Thursday, May 15, 2014

Never Stop (Especially after you cross the finish line because there are 20,000 people behind you)

Ever since I moved to Phoenix, I’ve had some variation of the following conversation with pretty much every local resident I’ve met.

Arizonan: So, you’re a runner?

Me: Yeah. I ran track in college, and I still run pretty much every day.

Arizonan: Have you ever done Pat’s Run?

Pat’s Run—an annual event that raises money for the Pat Tillman Foundation and honors the legacy of a fallen American hero—is the crown jewel of the Phoenix racing calendar. It’s essentially the last major race before the city again descends into the fiery depths of hell (a.k.a. summer) for approximately four months. It’s also the Valley’s largest running event of the year, with more than 20,000 participants.

It didn’t take long for me to ascertain that I would never truly be accepted into the Phoenix running community until I had at least one Pat’s Run under my belt. It’s a rite of passage of sorts—an initiation into the fraternity of fellow crazy people who scarcely bat an eye at the thought of logging several miles in triple-digit heat. So when I found out that my company was sponsoring a team—and offering to pay half of each participant’s registration fee—I took it as a sign from the Universe that it was my destiny to run this race.

By the way, the theme of the entire shebang—and the inspiration for the title of this post—is “Never Stop.” And let me tell you, the organizers of this race really live out their rallying cry to the fullest extent possible—as in, “Never Stop promoting this race until everyone within a 500-mile radius uses it as a go-to topic of conversation when making small-talk with hobby joggers,” and “Never Stop allowing people to register for this event, even when the size of the race field far exceeds the capacity that the race venue can comfortably support,” and “Never Stop running, even after you have crossed the finish line, because there are literally thousands of people coming in behind you and that shit backs up quick.”

All in all, the race itself was fairly uneventful. My performance was neither outstanding nor abysmal: I finished the 4.2-mile course in 25:27 (the distance is a tribute to Tillman’s jersey number as a member of Arizona State’s football team) to nab sixth-place honors in the women’s race. Now, that might seem somewhat impressive considering the massive list of entries, but keep in mind that the vast majority of “runners” in this race were not runners at all. In fact, I would estimate that the true “racing” field—that is, people who actually treated this event as a competition—consisted of about 2,000 people.

Anyway, the real challenge of Pat’s Run is arriving not at the finish line, but at the starting line. Here’s what I was up against:

  • 7 a.m. gun time
  • 12-mile commute to race site (Arizona State University in Tempe)
  • Road traffic from 20,000 race participants (plus spectators)
  • Limited parking

Adding another layer of difficulty to the whole ordeal was the fact that I was flying solo. With no support crew to chauffeur me to the starting line and baby-sit my belongings, I had to plan very, very carefully. The night before the race, I hemmed and hawed over whether I should drive to Tempe—and deal with the headache of bottlenecks and parking wars—or take advantage of public transportation. I opted to go public, concluding that I would rather take my chances with smelly train bums than waste my adrenaline reserves contending with road-raging douchebags. With my transportation decision locked in, I chowed down some pasta and turned in early. Here is how it all shook out on race morning:

4:00 a.m. – Alarm goes off.

4:01 a.m. – I briefly consider the possibility that I am merely having a dream in which my alarm is going off, because who in their right mind sets an alarm for 4 a.m. on a Saturday?

4:02 a.m. – The race. I have a race. I have to get out of bed so I can get to the race.

4:03 a.m. – But I don’t really have to go to the race. I mean, I already have the t-shirt. And what’s the point of running when I already have the t-shirt?

4:04 a.m. – I paid $20 to run this race. I am running it.

4:05 a.m. – Then again, what’s the value of restfulness? Can you really put a price on sleeping in on a Saturday?

4:06 a.m. – I remember that Pat Tillman died for America.

4:07 a.m. – COFFEE.

4:10 a.m. – Still drunk with slumber, I clumsily jam a piece of bread into the toaster. I then take dedicate a few minutes to unnecessarily banging around the kitchen, slamming random drawers and cupboards in hopes that I will wake my upstairs neighbors—who apparently feel it is 100% acceptable to vacuum their floors at 11:00 p.m. Every. Single. Night.

4:15 a.m. – I stuff a piece of toast into my mouth. Chewing requires an exorbitant amount of effort.

4:30 a.m. – Clothes on.

4:35 a.m. – Hair done.

4:38 a.m. – Teeth brushed.

4:40 a.m. – Number pinned.

4:45 a.m. – How dafuh does this disposable chip thingy work?

4:50 a.m. – Chip thingy secured (I think).

