What I Learned from My Worst Race Ever

I’ve never had a bad race.

Until I did.

The night before the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon, race organizers warned runners that the weather would be unseasonably warm. Drink lots of water, they said. Slow down, they said.

Slow down?! I’d been training 12 weeks to run a 1:38 PR in this race and a little bit of heat and humidity wasn’t going to slow me down.

Until it did.

Right before race start. So happy. So naive.

Me, Lindsay and Robin at the race start. So happy. So naive.

I was standing near the front, squeezed in with a serious crowd of runners, when the race-horn blew. The mass of runners lurched forward with intention, void of the nervous chatter or enthusiastic “woo-hooing” that peppers the runners further down the line. I know, because I’m usually back there. But here, at the front, there was just breathing, feet slapping pavement and the occasional watch alerting a runner to his overzealous pace.

“We’re going too fast,” I heard a guy to my right gasp to his running partner.

I looked down at my watch to see my pace. 7:10. I had to maintain a 7:30 pace to get my PR—but the fact that 7:10s could qualify me for the NYC Marathon was on my radar—tucked into the make-believe zone where unicorns are real, Sandra Bullock is my best friend and David Beckham wants me real bad. Some call it mental illness. I call it mental hopefulness.

By mile 2, acid began to collect in my stomach and I thought I might heave. My heart was pumping too hard and the negative thoughts starting unfurling from the dark corners of my head. At mile 2, I usually feel like a winged gazelle, not a quadriplegic manatee. Something was wrong.

I gave myself some quick tough love.

You’ve got this. Suck it up.

And then I looked down and saw my pace slip to 7:40.

I don’t got this. I’m gonna throw up.

Plan B: No PR—just hold 7:50s.

Two miles later, I wanted to stop.

Plan C: Just don’t walk.

Plan D: Just finish.

The next 9 miles felt like the longest I’ve ever run—some of which I walked. I felt like a failure.

My friend, Chad Brock, who was cheering us on, snapped this photo. Glad you can''t see my face filled with pain.

My friend, Chad Brock, who knows all too well the pain of running, snapped this photo. Glad you can’t see my face filled with pain.

Then, just one-mile from the finish line, I looked around me and noticed with half-closed eyes that I was still surrounded by runners—good runners—who were engaged in the same strange shuffle-scuff-run I was. My brain, depleted by effort, was trying hard to make sense of what I was seeing, when I heard a familiar voice yell out.

“Go, Andrea! You can do it!”

Huh? It took an enormous effort to turn my head in the direction of the voice, slowly, like a dim-witted Brontosaurus looking for some greens to munch on. And there on the sidewalk, running parallel to me, I saw my running partner, Lindsay.

“I threw up at mile 5! I pulled out! You have to do this for us!”

Nothing made sense. Certainly not Lindsay on the sidewalk at mile 12. But I was more grateful for her at that moment than I’d ever been (and I’m pretty grateful considering what she’s seen me—and my body—do while running together). I summoned up what little bit of race I had left in me and pushed to the finish. In that final stretch, I noticed runners cramping, vomiting and even someone who had collapsed and was receiving aid. It felt like it would never end.

Until it did.

Once I crossed the line and controlled my instinct to vomit on the nice lady trying to put a finisher’s medal around my neck, I realized that my poor race wasn’t about a lack of training or mental toughness. It was about unseasonable temperatures and a stubborn unwillingness to heed the warning from more seasoned runners who knew it was not only OK, but also necessary to back off. That just finishing could be enough.

A number of runners didn’t finish, either because they knew better or their bodies wouldn’t let them—whichever came first. Tragically, one runner took his last breath on that race course. Another would collapse at home a few hours later.

And there I was disappointed about running 8 minutes off my PR.

For people who log ridiculous miles each week, it’s easy to get wrapped up in finishing times, PRs and medals. And because we sweat, bleed, blister and cramp through most of our days, it’s easy to overestimate our toughness. It’s also easy to forget that what we do isn’t easy.

