With a title like, “The Race,” I realized I would be remiss to participate in any actual races and not write about them . . . What follows is the first half of the tale of my Autumn of Racing (there were only two . . . just go with it).
Among the things I learned about life and about myself on my Afghanistan deployment was that while I’m a highly motivated and driven person, when it comes to exercise, I need an external source of inspiration besides “being in shape.” I enjoy exercise, and pushing myself, and the clarity and sense of accomplishment that come with measurable improvement in the realm of fitness; but for the days when I would rather pull my own hair out and strangle myself with it than bundle up and brave below-freezing temperatures for a run or pick up oddly-shaped things and set them down again while breathing heavily and making weird faces in front of complete strangers (one of life’s great mysteries is how anyone ever gets hit on in a gym), it’s nice to know that my efforts will directly translate into increased performance, or at least decreased pain, at some planned physical endeavor in the future.
In the fall of 2011, I began experiencing debilitating knee pain that, despite all of my prior knowledge of injury treatment and rehabilitation, I found only worsening as the months dragged on. After exhausting all of my ideas, I finally saw a doctor in January, who after a couple of X-rays and questions about my joint history informed me that I would deal with this pain for the rest of my life, and at the ripe old age of twenty-five, I was probably done running. Despite this bleak prognosis, the doc prescribed physical therapy, and I spent the next year and a half performing gentle stretching and leg lifts (talk about wanting to pull my own hair out and strangle myself with it). When I deployed, my physical therapist, who happens to be one of the leading running experts in the country and who had scoffed at my doctor’s lack of optimism regarding my knee, deemed me ready to begin the running journey once more. I began with short runs, ten-minute periods with jogging intervals of thirty seconds followed by ten seconds of walking, focusing on form rather than stamina. Slowly I progressed to five-minute runs, then ten minutes, increasing duration by one minute each week until the end of deployment (stay tuned for a future post on patience and discipline . . .). I found a 10K race plan for beginners that loosely aligned with my routine when I returned home, and by mid-June, I was ready to commit to a race – specifically, a half marathon.
I was still cautiously optimistic about my knee’s chances of withstanding all those miles of pounding, and decided to plan a convenient race that required little to no travel plans and/or monetary commitment in case my doctor ended up being more right than my therapist. I began searching, checked the KC Half Marathon on a whim (I grew up there and my parents were still in town) – and found that its prescribed training plan began the following week for a race in mid-October. It was perfect, like fate had led me to that race at that moment. I printed the plan and posted on Facebook, which, of course, made it official, despite the fact that I hadn’t actually signed up for the race yet.
The training days streamed by at a steady pace, and the longer I ran pain-free, the more excited I became at the prospect of actually running a half marathon. It was not a return to distance racing after an injury, but instead, my first half marathon ever – a comeback combined with a step outside my comfort zone. I became convinced that my knee would survive the training and the race, but a new hitch had entered the equation: my squadron sent me to J-school.
My old, beautiful airplane that has been the workhorse of the Air Force for sixty years is nearing the end of its useful life, and in the spring, the replacement of the old C-130H with the shiny new J-model accelerated to a breakneck pace. I knew I would have to return to the schoolhouse to learn this new airplane (which is the same aircraft and same mission with updated avionics and a smaller crew) or face being shunned to the world of unmanned aircraft, which seems to me more like playing video games for a living than actually flying airplanes. I’ve never been very good at video games, except Donkey Kong, which I imagine isn’t really the same thing, so the choice was pretty clear for me.
I started school at the beginning of August and was quickly reminded of how seriously the schoolhouse takes itself. After living and working in Air Mobility Command (AMC), composed of the operational Herk squadrons that actually deploy and carry out real-world missions, returning to Air Education and Training Command (AETC) was a culture shock. In AMC, leadership acknowledges that we put in our fair share of time, deploying for four or six months at a time and spending a large amount of the remaining six to eight months each year traveling for non-war-related missions; our weekends, holidays, and other time off is fairly well guarded. AETC seems to have forgotten that people don’t drop everything else in their lives simply because they were assigned a training slot, and therefore monopolizes its students’ time. There is no leave, no room for days to play catch-up around the house; when we return home after a normal day at work, we’re not done – we still have to study and prepare for class the next day. Saturdays aren’t even safe; since I started school four months ago, I have had a total of four weekends completely free of work, and I wanted my schedulers to apologize to God for me when they slated me for a sim on a Sunday morning. One of my classmates got married this fall, and he was lucky to make it to his own wedding.
