My iPhone chirped loudly at 4:00am, one hour before my scheduled wake-up time. I was sleeping on my back; now I was staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, wondering what the fuck was going on.
I looked to my left, and Jenn was thankfully still in dreamland. I could try and fall back asleep, but then one of two things would happen: I would sleep past my 5:00am alarm, or I would wake up in time but have unnecessarily exhausted myself attempting to milk extra sleep. Whether I liked it or not, I was awake.
I grabbed my iPhone and the culprit was soon revealed: a friend in Guam submitting her latest move in Words with Friends, triggering an audible push notification. Note to self: Guam-proof any future race plans.
I gingerly climbed out of bed and successfully stumbled downstairs without waking the baby. Reaching for breakfast, I had to once again consider my choices, as I had the weeks beforehand. What could I eat that didn’t have unnecessary or unnatural sugar? Or corn syrup?
I soon settled on my regular meal of toast with almond butter and black coffee. A few quick bites and gulps, then I got dressed and hit the highway.
Since moving to McKinney in 2006, I’ve discovered that participating in any Dallas-based race is a royal pain in the ass. Traveling to them eats into my time with The Sandman. A 45-minute drive coupled with finding the start line shuttles for my first point-to-point race in years adds up to a long amount of time running around before the actual run.
I was looking forward to this race for many reasons. Above all, it was the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Dallas race, and there wouldn’t be many opportunities for me to say I participated in the first edition of any event. Secondly, I was not coaching (as is my springtime habit) so I felt I could enjoy the race without worrying about being responsible for anyone except myself. And in a cold season where I have been sick more times than I have fingers to count (thanks, baby Zachary), my training had been sub-par. Knowing I didn’t have a PR in me was one less element of pressure. It’s a good thing I attempted to sabotage my chances with two less-than-well-thought-out changes to my routine.
First, I recently switched shoes. Not just brands, but types. In the span of three years, I had shifted from neutral type of shoe (Mizuno Wave Rider) to a stability model (Asics Gel Landreth and Kayano), then a performance shoe with the closest forefoot strike of my life (Brooks Ghost 2). The reasons were largely therapeutic: several seasons of bounding strides and heel strikes had improved my speed at the cost of crushing my sesamoids and withering my calves. My head coach Patton theorised that correcting this action would produce greater power and less injury, but only if we could promote a higher number of revolutions in my gait. I had to get off my heels, hence the Ghosts. Up to the day of the race, Patton’s theory was slowly but surely being validated. If the power and speed never reach their full potential, I’ll at least write him into my will for helping relieve my chronic sesamoiditis.
Second, it was the middle of Lenten season, and this time around I gave up sweets. And because I’m disciplined in most things I attempt, I went all in: I gave up all items sweetened with cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, avoiding anything that wasn’t naturally sweet via something like honey or agave nectar. This included several staples of my diet, such as peanut butter, cereal bars, dark chocolate, Dr. Pepper, ketchup, margaritas, sweetened coffee, and post-dinner dessert with my wife.
My running workouts suffered in particular, as many of my trusted fuels fell by the wayside: no Nuun tablets, no post-run chocolate soy milk, no Clif bars…and no Gu packets. The lack of familiar gels is what concerned me the most with a half-marathon approaching. To compensate during those 40 days, I used Honey Stingers in place of Gu, and I placed extra emphasis on consuming more whole grains and fruits.
Thanks to this one-two punch of physical sabotage, I knew that come race day I’d have to rely on my mind instead of my legs. In other words, my capacity to sweep away 13.1 miles of mental cobwebs would be the result of just how much I could lean on past experience.
I got downtown early, before much of the crowd appeared. Dallas City Plaza had a familiar feel: instead of homeless people huddled into the nooks and crannies of skyscrapers, there were athletes shivering the morning away. It was a long walk from the shuttles, and along the way I was able to sneak off with some banana and bagel I found in an unmanned food booth.
