagon to come and take me away!

nan said...

What a read. What a race. What an effort. Impressed! Congratulations.

Ahnie said...

Thank you for understanding, as I do, that races aren't times to chat. That's why I love attending races with you - you get it! :)