Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Running a Mile in My Shoes: 1st Time Half-Marathon Finisher Scott Riecke Guest Blogs His Experience

Hi Everyone,

Please allow me to introduce you to Scott Riecke.  Scott graduated from Siena College a few years ahead of me and was Quarterback on the Football Team.  If you think all football players are alike, you've never met Scott.  He's definitely a different type of dude.  And I mean that in the best way.

For a while, Scott's been joking about running on Facebook and finally decided to do something about.  He started training and proudly finished his first Half-Marathon on Sunday.  Here is his experience:

First Half Marathon?  Check.

Mile ten was where things started to change.  My pace slowed noticeably.  “Previous mile… Eleven minutes, fifteen seconds,” the voice on my MapMyRun iPhone app said.  I felt as though I had been slowing, but this seemed a bit drastic.

The first nine had gone so smoothly.  I was clocking 10-minute miles, which had been my pace in a recent 5k and I was shocked that I had been keeping it up for so long.  Mentally I felt great, and there were just four more miles to go.  But I could sense that my legs weren’t working as well as they had been, and the rolling hills were something new and a bit challenging.

“Running long distance is 80% mental and 20% physical,” a friend once told me.  This must be where the mental part came in.  That’s okay… I got this.

Mile eleven.  “Eleven minutes, thirty seconds.”  That was even slower.

Even worse, GPS doesn’t map exactly to the course specifications.  In the beginning of the race, when the lady told me I had reached a mile, it was only a few seconds before I would see the official “1 Mile” sign posted on the course.  By mile 10, whether it is the accruing factor of the hills or not cutting the corners efficiently, her announcement was about a quarter mile ahead of the actual course marker.  There’s nothing like thinking you had hit the eleventh mile, only to run another for another song or two before seeing the official “11 Mile” sign.
The pain in my legs was starting to build and I thought, “Ugh… how did I get here?”  That’s a good story… maybe some background is necessary.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, when many people surrender to the gluttonous allure of the winter holidays, I had a bit of an epiphany.  Simply put, I was too fat and I was sick of it.  I wasn’t proud of the way I looked in photos, and when you have a 4-year old who you love dearly, a number of things come into play – like not having the energy to play ball with her for more than 10 minutes at a clip, or not being able to teach her how to ski, or even the general health risks that come along with obesity.

Two hundred and seventy four pounds.

It was the most I had ever been, and I just didn’t want to be that way anymore.  In prior years I might have said, “I’m just putting on weight for the winter,” or maybe, “Let me just get through the holidays and I’ll make a New Year’s Resolution,” but this was different.  I asked myself… Why wait?

So, I didn’t.

In early December I hopped on a treadmill and threw it on low speed.  “Let’s just see how far I can make it,” I said, and started jogging.  I jogged and jogged, my feet pounding on the tread, sweat pouring from my face, and my lungs wheezing from the exertion.  I pushed on for as long as I could before I just couldn’t do it any longer and returned the speed to a more comfortable walking pace.

I looked at the display in disbelief… 0.28 miles.

You have got to be kidding me.  I couldn’t even run a half-mile.  I was upset and embarrassed, but I knew I had two choices.  I could feel sorry for myself and give up, or I could do something about it.  I chose the latter.
The next few months are a bit of a blur.  I spent December on my exercise bike – a typical day would find me on the bike both before and after work.  My doctor asked me how many times a week I worked out.  I said, “Twelve,” and I wasn’t lying. 

Come January, I was down close to 15 pounds and I braved another duel with the treadmill.  This time I got up to a mile and a half.  The effort on the bike had been somewhat successful.

By the end of the month, I would slowly work my way up to about three miles.  Then, on February 1, I woke up, went to Forest Park, and ran my first official 5k.  It was pretty tough – all of my running had been indoors and I really had trouble with the hills.  But I crossed the finish line and after fighting off an initial wave of nausea, I felt accomplished – even with the 8-year old kid passing me right at the end.

“You’ll never be able to run a 10k by St. Patty’s Day,” my wife had told me back in December when I declared I wanted to run the Holyoke Road Race.  I don’t know that she was trying to be mean; rather I think she was trying to be realistic.  But those words drove me, and a few weeks after my first 5k, I legged out a 6.2 mile run on the treadmill, or the equivalent of a 10k.  It wasn’t easy, but I snapped a photo of the screen and sent it to her, with the repeat of her quote.

On March 22nd, I found myself at the starting line of the Holyoke St. Patty’s Day Road Race.

The Holyoke course is very hilly and challenging.  But I finished that, too, and crossing that line felt so good – from barely being able to run a quarter mile in December, to finishing all 6.2 miles of a difficult 10k in March.  I couldn’t help myself and the next day when I got to work, I registered for the Hartford Half Marathon.

I thought it would prove to be a motivating force for me to continue training through the summer, but that wound up being the problem – the race wasn’t until October, which was just a long ways away.

