It’s 3:48 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14. Rose and I are getting ready to head up to Denver for the race that I have spent six months preparing for, when I discover something online.
“Rose! We have to leave now!
“What? Why? I’m not dressed.”
Seems the registration check-in desk was open until 7 p.m. on Friday, but today it closes at 5 p.m. We live an hour from Denver. We’ve got an hour to get there before the registration desk closes.
Carli runs up and down the stairs and helps Rose throw everything into a duffel bag.
“I’m so stupid,” I say as we race up to the Mile High city, hoping that all of my racing gear made the trip.
But I’m also laughing, because it’s so typical of us or me. One more thing to worry about or get nervous about … sometimes we don’t plan ahead too well.
Over six months ago I was doing some goal setting. I was kicking around the idea of doing a marathon. I’m not really a runner, so that’s a pretty big goal. I also want to do a ‘century ride’ on my bike, that’s 100 miles, and I read somewhere that doing a century ride is the equivalent of running a marathon. I thought, ‘I need an intermediate goal.’ And then I heard about the Denver Half Marathon in October and it seemed perfect. Having never ran more than a couple times a month and never running in a road race of any distance, I committed.
I bought Jeff Galloway’s book on the half marathon, which I looked at briefly at the beginning. It said to run on Tuesday and Thursday with a long run on Sunday. I decided to hike Pikes Peak in July, so for the first few months I’d run on Tuesday and Thursday and do a hike on Sunday.
I was tearing it up on Barr Trail, breaking all of my records on the trail over and over. I was feeling strong. So I made the call to hike to the top. I modified Jeff Galloway’s patented run-walk-run method for hiking. I’d hike fast for seven-and-a-half minutes, then stop for 30 seconds to get my heart rate down. It was working like a charm.
On the day of the big hike, I was hiking in the zone or in a fog as it turns out. I had my head down and I was making good time. When I got to the gigantic sign that says, “Pikes Peak left,” I didn’t see it and went straight. I headed down a beautiful path in the forest. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, the views to the right here are spectacular” as the trail narrowed into a single track trail. I had to step over, around and under fallen trees and overgrown brush.
“We’ve sure had a lot of rain lately,” I thought. Then I entered into a clearing and the little trail petered out. “Now where do I go?” I looked around, things didn’t look too familiar, but there was a guy up ahead, maybe he can help. I scampered up a steep embankment to reach him.
Turns out, he’s from out of town; he’s never been on this trail before and he’s turning around. Before I know it, he’s gone and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere.
I find the remnants of a little trail and begin to follow it as it winds downward to the right.
I think, “This trail is taking me into a never-ending cavern.” I don’t know where I am or where to go, but I do know this … the trail to Pikes Peak follows just one direction … it goes up and up until you reach the top.
I make one more push upward, hoping that by getting to higher ground, I can figure out which way to go. I scramble up another steep incline to a cluster of boulders where I stop and suck air. My thighs are sapped of their strength and I am a beaten man, lost on the side of a mountain. I decide to pack it in and head home; I head back down the little single track trail.
I’m not in the hiking zone any more. I’m pissed and disappointed. But since I’m not trying to make good time any more, I’m walking with my head up.
Then I see it. A big yellow sign that says, “Pikes Peak left” and “Bottomless Pit straight.” I’ve just gone about two miles in the wrong direction, adding four miles to my trip.
I should mention at this time that it was the hottest day of the summer, 96 degrees. My chance for a great time to the top is long gone. But for some reason I decide to head towards the summit. About 100 yards up the trail, I stop and reconsider. Instead of 12.5 miles, I’ll be hiking 16.5 miles. I ponder the situation. I have five miles to the top or 7.5 to the bottom. I decide to go up.
With about two miles to go, my quads start cramping up, first the right one, then both of them. I have to stop about every five to six minutes to stretch my quads. I start thinking, “You have diabetes, you dumbass. You’re gonna die on this mountain.” I start worrying about hungry mountain goats.
But I was drinking plenty of water, so the cramps were just due to the fact that it was 96 degrees out and I added four unnecessary miles to the trip.
I get to the summit in about five hours if you subtracted the time I was lost, which was about 2 1/2 hours faster then my first try with the Scandinavian Women’s Hiking Team in 2003. So I was very happy.
The next day I went out and bought some running shorts.
