The only bad runs and races are the ones we don’t learn from. That’s what I told myself around mile 9 of my goal race for the Autumn 2015 season. The race had not gone according to plan one bit, but I did the best I could to put one foot in front of the other as winds howled up and down the Las Vegas Strip. I don’t doubt there are many lessons from Sunday night’s race – both for myself and for you when your race doesn’t go well.
I went into race week nervous (that’s normal for me), but also fairly confident in my ability to achieve my goal: run between 1:25-1:26 at the Las Vegas Half Marathon. I was going into race week totally healthy – no aches, pains or injuries. And while everyone around me seemed to be fighting off colds or stomach bugs, my actions to obsessively avoid getting sick paid off. Weather looked to be excellent for race day – until it didn’t. As I got closer to race day, I began to pay closer attention to the weather, and reality was slowly sinking in: conditions for the race were going to be windy. And not just “oh hey, there’s a breeze” windy, but 20-40MPH winds, windy. The positive about the Vegas course is that it’s extremely flat, and is an out-and-back, so ideally head wind would at some point be tail wind. The negative thing about the course is very wide, open and empty between those huge casinos, leaving you very exposed.
I told myself to take the advice I’d give my runners: find the 1:25 pacer, tuck in behind the group and let them break the wind. If I could even the odds with the weather, I still had a shot at beating the clock. To keep my confidence up, I looked back over training – tempo runs in humid conditions where I’d knocked out 6:20-6:35 minute miles over rolling hills, telling myself I had to trust the work I’d put into this race. As I walked to the starting line from MGM Grand, I refused to let the heavy gusts of wind shake my confidence. I found some space to warmup my legs and settle my mind.
In the first corral, I easily found the 1:25 pacer. As we stood for final instructions and the National Anthem, I locked eyes with the 1:25 on his back, and told myself to never lose focus from that number. Match that pacer stride for stride, and crush that PR. My focus felt strong, and I was ready. The first mile was a beautiful 6:29. Perfect. I positioned myself well, and told myself to relax, stay strong and tall, and settle into my cadence. At around 1.5 miles in, I glanced at my watch because I felt like I was working a little too hard. My watch read 6:12 pace for that mile. To my confusion, the pacer wasn’t settling in and relaxing, but was continuing to push. Refusing to panic, (though I definitely felt a moment or so of it sweep over me), I knew I had two choices: stick with the pacer and allow the crowds to protect me from the wind, or settle back into my honest pace of 6:30s. I decided to run my own race, and the pace group slowly pulled further and further out of reach. I never saw the pacer again. So I had to abandon my plan, and my only real shot of a PR. I continued to push and fight for that PR, but the work I was doing to maintain those paces began to really concern me.
There were blocks where you felt like you were doing all you could to not move backwards, some blocks where a cross wind would push you around, and then tail winds that would suddenly propel you forward. The few dead blocks were heaven, and the rare chance to really breathe and get back to good and efficient form again. When I ran over the 10K mat, I knew I was on pace for a PR. I also knew that unless the winds stopped or were going to be at my back, at some point I was going to tank. I could feel it. I couldn’t get oxygen into my body efficiently with the winds and at some point, I was going to pay the price. Still, I told myself to hang on and keep pushing. Perhaps the winds returning wouldn’t be too bad. Wrong. I rarely curse while racing, but as we made a few quick turns up at the top of the course near Fremont Street and around mile 9-10, I remember vocalizing my exhaustion as the wind knocked me around. It was about that time where I felt my effort sustaining, but the number on the watch going up. I was working so hard, but my cooked legs weren’t full of pep and strong form, and my arms didn’t feel like the strong and powerful support I’d worked so hard to develop and carry me when I fatigue, but rather like limp noodles.
Around 10 miles into the race I crossed the mat in 1 hour and 8 minutes. A quick reality check between the head winds I had the entire final 5K, and how tired I was from battling for 10 miles – I knew then that a PR wasn’t happening. There was no way I could run a 5K in 19 minutes or less in those conditions. I’ll admit I wanted to cry and shout because I was so tired and so pissed off about the weather. I had put so much into this race. But I also told myself to take a quick step back and keep my perspective. If you stay healthy, you get another shot at your goals. One race isn’t the end of the world. Today was not going to be my day. It was also around this time that it began to rain. Cold, windy, and now rain. It was almost comical. It rains in Las Vegas about 21 days PER YEAR. And here I was, 5K from the finish wondering how today had gone the way it had.
Now it’s not like I was the only runner out there suffering. Everyone I passed or passed me was working so incredibly hard. There were no smiles, laughter, or jokes. It was all hard work. I thought about what possible goals the runners around me had set for this race, and how close they were to achieving them. So without really thinking, I switched over to coach mode. If I wasn’t going to PR, my finish time didn’t matter to me. I did my best to be positive and supportive. I figured there was so little positively out there, I’d do my best to add a little.
Upon crossing the finish line, I spotted a runner who had been with the 1:25 pacer with me at the beginning of the race and who had at the time of his surge in pace stepped with him. She finished within a minute or so of me. I walked over to her to say something positive to her for racing in tough conditions. It turns out the 1:25 pacer dropped a 5:55 mile for the second mile of the race – a pace faster than this runner’s 5K race pace. She was pissed. And rightly so. As a pacer it’s your job to run that designated pace. Of course a pacer is human and can make mistakes, but going from a 6:29 to a 5:55 is pretty ridiculous. The quick miles early on had cost her the race. Ironically we both pretty much had the same race time – we just got there differently.
As I walked through the long exit chute, my disappointment began to really creep in. As I wrapped myself in a Mylar blanket, two women came over to me. They had just finished the 10K, and wanted to tell me I looked strong as I finished, and was an inspiration in physique and speed. They were so positive and still smiling – even after running a 10K in the wind for almost 2 hours, that I had no choice but to smile and engage in conversation. Every time I wanted to turn inward and accept my disappointment, something or someone pulled me out. By the time I saw Chris and Kristen waiting for me, my mood was alarmingly happy – they had both expected me to show up looking defeated and in tears, and instead I was smiling.
So if and when your target race goes poorly, remember two things: it’s okay to be upset and disappointed. If there was a mistake you made, learn from it. If the lesson is to simply roll with the punches with the things you cannot change – that’s a tough but valuable lesson to learn. The second is to hold your head high and walk away from the finish line as happy and proud as you can. Stay healthy, and there will be future races. And for every bad race, there will surely be some great ones.
It’s been a few days since the Half Marathon, and I am floored by how sore I was after that race. Not just my legs, but my arms and abs, too. The number at the finish line may be a far cry from my goal, but there is no doubt about how hard I worked out there. It’s a little humbling how beat up I was for a few days!