The following is a letter I am sending to my team challenge peeps. I thought I'd share it here so I can remember it.
Congratulations on reaching the finish line! Over the prior 14 weeks you prepared for race day by logging 300 miles, you took 70 sweaty showers, and your feet hit the ground half a million times.
More than likely you feel fitter now than when we began. With each training cycle, you took another step closer to your peak athletic potential. WIth each season your body grows and just like a plant you will have seasons where the fruit is sweet and plentiful and others which may not be as bountiful. With each race, you might find yourself learning a little more about yourself, if you are able to tap into strength of your body, the determination of your mind, and the desire within your heart.
In a modern world filled with conveniences which make it possible to live a life almost entirely devoid of physical effort, you all experienced a taste of one of the most basic aspects of humanity: our ability to run long distances. I saw many of you finish and my source of greatest happiness is that nobody gave me the impression that it was too easy, that they were too prepared, that they have learned all of the tricks. Running is actually quite simple, you put one foot in front of the other and eventually you are done. It is also so wonderfully complicated when you deepen into the interactions between mind, body and spirit. To run well, we need agreement from our respiratory, cardiovascular, neuromuscular and digestive systems. To run our best we need harmony, we need clear thoughts and a calm rage to sustain the effort.
While our finish times varied, I'd like to believe that many of us experienced a number of the same things throughout our evening. I will share mine with you for perspective, and I would encourage all of you to continue to share with each other as well. I believe that through discussion of shared sensations we come to a greater realization of our own journey and how we are all so very similar and yet also so entirely unique.
I started with Dan in Corral 3 and after a quick discussion we settled in to 8:00 pace in search of a 1:45. The first mile I spent mostly dodging people, trying to develop a feel for the pace. I find that if I calibrate myself well early on it helps when my mind starts to drift later in the race and I wasn't sure how well I know 8:00 pace. We made the turn and settled into something close to 7:50 ish pace by the time we made it back to the start line just past the mile 2 marker. The entire stretch from there until the turnaround loop on the other end of the strip felt smooth and effortless. However, the massive tailwind was a prominent thought as the cape attached to my elvis suit was frequently blown over my shoulder and sometimes even into my mouth. Dan was running strong here and I think he might have been tempted to drop down into mid 7's. I figured we would have 3-4 miles back into the wind so it seemed OK to be a bit faster than goal pace on this stretch. I was thinking if we banked 10s/mile from 2-9 then we'd have 20s/mile to give back from 10-13. I assumed we would need to use most of that buffer unless the buildings somehow blocked the wind for us. However, I also wondered if the extra 10 seconds per mile over 7 or 8 miles might put Dan past his breaking point. Typically the best pacer is the one who sticks exactly to the pace with no deviations even though under these conditions that would mean a large increase in effort over the final miles. I had no real way of knowing what Dan is capable of, having seen him run only once, so I went with raw hope, gut judgement and tried to do what I could to keep him from running any faster than 7:50 pace.
Well, we made that turn and Dan was still strong and on pace so I was starting to get excited that he might nail his goal on his first attempt. Perhaps beginners luck actually does have a place in running? However, as I looked around I began to see a fair bit of carnage. After watching a few people peel off to the side and walk, and observing the pace slowing by nearly a minute per mile I realized that for everyone racing near their edge, the last 5k was going to be brutal. As I shouted encouragement at various runners and receiving somewhat dirty looks in return I knew that the shift I was expecting was every bit as challenging as I thought it might be. I've done enough racing to know how difficult the last quarter of any long race at full speed can be, but when you add in a drastic change from tailwind to headwind, the table was set for a memorable sufferfest.
That last stretch seemed to break a lot of people, more so than is typical for a half marathon. I do want to emphasize for the benefit of the first timers that not every race is like that. Some races have hills at a specific point which can be trained on and prepared for. I am thinking specifically of the La Jolla half or AFC since they are home courses and most runners know to expect some extra work on the climbs and a bit of faster running with higher impact on the descents. Vegas has effectively zero elevation gain so it isn't a course which requires any thinking under ideal conditions. In many ways it's a great first timer course and a great course to go PR hunting. The fact that the last two years have seen some rough weather is more indicative of the time of year than anything, racing in December has a higher chance of wintery weather than spring (which can sometimes be wet) or fall (which saw a number of hot weekends for us.)
But perhaps one of the most beautiful parts about racing, is that it can be just so unpredictable. You can be supremely fit and draw a short straw weather-wise on race day, and you can also be slightly underprepared or maybe just a little injured and stumble into that perfect day where the stars align. Just like love or perfect surf or homemade cheesecake, there is some variability in the outcome no matter how much experience you have, how hard you try, and how diligently you prepare. Most of the classic longer races have at least one of these "oh-s" moments when many of the athletes switch from "racing" into "survival mode." This is actually my favorite part, the breaking point, because every time I encounter it I learn a little something about who I am, what I want, and how I'm going to go about getting it. Much has been written about this breaking point and how it can be a metaphor for life, by writers much more capable than I, so I encourage all of you who might be interested in reading to seek out that out if it appeals to you.
If you watch the finish line at any endurance race you may get a false sense of how doable it seems because everyone is elated at the finish. The finish line can be compared to a wedding day, a graduation, a retirement, it is where we are typically projecting our best, putting on a smile no matter how we feel about what it took to get there. The start line is more like that raw moment before the start of an interview or moving into the dorms our freshman year of college, the process of arrival carries no inherent definition of who has actually arrived. It is the stuff in between the start and the finish where s-happens, where life is lived, where we experience the ups and downs, the challenges and incremental victories, the moments of hope, the weight of our expectations, the intentions to achieve, and the brutal honest truth of how fragile and limited we all are. There is no trick (beyond EPO and other PED's) which will allow us to run faster than our bodies are able to which is why we train and why I have tried my best to give you a window into your goal race pace. Additionally, there are an infinite number of tricks our minds will play on us over the course of a long race, so many reasons to quit, so many reasons to come up short, to give less than our best, to take a break, to fall down and not get up. Battling all of these elements is a chance to unleash our inner warrior, it is a chance to fight. In the end, we fight for a meaningless number on a clock, a cheesy medal, some sweaty photos, and memories which are written in pain and usually fade into a sweet nostalgia. It is not that we fight for something of value, it is that we find value in the act of fighting.
Why do we try? Why do I encourage all of you to test your limits? It is most certainly not to win because there is always someone faster. The faster you go has nothing to do with the money raised for the CCFA so as much as Team Challenge might pretend that you are racing for a cure, it would be better phrased that you are fundraising for a cure and you have chosen to race as part of that effort. So, if that's the case, why try? In many ways there isn't an answer I can give you if you don't feel it for yourself. Life just feels more colorful to me when framed next to the context of a deep sensation. Without moments to test myself, I tend to feel a stagnation or complacency creep in.
I suppose that is the message of this entire long-winded recap of Vegas 2012. I set out at the beginning of the season with an intention to either introduce you to distance running or for those with prior experience, to refine your development towards your peak potential. Across the board I've seen this reflected back in your eyes and your hearts. The reflection I saw on Sunday and the one I seek is not some glossy 3x5 print of you with your arms held high in triumph with tears of joy and a PR on the clock as you click your heels at the finish line. As dramatic as that might appear to be, it's not real. The reflection I saw on Sunday, the one I look for from myself and the one I am so very proud of seeing in you, is the reflection of a warrior who has survived a furious battle, who has risked, who has been thrashed, and who is now returning home a tiny bit wiser, stronger, kinder, and full of gratitude for the simple pleasure of life.