When you accomplish something you never dreamed of, it makes you question whether your other goals are high enough. So it was with the Dismal Swamp Stomp.
April 19 was the Saturday after the Jacksonville Trails and Greenways 10K. I had just completed my fastest 10K ever. I attribute my good fortune to my good luck friends, S- and D-. They always seem to be around when I do my best in some way or another.
Even though I was quite happy with my time in Jacksonville, I had a general lack of energy way too early in the race. I usually fuel up before a race with a Snickers and a Red Bull. I felt like I had fueled up too early that day. I had to wonder, “What could I do if everything just came together perfectly?”
I never really had a goal for a race. I only wanted to do the best I could and finish at least somewhere in the middle of the pack. I didn’t even hope to finish near the front. I just didn’t want to be the anchor man. I’ve always used the same strategy. I go out as fast as I can at first for as long as I can, hoping to be dragging across the finish line, fully depleted. My mentor, G- always advised me to hold back a little at first. He warned against a miserable time at the end of a race while trying to finish with your reserves depleted. I’ve just never seemed to listen to that advice. My excitement seems to build toward the end of a race and though my speed slows, that excitement seems to get me there.
The Dismal Swamp Stomp has all the ingredients for success. It is the flattest half marathon course I have ever seen. Tall trees line most of the course so there is little wind. They offer prize money which attracts fast runners. The fast runners always inspire me. This particular day the weather was perfect. The breeze was light and the temperature was cool. I had carb’ed up nicely at Olive Garden the night before. And I did something I rarely ever do. I went to bed early the night before. So that morning, as my teammate was getting me situated on my handbike, I said, “There is no reason that today can’t be the day for a new PR. Everything I need is just right!”
As I took a warm-up ride through a nearby subdivision, the pre-race excitement started to build. Indeed, everything felt just right today. The bike seemed to be working just right. And most importantly, I had plenty of energy. So I decided to heed the advice of G-, for now, and throttle back during my warm-up and save a little energy for latter. I noticed the parking areas filling up so I decide I should make my way to the starting area. I stopped by the van and took on my pre-race carbs.
At the starting area, I started seeing folks that were familiar to me. I got to meet my fellow blogger, Charlie. It was the first time we actually got to meet face to face and chat. It was good to see him and exchange some mutual wishes for good luck. J-, another fast runner whom I had met at the Norfolk Half Marathon, greeted me also.
I met the folks from Kale Running who were timing the race. They filled me in on details of the race start. It was good to know they were running the event. I had taken part in another race they hosted in Norfolk in February and had set my previous half marathon PR. Call me superstitious, but all the coincidences were falling in place for some good luck that day.
I knew my good luck was in the bag when I saw S- and D-. I had been with them the previous weekend when I had done my PR for a 10K. They had also been at previous races when I had PR’ed. I was looking forward to the race. I felt good.
The course was a straight and flat out-and-back. The only concern I had was the turn around. A handbike takes a LOT of room to turn around, more than the width of the road. From previously recon’ing the course I knew that the shoulders of the road didn’t allow me enough room to make a turn around at the designated turn-around point. But I had seen a large gravel parking area on the shoulder about a hundred yards past the turn-around. My plan was to extend past the turn-around point and sacrifice the time to travel the extra distance for a safer and speedier turn. It seemed like a good plan except that I had never practiced it.
We queued up for the start. The starter was going to give me a two minute head start. I figured that would give me about a mile before the fast runners caught me. That would be plenty of time for the crowd to stretch out. That should make a comfortable ride without the worry of “contact” with other runners. She let the others in the front know that the first start was for the chair only. She practically whispered the “ready, set, go.” I guess a false start is BIG deal with a crowd this big.
Anyway, I was off. The bike felt good and I did, too. I wanted to get past the congestion of the start as quickly as I could so I cranked as hard as I could. I thought about my mentor’s advice about saving energy for later. “Naah! Not right now, anyway.” This felt too good and I wanted to enjoy it.
After about a mile, I started checking my mirror. The Kenyans at the front looked pretty fast. I expected to see them closing any second. So far there was no one in sight. My energy level was great and I didn’t feel like I was going to fade any time soon. I thought about G-‘s advice again and again decided I’d wait until later to conserve.
About mile three the Kenyans passed me. I got a little inspiration from that—both from seeing those men run so fast and from the thought that I had gone so far before they caught me with only a two minute lead. “Wow,” I thought, “this is going great.” I kept cranking and kept feeling good. It was nice to have no wind and a nice cool temperature.
I kept watching my mirror for Charlie and J-. No sign of them yet. They are pretty fast runners. I was beginning to wonder if the start had been delayed but I kept telling myself I was having a really good day just to keep myself motivated. I tried to sneak a peek at my GPS but my head was moving so much that my bifocals just didn’t focus on the screen.
About mile five, Charlie passed me and gave a big yell and wave. I shouted back. He seemed to be having a good day too. J- passed me in a small group that seemed to be drafting each other. We too shouted at each other. I must have been losing my concentration and slacking off. I felt like I could go faster so I picked up my tempo to catch J- and his group. What the heck, I might as well catch that draft, too. I think they must have thought they were in my way because when I caught them, they all scattered. Oh well, I hope I didn’t break up their rhythm. I went on past them and they passed me again a few minutes later.
My teammate had gone ahead down Highway 17 on her bicycle to meet me at the Glencoe plantation. As I passed that spot she was nowhere to be seen. I told a spectator to watch for her and tell her that I had already passed.
About a half mile ahead the turn around drew near. The Kenyans had passed on their way back. I met Charlie and J- and gave them a big yell. I got to the halfway point feeling great. I extended down to the gravel parking area to make my turn. And there I experienced my biggest disappointment of the day.
