Why not, right? Run 26.2 miles and then in less than a month, run a half marathon. Any idiot can do it.
The Kansas Half Marathon last Sunday was my fifth organized half. (I generally do longer than that at least once a week on training runs too.) I’d really like to make the half marathon my distance; it’s very hard for me to do, but I can do it. Thus I get both challenge and accomplishment. So with the Portland Marathon behind me, I thought I should challenge myself again. (I’d actually signed up for this before Portland took place. I knew then that I wanted a follow up before the Midwestern winter took hold, and I shopped around for some possibilities. The Kansas Half seemed the best fit, if a little closer to my marathon completion than I might have liked.)
The half was on Sunday, but Saturday morning dawned with temperatures below freezing. I expected a frigid start on Sunday morning and thus selected the kit you see laid out in the photo above. (Not shown are knee-length compression shorts, calf sleeves, and a throwaway jacket I picked up the night before at the thrift store for $7.00.) Yet at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday (when I rose, naturally), the temperature was 48 degrees. I expected that to drop a few degrees before dawn finally arrived, but even so, it was not going to be nearly as cold as I feared. In fact, it was going to be just about perfect running weather. So I made some minor, last-minute changes to the kit. I put the long-sleeved base layer shirt back in the closet and pulled out a short-sleeved compression shirt instead. Then I substituted my club running shirt with a plain blue technical shirt. (Yes, those are cotton gloves. I picked them up at the running store for $3.00 and intended to throw them away once the day and the body grew warm enuf.)
I went through my usual routine of pacing and fretting Sunday morning. I brushed and flossed. I ate a banana and a piece of bread with some peanut butter on it. (Peanut butter is widely recommended as a pre-race meal, and maybe it did do me some good, but it sits heavily in my stomach nonetheless.) I also drank some iced tea (unsweetened, of course) since that’s what I do. I slowly got dressed as the rest of the household awoke. Libby and Seth were coming to the race as my support crew, and we were to meet Aaron and his wife, Amber, at the race since they live in Lawrence, Kansas where the race was held, but the dogs were going to stay at home. (Lawrence is a college town about 45 minutes west of our home. You may have heard of the school there: the University of Kansas, or KU. It seems to be a big deal around here.)
We arrived at the park where the start/finish arch was about an hour before gun time, which is my preference. But it was still dark, and I didn’t really want to stand around in the cold for that long, so we stayed in the car for about a half hour. Light was beginning to show in the eastern sky then, and other runners and their families were gathering near the start, so we got out and joined them, sending Seth back to the car twice, once for Libby’s coat and a second time for my throwaway gloves that I had earlier thought I didn’t need after all. (I did have my throwaway jacket on.) I knew the day was forecasted to be windy, and it was already proving to be the case as we stood around in the gathering light, getting on the leeward side of trees and groups of people to keep out of the knife-like wind. The announcer chatting up the crowd mentioned that winds up to 40 miles per hour were expected. Yay!
Eventually, the announcer urged us to get into the starting chute, and it was actually warmer there, probably because so many bodies were so close together. (I understand 600+ runners were in the race that day.) With two minutes before official gun time, I told my watch to find some satellites, and it obliged me. Soon we were off, I in the back third of the pack and quickly passed by most of those behind me. Libby and Seth had gone up the block (yes, an uphill start!) to cheer me, and when I got there a couple of minutes later, I saw that they were joined by Aaron and Amber as well. I smiled and waved, but I had a big job ahead of me, so I didn’t linger but pressed on.
The first mile or so of the course went south on Massachusetts Street, which could serve well in anyone’s idea of Americana of a certain bygone era. There are lots of shops and restaurants, theaters, small parks, and such, most of which were wasted on me because — already — I was concentrating on the three feet in front of my two feet. It’s a well-traveled street, and I was keeping my eyes on the ground to watch for pot holes, cracks in the pavement, and, at this early stage of the run when we were all elbow to elbow, orange cones that would suddenly appear before me when the runner ahead of me side stepped them.
