Saturday, May 12, 2018

Reflections on winning the 2018 Flying Pig Half Marathon

I won. 
There are two things I don’t often get the chance to do in this life: travel through time, and accomplish exactly what I set out to. The first, obviously, is impossible—for now, anyway: Despite its fictional popularity, no physicist or garage-tinkering amateur has yet figured out how to transcend the limits of spacetime. You could say that the second is impossible as well: As human beings, frustratingly finite, perpetually imperfect, we never quite get exactly what we want. But on May 6, 2018, at the Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon, I came just about as close to doing both as I think I ever have.

How, you might wonder first, did I travel through time on this day? Repetition. I ran this same race last year, and did okay: I was 4th in 1:13:23, a time that I accepted then because of the difficulties that preceded it, but which I knew I could improve upon in the future. I had not planned to run the Flying Pig Half again this year; my original plan for 2018 was to run a half in March, and run the Flying Pig Full in May, but life intervened. And so I came to the line of this race, almost exactly a year later, with everything about last year’s performance fresh in my mind.

Me, during last year's performance. 
But this time travel advantage did not only exist on race day. For once I had decided to do the race again, I could take into account certain things about the race this year that I did not know last year, from items as basic as race-day logistics all the way up to things like strategy and training. And perhaps the most important lesson I learned from last year’s race was this: Be ready for the brutal hills that dominate the race’s middle miles. Last year, I did not prepare for them adequately, and I suffered. Because of them, the middle of the race quite nearly destroyed me, and I required a near-miraculous comeback just to finish. But this year, knowing that the race’s middle miles would be largely uphill, I could and did prepare for them, incorporating hill workouts into my training for the race. I thought it reasonable that I could at least use this foreknowledge to power myself to a PR: sub-1:12, certainly, sub 1:11, if I was feeling bold.

And how, you might wonder next, did I accomplish exactly what I set out to do? Well…I won. I was somewhat high on my chances of doing so before I even got to the starting line of today’s race: I was in good shape, better shape than last year, when I was 4th. I knew that many of my typical local competitors would either not be racing me, or, if they were, they would not be doing so at full strength, having just completed other races, such as the Boston Marathon, a few weeks before. This is why I came to the starting line with a not-unrealistic hope of victory. But victory itself still seemed a bit lofty a goal, almost too good to be true, for one of the biggest races of the year in my hometown. Against 13,000+ people, surely I would fall to at least one of them? But no. I did not. I won. And now I relate the story of my victory.


The starting line of the race. I am on the left, in the white and blue, already next to someone who would become important later.

With winning the race a realistic but by no means certain outcome, I started it at the very front. My tentative strategy, again, influenced by last year’s race, was to start out a little faster than I did last year, to hold on for dear life up the hills, and then finish as fast as I could, when the race became downhill/flat. If this meant running the race entirely alone, then so be it; if this meant dueling one or more fellow elites, I was fine with that as well. And not long after the starting gun went off, and the flamethrowers atop the starting line let loose (yes, this race has starting line flamethrowers), I discovered that I would not be alone. It only took about 800 meters, in fact, for my main competition to reveal himself. He and I settled quickly alongside one another behind the lead vehicle, which also had a timer, as we made our way through the early portions of the race. I checked my watch nervously, perhaps obsessively, during this first mile, as we made our way into Newport, Kentucky*, just to make sure I wasn’t doing anything I didn’t want to do, either too fast or too slow. The first mile ended up being a 5:16, which was fine with me. So I decided I would remain alongside this mysterious competitor for as long as our interests seemed to align.

It was in mile 2, through Newport, that I began to wonder if I was perhaps a bit out of my league. According to my watch, we ran a 5:08 second mile together, which was…a little faster than I wanted to go quite yet. Despite the ample fan support (at one point, including a band, at which I shouted “Free Bird”), despite feeling fine (if ever so slightly bloated from a large dinner the night before), going this fast this early made me wonder if I hadn’t inadvertently decided to contest a true elite. So I chose to hang back from him just a little bit after this, to see what he would do. When he slowed down a little bit as we went up another bridge back into Cincinnati, I became a bit more confident in myself, and ran alongside him again, now having firmly decided I could do so. Mile 3 ended up being a 5:22, which, again, I was fine with.