But this race reminded me that we are a fragile lot. Life rarely goes as planned; why would a 13.1-mile race be any different—any easier?

Yesterday, I ran for the first time since the race. I didn’t have any expectations; I just wanted to run. Somewhere around mile 4, Lindsay and I began discussing our plans for our next race and what our goals would be. And that’s when I realized what I was supposed to take away from Saturday’s botched race: You just keep going.

Until you can’t.

The End--of yet another new beginning.

The End–of yet another new beginning.

Advertisements

‘Twas the Night Before Race Day

Pre-race plans never go as planned. I can manage to (loosely) follow a 3-month training program for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah half marathon, but somehow the two days prior to the actual race—which are supposed to be filled with quiet reflection and preparation—roll out more like a Saturday afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese.

I’m sleep deprived, I’ve got students panicking as the end of the quarter nears, I’m trying to pull two articles together, and Ava has a fundraiser dinner for gymnastics and a meet first thing in the morning. She’s concerned that I’m missing her meet, but more than that, we’re all concerned about who is going to do her hair. Because, in gymnastics, hair is akin to sticking a landing. Intricate French braids with glitter spray say “my mom cares about me,” whereas a loose ponytail that looks like a rodent nested in it says “abandoned at birth”—or, in my case, “my mom cares more about her half-marathon.” But we all know what it really means: “Dad did my hair.”

In spite of this chaos, I’ve managed to squeeze in most of my pre-race rituals today. I’ve set out my running clothes, charged my Garmin, shaved my legs and painted my nails (this is proven to increase your speed). I’m already wearing my lucky necklace, earrings and my paper “free beer” wristband I got yesterday at the race expo. It’s not that I’m super-concerned about getting a Michelob Ultra at the end of 13.1 miles (or ever, for that matter), but I like how the band reminds me of what’s to come—how my stomach will reject said beer but I will force it down nonetheless because, dammit, it’s free.

Savannah Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon

Prepped and ready to go!

I’ve learned to go to the race expo as early as possible to avoid long lines. This year, the bib pick-up was organized by corral numbers; in other words, how fast you intend to finish. When I saw that I was in corral 1, I panicked. Had I entered the correct time? Surely, I shouldn’t be at the front of any race, let alone one of this scale. I looked at the various lines for “people like me,” and discovered the people in every corral looked like me: running shoes, ponytail, extreme nervousness…

No one was in line at corral 1. I approached the table apprehensively.

“Andrea Goto?” I asked, as if I didn’t know my own identity.

I expected her to look me up and down and declare, “I think you have the wrong line,” but when she cheerily handed me my bib, it sunk in: I’m in corral 1. Not because I lied about my finishing time to avoid bulky start lines, but because I’ve been training hard for the past few years. And here I am—a place I never imagined I’d be, especially at 38.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no delusions that I’m going to place. Last year’s female runner came in 26 minutes faster than my PR. She could enjoy an entire sitcom before I come through. But at least I’m in the near vicinity—a mere shadow—of awesomeness.

Not two seconds later, a television reporter approached and asked for an interview. I want to believe it’s because he saw me in the corral 1 line, but I know it’s because he wanted to interview Lindsay, but she demurred and shoved me his way like a good friend. Again, I’ll take it.

When everyone else says

When everyone else says “no,” I say “yes.”

I’m 15 hours from race-start. I’m enjoying a glass of wine (don’t wanna get the shakes), I’ll eat my boiled beets and soak in the bath. I’m ready.

Ready for what? An enjoyable run? A PR? A NYC marathon qualifying time? I’m not sure—and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. No one will remember my performance, my suffering or my time (half the time I can’t either). But for a couple of hours on a Saturday I will do something that is personally challenging. I will push myself beyond what’s comfortable, and I’ll do it with a good number of friends along the way—either as runners or supporters.

My friend Christine Hattrich shared these signs she made.

My friend Christine Hattrich shared these signs she made.

And then I’ll look to the next race, the next goal, the next PR. Because that’s what I want to believe life is about: waking each day and, at the very least, trying to do better.

Savannah Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon