After a long day of celebrating with my classmates, I woke with my brain throbbing. I knew this would likely be an issue. As usual, I’d avoided alcohol completely, but even so the audible stimulation of the evening had wiped me out. I’d spend a good chunk of the evening sitting quietly in the parking lot to escape the noise and decompress but even that wasn’t enough. It had been yet another case of balancing physical health with mental health. No regrets though: I refuse to allow my injuries to define my life.
On top of that, the weather had done a complete 180°! Yesterday was hot and humid, like I’m used to in Miami. Today was chilly and windy. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t ready for that. Regardless, for the first time in 20 years (I think) I donned my Prep Cross Country uniform shorts and began to prepare myself for the mental and physical battle ahead. I have to admit: I was pretty pumped that I still fit into those bright red running shorts from yesteryear! To celebrate our 20 years, I’d rock them for another thirteen miles. While I knew this wasn’t going to be a PR performance today, I did expect to put in a decent time – one at least worthy of a Prep runner!
The Fairfield Half will always have significant meaning for me. Back in 1995, this had been my first ever half marathon. That year, I’d gone from unable to complete more than two miles even with a break every half, to feeling confident enough to test myself with 13.1. I’d went from a sedentary lifestyle, to that of a runner. Although running had been painful (for as yet unknown reasons), I’d managed pretty well. I was by no means elite as a freshman, but I was moderately competitive. So I kept at it. That June, I ran my heart out at the Fairfield Half.
I’ll never forget that race. I ran strong. I ran fast. I crushed the hills. I even got my first runners high. I pushed myself harder than I’d though possible, even vomiting with less than a mile left to go. But I didn’t stop. I was on top of the world. As I hit the gravel running back into the Jennings Beach parking lot, I gave it everything I had… and I got smoked by an old guy. I finished with a solid 1:47:37, but was frustrated I’d been shown up by ‘grandpa’. Invincible, untouchable, smart ass teenager… I’d just been put in my place. I decided that one day *I* would be that grandpa! In 50 years, I’d be the one sprinting past some too cool for school kid. Yes… during that one race, running became central to my life. There’ve been some detours, but that race was a defining moment.
I ran the Fairfield Half every summer while I was in CT, improving every year through my graduation. In the summer of ’98, I ran the best race of my life: 1:25:34, good enough for the win in the 19 and under age group. I’d just graduated Prep, was in the best shape of my life, and was ready to take on college. For the first time in my four year running career, I’d won an individual accolade. As a team, ƒpXc had been on another level. Individually, I’d been just OK. For the first time, I’d excelled! I was proud of that trophy, even if it was broken within the hour. That PR would stand until I was nearly twice that age, when I finally beat it in Tartu, Estonia!
This morning, I was simply shooting for a solid 1:35, a pace I should be able to comfortably run. It didn’t start out well though. With the ‘cold’ I wasn’t feeling it. My first couple miles were slow and painful. I was struggling and wasn’t even running a 7:30 pace. It was going to be a lonnnnnnnng day. I had started the race with Vin, and ran those first few miles with him. Gradually I warmed up and began to feel at least a little bit better. Just past mile two, we saw the first of our bomb squad (thats what Prep calls its cheering section). There on the side of the road our buddy Kevin’s wife and baby were cheering us on. As we ran past, I decided it was time to step it up! I stripped off my shirt (I hadn’t earned the nickname Naked Boy in high school for nothing) and picked up the pace. Slight problem: my old Prep shorts waistband couldn’t hold the shirt. I turned back, and left my gear with our crew! And then immediately took on the first hill.
It was like an instant transformation. Suddenly I was alive. The pain was still there, but my body flowed smoothly. My mental game was where it needed to be. There would be no slowing down from here. Originally I’d planned to go out moderately strong, survive the early hills, crush the middle miles, survive the back hills and finish strong. Ohh yeah… and I wanted to make sure I beat all my old teammates! The new plan involved continuous improvement: Negative splits – despite the hills. I caught up with Vin again. His race strategy had been to take the first half easy, so after a short time running with him, I picked up the pace. Still no sign of Matt and Kevin, we’d lost them somewhere before the start.
Halfway through the run, channeling his inner Coach Ford Sr., JT was out there on the bike to cheer us along. HEY NOW PREP!!!! Dahhhhh! John, check the shorts! I got the boost I needed, and picked it up a little more. A little later on I see him again: how far ahead are the other guys? Turns out, they’re not. I’m into the last 5 miles – MR8K to go. This is where I am strongest. I just have to hold on through the hills. I didn’t realize it, but Matt was just a tiny bit behind. As we approach the toughest hills, Matt and I are side by side, the infamous Torpedo is just ahead. I know I’m going to falter on the hills, so I accelerate into them. I’ve got a slight lead as we hit the incline. I’m left in the dust as we climb. We hit the peak, and I immediately accelerate, closing the gap that had opened on the hill. No sooner do I catch up, but the road slopes upward again. Time for the worst hill of the race. I take the hill hard, but I suck at the climb… I’m still losing ground. I maintain that effort level. When the climbing stops, I start moving. I’m actually feeling fairly good, and my goal time of 1:35 is in reach if I work these last few miles. I continue to accelerate. I hear two random guys saying to each other they aren’t going to let me beat them as I pass. I laugh to myself. I’m on fire right now. The hills are done, I’m feeling strong. Nobody is passing me these last few miles. I pick up the pace even more. We run by Kevin’s family, but I’m so in the zone I don’t notice it until after passing them. Shortly down the road, we turn left and approach Jennings Beach. HEY NOW PREP! A nice strong finish, and right on schedule with 1:35, my tenth Fairfield Half Marathon is in the books.
I’d won the Prep Millennium Division – a solid accomplishment. Once upon a time, those guys were so far ahead of me, but now it’s my time. Despite all the drama, now I’m in the best running shape of my life. I feast on the post race fruit and pizza. Unfortunately with the weather, it was not a good beach day… still we hung on the beach for a while, new friends and old, to celebrate another great run. Some things never change.