I walked into the starting corral at the Route 66 Marathon in perfect conditions. It was 38 degrees, with slight breezes and sunny skies. After a good, hard 12 weeks of training, this should have been the best half marathon I ever ran.
But strange things happen.
Instead of relishing the newfound conditioning I’d developed and soaking in another great race, I found myself in a fight. Just a few miles in, my body was saying, “Not today, dude. Not today.”
At the finish, the sprint at the end belied how I really felt, like I’d been beat up and denied what I’d trained so hard for.
But that’s not the whole lesson, and it’s not that one-sided.
THE RUNUP TO ROUTE 66
Over the summer, I’d set a goal time that I wanted to hit for this year’s race. Last year, I had a mellow training program that gave me a better-than-expected time of just over 2:15 (I’m not that fast, folks). I was happy with that, coming in a bit heavy and just four minutes off the best 13.1-mile time I’ve ever run, and five minutes under the previous year’s disappointment.
Surely with a more serious training schedule, I’d crush that PR and maybe get past that two-hour barrier. So I set out to make a more aggressive program that had me running more weekly miles than I’d done since I trained for a marathon back in 2013.
Dude. I was religious about it. Aside from skipping one weekend 5K and doing a treadmill speed workout on a day when it was pouring rain, I nailed it every day. The weight peeled off, my cardio returned, and by the time I ran the Tulsa Run 15K eight weeks in, I was hitting mile paces I hadn’t seen in four years. Breaking two hours was probably not in the cards, but that PR seemed in the bag. During the Tulsa Run, my 5K splits were even, I crushed the hills and I had cardio for days. With three weeks of hard training left, it seemed inevitable that I’d smash a half marathon course of which I was intimately familiar.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. I’d just finished running an 11-miler on a warm day, capping off a 34-mile week. Not bad for me. But something felt off that night, and by the next day, when I was scheduled to do an hour-long bike ride (my standard cross-training workout), something was amiss. That night, I was sick as a dog.
The next day, it was worse. And worse again the day after that. Congestion, sore throat, drainage and junk in my chest. It knocked me out for a few days, killing off three runs. Later in the week, I felt good enough to get back to it, and to my surprise, a 3-miler went well. The next day, 12 miles were on tap, the first 6 of which were spirited, but the last 6 very meh. I headed into my taper, hoping the nagging cough and chest gunk would be gone by race day.
Too bad, sucka.
I paced myself fairly well in the first couple of miles, but about three miles in, I knew something was up. My lungs were working too hard, and my legs told me they didn’t want anymore. This was a bad sign, with 10 miles to go, and plenty of hills in front of me before the course flattened out about midway through. I told myself that I could catch my breath then, with the hills of midtown Tulsa behind me, and regroup before things got gnarly again at Mile 8.
I never recovered. Every mile was work. Hitting the mild but long incline at Cincinnati Avenue, the kick wasn’t there. I smashed this hill last year, but suffered this time around. Back down on the flat mile at Riverside Drive, I again hoped to recover just a little before the two big hills leading back into downtown.
And that didn’t happen, either. Facing the big inclines of Miles 11 and 12, the challenge was to not give in and peter out, but instead to run these things hard.
One of the things I made sure to do all season long was to run hills. Route 66 is a hilly course, and if all you run are flat sections, you’re going to suffer. The climbs up Southwest Boulevard, then Seventh Street nail me every time on this race, so I purposely created training routes that finished with long, steep hills. Practice makes perfect, and it sure made a difference at the Tulsa Run. It was a matter of pride to conquer these things.
Thankfully, I did. Not fast, but good enough to keep some sort of pace and not slow to a defeated walk. But there wasn’t much left in the tank after that, now that my legs and lungs had betrayed me.
Heading into the Tulsa Arts District, I plodded slowly until the finish was in sight. Just enough reserve was left to quicken the pace and sprint in.
But being nowhere close to a PR seemed inevitable. I wasn’t even sure I’d be faster than the year before, when I trained in a much more leisurely fashion.
Being in the B Corral, and well off the start line, it was hard to gauge my chip time finish. I don’t often run with tech, choosing instead to track my progress on the clocks set up on the course.
Instead of beaming in the post-race sun, I hunched down, deliberated what happened and guzzled a Gatorade. No point in lingering, I headed to the shuttle bus to take me back to the start line area.
While on the bus, I dared to look up the times. Punched in my name, then viewed the results. It popped up on my phone: 2:14:30.
Frankly, I was surprised. I was actually faster than last year. Even though I felt like hell, my body wasn’t cooperating and I ran with no fluidity to speak of, I’d somehow performed, well, better. Suddenly this result was now my new second-best half marathon time.
But it was a small consolation. I worked very hard for a mere 31 seconds. That’s the equivalent of walking through one extra aid station. It was also a good 3 minutes off my 13.1 PR. Oy. No two-hour mark, no PR. But faster than 2016. Call it a personal bronze medal.
I could have been bummed by this. In some ways, I am. It’s not what I worked for. But I understand it.
When you have a bunch of gunk in your chest, you won’t have your normal cardio. And with that, there goes your breathing and your legs.
But there is something else. A tougher training season made me mentally stronger. There was a lot to fight through in this one, and it was a lengthy battle to keep going at a pace that eventually got me across the finish in a way that did not prove embarrassing. In the last couple of miles, I was wondering if the race might end up being one of my slowest half marathons. So seeing the chip time on my phone during the bus ride downtown showed me that even though I didn’t come close to my goals, I worked hard enough to make progress.
Silver linings, man. You take ‘em where you can.