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The Best Laid Plans...
by Mark Andrews
I had everything all worked out for my trip to Melbourne, Florida for the 2011 Masters Half-Marathon National Championships. My flight was scheduled to leave Rochester at 11:44am on Saturday, February 5th. After layovers in Philadelphia and Charlotte, I would arrive in Melbourne at 6:09pm. This would leave plenty of time to pick up my rental car, drive to the race start area so I knew where I was going Sunday morning, get something to eat and get to my hotel with plenty of time to relax. The race start was at 7am Sunday morning, so I figured I could be in bed by 10 or so, get up at 5am and be ready to go.
So of course my first flight out of Rochester left about 30 minutes late. This meant I arrived in Philadelphia about 30 minutes late and missed my connection to Charlotte. After going to the US Airways Customer Service desk, I was scheduled on later flights to Charlotte and Melbourne. The last flight to Melbourne wasn’t scheduled to leave until 8pm, meaning I would not arrive in Melbourne until about 9:30. Not the ideal situation, but after a phone call to my girlfriend to inform her of my delay, I settled down and started to relax. There was nothing I could do about it, so no point in stressing over it and not being focused for this race I had trained so hard for.
My flight to Charlotte went as planned, I was able to get dinner at the airport, and I awaited my last flight into Melbourne. Sitting at the departure gate, I watched the minutes tick by. 8pm came and went and we were all still sitting there. I began to get very nervous. They finally began boarding us, and I sat on the plane waiting again. The minutes ticked helplessly by and I started to think maybe somebody didn’t want me to run well at this race. I was getting more and more frustrated and upset when I finally got control of myself. I began remembering how hard I had trained for this race. I remembered all the tempo workouts, all the interval workouts, all the 90-mile weeks. I remembered how strong I had felt running a 32-minute 10K tempo run on the RIT indoor track a week and a half before and told myself “you’re ready….you have trained for this harder than anyone else….sitting around the airport all day isn’t going to hurt you unless you let it….one short night of sleep isn’t going to hurt you unless you let it….don’t give yourself any excuses….just stay focused and do what you came here to do.”
I finally arrived in Melbourne a little after 10pm. I hurried to pick up my rental car and get to my hotel as fast as possible. I arrived at my hotel a little before 11pm, but my night wasn’t over yet. I checked in, got my key-card and drove around to the back of the building where my room was. I got to my door, slid the key-card in and….nothing. Red lights flashed on the door and the handle wouldn’t move. After several more attempts, I got back in my car, drove back to the office and told them my key-card wasn’t working. After several minutes to scan a new one, I drove back and tried again. Once more, red lights flashed on the door. Several more tries accomplished nothing. I drove back a second time and told them this card wasn’t working either. They must’ve seen on my face how upset I was, because this time they just gave me an entirely different room. Mercifully, this time I was able to get in. I quickly unpacked my bag, grabbed a quick snack and began to set up my Globus electrical muscle stimulation unit. This is something I have been using since last fall with very positive results. I attached the electrode pads to my legs, hooked the cables up to the unit, and did a quick Active Recovery program, hoping to jump start a little more life into my tired legs. I turned off the lights and went to bed at 11:45. After tossing and turning for what seemed like at least an hour, I finally drifted off to sleep.
I awoke to my alarm at 5am. Turning on the TV to a local news station, I was informed the temperature was 66 degrees. Ouch….about 10 or 15 degrees warmer than I was expecting. High humidity from the threat of rain wasn’t helping matters either. After dressing and packing my race bag, I left the hotel at 5:30. I arrived at the start area at 5:45 and found the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce building, where the competitors in the Masters National Championships were being allowed to hang out and leave their bags during their warm-up and the race. I was the first one to arrive, so I went to find the bathroom, then laid down on the floor to relax until it was time to begin my warm-up. Soon, other runners began to come in. Malcolm Campbell, an old friend and competitor from my days living in North Carolina in the late-90’s, walked in and we shook hands and chatted a bit.
Finally, 45 minutes before the start, I strapped my MP3 player to my arm and went outside to begin my warm-up. I ran just outside of town and went over one of the two bridges we would be crossing during the race. This was the second bridge and I saw the 12-mile mark was right at the bottom. I began to plan some strategy for the race. Originally, I had planned to run in the front group until 8-10 miles where, depending on the pace, I would surge and finish with a very hard final 5K or 8K. However, after the stressful day of travel and short night of sleep I just had, I figured the less I could lead the better, and waiting until this bridge from 11 to 12 miles (half a mile steeply uphill and half a mile steeply downhill) might be a good idea.