I switched gears and add more running miles. I was doing great, running fast, had no problems whatsoever and my expectations for the half marathon were looking strong. I stopped following Jeff Galloway’s advice for beginners. “Just finish,” I thought, “what kind of goal is that.”
I embarked on doing some speed work, some hills, you know, like real runners do. Instead of the prescribed 30-minute runs at a super slow pace, I click it up a notch or two and go for 45 minutes or 60 minutes.
Jeff says if you are a beginner, you should not try hill repeats. I’m like, “Dude, I just hiked Pikes Peak on the hottest day of the summer, I think I can handle a few hill repeats.”
I went to the local high school to try a few sets of 800s. Jeff says to do like, three or something. And I’m all like, “Who’s that for, some old lady?” I do six.
And I’m feeling good, no pains, no problems.
I go to Minneapolis to visit my family. I run back-to-back 10Ks around Lake Calhoun on Tuesday and Thursday. Six miles holding a 10-minute mile pace. On Sunday, I run between the cornfields of Hanover, grasshoppers hopping everywhere, got me hopping, “Get off my leg.” I head up a large hill to my turnaround point and I am on top of the world. Eight miles covered that Sunday.
When I return, I notice that I’m slightly off course from the Galloway book. I’m a little behind on the long runs. So I make a strategic decision to jump from eight miles to 10 on the following Sunday. Technically, if you follow Galloway’s book to the letter, I should have backed off one Sunday and increased the mileage on the next Sunday. But I wanted to catch up.
I’m home in Colorado Springs, but I have another day off, so I head to Red Rocks Canyon. I decide that this will be my ‘hills’ workout. It is an advanced course. Very steep for a long way. I am huffing and puffing. This is too hilly. But I keep trying. I’m now on a trail that hooks up to other trails. I started thinking, ‘Hmm, I wonder if the bears and mountain lions have had lunch yet.’ I run down the trail to the left for a while, whistling loudly to announce my presence to the momma bears. Then I return and go down the right trail. It’s a weekday and I feel like I am the only one out on these trails. There is no one around to come to the rescue if a black bear cub starts chewing on me, so I head back down the trail towards the main trail.
Now this next part is embarrassing and still hard for me to believe, but I can’t find the trailhead. I come down the hill on a trail that is 10-feet wide and it ends in a mini-cul de sac. There is a little trail off the cul de sac, but I am 100 percent sure that is not the way I came. I go down that little trail for a bit and it is just not right. I scour the last 100 yards of the 10-foot wide trail for signs for any other connecting trails. Nada.
You kind of want to get this part right, because it is a canyon and you want to be on the right side of a canyon.
But what can I do? I decide to go down that little trail off the cul de sac. I know it is not the way I came, but I’m lost, so I head down that trail and I find myself on top of a boulder bigger than my house and no signs of a trail anywhere.
So I thought, “What would Lewis and Clark do?”
Which is a stupid thing to ask because Lewis and Clark would just go get some Indians to tell them which way to go … the Indians would point them to a well-worn Indian pathway that would take them all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
So next I thought, “What should I do?”
I elected to do some more scurrying and scampering. I am getting lower and lower into the canyon going this way and that, zig zagging down the side of a hill. I see a large trail up ahead, but it’s on the other side of a gully. I get to the bottom of the hill, drop down into the dried out gully and get on the trail. I end up getting back to parking lot in one piece, but I think I’m done doing hill training.
I pick out a new place to do my Sunday runs, the Santa Fe Trail. It goes on for miles and miles. It’s beautiful. You could run or ride on it all the way to Palmer Lake and it’s a dirt trail. Sounds perfect. I’ve always wanted to try it out. So I do a run on it, five miles out, five miles back. I report back to my friends at work; “it’s a lot hillier than I thought it would be.”
But everything was fine. I was feeling good, putting in the miles and happy with my progress.
I go back to the Santa Fe Trail the next Sunday and add five minutes to the front half, going from 10 miles to 11 miles. For the first time, I’ve got some problems. My shins hurt. It’s my third long Sunday in a row and now I’ve done it. My shins hurt and I can’t make them not hurt. I’ve done too many miles on too many hills and now I’ve have an injury. But I go slow, rub my shins and do the 11 miles. They kind of loosen up after about 40 minutes, the pain turns from a sharp stabbing sensation in my upper shins to a dull, ‘you’ve-done-some-permanent-damage’ pain in my lower left shin.
