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But I promise it’s not.

When I die, I hope one of the last mental images I recall is this:

Third half

Once upon a time, I ran a half marathon in South Bend (2:21:33). A year later I ran another in Ottawa (2:04:56). Last Sunday, I ran another.

I got to the end of triathlon season in good shape and looking forward to 4x/week workouts instead of 6. I’d begun nudging my weekly long run up for a few weeks but the transition was still a bit rough since after the nudging, I jumped straight to 11 miles. That was followed by a week or so of trying to figure out just what the hell kind of pace I could do in different workouts. I’d done almost all my run workouts at a “zone 2” or easy pace, aiming to keep my heart rate under 140, which usually translated to a 10:00-10:20 pace, and now I was aiming to add in a variety of efforts and repeats of efforts. I’d adopted a training plan that I’d used to prepare for the half marathon in Ottawa, but aimed for faster paces in the hope that I’d be ready to run a sub-2:00–a personal best by at least 5 minutes–on November 6. After that transition week, though, I hit a rhythm and ticked off one workout after another with success. I did almost all of my long runs on the hilly BG262 race course. I was cautiously optimistic until the week before the race, when “taper madness” set in.

I began looking back through workouts, reading advice on blogs and forums about heart rate zones and race paces, thinking about the hills, doing complicated math, and generally fretting about my level of preparation. In many of my workouts, and especially the ones where I ran 8 or 9 miles steady followed by 3 or 4 fast, I re-acquainted myself with the suffering that a best-day effort requires. It got to my head and I started undercutting my sub-2:00 goal, telling myself it would be a great day if I managed to come in anywhere near 2:05.

That’s what I told Spouse, and I think that’s what I told the fam right before we lined up at the start on Sunday. “There’s no way.” “I don’t know how it’s going to happen today.” “God, those hills.” To meet my goal, I’d need to maintain at least a 9:04/mile average, which I’ve never done over that distance. The closest I’d gotten was maybe 10:00. But I sidled over next to the 2:00 pacer and waited for the countdown. And we were off.

The BG26.2 has grown over its five years of existence, but it’s not a huge field, which helped me find a good pace right from the outset. There are inevitably people who line up without reference to pacer signs, and faster runners end up zig-zagging a bit at the start. I stayed in the clump around the 2:00 pacer’s orbit and by the time we got up and over the first hill, I had found my people.

Speaking of the hills: they’re for real (see elevation profile below), but running them over and over and over again meant I approached them knowing what they were and how I was going to get over them. Zero anxiety. I did my best to keep a consistent cadence up with shorter strides and fly down with longer strides. I stayed within a near orbit of the 2:00 pacer and was amazed to see I was holding an average pace in the 8:50s without panic. In my complicated math of the week before, I’d told myself as long as I hit Fairview (the beginning of the flat) at a 9:30 average, I could make it up.

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I had some moments of doubt as I felt the initial burst of adrenaline wear off and found I couldn’t consistently get my heart rate below 160, but every time I passed Mom, Dad, Jacob, Ralphie, Tony, and the girls, I knew they were seeing me within spitting distance of the 2:00 pacer all the way through those f-ing hills. I don’t know why that made such a big difference, but it did. Man, it did.

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I’m getting actual air in my stride! (and in my hair)

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OMG, can that be a smile on the last hill? 

The thing about repeated hills is you’re always doing something interesting; you always have a project in front of you. I knew from my long runs that the flat was boooooring and my mind would threaten to break before my legs and lungs did. But I knew how long the Neighborhood of Death was (the loop in Briarwood pictured below).screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-4-52-00-pm

I gritted my teeth and got back out to Fairview in mile 10, where I began assessing my ability to find a higher gear. I did not, could not find a higher gear. A side stitched materialized and I saw my average pace creep up to 9:01. I focused on breathing in my belly, squeezing all the air out before sucking new air in, and it subsided enough for me to begin picking up the pace again…a little. My watch said 9:00 again and I began passing runners in slightly worse condition than myself. After a long time on Fairview, we came to the part of the course I’d neglected while training, full of 90º turns down by the hospital. I knew I only had a mile and a half to go, but no landmark sense of how that distance would tick off. Note to self: if given the chance, run ALL of the course.

Knowing that, barring catastrophe, I would make it in at or under 2:00, I held steady. Hearing three blocks away, however, a demon woman from hell screaming, “The clock’s at 1:58! You better move your ass! You’ve got 2 minutes!!” to a runner behind me, I panicked. Was my Garmin wrong? How could it be wrong? How could I have worked that hard and still come up short?! Whatever I had left to kick, I kicked, and began scanning the spectators for Nuala, who was waiting to run across the finish line with me. I don’t know if I saw my little family or the finish clock first, but for once, I ran all the way down the finisher chute with a real smile–not a “hey, there’s the race photographer, better smile!” smile–but a real one because I saw the 1:57s closing out and ticking over to 1:58 and my girl was with me.

