Written at 3AM, the morning of the race
You know the feeling you get when you’re anxious – soooooo anxious – that you can’t sleep, but your eyelids protest the idea of staying open?
That’s where I am right now.
I’m too anxious to go back to sleep, and it’s probably for the better. If I go back to bed, chances are high that I’ll wind up waking up well after the starting gun has gone off.
This entire thing is difficult because, while I can train for the terrain and the distance, I can’t train for racing in general. I have no idea what to expect! I don’t know how 30,000 people are supposed to eat, drink, go potty, run and finish together. I don’t know how 30,000 people do anything other than watch sporting events and concerts together… and even still, people struggle with doing those with some sense.
This opportunity came to me out of thin air. Right as I was marveling at the athleticism of our Olympian athletes and trying to figure out what kind of challenge I wanted to train myself for, I received an e-mail from the US Army offering to sponsor my very first race, which would be their race. I would train on my own and, with the support of a Drill Sergeant, would go on to run the race.
Of course, I couldn’t turn that down.
I might not’ve trained like an Olympian, but training was a challenge. I found a training program that worked for me, abandoned my typical weight training schedule, and went on working with the sheer goal of surviving the race. There’ll be no dragging me across the finish line.
And, here I am, laying in bed and mildly terrified, waiting for my shot at the Army Ten Miler.
Let’s be real. No one runs a 10-miler as their first race. People stick their toes into the pool and test the waters with a 5k (3.1 miles) as a first race. Nooooooo, not me. I had to be
crazy…er, gutsy. I had to train for a full ten miles, which I had only ever done once before, which was close to two years ago. More running than I’ve ever done in my life.
I have an idea of what I’ll do once I get to my corral, though. Since I’m in the last wave of runners, I’ll get there early and do my pre-run routine to warm up. I’ll probably meditate, stare at the sky a bit, and just breathe it all in. Here’s hoping it feels as good as it sounds.
Written the night after the race
I’m not even entirely certain of how I could put this into words, but I’m down to try, anyway.
I decided to walk over to the race from the hotel, just so that I could figure out what I’d do about this weather. Sure, I’d layered properly and all, but you have to warm up in the morning cold, and then stay warm until you hit the starting line.
The race began with all of us wrangled up in the Pentagon parking lot (sidenote: the Pentagon is HUGE. HOLY JEEZ.), separated by our bib colors. I stood around for a few minutes with my bag, praying that my coffee – mmmm, coffee – would contain magical running powers to help me last through the entire race without being swept up into what is lovingly known as the Sag Wagon (“if you’re saggin’, hop on the wagon!”), but it didn’t. It was just o’dark thirty, and I needed some reassurance that I’d be able to stay awake until the starting pistol went off. Coffee, with its tasty, caffeinated warmth, helped.
I scanned the crowd briefly, and saw that people were doing their pre-run routines. Some meditated, some ran quick jogs around the corral for our wave, some stretched wide enough for each leg to be in another state. Me? I went to my own standard routine. A heaping helping of yoga…
…which was promptly cut short by a beautiful display of awesome in the form of The Golden Knights:
After a well-deserved round of applause, one lone voice started off singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in one of the best tenor voices I’ve heard in a long time… and, in waves, the crowd of approximately 20,000 fell completely silent. Few songs get me choked up the way the national anthem and the Battle Hymn of the Republic can, and when they do… wow. Major lump in the throat.
An hour and several yoga poses later, the starting gun went off. Another half hour would pass before it was my turn to cross the starting line, and I was okay with that.
I am still so overwhelmed, that I can’t properly tell the story, but this race felt like I was meant to run it. It felt like, for a first experience, it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Crossing that starting line felt like a dare. It felt like the old me, shoulder-checking the new me, and questioning my place as number 29,945 in the long line of people who believe they can do this. It was me, staring me directly in the face, and asking myself “what, in the world, do you think you’re doing here?”
I was never a runner, and definitely not a racer. My running story is littered with the kind of on-again-off-again tale-telling that you expect to hear from an imperfectly-partnered pair, but that wasn’t running’s fault. I’d simply never had anything legit to train for and, therefore, no real reason to commit to it. I’m a lifter. A yogi. And a kid-chaser. Committing to running double-digit mileage on a regular basis is just new territory for me, but when the Army contacted me and offered to sponsor me to run their race – travel, registration and all the Army Strong t-shirts I could wear at one time – it felt like a golden opportunity to see all the hubbub was about.
I was genuinely concerned, though. Every time I’d ran in training, I’d ran with the puppies and, as you can imagine, anything is easier when you’ve got 120lbs of sled dog at your side… but I was in Arlington – the location of the race – alone. There’d be no Sala and Sushi. There’d be no phones or mp3 players, either and, as someone who considered Major Lazer a requirement for a good, long run… I was beyond worried.
Nonetheless, it was just me and the starting line. And if crossing it felt like a dare, then what would beating it feel like?
The Army Ten Miler holds lots of different emotions for lots of different people. This race brings people together for reasons that I will never be able to wrap my entire brain around. There’s a wave of runners that are wounded soldiers, who come together and compete each year. There are our Army world class athletes, current and future Olympians who train – sometimes, while stationed away – for the races. The families of our soldiers, who run this race in their honor and out of appreciation for what they’re doing while they’re away. And, as expected, there’s the “I Run So I Can Drink!” crowd.
There’s the guy who starts at the back of the pack, wearing an old school “patriot”-esque hat and running shorts with the print of the American flag all over them while he plays old patriotic tunes on a fife-like instrument. There’s the girl wearing a Snow White costume – with yellow jogging shorts instead of a yellow floor-length skirt – with “I’m running for my real Prince Charming!” written across her back in red glitter. There’s the mom, who probably won’t run a single time during the entire race but is still somehow moving faster than you, with a huge tee on that says something about a shadow run in Afghanistan… and it only takes you a few moments to figure out what a “shadow run” actually is.
There are company teams who run the race together annually, and consider it an honor to run this one. There are the friends who find themselves “no longer friends” after the race is over. (“Yeah, my friend signed me up for this race… sounds more like something an enemy does for you if you ask me!“)
And, most importantly… when you get to the point where you feel like you just have to stop running, you look up and find yourself running behind someone who has “In loving memory of…” with a pair of dates underneath…and you don’t know whether to tear up or pick up the pace and run a little faster.
The Army Ten Miler threw me for a loop a ton of times. The race is up and down various entrance and exit ramps and even changes terrain a time or two, going from concrete to cobble stone and back. Lots of little turns around corners and down those entrance ramps… lots of stuff I didn’t fully prepare for. I mean, sure… Prospect Park has it’s hills, but they’re child’s play compared to jogging up a four-leaf-clover entrance ramp.
There’s nothing more hilarious than the random mutterings of runners when they’re struggling, just trying to make it to the next re-fueling station. I heard conversations of who people hate at work; I heard a drill sergeant leading his crew, in cadence; and I heard the volunteer soldiers singing a tune about how “waaaaaaaaater sucks, it reeeally, reeeally sucks!” which kept me smiling in between the moments where I felt teary-eyed and inspired by the stories I read along my way.
Somewhere around mile four, I had an epiphany. I saw someone wearing a shirt that explained the foundation they were running “for,” which made me wonder – could I run for my friend, whose passing I wrote about on my blog? Could I run for her girls she left behind? Or run and bring attention to sickle cell anemia? Do people already do something like that, and if so, could I help?
Running without headphones should‘ve been hard for me, but I felt it calming. It wasn’t traditional Brooklyn noise of chatter over artisanal ketchup, local beer, bicycle deliveries, and Biggie; and it wasn’t Manhattan noise of soul-crushing car traffic, soul-stealing cab drivers, high-heel clicking and vapid cell phone conversations. (“So, the ice sculpture on the roof top had a shot slide on it, and oh-emm-gee…”) It was just feet. Heavy breathing, occasional conversations that were open to anyone within earshot on purpose, and… feet. 22,000 pairs of them, to be exact. I don’t know whether I would’ve been able to have such a bright idea like that if I’d had Freddy B demanding that I “express myself” in my headphones.
Somewhere around mile 6, all that “hydration” and “sugar” started to get to me… and I could feel it in my stomach… but I’ll be damned if I use a public potty. Not to mention, the line for the potty was downright ridiculous and I didn’t want to waste valuable time. I thought to myself, I’d just ride it out… except “riding it out” couldn’t include actual running. It made the feeling feel much worse than it was. If there’s a good 30oz of liquid sitting on my bladder, rest assured that hopping up and down didn’t help that at all. Walking, it’d have to be.