I go on the treadmill; and my shins hurt. Run around streets near my house, shins hurt. Run behind Colorado College, shins hurt. Fortunately, I find a shin doctor, Dr. Jeff Mathews, who is a practitioner of ART, Active Release Therapy. I start visiting him every Wednesday for the six weeks before the race. I point my toes downward and he takes his thumbs and rips upward on my shins. Doesn’t feel too good. He works my calves, hips, hamstrings.
At first, I don’t see any improvement. I take a Sunday off, but I know I have a race to do, so the following Sunday, I up the goal to 12 miles. I go slow. Walk often. Instead of seven minutes run, one minute walk; I go 3:1 for a half hour, ease into 4:1, then 5:1.
Shins still hurt, so I back off on the training. Try to rest my shins. Take another Sunday off. Then instead of doing a long run, I ride my mountain bike up and down the Santa Fe Trail hills for an hour, throw my bike in the Element, then run for five miles. I did that two Sundays in a row and enjoyed that a lot. It’s fun going up and down hills on a bike versus running them.
Then the shins felt better, after a few weeks of rest and ART. I put together four or five runs with no pain.
I enjoy talking with Dr. Mathews; he has run marathons and has worked on plenty of elite athletes. I tell him that it’s two weeks until the race and I haven’t done a long run in three weeks. I’m going to run 13 miles this Sunday. He asks where I am running and I tell him the Santa Fe Trail. He asks where on the trail. And I tell him. He says that’s the hilliest part of the entire trial. “I’ve taken Ironman triathletes on that part of the trail and they can’t believe how hilly it is.”
I decide to run my final training run on the Monument Valley trail. Good call on my part; it’s flat as a pancake the whole way. Monument Valley is the trail that goes along a creek for miles. I run out for about 4.5 miles and can’t go any further. I return to my starting point, knowing that I’ve got to do about another hour. I only have 20 ounces of water and it is 80 degrees. I feel a little woozy in my melon, but I keep on shuffling on. I finish the workout having run two hours, 23 minutes and 47 seconds.
When I get home, I figure out that 13 miles at an 11-minute mile pace would end up being a 2:23, so I decide two weeks out from the race that my goal time would be 2:23:47.
Not too ambitious for most people, but this is an individual endeavor and considering that my training was messed up for four or five weeks, I’m just happy to be able to run without shin pain.
One week out … I take the kids up to Denver on Saturday night. We get a hotel room, order room service and get a movie. In the morning, I tell Carli. I’ll be back in a couple hours and head into downtown Denver at 6:30 in the morning. I find the host hotel where I’ll be staying and walk out to where the starting line will be. I get in the car and drive up 17th Avenue to Cheesman Park and park the car. It is cold out, upper 40s. I lock the car and jog up 11th to Gaylord and take Gaylord to 17th … this is the final 2 ½ miles of the half marathon. Galloway says it’s important to run that final stretch; helps get your mind right.
Final week … I run on the treadmill Tuesday and Thursday. I go too fast on Tuesday and for the first time in weeks, my shins hurt. I feel dumb, but I know what to do. Go slow, walk often, ease into it and you’ll be okay.
Race day … Rose and I get up extra early 5:45 a.m. Rose goes down to the lobby and gets me a yogurt, bagel and a banana. I try to stay on the water schedule laid out by Galloway. You don’t want to have to leave the course to go to the bathroom. By getting up early, I was able to wake up and stretch. I took a quick warm-up run around the block for 10 minutes. It was cold out, but not too bad. I go back to the hotel and grab Rose; we head to the starting line.
You’re suppose to stand with your pace sign, but the slowest pace sign they had was 10-minute miles, so go and find a spot far behind them. There’s a woman holding a five-hour pace sign; she tells all within the sound of her voice that she will pace the group and she will cross the finish line at 4 hours, 58 minutes and 16 seconds, holding a 11:20 pace throughout the marathon.
I have two thoughts. One, I won’t go that fast and two, I won’t go that slow.
