Former Football Player Goes Long (9/12)
By Andrew Althouse
I'll warn everyone up front that this is long, self-indulgent, and may be more disappointing than your average Hollywood remake. I wrote it as much for myself as anything, but a few friends have given me positive feedback, so I'll post it up here; if you don't like it, just quit now. Shakespeare it isn't, but if you're a running dork or you just find my particular brand of brashness and humor enjoyable, you might find this a fun read. Proceed at your own peril.
Most of you know that I played college football from 2004-2007, at which time I weighed 250 pounds and the thought of running more than one mile on purpose was laughable. However, once I shed some of that football bulk, I started to ENJOY going for a nice run. Wyomissing high-school classmate Will Lutz started running with me in spring of 2008 and encouraged me to hop into a 5K with him that summer. He beat me like a drum, of course, but I was hooked on racing that day. In late 2008, fellow Wyomissing alum Lauren Shaub was gracious enough to allow this slow washed-up football player to start training with her outstanding running club, the Pittsburgh Pharaoh Hounds, and things took off from there!
I ran consistently in 2008-2009 and was rewarded with good progress (best times of 18:58 in the 5K and 1:27:47 in the half-marathon). Some lingering college football injuries started to bother me with the increased mileage, though, putting me out of commission for most of 2010-11. I could ride my bike and lift weights, but I never really ran further than 5-6 miles and often only ran once a week, if at all. Eventually a combination of yoga, icing, and stretching fixed me up a bit, though, and early this spring I started to run a little more: first 10 miles per week, then 15, then 20. I ran a half in 1:34:31 this past May; it was seven minutes off my old PR, but surprisingly good in light of my sparse training. Soon after that, I reconnected with some old friends from a running club that I trained with throughout 2009 for a Sunday long run. Things went well and I started to believe that a return to semi-serious running might be a real possibility. I picked up my training a bit more (see below) and soon I was feeling stronger every week. On September 30, I ran a 5K in 18:20, a 38-second PR and a huge confidence boost going into this race.
For most of the summer, I did just short easy stuff during the week (3-5 miles a few days per week) plus a Sunday long run of 12-15 miles with my bandmates (Jo Rupp, Moira Davenport, and Jason Baim aka "The Pacemaster General"). I dialed things up a little more for the past eight weeks with the following template:
Sunday: Long Run (12-15 miles)
Monday: Bike Ride & Lifting
Tuesday: Track Workout (1-2 mile warmup, intervals, 1-2 mile cooldown)
Wednesday: Bike Ride& Lifting
Thursday: Medium-Long Run (10 miles)
Friday: Lifting Only
Saturday: Long Bike Ride
The biking may not directly improve running, but being a bit on the husky side for a runner, I have to be careful with my running mileage. Plus, I just enjoy riding my bike sometimes. Props to Courtney Haven for tagging along on those rides! Virtually all of my running in the last eight-plus weeks has been done with my bandmates and /or a few other members of the Pharaoh Hounds. OK, let's be real, I can't actually keep up with the guys, and most of the women (Michelle Joanne, Kristen Leslie, Jamie Morgenstern, et al) can leave me in the dust if they're so inclined. But I sure am enthusiastic! Additional shout-out is due here to big sister Moira Davenport for accompanying me on all of those early-Thursday-morning MLR's. The Jail Trail is OUR TERRITORY on Thursday morning!
I picked the Hershey Half Marathon because it’s only an hour from my parents’ house and Hershey holds many fond memories for our family. For those of you who don’t know, Hershey is the site of high school championship events in Pennsylvania, including the state championships in football and wrestling. Prior to my running life, I was an offensive tackle and a decent 215-pound wrestler, and I was fortunate enough to participate in several of these events, so Hershey has always held a soft spot in my heart because of those memories.
On race morning, my parents and I got a parking spot near the football stadium and made our way to the starting line, which was at the stadium box office. The course was a winding route that took us around and through Hersheypark for a while and then through some rolling hills outside of town before bringing us back to the football stadium for a TERRIFIC finish set up; the 13th mile marker was set up in one corner of the stadium and we sprinted down the straightaway in front of the stands before coming to the finish line just behind the opposite endzone. I was really excited about this setup for the finish line.
I'd looked through the previous years’ race results, and knew that a 1:30ish time would be in the top 50 finishers for this race, so I made sure to get lined up early in the front of the pack. I was lightly chatting with some of the other fast-looking runners at the start and we were all having a good time. The clock at the starting line showed less than a minute to go, but we still hadn’t heard the national anthem, nor had the loudspeaker made any clear announcements, so we assumed that things would start a little late. But then the clock ticked down to 3, 2, 1, 0 and we heard the gun followed by “GO!”
Confused, no one really moved for 2 or 3 seconds before we realized that it was actually the starting gun! As a result, many of us have a short lag from our chip time vs. our gun time, but once we all got the idea things settled down and we settled into a smooth running pack.
