Sunday, March 13, 2011

The race that puts the "kilts" in "kilometers"

As I stepped out of bed this morning, every joint in my entire body produced some sort of snap, crackle and/or pop. My whole being was consumed by a single, all encompassing ache, and I wondered if this is what Charlie Sheen feels like every morning.

My hangover, though, was not of the hookers-and-cocaine variety. No, I had done something far more outrageous. I raced a 5K.

As you might remember from my previous post, I entered the race in hopes of reawakening my competitive spirit in a fun, friendly atmosphere. Well, that is exactly what happened…sort of.

In my college racing days, my pre-race ritual involved focused race visualization, an extensive stretching routine, a stomach-approved meal of plain noodles and water, and of course, an early bedtime.

After several years and countless repetitions of this boring regimen, it grew unbearably tiresome. I just couldn’t bear putting myself through it again, so I decided to establish a new ritual.

It involved thinking about the race as little as possible, eating a dinner of lamb stroganoff and beer, and ending the night with a concert fundraiser, another beer, and a scoop of ice cream. I went to bed feeling full, happy, and completely ignorant of the possible consequences of my irresponsible pre-race behavior.

I awoke feeling rested and calm as a cucumber. I ate breakfast, read the newspaper, played the free online version of Bejeweled—you know, all the stuff I’d do on any regular morning. I got dressed, laced up my shoes, and pinned on my race number. And that’s when—da dum (think Law & Order)—panic set in.

I started freaking out. I wondered if I could call in sick. Do people call in sick to races? My mind was spinning. I wasn’t ready for this. It was going to be a huge embarrassing failure.

I pulled myself together enough to drive to the starting line. When I got out, I felt an immediate sense of relief. How could I get worked up about racing people in green tutus and leprechaun costumes?

Then I spotted an old friend. She was completely hammered and slurring her words as she (loudly) proclaimed that she and I were going to “totally kill this thing.” So I would be racing with drunks, too. More relief.

She pulled me to the back of the crowd, where she introduced me to some of her friends, who I assumed were also drunk. Before I had time to push my way to the front of the pack, the race announcer was counting down to the start.

During the first few hundred meters, I cautiously jogged around men in kilts and women in sparkly shamrock skirts. By the time the crowd thinned out enough for me to settle into my normal pace, the leaders were well ahead of me.

But instead of panicking and attempting to make up all of the distance in one fell surge—as I might have done in the past—I just stayed calm, cruised along at a quick but manageable pace, and enjoyed the beauty and splendor of Missoula’s north side.

I was having a ball picking people off, when out of nowhere I heard a familiar voice calling my name. I looked to my left and was startled to see my parents driving next to me in their barely audible Toyota Prius. Electric hybrids might be good for the environment, but to unsuspecting road runners, they are really just a low-emissions accident waiting to happen.

Anyway, my cheer crew showed up periodically throughout the second and third miles, which provided me with a much-needed mid-race boost. “Go get those guys in front of you!” my mom squealed.

I was momentarily embarrassed, as I was sure “those guys” had also heard my mother’s comments. As I came upon them, I apologized for my vocal but well-meaning family. I moved past them, but as we approached the pedestrian bridge, one of them initiated a response-pass.

This guy—let’s call him Arm Sleeves, since he was wearing a pair of removable compression sleeves—blew by me as we started climbing the ramp to the bridge that spans the rail yard. As he made his move, he said something that was probably meant to be friendly and encouraging.

But I hate being passed, so it didn’t matter what Arm Sleeves had actually said, because to me it sounded like, “Ha ha, see you at the finish line, sucker!”

And just like that, my competitive fire was lit—and burning hotter than ever. In that moment, beating Arm Sleeves became the single most important thing in my life. As we spiraled down the ramp on the other side of the bridge, I took a moment to regain my composure. Then I moved in for the kill.

The final quarter mile was all grit and muscle memory. I ran faster than I’ve run in weeks. As the finish line came into view, I sprinted away everything I had left, convinced that Arm Sleeves was right on my tail.

When I finished, I spun around and realized that he, in fact, was not—but in my dash to cross the line before him, I had edged out a high school girl by a couple of seconds, which made me feel like a real bully.

Still, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t excited about earning the women’s title in the 2011 Run For the Luck of It. And in the process, I learned that racing success has nothing to do with eating plain noodles. It’s more about mental control, patience, and fabricated rivalries with otherwise friendly competitors.

Coming soon: RFTLOI race video

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