I was going to write the day before the Flying Pig Half, and looking back, I should have. It would have been great to compare how an accomplishment like that can wipe out negative feelings, and a perfect example of what I hoped this whole process of half ironman training would do for me. I was feeling pretty sour about someone I’ve been talking to lately bailing on me twice in 12 hours. I was also annoyed at the fact that I was annoyed, by that. I know that in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t matter at all, but it was still getting to me. I was also nervous about logistics, about how my knee would feel, and my shin. I was nervous about if there would be anyone there cheering for me. I was nervous about having to run my first big event without my friends, and about how water stops worked. I started to second-guess what I was going to wear. Documenting all of that in a post would probably have calmed me down some. It also would definitely have become a fantastic resource in the future when I get nervous. Something to look at and remind myself that no matter what the issues are, I can overcome them. I was going to write, but I didn’t.
Instead of writing, I ate comfort food and drank 4 or 5 beers in the afternoon/evening. I finally decided what I was going to wear and laid it out. I finalized my pre-race logistics. I went to bed nervous and unhappy. I didn’t sleep well.
I woke up nervous. I tried to remind myself that really, this is a training day for me. It’s just a long run. I have done workouts waaaay longer than this. My time doesn’t really matter. This is supposed to be fun and I should enjoy it. I made coffee, which I never do, and made my oatmeal. I forgot that I wanted to eat a banana. I left my apartment and hustled through the cold air to my car, trying to think as little as possible; trying not to be nervous.
I met up with a few people from my running group and we shared an uber to the race. The driver was hauling ass taking us down there, and was hilarious, which actually loosened me up some. We made it downtown and I was wishing I’d brought some water. Dry mouth… due to…? nerves? herbs? the cold, crisp air?
Club picture time.
After that I felt a little better. “Okay, at least this is going according to plan. My system is ready even if my brain isn’t.”
When I came out, I didn’t see my friends, but quickly found some other Fleet Feet club runners and walked towards the start with them. Eventually I caught up with my group and we found our corral.
My brain: “Uh oh… I have to pee. Yes, even though I was just at the potty. ORRRR… maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m just nervous. Just get started and see how you feel. There are plenty of potty stops along the way. Just get across the start line.”
Finally it was our turn to move up to the line. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the actual for us start seemed somewhat unceremonious… At least, that’s the way I recall it. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe they only make a big deal for the people who are first up at the line… that would actually make sense. Anyway, we were off.
The first thing that struck me was that there were SO SO SO many people around me. There were hundreds.. .thousands of other runners, and there were people lining the route. I didn’t really experience the spectators at the start. I think I was just in my own little world, worrying about a thousand different things. Every foot fall was analyzed for how it might be causing pain. I thought a lot about having to pee. I was very much in my head. It was cold, but I ditched my headgear quickly, glad I had worn the jersey and that I had pockets. Maybe the warm bodies all around me radiated heat. Maybe I just misjudged the temperature. Regardless, I was glad I hadn’t worn more, and glad that I had gone with arm warmers which I could push down and pull up as I needed. I quickly was dropped by my group. I’d expected that to happen, but not so soon. I saw another friend and ran about a mile with her, but was soon dropped by her as well.
I was alone, with thousands of people around me. I began to understand how the water stops worked. My knee began to hurt. I began to notice the spectators. I tried to remember to take it all in; to look around at everyone; to smile; to observe the the giant river of bodies (of which I was one) flowing down the road. I walked. I walked early. I accepted that I wasn’t going to hit this one out of the park and that this would be a test, rather than a triumph. This was going to be hard. When I accepted that, I went for a pee.
Seventh street was where things changed, I think. It was about on seventh street that I felt like I settled in and began to enjoy things. I saw a family running all together. The dad asked one of the little girls how she was feeling and if she was tired. When she said yes, he said “Me too. Let’s stop for a little bit and walk. That way we won’t be too tired for more fun later.” I saw signs that said “You’ve already won! This is just your victory lap!”. I saw a guy leading a developmentally disabled friend or relative. I saw hundreds… thousands of people doing something good together, and thousands more supporting them. There were dozens of signs that read some variation of “go! random stranger! go!” or “I don’t know you but I believe in you!” It was finally opening up and taking in these things that changed the race for me.
As the mass of moving legs and sweating bodies that I was a part of snaked its way through the corridor of cheering supporters, I began to understand why people do this, and why people who have never done this before all of the sudden CAN do it on race day. I began to feed off the energy around me. As my nerves faded, I really began to have fun.
After 7th street came “the hill”. It’s a long climb out of the city up to the overlook at eden park. It’s my route home on the bike when I ride to and from work. I know this hill well. It’s a pain in the ass on the bike. It’s never really that steep but there are lots of pitch changes, a few false flats, and it really doesn’t feel like it ever ends. There was a guy half way up the hill with a megaphone and a giant cardboard “F” on a stick. He was waving the “F” and saying “Look, here’s the “F”, now, get the “F” up the hill.” Just before this guy I realized I was passing people. I was passing a lot of people. In fact, sometimes I was the only one around who was still running. Not only that, but my pace hadn’t even really slowed. At no point in the race was I limited by my fitness, only by the pain in my knee, but here I realized I wasn’t having any trouble keeping my running form together or getting tired due to the incline. The others around me definitely were. My inner monologue was changing from “I might be able to do this” to “I can probably do this…”
I was looking forward to seeing my parents around the turn into the park, not quite half way up “the hill”. I wanted to ditch some of my layers with them, and I knew seeing them would give me a boost and distract me from the blisters forming on the balls of my feet. When I got to the turn, I couldn’t see anyone I knew. I got all the way into the park… still no parents. “Okay,” I thought, “I probably just missed them… that kinda sucks, but that’s okay. I’m feeling strong and I am managing the knee pain well. I’ll be okay. Hopefully they at least saw me, even if I didn’t see them.”
