October 11, 2009: Surprising Day

Long Beach, California – I slept well last night despite the high anxiety I was feeling for today’s 5k running race, and the fact that Sylar, the villan from the tv show Heroes, was in my dream. I woke up several times throughout the night paranoid that I wouldn’t hear my alarm, but when I finally got up I felt strangely rested and awake.

As I was driving to the race I felt the anxiety build again and had the sour taste of the impending dread of not obtaining my goal of beating last year’s time. I think that’s one of the most difficult things to deal with in racing, regardless of sport: the potential for losing and the resulting disappointment. It makes me sick to think about it, and I really have to force myself to forget the negative thoughts and replace them with positive, confident ones, which is not the easiest thing for me to do. Sometimes it’s a constant mental battle.

So I came to accept the fact that I wasn’t as prepared as I had hoped, less so than last year, and I needed to get over all the bad feelings and just run my race and do my best. That’s all I could expect from myself. And while I didn’t want to put any type of time pressure, I felt that if I could keep an 8:00 minute mile pace then I’d be happy. (Last year’s race was a 7:31 mile pace. My original goal for this race was a 7:15.)

I did my normal workout warm-up and jogged around for about 10 minutes not only to get into the groove of running but also to try to shake off the remaining nagging thoughts, ‘Can I maintain a good pace? Can I not embarrass myself?’ I could feel the pain of a shin splint forming in my right shin, and that immediately worried me more, ‘Can I even run the whole thing?!’ But when I got behind the starting line, the feeling of excitement overtook me and I started to get pumped up. I love racing, no matter what the sport, especially the feeling right before the start when there’s so much energy buzzing around and the possibility that anything can happen fills the air. Kind of like the feeling right before the lottery numbers are announced, and you’re holding what could be the winning ticket.

Since I wasn’t feeling too confident I took a spot in the middle of the pack. (The further back in the pack you start the harder it is to get into your desired pace since there are that many more people to dodge. The elite runners are at the very front of the pack.) I found myself surrounded by smiling people, just happy to be there with no apparent time goals in mind. That made me relax a bit since it reminded me that this is just for fun, and nothing was at stake for this race, just my fragile ego.

When the gun went off I kept repeating, ‘settle in, settle in’ so I could find a pace that I was comfortable with and could maintain for the whole of the race. My normal strategy is to start off slower for the first mile and then increase each of the next two miles by 15 seconds each, but for today’s race I just wanted to maintain a nice pace throughout to ensure that I would finish it. Shortly after I started my heart rate monitor read in the 160s and I wasn’t sure my heart could withstand that rate for the whole race. Fortunately the first mile went by rather quickly. I kept my head up and focused my eyes on a point way out in the distance (and not down at my feet), and told myself to ‘find it’ (the Zone) and tried to clear my mind as much as possible of any physical discomforts and nonproductive thoughts. I tried to just be in the present and take in the view, and let my body do its thing. When I saw the first mile marker, my body still felt good and strong (although my heart rate was already in the 180s), and my pace felt easy so I figured I was right around an 8:00 minute mile pace. But when I looked at my watch, it said 7:26.

7:26!?! I was shocked! That’s the fastest first mile I’ve ever had in a race, and one of my fastest miles ever. I was stunned for a few strides, not really believing how fast I was going with how easy it was feeling. And that’s when it hit me that ‘hey, maybe I can beat my time last year!’ If I could just maintain this pace I’ll be on my way to achieving my goal. So I kept that pace with a smile on my face and a renewed spring in my step. I continued to try to find my Zone, and don’t think I ever quite found it but did find a nice peaceful place that my mind could escape to while my body was doing its thing. Unfortunately I hadn’t trained longer than 2 miles in a long time and it took its toll. By the end of mile 2, at a 7:31 pace, I was beginning to struggle.