The week of April 20 ended a long streak for me.  After 21 straight weeks of losing weight, it was the first week I actually gained weight, albeit just a pound.  I was upset at myself – my exercise routine was still going strong, but my diet had been slipping.  A few bad days here and there add up and though it was only a pound, to me it signified the end of a streak and the potential beginning of a downtrend.

One of the great things about losing weight is when other people notice.  So, even though I was a bit down on myself for gaining a pound, when a co-worker came up to me and asked me how I had lost so much weight, it was very timely for my own peace of mind.

“Running, mostly,” I answered.

Turns out my co-worker competes in triathlons and was very interested in my running progress.  “You know, I usually start off my running season with the Cheshire Half Marathon, but I can’t run it this year,” she said.  “You should look into it – it’s a pretty easy course.  It’s very flat.”

“When is the race?” I asked.

“Usually the last weekend in April,” she answered.

I looked it up… it was five days away.  I had logged a few six mile runs in recent weeks and another seven-miler that made me feel as though I could somehow finish a half-marathon without really training for it.

“It’s 80% mental,” I remembered my friend telling me.  Then I went through the progression.  In January I ran my first mile.  February brought my first 5k, and March was the 10k.  Why should I wait until October to take the next step?  An April half-marathon seemed a natural progression, so three days before the race, I registered.  Screw it.

“Alone whether you like it or not, alone is something you’ll be quite a lot,” I read to my daughter from Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” the night before the race.  The next morning I jumped in the car, alone, and headed for my first half-marathon.

Strangely, I wasn’t nervous at all.  “Are you excited?” my wife texted me an hour before the race.  “I’m really excited,” I answered.  “But I feel really naïve about being really excited.”

“You got this,” she wrote.  It seemed she had come very far from telling me, “You can’t run a 10k by St. Patty’s Day.”  Her support was very meaningful to me.

I was a bit early for the race and it was somewhat chilly outside, so I sat in the car and waited.  If I hit a wall, I thought, I can draw energy from a lot of different sources – my wife, my daughter, and my neighbor Tammy who requested I add “Eye of the Tiger,” to my half-marathon mix because it was her daughter Brielle’s favorite song.  I obliged, and put it towards the end – in case I really needed it for motivation.

People eventually began lining up at the starting line and I couldn’t help but notice all the runners with belts carrying water bottles and packets of gel.  I laughed to myself… who are these people kidding with their over-preparedness?  It’s just 13.1 miles – only 6.1 more than what I had run on the treadmill with no water breaks or gel packs.  “Pussies,” I thought.

The race began, and I started my half-marathon setlist of 37 songs, not thinking I’d ever get to hear the last few.  I got right into a good pace, the music helping me along.  Water stations every two miles – I mean really, who needs water at the 2-mile mark?  I took one anyway and tried to drink it while running, spilling it all over my shirt.  Fearing cramps, I swished the few drops of water that made it in my mouth and spit it out.

And for nine miles, I thought this was going to be a breeze.  I was wondering if I had placed “Eye of the Tiger “too far down the setlist and worried I might not hear it.  But then Mile 10 happened.  And Mile 11.  Things were slowing and my legs were really starting to hurt.

Mile 12.  “Twelve minutes, thirteen seconds.”  Would the staggered steps I was taking really even qualify as “running” at this point?  The worst part was that by now I wasn’t really just 1.1 miles away from the finish.  Thanks to the discrepancy between my GPS and the actual course markers, I was closer to 1.5 miles away.
“One foot in front of the other,” I told myself.  “Just keep moving, you’re not too far.”

“Keep it up,” a supportive voice from a passing runner resonated.  I guess it was obvious how much trouble I was in.  “You’re almost there,” he said.

“Fuck you,” I said.  Ok, I didn’t say that.  I thought it, but I didn’t say it.  I think I said something like, “Thanks, man.  I got it.”

The twelve mile marker was so far away from when the MapMyRun lady announced it, I thought I must have run past it without noticing.  So it was extra disappointing when I eventually reached it and realized that I had a full 1.1 miles left to run, though with “Eye of the Tiger” finally kicking on, I found myself immediately reinvigorated.
Brielle’s favorite song.  Sadly, Brielle had passed away from cancer not so long ago.  My family had only known her for a year or two, but she left such an impression on all of us.  Specifically, I remember a picnic where Brielle sat there smiling and laughing while she put a temporary butterfly tattoo on my daughter’s ankle.  Here was this girl with very pale skin and no hair on her head, smiling and laughing and just enjoying the moment of making my 3-year old daughter happy.  I prepared for the innocent way kids can be mean without realizing they’re being mean.  I pictured my daughter saying, “Why do you have no hair?” or maybe worse.  “Why do you look so different?’

But she didn’t ask, and that is my Brielle-moment that I will always hang onto.  In the face of such a horrible disease and clearly uncomfortable, Brielle managed to project such a positive and joyful personality that my 3-year old daughter never even noticed that she looked different.  I contemplated that moment as I ran, and it quickened my pace as Eye of the Tiger continued to play.  But the song doesn’t last forever, and the pain was still too great and it caused me to pull back to my uneasy jog.  I wanted to keep up the pace so badly, but the pain was searing and there was just nothing more I could do.

