This afternoon I suggested tennis to my little brother and I was pleasantly surprised when he accepted. We spent about an hour hitting balls back and forth, and while we probably didn't ever have a rally with double digit hits, I still found it enlightening on a completely different level than what was happening in the physical sense. This afternoon was my first chance being on the other side of the net, the side my father occupied almost every weekend between 1984 and 1986, my 3 years of competitive tennis. He instructed me, encouraged me, and patiently rallied with me as I improved and tried to learn and grow. My little brother has a much healthier outlook on competition than I remember having at that early age, and I did not want to burden him by taking the fun out of it, but I found myself still offering up suggestions on how to hold the racket, watch the ball, shuffle his feet, or even just general court etiquette. I have this natural, pre-programmed desire to share what I've learned with others, particularly others who may not already have formed their own approach to the task in question. And yet, because of how forceful my father's instruction has been, I'm keenly aware of the need for sensitivity, the need to allow others to learn in their own way at their own pace. I try my best to not bully or force my plan, though I'm sure I'm often a victim of my natural tendencies.
All of this thinking reinforced my theme for today, that what we want as adults is exactly what we wanted as children. A security blanket to feel safe on our own (the blanket just gets more expensive as we get older.) A loved one nearby to cling to in a moment of need (first a parent, then a friend, then perhaps a lover, and maybe ending with a child or grandchild.) Finally, perhaps what we seek the most regardless of how much we know and how much confidence we've gained, we all want the encouragement, support, and instruction from a parent/mentor/guru/friend/therapist/boss. They are all so basic, these needs of ours. While the stakes do change throughout life, as does the seriousness with which we play the game, these universal needs remain constant.
What I find most amazing about life is how true the adage is, "It's not what you got It's what you give". OK, yeah, I was/am a Tesla fan. I know that's weak sauce. It is what it is...
What does "giving" mean within the context of running? For me personally, I express giving by pacing and more recently by coaching. I had new highs with both today, out on the Carlsbad marathon course, and I was blown away by two individuals who performed at a level that exceeded any expectations I started the day with.
Ryan, my first coached athlete, busted out a 3:54 first marathon off of 12 weeks of training and only 2 runs longer than 15 miles in his life. I thought he might not finish. I thought he was looking at 5 hours. I may have even given up on him as a coaching failure (and attributed the blame to myself for not solving the complicated equation of his busy life and his commitments to his family.) I was wrong. The man is a beast. Imagine what he could do if I actually got him prepared. I was ready to learn and move on before I saw what he did today. Now I'm waiting for him to recover from his 26 miles and 12 x 12 oz curls so we can see what the future holds. It brings me such intense satisfaction to know that I didn't royally screw things up for Ryan, one of my most admired friends, but instead I actually helped him achieve something of significance that he might not have been as successful with if I had not contributed. This thought carries a fullness, a richness, that exceeds any personal accomplishment I've ever had.
On to the main event, the exclamation mark of the day. Sarah, aka SkinnyRunner, busted out a 5 minute PR in her 26th marathon with me along for the ride as her co-pilot. It was a beautiful thing to watch, and it reminded me of Hillary's ultraman run finish, Lisa Thomas's Chicago PR, and Jessica's San Jose speed session. Sarah cracked the top 10, and I honestly believe she exceeded her expectations as well as mine. To have had the chance to see all of that, to be there with her, was very special for me, not because of the thousands of people who follow her blog, or the hundreds who yelled at her out on the course, but because deep down, ignoring the makeup, the celebrity following, and the purse dog, I really, honestly, do admire the human within.
Sarah's garmin logged more miles than mine did last year. She raced more than I did. She routinely bounces back from a marathon with a hana hou the next weekend, and even pulled off 3 marathons in 8 days two months ago. That kind of mentality raises my eyebrows because Sarah is basically living my dream life. She works herself ragged 4 months of the year and spends the other 8 chasing the next race, the modern day yuppie version of a deadhead. It sounds sublime to me, perhaps because I understand the obsession and the desire to feel the cleansing purity of physical pain, the desire to challenge the body on good days and bad, and the joy and freedom of performing one of the most basic acts the human body can do, and of fine tuning that experience into harmony.