I had to stop half way through the park to re-tie my shoes. I was hoping to limit the blister formation, though ultimately that didn’t happen. It was hard to get going again, but my favorite teacher, who has done this race before, told me to look out for the Elvis singing outside of the Krohn Conservatory. He was actually pretty good. By the time I was done chuckling at that, I was back into my rhythm and enjoying this crazy experience. Then came the Eden Park overlook. It was gorgeous. I’ve been there before, but high on the energy of the spectators and endorphins, it was a special experience. I’ll probably never remember going there any other time, but that fleeting view of the river on that Sunday morning will stick in my mind forever.
The crowds started getting thicker again as I got to Woodburn and I was starting to get more excited. I was also starting to feel pain in my right knee and foot. I thought one of my friends was going to be in this area but I honestly didn’t expect to see them because of how many people were there. Then out of nowhere, right at the corner of Madison and Woodburn I heard “Saaam!”. Someone was yelling at ME! Someone who KNEW me! They weren’t just reading my name off my bib, they actually KNEW me!
There’s only one person who yells my name like that!
I spotted my mom, several feet out onto the running course, where she really shouldn’t have been, waving like crazy, with a big smile on her face. I lit up. I felt so good. I ran over and gave her a hug, told her I was feeling good but couldn’t stop. She pointed and yelled “Dad!” and I saw my dad about 30 yards down the road. I ran over to him. He tried to hand me a small can of coke, which I had asked for him to have for me. I had been worried I might be tanking by that point in the race and the sugar and caffeine boost would be necessary. “No, I feel good! I don’t need it.”
“How are you? are you okay?” He said as we had a quick hug.
“I feel good! I’m going faster now! I feel good!” I said as I gave him the thumbs-up. He told me later that I looked like a guy who was suffering a lot, that my stride was not smooth and that he wasn’t sure at that time if I would make it all the way. Yeah, I was in pain, but I was also on top of the world.
I know my parents don’t really understand all the physical suffering I’ve gone through in training. They don’t know why I do it. They definitely have no idea about the mental suffering and depression, and they think I’m kind of crazy for pushing myself so hard to reach these goals, but I also know that they love me unconditionally and are infinitely proud of me. I’m infinitely proud to be their son. And in that moment I was so incredibly happy to be there sharing that experience with them. They don’t need to know just exactly why I do these things, because they know just how much these things mean to me.
That’s when I knew I was going to finish. That’s when my inner monologue went from “I can probably do this…” to “Holy Shit! I’m going to do this!! I’m really going to do this! I’m a runner now! And I’m about to finish a HALF F-WORDING MARATHON!”
30 more yards up the road I saw my neighbor friends. “Go Sam! YEAH!!! You can do it!” I waved and yelled “thank you!!! thank you for coming!!!”
Somewhere in the next mile or two I saw an official time clock and it was showing something like 1:48. I knew I hadn’t started when the clock started, and I had probably a 15 minute cushion. After some quick mental calculations, I realized that not only was I going to finish, but I might even make my 2:30 goal if I could just keep up a good pace. I knew the rest of the race was mostly downhill. I also knew I wanted that feeling of pouring it all out for the finish.
Coming back down into the city was amazing. Cincinnati has a beautiful skyline, even during the day. Seeing the city I grew up in while high on running and knowing I was about to accomplish one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted was pretty incredible. On the way to the finish, I also passed a few of my tri-club friends. Being surrounded by other runners also working their hardest to achieve their goals, flanked by spectators cheering you on, and then seeing a few friendly faces in the crowd was unreal. I drew energy from every aspect of the experience. It was the source of my fuel to finish fast. There’s really no way to describe running towards MY finish, in MY city, surrounded by MY friends and MY fans. That’s how I felt at that point. This was MY race, and MY day to do something incredible that up until a few minutes before, I wasn’t even sure I could do.
Once the course flattened out in downtown, the crowds were even bigger, and louder. My legs were both hurting a LOT by this time and my right foot was a mess. I knew I had serious blisters on my feet. But knowing I had less than 20 minutes to go before the finish line, and feeding off the energy all around me, there was nothing that could slow me down. I slowed down to talk to one of my friends who’d dropped me at the beginning. She looked like she was suffering. I asked if she needed anything.. water… a gel… just someone to pace and run with her. She told me her parents were just ahead and I should go on. I looked at my watch. Less than 1 mile to go. One more mile. ONE MILE… ten minutes or less. Time to go hard.
I gave almost everything I had at that point. “Screw pacing. Screw watching my heart rate. Screw it all… I want that finish line.” I remember thinking. As I rounded the last corner I saw one of my teammates taking pictures. He yelled and waved. I gave him the thumbs up but couldn’t slow down. It was so close now. My legs were screaming for mercy and my lungs were on fire. I saw one of the first full marathoners coming down their finishing chute. Seeing that guy stride like that was the last bit of inspiration I got on that day. I couldn’t match his pace, after all, he was a professional runner, not a fat guy like me, there to give it the old college try… But I knew that a little bit of what had got him to where he was, was what put me where I was.
After a gentle curve, I could see the finish line. After a stress fracture, freezing cold training runs, hot and humid distance runs, lots of physical therapy, a lot of doubt, and 2 hours and 20 some minutes, I was just a few hundred yards from my finishing line. Everything I had left, which wasn’t much, I poured out for the last 300 yards. My finisher photo shows a face laced with agony and gasping for oxygen, but it also shows a dude having pushed himself past where he ever thought he would get, and earning a finish that will last forever. It shows a completely different person than the one who started kicking around the idea of doing a half ironman 6 months ago.