I ask people around me what pace they plan to go and they are all faster than me. One guy says he’s trying to qualify to Boston. Groups of people are sliding into line between the barriers; it’s getting very crowded. I thought I was at the backend of the line, but now hundreds of people appear behind me. I tell Rose, “I’m starting to feel a ‘who-are-you-kidding’ feeling.” Like I didn’t belong. Not too many middle-aged, balding, beer drinkers standing near me. Rose and I hold hands and listen to the National Anthem. I kiss and hug Rose and hand her my long sleeve. The race is beginning to start.
I walk with the group towards the start line, which was about half-a-block ahead. The announcer and the crowd were going crazy as the first group of people have headed down the road. The people in front of me begin running. We’re not up to the start line yet, so I keep walking. No need adding extra running if you can avoid it. As I step on the timing pads at the start line, I push start on my watch and play on my iPod.
The first song is “Alive” by Pearl Jam and I think of my brother Jon. I have written his name on the side of my hand to remind me to keep going, to not let him down.
Before we finish the first two blocks of the 13-mile race, I think, “Oh no, I have to pee.” But then I tell myself in no uncertain terms, that we will not be stopping to go pee, not today.
We swing around the library and our cool new art museum, then we head west down 14th Street. Usually when I run, I keep my head down. Got to look for holes in the ground, rocks you might trip over. But this day, I am looking up and looking around, soaking it all in. I’m happy. I’m doing it. Finally. My plan is to run a 4:1 run/walk ratio for the first 40 minutes, ease into it to protect my shins. This entire course is on hard pavement and the worse thing would be feeling pain early on. After the first 40 minutes, I’ll click it up to 5:1 for an hour, then 6:1 for whatever is left.
I’m carrying a water bottle around my waist with a little attachment that carries two GU packs that are fortified with caffeine. Water stations are located every two miles; but I’m used to sipping water every five minutes. I feel self-sufficient, but as it turns out, I probably only needed the water bottle after eating the GU’s.
I see mile marker number one and I’m giddy. I try to get the attention of the person next to me and with my sock-covered hand, I point to the marker. One mile, 11:03. According to Galloway’s estimates based on my time trials, he suggested that I run 12:40 miles until mile 10. I told Rose that I’d be depressed if I went that slow. My goal was 2:23 at the end, so I need to average 11-minute miles. I’m right on track.
The Sugarhill Gang comes on the iPod with the old school rap, “Apache,” I laugh out loud thinking of the kids dancing in the living room. “Hi-Yo Silver!”
We turn the corner and there seems to be a lot of water in the road, oh wait, this is the first water station. I try to grab a water with my socks on my hand, not doable. I get two waters and try to run and drink, again not doable. I gulp a water, then take half a cup and dump it on my head.
I was remembering what my friend Howard Brooks told me about keeping your body temperature down, but this was mile two, it was 50 degrees out and that water was freezing. I’m lucky I didn’t lapse into a coma. Totally not necessary to dump ice cold water on my head at that point in the race … I make a mental note.
I passed mile marker two at 22:02, so I was right on pace and that woman and her sub-five hour marathon group behind me, never to be seen again.
Early on, I just remember being happy. I thanked every police officer at each intersection. Nothing was hurting. I tried to go slow. I know from the mountain that if you go too fast too early you’ll pay for it later. But my stride was strong. We run underneath the banners of Larimer Square, around the Pepsi Center – home of the Nuggets and Avalanche – and through LoDo. I don’t think I saw Coors Field, but I know we went near it. Crowds were bigger in some places than others, but they all cheered us on. We went through some neighborhoods that looked nice. I was still looking around, enjoying the sites. I’d have to say that the first seven miles were my favorite; I was just bouncing.
Right before mile marker five, we made a turn to the left that took us up the biggest hill of the course onto 17th avenue. I thought, ‘This is your hill?’ and began passing people. I thought if I have a strength it’s running up hills, but then I thought, ‘What the hell are you doing? Slow down.’ At the fifth mile, a woman grabbed a Gatorade, drank half of it and dropped the remainder right in front of me. I got Gatorade all over my legs. “Nice.”
After mile six, we arrived into City Park, the most convoluted section of the entire course … the path twisted around like a little pretzel. When I entered the park, it got confusing. A volunteer was pulling some of the runners off the course to go over to this checkpoint. I had my headphones on. I yanked out my earpiece to ask, “What is that?,” but before she could answer I just followed the crowd. I thought it must be a place to run over so they could get split times or something, but I figured out later in the race that it was a corporate relay exchange area.
