I’ve read about distance runners using mantras to stay focused during long events. I had never used one, or delved too deeply into uncovering the details. I feel like I may have tapped into this resource during the City of Roses Half Marathon in Cape Girardeau, MO. The course features a significant climb around the nine-mile mark. Here I realized that my legs alone were not going to carry me to the finish in less than two hours. I knew this would be a test of my fitness and will to push myself.
I hadn’t been running for distance and certainly hadn’t done any course-specific training. I could count on one hand the number of eight-mile runs I completed this summer, with zero in the double-digit miles. I had occasionally run some hills in Cape, but they were shorter runs and the hills in town don’t compare to the country hills on this course.
Yet, I still felt good about my fitness. My training had been consistent and I stayed injury-free this summer. I completed seven triathlons this season, the final one being just one week prior to the City of Roses. The triathlons were all sprint or Olympic distance, but I felt competitive in each race. The lack of rest prior to this half-marathon was of greater concern than the condition of my cardio machine.
Having chaffed during this race in the past, I thought a lot about the clothes and gear I would wear. Amazing how memorable the feeling of water hitting freshly abraded skin can be. Sixty degrees and sunny is a bit warm for the start of a half marathon. It was a comfortable, almost ideal temperature for me. It helped me feel confident in my choice of shorts and tank. I took a Nathan’s Quick Shot Plus handheld flask rather than a hydration belt. Race morning preparations went well and I arrived at the race site with plenty of time to spare.
Gathering at the start of the City of Roses Half Marathon, my friend Scott asked about my goal time for the race. “I’ve never finished this course under two hours. I’d like to, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen today.” I replied. My legs weren’t fresh and I hadn’t run this distance in seven months. I was still looking forward to racing and wasn’t going to let time ruin the positive experience of running this course.
After the National Anthem, we all thanked the race sponsors and runners toed the line for the start. It was a good start for me and I felt comfortable as the course quickly transitioned from parking lot to paved trail that accommodates three people across. In years past I have gone out too quickly attempting to pass groups and find some open running space. This year I was more relaxed and even found my buddy Pieter to chat with as we wound through the park.
About a mile into the race there was a bit of congestion with 40 yards of clear running room ahead of the two groups. I took an opportunity to push the pace a bit and pass the groups. While not intentional, I pulled ahead of Pete with this surge. The open space allowed me to really settle my pace and relax my mind.
Organizers for the City of Roses Half Marathon did a great job of coordinating volunteers throughout the course. Ample, well stocked aid stations were supplemented by groups of local students at intersections and dispersed across the rural miles. Their presence and encouragement was greatly appreciated. I’m not sure if they were all athletes, but the guys in shorty shorts at the top of the hill on Highway W screamed cross country. They looked like they were jonesin as they bounced around, watching other people run but unable to do so themselves. The abundance of volunteers along the course really did make a positive difference for me.
The group of encouragers at the Pilot House was probably the most spirited. The aid station prior to the big hill on Veterans was at an ideal location. My Team Triumph had the most accommodating, well-stocked station just as temperatures were rising. But my favorite was near mile 6. Out in the middle of nowhere, Blaine and Morgan Swinford handed out water and encouragement in their Dutchman’s Dash finery. Those familiar with the City of Roses course know that miles 6 through 9 contain the toughest hills on the race.
Just past this rest area I realized I was on pace to break two hours. I also knew that the hills would impact my pace. “I am not going to let this incline keep me from finishing in less than two hours,” I thought as I climbed. In the final miles of the race I replaced “this incline” with “feeling in my leg”, “stretch of road”, and “people around me” as I tried to keep the self-talk positive and motivating. It was in these moments that I interjected “fitness and guts” to the monologue in my head.
There was nothing I could do to change my level of fitness. It was up to me to see if I had the will, the grit, the guts to push myself through the end of the race. My body continued to respond positively, affirming that I had the fitness to stay on pace. This challenged my mind to discard the negative and focus on the positive. To stay sharp and in touch rather than be lulled into a complacent comfort. To smile and to let that smile on my face be felt throughout the rest of my body.
Occasionally something would pop up with the potential to derail my race; a slowing pace, a passing discomfort, a change in elevation. Once I recognized it, I would acknowledge it and then remind myself that this was a test of my fitness and guts. Somewhere during this period of the race, the Blondie song, “One Way or Another” came through my earbuds. This caused me to contemplate whether it would take both fitness and guts to pull me through or if only one of these elements was really needed. The mental distraction plus the driving beat kept me on pace for another three minutes.
I struggle to estimate my finish time when I hit miles seven through nine. The math becomes easier at the ten mile mark when a tidy 5K stands between me and the end of the race. Being on pace to finish this specific race in less than two hours pushed me through the little things that seem much bigger when the targeted finish time is just out of reach. The little inclines near the finish, discomfort in my hips or quads, and realizing mile 13 isn’t the end are things that have previously put me in a funk. This year was different as my positive attitude and projected finish time put some pep in my step as the I approached the finish chute.
I was elated to see 1:58:45 on the clock as I passed through the chute. I had conquered the hills and finally finished the City of Roses Half Marathon in less than two hours. Pedestrian by many runners’ standard, but a huge victory for me. I added a new tool to my running belt and realized the power of fitness and guts.