I arrived in Phoenix late in the afternoon this past Saturday. It was January 14th and a storm system was moving in across the west. The flight from Denver was bumpy and I thanked God for bringing me here safely. I booked this flight a little over a month earlier when my college age daughter invited me to run with her and her roommate in the Rock’n’Roll half marathon in Phoenix. She brought this up while we were visiting her in Tucson for Thanksgiving. The allure of a warm January day in Phoenix took hold immediately and I quickly accepted. Okay, training to begin right after the cranberry sauce and the pumpkin pie, I better have some ice cream with that, I’m going to need the energy! I had been an avid runner years before and had completed one half marathon (in Colorado Springs) and one full marathon (Baltimore) when I was still in my 30’s. Now I was 50 and not sure how age would play into my ability to finish the race. But I found a good 6 week training program and the weather cooperated, allowing me to get in my weekly long runs. Luckily, my progress was steady and I was able to avoid injury as I increased my distance and time. I also had competed in a Tough Mudder with my 21 year old son, in Aspen, just 2 months prior. So I had a good base to start my training.
I love running in the mountains of Colorado, but knee problems had pushed me towards mountain biking to meet my need for outdoor activity and my desire to stay physically fit. Now I was back to regular runs in high mountain trails and loving every minute of it. My dog Scout was loving it too. The crisp cool air was inviting to my lungs, providing a daily purge of work anxiety and allowing my mind to wander as I took in the beauty of the Colorado landscape. Scout also provided entertainment as he rolled in the snow or chased the occasional fox that roamed this part of the country. If we passed a watering hole, Scout was in it, despite the frigid temperature. He would proceed to roll in the snow or tall brown grass in an apparent attempt to dry himself. But he always popped up with a vigorous shake of his body and a wag of his tail. Silly dog.
In preparing for this race, I discovered a new approach to training than when I was younger. My training goals were focused on increasing my time and distance, but not as focused on my pace. This allowed me to progress without undue strain on my body that would create setbacks and down time to heal. I was making progress and enjoying the process.
The Christmas break brought the whole family back home and allowed my daughter and me to train together. This gave us time to talk about important things, and not so important things, but mostly just to reconnect. Preparation became a daily discussion. She was battling an IT-band injury and picked up a bad head cold two weeks before the race. But she is tough minded and made the necessary adjustments to her preparations. Christmas also brought a new toy, a Garmin watch that tracked my heart rate, distance, altitude profile, and every other metric that physics and a robust GPS system could provide. Suddenly I no longer depended on trail markings and my own judgement to determine how I was progressing. It was all there in digital form with elaborate analysis and documented results. Gone were the days of exaggerated distances or altitude variations, the truth was captured in my Garmin app for anyone to see. It even tracked my sleep patterns and rest cycles. Every hour my new watch would advise me to get up and “MOVE!” The adventurer in me mourned the loss of reliance on my own navigational skills and estimating techniques, but the engineer in me was fascinated with the detailed reports, colorful graphs, and 2 digit precision.
Back at Sky Harbor airport, I was waiting for my daughter to pick me up and debating if a heavy spaghetti dinner was still a good idea given the late hour. But I decided that carb loading the night before a race was a pre-race reward to honor the weeks of training and was necessary to complete the preparation rituals. Arriving at my in-laws place an hour or so later, we were blessed by a pot of spaghetti and meatballs that my sister-in-law had prepared for us, what hospitality!
The next morning brought the normal pre-race jitters and debate about how much to drink, eat, and dress. The weather report revealed overcast skies, 40-something degrees, and the possibility of rain. What to wear? We decided it was better to go light and leave the jacket, hat, and phone in the car. Slightly chilled, but ready, we headed towards the starting line. The air was full of the smell of desert just after a rain. A pleasant smell that reminded me of when my wife and I lived in Phoenix as we were just starting out. We loved to venture out after a rain to enjoy the cool air and see the colors that came to life when the desert plants were wet and vibrant. But it looked as if the rain would hold off, making this the perfect weather for a long run. Before the race began, I decide one last bathroom break was in order. I found the rows of well over a hundred port-a-potties, only to find a couple thousand people waiting in line. Nervous energy was everywhere and the bowels and bladders of the runners were responding with over activity! This was not going to be quick, so I abandon the idea and headed back to take my position in the starting corral.
