the inches we need (National Half: race report)

I wasn't ready to talk about this on Friday.  

I saw my PT Thursday evening.  Essentially, I was in so much pain on Wednesday because my body was trying to re-un-align itself.  I felt flat and defeated, but asked the million-dollar question anyway: I can't run on Saturday, can I?  I was surprised when she told me to try it.  She said, get up, go to the start, see what happens.  If it gets to the point where I am limping badly or physically unable to go on, then stop.  She said I wouldn't be damaging myself in any permanent or irreversible way by running, but to expect a bit of a set-back.  The hardest thing, she said, would be managing the pain.  And finally, I think I started to see the lesson in this mess.  How strong am I?  How hard and long can I fight?  It was so clear, what I would do.  I would start.  

I know that all of you guys know this, but I've been in a pretty deep hole these past 2 weeks, dealing with this injury and the pain.  I've had some of the darker moments of my life.  Sitting at home and letting the race start without me would have been a crushing blow.  I would have no idea how to move forward from that.  But when I walked out of PT on Thursday evening, I felt light again.  I didn't feel weak and broken, I felt strong.  All I ever know how to do is fight.

I didn't really want to talk about it on Friday because I needed to do this my way.  I fully expected to DNF the race.  I didn't know if I would make it 1 mile, 2 or 3.  I warned my parents and friends that they might go to all this trouble just to be home by 8am.  I didn't know if I'd make it past the start line more than a few steps.  And I didn't care.  Being there, attacking this distance head-on, was so much more what I needed.  I would not hide.

So I did all my pre-race juju Friday night.  I ate dinner at Sweetwater and was in bed early.  I washed my lucky PR underwear, I laid out my race clothes in a little pile, and untied my running shoes.  I put 3 hours of music on my shuffle, because 3 hours was the limit on the Half course.  I did my PT exercises and went to bed.  And when my alarm went off Saturday morning and I climbed out of bed, my back did not hurt.  For the first time in 2 weeks, I was able to walk to the bathroom without pain.  I had no idea why, or what combination of events led to that, but the piercing pain in my SI joint was gone.  My piriformis/sciatic nerve irritation was still there, but I could walk.  I ate my granola bar, I drank my water, I got dressed, and we left.  I'm not going to lie, I was terrified.  I had no idea what to expect, but I was afraid of the pain, that it would be worse than what had happened the past 2 weeks, that I might hurt myself beyond my ability to handle.  Faith, not fear.

I met up with some teammates in the Armory, and took the time again to stretch.  We made a porta-potty stop and then split up to head to our corrals.  I had hoped to meet up with a friend, but we couldn't find each other in our corral, and when the race started, I was alone.  

On Friday I was exchanging motivational videos with some friends running the race, and the poet sent me a link to Al Pacino's speech in "Any Given Sunday."  I listened to it once.  And again.  And maybe 35 more times Friday afternoon.  It was exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time.  He says (excerpted), "Life's this game of inches.  One half a step too late or too early and you don't quite make it.  One half second too slow, too fast, and you don't quite catch it.  The inches we need are everywhere around us...We claw with our fingernails for that inch.  Because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the fucking difference between winning and losing.  Between living and dying."  Inches.  When I crossed the start line, this is what I was listening to, and there were tears running down my face, and I started to run.

Holy hell did it hurt.

The pain in my SI joint came back in just a few steps.  But it was dull achy pain, not horrible stabbing pain.  So I ran a few more steps, and it didn't get worse.  I decided to run the first mile, and I was listening hard to my body, and it didn't get worse some more.  I was so slow and so far behind the starting line that when I hit the 1 mile marker it said 20:xx on the clock, and I didn't care.  I was running this race.  In pain, but running it.  I knew that my parents and some friends would be just past the 3-mile mark, so I decided that all I had to do was get there and then, if the pain was worse or had become unbearable, I would stop there.  3 miles, that's all I had to do.
And when I got there, I waved and they cheered and yelled and I decided to keep going, because it wasn't worse.  It was the same.  I was running slowly and smoothly without a limp.  So I kept running.  
I knew that some of my teammates were going to be cheering somewhere after the 6 mile mark, so I just told myself, "Just get to Cristina.  Just get to Cristina."  If I wanted to, if it had gotten worse, I could stop there.  And when I got there, not only did I want to keep going, but Cristina, like a little running angel, jumped in to run with me up the hill.  Exactly what I needed.  And she talked to me and I'm sure I grunted and snorted back at her and suddenly, we were up the hill and she was gone.  And the sun was shining and my legs were turning over and I was dealing with the pain, it wasn't getting worse, it actually started to feel like it was getting better.

My amazing traveling cheering squad had planned to hop in the metro after they saw me at mile 3 and get out at Columbia Heights and see me between 7-8.  My Garmin flipped out in the Dupont tunnel so I didn't have a good grasp on where I was, but I was barely looking at it anyway.  And at the top of a little hill, I saw the poet on the sidelines and I am sure I got the most ridiculously stupid grin on my face at that moment, because that was the moment when I realized I was going to finish.
So I kept going.  I probably ran 2 miles with the hugest smile on my face.  I didn't care about my time, I wasn't running hard, I was running easy and relaxed and had no desire to go any faster.  There was a point somewhere in the 8-9 mile range where I glanced down at my watch and thought, "Wow, if I turned it up a few notches, I could probably break 2 hours!"  And then I gave myself the biggest mental shake I could.  This day was not about time.  This day was about finishing.

My legs didn't really start to complain until late in mile 11.  I did not run a single step for 2 solid weeks before this race, which is actually not the recommended way to taper for a half marathon.  I swam a few times, but I mostly spent those 2 weeks in bed.  Late in mile 11, my calves and quads started to ache and cramp and seize.  I told myself that I could walk if I wanted to, but that I would get there faster if I ran, and I was actually afraid that if I stopped and walked, I wouldn't be able to start running again.  Then "The War" started playing in my headphones, which is one of my toughing it out, don't quit, 100 miles on a bicycle and still don't stop songs.  Lyrics?  "Believe you want this."  Over and over and over.

So I kept going.  The full marathoners split off and I knew I was close.  I could see the fences, and then we turned a corner and I could see the finish line, and I ran as hard as I could for it.  And then it was over and I could stop and the poet was there and he caught me and it was over.
I immediately took 4 advil and a muscle relaxer.
I took my medal picture and stuffed a few bananas and a bagel down on top of the medicine.  
I went and found my family, then my friends, and we eventually ended up back home.

And how I feel today?  Well, first of all, I'm fine.  I mean, everything is incredibly sore and tight and painful and I can't walk up or down any steps or sit on the toilet or really get off the couch at all, but none of it is alarming pain.  It's the pain of running a race after 2 weeks of laying in bed, plus nursing a lower back injury.  I am not worried about any of the pain I am in right now.  Mentally, I'm in a better place than I've been in since this all started happening.  I feel calm and centered and proud of my damn self.  I ran my own race.  It wasn't the race I thought I was going to run back in December when I signed up, or the race I've been visualizing over the past 3 months, but it's my race and no one could run it for me, I was the one who ran it.  None of the rest matters.  

I'll be sure to take the time to analyze what worked and what didn't in this training cycle and what I'm going to do moving forward, but right now I'm just going to celebrate the fact that I did this.  I'm not sure why I sometimes have to fight so hard for things that come so easily to others, but for whatever reason, this is my journey and I will own it.  And right now I'm standing on top of the mountain, hollering at the top of my lungs, because I did it.  
Life's this game of inches.