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No more smiles, just breathing and beginning to cry. No idea where Nuala had run off to.

I ran it in 1:58:03. It seems like just a hair’s breadth under 2, but race minutes are very long minutes. I crushed my previous PR by almost 7 minutes on the most challenging course I’d run. I turned in an average 8:58 pace. I cried.

And then I celebrated with Mom, Dad, Ralphie, Jacob, Tony, and the girls, waiting for JJ to come in. And then I got to show her that my Garmin said 1:58 and we celebrated our PRs.

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That’s the end of my race season. Shout out to Spouse, who has done the heavy lifting on the morning kiddo routine for a long, long time. No matter how early I got out and no matter how dark it was when I got back from a workout, one kid or another would almost invariably find a way to wake up and ask for breakfast while I was gone. Spouse kept the mountain of laundry moving, no small feat in a house with a potty-training Bebe and a super-sweaty wife. And although these are usually wasted words, he kept urging me to rest a little, to do a little less and sleep a little more. I’m not an easy person to care for–a porcupine or similarly pointy sharp creature comes to mind–but he keeps trying, and he lets me care for myself in the way I prefer, by getting up in the morning and getting on the road and ticking off one tiny piece of a huge goal.

It’s Thursday and my quads no longer hurt. I thought about running this morning and although Bebe and my body are still on a 4:30 wakeup schedule so it wouldn’t have been anything to grab my shoes and go, I decided to finish off this post and catch up on work instead. Maybe this weekend I’ll hop on my bike and doodle around town with Nuala or with friends. Or both! Maybe I’ll search around for some weightlifting workouts and google off-season training tips. And maybe I’ll clean the house and bake something.

 

I succeeded in getting Bebe to cooperate with her costume a second time, but failed to get Nuala to include her swords and pull her mask up, so she looks like “hijab but with pants” instead f ninja. It was a great holiday nonetheless.

Immediately after I took this picture, she demanded I take off her tail, removed and refused to wear her ears, and began smudging off her makeup, so we went to fall festival only slightly costumed. I doubt I’ll get her in her costume again on Halloween, so here she is!

Ironman

Just about five years ago, when I was struggling through what had been diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome but was actually–no shit–seasonal allergies, I mustered enough energy to run miles 5ish through 13.1 with JJ on her first half marathon. The race field was small, so she didn’t have the benefit of robust camaraderie at the back of the pack. When you’re starting out as an adult runner, the back of the pack is incredibly important. You know how hard you’ve all worked to get to the starting line, and you know how hard you’re working even though your speed suggests otherwise. Instead, she got to hear the cop on the motorcycle bringing up the rear complain about how sore his hand was getting from holding the throttle. She deserved a better venue for her first half marathon. She hung in there, though. She says she couldn’t have done it without me quoting Monty Python, and I dunno. Miles 10-13 are a nightmare under the best and most well-trained of circumstances, so maybe she’s right. And then maybe under all the tentativeness and self-doubt that she’s felt in the past, she’s always had a hard core of stubbornness that wouldn’t let her quit. In any case, I think it’s safe to say she’s spent the last five years whittling away the fluffy stuff around that hard core.

She ran some more. She got a bike. She learned to swim. She trained for one triathlon, then another, and another. She did a longer one. And a longer one than that. She signed up and trained for an Ironman. And then the Sunday before last, she donned a wetsuit, shuffled in a long line to the start in the Ohio, and went to work.

I saw NBC’s coverage of the Ironman world championships in Kona many years ago when I was in grad school. Either they used to do more features on “everyman” age-groupers than they do now, or those features made an outsized impression on me. Even then, as a smoker who owned no bike and didn’t know how to swim, I wondered quietly and to myself whether I could ever do such a thing. In grad school, I was learning all kinds of stuff about history of medicine and history of Ireland, but I was really learning what it took to achieve a goal of seemingly impossible proportions (like writing a book). The Ironman idea had some appeal as a similar, but more tangible project.

Over the years, with a Ph.D. in hand, I’ve wondered a little less quietly and occasionally even out loud if I might do it one day. Watching JJ’s training has made the road clearer than ever. But looking out at those swimmers in the river, my sister among them, my stomach dropped. I told Ralphie, “There’s just no way. There’s just no way.”


But in no time, the sun was up over the horizon and she appeared from the changing tent at T1. She was headed to the bike with a smile on her face like she’d been hanging out shooting the breeze over coffee rather than swimming amidst almost 3000 other brave souls in the godforsaken Ohio River. My stomach leapt back up into my throat and it was all I could do to squeak out “Go Jessica!” before she retrieved her bike and set out for 112 miles.

