Monday, June 10, 2013

2013 State Street Mile - Dream On

Picture taken by Ruth Morales
If you'd have asked me about two weeks ago, my opinion regarding the mile distance, I wouldn't have even needed to ponder before answering.  It sucks - it's stressful and painful: my hands and feet go numb at 800 meters; I get sick with nerves for a week beforehand; it's too short for old people like me who have lost precious speed; there's too many things that can go wrong and one mistake can blow the whole thing.  There's no way to train hard enough to not feel the searing pain of the red line.  There is no comfort zone in the mile.

I was a miler in high school.  In fact, still to this day, my single greatest moment in running and racing occurred when I won the mile at the State Championships.  I was not supposed to win "on paper."  But tell that to a 17 year old girl who ran in honor of her father who had passed away at the age of 47 just a few months earlier.  My dad always told me, "Cindy, you're going to be in the Olympics some day."  That memorable mile race just happened to fall on his birthday (it would have been his 48th birthday) and I gave it to him.  I gave it to the competition as well.  I won.

Was the mile easier back then?  I wonder.  I don't remember it hurting the way it does now.  Was that because I was young and had greater pain tolerance?  Or was it because I had not yet learned how to really get deep down into the hurt locker and stay there a while?  I think that pretty much sums it up.

I hadn't run a mile race since the few track events I did in college.  A few years ago, in 2010 I decided on some odd whim to enter a road mile in La Jolla, CA.  I entered as an elite.  I was 41 at the time, the oldest to enter the elite division, the only master female to toe the line with the youngins'.   The nerves just about drove me out of my mind.  I was unprepared for how crazy the mind and body get before a stinkin' mile.  Then there was the ensuing oxygen debt that began to build at the 800 meter mark and finally my body succumbing to it by denying oxygen to my extremities.  I placed third in that race and had a new respect for the mile.  Ouch.  I'm not sure I want to do another one of those.

The next road mile I finally had the chance to do was the 2012 State Street Mile.  It must have taken me a while to forget the pain, and then there was the little matter of injuries that began to plague me.  I entered initially in the elite division but switched to the Master's elite division after seeing the depth of young competition.  I finally decided that I would embrace my age and run as a Master and in the process, go after the Master's Elite record.  The down side was that I ran the race alone as there was such a variance in the speeds of the different women.  Each did amazing for her age, but in the raw speed category, there wasn't anyone to run with.  Somehow or another I still managed to send myself into some place of hell and string myself out to the very limits of my cells' ability to carry oxygen (as in, my hands and feet went numb around the 800 meter mark).  I was able to break the record but fell short of that sub-5 minute mark. 

The next mile I did is a bit of a sad, boring story.  It was in August of 2012.  It was the USATF So Cal Association Championship Road Mile.  That's a mouthful.  We just call it the Irvine Mile for short.  It is a straight shot from start to finish on an old abandoned airstrip, and it draws some talent.  I didn't have to worry about running alone in this one except that I might possibly be left in the dust.  The bummer is that I had committed to participating in the Santa Barbara Triathlon as the runner in a relay.  So on the day before the "Irvine Mile" I ran a 10 mile race.  I thought I'd be fine, no problem.  Plenty of time to recover.  Reality hit at the 1/4 mark of the "Irvine Mile."  Every other female in my race took off in some kind of an all-out sprint - even the old ladies.  What were they thinking?  My legs were pretty much glued to the tarmac (which was actually concrete) and I watched them all run away from me.  Then, (this was getting predictable) my hands and feet went numb at the 800 meter mark and I wildly made my way to the line somehow from there.  I remember wanting to quit.  But mostly it's a blur.  I do remember passing a few at the very end and eeking out third place in the Master's division, but I didn't feel my weak 5:18 time deserved anything but a trash can.  The pain from that one lasted for several days.  The air had been hot and dry leaving my lungs feeling scarred and damaged.  This is not the distance for me.

The next mile finally brings me to the point of this blog, the 2013 State Street Mile.  Nerves began to build one to two weeks before the event.  I hated even thinking about it and began wishing I hadn't entered.  The pressure was too much.  It wasn't so much any competitive pressure, it was more of a goal oriented pressure AND the fear of pain.  It was just going to hurt ... no if's, and's or but's.  As well, I desperately wanted to break the 5 minute barrier.  Last year I did it in 5:03.  I needed to shear off 3 (or 4 to be safe) little seconds.  I spent several nights falling asleep as I envisioned the race I wanted to run.  I saw every 1/4 mile marker, heard my splits, felt fresh and bouncy, heard and felt the cheer of the crowd and saw myself cross the line in 4 minutes and something.  The "something" part was insignificant.  It was the 4 minute part that I kept trying to see. 

This is how my goals work these days.  First is my time goal which is only a reflection of how I run and has nothing to do with any other person in the race.  This typically is my most important goal.  For State Street this one was set firmly as a goal to go under 5 minutes.  The next goal pertains to making a mark on history.  I wanted to break the record (which in this case I already held) and lower it so that it would be able to stand for a longer period of time.  The final goal was to win.  The Master's elite race is scored by age-grade so even if you cross the line first, you will only win if you also ran better for your age than any other woman.  I wanted all three of these goals.  I figured if I could manage that first goal, the other two would obviously be met.

