Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Boilermaker: 5 lessons I learned while running uphill

Boilermaker is a hot and grueling 9.3 mile race in Utica NY that has been going on every July since 1978. Runners that have done the Boilermaker wear the success of completing it like a badge of honor. The first four miles are all uphill with the 4th being the most intense. It is a 300 foot climb. There are only short breaks before a long steady hill near the end of the race.

I decided to test my running race wings on this race for some reason. It was my very first long race, and my first 15K. I'm not sure why I chose this particular one other than it was advertised as having racing's biggest post race party! Shallow, right? Apparently I'm motivated by free beer :) Anyway, I learned a lot at the race and I thought I would share a few of those things.

1. It is impossible to prepare for everything in life even when you try really hard. Sometimes life has other plans you just can't control.

My running partner and I are planners. And we planned well! We actually joked about how complimentary we are to each other. What I didn't think of she did and vice versa! We had trained on hills. We had run together. We had everything from all our secret tricks and foods to an extra set of pins for our bibs! All that was left was to go drive the race route the night before and we would be totally prepared. 

We could only find a cartoon like map of the course but we set out determined anyway. Somehow we managed to find the start line. We found mile one. Ok. This wasn't so awful. Slow gradual incline. Mile 2. Harder and long but do-able. Mile 3. Challenging. I was starting to worry. I had never run a hill for this long right out of the gate. Mile 4. Steep. Really steep. How steep though? Where does this hill peak? Where is mile 5? We lost the course. There were no more signs indicating the rest of the route. 

I felt a huge wave of anxiety wash over me. I like to see what's coming. I like knowing. I like being prepared. I hate surprises. How fast should I go up the easier hills so I have enough energy for the huge hill? What about the last hill after the huge one? 

Questions swirled in my mind. I would have to wait and see. You just can't prepare for everything.

2. The whole really is the sum of its parts. 

I am just as much made up of the seemingly meaningless moments as the ones I hold close. Both have the same potential to add value to my life based on what I pay attention to.

In the moments when you are digging deep to make it through you draw from the strangest of thoughts and experiences. Running uphill yet again mile 6-8, after a 300 climb the first 4 miles, I found myself hitting the wall. I felt like I was barely moving forward. I wanted to walk. I passed so many people way more fit than I was walking. But all I could think about was this random interaction I had with a total stranger, a veteran Boilermaker runner at our hotel, at 6am that morning.

"So how bad are the hills, really?" I asked her. She was clearly a serious runner, totally fit in her spandex and compression socks and shorts.

She smiled and said, "Put your knees in the hill and take small steps."

Then she waited a minute and added, "And whatever you do don't walk. You don't get bragging rights if you walk."

So here I was at the wall and this lady pops in my head as I want nothing more than to walk. So what do I do? I curse her in my head for a good half mile of the slow agonizing ascend but I keep running. When I tire of this the leader of my running group makes a cameo in my head. 

"Get in your positive bubble. Smile. If you get negative, count. You can't count and have negative thoughts at the same time."

Sure enough she is right. I count multiple times to 60 as if I had just discovered some major breakthrough. If I do this 10 times it will be the end of this mile if I'm running a 10 minute mile!

After the 3rd round I forget why it was I was counting. 

3. Sometimes if you just open your eyes and look, you can find just what you need right in the moment

I'm on the last hill ready to collapse. I'm in unknown territory. I'm on the part of the route we were unable to drive the night before. I'm having a really hard time negotiating my way through all the runners. I've managed to pick out a young aggressive guy who was just a little faster than me and I started following behind his path as he weaved through people like an art. I have to push myself to keep his pace but it's worth it as I am not slowing down and speeding up as much to navigate people.

After a half mile of this I lose him and I'm back on my own. The top of the hill is finally in sight but my stamina is no where to be found. I want to quit. The lead singer of a reggae band is playing at the top of the hill. He catches my eye and we are staring at each other as I fight hard with every step up. I don't look away and neither does he. I'm drenched, like I need to wring my clothes out drenched. I'm visibly struggling. I imagine I look like a drowned rat at this point. We hold eye contact and he holds out his hand for me to slap his as I run by when I finally make it to the top. I can still hear his voice in the microphone, "Come on now. You got this. Whoo eeey" He could have been talking to any number of us gasping and struggling up that hill. But in that moment he was talking to me. It was just what I needed. And I crested the top of the hill.

4. The view from the top is beautiful but it only lasts a few moments. The real beauty is on the way there.

The view at the peak of the largest hill was amazing. And when I reached it I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. But it only lasted a few moments and I was starting the downhill descent. The peaks and the valleys came and went and were all part of the road to the finish line. After the race was over I realized that as great of a place as the peak is, if you love what you are doing to get there then it's all good. The real value is in the journey. What you learn on the way makes all the peaks that much more special and meaningful when you reach them.

5. Finish lines are two sided. On the back of every finish line is a new starting line

When I hit mile 8 I couldn't wait to see the finish line. In hindsight I think I mentally peaked too soon. If I focus too early on being done, I torture myself until I get there. I had done a pretty good job of staying in the mile I was in up until that point. Here was where I mentally almost lost it. I was exhausted and I kept anticipating the end being around the corner. And it wasn't. And it still wasn't. That was the longest mile of my life. I passed a guy that had collapsed on the ground unconscious. I slowed down to see if he needed help just as EMS came so I kept going. The image stuck with me and I felt so bad for that guy. He was so close to the finish line. It was a stark reminder of the fine line between pushing yourself far enough and pushing yourself too far. Running forces you to find that line. You learn to make nice with your body and know it's limits whether you want to or not.

It wasn't until I hit around mile 9 that I finally thought I saw the finish line in the distance. My eyes were on fire and burning from the sweat dripping from my face and hair. I wanted to cry. The last 3 tenths of the mile was congested and packed with runners. The road was almost like a chute slightly downhill to the finish line. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was actually going to finish this thing. I felt this burst of energy come from some place deep inside of me. The far left hand lane up against the yellow fencing was narrow but all clear of runners. If I took a chance and ran it I would be tight against the fence and crowd. I could easily trip. I figured it must be risky or more runners would be doing it. I surprised myself when I took a deep breathe and just started sprinting along the side by them. I was flying by the faces of thousands of total strangers clapping and cheering as I passed by them so close we could have brushed shoulders. It was a feeling I have never experienced before.

My right foot was the first to cross the line and I think before my left foot could hit the ground tears started filling my eyes. I had done it. I had finished. My parents would be proud of me. I was proud of me.

I stopped running right after I crossed to try to catch my breathe. My mind was bursting and I stopped and turned around for a minute to look up and see the finish line again. I was soaked. My eyes were stinging. The muscles in my legs were on fire. And yet the next thought to pop in my head on the other side of the finish line was, imagine how it will feel to meet your dream and cross the finish line of a marathon?

On the back of every finish line is a new starting line.

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