I hate feeling like I could have run faster, pushed harder, done more.
I know – I know – that it’s easy to sit there, 10 minutes after a race and think, “Hey, I’m feeling better already, and that must mean I could have run harder.” The memory of the struggle fades so quickly once I’m past the finish line that sometimes it eats at me. Yes, in effect, I’m saying that I’d feel better if I felt worse for longer after a race.
So, here’s how my part in the Akron Marathon unfolded on Saturday:
My youngest brother Adam – as he did last year – had put together a five-man relay team and offered me the 7.9-mile anchor spot so I could enjoy the Finish Line run into Canal Park. outfield. Adam (running relay leg No. 3) and his friend Scott (relay spot No. 4) and I hit the road a little later than we probably should have, but we made it into Akron a little after 6:30 a.m. for the 7 o’clock race, and Adam managed to get our lead runner his racing bib at the starting line.
We walked to the first relay point, caught up with Eric, our No. 2 runner, and then Scott and I caught the shuttle buses out to our respective relay points while Adam walked to his.
It was almost 8:30, I think, by the time I got to my relay point, where I caught up with a couple guys I went to high school with, which made the time pass pretty easily – although I was still going through my usual race-day jitters, all keyed up and everything, even though nothing’s ever really at stake except me vs. me.
Shortly after 9 a.m., I decided I’d better get a little bit of warm-up jogging in, so I went down to the runner’s path and did some short back-and-forth along the trail. Around 9:15, as I’m jogging in the opposite direction as the race traffic, I hear the announcer call our team’s number, and suddenly, there’s Scott, right in front of me, so I have to wheel around and basically run alongside him the last few dozen yards back to the relay station. Our team, it seems, is making better time than we had planned, and after a quick handoff of the relay bracelet and my bag of running gear, there I am, back on a race course for the first time since last year’s Towpath Marathon.
It’s been an up-and-down year for me, running-wise. I’ve never stopped completely, but it wasn’t until two months ago that I had myself on a race training schedule again, aiming for the Akron Half Marathon. Then in late August, the same day I reached the 10-mile mark again, I wrecked my back and all but put the Akron run out of my mind until two weeks ago, when Adam encouraged me to join his relay team.
Now, I’d been shooting for an 8-minutes-per-mile half marathon pace, and despite falling out of my speed training, I was still hoping to manage something near that for Saturday’s 7.9-mile run. (For perspective, this was an admittedly ambitious goal for me. I hadn’t hit the toughest part of this summer’s half-marathon training when it was derailed – the longest sub-eight-minute distance I’ve run was a 7:51 five-miler, but that was on a treadmill. All the other times I’ve run below eight minutes per mile have been distances of 4 miles or less.)
So the run started off like all my races do, with me taking a few moments to gather and find my rhythm. And I’m sort of struggling a bit, feeling like I’m working too hard to relax, feeling like 7.9 miles is waaaaay too far – and yes, this is another strange, but thankfully passing feeling, because one benefit of having run a marathon, even once, is that distances of 10 miles or less lose their mystique. Until, of course, Race Day – and so naturally, it’s during this first difficult half-mile or so that the buckle on my my trusty Nathan running belt decides it’s a good time to break.
I was adjusting the belt at the time, so I had a grip on it, and suddenly it goes slack and comes off in my hand, and now I’m jogging along carrying the thing, and hey, I can at least take my mind off the whole “finding my rhythm” trick because I’m too busy wondering what the heck I’m going to do. I can’t toss the belt aside because while the course offers plenty of hydration and power gel stations, it also contains my driver’s license and my asthma inhaler, and I have no pockets in which to stow them. Besides, I really do like this belt – Jenn got it for me one Father’s Day, and it’s been with me for probably a couple hundred miles of running, and it seems silly to ditch the whole thing for a plastic buckle I hope to replace for far less than the cost of a new belt. For a few minutes, I tried just carrying it, but that got old really quick, so I just adjusted the belt to its largest size and then just tied it on. When it didn’t feel like it was going to slip off, I got back to the business of, you know, running.
I still wasn’t feeling settled in, though – hitting “The Zone” eluded me through this entire race, and it never felt like it wasn’t work – but once I passed the sign for Mile 20, I was able to start breaking the rest of the run down into two-mile pieces: two more miles until the halfway point and my scheduled power gel; then two miles to Mile 24; and then just two (point two) more miles to the finish line.
I think the first half of my run took more out of me than I expected because there was more climbing than I’d anticipated, and most of it was the sneaky kind that’s gradual – except for a 100-vertical-feet-in-a-half-mile hill just before the midpoint near Stan Hywet Hall. (The marathon web site calls it “Heart Rate Hill” for a reason.)
After that, things went – at least mentally – pretty quickly. With the boost of my power gel and the knowledge that I had some long downhill stretches ahead, I started feeling better, although even in the final two miles, I still felt like I didn’t have much left in the tank, and I really wanted to be able to finish strong.
