It was my first incomplete. The Capital City Half Marathon in Columbus, Ohio would be my 11th half, my second this year. But the clock stopped at 12.6 miles and would not resume. Biggest shocker? This was also one of my best races.
Hello Again, Columbus
Columbus is a city I know and love. I’ve probably visited more times than any place I don’t have family — largely on the strength of a friendship I’ve had for nearly a quarter century. But Columbus has more than the spirit sherpa, hospitality guru and bullshit detector that are embodied in my friend Mike. It has arts, nature and multiculturalism fitting for a major city along with the affordability and friendliness that make my native Midwest a draw even though I haven’t lived there in 17 years.
So I decided that I’d run three of my five half-marathons this year in the Midwest, and that Columbus would be the first of the destination races. April is a temperate time in Ohio. My own driveway has a steeper incline than most of that city does. Good recipe for a record time, I thought.
I arrived in town just ahead of a nasty blob of thunderstorms that covered about half the country. In Columbus, these became drenching, house-shaking thunderstorms that woke me up at about 1 a.m. The forecast for the next day, race day, was questionable at best.
Waking up early, I went about my race day prep the same way I always do. Gear set out the night before. Bib pre-pinned. Body Glide. Black cherry Shot Bloks. Phone, armband and headphones. Coffee, water, fruit, and most importantly, an empty stomach before leaving the house.
We drove as a trio to within a few blocks of the start. Big race. The championship for USA Track & Field. Big dark clouds, too. I had slightly lowballed my estimated finish time as always (1:50), and was assigned to Corral C. The drizzle gave way to a dry slot. About 12 minutes after the elites started running, my fellow Cs and I made our way to the start. Countdown, air horn, the blast of energy that keeps me hooked on running races, and we were off!
After “Alejandro,” “Route 66” and a few more paces, I learned from my app that I’d blasted through a 7:45 mile without thinking about it. I was feeling good but knew I’d need to save some energy.
The rain held off in earnest for most of the race. The temperature was just below 60, or just about perfect. I ran through neighborhoods I knew and some I didn’t. The various sensations that came up from time to time — thirst, the need to pee — came up but then passed. No sweating, no chafing, no pain, no fatigue even. I was flying. The music was carrying my legs again.
Mile 6 was a wet one. I powered through, trying to outrun the drops despite them falling into my eyes. The skies returned to a light drizzle. I felt really, really prepared for the distance. We crossed courses with the quarter-marathon and 5K runners a couple of times. Then, in mile 12, things got unusual.
I remember charging up a slight hill, as a friend of Mike’s had warned me I would face near the end of the course. The rain picked up — not light, but not yet pouring, either. The sky began to darken. “Nomthandazo” started playing. I picked up my pace to get to the finish, and I passed the 1:55 pace group before realizing they had started in Corral B, a full 5 minutes before I did!
With the rain continuing to get heavier, I could see a crowd amassed up ahead near the finish line as I crossed the 12-mile marker. Too close, I thought. I hadn’t memorized the course, but many races employ a sort of dog-leg at the end to add an extra half-mile or mile of distance. No worries. I was feeling good and on track to hit my elusive 1:45 time at the finish.
And then it happened.
No, I didn’t have one of these. I couldn’t hear anything because of my music. But I saw the number of runners turning left toward the dog leg slow to a trickle and then stop. Volunteers barricaded the turnoff and directed the rest of us straight to the finish. I looked around and saw that I was among runners from all three races again — the half, the quarter and the 5K. I crossed the finish line just after 1:40, which became my official recorded time. But I’d only run 12.6 miles.
It was also pouring at that point. I grabbed the usual post-race fumble of medal, water, banana, granola bars and hustled to the VIP tent to meet Mike and his partner. Suddenly, I was wet, shivering, surrounded by gourmet food and sipping a post-race margarita for the first time in my life, at 10:30 in the morning. (For some reason, I always find the notion of drinking anything after a race other than water or Cherry Frost Gatorade revolting — particularly beer.) I overheard a number of others talking about where they were intercepted along the course and told to stop. I had come the closest, and realized I would have finished if I’d started in Corral B like the others I’d ultimately passed.
Apres Ça, La Deluge
The rain was unrelenting. Soon, the thunder and lightning that had forced the early closure made themselves known. It was biblical out there. The organizers took to the PA system to tell us the event was canceled and that we should seek shelter. The grass under our little vinyl tent was getting soggy and the walkway outside it was a river. I could stand without a jacket, feet slowly getting soaked from the soles up, waiting the minutes or hours it would take for the storm to pass. Or we could make a break for it.
We chose the latter.
While I didn’t restart my tracking app, I’m pretty sure I ran at least a half-mile to that parking lot. Total distance = at least 13.1 miles. I was wetter than I’d ever been in my clothes and outside a body of water or swimming pool. I was wearing one of the heaviest race medals I’d ever encountered, one I hadn’t technically earned. I’d left energy on the field again. And yet I was oddly, serenely okay with everything that had happened.
I was glad the elites, the track and field stars and most of the runners from the shorter two races got through. I’d taken the time to train, paid the entrance fee and even bought a plane ticket for this one, but I fell short of the goal. I wouldn’t be able to say I completed five half-marathons this year after all, and it was only race #2.
Why Was This Okay?
It might have been the urgency of the soaking wet and shivering cold, or solving the problem of how and when to get back to the car. But I didn’t for a minute think to get upset about the outcome on that wet Saturday. My immediate reaction was the reaction I still have a day and a half later: I didn’t care. I trained, I showed up and I ran a really good race. Possibly my best ever. I felt more prepared than I’d ever been to cover the distance, and I covered almost the whole thing. Absent some sort of freak injury, I would have run a 1:45 half for the first time in my life. I now know that I’m capable of doing so, even if I didn’t actually quite get there.
I also thought about the organizers, their careful preparation and the painful decision to call the thing off despite all the time and money that everyone had invested. All you need is one runner to be struck by lightning, and that’s the end of your race’s history. I later found out that this is the first time in 14 years that the race went to black.
We need goals in life. I won’t get out of the chair and go running without a race to train for. I’m a former journalist who still lives by deadlines when he’s trying to write something. But I also think we need a human-sized flexibility to recognize that we’re not always going to meet our goals, and sometimes that’s neither our fault nor the result of anything we can control. Sometimes, getting bent out of shape doesn’t seem worth the energy.
It didn’t rain all day Saturday in Columbus.
The sun came out to reveal a lovely spring afternoon and evening. I got a good nap, a great night’s sleep and some even better quality time with old friends. I had amazing vegan food for dinner two nights in a row at restaurants that were entirely new to me. I finished reading a book and got in some quality Netflix binge-watching. Now I’m home with my family again and tired, but very relaxed.
It was a great journey, even one with a slightly different destination. Next up: Chicago in July.
Also published on Medium.