I returned from my 15-minute warm-up run and noticed sweat was running down the middle of my back. This wasn’t a good sign, especially since the sun hadn’t even come up yet. I went into the Chamber of Commerce building, used the bathroom again, and swallowed an Orange Vanilla Roctane gel. I did a few stretches, took off my warm-up pants and jacket, and searched through my MP3 player for a good song to have in my head while the race was going on. I settled on Snappin’ Necks by Stuck Mojo and sat down to put on my racing flats. I clipped my gel flask containing a second Orange Vanilla Roctane to my shorts and went to use the bathroom again. I stood in line behind about 5 or 6 other men for a few minutes, checked my watch and decided this would take too long. I jogged outside and found a clump of trees and bushes behind some large industrial buildings for a quick pit-stop, then ran back to the start line to do some strides.
After some instructions, Frank Shorter, one of the invited guest runners, fired the gun to start the race. (Bill Rodgers and Zola Budd were also there, but they were running.) Of the men that were there, I figured Malcolm was the most serious threat, so I tucked behind him. The pace seemed very easy and when we passed the 1-mile mark I saw why: 5:31. Much slower than I was expecting, but given the hassles and stress of the day before, I didn’t care. I had decided winning was the most important thing and I didn’t care how slow the time was. I stuck right behind Malcolm through 3 miles. The times didn’t get any faster – 5:34 and 5:35. Finally, just past the 3-mile mark, he turned to look at me over his shoulder and moved a few feet sideways, indicating he wanted me to come up and take the lead. This was earlier in the race than I wanted to lead, but the pace was slow and I was feeling good, so I obliged. I led from 3 miles to 4 and our split dropped to 5:21. Carl Rundell, a 42-year old from Michigan who would eventually finish 4th, took the lead at 4 miles. I went in front again at 5 miles, just as we began the climb over the first bridge, and tried to increase the pace a bit to see who was really serious. Malcolm stayed with me, Carl dropped back and Dennis Simonaitis from Utah, who would finish 3rd, joined us. Malcolm took the lead again after the bridge and I tucked behind. We stayed like that, with Dennis a couple strides behind me, for the next 2 miles.
Just past 6 miles, I took the gel flask clipped to my waistband and downed my 2nd Roctane of the day. I tried to time it so we would be passing an aid station shortly after I finished it. When one came up a minute or so later, I took a cup of water from a volunteer. Grabbing a cardboard cup from someone’s hand, while running 5:20 mile pace, and keeping any water in the cup is nearly impossible. Sure enough, despite my best efforts to pinch the top of the cup closed as soon as I took it, most of the water splashed out and I was able to drink about half a swallow. Nonetheless, I was feeling good and continued running just behind Malcolm.
Finally, as we approached the 8-mile mark, I decided something needed to be done. This was a bit earlier in the race than I wanted to make a move based on my revised race strategy, but it was feeling like the pace was settling a bit too much. I figured even if I went now and Malcolm went with me, I would at least most likely drop Dennis and turn this into a two man race. I could deal with Malcolm later. Dennis was still running a few strides behind me and I reasoned if he was feeling that good, he would be up by my shoulder instead of 10 yards behind.
Having made up my mind, I surged just past the 8-mile mark. Our eighth mile had been run in 5:24. I ran the ninth in 5:11. Malcolm and Dennis both began to drop back as soon as I increased the pace. Running alone, I tried to keep thinking positive thoughts when suddenly a verse from a Megadeth song I had listened to earlier in the week popped into my head….No time for questions….No time for games….Start kicking ass and taking down the names….A long shit-list….A shorter fuse….He is untouchable and guarantees you’ll lose….This bounced around my head for the next couple miles, along with what I had told myself the evening before while waiting for yet another late flight: Don’t give yourself an excuse….stay focused and do what you came here to do.
Miles 10 and 11 went by in 5:12 and 5:13. I couldn’t hear any footsteps behind me, but I still wasn’t sure I had put everyone away. Each time I ran by an aid station or group of spectators, I would try to gauge my lead by paying attention to the amount of time between their cheers for me stopping and their cheers for the next runner starting back up. By the time I had passed 10 miles, I couldn’t hear any cheering behind me.
As the 11-mile mark approached, I began to focus on the steep half-mile climb that awaited me going over the second bridge. I figured if I could stay strong on that climb and still have a sizable lead, I would then have a half-mile downhill and the aid of gravity to hold that lead. The 12-mile mark would be at the bottom of the bridge – one mile to go – and there was no way I was going to let anyone catch me with one mile to go.
I made it over the bridge and blew into the final mile. I kept running as hard as possible on the rolling city streets. As I made the last turn about 100 yards before the finish, I dared to look over my shoulder. The street behind me was deserted. At that point I knew I had won my first National Championship and I raised my arms, pumping my fists as I crossed the line. Joy and relief washed over me…..I had finally done what I had gone there to do.
