They say you don't sleep, the night before the big race. I guess "they" never slept on the heavenly bed at the Hampton Inn in Lake Jackson, TX. Seriously, most comfortable bed EVER. And I slept like a rock.
They say you should wake up when you wake up, even if it's early. I woke up at 3:30, and then went back to sleep for two hours.
But when 5:30 came around, I didn't want to get up. The bed was warm and didn't want to release me to the cold morning. But after hitting the alarm a few times, I finally got up and got ready.
Had breakfast with the folks in the hotel lobby. They were visible worried. It made me a little more nervous actually. I can't blame them at all--their nearly-quarter-ton son was about to go attempt a distance of 13.1 miles. My mother insisted that, if I felt I needed to stop, to prevent serious injury, I should do so--I wasn't there to impress them. I told her I understood. But it wasn't about them, not mainly. This has always been about me. What i needed to prove to myself.
Driving alone to the beach, I started panicking a little. What was I doing here? Why on earth did I sign up for this? Am I totally insane? The sky was starting to lighten up. Dawn, such as it was on this overcast, cold morning, was breaking.
I pulled into my parking space, walked up to the starting line and the tent, got my timing chip, and got in line. Talked to a Hispanic gentleman holding a large American flag. He's run 43 marathons. He carried the flag in most of them. I held the flag for him while he was in the portocan.
Met up with my friends John and Patrick, who signed up for this race with me. They introduced me to Cain, who was running with them. We shook out our cold limbs, jumped up and down. Stretched out. Waited. 15 minutes to go. I looked for my parents and couldn't find them. Stretched. The National anthem was sung. A prayer was prayed. I prayed. Then the countdown.
And we're off. I had my phone and keys with me, because i couldn't find my folks before the race to hand them off. I stuck them in the pockets of my hoodie. I was walking at a steady 3 mph pace, my comfort zone. Figured I wouldn't lose anything.
About a quarter mile in, I unzipped the hoodie to retie my sweatpants, and unwittingly lost my keys. I noticed this about five minutes later. I turned around, laughing to myself to keep from freaking out. After a couple minutes of walking backwards, scanning the ground, someone stopped me and said that a lady behind them had keys someone dropped. Retrieved my keys, and started heading the right direction again, trying to make up for lost time.
The first leg of the half was a down-and-back that totaled around 4 miles. The beach was pressed flat by the tide, strewn with rocks and shells and small debris, sand slightly rippled by the water. This made the surface a little easier on the joints, but uneven, so every step turned the surface of my soles a different angle. My ankles would be killing me by the time this was all over.
As I was still going "down" while almost all of the other runners were coming "back," I had a near-constant stream of "Yeah Dave! Keep it up! Looking great!" I had written "DAVE!" in bold letters on my shirt, for this reason. And once again, the running community proved how unbelievable nice they were. Throughout the entire race, I was being encouraged by other runners. Elites and novices alike. Everyone was supportive. That's the only way this thing works sometimes, for people like me. The feeling of cameraderie keeps you connected, makes you want to keep trying.
I hit the first turnaround, came back toward the start/finish line area. I cheered on the two or three who were still behind me, and charged ahead ("charged" at my prescribed pace, anyway). As I approached the tent area, I saw my friend Heather walking toward me. Four of my friends from church had driven down to cheer me on. Heather met me first, walked with me, checked up on me. She was an experienced runner, taking this season off, so she knew how i was feeling and what to ask. Then I saw Crissy, Leah, and Maranda with signs. Actually, I could hear them before i could see the signs. They were loud. It was great. They walked with me a little farther when my dad joined us for a few minutes. I saw my mom standing by the side of the "track." She encouraged me to keep going, told me I was doing great. My dad and the girls walked with me a ways farther as we passed the start/finished and continued up the beach, and then let me continue on alone.
After that, the miles started feeling much longer. I had ditched my coat and hat, stuck with a headband and just my yellow tech shirt and longsleeve cotton undershirt. I was getting warm, even under the cloudy canopy. And the miles continued to get longer and longer.
The girls showed up again around mile 6 1/2. Their enthusiasm was undimmed, even as my energy was starting to lag. They walked a bit and tried to cheer me up and keep me going. After a while though, I felt I needed to retreat into my head a bit. I asked them if it was okay if I listened to music, and they said yes, and then told me they'd see me later.
Miles 7 and 8 really took a toll on me. The water stops were few and far between, and in this second segment of the race, a four and a half mile stretch down the beach before a turnaround, it started getting lonely and disheartening. I still got encouraging words from other runners passing me on their way to the finish, but these runners were fighting their own personal battles. The strain was showing on their faces. I started cheering them on, because they needed it as much as I did. I saw Patrick and John and Cain pass me on their way to the end. A few runners cut 25 feet to their left to reach over and give me a high-five before moving back to continue on. But as the half-marathoners all passed me, there became fewer and fewer people on the beach. I started seeing the full-marathoners, fluid/fuel belts mostly emptied, straining and struggling.