By mile 1, the field had stretched a bit and we started to figure out who we were likely to run with for much of the race. I hit the first mile mark at 6:14…
whoops! That was quick! I was supposed to be running 6:49's early...in retrospect, the first mile had a long straightaway and was slightly downhill, which was probably the culprit because I really hadn’t felt much strain in getting there. Mile 2 came up and I hit at 12:30 total for a 6:16 second mile, comforting me that things were all right and perhaps I was stronger than I thought - did I have a 1:25 in me? Riiiiiiight....
In between mile 2 and 3 we came past the other side of the football stadium and my parents caught a glimpse of me. They planned to see me off and then walk a few miles around the stadium parking lot (they may not be "runners" but they both have walked a half-marathon before, and each walks a few miles daily for exercise) before making their way into the stadium to see my projected 1:29 finish time. Feeling strong, I shouted “get there early!” as I passed, knowing they’d get the hint that it was going well and they’d get back in the stadium a few minutes earlier than planned.
By mile 3 (19:00 on the dot, indicating a 6:30 third mile) I was part of a four-pack of runners, including the two lead females. We all remained fairly quiet but clearly knew that we were working “together” (taking turns in the lead, etc) and exchanged enough pleasantries to make a good pack for a while. At this time we were winding through the park itself, weaving in and out between roller coasters and concession stands, probably slowing us a bit.
Mile 4 came at 25:46 (split 6:46) and one of the girls, who we'll get to in a second, sounded worried at our slowing pace. In my gut, I knew this was a problem too - I had definitely gone out too fast (Moira Davenport, are you surprised by this AT ALL?) - but I encouraged the pack by noting that the last two miles were noticeably hillier than the start, which was true, and loudly said that as long as we hung with it we’d be all right. Andrew's enthusiasm strikes again! Besides, I only “needed” a 1:29:21 (6:49 per mile pace) to get seeded for Pittsburgh next year, so I knew that I had some room for error as long as we didn’t blow up entirely.
Mile 5 came at 32:46 (split 7:00) and the lead woman & other male in our pack broke away a little bit. I asked the #2 female (the lovely Jolene Collins) if she wanted to go with them or hang back a little, and we decided to “run our own race” for a while. The field was thinned out substantially and we couldn’t hear anyone coming up behind us. For the next few miles, we didn’t chatter very much, just enough to keep our spirits up and encourage one another. Both of us knew deep down that we may have gone out a little fast and now faced a daunting task to hold things together if we wanted to PR (she’d told me that her PR was 1:29, set last year, mine was the old 1:27:47 from 2009). There wasn't going to be a lot of spare oxygen later, so we'd better conserve some of it now...although I suspect that long-run partners of mine may be surprised to hear that I actually am capable of running WITHOUT talking simutaneously.
We made it to the halfway point, which was also the relay exchange zone, at 43:08. I was buoyed by the sight of Dan Heckert, who’d driven me out from Pittsburgh, awaiting his relay partner, and he gave me an encouraging shout as only a wrestling coach can. Jolene was still with me, and another guy had come up behind us and joined our little pack at this point. I now was quite certain that we’d gone out too fast, but I also knew that I had enough in the tank to hold it together and stay at least CLOSE to this pace. No way was I going to blow up so badly that I'd run a 46+ second half. I was a little worried about my female companion, as her breathing was a little labored, but Jolene was determined and I reminded myself that racing is SUPPOSED to hurt a little bit!
We were into some rolling hills by now. I had been tricked a little bit by the course elevation profile - since there was minimal elevation change in either direction I figured it was close to pancake flat, but once we were out there the middle miles were full of small but rolling hills. Nothing that was a real crippling hill, but it felt like we were almost never on totally flat terrain. Jolene, amiright?
Don’t really remember the next couple of splits, it started to get a little blurry in here. Jolene & I dropped the guy who had caught us and found ourselves alone for another 2 miles before he caught us again. I think. Y'all that have raced a few half-marathons know that this is the worst part - early adrenaline is gone, but you're too far from the finish to get excited about it. I do remember somewhere between mile 8 & mile 9 the guy commented on how nice the weather was and we collectively agreed - it was cool and sunny, about 50 degrees, just gorgeous raceday weather. Eventually, I think we dropped him again, but I don’t remember exactly when. Maybe he dropped us. Shows something about my mind's addled state at this point.
Another female came up and passed us around mile 9. She pulled away slowly, remaining in sight, and I asked Jolene (now #3 female) if she wanted to chase or hold steady and make a push towards the end. We opted for the latter, which was probably a good thing because I don’t think I had anything more to give at that point. Our mile 9 split was somewhere around 59 minutes flat and, struggling with my mental math a little, I figured out that if we could manage the remaining 4.1 miles in 28 minutes (just under 7:00 pace), that I would still end up with a PR. I am told that the first photo attached to this note occurred somewhere in this stretch, taken by one of Jolene's friends, but I have no memory of this part haha.
