I heard my iPhone buzzing. I thought that was odd, because I could have sworn I had turned the ringer back on before I went to sleep. Oh well. The bigger question, of course, was who was calling me so early? It couldn’t have been later than 5:00 AM.
Except that it was 6:20 AM. Crap! I knew immediately that it was Tim calling. And I knew what he wanted.
He wanted to know where the heck I was.
Panic set in. This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t the plan!
The plan was to get up at 5:00 AM and get to Tim’s house by 6:00 AM. We were going to meet Steve, Katie, and Bridgett there, and we were all going to drive up to Harrisburg for the half marathon together in Tim’s van. It was going to be a group thing. After all, we’d all been running together and training for this half marathon together for months. We got up early on Saturdays and met at various locations: Tim’s place, my place, downtown Lancaster, the Conewago Recreation Trail. Anywhere we could find a good place to run. We increased our mileage almost every week, and we had made tremendous progress together.
We were a team.
Only I was kind of messing up the team right now. We were supposed to leave Tim’s by 6:00 AM, and here it was already 6:20. Crap!
I picked up the phone. “Leave without me,” I said.
Tim was curious. “You still coming?”
“Leave without me,” I repeated. “I’ll meet you up there.”
Sure or not, I didn’t have much choice. By the time I would have gotten to Tim’s place, I would have made us all late. I scrambled to get my running gear together, thankful that I had at least laid some of my things out and gotten my hydration belt ready the night before.
Jen stirred in bed. “Are you going up by yourself now?”
I nodded. “Yeah, not much choice.”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“I have GPS on my iPhone,” I said. “I’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t rush,” she offered. “You have plenty of time to make it there before eight.”
“I know.” But I still hated driving in Harrisburg. We said goodbye and I dashed over to the computer to print out directions. Of course, I didn’t know the address, so I had to search the web for info on the half marathon. I finally printed the “to” and the “from” directions, and I was off.
Thankfully, traffic was light that early on a Sunday morning. I found my way to City Island in Harrisburg and secured one of the last available parking spots. It was about 7:30. I called Tim to find out where the team was, and we met up a few minutes later.
When I saw Tim up ahead, I felt like I could breathe again. My first official half marathon was not something I wanted to do alone. I wanted to be with the same people I’d been training with for so long.
And they’re good people. A good team. As soon as I got there, they handed me my timing chip, which they had picked up for me. And the day before, they had picked up my race packet when I couldn’t join them because of prior commitments. I strapped the timing chip around my ankle and we gathered for a group picture.
Soon, it was time to make our way toward the starting line. We headed outside, and it was cold. It had been raining for hours and the air had quite a chill to it. We all figured we’d be warm enough soon enough.
Before I knew it, we were running.
For a while, we were running in front of a father and his two sons, aged ten and twelve. We were all impressed with kids that young even attempting a half marathon. At one point I heard the father ask, “Are you guys okay?”
“My legs kinda hurt,” replied one of his sons.
The father laughed. “Yeah, they’ll probably do that until we’re done!”
After a bit, we got behind a group of Christian runners with scripture on their shirts. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Katie, Tim, and I stuck together for about the first four or five miles. Maybe six. Eventually Tim fell behind, saying, “I’m not running to keep up with you. I’m running my pace. See you at the finish line.” I kept up with Katie for a few more miles. Turns out, she was having a really, really good day. She was feeling no pain and running like the wind. I, on the other hand, was feeling some serious pain, mostly in my stomach, and breaking wind instead of running like it. Somewhere around mile eight, I eased up and told Katie to go on without me. I ran for about one more mile before I really hit the wall. I died around mile nine.
Then I remembered what Tim had said repeatedly: “Most people in this world never even make it to the starting line.” I walked, aching and sore, and waited for Tim to catch up. It wasn’t long before I heard, “Hey! Nice of you to wait for me!”
I picked up my pace again and said, “That was only part of the motivation.”
Tim laughed and checked his phone. “We’re still running a great pace,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
On we ran together.
For about a mile and a half. My legs gave out and I just had to walk again. Tim grabbed me by the arm. “Come on, let’s finish this. You and me.”
I shook him off. “Go, man,” I said. “I’ll get there.”
Tim took off and I walked a bit further. Soon I heard another voice, one I didn’t recognize. “Come on!” she yelled. “Pick it up!”
I turned to see an unfamiliar young woman running toward me from behind. “There’s still time to finish with pride!” she said. “Let’s go!”
Once again, I picked up my pace, and I thanked her for the encouragement. “No problem,” she said. “You pay me back by picking up a straggler on your next race.”
I don’t remember many details from the next few miles. I had hit that point when your mind and body aren’t really even connected. I remember talking to a really nice guy with a strong Indian accent who was, at this point, completely panic-stricken about the full marathon he was scheduled for in two months. I remember spilling water on a volunteer at one of the water stations. I remember getting back to the bridge and seeing and hearing a group of runners who had already finished cheering for those of us still running. Cheering with everything they had left. That pushed me forward some more.
Soon I hit the bridge back to City Island.
I’m sure he meant that to be encouraging, but the fact was, I had nothing left to save. I was spent.
And I crossed the finish line.
When we did our practice half marathon at the Conewago Trail, I finished in 2:20. I had wanted to beat that time, but for my first official half marathon, I was content to achieve that.
A volunteer removed my timing chip from my ankle and another placed a medal around my neck. It was heavy. It was real metal, not plastic junk. And even though I knew that all of the almost one thousand runners who ran that day each got one, I felt like a champion. Like Tim said, “Most people in this world never even make it to the starting line.” And I had crossed the finish line.
I made my way back to the pavilion or garage or whatever kind of building it was where they had set up food and music for us. I found the rest of my team and helped myself to a well deserved breakfast of fruit, half bagel, and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
While I ate, I checked Twitter, only to find some tweets of encouragement from my daughter, who had borrowed my wife’s phone at church to send me a couple messages. I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up a bit when I read them. I had made my daughter proud, and that was a great accomplishment.
I probably would have cried more if there had been any fluid left in my body.
After having some time to reflect, I realized some of the mistakes I’d made that day.
First, oversleeping and rushing to get to the race venue didn’t start me off on the right foot.
Second, I underate the day before. By a wide margin. I didn’t eat enough carbs, or enough food of any kind. So I started the race at a deficit, hoping that some Gatorade could make up the difference. It didn’t. I paid for it with some stomach pain during the race.
I also pushed too hard, too soon. Tim commented that he felt like he didn’t hit the wall he always hits at the nine mile mark because he listened to his body. I joked that I listened to Katie’s body and ended up hitting Tim’s wall for him. Instead of trying to keep up with Katie (who had a great day and was really feeling it), I should have held back and maintained a more manageable pace early on.
Finally, I hadn’t done enough hill work leading up to the race. I had heard that Harrisburg was a pretty flat course, so I had been working on my pace and my endurance, and I had neglected hill work.
Given all that, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. This past spring, I started the Couch to 5k program. Little did I know I’d be going from couch to half marathon in five months.