The miles seemed infinite. I started cursing my foolhardy decision to do this stupid race. I mocked my own naive plans to do another one of these in the fall. I swore to myself I'd never sign up for a distance race again. My ankles and knees ached. My back tightened up. My stomach growled. My neck and shoulders ached. My feet seemed to turn into giant blisters. I finally approached the Mile 8 sign. Still no turnaround in sight. I prayed for strength. I listened to music. I realized that this, right here, was the furthest I'd ever gone in one setting. Every step past this was a victory. I thought that realization would be a motivator. Not really. I appreciated the personal milestone but was still five miles away from the finish line (and 4.5 miles from my car).
Finally, I saw a runner pass who looked at me and said, "The turnaround's just up ahead, you can do it!" And there it was. I was hoping there'd be a water table, maybe even a chair mercifully placed. Nope, just a couple of signs and an inverted "U" of cones. I made the left turn around the cones, bent over, gasped for air and stretched, and then started back.
Saw a girl in a green sweatshirt who had played "leapfrog" with me through the middle miles. I called out, "The turnaround's coming up, you can do it!" She replied, "I know, as soon as I saw you, i was relieved!" She would later pass me again and finish ahead of me. I was happy for her.
At some point during Mile 9, I realized I was actually doing this. I was 2/3 of the way through, less than 5 miles from finishing.
At Mile 10, I recognized that my "pace" had slowed to a trudge. I was starting to weave a bit to the left and right as I slowly progressed. Also, whenever I'm exhausted, I get hyperemotional (even for me). On my iPod shuffle, I loaded a bunch of songs that had to do with running, fighting, finishing, and not giving up. And as I heard certain lines or choruses, I started bursting into tears. I did my best not to gush, but I felt overwhelmed by the race, my hopes, the physical discomfort, and the thought of the finish line.
Even this song made me start to cry.
Halfway through Mile 10, I saw a familiar figure approaching me. My dad. I asked, "What are you doing here?" (I'm not sure why. I was really tired, and was feeling really alone, I guess.) He said, "I'm here to walk with you the rest of the way." I can't tell you how much that meant to me. My father, the man I want most to be proud of me in my life, walked 2.5 miles up the beach alone to meet me and walk with me the rest of the way. At one point, he turned to me and just said, "You're my hero, bud. You're really doing this." (Even as I type this, my eyes are filling.) As long as I live, this may be one of the best moments in my life.
John, Patrick, and Cain, who had already finished this race, came back and met us around Mile 11, and walked with us. At one point, I was hit with a wave of fatigue, turned to my dad, and chocked up. I said, "This is just really frigging hard." He nodded, "I know."
One we continued. Every 200 yards or so, I had to stop and bend down, stretching my back and hamstrings, dropping into a squat to bend my knees and ankles. I could see the white tent, but it keep sliding father and farther away, like a mirage. Suddenly, we passed the Mile 12 sign. Just over a mile to go! Cars were starting to pass, leaving the beach, but several rolled down their windows, and I recognized the same runners from earlier, sticking their heads out the windows and yelling, "Way to go Dave! You're doing it, man! You're a beast! Kick its butt!"
The last half-mile, the guys peeled away, and it was just my dad and I. Then he let me take the last 100 yards or so myself. I trudged, step after belaboured step, toward the "FINISH" banner. I had given my dad my iPod, so all I heard were the cheers of the girls from church, the guys, the PA announcer, dozens of strangers, my mom, my dad. I lifted up my arm and weakly slapped at the finish banner as I passed under it. And I was done.
I cried. Of course I did. Because I finished. The man who was afraid to let people down, and so was too often afraid to try. The man who felt imprisoned by his own body, a body of his own fearful making. I finished. Five hours and 31 minutes after I had started. I completed a half-marathon.
I thought that the most important word from this experience would be "finished." And it's obviously still important. But what I realize in retrospect, is that a more important word marks my first half-marathon: family. Because I didn't run this race alone. My mom, my dad, John, Patrick, Cain, Heather, Leah, Crissy, Maranda, Mr. Lugo and his American flag, the girl in the green hoodie, the countless runners of all skill levels who cheered me on during the race and congratulated me afterward, the dozens of friends who encouraged me, prayed for me, and cheered me on before and after this amazing Saturday. This great and glorious family. You. You all helped me do this. And I cannot, will not ever thank you enough for that.
What have I learned?
Maybe I couldn't have been ready for this race, but I know I should have been more prepared. I will not make that mistake again.
Because, yes, despite my exhausted vows never to sign up for another distance event, I'm going to do it again. Possibly in the fall. Definitely after I lose at least 80 pounds.
This type of challenge is not worth undertaking without support. So when I run another race, I'm counting on you to help me. To remind me to hit the gym or the track. To chide me when you see me eating junkfood. And to wish me well and pray for me when I suffer the temporary insanity of toe-ing another half-marathon starting line.
Finally, what I learned is that I can do this. I can set a crazy goal and achieve it. I can finish a half-marathon.
And so can you.
So can you.
Waddle on, friends.