At the starting corral, I looked ahead to the roughly 10,000 people in front of me and the starting line still about 500 yards ahead. My estimate was that we were about 1/3 of the way back in the crowd, leaving 15-20,000 heartbeats behind us. I wondered, from this position, if I would be passing people or being passed during the race. I decided to find a comfortable pace for my daughter and me and not to worry about those around me. Still, I know myself and my competitive spirit, I knew that I would work hard to avoid being passed. I hoped that Flash Gordon wasn’t hiding somewhere behind me! After a quick personal prayer, I was ready to go. Wait, is that Superman I see behind me!? And there is Spiderman. Up ahead I even saw Elvis. There is no way I’m letting Elvis beat me in this race! I’ll be “All Shook Up” if that guy beats me. But I was feeling good and I was ready to go, Elvis was not going to get the best of me today. I was, however, a bit worried about my daughter. She is a strong runner, but she had missed the last two weeks of training recovering from a head cold and to heal from the IT-Band injury in her knee. I knew she was mentally tough, but I was still worried about her injury. Time would tell.
As we waited for the starting gun to fire, I took a good look around and was amazed at the number of people participating in this event and at the pure excitement of the moment. It occurred to me that there would only be one person with the fastest time, but everyone here who crossed the finish line would secure some personal victory. People were here for a reason, and each reason was unique. Some of these reasons had deep meaning, and others were light hearted and fun. For me, I decided to do this because my daughter invited me to participate in something that was important to her. How could a Dad pass on the opportunity? But there were other motivations at play here. Preparing for this race strengthened a connection with my daughter, but it also represented a race against the ticking of a clock and the passage of time. I was 50 now. Could I still compete in a long distance race and be happy with the results? Crossing the finish line, for me, would be a reminder that I’m still in this game and that there are goals yet to be accomplished.
“BANG!” The starting gun fired. I could see the crowd ahead start to surge forward. I looked around and could see the excitement in the faces of those around me, except for Elvis, he looked determined to send anyone in his way to Heartbreak Hotel. As we crossed the start line, I pressed the start button on my Garmin watch and we were off. Here I come Elvis, It’s “Now or Never!” One hour and forty eight minutes later, my daughter and I cross the finish line, together. We had a strong finish and were happy with the results. In fact, we were only 44 minutes behind the winner, whoa-ho! But there were many other accomplishments that I witnessed that day. Like the fireman that ran the entire race while donning his Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), or “Bunker Gear” as it’s called. He even wore his Fire Helmet and had an oxygen tank strapped to his back, wow! There were runners wearing pink for breast cancer awareness and those raising money for St. Jude’s hospital. There were runners pushing wheelchairs and others in wheel chairs themselves. All ages were represented. Many goals were realized. Even Elvis, with his “Blue Suede Shoes”, crossed the finish line in under 2 hours (behind me of course). The finish line was full of proud faces and congratulatory hugs were happening everywhere. We had friends and family who greeted us at the finish line and shared in our joy of a race well run. Happy faces were all around. We felt good to be part of this group of 23 thousand champions.
The next morning, as I boarded the plane to head back to Colorado, I felt the soreness in my legs and smiled. The mild pain I felt was well worth the adventure. As I settled into my seat, I pulled out my phone to text my daughter, “Thanks for inviting me”. As the flight attendant closed the door, I received a reply, and once again smiled. It was well worth the trip. Maybe the full marathon next year…
“You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose”
– Dr. Seuss