Paul and I left the kids with a friend and showed up in Huntington Beach for the expo Saturday. We met up with friends, grabbed our bibs and timing chips, and escaped for a margarita at Fred's Cantina. Later that night my friend John was awesome enough to host a dinner at his home, 8 of us crowded around his table for pasta and stories. As usual our collective health statuses left much to be desired, but morale was high and the wine flowed freely. By the time we all hugged good night I couldn't wait for race morning.
Paul, John and I actually went to the Santa Ana Artwalk for a bit after dinner to visit a gallery showing the work of my friend Tyoni who does my tattoos. Totally random bit of information, but it was fun and her art is beautiful. I just wanted to rip it off the wall and transfer it to my skin. After dropping John back off at home, Paul and I crashed his friend Fred's couch and caught a bit of sleep.
Before we knew it it was 6am, and I popped right off that couch ready to attack the course! I yanked on my Bad Ass running socks, comfy purple running shoes, my fave black running shorts, my Nike Sports band, my new running hat that says "Some girls chase boys, I pass them," a ton of Glide, and finally my bright yellow NF Endurance Team singlet. I cleaned up and smeared on sunblock, by 6:10 I told Paul I was ready to rock! We drove down to the parking lot and caught a shuttle right to the race. 20,000 people milled about, some stretching, others doing quick sprints to warm up. I shook my legs out and took a deep breath. Suddenly Paul noticed people moving and told me I better get running. I planted a big sloppy kiss right on his mouth, and took off running toward the start line.
Most of these major race events line everyone up in waves by declared goal finish time. I have done my time being in the back 2 or 3 waves, but not this race. As I jogged to my starting spot I passed thousands of runners crowding around pacing signs. 3:00, 2:45, 2:30... I stretched my neck and searched for the big 2:00 pacing group, but the line had already started moving and before I could get left behind I jumped in with the 2:04 pacing group. The leader was a young girl wearing a horrible blue plaid running skirt. As we crossed the start line I turned my sportsband on and set it to the chronograph. I breathed in deeply through my nose and forcefully out of my mouth and focused on the road ahead of me.
The first mile of a race is always interesting. There are always a few jerks who just refuse to stick to their wave group and walk right smack in the middle of the course, causing dangerous traffic for all of the people running at the correct pace. There are always people who go running by with the oddest running styles, one hand sticking straight out, feet dragging or even moving in circles in front of them like a cartoon character. As soon as you see them, they pass you and are gone. Surf City runs along PCH and the ocean breeze urged me on as I hit my stride. I felt a slight twitch in my ribs and went into denial mode, as I passed the 1 mile mark I noted 10 minutes had gone by already. I was 30 seconds behind my 9:30 pace, but the first mile is always a warm up so I was not concerned. As I set into a rhythm my rib cage flummoxed against my skin and I instinctively reached to hold the pain. I quickly realized that if I shoved 2 fingers right into the cramp and breathed deeply, the pain would recede until I could breathe normally again. Armed with this new tactic I picked up the pace, and every 2 or 3 minutes as the stitch came back I would roughly press it in with my fingers. Somehow I had become one of those crazy people running along with an elbow sticking out randomly. I could have cared less, as I neared the 2 mile mark a glance at my sportsband showed 19:30. I had run the second mile on pace and was feeling fabulous. I tried to relax and enjoy the scenery, forcing my mind to zone out rather then counting steps. At mile 3 the course took a sharp turn to the right as I knew it would, and until halfway through mile 5 it was all uphill. I love hills, I settled into a steady type of march and pushed onward. I thought back to the previous year when I had walked the half with my friend Giselle, I wasn't worried about my finishing time and knew it would be fun to complete the course together. I wished for a moment she was there again for the company, but knew that this year I had to run my own race. Suddenly the hill ended and I found myself at the top of a neighborhood looking out over a small inlet of water covered in a thick fog. It was beautiful, and as I turned downhill again I let myself fall forward with the incline, picking up my pace as the hill descended until I had again reached PCH and the course turned back to it's original direction. I was at mile 6 and almost at the one hour mark. I was about halfway there and starting to tire. I took my first drink of the race at the 6.5 mile hydration station, curving the little paper cup to my lips and sipping it down as it splashed all over me. I tossed the cup toward the massive pile of discarded cups and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, all without breaking stride. I spotted the 2:04 pacing team again and fell in line with them. Every time I tried to pass them they ended up passing me again, until finally I resigned myself to their rhythm and fell in line. Its hard to describe miles 8-12 of a half marathon to anyone who has never done an endurance event. My adrenaline wore off, the caffeine ran out, and as excited as I was to run this race I was ready for it to be over. Instead of slowing down as my body wanted to, I knew I had to maintain or increase my pace for 5 or 6 more miles. At this point I started a meditative kind of thought process, urging myself forward and ignoring the pain that had settled over my entire body. Dull pain was expectable, and I welcomed it, knowing that pain is weakness leaving the body. Right around mile 10 the pain went from dull to sharp in 3 seconds flat. My left foot started to cramp and slowly curl in under itself. I tried to keep running for about 2 steps before I stumbled to the side and jammed my foot against a curb trying to force it to flatten back out from the painful ball it had hunched into. Within seconds I was loping along, trying to relax my foot and keep all of the tension in my core. I snatched the energy gel from my hydration belt... which is really the same thing as a fanny pack... I ripped the top off the package and squeezed the goo into my mouth, willing the electrolytes and potassium to relieve the cramp. I successfully ran another sub-10 minute mile and realized I was almost at the finish! At mile 12 my foot cramped horribly again, I again tried to ignore it but it curled under. I came to a halt on the curb, cursing like a sailor and shaking out my foot. I looked longingly down the course at the finish line, I couldn't make it out through all the fog but it still taunted me. I took a deep breath and just ran. I saw the pacing group and ran right past them. I couldn't even look at my time, I was too busy willing my feet to bounce off the road as hard as possible, propelling me forward against all probability. I was moving maybe around 9 minutes a mile but in my heart I was flying down that course. As the final stretch loomed into view spectators crowded the sidelines. Girls in hoola skirts waved signs that read "Nice Legs" and "You have stamina, CALL ME!" Children sat on their father's shoulders holding signs that said "RUN MOMMY RUN!" They all blurred into a line of color rushing past on either side as the big Finish Line banner came into view above my head and with a smashing step over the finish line I jammed my thumb into the stop button on my sportsband and looked down. 2:06. I sucked in air and accepted a medal and banana from volunteers. I stopped for the first time in over 2 hours and stretched deeply. For some reason I thought of the movie Bring It On. A National Championship team of cheerleaders goes back to defend their title, but a better team wins and after all of their hard work they earn 2nd place. As they accept their trophy they look at each other and say "Second place?" and with a smile they erupt in cheers and scream BRING IT ON! Bring it on, indeed.
I fought my way out of the finisher's holding pen and found Paul, I gave him a big sweaty hug and just pointed toward the beach. I ripped off my running shoes and hobbled barefoot toward the ocean. I walked right in and let the ice cold water numb my swollen feet before realizing just how cold it was and rushing back out. I ran back to give Paul a kiss then ran toward the surf again, this time letting the water reach above my knees and rush all around me. I took in the horizon and slowly withdrew from the waves. I stretched on the beach, not caring that wet sand stuck allover my skin. I went through my entire yoga routine right there, on the sand, with the water snaking up to my fingers as it reached out for me.
Finally I got cleaned up, and we found our way back to the team. We waited for everyone to finish and then said our good-byes. As always, when it comes down to the important moments in my life only Paul was left. We held hands tightly and headed for the shuttle. No matter how far I run, I always end up back at home.