I turned left onto the Katy Trail. Mile 10 out of 13.1. I didn’t need my Garmin to tell me I was running a tad bit behind, less of the pace than my expectations. Even so, I was close enough to my goal that this 2009 White Rock Half-Marathon was under my control.
I transitioned from pavement to the crumb rubber track, then I felt a twinge in my hamstring. That fucking left hamstring! I told that gimpy muscle in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t invited today. Yet here it was, crashing my party. I breathed deep and closed my eyes. Forefinger pinched to thumbs, as if I were about to meditate. Taking a moment to find my center, I re-focused on the road ahead. Go away, I repeated in my mind, go away.
The tightness faded. All that lie between mile 10 and glory was a simple 5K.
Last year before the 2008 full marathon, I was nervous. Despite all of my training, proper nutrition, a string of kick-ass long runs the weeks before, and the support of countless teammates, I was nervous. And that black energy accompanied me along the course and led to bad things: dropping Gu packs, becoming overheated, losing my focus and obsessing on the ghosts of failed races past. It’d been months since I had a good race, and I couldn’t stop thinking it would be even longer as the day wore on.
For six miles, between the 13.1 mark and the beginning of the “Dolly Partons”, those twin hills of no return, a hot southern wind beat into my face. I could feel sweat just linger on my skin, unable to evaporate in the high humidity. After I summited within the Lakewood neighborhood, I felt relieved and thought the worst was over. Then my legs locked up, slamming like switchblades into stiff, unyielding trunks that refuse to bend. Unable to break my body’s siege on itself, I limped to the end, barely beating my worst marathon time ever.
Adding insult to injury was my deflated pride: I was a coach of the Luke’s Locker Yellow Group, with a dozen marathons and half-marathons under my belt. My athletes dominated the day, and I brought in the rear. In fact, I crossed the finish line so late that none of my teammates was still around. Only my poor, very pregnant wife was there to witness me in one of my worst moments. Even though she was there, I felt alone and wanted to crawl under a rock.
I ended up being seriously hurt because of the heat and subsequent cramping. I was forced to skip the Yellow Group’s team celebration that night. Even if my legs worked, I was too much of a basket case to be around people. Several days would pass before I didn’t feel like crying. Non-runners may be hard-pressed to understand how emotional the marathon experience can be. To have invested twenty-six weeks of workouts and still fall short of your goals is nothing short of devastating, even if in the long run it’s just a blip in the path to greater glory.
The Katy Trail began to narrow, and as a result it turned into an obstacle course. Although I was still running, I was darting about a sea of those who had checked out. Walkers, standers, local joggers illegally on the course and running the wrong way.
I had dialed it back slightly, in a effort to ward off my hamstring. Yet in the previous six miles, you could have set your watch to my pace, as consistent as it was. I thought back to the Matilda hill, where for one ascending mile I got faster! I recalled my start, which was the most-relaxed I had felt coming into any race. And then there was Turtle Creek, where I hit a gear so smooth that I didn’t feel like I was running — I was flying.
In other words, this race was in the bag.
Two nights after the 2008 marathon was the Luke’s Locker group celebration. By that point, I had gotten my shit together and needed to be around runners once again. All of my athletes were there and we swapped tales of war from the previous Sunday. I told them my story, and more than one person confided that they could very much relate. Every runner has their days, they said. And I thought, why is it mine are always on race Sundays?
Before the night was done, our head coach Patton addressed the crowd. It’s been over a year, so I don’t remember his exact words. But I do recall Patton doing what he does best: emphasizing our collective accomplishments and inspiring us to run farther & faster. The list of what runners had achieved that season was seemingly limitless: first marathons, personal records, world travel, and endless self-esteem. Everyone of us had proven that nothing was impossible without effort and belief, Patton said.
Those who know me best know that strong effort is second-nature to me. It was the belief portion was still in the toilet.