I tried to push harder the last half-mile to the stadium, but that half-mile stretched. I even wondered about how well I’d cross the finish line, because honestly, when I’ve been out running here at home, the last few hundred feet up our street can often seem like they go on for-freaking-ever when I’m trying to run them full-tilt.
And then I was turning down the alley/driveway that runs along the outfield of the stadium, and with a left turn through the centerfield fence, there it was.
I had anticipated the finish line seeming distant, the way my mailbox looks when I’m trying to sprint up our road, but it wasn’t- it seemed so close, there across the expanse of sun-brilliant green grass, with the backdrop of the stands and the crowd, and while I had thought about this moment for a year, I’m experiencing those parts of it mostly in memory’s replay because right then, all I saw was the finish line a few hundred feet away, and I got that adrenaline surge out of nowhere, and there was me and the line and one guy about 100 feet ahead of me, and all I wanted to do was pass him and keep barreling on across and finish this thing going as fast as I could.
Which is exactly what I did.
And within 10 minutes, there I was, sitting with Adam and Scott and saying, “Man, I feel like I could have run harder.”
Our team finished in 3:23:40 – good enough for 73rd out of the 1,099-team overall relay field, and 25th in the 125-team men’s division. And even though I finished with a pace of 8:37 per mile – slower, in fact, than I paced my 12-mile run a year ago – and it took me 68 minutes to cover my 7.9 miles, remembering those last couple hundred feet, running and breathing and just pounding forward with everything I had while the sun blazed and my ears filled with wind – has made me feel better than I did when I sat down to start writing all this.
Which makes all the miles worth it.
Even though I’ve spent most of my life here in Northeast Ohio, it’s a sure bet that I’ve been to the Wyandot County fair in Upper Sandusky more times than the Stark County fair, which takes place in Canton, roughly 15 minutes from my house.
While I only have one specific memory of the latter – the year I talked dad into taking me into the Freak Show tent (the paintings on the banners outside turned out to be far more entertaining than the actual faked freaks) – if you ask me to visualize a county fair, the one I build in my mind’s eye is the one I’ve been going to since I was little, across the street from Upper Sandusky High School, in the shadow of the town’s water tower, a cluster of big old trees and white buildings and a grandstand and a dirt racetrack.
My parents both grew up in Upper Sandusky, and my grandma and other extended family still live there, so Jenn and Kelsey and I have tried to make it over for the fair ever since we moved back to Ohio in 1999.
How small is the town, people-connection-wise? The first time I ever took Jenn over to the fair – just the two of us, mind you – when we got out of our car in the grass parking lot, the police officer who’d directed us to our spot said, “Hey, you’re Pam and Rich Booth’s kid, right?”
I ran around these fairgrounds when I was younger than Kelsey is now, hanging out with the kid who lived next door to the house where my grandmother raised my dad and my uncle. I climbed on the farm equipment the dealerships put on display. I remember being on the track one year for the tractor pull when the grandstand was packed to capacity, dad and I sitting in a couple folding chairs leaning against a metal guardrail.
Kelsey and I made this year’s trip with my mom and stepdad, Jeff. My youngest brother and his wife and their three sons drove over, too. We all met up at grandma’s house, and she joined us for a few hours.
We spent the afternoon touring the livestock barns – Kelsey and I watched the auctions for a few minutes – and, yes, turning the kids loose to climb on these apartment-sized machines that lose their scale when you see them out in those expanses of corn or wheat or soybeans.
Mom and Jeff and Grandma left after awhile, so my brother and his wife and I took turns with the kids on the midway rides. Though I no longer do well with horizontal spinning rides, I’m still enough of a rollercoaster fan that something like the Screamer is just fine by me, so Kelsey and I went for some loops.
We eventually took a break for some fair food dinner (Philly steak sandwich & fries for me), and then as the sun started to set, my brother & sister & nephews needed to call it a day, so it was just me and Kelsey.
Of course, we did the ferris wheel (which still gives me slight gut butterflies) and enjoyed a nice sunset as well as a peek at the tractor pull:
And we paid two bucks to go in the ridiculously painted and terribly lame musical-themed fun house.
We parked ourselves by the fence near the track to catch some of the tractor pull – I can’t explain why, but when those beasts get thrown into gear and the engines rev to earsplitting, I get this electric thrill down the back of my teeth and neck and I can’t stop myself from smiling. And seriously: jet turbines on a tractor. I mean, come ON.
Our final fair-food treat of the night was an order of deep-fried Oreos (they plunk ’em in funnel cake batter, then into the fryer for a couple minutes) sprinkled with powdered sugar. I’d never tried them before, but >shudder< were they tasty.
We visited the barns one more time, and then headed out the gate for the walk back to grandma’s house, where we could still hear the track loudspeakers and the roar of the tractors over the treetops.
