May 31, 2014

May 31 - Dam to Dam (5K Race)

Total time: 44:29
Total distance: 3.1 miles

This is going to be one of those races I am always going to remember, because it was an absolutely bizarre turn of events from start to finish, and it went from being my worst race experience ever to being my best performance of 2014. Go figure.

I signed up for the Dam to Dam 5K at the urging of a couple of my runner friends... not before checking the 2013 finish times to make sure I wouldn't be dead last and make a fool of myself. The Dam to Dam is probably one of the biggest and most well-known events in Iowa - it's for legit runners. There is a half-marathon event too (it used to be ~12 miles, running from, literally, one dam in the DSM area to another, but they had to adjust the route this year for reasons I don't remember, and ended up making it the 13.1 miles)... I'm fairly certain that almost every runner friend I have in the area competed yesterday. Most of them were tackling their first half marathon. Me? I was hoping to survive the 5K.

When I signed up, I thought I'd be farther along in my progress this year. I was running 5K equivalents by early May in 2013, and I'd already slogged my way through a couple of events so far that I'd done intervals in. With coaching two softball teams this year, I've had very little time or energy for running - it just hasn't been a huge priority, which is fine, because softball is the love of my athletic life.

After feeling pretty good at the Jog 4 Joe event the previous week, I was feeling more optimistic about this one. I hadn't run the entirety of that one, but I didn't stop to walk as often or for as long, so I held out hope that maybe I could push myself through this one. If I could break 45 minutes again then I would have been ecstatic... but my goal was really just to have a respectable finish (in other words: not last. I wanted a pocket of people behind me.)

I was a little intimidated at packet pickup. It was a huge event in and of itself. I grabbed my bib and my shirt and a flyer that I think I'd already printed from an email and headed back home for softball practice. My plan was to leave at 8:00 the next morning; I'd be there about an hour early but it would give me plenty of time to park my car and make my way to the start line, mill about for a while, maybe watch some of the half marathoners finish.

Then, race day. Everything went to hell in the proverbial handbasket. I stayed up later than I meant to, and woke up at 8, which is when I'd wanted to leave. By the time I got dressed and rounded up all my running gear, filled my car with gas, and got on the road, it was about 8:45. I was trying not to freak out too much... on a normal day, it takes me about 30 minutes to get to the place where the race started. It would be cutting it close, but all wasn't lost.

Then I got stuck behind some sort of livestock trailer that was going 65mph in a 70mph speed zone and would NOT get out of the fast lane. Panic levels were starting to rise... by the time I got free of that dude, I was going to have about five minutes to park my car and get to the start. Still, I wasn't ready to write it off yet. Though I did start to acknowledge the possibility that I could miss the start of the race. In which case, I would have to turn around and embark on the 3-hour drive to Minneapolis to help my friend move (yeah, I had a full day planned.) I consoled myself with the fact that at least I'd get an earlier start on that project. But that was Plan B. Plan A was to try like hell to get there on time. I sprayed sunscreen on at red lights.

I knew parking was going to be difficult which is the biggest reason I'd wanted to be there so early. For whatever reason, I couldn't find the ramp that I knew was close to the start, and all the lots I found had signs posted that permits were required (I suspect that there were other runners using them, but the last thing I wanted was to take a chance and have my car towed, since I've still got last month's car repairs hanging out on my credit card), and I kept circling the area, tears starting to well up. I was starting to feel simultaneously panicked and defeated as I watched the minutes on my car clock tick down to race time. Finally, at 9:29, I decided that all I could do was get back on the road and head home.

Then, magically, the hand of fate tapped me on the shoulder, and there was a perfect parking space waiting for me. It was close enough to the race start that I could see the signs and the crowd. I performed the most haphazard parallel parking job (it was more of a maneuver than a job, really) and grabbed everything from my passenger seat. The race had already started. It had literally started while I was still parking my car. I ran toward the start line, trying to pin on my bib and get through the crowd (I may or may not have gently pushed a little girl out of the way.) I could hear the race announcer. "All of the runners are now on the course!" My head was screaming NO! NOT YET! WAIT FOR MEEEEEE! I darted across the start line, vaguely wondering if they'd shut off the thing and if I'd even have an official time. It didn't matter at that point, I had crossed the start line and I was going to do it. I had to sprint to get past the truck that was following the last of the runners. I eventually was able to slow to a jog, which then enabled me to get my headphones in and my music turned on and the bottom two pins of my bib pinned to my shirt. My Garmin watch still hadn't pinpointed my location, so there was no point in waiting for it. I turned it back to regular watch mode, resigning myself to the fact that I might not have a time at all for this one, but it didn't matter. At this point, I was just relieved I'd made it... while simultaneously trying to make peace with the fact that nothing had gone the way I'd planned.

The race itself was kind of awful. It was humid and muggy, and the sun would come out for random bits of time, beating down on my back and burning into the back of my neck. I slowed to a walk here and there. I don't know how often or for how long. It was weird; my legs hurt more when I walked than when I ran. I'd get this pain in my shins whenever I tried to walk - it was definitely more comfortable for my legs to keep jogging. But the rest of my body wasn't in shape (or in a mental state) to sustain that. So I alternated between two different speeds of discomfort.