Without glasses, I am blind as a bat, so I had trouble seeing the finish line ahead. But I knew it was getting close as the crowd grew thicker, louder, and intense.
The Katy Trail left the buildings of Uptown and now the sky was wide open. The American Airlines Center, standing at the final mile, was straight ahead. I let out a sharp laugh. Then suddenly I wanted to cry. After over a year of frustration, a good race was now under my belt. No matter what happened at the DRC Half in November, the Tour des Fleurs in September, or last year’s 2008 White Rock Marathon, I had a good race. How good was about to be determined.
I was running somewhat crocodile, so I corrected my posture and prepared to cross the finish line strong. I burst across the timing mat in a flash, shut down my Garmin, and came to a screeching halt. I probably shouldn’t have done that, as I became light-headed. Cutting through the crowd, I frantically begged a spectator standing on a short wall to make way for me. I sat and held my head in my hands, reminding myself to breathe. I caught a glimpse of my pink wristband emblazoned with the words “TEAM ANGIE”.
Angie was one of my teammates, but she wasn’t racing today. She was at home, recovering from surgeries and preparing for a round of chemotheraphy, all being done to ward off the breast cancer she was diagnosed with mid-season. She was the only woman I knew firsthand having to deal with this, and it wasn’t fair. But I had told myself before the race that I had to finish strong to honor her experience. She likely didn’t care one way or the other, but it was important inspiration for me.
The dizziness passed, and I eventually got up to fetch my finisher’s shirt and medal.
Remembering that some of my teammates had expected paces that fell close to mine, I kept an eye out for others. The first I bumped into was Mary, who was right behind me at the finish. She was tired, but also a beaming beauty bursting with confidence and pride. It turned out that she had just completed a PR. I felt like a proud father, having been her coach.
Mary asked me how I did, and I was surprised to realize I hadn’t looked! I peeked at my Garmin and smiled.
Not just a good race, but the greatest.
Patton was done with his speech, and the celebration was beginning to wrap up. Before I could walk out the door, Pepsi, one of my Yellow Group teammates, said to wait. She disappeared for a moment, then returned to present me with two gifts from everyone in the Yellow Group.The first gift was a gift certificate for a well-deserved sports massage. Very practical and very welcome!
The second was a bottle of wine. Pepsi excitedly explained how it was a custom label, and that everyone in the Yellow Group had signed it. The label read:
Thank you for inspiring & leading us through this journey to the finish line!
Luke’s Yellow Group
White Rock Marathon 2008
I read the message, then started to catalog the names. As my mental list of signatures increased in length, I began to well up. The emotions of Sunday were just below the surface, and while I had been throwing quite the pity party the past two days, now I was overwhelming happy and inspired. Knowing that my teammates cared so much about me as a coach and friend was the perfect way to remind me that the journey was more important than the destination. Instantly, I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
I then resolved to leave behind 2008 and make the 2009 racing season my personal best. As an incentive, I told myself that this bottle of wine would remain corked until I followed through on that resolution.
That night after my best race ever, I shared a pasta dinner with my wife Jenn and baby boy Zachary. The little man had just gotten the hang of eating the stuff a few days earlier, and every so often he enjoyed painting his face — and the walls — with tomato sauce.
Before we dug in, I reached into the wine rack and retrieved a certain bottle of red. For months, it had sat there, patiently awaiting its destiny. Before opening the flask, I examined those signatures one last time. I thought about each of my 2008 Yellow Group teammates and how fortunate I was to have shared the trails with them. Many of them had returned this year to build upon their previous successes. Some weren’t there, whether it be due to sickness or injury, and I paused to wish them good health going into the new year, especially Angie.
The time for reflecting on the past was done. It was time to celebrate this day. And the time for opening this bottle of wine had come.
I popped the cork, filled our goblets, and joined my family at the table. Jenn sipped and exclaimed, “That’s good!” It is good, I thought.
In fact, it was great!