Miles 4 and 5, back in Cincinnati, he and I spent mostly together. Mile 4, during which we were mostly alone, was another 5:16; mile 5, which cuts straight through the heart of downtown and supplies a gauntlet of spectators, was surprisingly slower, at 5:23. I was still feeling good at this time**, and my competitor was just behind me, drafting off of me but always seemingly moving somewhere I couldn’t see him by looking behind me. At this point, I was content with this arrangement, because I knew what was coming, and I don’t think he did. Yes, time travel does have its advantages. For while I was not certain he did not know that mile 6 began the race’s gauntlet of hills, I strongly suspected so, and that I might be able to use this information asymmetry to my advantage.

He was still right behind or right next to me as mile 6 (5:26) presented the race’s first truly grueling uphill, up Gilbert. And here, still feeling good, I used the accumulated experience of last year’s race and this training cycle’s multiple hill repeat workouts to power my way up the hill. It helped that, at this point, someone was playing the Rocky theme: I know it’s cheesy, but damn it, it’s inspirational, and I needed it. At this point, I could no longer sense my competitor’s presence directly behind me.

En route, with Mom cheering on the right. The sign says "Run, Jack, run!" It was good advice. 
Nor was anyone else, other than the lead vehicle, in front of me. I was alone, in first place, leading the entire field of the Flying Pig, as I headed into Eden Park, a little more than 6 miles into the race.
As Gilbert Avenue heads into Eden Park, the terrain flattens, but only briefly. Here, the first leg of the Flying Pig Marathon relay ends. When I saw the place where those people would make their exchange, whenever the first of them showed up, I could only think of one word: “bastards.” For unlike they, I had not just the rest of the race but, at that moment, arguably its most excruciating portion: the climb out of Eden Park. Last year, this was where the course broke me: I ran a mile above 6:00, became beset with cramps, and was on the verge of giving up before I dug deep within my soul to find the strength to recover. But this year, things were different. I was still feeling strong, I did not feel at all intimidated by being alone at the front or by the hill. I was ready to prove that I was stronger than I was last year.

And prove it I did. Ascending out of the park, I saw two of the same sights that marked my ascent last year: an Elvis impersonator, and a friend, Chris Reischel, cheering me on. Last year, in the delirium of my pain, or the pain of my delirium, these were almost surreal sights, intrusions into reality from some earthly, pain-free realm that at that moment forbade me access. This year, however, they were just spectators, motivators along my path. Soon I passed them by, and soon the course became (again, briefly) flat again, marking the 7th mile, by far the course’s toughest, which I completed in a 5:44. This was, obviously, slower than my other miles, but acceptable for that part of the race, especially versus last year’s supra-6:00 mile. The last of a series of three grueling uphills took me up Victory Parkway to East McMillan, another spectator-heavy portion of the race. It was here that I saw, for the first time, my parents and the sister who drove me to the race, dutifully cheering me on.

My parents (and my sister, sadly cut off, right edge) cheer me on during the hardest part of the race for me. My favorite picture from the race (courtesy Pete Anderson).

And I was glad of it. For although the race here became flatter, and the cheers of spectators became louder and more consistent, I needed all the support I could get. For after having conquered the race’s most difficult portion, I unexpectedly began to flag slightly here; if not too badly physically, as my miles remained acceptable, then certainly mentally, during miles 8-10 (5:28, 5:22, 5:26). I grew impatient with the race’s seemingly stubborn refusal to take me back in the direction of downtown, its insistence on continuing to force me up and down (smaller) hills and around turns. In short, I grew impatient, perhaps bored. I was helped here, again, by my fan support: I saw my family again, and also one Coach Emeritus Dehring, my St. Xavier High School track and cross country coach, the man who gave me the St. X singlet I wore today. There was also the fact that I could sense without looking behind me how close 2nd place was: Whenever I heard the spectators who had cheered me sounding up again, I knew that he was passing by them. And he was too close for me to rest on my laurels.  

Fortunately, this mentally taxing portion of the race ended soon enough. Beginning with mile 11, the course finally began to bring me back toward downtown, back down Gilbert. And this was where the fun began. That which I had struggled uphill earlier in the race now became an accelerator downhill. I was doubly helped in this regard by the fact that the bulk of the race seemed, at this time, to be heading up the hill, so it was lined with both spectators in the middle of the road and racers on the other side of me. Thus I got plenty of support as I raced down Gilbert, resulting in a 4:56 (!) mile 11. It’s an easy part of the race, yes, but a sub-5 mile is a sub-5 mile.

