Races and Stories

Super Association

White Rock Half Marathon, Dallas, Texas, November 1997

I announced to all of you in the flush of excitement following the IMC race reports that I was considering embarking on The Quest. The first step would be a marathon, in the Spring, to test my mental and physical fortitude.

Since then, I've been consciously building up my long runs from the ten-mile range to the 15-mile range. After having several 12-mile-plus runs under my belt, I thought it would be good to enter a race and add that experience to my training.

So, last Saturday morning found me walking across the field that was an impromptu parking lot to Winfrey Point at White Rock Lake in Dallas. (I love it when I see the shoreline features of this lake referred to with grand geographical terms. Instead of Winfrey Point, it should be Winfrey Tip. A Point would be bigger than the lake, which is a mere four miles long. But I digress.) I got in the restroom line a full hour before the race, which meant that I would need to go again before the race started. Too late then--I'd just have to hold it.

After wandering around the start-finish area to make sure of where things were, I tested the air to see if I could tolerate the 50-degree temps without an extra layer. The sun was bright and warm, but a big north wind lost its little bit of solar warmth as it crossed the water, and the breeze chilled the air at the start line. Wonderful. I tend to have trouble with warm weather (what most of you would call really hot weather), because I sweat a huge amount and can't seem to push enough fluids to make up for it, at least without a case of the cup that runneth over (if you get my drift). I do much better in cold weather.

Part of the training for me was getting a sense of where to line up. After my warmup, I wormed my way into the back third of the crowd. I knew the start would be slow. The crowd arranged itself in a circular mass that would have to extrude itself through a 30-foot starting gate. Passing through at last, I punched my watch.

The initial crowds were thick, but I immediately started moving up. This scared me, because above all I wanted to practice good race strategy: start slow and finish strong. I was relieved at the first mile marker: when I hit the lap button, the watch read exactly 10:00. That's hitting a target pretty close.

Now, you rabbits gotta unnastan' that us'n's is at the slower end of the line. A ten-minute mile is my I-have-to-run-for-the-next-four-hours pace. Which reminds me of a story in Bill Rodger's new running book. He said that a bopper exclaimed, "I don't know how anyone can run 26.2 miles in a little over two hours!" His response, "I don't know how anyone can run continuously for four hours!" Don't you just hate it when these little skinny biomechanically perfect neutral good economy runners talk about how hard it is to run slowly? Like skinny psychologists trying to explain why fat people eat.

Anyway, now I'm thinking that I'm warmed up, and it's time for a little quicker pace. The second mile rolled by in 8:51. That mile felt good: hard enough to let me know I was racing, but steady enough to know I could do it for a while.

By this time, we had rounded the south in of the lake, passed the dam, and were working our way through some residential neighborhoods on the west side. The hilly side. Not real hills, mind you, just little ups and down to give us all a chance to show off our climbing technique.

Watching the other runners on the hills was very instructive. Back where I was, the steady stream of runners was punctuated by many who were as inexperienced in long running races as I, but who had not the experience in endurance sports that has taught me how to listen to this thick, sluggish body. One college-age woman darted past me, breathing like a poodle. She got to the top of the hill, and started walking. I was motoring up the hill in my 90-strides-per-minute pace, taking the required baby steps to keep me aerobic, and breathing steadily in for two steps and out for two steps. When I caught up with her at the top, she was breathing like a beagle. (How is a beagle different from a poodle? I actually have no idea, it's just that my mental image of a poodle doesn't involve large quantities of exposed tongue and the concomitant, ah, oral fluids.) After a while, she darted past me again. This scenario repeated itself about four times, and then I passed her for good.

Then there was the guy running about 45 strides per minute. He was easy to spot. In the continuous ripple of bobbing heads, his body crashed up and down like a cresting dolphin. When I passed him, I could feel the vibration of his footfalls through the pavement. And that's quite a trick, given that little cracks appear in the pavement around the vicinity of my footfalls when I run.

The hills that spanned the next three miles are visible in my mile splits. Those three miles went by in the 9:10 range.

The first water stop came and went. It was so crowded that I passed it by. I know, I know. But it was cool, and I was in the groove, and the crowd at the stop was out of control. Plus, I had a low-level desire to pee that I didn't want to encourage overmuch this early in the run.

Along about mile five, everyone was getting into a grind. I could see people all around me start to fade, but I was just getting smoothed out. I was actually enjoying the hills. Given my general distaste for vertical displacement, which is closely correlated to the amount in which I tug on the planet, that I would enjoy running in hills is a testament to modern self-flagellation. But I can't help it--I like it.

Spirits in the crowd sagged, even as mine were steadying out. Then, a disturbance in the rumble of two thousand pairs of EVA padding against the pavement emerged from the crowd behind me. "Woooooo, wooo hoo!" Multiple strong female voices filled the breeze with calls to the surrounding runners to start enjoying themselves. I think the race organizers must have paid them to start at the back of the pack and work their way up through the crowd to cheer everyone up. Occasionally, we'd hear a male voice chime in, but always more weakly. Inexorably, the knot of merriment gained on me, even as I was still passing those around me. Eventually, the sources of all this noise caught me up. Three young ladies, happily clad in orange neon and black, showing off tanned and fit bodies and overall abundant good health, refused to pass anyone without getting some acknowledgement of pleasure.