I actually wasn't sure that Carlsbad would happen. When I threw out the option to Sarah a few months ago, when I mentioned my intention to pace her to a PR, it wasn't really first thing on her mind. She was, and still is, quite content training how she wants to train (which is big mileage and little rest) and letting the races sort themselves out. She has a very healthy outlook about the number on the clock, which is ultimately meaningless compared to the sensations of the day and the emotional experience of the journey. Meanwhile, I felt that she had done enough racing to justify a substantial dip in her best time, but I wanted her to want that, so I just threw out the offer and figured it might never happen. She wanted to run RnR AZ and then she'd consider Carlsbad if she didn't pull off a PR out in Arizona. As it went down, she wound up with a 3:23 that she felt was fairly lackluster, so I checked back in with her on Tuesday to see where her head was at. The response was very real, very raw, very indefinite, so I assumed she needed some time and maybe we'd connect in the future. On Wednesday night, apparently after some liquid encouragement in the form of margaritas, she went all-in and told me she wanted to go for it. I was terribly grateful because I was scheduled to do this juice cleanse thing on Friday and by pulling the marathon card, I managed to postpone that until Monday (oh what hell awaits me tomorrow!)
We met up in the parking lot at 5:15, only I needed about 15 minutes to find my gloves, put on my shoes, etc. So, I kind of made her wait for 15 minutes in her car before I ventured out to find her. Sorry, I pulled the chick card this time. We walked to the start and a few people recognized her, even in the dark. I started to worry about this being a long day of watching her sign others bib's and I even felt bad for forgetting to bring the sharpie. We started off slightly slower than desired pace but just about in the right spot to avoid going out too hard. Marathon starts are a tricky thing, especially at Carlsbad where it gets a bit congested for the first mile. Start too close to the front and you end up running the first mile too fast which sets the table for failure. Start too far from the front and you get stuck behind too many people and you burn up a lot of energy weaving through the masses. We probably err'd a bit on the conservative side, I could have been more forceful here, but I was trying to go with the flow and feel things out and I honestly hadn't ever run 3:20 before. Sarah stuck to me well through these first few dark miles, She was doing her part, talking, asking questions, responding, and of course encouraging all of her fans along the way. We caught up to the 3:20 pace group near the power plant, at mile 4, and managed to get ahead of them by mile 5 for the turn onto Palomar Airport Road. This was the time to settle in, after our initial pleasantries were established, we both felt comfortable enough sharing space.
I started to notice that we were holding 7:30-ish pace even going uphill. Prior to the inland portion of the course, we were no more than a minute under 3:20 pace, probably less than 30 seconds. But during that climb I realized that Sarah was able to run under 7:38 pace, uphill, without unnecessary effort. I tested her a few times by hanging back on the steeper sections and she kept flowing forward. She had her garmin on but not in a mode where she could see pace or mile splits, so I was in charge of monitoring pace. On the way back down we ran a few 7:10-ish miles and the 3:20 pace group actually caught up to us for some reason (don't ask me why.) Sarah didn't really want to run with them, so we kept rolling and eventually drifted away, either that or the 3:20 pace leader finally realized he was too far ahead of pace and backed off. Within the Lupus Loop, Anna joined up with us, running strong. The three of us had a nice chat throughout the loop and back out onto the coast. At poinsettia, roughly 16 miles in, I saw Tim, Kris, and Fishstick. Tim cheered, waved, and then ran up to us for a chat. I thought that was a wonderful omen since Tim was my first successful sub 3 pacee when we tackled Vegas in 2005. After Tim dropped off, Sean from Zoot introduced himself to us and we all kept chatting up a storm to La Costa.
