The weather forecast in the week leading up to this race confirmed that my arch nemesis, high humidity, would be joining me on every step of this race. But that was the just the beginning of the obstacles I would face in this race. A close second on my nemesis list is hills and they would be a part of this experience as well. And then there’s that omnipresent wild card that always looms in the background, just waiting for the right opportunity to strike to spoil a competitive running effort: the digestive tract. I had to endure multiple trips to the restroom on race morning (something I ate the day before was seeking its revenge). I also felt demoralized by the temperature on race morning, which was 10 degrees warmer than my UCF 5 miler in October with comparable humidity at 90%.
A whiny voice in my head protested, “How many more hindrances will I have to face before toeing the line for this race, for which I have trained so well?” My head was not in the right place, and was squirming and screeching like a colicky baby. The thought bubble above my head before the start of the race was something like, “Why not just tie my arms behind my back, bind my legs at the ankles, and let me roll down the course like a human slinky today. It just might improve my time.”
But I gave it my best effort anyway (not really). The first mile felt hard and unpleasantly warm, but at least I had something to show for my efforts – my fastest first mile time in a 5K since 2016 (7:38). So at least it’s good to see that my track interval training with the Track Shack Five and Dime group is starting to restore some of my long lost speed (my first mile at the UCF 5 Miler in October was a full minute slower). Not surprisingly, Mile 2 felt even harder, but I was hanging on at 15:55 as I crossed the two-mile mark (7:57 pace). I knew my hopes of breaking 40:00 were dashed at this point, but I still pressed on. The death blow came in mile 3.
As I turned a corner at about halfway into mile 3, I looked up and saw a towering highway bridge looming in front of me, which apparently had experienced a massive growth spurt since the last time I ran this race a decade ago. I have no recollection of anything more than a gentle rolling hill at this point in the course from 2008. And this was the point of the race when bad met worse. I was already severely dehydrated (I was dehydrated even before the race, thanks to the other “runs” that occurred earlier on this fine day), my legs were screaming with rapidly worsening dehydration cramps, and I was thoroughly demoralized from cursing in my head over and over again how this was my third consecutive race in ridiculously inhospitable humid conditions (during “late fall” and “winter” months) in this delightful state.
And just like Lloyd Bridges, who picked the wrong week to quit many of his bad habits in the movie, Airplane, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v46plhmxXU4, I “surely” picked the wrong day to quit on myself on this bridge. When the going got tough, I just started whining uncontrollably and gave up. I surrendered control over the one thing I could control in this race: my will to persevere and do everything possible to triumph in the face of adversity. After all, I wasn’t the only one running in these miserable conditions. Yet as soon as I gazed upward (with my jaw on the ground) at that towering bridge span, I felt the will to persevere jump out of my cowardly lion heart and crawl under the nearest rock.
And so I began my no-hearted (which is even less than half-hearted) attempt to run up that bridge. I spent the entire time telling myself various self-affirming thoughts like: “This hurts way too much,” “You could barely run on the flat and straight stretches of the course, how are you going to handle this,” and, finally, the kill shot: “This bridge is going to slow you down to the point that you should just drop out of this race.” And then it happened: I stopped running and started walking. The sense of shame and anger I felt was overwhelming and distracted me even more from what I needed to do – just shut up and run. For the first time in my competitive running career in a race shorter than a half marathon, I was walking and I grew sicker as every not-so-impressive-looking runner passed me as they bore down to slay this dragon that had just eaten me for breakfast. I walked for about two or three tenths of a mile and then started to run again near the crest of the bridge and settled back into a rhythm. The sad news was that even with that stretch of walking, I was still at the exact same time at the 5K mark in this race (25:00) as I was in my 4-mile race last week, which was very respectable under these conditions. But my little tantrum was going to prevent me from making the most of this effort.