Somewhere around mile 10-11, I am told.
We managed to hold our pace, but by mile 12, I was really laboring. My lungs had a little bit left, but my legs were just about done. The #2 female was still in sight, not even really THAT far ahead, and I wanted to help Jolene chase her down, but knew that it would take a colossal effort that I just didn't have the juice for at this point. In the back of my mind, I was also thinking that I had crossed mile 12 around 1:19, and since I just had to get across that line in 1:29:21 to secure my seeded bib for next year, I was going to be furious with myself if I tried to pick it up and something went wrong (cramp, an ankle giving way, sudden need to vomit, etc). I made the decision to back off slightly and make-damn-sure that I got across the line healthy and under 1:29. A few minutes past mile marker #12, I told Jolene that I was backing off a little, said that I’d see her at the finish line, and summoned the air to shout an encouraging “go get her!” with the hope that she could catch the #2 female. She was a terrific partner to run with for those first 12 miles, especially in the middle miles where there were few other runners around us and much less crowd support than we had near the start/finish, and I REALLY wanted to her to finish strong, so I silently willed her on, giving her the strength that I was conserving and hoping it’d be enough to get her there. She pulled ahead a little but stayed on the fringe of my sight; however, by this time I was chugging along with my head looking at the ground 10 yards in front of me, just trying to hang on. The football stadium was in sight now and there was a decent crowd lined up along the tram line. Somewhere along here I let out an involuntary loud grunt ("Ahhhhhh!!!!") which drew a surprising cheer from the crowd. Jolene, if you thought you heard a bear or a gorilla on your tail after I dropped back, that's your explanation.
We came around the far edge of the football stadium, Jolene now perhaps 50 yards ahead of me, and I made it into the stadium with 1:26:XX showing on my watch. Now I knew that I had my PR, for real, and all I had to do was keep it together and grind down the straightaway. The suffering was almost over. Kids, I don't promote swearing, but the only thought in my mind was "GET THERE, MOTHERF***ER!!!" (Moira & Jo, remind you of anything? Perhaps a run on the Montour Trail this summer?)
I saw the finish clock flip from to 1:27:00 and start counting upwards, but still knew this was a PR and crossed in 1:27:10 for my most satisfying finish to date. I was pleased that I had the guts to hold it together after a less-than-ideal start and really happy with how hard I’d been able to push myself in the middle; not to mention, I was proud to have hung with and helped one of the top female finishers run an absolutely terrific race and break her own PR by several minutes. I love racing for myself, but I also love helping others along the way and it’s a great feeling to greet one another at the finish line knowing that you’ve helped one another achieve more than you might have done by yourself. My parents told me that I had finished 32nd overall of 4,000-some runners and I knew that I’d finished with the #3 female - this is becoming a marker for me, because given my relative ability, I know that I should usually be finishing somewhere around the lead females.
Don't sugarcoat it, Andrew, tell us how you really feel.
Jolene had finished just ahead of me (1:26:59! I’m so jealous of that 1:26:XX!) and was still lingering in the finish area. One of the official photographers hopped in front of us and we posed for a photo, which I’m really glad to have because there’s just a special bond that gets formed when you push yourself through a race at someone else’s side (Jocelyn Smith Cornman, you may recall, you did the same thing for me in my 2009 half PR…on what was a mere training run for you!).
What? My medal's backwards? Wait...hang on...d'oh!
Hey, that's better! Look at that pair of winners!
We chatted for a while afterwards before I broke off to find my parents and gather myself. I’m usually a train wreck for a few hours after a long race like that, but I felt surprisingly good on my feet (sitting down and standing up was an issue, however, and stairs are not so friendly at the moment). I guess that the adrenaline was still pumping; eventually, my stomach would give me a little grief later in the day for wolfing down that post-race cookie and energy bar. Since I don’t eat much junk food, I think stuffing those down my gullet in about 3 seconds was a bad idea. I ate some good healthy stuff later though - a huge green salad topped with steak and portabello mushrooms, plus a helping of meatloaf and some mashed potatoes!
Huge, huge, huge thanks to my "bandmates" (Jo Rupp, Moira Davenport, Jason Baim) who have listened to me ramble for 10+ miles every Sunday, Will & Lauren for getting me into running in the first place, all of the Pharaoh Hounds and Lady Hounds that have accompanied me for various workouts over the past couple months or just inspired me along the way, stud triathlete Courtney Haven for biking with me on Saturdays & making that a tolerable experience, Dan Heckert and the rest of the Pittsburgh crew that drove out there with me, my wonderful PARENTS for coming out to watch and support me (not to mention a few other things, like raising me and understanding "Wait...you want to PAY to run 13 miles, and you want us to sit there and WATCH you do it?"), and especially to Jolene for sticking with me in those rather lonely middle miles!!! No way I could've ground out that PR alone!
LET’S GO HOUNDS!!!!!