Saturday August 26th, 2017, was one of the best days of my life, no exaggeration.
Three days earlier I had decided to jump in the Patrick Henry Half Marathon. The race is held in Ashland, VA on the campus of Randolph-Macon College, which is about 90 miles south of Northern Virginia (where I live). It’s a great college town and also happens to be a place where I spent most of my formative teenage years (I lived in the rural part of the county and went to school and worked at various fast food places in Ashland). It’s also close to the Up and Coming™ city of Richmond, VA where ALL of my immediate family lives. All this to say that this late game registration wasn’t my worst ever decision. Sure, it was an out of town race but in a familiar location near family and friends.
However! On Thursday I did a progression run at a pretty hard pace and afterwards pissed blood. Things were looking up! I had a half marathon in less than 48 hours and I was literally pissing blood. I wasn’t really in pain though so I just chalked it up to extreme dehydration or bladder cancer (woohoo Internet research!) As the afternoon changed to evening (earmuffs here) my pee changed to brown to orange to dark yellow and I knew that I had cheated death once again (earmuffs off).
The half marathon was a go!
On Friday I drove down to stay with my brother and sister-in-law at their place in downtown Richmond. I was a good boy and didn’t drink alcohol and tried to eat sensibly. TRIED. Oh I tried so extremely hard. In fact, I only allowed myself an ENTIRE pizza which was smartly cut into four slices, making it less pizza than if there were eight slices. Instead of a huge dessert I opted for the creme brûlée which is something a fancy French Prince would eat after a long day of crushing the underclass. I knew I needed a decent night’s sleep, so I forewent my normal Friday routine of scoring ecstasy and hitting the clubs until dawn, instead renting a movie and getting in bed before 11pm. All I do is make good decisions!
Up and out at 5am the next morning, I spent too much time trying to find some place to get coffee, failed, and rolled up to Randolph-Macon with about an hour to go before the 7am gun. It was still dark and I sat in the car, trying to compose myself. The butterflies, which had started the night before, were ridiculous. I hate the feeling. I love the feeling. It’s a speedball of dread and excitement, shot deep into my veins. Or maybe I was having caffeine withdrawals, so I sucked down a caffeinated gel to rule that out. Worst breakfast ever. The butterflies became hummingbirds.
I walked over to the race area which was pretty cool because the start line was right next to the train tracks, which run through the college and the middle of town. However, my legs felt heavy and my digestive system did not feel free and easy. In fact, I felt like a dude who had eaten an ENTIRE FUCKING pizza and a super rich dairy- and sugar-based dessert less than 12 hours prior. So many good decisions.
I made my way near the front. It was just me, my shoes and socks and shorts and shirt and hat and watch. No heart rate strap. No water bottle. No emergency money or road ID. Me, stripped down, as lean as possible. Ready to race. At 6:58, the Grateful Dead played the National Anthem from the loudspeakers. An Amtrak train pulled up beside us on the tracks, blowing its whistle as the engineer stuck his head out of the window and wished the 858 of us luck.
And we were off.
Suddenly I was breathing really hard, dodging bodies, trying to get out of the wash. It occurred to me that I hadn’t really warmed up and I could feel my heart punching my rib cage in annoyance. I had no idea how fast I was going or what my plan was (shocking!) but I decided I wanted to keep the runners at the front in my sights and pass as many folks as possible without being passed. The adrenaline surges that I felt as I ran by cheering throngs through the middle of town punctuated a unique combination of terrifying and thrilling. I also felt like I was running for office because all I did the first two miles was smile and wave and say “thank you!”
Then my watch beeped, signaling my first mile split. BEEP.
6:24 PER MILE PACE. OMG THAT IS WAY TOO FAST YOU WILL NOT SURVIVE.
I knew this because when I ran a marathon last year my average split was 7:15 and I couldn’t walk for a week after that. I needed to calm down and control my breathing and not become obsessed with my sp…BEEP.
6:18. OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SLOWWWWW DOWN.
This was not sustainable. Meanwhile I had passed about 50 other runners and had about 10-15 runners ahead of me, including the three leaders that were running together and already putting a gap on the rest of the field. BEEP.
6:34. OK I GUESS MAYBE BUT AM I GOING TOO SLOW? WAVE AT THE BABY!
The first 5k was over in the blink of an eye and I had a decent gap on whomever was behind me. I think the worst feeling in the world is to have folks running right behind you, so I resolved to hold the gap while trying to slowly reel in as many runners as I could. I did the mental math and assessed my current breathing and decided that 6:40 minutes per mile was my goal overall pace. I was going to blow up at some point. Guaranteed. I knew it, you know it. All I needed to do was to put as many sub 6:40s in the bank as I could so that when I inevitably exploded I would have a little bit of cushion. BEEEEP.
As we headed out of town we were treated to quiet roads and fields and lots of trees. Not many people. One dude in front of me seemed to slow a little but he still kept a gap on me. Then I saw three guys actually running toward me and I thought it was weird they were out here for a morning run, running so fast and wait…why are they wearing numbers? Oh right, I remembered, there was a hairpin turnaround up ahead. They were the leaders. As all the lead runners passed me going the other way I counted 9 plus the one guy 25 feet ahead of me. Knowing that I was in 11th place energized me and as soon as we hit the hairpin I surged and passed the guy in front of me. I kept up the pace a little to see if he would stay with me, but he didn’t. I was in 10th place! BEEEEP!