In the park we ran in tight little groups on a narrow path. Way different than running down the wide city streets. Just when you thought you were heading towards the exit, you’d slope back around a new corner of the park. And we started to see runners coming back around, running past us, right next to us. I couldn’t tell if they were ahead of us or behind us.
I had just started a walking break when I looked up and saw mile marker seven. I passed it at exactly 77 minutes, exactly an 11-minute mile pace and I was happy because I knew the last three miles were faster and I felt good. (It’s about this time that I hear that Alan Culpepper, averaging a 4:57 a mile, has won the half marathon in one hour and four minutes.)
We were still in the park for mile eight, but I didn’t see that mile marker or any other for the rest of the run. I don’t know why. I did get a little more inside myself mentally as I tried to go faster. In the last section of City Park, I thought about Jon and then I heard “Living in America” by James Brown, which made me smile, followed up by “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. There is a reason Michael Phelps listed to that song before every race in Athens. And it pumped me up as well.
We left the park but the next stretch was still crowded. We were heading from City Park to Cheesman Park. We were running down residential roads with cars parked on both sides. We were running on the left side, while others were running past us on the right. People could run about four abreast and passing took a little fancy footwork. This part of the race is a bit of a blur; I just pounded it out as we made our way. I kept expecting to get to some turnaround that never came, but we did finally turn and then it hit me … this is Cheesman Park.
I know this park. I ran this park. I’m excited. I had the same feeling the first time I reached A Frame hiking Pikes Peak. I’m almost done. We run past the Denver Botanical Gardens to the left and another relay exchange area, then we hit mile 10 halfway around the park. I’m now running a 6:1 interval and passing people around the bend, juking and jiving like Terrell Davis.
I thought back to my triathlon and how, at the end, I was a little disappointed because I didn’t give it my all; I just wanted to finish. And of course, if you’re not a runner and you’re doing your first half marathon, your goal is suppose to be just to finish. But I wanted to give my best effort, so I started shortening up my walk breaks.
We leave the park and although there is 2.5 miles left, I’m thinking, ‘Sprint to the finish … finish strong.’
We’re on 11th Street for a few blocks and turn left onto Gaylord, just like my last training run here. This stretch of Gaylord is a gradual downhill, which I try to take advantage of, passing people right and left, going outside the cones, jumping back into the flow. I see 13th Street, “Four more blocks.” We cross Colfax, “That’s really 15th.” Then we turn left on 17th and I know that this really is the final stretch. I shorten my walk breaks and move my feet as fast as I can. In my mind I am blazing down the avenue. In reality, if someone were chasing me with a hatchet, they would have caught me and hacked me to bits.
I wasn’t going that fast, but I stayed positive, upbeat and optimistic for every step of 13 miles.
M.C. Hammer comes on the iPod. “Too Legit to Quit.”
I pass Downing Avenue and think of my friend, Trish Downing, who will compete in the Ironman Triathlon in Kona this weekend … in a wheelchair. I am overloading on inspiration and will … what I’m lacking is the energy to run as fast as my mind demands. Even so, I still pass people. It’s a great feeling.
And now there’s the hill. It’s a huge downhill. Three more blocks and I make the turn to the finish. There’s Lincoln, the marathoners turn there. Next is Broadway and the Brown Palace Hotel; I take a sharp left. Half a mile left.
At the 13-mile marker, I see Rose. I smile a smile as big as my head. It couldn’t have been any bigger. I run over to her and give her a high five.
I try to go faster. En Vogue hits my headphones singing, “Whatta Man.” I smile. I run. I look at the official clock as I cross the finish line at 2:23:18. How weird … my goal was 2:23:47. But that’s not my official time, I finished the half marathon in 2:21:04. After averaging 11-minute miles for the first seven miles, I negative split the race and averaged 10:40 on the last six.
What a great feeling. I was so proud of myself. To dedicate six months to doing one thing, commit to it and follow through … I was so happy.
Later I found out that I finished 1,323 out of 1,861 runners … I actually beat over 500 people in my first road race.
We drive home and the kids greet me. I show them my ‘finisher’ medal; they are impressed, Sam especially so.
He comes upstairs where I’m in my room watching football. He walks up to me and says, “Dad, I knew you would win.”
And he hugs me.