Arriving about 90 minutes before my scheduled start time, I was able to enjoy watching the other races.  I loved seeing so many familiar faces, smiling faces.  I couldn't help wonder, "why are they smiling?  Obviously they've never run a mile before."  The weather was just perfect.  Overcast and cool, no notable wind.  Ah, the nerves just began to mount.  I kept taking deep breathes and going through the mental exercises I've learned over the years.  You finally just have to let it go and just know that you will survive (most likely) so just give it to God. 

It will forever baffle me how it is possible to run so much faster in a race than you are ever able to do in training.  You cannot run race pace for race distance in any other circumstance than in a race.  This tells me that there is something inside of us, beyond our control to summon at our whim, that is beyond ourselves.  The hormones that surge in times of greatest demand take us to a whole new ability.  It is something in our make up as human beings that was knit into us.  We can't be praised because of it.  It is God-given.  Only He can be praised for it.

During one of my many trips to the porta-potty, I gave my State Street Mile to God and I knew I would be capable of something beyond myself.  There were 6 of us women in the Master's elite race.  All older than me except for one.  That just made it all more uncertain.  An older woman could beat me but still finish far behind me.  So I needed to run to my utmost for the entire length and then wait and see.  I had a plan and splits in my head.  We toed the line, and then the start.  I ran hard at first and was relieved to hear footsteps close behind.  I wanted to be pushed.  As we neared the first 1/4 mile though, I no longer could hear anything behind me.  In fact, it was as if I was in a cloud of complete silence, like everything around me was in slow-motion.  I heard and saw my first 1/4 mile split, 68 seconds (I glanced at my watch to confirm).  Oops, that was not the plan (a bit faster than I expected).  But at the same time, I felt good, my breathing was calm, I was relaxed and I went with it.  The 1/2 mile mark was quickly within my sight and I concentrated on my form, staying relaxed, running a straight line and passed that mark in 2:24.  I still had enough oxygen in my brain to calculate - "Oh, hmmm, that's ahead of pace.  Good."  I still felt decently good.  I knew my hands and feet would go numb so when it happened, this time it didn't bother me as much.  I had experienced this 3 other times and I knew I could still keep moving.  It was just my body's way of conserving precious oxygen for my heart.  I'd rather my heart continue to beat than to have sensation in my hands and feet.

Picture taken by Fritz Olenberger for Noozhawk
Here's where my dream began.  I was pushing on to the 3/4 mark feeling strong, beginning to feel the pain, but not too bad.  I was in deep concentration and a million thoughts were fluttering through my mind but not distractions.  If I could just hit that 3/4 mile slightly under pace, I'd have a chance.  I felt like the Terminator or Iron Man crunching little red numbers in my peripheral vision.  The crowd lined the street at that point and I became aware of comments being made, and in some cases I heard my name.  The feeling at this point is hard to describe.  You almost feel like you're asleep but are vaguely aware of things going on around you.  You feel it, to some extent hear it, but it seems like it's a world away.  I approached the 3/4 mark and heard John yell "Kick."  I laugh now because John's a swim coach and he's telling me to kick.  I got confused - wait, am I swimming or running.  When you can't feel your hands and feet, really, who knows?  And was he serious?  Kick NOW?  But my 3/4 mile split was 3:38 - still under pace for a sub-5 minutes, so maybe yah, kick NOW.  From there all I remember was my form coming apart, my desire to meet my goal escalated 100%, the shouts from the crowd.  I actually pondered in the midst of searing pain, how amazing the shouts were.  I felt the will of those watching and I grew stronger instead of weaker.  I saw the clock ticking just ahead.  It was at 4:40 when I first could make out the numbers.  But I know all too well how fleeting those precious seconds are - would I make it in time?  Was there anything more I could give?  Please don't let me come this close and falter.  It's amazing how little control you have over yourself when you are completing spent.  I watched the clock and kept my eyes focused on it willing it to slow down and me to speed up.  I watched it until I ran right underneath it with my arms up in victory - 4:56 was what I saw when I crossed.  4:57 was the official time.  I did NOT even need to bend over in exhaustion.  I was floating.  I was energized and I was finally smiling in a finishing chute.  Thank you God for that part of me that is beyond me and is just You.

I managed to meet all three of my goals.  I am still getting older and faster.  I like that!  This is something that would not have been possible without the crowd and the cheers, and my husband yelling at me to kick and I wish there was a way to share the feeling with all of you who were there.  This race will stand as the second greatest running moment in my life, save the aforementioned State Championship mile.  Ruth Morales took some amazing pictures, one of which captured faces in the background that bring tears to my eyes.
Picture taken by Ruth Morales

So if you were to ask me today what my opinion is of the mile distance, I wouldn't have to ponder long before answering - it's awesome.

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