Monday, December 12, 2011

Race Report

Twelve miles were almost complete and I was running the best half marathon of my life. That's kind of a joke - it was only my 2nd and the odds were with me for it to be my best. Then I felt them coming. Cramps. In both of my calves. Not the entire muscle, but small strands of fibres near the center of the back of my lower leg. "No, not now," I thought, "Not now."

It was 4pm on Sunday, December 4th, and I was sitting at a 2/5 NL game at the Aria casino. I'd been in Vegas for about a day and a half and had perhaps 1 beer and 2 glasses of wine. I was as relaxed as I could be before a race for which I'd trained 3 months. Our group, no, our Team had planned to meet 1 hour before the race at 4:30 to grab a shuttle to the starting line near Mandalay Bay. Otis, G-Rob, Dan, Chako and myself changed into our gear and met near the poker room exit. I was anxious, I wanted to be at the starting line now and begin to stretch. Our team didn't worry about getting there on time, that is until we had been standing in the shuttle line with about 300 other people waiting for a bus that would never come.

I don't like expending any energy before an important race. But in order to get to the starting line on time, we all realized we'd have to walk the mile and a half to get there. We left the Aria at about 4:50pm, it was going to be close, but we should have been able to arrive on time. Along the way, though, police stopped us from crossing the street so that the full marathon race leaders had a clear road. Another delay.

By the time we reached the starting gate, the mass of humanity 33,000 strong prevented us from making any headway towards our assigned starting corrals. Before our team split, Dan grouped us together and reiterated the fact that we were all very lucky just to be able to participate. That had some calming effect on me, but I was still jittery. I gave Otis a hug, wished him luck, and crammed my way into corral #4. The starting gun went off before I even got inside. I was pissed. I hadn't stretched, I hadn't checked my bag and I just realized that I put my water belt on upside down. The two bottles of fluid I was going to run with were long gone and I began to panic just a little. I turned on my GPS watch and watched in dismay as its inability to find a signal magnified my anger. How would I ever be able to prove my finishing time to anyone, let alone, myself?

As you may be aware, I'm an engineer. It's my job to solve problems. That mode of thinking took over and I made some adjustments. First, I took everything I wasn't willing to lose out of my check-in bag. And then I just tossed it to the ground. I got my iPod ready and would simply use the total elapsed song duration to determine my race time. For fluids, I'd just have to use the aid stations throughout the race. For my running pace, I'd use feel. That's one thing I'm pretty good at - determining my pace based on effort, stride and tempo. I said to myself, "Don't let this petty shit ruin your race for you." So when my corral moved to the gate and got ready to run, I did a mental reboot and hit play on my iPod as soon as the gun went off.

It's not my favorite song by any means, but ever since it randomly started my first 10k that I ever ran, I use it to start every race that's longer than 6 miles. Broken, Beat, and Scarred. Three minutes into the song, my GPS watch acquired a signal. I didn't hit start on the watch timer just yet. I'd wait until the first song was over, then I could simply add the duration of that song to my overall time. The first water station came up and I took a drink I'd not normally take. And then I just simply tried to run the race I'd trained for, all the while making sure to soak up the atmosphere of the Vegas Strip at night.

There were some minor logistical obstacles to overcome. For one, even though they group your corrals by anticipated finish time, there's nobody to enforce that rule. I must have passed several hundred people in the first few miles, even a couple of walkers. That's simply unacceptable and dangerous. If you want to walk a race, that's fine, but don't do it at the peril of the runners behind you.

The first 6 or 7 miles were easy. I was running too fast, that much was certain, but I didn't care. I would just slow down if I needed to. I absorbed myself fully into my playlist. It was carefully crafted especially for this race. It had a couple of slower, less intense songs at the mid-way point so that the end was pure extreme metal intensity. I do recall having enough energy to sing along to Firewind's Set the World on Fire during mile 8. I hope nobody heard me though.

During my training for this race, the point at which my muscles and joints would begin to rebel against my wishes would occur later and later into each run. It was at mile 9 that this point hit me during this race and I slowed down a bit. It was my slowest mile of the race and I found it a bit difficult to resume my earlier pace. But difficulty is a relative term. My trials and tribulations were nothing compared to those of my friend.

The Thursday before I left for Vegas, I got a text from Otis' brother Dr. Jeff. "Mom and I are forcing Brad to Vegas to finish what he started. Take care of him for me." I was surprised, since I thought there was no way Otis would go to Vegas. I was also excited, he was part of our team that trained hard for this moment. That he would be a part of it after all that happened was great news. I was also honored.

Thinking of Otis is all it took for me to resume my race, even as my hamstring throbbed and my ankle ached. Ignore the pain, that's all I have to do. My GPS watch went from an 8:02 pace back to about 7:45. Good enough to set my personal best. My music did the rest.

Until the cramps hit.