I kept repeating in my head a mantra that I think is a motivational image I saw on Pinterest or something: Did Not Quit is better than Did Not Finish which is better than Did Not Start. I had managed to get past that first level (I started! However haphazardly and less than gracefully, I started. I was on the course and I was doing this.) It would have been stupid to stop anyway; I had to get through the course to get back to the general vicinity where my car was. I could either walk all the way through the downtown Des Moines area trying to get back to the start line, or I could stay the course and get there via the finish line. So I kept going.

I tried to pep talk my way through it. That I could take pride in the fact that, regardless of the way everything went down that morning, that even though I nearly missed the start, that I was flustered and frustrated, I was settled into the race and had squeaked into this race in the nick of time. I was still grumpy, though. I was hot and I just kept thinking how this was all my own fault for not getting up when my alarm initially went off, about how I nearly botched everything, and how I wasn't even in shape to be doing this. Since I was near the back, though, I was with a lot of people that were either walking or walk/running like I was, so that made me feel better. My goal had deteriorated from "run the whole thing" (when I signed up) to "under 45 minutes" (a few weeks ago) to "better than last week's 5K" (this past week) to "not last" (this morning) to "just finish the damn thing" (somewhere between Mile 1 and Mile 2.)

I have never been so relieved to cross the finish line. I almost forgot to take my traditional finish line photo, I was so out of sorts. I grabbed a cup of water and headed in the direction of my car before I caught myself. I had no idea what my time was, but I knew it was under 47 minutes - that's where the clock was when I crossed the line, and I sure as hell wasn't at the front of the pack when the gun went off. Even if it had been 47 minutes, that would have been okay in my book. It was about how I'd done the previous week (46:56) and, all things considered, matching that was a victory in my book. My pace was all over the place, I'd started too fast (I had to, simply to catch up) and I was really inconsistent with my intervals. "Somewhere under 47 minutes"was absolutely more than fine.

I wandered back to my car, which was another mini-experience... I'd been in such a hurry to get to the start line that I hadn't quite taken a mental snapshot of where I'd parked. I knew I was facing east, I knew that I was a block or two north of the start line, and... well, a lot of that area of downtown Des Moines kind of looks the same. I also wasn't sure where the start line was in relation to the finish line. I wandered a block or two before I decided to head east a block, which wasn't looking promising... then I happened to look to my right and saw it in a row of cars that was parked just north of the library. How I hadn't remembered parking next to the library, I have no idea. The Des Moines library is pretty distinctive. It looks like a giant copper piece of modern art. I laughed to myself and was relieved that I didn't have to call my friend to be like, "I'M GONNA BE LATE GETTING TO MINNEAPOLIS, I MANAGED TO LOSE MY CAR IN DOWNTOWN DES MOINES LIKE A TOTAL MORON." I was pleased to see that I was ticket-free, even though I had completely ignored the red flashing meter in my haste to get to the start. (Sometimes they have free parking on weekends. I totally gambled on that. Getting to the start line was way more important to me than worrying about a parking ticket. If that was the price to pay to get where I needed to be, I would have done it without complaint.)

So I headed north, stopped at home to change my shoes and grab some snacks, then hit the road again (for the record, Minneapolis traffic is still awful and I still hate it). I spent the rest of my day helping my friend move... in the rain... after a 5K... with only two of us to unload the U-haul. It took about five hours and I didn't get home until 3am, but I felt vaguely accomplished. I had posted about my race day kerfuffle to my running group on facebook, and all of the encouraging comments and support for the fact that I HAD FINISHED, DAMMIT, BE PROUD made me feel tons better. Crappy races happen to everyone, and I stuck it out, even though it would have been so much easier to quit at every step of the way. I could have gone back to sleep when I realized I overslept, and skipped it. I could have not bothered to even leave town when I saw how late it was getting by the time I got gas. I could have turned around in Ankeny after getting stuck behind that slow vehicle. I could have (and nearly did) leave Des Moines when I couldn't find a parking space. I could have given a big sigh when I saw everyone running across the start line while I was still two blocks away. Instead, I kept pushing myself to keep going. I kept driving. I assembled all of my gear on the run. I sprinted across that start line like I was being chased. I kept my feet moving, even though it was miserable. And I crossed that damn finish line, and I wasn't last.

Late that night, I decided to check the official race results to see if they'd managed to catch me and my last-second start. I scrolled around the 46 minute finish times and didn't see my name. Even though I'd told myself it was possible, I was a little bummed that I didn't have a time. I was on my phone so I couldn't search for my name. All I could do was scroll. For whatever reason, I scrolled up. And there I was. 44:29. I about fell over. I'd not only finished under 45 minutes, but it was my fastest time of the year so far. Faster than my April Fool's Day 5K (44:53), faster than any of my evening or weekend runs. I was ecstatic. Maybe it was that burst of speed at the beginning, maybe it was the course itself, maybe it was the fact that I didn't have my watch going and had no idea what my pace was, but... I finished better than I'd even dared to hope.

This race was crazy and bizarre and has a hell of a story attached to it. And, I suppose, a moral, like any good fable: don't give up.

Edit: The quote I was apparently trying to think of that I had seen online was "Dead Last is better than Did Not Finish which trumps Did Not Start." So... close enough? The sentiment is the same.

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