I pressed on with a slow, awkward jog.  The best I can describe the pain was that it felt as though my legs were eating themselves from the inside.  The final left-hand turn, about a half-mile from the finish, brought a fairly steep uphill run towards the high school, where a half-lap around the track led to the finish line.

I turned off the music.  I wasn’t even listening to it at that point anyway – I was too focused on the pain.  I could see the high school ahead, and thought I could make it, but I was overcome with the pain.  At some point within that last half-mile, the pain won, and I walked.

I expected it to subside once I began walking, but it didn’t at all.  Even my walk was slow.  I shuffled to the track and made it on the rubberized surface.  “Run,” I told myself.  But I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  My focus turned to the next-best goal.  “Finish.”

There were moments where I thought I might not.  But I kept walking.  It was so painful.  I realized in that moment what running is all about.  Running is about you and the road and nothing else.  You can try to draw motivation from other sources – your family, your friends, your music, or maybe people who told you that you couldn’t do it.  But when it comes down to it and when the pain is beyond anything you thought you would ever feel, only you can tell yourself to take that next step, and the next, and the next.

I vaguely remembered them announcing my name as I crossed the finish.  A nice lady placed a medal around my neck, though I barely noticed.  I wasn’t as jubilant as I had been crossing the finish at the St. Patty’s Day 10k.  This was harder.  This was way more challenging than I had ever thought when I got out of my car that morning.  I walked through the gate towards a field where tents were set up.  The water station was about 50 feet away… that was too far.  I couldn’t make it and I didn’t have the humility to ask someone for help.  Instead, I sat down on the ground next to the fence and, in a perverse sort of way, enjoyed the pain still resonating through my legs.

I did it.

I stayed put for about five minutes.  The post-race celebration was in full effect, but I was in no mood.  I got up and hobbled to my car, not sure if I’d make it without needing another break.  Trudging through the parking lot, I was glad that I got there early enough to get a great spot.  It made the walk that much shorter.  Once in the car, I downed two Poland Spring waters that I had tossed in my bag at the last moment before leaving home.  I wish I had brought about five more.

The water picked up the salt from my sweaty upper lip and tasted like the ocean.  When I thought about it, throughout the whole race I hardly drank any water.  Big mistake.

I started the car, but realized I was in no condition to drive.  I was afraid my feet would seize up on the pedals.  So I reclined the driver’s seat, took my sneakers off and put my feet up on the dash.  It would be about 20 minutes before I felt strong enough to drive.  Even then, as I exited the crowded parking lot I made sure to throw the car into Park anytime I stopped because I was afraid my foot might not have the strength to hold down the brake pedal.

A quarter-mile down the road was a Dunkin Donuts.  I had been wanting a Boston Kreme donut for months, but never wanted to cheat on my diet.  This seemed like the proper occasion.  I prayed for a drive-thru, only it didn’t exist at this location.  So I struggled to put my sneakers back on and hobbled into the store.

The guy in front of me was by himself and ordered $17 worth of food.  I normally wouldn’t have minded all that much, but it was so hard to stand in one place without anything to lean on while I waited for him to finish ordering.  When it was finally my turn, I was just glad to get the chance to lean against the counter.
The donut lasted about 30 seconds once it hit my hands.  The large iced coffee was finished before my car’s front tires left the parking lot.  Maybe I should have ordered two, but they gave me just enough energy to focus on the drive home.

And then it really started to sink in.  I finished a half marathon.  Five months ago, I couldn’t run a half-mile, and now I did something that I thought I’d never do.  Had you told me on Thanksgiving that I’d complete a half-marathon by Memorial Day, I would have had to laugh.  Yet here I was.  Strangely, the fact that it was so difficult to finish made it feel like an even more fulfilling accomplishment.  13.1 miles was a daunting task.  Had the race been 13.2 miles, I’m not so sure I could have finished.  Yet, had I jogged it all the way in, I might not have appreciated it as much.

I’m left wondering why I broke down so harshly after cruising in the early going.  I researched it and found that my type of debilitating condition is typically brought on by a glycogen deficiency that could have been overcome by eating throughout the race.

“Those pussies with the gel packs were right,” I thought.  Boy was I wrong.

I am left wondering how much of my leg pain was from lack of conditioning and training and how much was from not preparing, not drinking enough water or eating anything on the course.  For that, there’s only one way I’ll find out for sure, and I’m already researching to find my next half-marathon.

Something about the experience was just so self-empowering, whether it was the act of finishing, fighting through the pain, or simply having the guts to go for it in the first place.  Officially, I finished the race in 2 hours, 27 minutes and 18 seconds and that was good enough to place 1,241stout of 1,429 runners.

As I hobbled into the house on my return home, my daughter ran over and gave me a great big hug and a kiss.  I was so happy to see her and she always makes me smile.  She immediately noticed and took hold of the shiny medal still dangling around my neck.

“Daddy, you won the race!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, sweetie.  I did.  I sure did.”

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