Progress is a beautiful thing.
Check this out: A year ago, at the 2009 Alston + Bird Corporate Cup half-marathon, right around Dilworth Neighborhood Grille near the 12th mile marker, I stopped ... and walked. Felt like a loser. Watched as my friend Holly hustled up the hill. After a minute or two, I struggled up Morehead and finished in 1:52:02.
This morning, at the 2010 running of the same race, right around Dilworth Neighborhood Grille near the 12th mile marker, I took off. Felt like a champ. Hustled up the hill, passing several guys ... who looked a lot like I did a year ago. Made the turn onto Tryon Street, kicked to a 1:36:44. Eighty-fourth out of 770 participants.
What's the difference? I mean, obviously, I'm a better runner than I was this time a year ago. I've trained harder, I've trained smarter, I've picked up the intensity when I've felt good, I've backed off when I've felt bad. I have a lot more race experience.
But there's another secret. If you can call it a secret. Maybe just call it One to Grow On. A lesson. A good thing to bear in mind. And this is going to sound corny. Except it's true. Whenever I race, I try to surround myself with positive energy.
Let's talk about this a little bit. See, when it comes to races, there are plenty of things that are out of your control. You can't control the weather (although today's was perfect). You can't control the course layout (Corporate Cup is always gonna be hilly). There's not much you can do about a head cold, and you never can guess exactly how last night's dinner might sit in your stomach.
You have complete control, however, over your attitude, and over how you carry yourself. If you have a great attitude, little boosts of energy are sprinkled all throughout the racecourse. They're there for the taking, these little boosts -- and they're every bit as useful as the GUs in your pocket or the fluids at the water stations.
Some basic tenets that I live by when racing:
If you're settling into a groove and you've been running next to the same person for a few minutes, make small talk. "What're you shooting for today?" "Has it really only been 5 miles??" "Who put this hill here?" Anything. If they blow you off, move on, or let them move on. Chances are good, though, that they won't. A little small talk can go a long way toward making the miles go by faster. Boost.
Say thank you. Sure, the cops are getting paid by the race organizer, but their job is to protect you from motorists, and by and large, they do a darn good job. And volunteers are, well, volunteers. They don't get a cent. They're there basically acting as your personal servant, handing you a cup of Gatorade or bending down to pull off your timing chip. The least you can do is acknowledge their presence! I feel good every time I say the words "Thank you" (and I say them a lot), mainly because I'm pretty sure these people don't hear them often enough. Another boost.
Make a connection with the spectators and "cheerleaders." Let me preface these next remarks by admitting that I may appear to have an unfair advantage when it comes to feeding off crowds. A lot of people in the Charlotte running community know me because of this blog, and so I tend to hear my name being called out fairly frequently during local races. But there's an easy way to level the playing field: Write your name or a nickname in big bold letters on your shirt, or on something you pin to your shirt, or on your body, in magic marker. This is advice commonly given to marathoners; I say do it for races of ANY distance. Hearing your name will give you a boost, whether or not you know the person who's calling it out. I mean, 75 percent of the time I have no idea who's shouting for me. Also, making eye contact with spectators (and police officers, and volunteers), smiling at them, waving at them = boost. Because they will smile back, they will wave back. Boost, again. (Bonus boost for giving high fives to small children.)
Plenty of you have probably read advice like this before and appreciate the sentiment, but just haven't made it a priority. I'm sure there are also some of you thinking to yourselves, These things are a waste of time and energy, and I don't have any to spare out there. Or maybe you're just an introvert. But it pays to follow these bits advice, to loosen up, to at least pretend -- for as long as the race lasts, at least -- to be an extrovert. It really does. I promise you.
I love that I set a half-marathon PR this morning by almost 11 minutes (previous best was a 1:47:39 at ING Atlanta last March), and it was a big confidence booster as I prepare for the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon two weeks from Sunday, in Virginia Beach.
But I'm actually more proud of the fact that instead of struggling to get through it today, like I did last year, I crossed the finish line feeling absolutely, positively energized. By the other runners I talked with along the way, by the men and women in blue who waved back, by the volunteers who said "Good job!," by the families on their lawns who I exchanged smiles with.
Today I covered 13.25 miles, since I didn't quite hit all the tangents. My average pace for the first 12 miles was 7:25ish, and I think that's due to my training. But I'm giving credit for the 6:58 pace on Mile 13 and the 6:00 pace on the last quarter-mile to the people I connected with along the way.
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AND THE WINNERS ARE...
Top three overall men in the half-marathon: Jason Holder, 26, of Charlotte (1:15:29); Kevin Lisska, 30, of Tega Cay (1:16:55); Billy Shue, 26, of Charlotte (1:17:58). 756 half-marathon finishers. Top three overall women in the half-marathon: Alice Rogers, 31, of Charlotte (1:24:05); Danielle Walther, 28, of Charlotte (1:24:52); Michelle Hazelton, 26, of Charlotte (1:29:27). There were 756 half-marathon finishers. For full results, click here.
Top three overall women in the 5K: Stephanie Snyder, 22, of Charlotte (20:11); Holly John, 32, of Indian Trail (20:14); Despina Kabouris, 27, of Matthews (21:03). Top three overall men in the 5K: Will Raby, 19, of Charlotte (15:46); Trent Kirk, 33, of Charlotte (16:22); Seth Huffstetler, 32, of Charlotte (16:52). There were 879 5K finishers. For full results, click here.
John Compton, Ben Hovis and Daniel Matena won the men's half-marathon relay with a time of 1:09:25, beating 13 other teams. Val Matena, Megan Hepp Hovis and Maureen Campbell won the women's half-marathon relay with a time of 1:20:11, beating 10 other teams. Chris Jones, Todd Mayes and Grace Ridley won the mixed half-marathon relay with a time of 1:19:28, beating 19 other teams. For full results, click here.