I watched my projected schedule diligently in the weeks leading up to the KC Half Marathon, and that Saturday looked to be one of the few I would have free. Schedules are also subject to change right up until the last minute, and students are expected to drop everything in order to attend events, making scheduling anything more than two weeks in advance a large gamble. I wasn’t willing to gamble with the hefty race entrance fee, and therefore kept waiting until I could be sure of my attendance.
The day finally came when I could safely register for the KC Half Marathon. I texted my family to let them know I would be in the area and started making plans with my racing buddy for our weekend getaway. That evening, I logged onto the race’s website, and . . . it was sold out. The full marathon, 10K, and 5K were open, but the half marathon was maddeningly unclickable. Sigh. I tried to mask my disappointment and began surfing other races closer to Little Rock, but none matched the excitement of a major city-sponsored race . . . I gave up and closed my computer for the night.
A week later, still wallowing in my frustration and searching for something to occupy my dog and me during the three-day weekend in October, I came across the Tri the Lake Triathlon in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Two years ago, as my knee had begun its downward spiral, I was convinced against my better judgment to race a small sprint triathlon on a whim. We registered two weeks before the race, I joined a community center with a pool, and swam twice before the big day. A generous friend five inches taller than I agreed to loan me her road bike, and one Saturday morning I found myself driving towards a race I knew absolutely nothing about and for which I was grossly underprepared. Despite the moments of sheer panic and the certainty that I was going to drown upon first entering the water, I fell in love with this weird form of self-torture, and couldn’t wait to race my next triathlon.
And then my knee protested loudly, and that was the end of that for awhile.
But I was ready for this race. I had kept my running to three days each week during the summer to give my knee its optimum chance for recovery between workouts, and had supplemented runs with swimming and road biking on a consistent basis. Sure, my training was for much longer distances than I would race in a sprint tri, but even if I wouldn’t be as fast as some people, at least I would be able to finish and enjoy the race-day adrenaline rush that I had missed every day since the end of my competitive sports career after high school graduation. On Thursday evening I signed up for the race the following Sunday, and began a two-day pre-race taper. I recruited a friend to race with me – she had been training for an Olympic distance triathlon in Las Vegas the following weekend but the Air Force had ruined her plans. That kind of thing seems to be going around lately.
I awoke after 5.5 hours of sleep on race morning following a late dinner with friends and a frenzied evening of packing and chucked my gear, my bike, a plethora of food, and my sleepy dog into the car to begin the hour-long drive to Heber Springs. With my newly-made Triathlon playlist blasting The Band Perry’s “Independence” and my coffee nestled into the cup holder next to me, I couldn’t help but smiling in (slightly frightened) anticipated. There’s a road like a long gray ribbon far as I can see . . .
I found my race buddy Lisa and her boyfriend Corey in the parking lot an hour before the race, and Corey battled my overly anxious puppy while Lisa and I nervously arranged our transition areas. Our silence was broken only by insecure questions of where to place our race bibs and how many Gu’s to tape to our bikes (by the way, Scotch tape is a poor choice for this). We hooked our race chips around our ankles, ditched our sandals, and made our way to the pre-race meeting – a hundred people gathered around some dude with a microphone. He began the double job of explaining the race and pumping everybody up, including my dog, whose reaction to people clapping was completely inappropriate and embarrassing. I considered edging further away from Corey, who still held her leash, and shooting him disapproving looks. Can’t that guy learn to control his dog?
The only remarkable part of the meeting regarded the bike course. “Who here has either ridden or driven our bike course before?” the microphone man asked. Lisa and I looked around and saw approximately half of the hands raised. “Okay, who’s never seen it before?” The other half, including Lisa and me, held our hands high. “I want you to look around at these poor souls . . . they have no idea what they’re in for.” A chuckle rippled through the cloud, a knowing air from some, nervous from others. Lisa and I looked at each other.
“It can’t be anything worse than the stuff we’ve ridden in Arkansas, can it? I mean, we do hill workouts,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m sure we’ll be fine,” she replied.
There’s not a lot to tell about the swim portion of a triathlon, especially one that takes only ten minutes. We got in, it was a little cold, we swam around the buoys, I was reminded of how inept I am at swimming in a straight line, we got out. The one great thing that came out of it was a really fierce picture of me ripping my cap and goggles off during the exit.
