Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pacing Adventures: Mission Inn Half

On Sunday, I ran the Mission Inn Half Marathon. I hadn’t wanted to run the race after the bad experience I’d had in 2011, but when some of the runners in my pace group asked me to pace them in the race, who was I to say no to that?

Once I opted to run it, I had some ideas about how the race could be memorable for me. It was my 10th half marathon, which is a bit of a milestone. Also, the race was an opportunity for me to begin my Long Beach Marathon redemption.

But the race was not about me. Not at all. I decided that on Sunday morning when I met up with my newbie runner, Ashlynn. Not only was Sunday Ashlynn’s first half marathon, it was her first race ever, at any distance. It would also be her longest run ever. She’d never run more than 11 miles, and that was just one week ago at our Sunday run with the Lopers.

The morning was extraordinarily chilly. The temperatures dipped into the 30s, startling considering it had been in the 90s just on Monday. I worried a bit since I haven’t really talked to my pace group about cold-weather clothing but I saw Ashlynn made the same decision I’d made – a long-sleeve white shirt underneath our pink Loper shirt.

Despite the enormity of the day for her, Ashlynn seemed rather calm about the pre-race experience. We’d gathered near the start line and the energy of a throng of half-marathoners was present but it did not distract her much at all. We went over a bit of how we wanted the race to go, planned our course of action and off we went.

The first mile was all downhill and we tackled that fairly effortlessly. The second mile was a bit more of our Sunday pace but that was partly because it was a steady incline. By the time we got done with the third mile, I was feeling strong and hopeful that I could get Ashlynn to the finish line feeling and looking the same.

Now, there had been another first-timer with us but he dropped back around the fourth mile. I’d tried to locate him behind us but he got lost in a group of runners. I hoped that he was well but did not want to break up the momentum we had going forward so opted to push ahead.

Just past Mile 5 we hit some really familiar ground. I was after all on my stomping grounds. The Santa Ana River Trail is after all my favorite place to run (well, the entire Mt. Rubidoux area because of the trails and the mountain itself). I had been out there three times just last week, including a seven-mile run that took me to the turnaround and back.

Now I was back but with hundreds of others, including of course the first-timer alongside me.

We talked and talked and talked. I’ve chatted with her before during our races but this time the conversation flowed smoothly and effortlessly. We talked about food, about our favorite restaurants, about San Francisco and marathons and our respective children. I discovered that she has a love of bread and I can certainly relate. Hearing her talk about the food she likes to indulge in made me rather hungry.

All the while this was going on, I had been trying to gradually increase our speed. Not a great deal, not enough to where we were going to hit the wall and crash and burn down the stretch but enough to where she could push herself a bit more. While she has not run long distances with regularity yet, I have no doubt that Ashlynn can and will do great things in running. But she has not pushed herself in a race before, and that’s only because she’d never run a race before. I wanted to give her a bit of that experience.

We reached the turnaround and I was thrilled. Unlike a year ago, this time the race was a legitimate 13.1 miles, and that was confirmed by the location of the turnaround. Once we started heading back in, I saw our other friend who had fallen behind, all smiles, saying he felt great. Buoyed by the sight of him and some other familiar faces, we plowed ahead. I was feeling better and better with each passing mile and, given by how our steady conversation had not dropped, it looked like Ashlynn was as well.

After Mile 11, we had reached unchartered territory for Ashlynn. I did not want to bring this up, though. I did not want to feel as if I was putting any sort of extra pressure on her. Once we ran past the Mile 12 marker, though, she celebrated. I did as well, congratulating her on adding to her longest run ever.

The final mile was a bit difficult, as it always is. The course starts to go uphill a bit and the street that takes you back out the Market (where the race began) is deceptively long. It does not seem like it will be long but it seemingly stretches out endlessly. Perhaps it’s the anxiety you feel about the race and just wanting to be done with it, but either way it seemed long again on Sunday.

We rounded our second-to-last corner, finally back on Market. I pushed forward and we picked up our speed. I told her that if she wanted to go on ahead to do so but she said no, that she was feeling the race in her legs. Still, we kept going on steadily ahead and got to a stone’s throw of the finish line.

I let her go ahead a bit, excited for her to see the finish line and wanted her to experience that moment all to herself. I was smiling, happy that she had done it, happy that I was able to help her ever so slightly reach her goal, when something unexpected happened.

I crossed the finish line, slowed down and saw Ashlynn crying. Tears had hit her hard and she was overcome by the moment. Without warning, tears swelled up in my eyes as well. I congratulated her, patted her gently on her back and told her that she had just done something grand. She seemed caught off guard by her tears as well, but I told her that I’ve cried in each of my eight marathons (true story) and that she should be proud of herself, that nobody was ever going to take that away from her.

I met her smiling family and told them all how fantastic she had done during the race. She was a bit less emotional, smiling and such but without the tears. After a few minutes we parted ways.

I went over to look at our finish times. She had come in at 2:00:10 and I’d come in at 2:00:12. Time was not at all a factor for me. I knew that we were going to come in right around two hours and had actually debated whether I should bring her in for a sub-two or not.

Ultimately, I decided to let fate answer that question. Fate wanted her to come in where she did, and it will work out nicely. I was able to help her get to her first finish line but she will ultimately break the sub-two mark on her own, and will continue on to bigger and better things.

Knowing that I played a small role in her own running story… well, that’s the kind of stuff that brings tears to my eyes.