Last year I raced here and I felt lucky to have a breakthrough kind of race. Nearly every step felt light and quick, add a couple of hard miles at the end and hey presto: PR. It wasn’t quite that simple at the time, but in hindsight, it feels like I moved calmly, maybe with a little bit of restraint, throughout the day. And I loved the race, running down through the canyon makes me never want to run a race on city streets again. I was happy in the sunshine and it's definitely up there as one of my favorite half marathons. So when my athletes rallied together and picked a spring destination, I was glad that it brought me back to Moab with them.
Going in, I didn't taper like this was a high-priority race. And a few days out, I was bitching and moaning about how much fatigue I could still feel, I wasn’t shedding it like I am accustomed the week before, but the thought that comforted me was this: Michelle knows what I want. She knows what my goals are and I trust her implicitly to take me there and if that means that I don’t deeply rest and properly peak to run a stand-alone half marathon in March, then I am on board. However, it still felt like a "season opener" and I wanted to run well. I haven't run an open half since this time last year, I had some vague ideas about what a good day might look like but I was more interested in chasing the pain than anything the clock might say. It’s become more and more clear to me over the past six months or maybe five years that I need to get the fuck over the crazy fear I have of suffering. Instead, I need to find a way to embrace it, to open myself up to it, maybe even to enjoy it. I have a good friend that I train with quite often who can hurt himself in a race unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and that was the specific feeling I wanted to find. I was chatting with him the night before the race, letting him try to calm my flailing brain and he shared a quote that stayed with me (as this crap tends to do) all throughout the next day: We are beautiful things, wild things, searching for the brilliance within us.
My shake-out run the afternoon before the race felt like complete garbage but that’s pretty standard. I did some strides and that felt more like I was opening up, but once I finished up it was back to sluggish and heavy and tired. My warm-up jog the next morning was about the same, my heart rate was slow to rise even with some drills and bounding and jumping jacks and bopping around in the corral, but again, that is normal and I hoped that as soon as I started running my legs would turn up.
I crossed the line, started my watch, and ran about twenty seconds before I had my answer, nope, today is not going to be a gift, if you want it you are going to have to fight for it. I had a screen on my Garmin showing only lap pace and lap time, but instead I let my legs carry me through the first mile by feel. To be honest, it felt harder and faster than I thought that 8:16 on friendly terrain should have felt, and I started to prepare myself for how bad the race could actually go, for the explosion. I shoveled in some calories right then, worked on my bottle of OSMO that I was carrying for the first hour and tried to find the edge of oh shit this is too fast I shouldn't be going this fast but I am so here we go.
I kept the effort at that slightly unreasonable level for the first 4-5 miles, and once I got through the 10K I was pretty sure that I was going to squeak by with a PR. But what I would usually do with that information is back off and coast in on the small win and it's a little bit of a breakthrough that instead I started doing the math to figure out what I needed to do to break 1:50. I didn't flip over and check out total time until mile eight and I know it was going to be close but I went for it. There’s a pretty steep hill somewhere in mile nine and running up it hurt so badly and I was going so slowly that just for a minute my brain went shit 1:50 is out of the question and so is a PR and if this is how bad things are feeling you might not even break two hours today what the fuck is happening why is everything all bad. Which is exactly what brains do when racing gets hard but man, for about ten seconds I let it eat into me. And then I did the only thing that I know to do when I start falling apart which is to shovel down all the calories I am carrying and force my mind not into I feel great this feels great! because that is complete bullshit but instead straight into oblivion while I wait for the sugar to save me. And it came through, it didn’t help me run any faster but it dug me out of the tiny hole I fell in for a few minutes and got me focused.
There was no wind this year, which was a bit of a blessing but without the wind the course was hot. Last year I remember running and being cold well into the halfway point, this year I was warm before I got through the first mile. So when the course spat us out on the highway, it was a minefield of salty sweaty suffering runners. I knew the splits I needed to crack the 1:50 mark and I was running on the edge, desperately trying to force lap pace down and it wasn’t happening, it was drifting up and I reverted to counting my steps, tightening up my form, keeping my eyes ahead, swinging my arms, trying to open up my stride, get feet turning over quickly, I thought about Michelle talking about sprinting in the pool hands hands hands and I was thinking feet feet feet and my hips were ripping in pain and I know I was heel-striking and over-striding and doing all the things that I’ve spent so much time trying to train out of my body but all I could think about was getting to the line.
We made the last turn and then I saw the sign for mile thirteen and I had about thirty seconds to make it over the finish and I knew that I wasn’t going to but I sprinted for it anyway, as hard and as ugly as I could and then I was through and it was over. No magic, no sparkles, no calm and swift, instead just a little under two hours of using an ax on the floor of my pain cave.
And with that, the end result is all I could ever want out of a race: to sit on the ground, empty, exhausted to my core, but at peace with the fact that I gave everything I had. I didn’t have twenty less seconds in me to crack 1:50 that day, I don’t think I even could have found two, but I know with complete certainty that I have never suffered like that in a half marathon in my life. I went out to work, I worked, I hurt, from mile two onwards my brain was shrieking fuck I really don't think we should be doing this and I didn't hold it, it wasn't a beautifully executed negative split with a special blast in mile thirteen but I also didn't blow. I kept it floored even when I was desperate to ease off, hoping for an untied shoe or maybe a meteor to hit the earth directly in my path so I could stop punishing my body with pain for just one second. And when it was over, I was content. It was everything I had. The sweet peace that follows the pain, it doesn't seem to matter if it's a sprint or ironman or any distance between, there aren't many better feelings in the world then the one that comes when you hit stop on your watch and bend over, hands on knees, hoping you won't blow chunks all over the nice person trying to hang a medal around your neck, gasping sorry I'm sorry I just need a minute and realizing that all the voices in your head are silent. The joy of the hissing silence that follows the fight. I've spent so many years racing, so many years being disappointed in myself on the far side of the line because I know the feeling when it's late in the miles and I almost imperceptibly let off the gas, not enough that I actually slow down but enough that the pain relents, I'm not even sure if it can be seen in a Garmin file but it sure as shit haunts me when the day is done.
Racing is fun, going fast is fun, but that isn't why I stand on the line. I do it because I want to be that beautiful and wild thing, I want to find the brilliance within me. And yeah, yeah, I know, that sounds like a bunch of hokey vomit-inducing bullshit, but everybody has different reasons why they race and right now, this year, these are mine. It's laying flat on my back in the sunshine listening to everyone babble about their races and smiling privately to myself because I got the day I wanted and that is because I reached out and took it. It's the sound of the moto starting up because I am the one heading out of transition, it's grinding down into the wheel of someone who is a fuck-ton stronger than me and not getting dropped, it's hitting the lap button and standing, coughing and spitting, on the bike path alone in 20º staring at my watch in disbelief. All this shit in my head about not being a good runner, every time I tell someone I swim and bike and then watch the parade go by, it's time to let that go and for real. More than that, it's time to atom bomb those thoughts out of existence. Thinking about the races that stand out to me last year, they aren't the PRs or the wins or the special days in a pink helmet. They are the ones where I got tired of my own shit. Where I didn't think, I just ran, I didn't let up, I didn't make a lot of noise, I didn't barter with myself, I didn't try and convince my brain that I felt amazing like a special fast sparkly butterfly in spandex, I just.fucking.went. I sank into the suffering, I smothered myself in pain and I quietly moved through the day on my own terms. So now it's April. The snow is melting, the pants are getting tinier, the races are getting closer. And I feel ready.