This insistence on silly displays of joy were, of course, not to be tolerated. Running is serious, dammit, and these girls refused to proceed with deep quietude and respect befitting the true runner. Immediate action was demanded from someone who was accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed. Despite that requirement, I took the task on myself. "Alrightly, then, ladies. I'm going to have to ask you pull over while I cite you for Excessive Display of Vitality." They laughed as if I was making a joke and woo-hooed their way into the masses at my front.

We were running along the west side of White Rock Lake, and I noticed a small, neat sign planted in the grass by the roadside. "We Miss You, Miji, We Love You," or something to that effect. Miji: Mary Jane Roech, the unstoppable champion woman cyclist in a 1970's decade filled with unstoppable champion women. She moved to Dallas something around the early 80's, and worked her way into many hearts. This was a year or two after my close involvement with Texas bicycle racing, including a stint as the USCF District Rep, right before the second bike boom. She was taken from us in a traffic accident, but she was still remembered by that freshly painted neat little sign. I don't know who put it there, or why it would be there for a running race (assuming it had anything to do with us footpads at all). But I learned something about running long races: emotions run close to the surface, and I confess that I choked up remembering names of friends who have been lost in tangles with traffic. Names like Vicki Johnston and Chuck Livingston (two Texas cyclists--both good friends--who were killed in training rides around 1980), and, more recently, Judy Flannery, to name someone we all knew of and admired. And lots of names in between. I sent up a little prayer of thanks. Here I was, a thick-limbed, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and untalented physical specimen, thumping along happily, gifted with the opportunity to overcome talent and physique to pursue the good goal. I entered Mile Six in a humbled state.

Mile Six was the first of a six-mile stretch of pure groove running. I loved it. The splits went like this: 8:51, 8:51, 8:51, 8:54, 8:50, and then 9:07 in Mile 11, when I walked through a water stop. If that isn't in the groove, then the term has no meaning. I'm finally getting to the point in running that I've always enjoyed in really long bike rides. That rhythm of steady work output. My mind becomes a separate entity from my body: still fully integrated, but able to observe the process of motion and pain externally. It's the opposite of dissociation--it's super association.

I passed the third water stop in the sixth mile. This stop was managed by the members of my triathlon club, and they lined up both sides of the road to high-five every single passing runner. After the encouragement, they passed out cups of water on the left and Gatorade on the right, amid calls of "Water!" and "Sugar!" Triathletes understand what's important. I downed two cups of Gatorade without slowing down.

Throughout this stretch, I tuned into my feelings. How do I feel? What hurts? I'm in super association. I want to feel that pain that says I'm pushing the envelope. So, even while I felt like my mind was following along on the outside of my body, I was specifically aware of every little discomfort: the soreness in my right hip, the little pain in my right foot. The rubbing toenail in the left foot. The scratch of that blasted label tag on the inside of my singlet. It was all part of the experience. Paradoxically, awareness of physical limitation was liberating. I felt like I knew exactly how hard I could push, and I was therefore free to push at will. And push I did.

Two miles left: time to see what I had. I cranked up the pace, and now I was passing runners in droves. Mile 12: 8:33. Then on the left, I saw a familiar face. Chris Phelan, resident very fast runner, speed coach, and Ironman triathlete in Tri-Dallas, was wandering the opposite way down the road. By that time, he had been finished for about 22 or 23 minutes, and he was just taking a stroll to cool off and watch us mere mortals. He's 41, and finished third among the masters and seventh overall. I hollered "Chris!" and he went into full encouragement mode. "Go! Go! Pick-em-up-and-put-em-down! You can do it!" Normally, I'm entirely too worldly and composed to be affected by such sophomoric cheearleading. But, as I said, long runs bring emotions close to the surface, and I found that I could indeed stretch out that stride and pick up that pace. The last full mile went by in 8:06, which is 5K race pace for me, plus another 44 seconds for the last tenth. Somewhere during that time, I passed the female Happiness Patrol from earlier, woo-hooing no more. This time, I gave them a rousing (okay--wheezing) "Woo-Hoo! Near the end now, ladies; go!"

Looking at the others in the finishing chute, I realized that these were healthy, fit people. Not fast, but not normal, either. We had done something difficult. We hadn't done it real well, but to do it at all is a rare enough accomplishment all the same. Yes, much water has passed the proverbial bridge since I weighed 270 and lost my breath in the trek down the corridor to the Gent's.

So the final official time, including the minute or two it took to pass the start line after the gun went off, was a lethargic 1:58:30. Good enough for 810th place out of 1296 male finishers. A competitive time in the 65-69 age group (the race winner was in my 35-39 age group). But I set a plan and followed it, starting slow and finishing strong. I beat my goal time by ten minutes, and I enjoyed the last mile more than the first. What a blast!