I had misread the map (that I had printed more than a month before) and thought we were running to 19th Street, where we would turn to the east for a long stretch. I don’t know why this turn meant so much to me, but it seemed like a kind of touchstone, a sign of progress. So I was surprised when all of the runners ahead of me were turning onto 15th Street. That touchstone came earlier than I expected, and I was buoyed by it. But I had miles and miles and miles to go.
Somewhere before mile two was the first water station. This seemed a little early in the run, but my strategy was to walk through the water stations to grab a little rest, so I was happy to put it into effect. They offered both Gatorade and water, and I took a cup of each. Then I was running again.
When I had been in Lawrence several weeks before, I had gotten lost finding my way back to Aaron’s house and drove out to some remote farmland before deciding I needed to turn around. This happened to be the exact route of the half marathon, and I found myself in that remote farmland again, only under foot power this time. At this point, they took us off of the pavement and onto a corrugated gravel road. This was not fun to run on. I spent a lot of attention on finding decent places to let my feet fall with each stride. But on we went, and eventually, we reached pavement again, rough and ragged but at least pavement. The miles ticked away, and I was ready for another water station, but I wasn’t seeing one ahead. I ate my packet of GU (pinned to my shorts) on schedule and plodded along, taking occasional walking breaks and regretting each step of them. Eventually, I could see a familiar tall building far ahead in the trees and I knew we were coming back into town.
By this time, the sun was well into the sky and I was feeling the warmth. I was ready to ditch my jacket, but the organizers had requested we do this at the aid stations rather than at random places on the course. (Plenty of people had done the latter regardless.) I was also done with the gloves, but I liked them so much that I wanted to keep them, so I took them off and tucked them into the waistband of my running shorts (on the side, rather than flapping in the front or back). I was back in town by then, running on quiet streets with well-kept homes, though there were not a lot of spectators. I suspect the morning chill kept them indoors. Coming down a gentle hill, I began to think that I was going to be one of those runners who cast off his jacket at a random place on the course. (These are collected and donated to the poor.) But ahead I heard and then saw Libby cheering to the runners passing. I began peeling off the jacket (kinda wet on the inside for some reason). Amber understood right away and ran toward me to take the jacket. Then, as a sudden thought, I pulled the gloves from my waistband and tossed them to Libby. Again, I had a run to manage, so I didn’t linger (and it was a sweet gentle downhill stretch).
Several blocks ahead I came upon the second water station. That was a long way from the first, more than the “approximately” two miles we were told (though they had given us the cross streets for the stations well in advance, and had I been familiar with the town, I would have known). I took the water and the Gatorade, spilling both on my (gloveless) hands and running watch before I remembered that I was supposed to be walking through the station. So I did, downing the drinks and tossing the empty cups in the general direction of the trash can. (They say that runners make terrible basketball players, and if you’ve ever seen the spread of discarded water cups in the several hundred feet after an aid station, you understand.)
This was pretty much the end of the biggest loop of the course, and I was just over half way done. My left knee had started barking at me a few miles back, but I quickly swallowed two Advil (shhhhh! don’t tell my doctor son!) and that seemed to quiet it. But my hips were not at all happy. They generally don’t give me any trouble on runs, and I’m not sure why they were this time. But there was little I could do except take occasional walking breaks, which made just about all parts of me feel better except my ego. Back in downtown Lawrence now, we were making an ascent to the bridge over the Kansas River. The second part of the course would be north of the river, in a wilder bit of country. But first we had to cross the bridge.
As bridges go, it was nice, modern, clean, and spacious in the pedestrian section. Unfortunately, there was only a waist-high railing between me and the river far below. Bridges have been my bane since I’ve become a runner. I get disoriented by the yawning space to the side (and if it is a bridge over a highway, I get further disoriented by the rushing of cars below and perpendicular to me). I ran on the left side of the walk, as far from the railing as I could get and just did my best to stay focused. It worked. I was across the bridge and heading down a hill into a small residential area. This was clearly where all of the town’s architects had chosen to live because the houses along here were eye-popping. I’ll have to go back and visit in a more coherent state sometime. Not long into this area, probably less than a mile since the last aid station, was . . . the next aid station. I’m not sure why it was plunked down there, but I grabbed (and spilled) two cups and even sunk the empties in the trash barrel. And onward.
We wove through some streets, past houses in what was obviously the river’s flood plain, protected by a levee to our south. This stretch was another loop and when we made the turn to head back the way we came, we were directed onto the levee for a long, straight, flat while. The top of the levee was packed gravel, but there was enuf loose gravel atop it to make selecting footfalls another attention grabber. I did my best, walked a little, ran some more and then, suddenly, I was at the third water station. Not only had we barely gone another mile, but from where I was on the levee, I could see water station number two just down the hill. By this time, the bulk of the runners had already passed, and I think the enthusiasm at the water stations had ebbed. They handed us water and Gatorade, but it was more automatic than encouraging. But running is a solitary endeavor, at least for me, so I didn’t mind. (At least it wasn’t like that horrible half I ran last spring where they had run out of cups at the water station!)
I was running in the sun now. Free of the weight of the throwaway jacket and gloves, and two packs of GU lighter (well, I suppose not really), but I was weary. Somewhere along here I had downed the second pair of Advil to fight my hip pain (the knees were keeping quiet). It was a slog for me though. I was running and then walking and then running. The trouble was that I was running too fast when I was running. I can’t seem to control this yet, and I realize it is something I need to work on.
Although the winds of the day would find us occasionally as we made turns and such, they had pretty much left us alone, but that was only a ploy to deceive us. They were waiting until we were most vulnerable to whip it up.
After the third water station, we passed under the bridge we had crossed over the river and were soon on the levee on the far side. This was an out-and-back stretch of perhaps a half mile each direction. As I ran out, plenty of other runners were coming at me on their return stretch. More importantly, the wind was at my back, blowing strongly and pushing me along. It was glorious. With each footfall I and the other runners made, we were stirring up dust that the wind would carry ahead of us. You know where this is leading, of course. We were running out. Soon we would be running back. And in the faces of the runners doing that I got a preview of what I would soon be facing. Their eyes were squinting. They were bent at the waist to stay as low as they could. They were holding onto the bibs pinned to their chests lest they be ripped off by the wind blowing up the river unimpeded by anything. Oh boy!
At the turnaround point there was another water station. This, too, seemed too soon after that last, but I think it made sense since runners needed to be reminded to turn around. For all I know, that levee might go all the way to Colorado, and it is an unfortunate phenomenon that runners sometimes miss turns and go for miles before realizing they are off course and lost. I had no trouble understanding this was the turnaround, in part because I knew it marked the end run (of perhaps only three more miles to go) but also because I had that preview of what I would be facing in the wind, so I was reminded that I had to turn. And I did.
I was not disappointed. I got it all. The stalling wind. The grit in the face. The rattling bib held to my shirt with four pins yet threatening to fly off into the river. (Our timing chips were in the bibs. Lose the bib, lose your official time and finish.) The only good thing about the wind was that it was ripping tears out of my eyes. That kept the grit at bay but it sure made the ground beneath my feet look funny. And some wise guy had decided that this was a perfect place to station one of the course photographers. Here we were, squinting, hunched over, holding our hands on our identifying bibs, and there was the photographer zooming in on us to get our memorable shot of the day. Luckily, I saw him and was able to correct most of that (I was still squinting into the wind, and probably looked like I was crying). And as soon as I passed him, I resumed the posture. Not long after this, though, we approached the bridge to cross it a second time and return to the more civilized part of Lawrence. We had less than two miles to go when we crossed the bridge, and the course was obviously designed to burn those miles. We wove through residential streets, taking what seemed like random turns just to eat up the distance. Again I had misunderstood the map (that Libby had with her by the way) and expected to make the final turn toward the finish at the bottom of a hill I was on. But when I looked up, I saw the runners ahead of me turning the opposite direction of what I expected. We were running away from the park where the finish arch was. I soon understood why.