I didn’t set a time goal… at least, not publicly. Deep down inside, I was gunning for under two hours. I knew I could do it, too. When I reached the half-way mark at under an hour – even in spite of all the hills and turns – I knew I had it in the bag. A little walking couldn’t hurt me… could it?
There’s a point in the race where you lap around a block and come back down the other side, which puts you right up against people who’ve already passed you… and when they stick their hands out to give you, a complete stranger, a high five… you feel encouraged to keep going. You hear people telling each other “Good job!” and “Keep going!” and “Just one more mile [even though you’re only at mile 7]” enough times, it becomes a mantra. You eventually wind up hearing it at the moment you need it most, and you’re instantly thankful.
Somewhere around mile 8… I started to believe it was mile 9. I was tired and dragging on energy, and out of fuel… but I started to believe that I had less than a mile left, and a good 11 minutes to go. I picked up the pace, and actually started feeling like I could run again. I felt like I was actually going to meet my goal. I didn’t care if that clock read 1:59:59. I was going to make it.
Of course, in hindsight, I know better. Nothing hurt more than for me to get closer to 1:59:59, and see no finish line on the horizon. I teared up and instantaneously felt disappointed. Secretly, I’d let myself down. I was so focused on that time that I somehow miscalculated just how much time I had to hit my goal. But, for some strange reason, one of the volunteer soldiers sitting next to the mile 9 market shouted at me “Don’t give up, girl, you’ve only got one mile left!” and it gave me a moment of clarity. Was I going to hit my goal? Perhaps not. But what I was going to do… is finish strong.
The final mile of the race was probably the longest freaking mile I’ve ever ran in my entire life. It wound across a highway and down an entrance ramp, looped back towards the Pentagon and then up into and through the same parking lot where we first began. I, again, got emotional. I was doing it. I was winning. It wasn’t first place and it wasn’t my [rather ambitious] goal, but I was gettin’ it. It wasn’t about being proud, it was about believing I could finish. Before I hit the Pentagon parking lot, the team that I’d been working on #RunTober with with the US Army was standing there cheering me on. And, I thought to myself, if they‘re right there, then the finish line better be soon!
…and there it was. In all it’s red, white and blue glory. I, again, got emotional. Like, full blown ugly-cry tears… but still running. I needed to cross that finish line. I needed to prove to the old me, that the new me earned the right to hit that trail and run alongside those people. I can do this. And, even though I didn’t hit my secret goal, the reality is that whenever I trained beyond 5 miles, my pace becomes inconsistent and almost doubles. For me to hold that pace for as long as I did and average a 13 minute mile even with walking for almost a mile and a half and the bottlenecks up the hills… that means that I actually did far better than I thought I would’ve. If crossing that start line was the proverbial dare, then my teary-eyed finish was me not only completing that dare… but it was the new me staring the old me down and asking her what in the hell she was doing here. I trained. I researched. I put in work. I earned my right to be there, and who knows – maybe, next year, I’ll earn my sub-2hr ten miler.
The days of questioning myself, doubting myself… those days aren’t long gone yet, but they’re well on their way out. The days of thinking there’s no place for me, no reason for me to try, no reason for me to believe I can are finished. I can commit to an intense 400+ mile training program. I can commit to learning how to do what I want to do, and do it properly. I can get there without turning away at the starting line, and I can carry my giant self across the finish. And, most importantly, I can now take a failure as an opportunity for improvement, set a new goal, and actually train for that. (Also, maybe – juuuuust maybe – I can get over my public potty problems. Maybe some day… in the distant future. Maybe.)
Right now, my left ankle hurts, I’m a little tired, and my body is covered in salt. My lips smell like tears and sweat, and my afro puff is half-wet, half-dry. My arms and chest are a bit sore and, though I’m not feeling hunger pangs, a gallon of water probably wouldn’t quench this thirst.
…but I’ve got my finisher’s coin, though.
And, right now, that’s all that matters to me… until November, when I start training for next year and can shave a few minutes off that time.
Who knows? Maybe I can even beat that time of 44 minutes that the winner had.
…on second thought, let me not get ahead of myself.