Miyamoto Musashi, on 10 October 1645(ish), took up his brush to explain his way of zen in his acclaimed Book of Five Rings at the Hour of the Tiger – around 4am. Fast forward a few centuries and decades and you find me at that same hour (however, a different month and day) beginning my journey… of reaching for the snooze button. On the twenty seventh day of the first month of the year, I took to my trail shoes to begin a cold, yet fruitful day.
It was around 0407 and I stared bleakly into the greyish purple of my ceiling in the early light. My planned race season was supposed to start on 6 April down in North Carolina at a triathlon, and these early months were intended to acclimate myself to training in the cold and start shedding my winter coat brought on by sweet porters, dry wines, and stinky cheeses. This morning I was getting up early to volunteer at the High Cloud Snapple Half Marathon along the C&O towpath, with no intention to start my race season in the first month of the year. It was cold, but not bitterly so, at a dry 22 degrees when I listened to the weather report from my radio. Good thing I’m only volunteering, right? The long run that my coach had planned for me that day could be fit in afterwards once it had warmed up.
As I pack my training gear I couldn’t help but reason to myself, “maybe I could use the race as my long run.” It’s always at this point I know I’m boned – the thought sticks in my mind and I helplessly let it manifest into a decision that I come to regret and enjoy at the same time. Easy ten mile run, or push it for 13.1?
Yep, I’m a sucker.
I was the second car in the lot at 0630, so I nestled into my down poofy jacket and waited for other volunteers to arrive for race set up. The morning was illuminated by Matt Anderson’s pasty white legs as he appeared from the woods wearing running shorts and plenty of top layers as he returned from the course scouting run. It wasn’t long before the lot was full of volunteers and we began to shuttle all the pretzles, power bars, plastic cups, and bibs up to the base location. An ambient 25 degree morning was now upon us as runners began to line up for their bibs and begin their own warm up ceremonies. My warm up was moving cases of Snapple bottles and large tubs of peanut butter. Fortunately I was able to secure a bib that morning and escape from my volunteer duties for a brief few minutes to change and try to warm up my pale, white legs. I changed in my car.
One might recall the movie “Mystery Alaska” where the local hockey team competed as the underdog against the visiting New York Rangers on an open lake rink. The film had Little Richard singing the National Anthem (as well as the Canadian Anthem) as slow as possible to let the unacclimated Rangers get cold. This was also the case as we waited at the start line. It was cold. We couldn’t move. And the anthem played forever it seemed. Couldn’t feel my toes. Finally, and thankfully, without long speeches the gun fired and we were off.
A faint crunching came from over two hundred runners as each foot struck the ground. Under foot was a thin layer of snow that concealed patches of ice along the dirt and gravel towpath. There were about eight or ten of us up in the front and we quickly spread the field out. One individual pulled away nearly instantly and wouldn’t be passed for the duration of the race. The eight of us behind jockeyed for position for the first few miles before we began spreading out. I paced behind two runners for a while before they slowed down. I enjoyed my few moments in second position before three other runners slowly moved passed me and pulled me along for another mile or so before I started to sink into a more comfortable pace. This was still supposed to be training, right?
Although the beginning of the run was a cool 25 degrees, my body still got hot. I wished I had dressed out in a singlet and arm warmers/gloves instead of the long sleeve under the singlet. No matter what the conditions I can never get my layers just right. Then again, I had never raced at this temperature at this pace before, so it was a learning experience.
By the turnaround for the out-and-back course I was in sixth position where I stayed comfortably until around mile nine. I was passed by another guy, probably just older than me, then shortly thereafter by a high schooler who pulled way ahead very rapidly. What a kick! Nope, I’m wasn’t going to try to chase. Over the last couple seasons I have come to learn to swallow my pride and give into the temptation to try to pursue. Train smart, I told myself. Oh, the habits I’m still learning to break!
One of the best things about an out and back course is getting to A) see the lead runner coming back so you know how far ahead they are, and B) you get to pass by everyone else behind you. It’s especially nice when you have friends running to and you get to high five them and or trip them. I don’t recommend the latter. People are really nice in this sport, always willing to offer a “good job” or “keep it up” as you’re sprinting by, drooling and gasping for air. My mom always told me to wipe off the snot coming out of my nose in public, but the rest of the racers didn’t seem to care.
Along the way I could really feel my IT bands start to flare up, as well as many of my other auxiliary muscles/tendons/strings/whatever those things are that my one foot go in front of the other. All the slipping and sliding caused a lot more leg parts to engage to stabilise me and keep my rusty body from eating it on the path. My lips and facial muscles felt kind of sluggish and unresponsive when I tried to adjust my mouth for breathing. The cold air cause every exposed part my my flesh that had sweat on it to feel numb. I was turning into Dr. Freeze, but with less bad one-liners.
My friend Alex was the race photographer that day, and he made me promise to jump and click my heels on the course. “Try to at least pretend like you are having fun,” he told me. Ugh. By mile twelve the balls of my feet were burning like walking barefoot on sand on a hot July day. Not unbearable, but certainly uncomfortable. I was honestly tired, and I stopped watching my pace on my Garmin. I kept watching my measured distance on the device and looking off in the distance to get any sign of the finish line. Every second I didn’t see it felt demoralizing (yes, I’m being overdramatic here, perhaps even being a wuss). I stewed over the thought of trying to jump and click my heels for Alex and wondered if I’d be challenged by another runner at the end. Could I afford to do it? A glance over my shoulder (I know, you’re not supposed to look back) assured me I was not going to have to push all out to hold my position. There was a lot of empty trail between me and the runner behind me. So, with a smile on my face, I got aerial and tapped my heels not once, not twice, but thrice for Alex to get some good shots. The clock at the finish lines read 1:26:50-something as I approached. My eyelids closed as I neared the tape and didn’t open them till I crossed. 1:27:01 officially, 8th place overall, and a 7:30 PR as the cherry on the top.
As a regular Age Group triathlete I never really know how to gauge these “road” races when it comes to how I’m going to compete at my triathlons later in the season. Aside from the end of winter half iron in North Carolina, most of my triathlons will be over the summer, capping off the season with Nation’s Triathlon in September – which will still be warm (and a much shorter run). I’ve actually never finished so high in a half marathon before, so it’s a good incentive to keep up my training and also tells me to keep listening to my coach, AJ. I’m very impressed with the rest of the runners who finished the half on such an uneven course with many natural hazards (the ice and snow). The winner came in at a blistering 1:19 and the second and third place finishers were just minutes behind him.
Keep going. Rain or shine. Snow or sun.