I can tell when my body begins to struggle when my breathing becomes erratic or parts of my legs, namely my knees or shins, start to hurt. I can tell when my mind starts to struggle when I start switching songs on my ipod before they’re completed and I hear myself thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m struggling.’ Mile 3 had everything but painful legs. (Thankfully the shin splint that was forming when I was warming up never materialized.)  I was huffing and puffing really hard and couldn’t get enough air in my lungs that I thought I was going to hyperventilate. My heart rate was in the upper 180s and echoing loudly in my ears. I couldn’t get enough mental clarity to shut out the ‘I’m struggling!’ mantra that was screaming over and over in my head. I so wanted to copy the few racers that had stopped and walked.

If it wasn’t for my pain free legs and sheer determination not to feel the dread of not achieving my goal, I might have walked. But my legs still felt good and that was my saving grace. I slowed down a little to let my lungs recuperate and get my breathing back in line. I still had my goal in sight and believed it was attainable so I kept plodding along. But it seemed like forever. I kept trying to go to my ‘happy place’ in my head (surfing) that I kept specifically for mile 3, but I couldn’t stay there. My burning lungs snapped me back to reality and I just had to suffer through it. All I could do was just keep thinking, ‘Almost there, in a few minutes this torture will be over.’ It got pretty brutal, and the question of ‘why am I doing this’ finally made its way into my head (it normally comes in the first mile). It felt like there were people yelling at me simultaneously in my head, angry for putting them through this and vowing never to do it again. It was the hardest running moment I’ve ever had.

The last half mile or so of the race is on a straightaway and you can see the finish from that distance. Of course it’s so difficult to judge when to start sprinting for the finish lest your depth perception is off and you start too early and pewter out before crossing the line. I think I was about .12 miles from the finish when I could hear the announcer so I looked at my watch. 22:11 – I had a little over a minute to cross that finish line to beat my last year’s time. But I developed a new, more aggressive goal while I was running: I wanted to be sub 23, so I had less than a minute to cross that line. And that’s when I started to sprint and give everything I had. And I almost didn’t make it – I started flailing about 7 strides before the finish but I was trying to keep up with two guys that were slightly ahead of me and I found something left in me. I crossed at 22:42, my new PR and almost made my original goal of a 7:15 minute mile. (This was a 7:19 minute mile overall, with the last 1.1 mile paced at 7:02.)

I couldn’t believe I did it! But my prevailing thought was that I really wanted to collapse on the ground. That’s probably only the second race where I gave everything I had and wanted to throw up and pass out at the end. One of the course volunteers who was herding people through the finish asked if I was okay since I must have looked like death. My vision got a little bit fuzzy but I was able to stay on my feet and walk it off. And then relief came and with it, the realization that I made my goal.

I guess it goes to show me that maybe I don’t give myself enough credit? Or maybe I’m stronger than I think? Or I should never doubt myself? Not really sure. For the life of me I didn’t think I could do it, but I did. I had completely surprised myself and it felt uncomfortably great. This little bit of confidence building makes me feel that I can do anything, and solidifies my drive to get to the Olympics. To put icing on the already sweet cake, I found out that I won my age division. I actually won it! I’ve only won my age division in one other 5k, and that was when there were only 11 girls in my age division. Here there were 124! (Last year I was fifth.) I couldn’t believe that either (as my parents will attest to when I was screaming with joy at the top of my lungs). I love the feeling of reaching a goal, and it is so addicting. I’ve already set my goal for the next 5k, despite all those voices that kept telling me that I was to never do a running race again.

So there were a lot of lessons today: having more confidence and believing in myself, keeping a strong mental focus, working through physical discomfort, not succumbing to the negative thoughts, not giving up, running towards a goal and not because of fear of not attaining it, enjoying the process. All good things to carry with this experience into the snowboarding. Great start to the rest of the racing season!


1 Response to “October 11, 2009: Surprising Day”

  1. 1 kayano14 October 13, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Congrats Eden! Way to finish strong in the race.

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