My most marked improvement between my first triathlon two years ago and this one came during transition – the periods of time between events. I swam in my triathlon suit, which drastically cut the amount of time required to start the bike portion. Though the swim is the shortest and requires the least amount of energy, the exit almost always requires an uphill sprint into the transition area, causing an irritating oxygen deficit as soon as the bike pedals start turning. I moved from the fifth overall female at the swim exit to third by the end of the bike, a vast improvement on my first triathlon with exactly zero outdoor road bike experience upon starting the race. I felt good – strong, exhilarated by the speed, happy to be enjoying the sunshine and even happier to be passing men whose heat had started a full three minutes prior to mine.
And then . . . the hill. Part of me wondered upon starting the bike course whether I would be able to tell which was this terrible hill that drew such menacing chuckles from the grizzled veterans of this particular triathlon, but that moment of arrogance shattered like a thousand mirrors after I crossed the dam and turned left and looked straight up. Racers had slowed to a crawl, standing on their bikes, pausing at the top of each pedal stroke before their body weight ratcheted the gears and propelled the wheels just a few feet further. I could almost hear them willing their bikes onward, feel the constant battle for momentum against the unrelenting pull of gravity. Only a few seconds later I joined the battle as well. I passed riders who had already lost the fight, trudging uphill with their arms outstretched, pushing their useless contraption up the steep grade. Please don’t let me stop, I thought. I don’t care how slow I go, just don’t let me stop. I threw up a “rock on” signal to the photographer poised to take advantage of the riders’ slow speeds, hoping that feigning confidence and even enjoyment would somehow make those things come true (though I’d be lying if I said passing the two-hundred pound guy walking his bike uphill didn’t make me smile at least a little bit). The hill’s grade lessened slightly as the course wound back to the right, but for those of us already huffing and puffing at the speed of snail, the reprieve had little effect on our overall performance.
I summited that small mountain without walking and continued on my way (the two-hundred-pound guy passed me on a downhill – thanks, inertia – but I managed to pass him and maintain a lead after another climb), starting the run as the third overall female. As fit as I was, my lack of race-specific training finally caught and then outran me, literally, as I found myself struggling to put one lead foot in front of the other throughout the 5K run. After a mile of plodding at the pace I would later maintain through an entire half marathon, a girl passed me, and as much as I wanted to believe I was faster . . . I simply wasn’t. I watched her cross the finish line one minute and thirty seconds before I did. A recent Newbie Chronicles article in Runner’s World magazine told of the author’s first half marathon, and the tale of the last two miles described him as a zombie runner – face slack, eyes hollow, body moving forward but not nearly at the rate that would seem to correspond to the amount of effort being exerted. That image crossed my mind and as much as I would have liked to care about good looks and cool points, my entire capacity was devoted at that moment to moving forward. I succumbed to the zombie and trudged towards the finish line.
As I returned to the land of the living from the land of the people with a death wish in the form of a desire to compete in endurance sports, I felt my heart and mind flooded with the thrill of the race and the exhilaration of giving everything for a full hour and a half, crossing the finish line with absolutely nothing left. What a feeling, what a rush, the same one felt at the completion of any goal but compounded by physical exhaustion and the knowledge that a whole world of the same feeling was at my fingertips, in races lasting an hour, four hours, a full day . . .
I finished fourth amongst the women, and truthfully third in my age group, but received the first place trophy for 25-29-year-olds since the two girls ahead of me won overall awards. The addiction had returned. After a few minutes of puppy play time in the lake and a stop at the local coffee shop, I spent the drive home planning my next race, anticipating longer distances and setting lofty goals. I couldn’t wait to tell my roommate and her husband of my triumph . . . Turns out I was a little too excited about it, though, and as they cheered me up the driveway and I returned their excitement with fist pumps of my own, I listened to the loud crunch of my bike mounted on the roof of my car as it hit the bottom of my carport . . . Bike repairs sure drive the cost of a race sky high.
I originally intended this entry to contain descriptions of the Heber Springs Triathlon along with the Mid-South Half Marathon I completed in October, but clearly my tendency towards verbosity wins out again. Look forward to future dissertations on my first half marathon and the mysterious allure of endurance sports in general . . . and at my current blog entry pace, by the time I write those stories, I will have completed my first marathon as well (Little Rock, March 2, everybody get up for it . . . and pray for me).