And yet the race was not over. For, I thought, there was no reason 2nd place wouldn’t be able to take just as much advantage of the downhill as I had. In fact, with me in his sights as the race entered its final portion, he might find even more motivation within himself to catch me than I would to remain in 1st. I had been in the front of the race now for 5 miles, but despite that, a terrifying paranoia began to beset me. So many times in my life had greatness been snatched from my grasp. I began to play in my head the nightmarish vision of being passed, or outkicked, and was not helped in this regard by being able to see my competitor’s orange singlet out of the corner of my eye any time I made a turn that allowed me to see him without breaking my stride.

But I did not let these dark prophecies destroy me. Instead, I turned them into the extra motivation I needed. I wanted nothing more, in the last two miles of the race, than to be able to coast to the finish line in victory. But the specter of 2nd place, in both its current bearer and the possibility that he would transfer his identity to me, terrified me into continuing to work hard. I was beginning to grow truly tired by now, but I knew that I couldn’t care. So I let this intoxicating mix of paranoia and victory lust spur me on.

And looking good doing it. 
Just before the completion of mile 12 (5:05), the race performs a bizarre forced turnaround. Last year, when I went through this part of the race, it allowed 3rd place, on whom I had gained almost 40 seconds of ground in a furious kick, to see that I was closing in on him, which, alas, gave him the motivation he needed to keep that from happening. This year, it allowed me to see, again, that my orange-outfitted competitor was close enough that I needed to finish strong. I’m now convinced that this part of the course design is here precisely for this reason.

And so, in the last 1.1 miles of the race,*** I squeezed out every ounce of energy I had left. I was fortunate to know that the finish line of the race was different from last year. Getting lost or something like that was not my concern, not with the lead vehicle, the race spectators, etc. guiding me. But it was important that I knew, for my own mental purposes, that the finish line was not where I remembered it, but slightly further away. I continued to follow the lead vehicle and the race cyclist back toward the heart of downtown, with fewer meters to go with every step, but still without the finish line in sight. Around this time, roughly mile 13 (5:10), I randomly saw Brad King, who was pushing a baby in a stroller. A St.X alum, he cheered me on for my singlet, but was probably weirded out when I responded by pointing at him and saying “Brad King.” I do that kind of thing sometimes. But despite the distraction, I was starting to wonder if I would ever finish.

Approaching the finish. 
Then…there it was. Much further off than I expected, I could see the “Finish Swine,” with that unbroken race tape, waiting for me to be the one to break it. It was so close, yet so far away. The combination of that, and the departure of the lead vehicle from in front of me, as well as the cyclist who had been leading me, from the course, all combined to elicit a “shit” from my parched racing mouth. It was quite true what the cyclist said to me as he left the course: “You’re on your own for the rest.”

With 2nd place not worryingly close to me, with all the finish line’s spectators cheering me and me alone on, I charged toward the finish as hard as I could manage****. Even then, with victory obvious and imminent, I still couldn’t believe what was actually happening. I was still afraid of a last-minute surge from someone else that would take everything away from me just before the end, forcing me to watch as my glory was stolen before my very eyes, as has happened to me so many times before.
But that moment never came. Meters before the finish line, I crossed my arms in an X-formation, honoring my past (and my singlet). And then I crossed the line, broke the tape, and earned victory. With a time of 1:10:39, I was the 2018 Flying Pig Half Marathon champion, the first runner to cross the line for any race that day.

Crossing the finish. 

The post-race press tour begins. 
You might expect the immediate aftermath of such an experience to be something of a blur: Heady with victory, and exhausted from the effort, would the memories really stick? But I can assure you, they did. Just after I crossed the line, I was given my medal and plaque, the victory laurel was placed upon my head, and I was wrapped in one of those weird blanket things. I was then interviewed by WLWT, a local news station, in a surprisingly cogent performance for someone who just won a half-marathon. And fortunately for me, even if I did not remember what happened to me after I finished, it was all captured on the WLWT video of my interview, which you can watch here (also embedded below):

I spent a good 10-15 minutes after finishing in the finish line corral, doing more interviews, taking pictures, and talking with 2nd place. His name is Zack Beavin, and he ran a 2:30 at the Boston Marathon this year, so he was probably not at full strength. I told him as much when I learned that, in addition to thanking him for working with me in the race. I told him I couldn’t have done it without him, and I hold to that; we worked together through mile 6, and then the possibility that he might still beat me made me paranoid enough to finish strong. Thanks, Zack. May we run against each other again someday.