4:55 a.m. – I gather up my essentials (money, debit card, ID, sticky note with emergency contact numbers written on it) and tuck them all into the tiny zipper pocket on the waistband of my shorts. I make the difficult but necessary decision to leave my phone behind.

5:00 a.m. – Phone-less, I get into my vehicle and drive to the closest metro rail park-and-ride. I realize that, for the next several hours, no one will be able to contact me. I’m basically off the grid. It’s almost as if I do not exist. I am a rogue outlaw.

5:15 a.m. – I purchase a ticket for the metro. I am surrounded by other racers, many of whom are laughing and chatting as if hanging out in downtown Phoenix at five in the morning on a Saturday is a completely normal and in no way insane thing to do.

6:05 a.m. – I arrive in Tempe. There is a sea of Lycra-clad people as far as the eye can see.

6:20 a.m. – I locate the start line. There is literally nowhere to warm up. Claustrophobia begins to set in.

6:21 a.m. – I decide to get in line at the Porta-Potties.

6:22 a.m. – I realize that, as usual, I have picked the wrong line. I refuse to move because I am already too committed.

6:30 a.m. – As I emerge from the Porta-Potty, I notice that there is a track directly adjacent to the starting corrals. I look from the jam-packed staging area—with its dire lack of warm-up space—to the perfectly empty, perfectly good track. Butt-to-butt people. Deserted track. People. Track. People. Track. Oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.

6:35 a.m. – I do 20 jumping jacks and slap myself in the face a few times.

6:40 a.m. – I need to use the bathroom again.

6:42 a.m. – Again, I choose the wrong line.

6:50 a.m. – I begin to stress over whether I will make it to the starting line on time. This only intensifies the need to relieve myself.

6:55 a.m. – I briefly wonder if anyone would notice if I just popped a squat behind a bush.

6:58 a.m. – I make it to the front of the line. I then put the “pee” in “speed.” (That means I peed really, really fast, for those of you who aren’t hip to super-funny, super-clever bathroom puns.)

6:59: a.m. – I hastily ditch my warm-up top on the curb next to the starting line.

7:00 a.m. – The race starts.

7:01 a.m. – My body is a skin-bag of pain and struggle.

7:13 a.m. – I snag a cup of water at the first aid station and dump the entire thing over my head in a futile attempt to shock the lethargy out of my muscles.

7:14 a.m. – My body is a cold, wet skin-bag of pain and struggle.

7:20 a.m. – I start to think that maybe running this race was a bad idea.

7:21 a.m. – Confirmed: running this race was definitely a bad idea.

7:25 a.m. – I see the finish line. I’m crossing the finish line. Heave. Gasp. Water!!!!

7:26 a.m. – I am being ushered out of the finish area. The next several minutes are a blur, but I somehow manage to navigate my way through the post-race expo, avoid all of the giant complimentary iced coffees being shoved into my face by a disturbingly peppy group of Dunkin’ Donuts representatives, collect my warm-up top—which, by some act of God, is on the sidewalk exactly where I left it—and make my way back to the metro rail station.

8:52 a.m. – I am awoken from a daze-like state of dehydration and sleep-deprivation by the sound of a robotic voice announcing my stop over the loudspeaker. I attempt to exit on the wrong side of the train. A kind elderly gentlemen politely stops me and points me in the right direction. I try to thank him, but all that comes out is a pathetic grunt.

9:15 a.m. – I collapse on my futon.

9:16 a.m. – Never. Again.

Alright, well, maybe next year.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My life as a (running) groupie

Finding the right running group is kind of like dating: there are the ones that aren’t good enough for you, the ones that act like they’re too good for you, the ones that have questionable personal hygiene, and the ones that never call you back. The other problem is that I go into every interaction with impossibly high expectations—thanks a lot, Ryan Gosling—thus setting myself up for constant disappointment. So it’s really easy to get discouraged and convince myself that I’m better off going it alone.

My first foray into the world of group runs occurred a couple of months ago. I saw the announcement on Twitter, and after waffling about it for the better part of an afternoon, I finally resolved to suck it up and go. Yes, it could be awkward. Yes, it could totally suck. But I would never know if I didn’t try, right*? Plus, they were giving away free socks to all attendees on that particular evening, and my inner George Costanza simply could not pass up such an enticing freebie.

I knew within five minutes of showing up that things weren’t going to work out, as the high volume of running skirts made it immediately clear that this was a group for joggers, not runners. I don’t mean to sound like an insufferable asshole, but there is a difference. Out of politeness, I slogged through four painfully slow miles, which I considered a more-than-fair price for the complimentary socks. To go back to the dating analogy, this experience was the equivalent of enduring 90 minutes of agonizingly boring conversation with a horribly incompatible date for the sole purpose of acquiring free food and cocktails. So yeah, it was pretty much a disaster.