Now I was in a rhythm. We had a long straightaway and I could see the three leaders off in the distance, with another group of three behind them and three more in front of me. I felt pretty good but I was terrified I was going to get caught from behind and kept looking over my shoulder. With the halfway point coming up, I focused on trying to maintain my form and catch the dude ahead of me. BEEP.
6:22. NOTHING MATTERS ANYMORE DO NOT SLOW DOWN.
I hit the halfway point and caught the guy in front of me. He was super nice and said he was going to tuck behind me for a while. All I could think of was, look, I am running way faster than I have any business running and this is not going to last and when I throw up please get out of the way thanks. At the same time, I like when people say nice things and it was fun pretending we were racing. Then I realized shit, son. YOU ARE RACING. BEEEEP!
6:16. OK THIS IS GETTING RI-GODDAMN-DICULOUS. THIS IS NOT SUSTAINABLE. LET THIS DUDE PASS YOU.
We eventually passed the guy in 8th place and tucked in behind the guy in 7th. He was extremely fast and fluid. He looked like he was barely trying. I, on the other hand, was the portrait of trying. I was over-trying, flailing all over the place, doing what I could to maintain this pace. I know I hate when people are up my ass in a race, and I felt bad being behind this guy, so god help me, I surged. I don’t know why other than my personality disorder that doesn’t allow me to ride in bike pelotons or run in packs. I didn’t want to drop anyone, I desperately wanted to either take the lead or get away from other runners because I have NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. BEEP.
6:16. BACK TO BACK 6:16s WHAT THE FUCK THIS IS TOO FAST. WE ARE AN UNSTOPPABLE FREIGHT TRAIN. CHOO CHOOOOO!
8th and 9th place were not impressed with my surge. They stayed right with me as I turned to say that I was running way too fast. I know that I am exhausted when I start talking like an 80 year-old man who does not give a fuck. I will say anything, ranging from “I just shit my britches!” to “those running shorts make you look like a male prostitute.” Now granted, I did not say either of these things to my two running companions, but that’s 100% where I was. BEEEP!
At this point it’s pretty obvious that the three of us are racing for 7-8-9th place. There is no one near us. The 10th place guy we passed is a good 30 seconds back. The pack of three that are ahead of us, while in view, are probably a good 30 seconds ahead. Four miles to go. What’s left is shorter than any training run. I try to visualize being on one of my relaxing happy training runs. I almost trip and fall. Visualizing is overrated. BEEP.
6:33. OH MY GOD IT IS ALL OVER I KNEW IT WOULD NOT LAST. THIS IS THE END.
Breathing was fine but the legs, the goddamn legs, betray me every time. They start to feel weak and heavy and they don’t turn over with the same snap. Heart rate? Good. Legs? Fucking traitors.
With two miles to go and a big climb staring at us, I let my two running companions take a bit of a lead. Like I had any choice. This thing was almost over and so was I. My divine spark was slowly oozing from my body. I took a brief second to appreciate how perfect the conditions were – both weather (cool and dry) and course (flat to this point). I tried to keep exhaustion at bay, and kept reminding myself to focus on my form. Focus on my breathing. Anything to make the time go by. I tried doing some fun simple addition. That did not work. BEEP.
6:18. CALM DOWN BUDDY AND STOP CRYING.
Oh hi legs! It’s me. I guess I might have overreacted back there. Thanks for sticking by me! We only have two more miles to go. There is a huge hill up there. The only hill. A 100 foot climb. Get it together. BEEEP.
The hill was legit, but Antoine, (one of the two guys I was running with, the other was named Tommy), took off. Effortlessly. He was gone. I knew that I wasn’t going to catch him and when Tommy turned to me to admit that the last mile had been particularly hard, I took off. He was a strong runner and this was my last chance if I wanted any chance of finishing ahead of him.
I started sprinting, or doing whatever it is that a middle-aged body does after running 12 miles. I knew that I did not look good and I was in a massive oxygen debt. I could barely even smile at people who were cheering for me as I passed.
6:08! OMGWTFBBQ! HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?
I hit the home stretch and Tommy was probably 15 seconds behind me. I knew I had it. People were lined up along the finishing stretch, cheering me on. I was waving and grinning like an idiot.
Then out of the blue I hear “CHRIS SHUE!” I look over and see MY WIFE. HOLY. SHIT. And 20 feet further…I see MY KIDS! Not only am I about to have my best ever race finish, my family drives down from McLean to SURPRISE ME AND SEE ME RUN. I sped up and sprinted to the finish line because I was so excited to see them. The last 10th of a mile was a sub six minute pace, somehow.
It was an incredible feeling. I got my medal, bro-hugged Antoine (7th) and Tommy (9th) and ran over to see my family. It was everything I could do to not sob like a baby when I hugged each and every one of them. Of course, I was soaking wet from sweat and my nipples were bleeding (standard!) so they had zero interest in hugging me. I DID NOT CARE. HUGS WERE GIVEN.
When it was all said and done, I had finished 8th overall and 2nd in the Masters division (40+). My time (1:23:58) and pace (6:25) was so beyond anything I ever expected – I’m not even sure what happened. I came in with no plan, hoping to run a 1:30, at best. Maybe going out and trying to hold on until you puke or pass out *is* the best way to go!
Afterwards I had breakfast with my mom and brother and two of my kids (the rest of the gang were off to IKEA to get stuff for my oldest’s college dorm room). I was on Cloud 9 (the metaphorical happy place, not the potent illegal drug). It was a beautiful day. Eggs, bacon, blueberry pancakes, coffee. I simply tried to process everything that had happened. I couldn’t. Instead I lived squarely in the moment and absorbed all of the goodness and love that swirled around me.
The best feeling. The best day.