With plenty of time to turn, I walked up and down the chutes, attempting to get familiar with the course start layout. I also had my iPhone with me, in case there was an opportunity to meet up with online friends. And luckily, the Twitterati were able to hook up before lining up in our separate chutes. This epic encounter of the Running Twitterati included several Tweeps: Jennifer #1; Melissa; Kris; Jennifer #2; Lisa; Suann; Lee and Isis, the famous Running Couple; Brian; and Mark. The girls were rocking homemade tutus — it would be quite easy to spot them in the crowd.
After completing bag checks and chatting for a few minutes, it was time to get lined up and focused on the race. I arrived at Chute #6 and soaked in the scene: framing me on all sides were seas of people, young and old, large and small, stretching as far as the eye could see. Many were swathed in respectful shades of pink, comrades against breast cancer. I was wearing my own contribution: my Team Angie wristband, honoring my athlete who was diagnosed last October. She’s been doing great these past few months, and I’d like to think it was due to good vibes from me and others at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half. Almost on cue while thinking about Angie, I bumped into two other teammates I was glad to see, Laurie and Chelsea.
As this was also my first wintertime race in years, my fear of being cold led me to be quite Boy Scout-ish when it came to wardrobe. I was swathed in two short-sleeve shirts and Nike gloves. Thankfully, all parts were expendable, which I planned to shed sooner than later on this expected warm day.
Soon the chutes were filled. It was time to get this party started.
I looked inside and pondered my physical state. Lent had not only been a cleansing in many ways, but also a travel through time. With the lack of accustomed fuel and lackluster training, I wasn’t in much better shape than 2003, my second year of running. Visualizing the 13.1 miles ahead of me, I had a passing thought that I might come to regret this race.
Then a crack pierced the air…off went the starting gun! And off we went — to standing around for several minutes.
Because of the high volume of participants, we were unleashed in waves. This meant that it took 12 minutes before I sniffed the start line. As we milled across the timing pad like the well-toned lemmings we were, above me to the right were a gaggle of scantily-clad Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. They were vigorously cheering, shaking their pom-poms. I quickly realized the reason for their enthusiasm: all that motion must be an excellent generator of heat. Then the picks of the litter were behind me, and I had a race to concentrate on.
The better generator of heat was running itself, as my weather prediction quickly came to fruition. Three miles into the race, once the shadows were short and the sky blindingly bright, off came Shirt #1. I was unaware of how confusing this might appear later on, as my earlier race photos have me decked in red, while the later ones show me in blue.
The weather was hard to figure out. While it didn’t negatively impact my run, it caused distractions. For example, my running glasses would fog up when I was enveloped in the shadows of Uptown, then clear up whenever a strong sunbeam struck me. I spent several miles fumbling with my frosted lenses and cursing myself for even bringing them. Then when I turned east at Mile 5 and stared down the evil day star, I couldn’t have been prouder about a decision.
But I knew fairly quickly that today would be a run vs. a race for me. I was feeling hot and worn just a third of the way in. It wasn’t only my glasses I had to defog; it was also my mind, which was quickly becoming distracted (never a good sign for this racer). I kept having to rein in my pace, which tended to increase with distractions, in order to ensure I had energy for the second half of the course. I kept reminding myself to stick with my pre-race plan: run the first eight miles at a steady pace (10:00/mile) uphill to the summit on Mockingbird (Mile 8), then assess my status at that point. Either I’d keep the same pace, or up it to take advantage of the downhill to Fair Park.
The march to Mockingbird had all the echoes of White Rock. With the exception of minor deviations, we were running the same course. Although tedious, I tolerated it because I was looking forward to the differences miles ahead. The first chance for excitement was running through the Luke’s Locker water stop (Mile 3), where I slowed to spot my friends. Looking left and right…no one was familiar…wait, there’s Patton next to Steve. “PATTON!” I yelled. “KILLER!” he responded.