Then there was the super-duper serious group. I met them at the finish line of a local road race. Actually, I didn’t so much “meet” them as I was “aggressively approached” by them. I had barely caught my breath when they cornered me by the post-race refreshment table and launched into a terrifyingly enthusiastic pitch for their group. Although I had a sneaking suspicion that they were all addicted to crack-spiked espresso, they seemed cool—and definitely much more legit than the jogging operation—so when I got home, I looked them up online and sent them a message expressing my interest. Not only did it take them almost a week to respond to my inquiry, but when they finally did, it was basically a “sit tight, we’ll get back to you” kind of message. So, I sat tight. And they never got back to me. They were basically the Guy With an Inflated Sense of Self-Importance Who Feigns Interest but Then Blows You Off Because Hey, a Dude Bro’s Gotta Keep His Options Open.

But, as the old saying goes, sometimes you have to kiss a lot of Jon Gosselins before you find your Hank Baskett. So I pressed on, clinging tight to the hope of one day finding the group with which I was truly meant to run. Then one day, by complete happenstance, I spotted a crowd of runners circling the track near my apartment. At first glance, I thought maybe it was the high school track team. But as I got closer, I realized that a few of the runners had gray hair and mustaches. So either they had been held back for the last 45 years or this was, in fact, an adult running group.

I didn’t have the guts to crash their workout right then and there—plus, I didn’t want to seem too forward. Instead, I checked my watch and made a mental note of the time. When I got home, I made a beeline for my laptop and proceeded to Internet-stalk the crap out of them. My detective work turned up a number of promising leads. Apparently, they were a local group open to anyone, and they met every Tuesday evening at the local high school track. I resolved to attend their next workout—no excuses.

Of course, by the time Tuesday came around, I had a million excuses in my back pocket. I wasn’t in track shape. I didn’t want to push myself to the point of injury. The cookie I had at lunch would give me a side ache. I really needed to start my taxes. I was still too emotionally compromised from the season finale of Orange is the New Black. Obviously, I’d been jaded by my previous experiences. It was akin to having a couple of bad dates in a row and entering all subsequent dating experiences with the expectation of getting a detailed lecture on the evils of gluten and a guided tour of a Facebook album dedicated exclusively to gym selfies.

 Finally, I settled on a compromise: I would start running toward the track, and if I didn’t like the vibe I got, I’d bail. Simple as that. When I got there, I immediately spotted a woman in normal** running attire stretching by the fence. I drew in a deep breath and approached her. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know if there’s a running group that meets here?”

“Yep,” she responded with a smile. “The workout starts at six, so everyone just kind of warms up until then.”

“Great!” I responded.

Now, I knew the worst possible thing I could do was jump in and hijack the whole production. If I wanted to make friends, I had to play it cool and keep my track skills on the DL. So, I nodded my head and bit my tongue as one of the other runners explained the workout, gave me some pointers on pacing, and made sure I knew that a “400” was track-speak for one lap. On tap for that night: 3x400, 4x800, 3x400.

Admittedly, I’m a bit rusty when it comes to speed work, so I was more than willing to start out conservatively. As we took off on our first 400, I slipped in mid-pack. This also allowed me to assess the caliber of the other runners. When I realized that I was actually in the company of some pretty legit athletes, I felt comfortable enough to move up and run with the leaders.

I felt like we were flying. For real, you guys—I thought we were freaking sprinting. Our first lap was about a 75, which is fast by most standards. But considering that I used to be able to run four laps at that pace, it’s actually not that impressive. In fact, I found the disparity between my perceived effort and my actual speed to be quite hilarious—so hilarious that I couldn’t help but chuckle out loud. This made me look insane, and I stopped immediately.

Apparently, though, my five-second fit of laughter was enough to invite conversation from one of the other runners—a very fit-looking woman who appeared to be around the same age as me. “Hey, you’re really fast,” she said. “Did you run in college?”

Oh, God. I’d given myself away.

“Yes,” I replied quietly, hoping no one else had heard.

“Oh, cool. So did I,” she said. “What events did you do?”

This initiated a friendly exchange of collegiate running bios and wistful memories of bygone track days. My new friend and I ran together for the remainder of the workout, and at the end of the evening, she asked if I was going to come back again the following week.

“Yes, I think I will,” I said, trying not to sound too excited.

“Good,” she replied with a smile. “See you then!”

With my “second date” secured, I couldn’t help but grin all the way through my cool-down jog. Now, if only I had something to wear!

**No running skirt