In 2011, a bit before La Costa, I fell off the pace with Joey and two other leaders of the women's marathon and settled into a walk/run until Morgan caught me and I regained a purpose and started running again. After 12 years on this course, I know that making the turn at La Costa and feeling good enough is a world different from making the turn and feeling spent, or worse yet, pulling the plug before the turn. I knew I felt good and I thought the conditions were near ideal. Sarah gave no signs of slowing down, we had continued a 7:15-ish pace since halfway and I knew we had at least 2 minutes, maybe 3 in the bank. I told her it was game time, or in Rod's words, time for the big boy pants. The last 8 make or break the day, if you run them strong, you hold pace or maybe even pick it up a tiny bit and finish with a special memory. If you struggle and suffer, you can throw away all of the seconds and minutes you worked so hard to earn earlier in the day. Most of the pace groups break up at the turn at mile 18. It's just the point in the race where truth becomes objective, when you know how the day is going instead of hoping, guessing, predicting.
Sarah says she felt like she was slowing down over the last 10k. I've looked at the numbers (I'll let her decide if she wants to post them or not) and I see an objective toughness in them that rivals any strong athletic accomplishment I've witnessed. I'm sure the effort increased, but the pace didn't change. I think Sarah's marathon experiences in the past were generally kept within the "pleasurable" zone of pain. But what do I know, I don't get to experience things with her legs, through her thoughts. I only know how my race experiences have felt, and my natural tendency to go out hard and hang on. Sarah is wired the opposite way, she often pulls off a negative split and she usually is very strong at the end. I knew that mentality, that toughness, is the gold tender of the marathon, but I wasn't quite sure how much I of it I could afford to spend along the way.
As we merged with the half marathoners, 6.5 miles to go, I started picking up my verbal chatter while she started retreating and quieting down. I think I even heard a grunt or two in that final 10k. I started getting water for her, so she could focus on running a straight line and conserving energy. I had given her only one mile split, mile 12, which was a 7:10 but I explained it away as a downhill mile. I assured her that she was looking at a 3:1x and the x was the only number she could control. I'm not sure how well she could feel pace or how aware she was. We passed the 3:15 pace group leader at Carlsbad Village Drive, but thankfully he only had a stick with no time on it because I guess they forgot to use staples this time. I'm not sure if Sarah saw this. Anna had left us a few miles earlier, at the Palomar Airport Road underpass, and she was running really strong, what a great finish for her. Between Palomar Airport Road and Canon, Sarah had asked me to run by her side instead of ahead of her. I thought that was a particularly heartwarming request, not only did she validate my efforts and how they were affecting her, but she was able to instruct me about how to achieve maximum benefit with minimal annoyance. This was 4 hours or so after meeting her for the first time. If only I could learn to communicate that clearly.
The last 2 miles, basically the stretch from downtown Carlsbad back to the mall, can feel like an eternity but really isn't all that significant. One of the miles is slow with some climbing, the other is fast since it's at the end and has some descent and then the finish. I've been through that before and I know how much doubt can surface in those moments, but as an outside observer I felt completely confident by that point. Sarah was strong, she had passed all of the tests and there was nothing left to worry about. She made the final turn and ran away from me to the finish line, with an aggressive surge that may have even caused her to break a sweat. After the finish, her face betrayed a look of substantial exhaustion. Then she chugged her 12 oz bottle of water like a frat boy and proceeded to grab another. That was almost more impressive than the race itself. Alexis Brown came up and offerred up congrats as the first official finish line fangirl (thanks Alexis!) and the slew of congratulations ensued.
Hundreds of commenters, and I'm sure as many or maybe more emails and texts from friends, all say the same thing, expressing joy with Sarah's accomplishment today. I don't want to think about how much work it will be for Sarah to respond to them. This outpouring of gratitude really does underline what Sarah represents to her readers. You can hear it in their words, the inspirational qualities of someone who leads by example, setting a modern day image of what being a woman can mean, of how power and strength can be incorporated into the essence of femininity, faith, and self confidence.