I rolled off the edge of the pavement into the gravel surprised to find about a four-inch drop. I knew I had to go fast enough not to bog down in the gravel but slow enough to be able to make a sharp turn. I didn’t count on there being a drop off at the edge of the pavement. As I started my turn, I got the front wheel up on the road but bogged down just as the rear wheels came to the edge of the pavement. There I stopped. I was stuck.
There I sat. About a hundred yards past the turnaround. I remember thinking that things had gone so well. “What a disappointment this is going to be, to lose all those gains stuck here, just far enough past the course that no one notice me,” I thought. My teammate and I had talked about her meeting me at this point. For the life of me I can’t remember why I decided that would be unnecessary.
In my mind, I was rapidly depleting my lexicon of expletives. Frustration was overwhelming me. I needed to do something. I shifted down to my lowest gear and tried to rock back and forth. I just as well had been mired in a tar pit. I wasn’t budging. I was out of tricks. I was not going to get out of this without help.
There was a couple of City of Chesapeake workers parked in a pickup truck about thirty yards toward the race. I called out, “I could use some help over here!” Fortunately they heard me and one walked over. With a little shove, I was back on the road. Three minutes had been wasted.
On the Road Again
By the time I had gotten back into the race, the nature of the race had changed. All the elite runners were gone. The runners were more crowded. But the race was not the only thing changed. So was my attitude. I was mad. There is probably no better way to vent anger than a half marathon. I took my anger out on the cranks. I got a good boost from my little ordeal at the turnaround.
I stole a peek at my GPS and found that I seemed to be making up some of my lost time. I saw S- and D- still heading out. My teammate was waiting for me at mile 8. It was good to see familiar faces and that picked me up a bit.
It felt like I had a tailwind heading out. Now it felt like a tailwind again heading back. This course was just right. I slowly passed some of the folks that had passed me at the turn around. By the time I got to mile 10, I knew I was doing pretty well. Again I remembered GM‘s advice to save some energy for the end. Sorry, GM. Not now.
Pretty soon I was moving along pretty well. The runners were spaced just right. I would set my sights on someone in the distance and focus on catching them. I kept leap-frogging along the course on the way back. The thought of the time I had lost was still “inspiring” me.
At about mile 12.5 I thought I could see the “Bear” off in the distance. The Bear is a wood carving of a bear that stands erect about 15 feet high at the entrance to the park. Again I felt a boost and began to pick up my cadence. I looked at my GPS. I had forgotten to start my GPS until about a minute and a half after the start. I had tried to calculate an “offset” to add to the time on my GPS based on the clocks on the course. I was a little too preoccupied. My time was good, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.
I normally have a hard time getting my heart rate up. I can go faster when I do, but I think I’m just not using enough muscle mass to stimulate my heart. About mile 13, however, I thought my heart would leap out of my chest. There, about 15 feet back in the swamp was a black bear! Not a big bear, but about a two foot tall bear. If I hadn’t seen this same fellow the day before, I would have been scared out of my mind. This was a stuffed bear that was on display at the expo the day before. It sure got me going, nevertheless.
The finish was a very fast sprint. I guess GM had prevailed after all. I had taken an unplanned rest smack in the middle of the race. Just enough (with the help of the heart rate boost from the bear) to give me plenty of energy at the end. Funny how that works.
Goals Too Low
Charlie was waiting for me at the finish. He was still a bit winded from his final kick. I couldn’t believe my time. 1:32! I had hoped for, maybe, 1:45; on a good day. It took me quite a while to believe my 1:32. Charlie had a PR for his run, too.
I had never dreamed of such a time. All I wanted to do was to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack and have fun. So maybe it’s time to reconsider those goals. Maybe I should challenge myself to finish up front with the Kenyans…
A year ago I challenged myself to handbike 2008 miles to raise money for and awareness of the needs of wounded warriors. I picked that number because it seemed to be a good stretch goal to prepare for the Marine Corps Marathon in 2008. By keeping a daily log of my training, I have been amazed at how quickly the miles have accumulated. As my workouts have increased in length, my goal of 2008 miles drew near quickly. Like the DSS, I surprised myself again.
So it was, that on the same week of the thirtieth anniversary of my disability...one night I was out for a training ride…I rolled past the 2008 mile point. I passed this goal far earlier than I expected. Another goal too low? Maybe. I think the journey has been far more motivating than I expected. I have been inspired by hundreds of people along the way. We have marked the spot on the street in my neighborhood to continue to inspire me every time I pass.
So what’s next? The Dam2Dam 100 miler? The Sadler Alaska Challenge? Maybe a ride across the US? We’ll see. Right now I still have two more goals to fulfill. I’m still preparing for the Marine Corps Marathon and its steep hills. And I’m still one-third of the way to my fundraising goal of $26,200 for Wounded Warriors.
My participation in events such as this are dedicated to the honor and memory of service men and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. I raise money with my campaign, 2008 Miles of Hope, through donations to Hope For The Warriors. I’m not a wounded warrior, I’m a grateful beneficiary of their sacrifices. Learn more about Hope For The Warriors.
So please, if you follow this blog make a donation to my fundraising campaign to support wounded warriors, 2008 Miles of Hope. And ask your friends to do so, too. All the money I raise goes to Hope For The Warriors. This phenomenal organization provides Warrior Wishes, Direct Needs Grants, and Spouses’ Scholarships. Now they have embarked on the creation of the Warrior Hope and Care Center, a rehabilitation and wellness facility for wounded warriors.
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