I’ve never been more than an average photographer at best, but I really like the shots I managed at the fair this year. You can find bigger versions of all the pictures here, plus others, in this set at Flickr.
Once upon a time, back in my eight-year-old mind’s eye, I envisioned this new denizen of the Star Wars universe:
Or something close to it: That’s actually my current attempt to convey the general image which formed in my head when, as a kid, I tried to make out the photographic detail in the background of a magazine article teasing us with All New Star Wars Stuff from The Empire Strikes Back. Here’s the memory from Collect All 21!
Pre-internet, back when we lived in caves and watched our sitcoms on papyrus flip-animation books, there wasn’t much in the way of movie speculation available to your average elementary-school kid. The closest thing I can think of was an issue of National Geographic’s World magazine which had a whole story on some of the special effects in the yet-to-be-released Empire. It came with this great poster of the Millennium Falcon being chased by a Star Destroyer – the familiar publicity shot with the green laser bolts ricocheting near her hull – and just a few photos in the article, but enough to get us really excited about what we were in for. Asteroids! Big metal animal-looking things! Luke and Vader going at it with lightsabers! (I kid you not – in one photo, there’s a background light or something that looks, if you’ve got a little imagination and some hyperactivity, like a ghostly figure. My friends and I wondered if old dead Obi-Wan was making a spiritual comeback of sorts. He did, of course, but not in the way we’d been thinking.)
So where did I get the idea that some Jetsons-collar-wearing lizard-guy was going to be in Empire? From a photograph that looked like a part of this one at the Ralph McQuarrie exhibit at Star Wars Celebration V:
Continuing the passage from Collect All 21:
There was also a picture of the Falcon sitting on that Cloud City landing platform just after her arrival. I think it may have actually been in the background of a photo showing one of the matte-painting artists at work or something, because the picture was small enough that I couldn’t actually tell it was the Falcon. Only later did I realize that what I’d thought was some kind of alien was actually Han and Chewie’s starship. Even when I’m watching Empire for the umpteenth time, it’s still easy to dredge up just enough of that 8-year-old me to see that landing platform as a creature with a Millennium Falcon-shaped head.
I was absolutely thrilled to see this picture on display, not only because it struck those deep childhood chords of memory, but because at long last I could point to this picture and say, “See? See?! It’s like the head … and the eyes … and this spacesuit thing, and -”
Maybe you don’t see it. Maybe I’d gnawed on one too many non-toxic indoor playsets in kindergarten.
But heck, I’d still buy an action figure of this guy.
Two weeks ago tomorrow, I got up early and did my first double-digit-mileage run since last October.
That afternoon, helping move something really heavy down at my mom’s house, I felt this red-hot-rubberband-lashing sensation kind of whip through the muscles of my lower back from the inside. Like nothing I’d ever felt before – and in an incredibly not good way. After hobbling to a couch, I came awfully close to blacking out: the whole world going dark even though my eyes weren’t shut, that buzz and ringing in the ears that blocks everything out and when it begins to fade makes everyone sound like they’re far away.
Nothing seems to have been permanently damaged, but for several days I was pretty much just shuffling around the house and wincing .
Of course, this screwed up my plans for the Akron Half Marathon. Maybe I could have resumed jogging a week later, but a big part of what I was shooting for with this run was improving my speed, which is a big challenge for me, and the last four weeks of the training calendar I was following are largely about repetitive speed work. And just like that, >poof!< I felt really out of it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that Saturday was also the last time I posted anything on the blog. Not that I haven’t been writing over the last two weeks – the week immediately following the injury, I had a major multi-story project to turn in, as well as other regular trade publication assignments, and I also managed a couple GeekDad posts.
I wasn’t doing much writing on my own, though, and in a weird way, that takes a toll on me mentally.
(It also doesn’t help that these are exceedingly difficult times in the Booth household right now – I have a job interview this coming Monday with an awful lot riding on it, and that’s been weighing heavily on my mind as well.)
So yesterday, I made myself focus on something wholly original – a guest post for a friend’s blog – and after finally getting the gears going, I cranked out 1,500 words and had a ball doing it.
Not long afterward, my brother called me and asked if I’d be able to run one of the legs on his Akron Marathon relay team. It’s not likely to be more than eight miles, so it’s something I think I can get back on track to tackle over the two weeks between now and race day.
Before lunch today, I put on the shoes and headed out the door for a run just before lunch. A mix of overcast skies and occasional sun; somewhere just shy of the 60-degree mark – just about a perfect day for it.
Writing and running don’t, by themselves, make things better or easier or magically delicious. But when I’m in that place where I’m doing one or the other, and it’s just me and the words or me and the road ahead, somehow there is a sense of rightness and hope and balance that I only remember how badly I need when I can’t find it for awhile.