"Going to a Dark Place"
Le Templiers in France, October 2007
I may very well be the dumbest person you’ll get to meet. Why do I say that? Well Ellen and I just got back from France where I ran a 66 kilometer trail run with 11,000+ feet of climbing. Now ultras are not dumb but running one on no training certainly is. I think I have run 12 times this year due to work and too many injuries. But I said I was doing it so I had to toe the line. In my racing past I’ve had to go to what I call a dark place many times. It is that spot where you either quit or finish. It’s going to hurt and you’ll have to use your mind way more then anything else because your body will abandon you. On the plus side you do learn a lot in a dark place. Here’s the story.
The first 35k running with Fleet Feet’s very own K-Robb and his wife wasn’t too bad. I thought to myself that since they had trained a ton maybe they did enough to cover my lack of training. I was wrong. I came into the aid station and met Ellen and the rest of our crew and said I’m done. I figured stop before I do too much damage. Then they tell me it is a 3 mile walk to the car, so I decide to run the 10k to the next aid station. This leg was 5k straight up and then 5k straight down. The 5k up is when things started to get dark, not outside but inside me. This didn’t feel good and my body did not wish to keep doing it. I would have to use my head to get me to the next aid station as I had just told my ride to leave. Well I made it to the top and the descent begins. I chose the mantra “Gravite et Gratus” Which apparently is made up French for Gravity is free ‘because that is all I was thinking. I hammered the downhill having a blast jumping over all sorts of stuff and flying by the poor saps that planned to run further then the next aid station. Not me I thought I’m done.
Well I get to the next station at 45k and pound some sweets and soup and of course more nectur of the gods, carbonated water with high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors, Coke. I hung out for a bit and then stupidly ask to see the map. I ask how bad does the next section look and it really didn’t appear that bad so I announce that I am dumber then they all thought and head out. Again tons of up hill and the legs immediately announce that they do not wish to go up hill any longer. Lots of bad thoughts are in my head now but I have no choice but to continue. You can’t just drop out in the middle of a leg as we were running in the middle of the Mountains with very few towns around. I get to the first ropes section and the field comes to a stop. There goes my free gravity. Once we finally get moving after the ropes I go back to hammering the down as I used my anger of the 30 minute delay as fuel.
So a mantra saved me once and now anger did. I doubt I’ll get lucky a third time.
I arrive at the 55k aid station and have no choice but to go on. I’m only 11 k from the finish. I grab some quick sweets and coke and get moving. I felt really pretty good. The map didn’t look too severe and it started out on an easy trail with very little up. I’m finally running on something other then rocks and the trail is wide. Then it all goes to crap. Straight up and rocky with a ledge on one side. I’m done. I’m moving on fumes. The tank is empty. The good news is I must not have much more to go as I left the aid station 1.5 hours earlier. I’m pushing on my legs to make them go up hill just to try and get moving. I find a race official on the course and ask fini kilometer. His answer was 7. How did 4 k just take me 90 minutes? I go around the bend in the trail and sit down. My mind is fried. This may be the darkest moment in my racing career. If it took 90 minutes to go 4k and I have 7k to go I’ve got a real long ways to go. All I want to do is sit here and wait. Wait for what I don’t know, maybe I’ll feel better, maybe I’ll just sleep out here tonight, I don’t know but I did know that I didn’t want to keep going. I think that I used to be half way decent at this stuff and now I can’t move. I kick myself for not training, for putting fitness on the backburner for 3 years after 20+ years of it being my sole focus. I sit there sucking on what little water I have left watching others trudge by. They try to encourage me to come with them and finally I do but this is going to hurt. My body isn’t working and now my mind is smoked. All I can do is stare at the pair of calves in front of me and try to stick with them. We climb for what feels like an hour or more and finally hit the top, with 3.9 k to go. At least no more climbing. Just some flat and then a technical descent with ropes down to the finish. I’m still in a pain induced dark place but I’ll make it to the end. I finish with a “full Doyle salute” (it’s a FF Roc thing) get changed and head home.
So what did I learn in this dark place. One I gotta train for these things. Two your mind can get you out of a really tight spot if you just use it. Three and most important for me I learned I gotta train for these things. I used to train 20+ hours a week as a pro duathlete and I don’t like not being in shape. Being out of shape has made me a person that I didn’t use to be. Not only do I have 30 extra pounds but I am a different person. I get tired easy, I’m more tense, and my fuse is shorter. These are all bad things and I need to get back out on the roads and trails just enjoying being in shape so I can be the person I used to be. My family deserves that, my wife certainly does and so do my employee’s, teammates and customers.
So don’t be afraid to push yourself into a dark place by taking on a new challenge. Sign up for that triathlon, even though you can’t swim yet, or find an ultra to do, or heck, decide to walk an extra mile on your loop tonight. The challenge is individual to each of us and one is not tougher then another as it will be a big leap no matter what you choose to do or you current level of fitness. You might be surprised at what you find. At least learn from me and train for it though.
I’ll see you out there, it might be on the trails or the roads, on a bike or running, snowshoeing or just hiking with the dog, but you will see me out there.