Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Finishing strong

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.

September 26, 2010 - Posted by | Current Affairs, Ohio, running, writing | , , ,


  1. […] was stunned, then, to find this among the shots of me participating in the relay in this year’s Akron Marathon, because it makes me look, you know, like I’m running, as opposed to simply trying not to […]

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  2. […] Akron Marathon relays – two legs in 2009, and one each in 2010 and […]

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