Mile 4 was more of the same disruptive and damaging thunderstorm in my head. This mile had several rolling hills that I also didn’t recall from my previous effort here a decade ago. Now with every step I took I could hear, “Just drop out,” “This is isn’t worth it,” “Why suffer like this if all you will have to show for it is a terrible finishing time?” I tried to block it out, but ultimately I struck a deal with the devil on my shoulder: “I’ll take another break when I reach mile 4 and just walk the rest of the race.” Really? I reached mile 4 and, once again to my surprise, was only 30 seconds behind my pace for the 4 mile race I ran two weeks ago. Again, nothing wrong with that pace and more than enough opportunity to break 42:00 with a fast last mile. But the cowardice prevailed again and I was truly planning to walk most of that last mile in my mopey state. Only sheer macho pride wouldn’t allow me to do that – I keep seeing weekend warriors pass me and I felt so angry and humiliated that I forced myself to run as fast as I could in my compromised state. So, even after another two tenths or more of walking, I managed a 9:15 last mile and finally crossed the line and put an end to this painful lesson in self-imposed obstacles.
After all of that whining, I finished 261st of 1309 runners (top 20%) in a highly competitive field in the 40th anniversary of this renowned Jacksonville road race. My time of 42:56 (8:35 pace) was almost a minute faster than my effort at the UCF 5 Mile race in October, and today’s effort was under much more challenging conditions.
The retro shades (circa 2005) that I’m wearing here are neither a fashion statement nor a useful mechanism to shade the sun. They are simply a prop to hide my tears of anguish and disappointment. Big boys don’t cry, right?
But I’m left with a slow-healing skid mark on my soul. This was the second consecutive time since October that I had run a five-mile race and wanted to drop out. What on earth is going on here? For every year in my competitive running career until 2017, a five mile race was a long sprint – dropping out was never a thought that crossed my mind. The first episode of wanting to call it quits at the UCF 5 Miler was a little more understandable because it was my first race in 18 months and I needed to rebuild my competitive mindset. But now, after four months of quality training (two months on my own and then two months with a great training group), how could I be having these thoughts?
After much soul searching, I have concluded that I am entering a “growing pains” phase of my racing career. I am now in a period when nothing comes easy and everything hurts, even under the best of circumstances. On the physical side, I have good days and bad days, but I can get myself physically prepared to turn in a respectable performance, but only if the course is pancake flat and the weather conditions are pleasant. When adversity elements are factored in, however, that’s when the wheels keep falling off ever since I turned 50. These past four years of competitive running have been the most “consistently inconsistent” efforts of my running career. To make matters worse, instead of focusing on enhancing my mental game to ensure better results in my old age, my mental game has become considerably weaker, which is a recipe for disaster. So the challenge is clear: either I raise my mental game and find the will to overcome adversity in my competitive running for the remainder of this year or I find a comfortable chair and start playing bingo. This competitive running thing is a hobby and it’s supposed to bring me an enhanced sense of purpose, fulfillment, and well-being. Otherwise, I can just keep living the rest of my life without competitive running and I will have plenty of opportunities to feel demoralized.
On a positive note, my son, Alek, placed 13th of 1309 runners and 1st in his 20-24 age group in today’s race in a time of 31:00 (6:12 pace). This is his third race in the past month in the Jacksonville area and he has excelled in all three. He placed 9th of 2700 runners (and first in his age group) at the Donna Half Marathon last week in a time of 1:26 and was first overall in the Beaches Chapel 5K in a time of 19:21 in windy and difficult conditions on a beach course in the previous week. The only thing keeping him humble these days is that he was 25 seconds shy of the family record for 5 miles in his effort today, a record that I posted for eternity in November 1981 in Madison, Connecticut (30:35) in my senior year of high school. He is tired of hearing about the family record ever since his high school cross country running days when he came within 2 seconds of this milestone.
Alek recently joined my running buddy, Steve, in telling me in the past few months that perhaps I just need to adjust my ambitious competitive running expectations and then I won’t be such a frustrated and demoralized mess all the time. In each instance, I thanked them for their kind and thoughtful suggestion, and then barked out this reply: https://getyarn.io/yarn-clip/74fb1d8c-a6da-4c7a-8d2e-493ed03b0990
I will be applying a new sense of competitive resolve to my next race: the Winter Park 10K on March 24. There will be hills and there will be humidity. But this time, the competitive running coward that dwells within me will be locked in the basement and not permitted to join me on race day.
Like the Coors beer commercial says, we all have our mountains. So climb on and drink responsibly when drowning your sorrows. And never, ever give up.