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Tuesday, April 6, 2010 04:05 pm

Just out of reach...

I woke up Saturday morning at 5:45 – fifteen minutes before my alarm clock was set to being its annoying beep regimen. Here’s how it usually goes: The sound starts slowly. “Beep…Beep…Beep…Beep.” After about 8 beeps, it suddenly doubles in speed. “Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep” If I’m not up within a few seconds, it goes into time-bomb mode. BeepBeepBeepBeep,” until I violently smack “snooze” and roll over, burying my head in the pillow once more. Saturday was different. I was too excited to sleep, and I didn’t need the alarm to remind me that it was a big day. I had trained for three months to run the Lincoln Memorial Half Marathon, and the starting rifle volley was fast approaching.

In a rare instance of forethought, I had laid out my clothes, pedometer and energy snacks the night before, so that I could minimize my prep time and maximize my relaxation before the race. I dove into my clothes, leapt into my shoes and threw my contacts in like tiny Frisbees. I slurped a coffee-flavored Gu packet, chugged down some water and started hopping around in anticipation like a rabbit on speed. My roommate Kevin was also running, but he was decidedly less hyper about it. By the time we met Amanda at the starting line, I was punching the air like Rocky Balboa and attempting that crazy Capoeira dance style they do in Brazil. Needless to say, I probably looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care.

My energy level was so high, I couldn’t help but run like a felon who just broke out of jail. I was practically sprinting, passing people in much better shape than myself. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, “I shouldn’t be going this fast. I shouldn’t be passing the guy with calf muscles like tree trunks.” I just figured I would take advantage of the endorphins while they lasted and deal with the slump when it came. That was a mistake.

My first four miles passed in the blink of an eye. As I hit the fourth mile marker, my pedometer told me I had just blasted my old 5K time out of the water, running almost as fast in four miles as my record for three. That was pretty encouraging, of course – until I realized I hadn’t even completed a quarter of the course and my legs were already getting tired. That was at the first South Grand Avenue entrance to Washington Park, and by the time I made the loop into Leland Grove and back, I was fully aware that I had outpaced myself.

I spent the next few miles calculating whether I could still finish within two hours and reminding myself of how much better I was doing than last year. Just getting to that point was a triumph, I decided. (That’s true, considering that I’ve lost sixty pounds since my freshman year of college, and I used to be totally pooped after just two miles.)

At the water stop near the IDOT depot on North Lincoln Avenue, I stopped to down some Jelly Belly Sport Beans and rehydrate. (The Jelly Bellies take too much time to chew, by the way, and require too much water to swallow. I wouldn’t recommend them for events in which time is an issue.) As I refueled, Kevin and Amanda arrived, checked on me and continued on without complaint. I, on the other hand, had a complaint. I was tired and sore, but I had to go on.

The hills at Oak Ridge Cemetery and Lincoln Park totally kicked my butt. The Lincoln Park hill is probably only a tenth of a mile long, but it feels like a 45-degree angle, and after nearly 11 miles of running, it feels pretty brutal. I’m ashamed to admit that I walked it. I could have done it running, but my calves and quads were super tight, and I simply didn’t have the mental will. That’s what I get for leaving my pals behind at the start and not being able to keep up when they find me at the water stop chomping energy beans like an addict.

As I caught up to the soldier running in military fatigues and body armor, I realized I had made two mistakes: I hadn't taken my usual two aspirin to keep my legs from swelling, and I hadn't stretched out properly before starting. I made another realization then, as well: I had lost my focus. I knew I could go faster if I could just push myself mentally and ignore the leg pain, but it wasn’t happening. I stopped two more times before I hit the home stretch. There’s something about seeing the finish line ahead that gives me a burst of mental energy. Even though my legs had been entirely uncooperative for the past three miles, as I approached the finish, they suddenly sprang to life in a furious sprint. For the last fifty meters of the race, it was as if I had traded in my legs for a fresh pair. Why can’t I feel like that all the time?

I finished the race in 2:13:35, about five minutes ahead of last year, but 13 minutes behind my target of two hours. My sister and my dad greeted me in the cool down tent as I greedily stuffed my face with a donut and a plain biscuit, washed down with purple Gatorade. I was just happy to be done, but I couldn’t help thinking already that I would train harder and longer for next year’s race. I will break two hours. It’s only a matter of time.

Care to share your story from the half? Shoot me an email at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com, and if it’s interesting, I’ll feature it here.

Thanks, and have a great week!

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