Sunday, March 1, 2015

Day 10: Race Day. The Return!

For the past two years, every race I targeted has been a failure. Injury, low iron, stress and sickness; disappointment after disappointment. Today gave me something I haven't felt in years: I am coming back.  I am healthy again, and able to race.  I can be fast again.

This morning dawned....well,it didn't really "dawn" anything at all.  Thick rain clouds blocked out the sun, and grey simply got a little lighter as the morning progressed. If anything, the rain got worse as the morning wore toward 12:30 - race time. My nerves were somewhat calmed by Mindy's best efforts, and Skype calls with the family who means so much to me. Nothing, though, could shake the feeling that I wished the race was happening "tomorrow"; as the song goes, always a day away.

I boarded the bus for foreign athletes and settled into conversation with Nick and Tristan, a couple of guys I've gotten to know - a little - in the past 24 hours.  We talked about cool things to see in Japan; for my part, anything was better than thinking about the race ahead of me. Mindy, Marcella, and Mike took another bus - for athlete support (with their coach/manager badges generously provided by Yoko) - and met me at the stadium.  The first (and last) 600m of the race is around the stadium track.  When it's not teeming rain, I bet that makes for a pretty spectacular setting!

All too soon, it was time to warm up and head to the starting corrals.

Not the most comforting, in a race that pulls you if you don't hit key times, to be in the last corral.  #371 of 390 bibs.  It is what it is.  Just stay on pace for the first 15km.  Survive that milestone, and the rest gets more forgiving. I kind of wished at this point that Skechers made a waterproof singlet, but that will be the least of my concerns once the gun goes off.

And then it did.  One and a half times around the track - jockeying for position among nearly four hundred runners! Stay calm, stay out of trouble, and be ready to just cruise in a pack for the next 30 or so kilometres.

I had forgotten how much marathoning is a test of patience. Kilometre after kilometre clicks by, and my focus was just to make sure my pace was fast enough to make the cut-off times, and to stay in a pack as much as possible,  On a windy day like this, dodging the pack would have been a bad idea. It stunned me how many times in the first 15km a few of us who were running together (including Tristan, my Skechers colleague, and Nick) had to jump to the next pack, as the pace was not quick enough to make the first cut off at 15km! How does it feel to be pulled from the Lake Biwa Marathon?  I hope I never know.

Aside from mental anxiety about pace and reigning myself in, the early kms came fairly easily. I stayed in packs (honestly, more like denser parts to the continuous line of runners than "packs"), and tried to relax into my pace.

Of course, the pacers at the front were maintaining 3:00/km for the first 30km.  That probably wasn't so easy, though they make it look like it is.

I'm in awe.

We had a little over a minute cushion at the 15km cut-off, so I calmed down and allowed my pace to slow ever so slightly.  Halfway in around 1:12 felt very restrained, and - though the rain was still pouring down - it was no longer a concern.  Dodge the wind by staying in the pack, restrain yourself, and accept that you can't get any wetter. And then my stomach dropped.  Not because of my running; I still felt good.  We had doubled back on the course, and I saw the crowds of runners pushing toward the halfway mark.  And then I saw a white van, and then nobody.  Excellent runners, pulled from the course because they couldn't maintain 2:30 marathon pace for the first half of the race on a windy, rainy, miserable day.  That must be heartbreaking.

I didn't dwell long on others' misfortune, as my mind was occupied with my race. Dodge the wind by staying in the pack, restrain yourself, and accept that you can't get any wetter. Dodge the wind by staying in the pack, restrain yourself, and accept that you can't get any wetter. That pretty much summarises my race until around 30-32km, when I noticed that the pace of my pack was getting s..l...o....w.....e......r. Time to start racing.

I don't want to give you any false impressions, my pace was hovering around 3:30/km at this point, but I felt like I was FLYING!  The early cushion in pace had me well on track for a 2:25 - a huge PB!  I felt fantastic, and was passing guys every minute.  Being an obvious foreigner, and running faster than any of the guys around me, I had great crowd support.  Yes, despite the torrential rains, the route still had a lot of spectators. By 35km or so, despite massive doses of caffeine from a gel and the Red Bull in my bottles on course, my energy was starting to wane.  I was drifting into 2:26 territory, but still ecstatic for it.  It even crossed my mind that I was guaranteed a PB today.  I quickly corrected myself mentally, because nothing is guaranteed in a marathon; something can always happen.

And then it did.  Not terrible, just the gradual tightening of my calf becoming more and more pronounced.  It was possible that I could run through it and it wouldn't pull.  It was also possible that a few more strides at that pace and I'd be limping in.  I still hadn't passed the final checkpoint at 40km, and I wanted to finish this race with a smile on my face.  I dialed it way back, figuring I was still on track for a 2:28.  I could handle that.

A funny thing happens when you mentally decide to stop racing in the late stages of a marathon. You realise how much you hurt.  My pace dropped pretty fast, but I was ok with that.  I had plenty of time ahead of the last cut-off, so as long as I kept running, I was going to finish the Lake Biwa Marathon. The tight calf forced me to soak it in and enjoy the experience.

I started cheering on the other runners who passed me.  I smiled with a stupidly large grin to every spectator I passed.  Late in the race, with 1km to go, Tristan passed me looking strong.  Way to go!  He offered encouragement, but I was out of the race by then.  My mind was enjoying just running, knowing that this dream was going to be realised, and that I am in pretty awesome shape for 37km!

People have described how they feel crossing the line at Boston or New York City marathons - teary-eyed with joy and loving the celebration of running.  That was me today.  I did not care that I was toying with 2:30 pace.  It was terrible weather, I had run the fastest 37km of my life, and I was on the track to finish the Lake Biwa Marathon.  What an amazing pillar to what has been a phenomenal trip! (And it's only half over.) I crossed the line in 2:29:35 - my third fastest marathon, I think. I collected the finisher's towel (not a medal), and tried to find somewhere dry and warm.

I didn't do what I came here to do - to PB - but I don't care.  I'm back in shape, I'm happy with where my running is coming, and the only downside to a dreadful winter of running on treadmills appears to be that my legs aren't quite as durable as they need to be - about 5km short!  That's ok.  The racing season is just starting, and for the first time in a long time I see a sunny road ahead.

There's a post race party at the hotel this evening.  I think I might have a drink to drink or two to celebrate my return to (real) racing.

I wonder if my legs will be recovered for the ATB 30km?

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