Running a 1/2 Marathon - An Optimists Guide for the Impatient and Ill-Prepared VIII

May 13th, 2007

I ran the half-marathon, and I have to say… it was incredible. The whole experience felt calm and gentle – words which I wouldn’t necessarily have associated with endurance running but I couldn’t think of a better way to have this experience.

I started out with some trepidation. Between the traveling, the excitement, and my hyper-awareness of my 5:00 AM wake-up call, I didn’t get to sleep until one in the morning. And then it was the kind of shallow, superficial sleep I have when my mind is totally preoccupied with some major and impending event. When the phone rang I leapt out of bed and got ready in the dark, eating my half of a dry bagel and mixing up a protein drink with tap water from the bathroom sink. Sam drove me to the starting line and let me wear his sweatshirt while I jumped up and down in the early morning mist. Looking around at the other runners, I felt pretty humbled; so many were wearing name brand gear, and had high-tech equipment strapped to their bodies. One man had a camel-like appendage on his back with four different straws that came out and framed his face. I suppose it was so he could sip drinks with different levels of electrolytes as necessary throughout the race. But he looked like he had a parasitic arachnid clinging to him for dear life.

The gun went off at 7:30 and I found myself in the middle of the pack. I never run with anyone, so I wasn’t sure how it would feel to try to find my pace as part of a pack. Strangely, it was easier than normal. I settled in, started my iPod, and checked out my fellow runners.

There were two-thousand of us, ranging in age from late teens to late 70s. There were professional runners, and there were first-timers. I spent a lot of time looking at other peoples’ shapes, wondering if there was any truth to the idea that runners have a certain body type. The answer is a resounding no. I saw men and women that looked like “runners” – they were long and lean, with narrow hips and shoulders and little muscle or body fat to weigh them down. But they were a minority. I also saw people with huge torsos and short legs, people who were pear-shaped, people who ran funny, and people who breathed so loud and lugubriously, they sounded like they were dying. There was a dad running and pushing a stroller with one hand while holding onto his dog’s leash with the other. There were groups of people running in packs, and loners who ran in and out between the others like they were on a slalom course. There was one woman in my immediate vicinity that appeared to be gravely overweight – she stayed consistently thirty paces ahead of me for the first half of the race then got so far ahead I lost track of her.

The morning was cool when we started, which turned out to be the best possible running weather – overcast sky with no sun, no wind, no rain to speak of but an occasional drizzle. The course took us through vineyards, so the road was smooth, but with a lot of hills. One hill even had its own name – “the corkscrew” – so called because it spiraled around and around going up forever. That was a tough hill. When I looked up all I could see were other runners who were blue in the face, hanging over the ledge, looking like they were ready to puke, with more hill looming up above them. When I looked down all I could see were the blanched faces of terrified runners who were approaching the hill, watching our progress. After a few glances, I decided to implement a technique I think of as selective ignorance: I didn’t look at anyone else, or anywhere else, except the pavement where my next foot was going to strike. I didn’t want to know how anybody else was dealing with the challenge, didn’t want to see their triumphs of defeats.

Somewhere around mile seven after I’d recovered from the corkscrew, a miracle occurred. I was feeling good, feeling on track. I’d settled into what I think of as autopilot – where my arms and legs and torso are all in a rhythm with each other and feel almost mechanized. I didn’t feel like I needed a miracle at all. But then this kid ran past me. He looked like he was about 17, like he’d never trained a day in his life, like he’d rolled out of bed maybe 20 minutes before the race started – he still had pillow-prints on his face and a raving case of bed-head. He looked around as he ran – not focused on the running at all but curious about everything else – what everyone else was up to, the countryside, the vineyards. And he flopped. His hands flopped at his sides, his legs flopped out behind him, and his feet flopped at the ends of his legs. He looked like a Gumby, all gangly limbs and swiveling head. It looked like running was absolutely effortless for him. I was instantly smitten with his technique. Gone, in an instant, ten years of trying to master the almost mechanized rhythm of arms and legs in perfect sync. That kid ran past me and I was consumed with jealousy; and I immediately started flopping too. I even took it a step further and opened my mouth a bit so that my jaw was relaxed. It made so much sense… how much energy does it take to keep everything rigid? What if everything just goes wherever gravity takes it, and all that surplus energy gets re-diverted into running?

In the end, I maintained my position in the middle of the pack from beginning to end. The entire run felt good – easy, natural, gentle, graceful. I averaged 10:30 minutes which was significantly faster than I’d imagined. My time, as I found out later, was also squarely in the middle of the pack – half of my fellow-runners were faster, half were slower. For my first race, and my first half-marathon – and given that I’d only started training five weeks in advance – I could not have been more delighted with the results.

I crossed the finish line with Sam and his mom waiting for me, cheering, and jumping up and down. Sam gave me a huge hug and a kiss, in spite of the 13.1 miles worth of sweat and dust I’d accumulated. A race-official put a medal around my neck, and I was channeled into a “recovery” line were I stocked up on apple slices and chocolate chip cookies. On the other side I rejoined Sam and his mom who kept giving me side-long glances and saying “But… you look like it was easy!” “Aren’t you going to cry or something?”

The best thing about the Santa Barbara half-marathon, other than the beautiful course, is the wine-tasting that follows. We had our souvenir tasting glasses, and used them to sample dozens of the Santa Ynez Valley’s finest – and they were all delicious. Once the last of the runners finished, the sun came out as if on cue, making the vineyards glow, and sending the aroma of drying earth and flowers wafting over the hills. We drove back to Santa Barbara after an hour or so, stocked our picnic backpack at the local Trader Joe’s, and had a Mother’s Day picnic on one of our favorite beaches. There was no bonking. My legs were tired, but nothing extreme. I slept normally that night and had slightly sore muscles the next day – nothing major.

I can’t wait for next year’s race.

Entry Filed under: Optimist's Guide

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