Sunday, October 9, 2011

Now I See

I turned a corner today. A really big, pointy corner. And of course it came during the half marathon that's been the most enigmatically bright spot on my race calendar over the past three years. Each time I've had few, if any expectations of this surprisingly hilly course, located in Staten Island, of all places and each time I end up pleasantly surprised.

Today was especially triumphant. For the first time ever, I ran a half marathon in under 2 hours. 1:58 flat, to be exact.

Since I started running, my general goal has been to accomplish everything I can accomplish while minimizing the amount of suckiness of the experience. To some extent, this goes hand-in-hand with another problematic attitude I've had that I've also mentioned in the past, which is trying to keep my social life intact while training for these races. Now, let me be clear. There's nothing wrong with that strategy, per se. I firmly believe that a runner needs to derive some measure of enjoyment from running or else they'll never stick with it. For me, that used to mean minimizing the amount of time my athletic endeavors took from the rest of my life and hoping that the time I did devote to them would be enough for what I wanted to accomplish.

This approach has built-in limitations. It's compatible with the more qualitative goal of improving but makes specific goal-setting an exercise in disappointment. If I had understood that, maybe I wouldn't have bothered with specific goals and would have been content to always be getting better and setting new PRs. Not so. This is especially well illustrated in my half marathon endeavors simply because I've done so many of them. I ran my first two in January and February of 2009 in 2:11 and change. At the time, this didn't mean much to me, it just seemed reasonable. In retrospect, those were really good first half marathons but I didn't know enough to understand. And while I wanted to improve (for the record, my goal after that was 2:10), I didn't really have a strategy for how. I just hoped it would happen. I was running, but without any particular direction.

So what happened when I set myself a goal but didn't plan out how I was going to get there? I toiled through a string of mediocre half marathons. I define them as mediocre not because of my time, but because of the races themselves. I ran them poorly. If I'd put everything I had into them and still gotten the same times, I could have been happy with them.

That's the key. That's what I've had missing all this time. Grit, boldness. They're scary things, and not simply because they're difficult to achieve. Even more so because they're so damn risky. If I train for months and months for a race and I run that race with everything in me and don't accomplish my goal, it's my failure. If I put in miles casually and run the race at a pace that's comfortable and I don't achieve my goal, I can always say, "well, I just didn't train hard enough."

It might be safe, but it didn't leave me with much to show for my efforts. In 2009 I set a new PR of 2:06:17. After that, I had my sights set on 2 hours. But it would be nearly 2 years before I even approached that goal! This came last weekend when I ran Grete's Great Gallop in 2:01:51 and it wasn't until a little bit into the race that I realized I was in a position to do something really good. I ran the first few miles of that race like I always had and then found it in me to start pushing. I pushed to the end with great results but knew that it could have been better.

This morning when I left home to catch the ferry to Staten Island, I wasn't really expecting to have another good race. I thought I'd already had mine last week and I could hardly expect to repeat. But then I got into my corral and I was reminded of how far I've come this year. I started with a pink bib and now wear yellow or orange. That didn't happen by accident. It happened because I started looking to actually achieve my goals with much less regard to what I would have to sacrifice for them. I got faster. I thought of all these things and realized I wanted to keep up with my corral mates! I was there, they were there. If they could do it, so could I.

And so the struggle began. I told myself to take it one mile at a time. To make sure that, more often than not, the last minute on the clock decreased by 1 each time I passed a mile marker (my convoluted way of ensuring my mile pace was at least close to 9 minutes). I don't do well with watches so I rely on zen and the mile marker clocks. It's a hilly course, which didn't matter at the beginning but did in the middle of the race, as there is a three or four mile segment which starts with a massive downhill and has a flat, out-and-back sub segment which opens up into an equally massive uphill. I kept waiting for my energy and pace to flag after each large hill at the end. It never did. After a few moments of recovery, I found myself back on pace with everyone else and each time this glorious reaffirmation occurred, I pushed myself a little harder.

I knew that I'd crossed the timing mat when the clock read about 2 minutes so I calculated that as long as I crossed the finish mats while the clock read under 2:02, I would run a sub 2 hour half marathon. When I read 2:00:10 as I crossed the mat, I knew I had done it. Honestly, I don't think I've been so proud of an accomplishment since I finished my very first marathon. I ran this race with heart and I left everything out there. It was worth it.

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