While we were waiting, Ralph had said something about supporting her on the run–tagging in and out as needed–and I realized I’d brought my shoes but no running gear. I took advantage of the long-ish bike hiatus to run to Target for clothes I needed anyway (side note: my gear is aging and so, so stinky), swing by and pick up T and the Beeb from my in-laws’, grab sandwiches from Jimmy John’s, and rendezvous in Oldham County for some spectating along the two-lap loop portion of the bike. We missed her the first time around but caught her the second time, cookin’ and bookin’ and still smiling. We got in the car and converged on another spectating site around mile 80 and caught her again. I’ve really gotta get a hold of myself at some point with these races–I flubbed shooting a snippet of video as she rolled past on the second lap and just completely missed getting a photo on my second bike sighting, but those moments were outstanding. She was holding a damned respectable pace on the bike and looked like she was out for a casual group ride every time we saw her. It was clearly turning out to be a good day.

We got back to downtown in just enough time to see her set out on the run course looking more comfortable than anyone in that position really has a right to. After a quick reunion and dinner with Mom, Dad, and kiddos, Spouse took the girls back to his mom’s house and I went in search of a good spot to catch her on the run. Somehow, enough hours had gone by that the sun was beginning to set. Later, JJ would say the day had flown by, and although my hips and ankles begged to differ, my brain said the same. I snapped this scene–most of the below runners on their way back in from the first lap of the run course–and spent the rest of my time cheering runners, texting Ralphie, and doing math, trying to anticipate her arrival around mile 12.

Just when I thought she’d gone missing, she appeared with Ralphie; she was recovering from a much-needed puke. I began to do more math: how much more time could I spend on my feet without injuring myself? I’ve been training for a half marathon and had just done 14 the day before. I thought I could definitely do 6, probably 8, but maybe 10 was pushing it. Ralphie tagged out just after mile 14 and JJ and I headed south to the last turnaround.

My memory of how hard her first half marathon had been seems crystal clear: she had maintained great humor throughout the race, but her body was suffering and severely testing her willpower. Now, after covering well over 100 miles one way or another, she was moving with purpose and energy. She may have enjoyed my and Ralphie’s company a great deal, and I’m sure she appreciated his physical and moral support while puking, but she didn’t need any help. It sounds like a trite and goofy thing to say, but it’s 100% honest: she did me a favor by letting me run with her. To be out on the road with incredible people at the end of a long day, knowing that all of them were on their way to achieving something amazing is a rare experience.

I wish I had a better picture, but this is kind of cool, circa mile 23, and the best I could do in the dark while running alongside.

Ralphie met us for the last few miles, at which point I realized we wouldn’t be able to see her cross the finish line if we didn’t run ahead. So he and I kicked it into high gear for the last mile-plus and waded through the throngs of people waiting on their finishers on 4th Street. It was just a minute or two later that we heard her name and “You! Are! An Ironman!” and my eyes exploded with tears.

Over the past few months during my own workouts, I’ve envisioned her on the race course and coming through the finisher chute. Over the past few weeks running, I’ve had to stop myself from doing that because thinking of her finishing the race literally took my breath away. As soon as I’d conjure her image as inspiration on a particularly hard interval, my throat would close up, my eyes would get teary, and I’d lose precious momentum. I used to bawl my eyes out for the Kona age-groupers on NBC whose training and achievement came in the midst of incredible challenges. It’s not that JJ has endured the sort of unspeakable tragedy that makes for compelling national television, but I know her story so much better. I know what her path has looked like and I know how hard she’s had to work to even dream up this goal in the first place, much less check off workout after workout for months and years. I know it hasn’t always been clear to her how strong she is, and I know how deeply she knows it now. That’s what takes my breath away.

I am so lucky to have her as my big sister.

Snapshot

There will soon come a day when a 2-year-old doesn’t sit on my kitchen counter drinking milk from a sippy cup before the sun comes up.

The kids at Nuala’s school have been preparing for International Day (preceding our town’s International Festival this weekend). Today, students as individuals or pairs presented their research and artifacts, and y’all, she did an outstanding job. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she chose Ireland, and her exhibit included some children’s books as Gaeilge, a keychain with her name on it (kindly brought back from Ireland by a colleague whose daughter had a similarly very Irish name that ensured she’d never find anything with her name on it here), her dad’s tweed cap, a novelty St. Patrick’s Day necklace/bracelet, some brown soda bread, and Irish butter. Below the table, she had a poster with a historical timeline, information on wildlife, sports (GAA!), a map, flag, and other national symbols. Like a real academic poster presentation, she was expected to answer questions and elaborate on her presented materials. I hovered in the background as she responded confidently and clearly to other kids’ parents wandering around the space, and my heart grew a thousand sizes. 

Oh, this girl. She is simply wonderful.