The morning came cold but clear. I was determined to wear only shorts and a shirt on this run, as you can see in my customary kit photo above, but the temperature was 45 degrees when I rose. Still, I decided to tough it out and head to the start in such skimpies.
The Trolley Run has been my goal run for a long time. When I began running, just over a year ago, when I could barely run a hundred feet and needed to rest for the remainder of the day if I did, I looked across the months ahead, completely unable to imagine that I could run a whole mile, much less the 3.1 miles of a 5K. But I thought that if I stuck with it and trained hard, maybe, maybe in a year and a couple of months, I could actually run — and complete — the Trolley Run in Kansas City.
The Trolley Run is a big deal here in town. Thousands of runners participate, and whole parts of town are shut down to accommodate it. Everybody has run it. (In fact, even Libby had run it several times back in the day.) And so I thought that it should become my goal; I would complete the Trolley Run and finally be able to call myself a runner without qualifying or apologizing or mumbling.
Thus is became a psychological barrier, a boogie man, a holy grail. In the time since I’d set that goal I have run longer races. I’ve done a half dozen 5Ks, three 10Ks, and afternoon runs that are eight miles or more (usually ending at some watering hole, but only by coincidence). I’m training now to do a half marathon in October, and my goal for 2014 is to complete a whole marathon. (That still looks utterly impossible!) So by the time I stepped up to the starting line at the Trolley Run on Sunday, I had the experience, the knowledge, the support of many new friends I’ve made in the running community, and a day promising full sunshine. All I lacked was confidence.
I had frightened myself into self doubt because I had envisioned this run to somehow be a validator of my running ambitions.
I knocked about the house the morning of the run, nervous, anxious, impatient. I thought about eating something but decided against it. I thought about donning some warmer clothes but decided against that too. When I couldn’t sit around any longer, we got in the car and drove away. As usual, Libby and I got to the starting line far too early, but we weren’t the first ones there by any means. I was to meet some friends for a group photo shortly before the start, but that left a half hour to kill, and the air was still cold outside of the car as we waited for the sun to crest the nearby buildings and start warming the air.
Sometime during the last year, I had learned that the Trolley Run is not a 5K, which would make it 3.1 miles, but a 4 mile run. It goes from the Waldo neighborhood in Kansas City to the upscale shopping district known as The Plaza. They say the course is all downhill, but it isn’t. In the first mile there are three hills you must top. They’re not steep, and they’re not long, but they are there. I knew this from having driven the course the day before. Everyone told me I would set a personal record since the run is down hill “all the way.” All I could think of were those initial hills and the cold and my doubts.
Libby’s plan was to drop me off at the start in Waldo and the scurry down to the Plaza to park and find her way to the finish line to wait for me. Many of the runners had parked their cars at the Plaza and took the courtesy busses to the start, and these throngs were arriving as we waited. So I gave her a kiss and told her to go. Then I jumped out of the car and did a thoroughly inadequate warm-up run to the place where I was supposed to meet my friends. Of the 17 of us, only four showed up for the picture, but we took our photo and wished each other a good run, then we separated to join our waves. I was in the Green Wave, the largest group, comprised of runners decidedly below the elite athlete level, but who would indeed actually run the race. The wave after us was made up of fast walkers, people pushing strollers, and those who wanted to give it a try but might not be able to finish. (Ahead of us were the elites, some of whom subsequently finished the four miles in just over 19 minutes!)
There were more than 8,500 people doing the run, and I was packed in with the mix, near the start. The sun had finally come over the buildings across the street, and I could feel the warmth on my exposed skin. I was still cold, but I hoped that when I started moving, I would warm up.
The elite runners were the first to fly. Our wave was herded toward the starting line then. I turned on my running watch and hoped it would find a satellite before I had to go. It did. And we waited. Then I hoped my watch would not shut itself off before I had to go. It didn’t.
I ran across the starting mats, the sensor tied to the laces on my shoe registering my start, and I quickly found a pace that I hoped I could sustain for the next four miles. People were passing me by the hundreds, but I had expected that. I wasn’t racing with anyone but myself, and I had serious doubts about beating that guy to deal with. The course passes through some very nice neighborhoods of Kansas City, and I have some friends who live there. I hoped they might be among the hundreds of people sitting in chairs on their lawns, ringing cowbells and cheering us on. I did see one person I knew, and we shouted toward each other and waved, but that was after I’d completed only one mile, and I knew I had distance ahead of me.
It’s funny how difficult the painted lines on the street can be to run on. Same with the tar splotches. I began to dread these, but I was hemmed in mostly by other runners, either going at my pace, hurrying past me, or needing to be passed even at my measured pace. The miles were marked, so I knew how far I had gone and how far I had to go, and if they hadn’t been, I could have looked at my watch, but I’ve learned not to do that. It shows both my distance and my pace, and pace has been my enemy lately. Not too slow, but too fast. When I would look at my watch and see how fast I was going (fast for me), I would suddenly get exhausted, telling myself I was pushing myself too hard. So I decided I would just run at a pace I thought I could maintain and not know what the clock number was. (It’s a good thing I didn’t check my pace on the Trolley Run.)
The crowd of runners was thinning around mile two. The faster ones were far ahead. The slower ones and those who were walking by then were behind. People continued to pass me, but I was also passing others. For the most part, though, I was among a crowd of people who were going at about the same speed I was. I have found that to be helpful at times because it allows me to control my pace and even get a break. I was hoping to marshall some energy to burn at the end when I could come blazing across the finish.
Around mile two I was glad I hadn’t eaten anything for breakfast. I think I would have left it on the road by then. Also at that point I was glad I had decided against putting on warmer clothes. My engine was running by then, and I was sweating enuf to wipe my face with my shirt. It was glorious in a way.
Around mile three — we were well into the true downhill-only part of the run — I got that realization that I was going to finish the race. Can I say this was a watershed moment? Sure, I had done other runs, but the point was I was doing this run. I was meeting the goal I had set for myself a year before. I was knocking down a psychological barrier that meant nothing to anyone else but seemed to mean everything to me. It wasn’t just knowing there were photographers all over the course that made me smile for the rest of the run.
Alas, as we neared the end, the four lanes of the parkway we were running on narrowed into two lanes and the crowd got thicker. Once again I was hemmed in, and though I could maintain my pace, one that actually felt comfortable by that point, I didn’t see much opportunity to turn on the afterburners and really race to the finish line. There were simply too many people, and as we all approached the finish line, the avenue grew narrower as the fencing herded us toward the mats. As I crossed the mats and turned off my watch I pretty much had to stop moving altogether because all of the other runners in front of me had done so. It might have been nice to slow down a bit. I’ve seen this at a few of the other runs I’ve done, and I’m sure it bothers other runners too. If I were in charge, I’d figure out a way to fix this much.
Somewhere in the crowd of spectators Libby was supposed to be waiting. I looked around as I was herded forward. I stopped and had the chip removed from my shoe then gladly took the bottle of water that was offered to me. Libby didn’t seem to be around, and I assumed she had moved to a point where the crowd of exhausted and exultant runners had thinned out a bit, so I made my way there. No sign of her yet, but there was the tent giving away free slices of pizza. And one handing out peanuts and pretzels. And energy drinks. And bananas, and bagels, and the blessed, blessed chocolate milk (for recovery, of course). But still no Libby. I assumed I missed her, so I used the one thing I had carried with me on the run: my phone. (My skimpy running shorts have a tiny inner pocket that perfectly holds my little flip phone.)
It turns out that in my blaze across the finish line, Libby had missed spotting me. (I had worn that bright yellow shirt — a color known as Volt — just so I would be easy to spot among the runners approaching the finish line. But it also turned out that many other runners had had that same idea.) She was still at the start, worrying that I must have fallen along the way since I was overdue; I had told her to expect me to take an hour to run the four miles. We finally met about halfway between the start and the point where I had wandered. Then we moseyed through all of the food booths again. (I ended up eating 3 small slices of pizza, a half of a glazed donut, one whole-wheat roll, a half of a banana, two airline-sized bags of peanuts, and four small containers of chocolate milk. Plus I was feasting on a huge serving of satisfaction.)
What I haven’t mentioned is that shortly after I crossed the finish line, when my vision returned to normal and my breathing didn’t wrack my whole body (and I exaggerate) I did look at my watch. I dared to look at my watch and see my result. For this race, I had adopted a new policy toward my running. Should I find myself getting tired, I would simply slow my pace — to a crawl if I had to — and rest on the run, so to speak. I would not stop and rest, nor would I walk. I would keep running, but I would run slowly if I had to. Thus I didn’t expect to find a really great pace for this run because, especially in the first two miles, I slowed myself several times. A common phenomenon at such runs is to get caught up with the energy and start out too fast, keeping pace with runners who are much stronger than you are. I tried very hard not to fall victim to this, but I don’t think I succeeded since the first two miles were exhausting. My watch would tell me the truth.
And the truth was . . . I have set a new personal record for a 5K and averaged a really fast pace (for me) over the whole 4 miles of the Trolley Run! I am not a fast runner, but I am a faster runner. I hit a pace that I never would have thought was possible. This is big stuff for me.
I broke through a psychological barrier on Sunday. I faced and achieved a goal that has spooked me for more than a year. And in doing so, I also showed myself that I can push myself harder and faster and farther and better.
And then I went home and took a nap.