I adjusted my stride hoping they'd go away. I ran with more of a flat footed step hoping to minimize the strain on my calves. It seemed to work, until I had to move laterally to pass someone; then they'd begin again. I knew I'd need sustenance, so I forced down another package of something called Gu that I'd picked up at an aid station. "Please be enough to stop the cramps," I begged. I'm not sure how quickly I could digest and process that something called Gu, but perhaps psychologically I convinced myself that it helped.

It didn't, the cramps came back midway through mile 13 and I was really thinking I'd have to walk. I turned towards the crowd for some reason. I can't really explain why I did just then. I'd not looked at the crowd the entire race prior to then. One head stool tall and over those people around him. "Hey, I know him." It was Drizz. I turned and pointed to him, music still blaring through my headphones. A group of about 15-20 bloggers saw me and began to cheer. Amazing. Truly an amazing feeling that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I'm not exaggerating. Fuck the cramps, I'm running through them. Powered by that simple gesture of friends watching and cheering, I crossed the finish line. Not knowing that the chip time was being recorded for me throughout the race, I calculated my finish time by adding song #1 of my playlist to my GPS timer. It came out to roughly 1:41, a personal best by 7 minutes.

To everyone who was there for me throughout the weekend, thank you very much. The race was part of a weekend that redefined what's important to me.

I think the best thing you can do for someone is simply be there when you're needed. You don't have to do much, most people don't need a lot of support. Small, little things matter. A cheer, a hug, a few minutes of converstation, a big bag of Stella....

Any support that's freely and willingly given to a friend is magnified a thousand-fold by its recipient. Trust me.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Exercise - Some Thoughts

I was honored last weekend to be part of a group of runners who dedicated their time and effort to complete the Las Vegas half marathon with me. Many of these folks were running the longest they'd ever run before on that day and they all finished. One of the more common topics of conversation that I overheard afterwards was how being there to cheer on others had motivated them to either resume or begin training themselves. That's outstanding.

So, if I may be so bold, let me relay a few tips to those of you considering beginning a training program, be it running or simply a general fitness routine. Many people start them, and as we all know, not as many people continue with them.



Consistency - This is the absolute, number one thing to remember. Be consistent. Try your best to make working out not something you feel you have to do, but something you want to do. Make it a part of your lifestyle, just like having breakfast. Yes, it takes time and effort; but you don't have to workout every day. Start out slow and get used to the extra things you'll need to do to make working out easier, i.e. the extra laundry you'll need to do, the extra packing you'll need to do each morning before you go to work.

(Tip: If you work out after work, DO NOT go home first. If you think you'll head home after work and then go back out to the gym, you'll highly likely not make it. Go straight from work to the gym, and then go home.)

Plan is a plan - Find someone to help with your plan. A co-worker who works out, a trainer at the gym, hell, you can even email me if you want and I'll answer as best as I can. But remember this - it's just a "plan." You may have to deviate from it at times, so don't EVER get discouraged because you either missed a short-term workout goal, regressed in your training a step, or flat-out missed a work out. Make concessions in your plan so that you'll have a back up. Shorten your workout if you need to, a shorter one is better than none at all. Switch off-days if you need to. If you have to miss a workout, make it up on one of your rest days. Even if you flat out miss a week or longer due to travel, do NOT give up. Understand that it's a small step backwards, but you're still on a plan to move forward.

Coming Back from a break - To me, this is the NUMBER 1 cause for people to fall off the work out wagon. Look, you'll get sick. You'll have unexpected travel. You will miss a workout, even several, through no fault of your own. You need to find the mental discipline to resume your program after a break. It's very mentally discouraging to make good progress by being consistent for months at a time and then see it diminish because you're missing workouts. So what? Get back to the gym as soon as you can. It's difficult, I know. Just don't quit.

Enjoy - You should really at some point look forward to working out. It shouldn't suck. If it did, who would ever do it? Find something to make it fun. Honestly, healthy, physically fit people are fun to look at in tight clothing. I'm a male pig, and seeing a nice young woman in tight workout clothes is a motivator to me. I'm sorry. It's because I'm a pig. I understand that. If you're lucky enough to have a friend as a workout partner, that can make things enjoyable too. When GRob and Otis began doing long runs on Saturdays with me these past few months, it made a mundane run very much something to look forward to.

Compare you to you - Lastly, don't ever compare yourself to someone else. You're not them. You don't have their genetics, you don't respond to training like they do, you don't process foods the same way they do, you're not their age, you're simply not them. Everyone can find someone more fit than they are. I can find tons of guys stronger, faster (Dan), more lean, more proportional, more everything. Don't let that keep you from working out. Keep a log if you can, and in a year, compare yourself to what you were doing a year prior. You'll be amazed at YOUR progress. You get to keep it and nobody can take it away from you. Think about that.

If you decide to do something with respect to working out, start today. Don't wait for January 1st. Do it today. There's nothing stopping you. And if you choose to do something, consider how lucky you are to be able to. Dan's advice to us runners this year is the best advice I've ever had. "Consider how lucky we all are to be able to run today." There are millions of people who can't.