Half-marathon top 5. All results here.

Once I left the finish line corral, I was quickly found by my aunt and uncle, who were there to support my cousin Ben (their son), who was running the marathon, and me. They congratulated me, declined to hug me (because I was so sweaty), and graciously held some of the swag I had won when I decided to try going on a cooldown.

Pictured: spolia opima

Anyway, though…holy crap. I thought I might be able to win today. But I actually did it. No asterisks. No qualifications. And not only did I win. I blew my apparently modest goal of setting a personal record out of the water. Before today, my fastest half-marathon was the 1:12:40 I basically jogged in preparation for the Marine Corps Marathon last fall. So I dropped 2 minutes off my PR. And I dropped almost three minutes off my time on basically the same course as last year. I knew I raced last year not at full strength, but still…3 minutes! Wow. I don’t really have much else to say.***** When I dream about races, they usually end badly, with some last-minute catastrophe keeping me from victory. The aftermath of this race felt, at times, like a dream. But I knew it wasn’t, because in the dreams I never win. Thanks to the Flying Pig for making my reality better than my dreams.

I spent the rest of this day, as you might imagine, sore, tired, bowel-troubled, but completely and utterly satisfied. I’ve been running seriously for more than 10 years now, but I think this is by far one of my greatest running accomplishments yet.******

Winner winner bacon dinner. 
Let’s close with some more time-traveling. Last year, in the log/blog of myFlying Pig performance (5/7/17), I wrote the following:

“But the main takeaway about this race, for me and for everyone who know me (especially those who may compete against me), is that this won't be my last half-marathon. Indeed, it was only my first. And now that I have the experience under my belt, I expect only to get better and better at this race. For I have now proven, to myself and to anyone who may have doubted me, that graduating from college was not the end of my competitive running career.
It was only the beginning.”

2017 Jack was right, in more ways than he could have known. My competitive running career has only just begun. And though I, for once in my life, actually did exactly what I set out to do, let no one think this means I am done. There are other races to run, and to win. Tennyson put it better than I could:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,    
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!******* 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to shine in use.


*The Flying Pig uses for its first three miles the last three miles of the Thanksgiving Day Race, the last race I ran in Cincinnati.
**I drank slightly too much water early on in the race, and I felt ever-so-slightly waterlogged, so I stopped with it early on and never hydrated subsequently. I also had to be careful not to grab Gatorade by mistake, which I did last year and which I think negatively affected me.
***The Flying Pig uses for its last two miles the first two miles of the Thanksgiving Day Race, the last race I ran in Cincinnati.
****My watch says the last portion of the race for me was .31 miles, and that I ran it in 1:32.71. So I ran 13.31 miles in 1:10:40 (according to it), which is 5:19 pace. Man, I need to work on those tangents.
*****Other than this: According to my preliminary research into past Flying Pig Half Marathon results, my performance today ranks 6th all time:
Tommy Kauffmann - 1:08:30 (2017)
Chris Reis - 1:09:09 (2009)
Todd Pthlek - 1:09:22 (2008)
Thomas Lentz - 1:10:02 (2007)
Mike Griewe - 1:10:36 (2007)
Jack Butler - 1:10:39 (2018)

The funny thing is I know three of these people.
******I still have a tendency, a holdover from running in high school and college, to think of my running career in terms of “seasons.” In that sense, the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 “seasons,” and the 2017-2018 “year” overall, have been among my best ever for running:
Fall 2017:
-September: Navy Air Force Half Marathon: 1:12:40, 9th
-October: Marine Corps Marathon: 2:34:29, 15th
-November: Cincinnati Thanksgiving Day Race: 33:07, 4th

Spring 2018:
-April: Cherry Blossom 10-miler: 53:15, 46th
-May: Flying Pig Half Marathon: 1:10:39, 1st
Not bad!
*******Unless I’m just totally hallucinating, I think I quoted this part of the poem from memory to one of the news crews that interviewed me at the finish line.

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