That gave me the juice I needed until the next point of interest, rounding onto Mockingbird (Mile 7). At last, a road I’ve never run down. Despite the chaos of the Komen for the Cure water stop being right there, I zipped through and started a never-ending smile until the end.
Just past that water stop was the next of the course bands — who weren’t even bothering to play. That made two bands in a row that were non-existent at this so-called Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. Not a big deal in the long run, as I chose this race for reasons besides the music. Now, if they could fill up the course with some reunions of 1990’s bands like Caulk, Slow Roosevelt, and Bass-X, I’d be there each and every year.
The mystical Mile 8 had arrived. My Garmin told it to me straight that a PR wasn’t within reach, not after a string of 10+ minute miles. This was good news, as it meant I could relax and enjoy soaking in the scene. I started to keep count of things like Elvis impersonators (2), green wigs (4), and chicks in tutus (infinite). And my pace started to improve, largely due to the downhill between Mile 8 and the finish line.
I soon grew aware of my upset stomach (Mile 11). The combination of Honey Stingers, drinking only water, and the cloudless heat were opening a door to Hell within my bowels. I was lower on salt and magnesium that I had hoped, but not at any level that I couldn’t manage for the next hour (that story would be different were it a full marathon).
I luckily had some good distractions up to that point: when running through the lower Skillman area, I reminisced about the years I used to live in east Dallas, in a old duplex just barely on the right side of the tracks. Those were good years while they lasted: I would find excuses to work from home, so I could use my normal commute time to run and bike around White Rock Lake. I also thought about my friends who lived near there and thought, “I really should give them a call.”
Mile 12 was my first true Come to Jesus meeting of the day, where I questioned the need to run the entire course. “Maybe I should stop and stretch,” I kept thinking over and over. Remember the wisdom and experience I cited earlier? Both Misters W and E responded, “Shut the fuck up!” and I kept running. I knew deep down that if I paused, it would be that much harder to pick up the pace when needed. Besides, it’s just a mile between me and glory. That, and a bunch of cameras and camcorders!
The end of the race was exciting. We flowed into the northeast corner of Fair Park, past the Museum of the American Railroad that occupied many of my youthful State Fair visits. A right turn took us past the gilded Hall of State and Tower Building, while the next left brought us to the narrow path of the dormant Midway. Another left and things got really interesting: we entered a spectator-lined chute that spooned the west and south sides of the Cotton Bowl. Flanked by fences and loud voices of encouragement, I felt like Lance Armstrong navigating a crowded sea of fans as he summited the Alps during a Tour de France. You couldn’t help but kick it up a notch in a scene like that.
I strode across the finish line, feeling as good about the race as any other. Despite the crowd, I had to remind myself to keep walking for the next several minutes. I didn’t want my muscles to lock up, or to undergo anything close to a fainting spell. It wouldn’t be until hours later that I learned of a race death, not along the course but immediately after the finish line.
The organization after the finish line was the best I’ve experienced at any race since the Motorola Half-Marathon years ago. Immediately after finishing, runners were routed past food tables as part of their post-race processing; at White Rock, you had to finish, then wait in a long long at a far-off tent to do the same. I might have broken Lent inadvertently with some of the label-free muffins I ate. I think I’m fine — after all, it was the Sabbath.
Then outside of the chute were several stands, each emblazoned with a large letter of the alphabet, which served as meeting areas for friends and family. Once again, a strong improvement over other races where I had to give loved ones either complicated directions or trust that I could call them on an overcrowded cellular network. If I had known about these meeting areas, I would have leveraged them before the race to arrange meetups with the Twitterati. Instead, I stumbled around until I encountered some friends from the Luke’s Locker family (Jim, Tony, etc.). Soon afterwards, I found The Running Couple (and their motorcycle-driving mom) and we hung out for a short while.
I’m satisfied but also ready for another challenge besides running another Dallas race. Until I figure out what, see y’all at my next race.
Photo credit: Run Infinity