I’ve found that life has a way of giving me exactly what I need, even though I often don’t even know it at the time. Thats why I always treat obstacles and challenges as experiences. Just like the ups, the downs are a critical part of the adventure called life. So even though things have been really rough recently, I came to Cleveland confident of one thing: this trip was somehow going to exactly what I needed.
So I arrived in Cleveland and went straight to the expo. This was race weekend! Time to feed off that vibe. Cleveland had a challenge series with races on Saturday and Sunday. I had my own challenge. I had hoped to run a small half marathon on Saturday morning a bit south of Cleveland, but for better or worse, it was a bit too far to work out. On one hand, I was disappointed… but this did mean my legs would be fresher for the main event. Exactly what I need right? My real challenge was the marathon. It was time to focus on that. I could get another half in next weekend.
When I decided to run Cleveland, I had three basic choices: I could run the half and keep building my numbers for this years half marathon quest. Or I could step up the mileage and go for the BQ – 3:05 would comfortably get me in, and there was a pace group to guide me. Finally, I could all out race it, and most likely blow away my full marathon PR. I know I’m in shape to hit 2:50-2:55. On a perfect day (course, weather, injuries and so on), I might even be able to pull off the 2:45 GFA time I need to qualify for Berlin and Tokyo.
In Boston, the marathon has always been about the experience. I’ve never really cared about my time. Yelling to the crowd, weaving around to high five as many people as possible, plus my attire… these things are not exactly the recipe for a PR. Cleveland would be a first for me. It would be my first time racing the marathon. If all went well, it would earn me that all important BQ. Prior to being hit two years ago, I had been 100% confident that I could go out and qualify for Boston on any given day. I didn’t get that chance. My injuries sidelined that, and it’s only been recently that I’ve been functional enough again to move forward with that. Still, there was a maybe. I don’t know what my lingering injuries effects will be on any given day. And they’ve been bad recently. So I made the logical choice: I would stick with the 3:05 pace group. I wouldn’t risk going out too hard, and if all went well I’d even run negative splits. Worst case, I’d still have time to get in a BQ for 2019
Race morning I woke up to wind and rain. Great. Just what I needed! Well, at least it wasn’t too cold! I reminded myself that it was less rainy, less windy and less cold than Boston had been a month earlier and jogged down to the start. Outside the arena, the Cavaliers playoff mantra: “Whatever it takes”… just like my original late 90’s Boston College SuperFan shirt. Also, exactly what I was going to do today. I was hurting, but I was confident: I would qualify for Boston on my first attempt.
Before I knew it, we were off! There were two pacers leading a good dozen of us unicorn chasers. With a group of this size, and two pacers who could run it comfortably, this was going to be a social run. I liked that. For the most part it worked out well. I just struggled with the climbs. Four or five miles in, I joked with one of the guys that every time I’d catch back up we’d start climbing again. I can’t hold a pace uphill. Definitely something I need to work on.
One things for sure: I was glad to have this group to run with. I really was hurting, but keeping that 3:05 sign on my radar was the primary goal for the day. As they ran each mile consistently just a tad over seven minute pace, I always knew exactly how I was doing and where I needed to be. Other than those early hills, I was staying right on track. Everything was falling perfectly into place. The rain had eased up enough that it was barely a mist before stopping completely. It was actually nice to run through that. Just like a sprinkler. The temperature was great for peak bodily performance. And between the pace group, crowd and on course entertainment, there was just enough energy to keep me moving despite the pain. While the rock band playing under a bridge was probably great for most of the runners, with my brain state it almost made me melt down. I can’t control that, but I can accelerate a bit to get out from under that bridge. Today I was going to accomplish my goal.
Everything flowed perfectly. The miles passed quickly and somewhat easily. The conversation saw to that. Before I knew it, the half marathon course split off. We were fully committed now! A few more miles raced by. The pain started to intensify. I tried to ignore it at first. I kept up the conversation and stayed with the group. The pain stayed with me, and further intensified. I knew what I had to do: I needed to circle back within myself. This was an internal battle, and one I’d have to fight myself. I deliberately dropped back from the group. Just a bit…
That’s one of the beautiful things about having pacers. Not only are they guiding and inspiring those running with them to hit their goal, the simple act of holding that sign up provides a perfect moving goal line for runners behind the group. I had dropped back from the group, but that sign still kept me on pace. I didn’t need to pay any attention to how fast I was running or anything else. I could focus all of my energies inwards, and beat that pain. It didn’t matter how much it hurt. I knew exactly what I needed to do, and exactly how to compel my mind and body to respond. There would be no more conversation and high-fiving the crowd. At least not for a while. Some of the others in the group periodically looked back “You got this Ken!”. This is why I love this sport. We are all in this together!
Externally, and internally…Exactly what I need. That’s what was going to happen today. I suffered through the miles. My brain game carried me, and the sign ahead kept me on pace. I focused within. That strength would carry me. This was the longest distance I’d ever raced! I was ready for it though. Another energy gel. Mile 20: forget the wall. My magic miles are just ahead. I passed the 21 mile marker and started to pick up the pace. Physically I was far from depleted and now that I’d started the last MR8K… the pain meant nothing. I had all the reason I needed to rock those last miles. Today I was earning my bib for Boston 2019! Despite the pain, the miles began to flow again. I caught back up to the group. It had fragmented. I tried to inspire the few who’d fallen back to catch the group again with me. One of the guys still carried the sign, and stayed on pace. Several of the group stayed with him. Right at 3:05 was where most of them would finish. A few who had been running strong picked up the pace a little bit for the last few miles. I closed the gap with them as well. As we raced through the city, I hear a radio blaring: Love and Rockets. “I’m alive, huh, huh, so alive”
Running to earn my BQ… running for Boston… I’d saved some of my best miles for last. My legs were strong, and I was running for my town. I’ll carry my cross, I’m on top again. Yes… despite it all… I’m alive! So, so alive! Sprinting across that line, my first 26.2 mile race is in the books. Even though I hadn’t been feeling it today, I’d done exactly what I needed to. Powered by my own inner strength, and some solid miles this year, with the assist going to a couple great pacers and a handful of my incredible running family… yes… it was a good day!
3:03:33. An incredible race, a comfortable BQ, and a celebration of that fundamental fact: I’m alive