Sunday, August 20, 2017

Attaining the Unicorn

To start by totally burying the lede, I happened to get a high-five from Andrew Ference - recently-retired former captain of the Edmonton Oilers and Stanley Cup winner with the Boston Bruins.

I ran a personal best today, beating my previous by 4:40. At 50! Today's 3:25:29 lanced a summer of frustration and reiterated what I learned earlier this year about the mental aspects of the marathon. More significantly, it qualified me for the Boston Marathon, a goal I missed by an oh-so-close, c'mon-round-it-up 9 seconds last November. That result is one that I remain grateful for and now it glows so much brighter without the what-if hanging over it.

Throughout the summer I have had a sense of being disconnected from my running and not enjoying the races as much as I normally did.  Where in other races there was this sense of connection with the runners I've been with, even if I did not get a chance to talk to them, the summer races had seemed more isolated for one reason or another.  Even if I was grinding the miles with the same group of runners for a long stretch, I did not send out any energy to them to support them or acknowledge what they were up to during the race.  I was a little less a part of the running community, I felt, when I joined in the chute on race day.

So last Sunday, after a rough summer that included several disappointing results and a DNF, where I didn't even finish 10K of a half-marathon, I decided to test my mettle one last time.  Last year's PB was run in the US in the fall and while the coming cooler weather holds some promise of improved results, I did not want to sink a lot of money into registration and travel if my head and body weren't up to it. Running Edmonton was a low cost, low risk, FLAT, course that would be a sufficient indicator of where I could be at if my head was a little clearer.  Running two days after changing jobs might have cleared my head, but my emotions were running rather high (ha, rather) so it was hard to tell where my head was going to be.  I pondered running without the watch and just staying comfortable throughout rather than pushing or doing the finish time math for the duration of the race.

Despite waking up at 1:30am and again at 3am, I was going to make a point of enjoying it.  If results were off, I was going to dispose of them as a consequence of trying to enjoy the race. As I walked to the start before dawn, I thanked the cops I saw on Jasper Avenue, getting out of the isolation that may have kept me away from satisfying results me earlier during the summer. When walking the last few blocks to the start, I ran into a runner from the UK, who was bagging his last of the 10 provinces to go along with all 50 US states and a grand total of 887 marathons.  (I asked him, he told me.  I replied with a chuckle at my suddenly paltry 9.)  I was getting connected again.

In the chute, I wasn't sure if I was "there" for the race.  With "Life's What You Make It" cued to set the theme and the cadence for the first half-hour of the race, I was conscious of a concerning lack of nerves.  After the fiasco with the pacers at last year's Edmonton Marathon, I regarded this year's with some trepidation but they looked the part and I was relieved not to hear the 3:30 or 3:45 pacers declare, "I've never run this pace before!!" as was the case with last year's 3:45 pacer.

I was ready to bond with the pack.  After a K or so alongside one runner, I took my earbuds out and teased him about the barely perceptible fist-pump he made for canning his paper cup for two points after one of the water stations.  We had a bit of back and forth about races we've done.  He liked the Calgary Marathon.  I replied that I did not.  (I did hold off on talking about the Bataan Death March down Memorial Drive, however.)  I was prepared to keep up the banter for a while, but I slowly pulled away.

I checked my watch to find I was going a little "hot," (as my brother would put it.) I decided not panic about it.  Today was a day that it was okay to conk.  All I wanted to do was extend my senses to the battlefronts of chest and limbs and get a full report on what my body was willing and able to do.  The only adverse report was coming from my near-numb feet, which were a bit nerveless thanks to me tying my shoes too tight.  I think I got sensation there about 18K into the race.

My head was clear and furthermore focused on one thing.  I WANTED THE BQ TIME.  I had given some consideration to the strategy I would adopt if I was going to go for it and each time I thought about it, I did not want to go out easy and leave myself scrambling to close it near the end.  If the body was telling me no, then I'd take it easy and just take in the experience.  The body - at least from ankles up - was all in, and - with a friend's prediction that I'd just blow the BQ out of the water since I wasn't expecting much - I dropped the hammer.  Besides, I happened to be wearing a pair of shoes that I unintentionally wrote the area code for Boston on when I jotted the month of purchase on them. The talismans were with me.

I caught the 3:30 pacer around the 11K mark.  I had hung with that group and pondered the comfort and security of drafting off them for a while and making my break toward the end, but that risked the late scramble I was not keen on.  I ventured on. There were two other groups that I came upon a little further ahead, but I still felt confident and pushed through.

Around this point, it was clear that I was having a good back and forth push with a younger Asian runner, that I may just have seen and run with around the halfway mark when I did Edmonton in 2016.  We had probably started our back and forth around the 3K mark but as the pack spread, we were on our own each taking our turn to push the pace and keep us at the pace we set.  By the halfway mark, I had 4 minutes to spare in pursuit of the BQ. Throughout though, I was connected to those around me. Whenever I saw the 79-year-old gent who was achieving his goal of 100 marathons before age 80 -- 9's not so paltry now, huh? -- I gave him a high-five to power us both along.

My Asian friend and I went back and forth, pushing each other and pulling each other along throughout the race probably.  At the 28K mark I extended a fist bump to him and let me know that we just had to grind out the last bit.  At this point I just wanted to get to the 30K mark and assure myself that I could manage to get the last 12K in an hour at a 5 minute/K pace and I'd be in the clear. Eventually, a young female runner from the 3:30 pack caught and passed me and the Asian runner fell into step with her and pulled away.

From there, it was a matter of holding it together with the pace I needed to the finish.  I added another 30 seconds of cushion in the second half of the race and as I came to the finish, I actually raised my arms.  Yes, me.  Before the volunteer got my medal around my neck I gave her a huge hug and announced that I had qualified for Boston.

"It'll change your life!", she said with the authority of one who knows.

Today's did, too.

*BTW the unicorn reference is to the logo for the Boston Marathon.  I see it constantly out on the trails and now I can have one of my own.