The last water station seemed almost like an afterthought. It was small and manned by mostly children (who nonetheless did a perfectly fine job), and then suddenly I found myself crossing a school playground. This may have been the oddest stretch of earth I have ever run, but it was about to get weirder.
In front of the school we made a sharp turn and went into a tunnel under the street. The tunnel was less than four feet wide — I could have touched both walls as I ran through but didn’t want the friction to slow me down — and ended with a sharp turn and a hill back up to the street. It made sense, of course. The tunnel allowed the school children to get to the other side of the street safely, and I suppose the course director wanted to throw this novelty at us. Okay.
And now I really was in the end run of my 13.1 miles. I did a bit more walking here to rest up for the final blitz to the finish arch. We made a last turn, and I saw the park ahead. I had heard the finish line announcer long before, when I was on that windy levee, but now it was my turn to have my name called out.
The last few hundred feet were downhill, and I grabbed the little energy left in me to finish strong. I came into the chute and heard Libby and Amber (and probably Aaron and Seth) shouting my name, but I didn’t look for them. I had to focus and push and keep it together for just a little more.
I never did hear my name called by the announcer, though he may have. I was nearly blind with effort, and when I crossed the mats, I turned off my watch, slowed, then staggered, then realized I had passed the people handing out the medals but fortunately came upon more people handing out medals and I took one, as you can see below.
The medal is a little gaudy, but at least it’s not the size of a dinner plate, which seems to be the trend lately, a trend I hope has a short life. (Silverback is not my running name but the name of the management company that conducted the half marathon.)
After I let my brain catch up with my body and could think close to rationally again, I looked at my running watch. I hadn’t tried to set a personal record, and I really didn’t expect to given all of the walking I had done that morning, but suddenly that didn’t matter. My watch reported my total distance as only 12.99 miles. A TENTH OF A MILE SHORT OF A HALF MARATHON! Yikes.
Sure, I had my official finish and time from the chip in my bib, but Nike would never praise me for falling short when I plugged in my watch later that day. There was only one thing to do. I clutched my medal and started running again. I had to get that tenth of a mile. I ran along the sidewalks of that park there and kept going, weaving between families and exhausted runners and strollers and dogs until I had my tenth of a mile, my 13.1 mile distance. And then I was done. Done.
I had been promised a bagel after the run. And there was the possibility of chocolate milk, so I wandered over to the tents to see what they had for me. Apples. Bananas. Granola bars. But no bagels. And not chocolate milk but hot chocolate. Um. Well. By this time Libby and the kids had found me, and Libby encouraged me to take what I could get since I would likely regret missing out later. So I did. I got two granola bars and a cup of hot chocolate. My engine was running hot by then. The sun was full out. Hot chocolate might have made sense at the start, but it was not-so-much at the finish.
We stood around for a while and then decided to have something real to eat. I made a few Facebook posts about the run. Had a sandwich and an iced tea (unsweetened, of course). And generally recovered. We made our way over to Aaron and Amber’s house to meet the new cat they have adopted (since they have kind hearts and can’t turn away strays that come to their door). And then it was time to go home. I slept (or at least fell into a stupor) on the drive, and then I crawled up the steps to my computer and plugged in my running watch.
Nike did register my run as a half marathon and congratulated me appropriately. And then I checked my records.
I had set a personal record for the half marathon. By about a minute and a half, which is pretty good, I think.
So it was a good run in the end. I rolled my sore leg muscles then got into the shower. Soon I was in breathable cotton clothes, sitting in a chair with my feet up and thinking about when I might run again.