WARNING: We're about to get personal. If that bothers you, stop reading now.
March Madness Half Marathon. March 20th, 2016. This is probably my favorite local race. It's super close to home. It's a pretty cheap entry. And it's a hell of a course. Every year I cross the finish line so beat up I swear I'll never race this one again. But I can't stop coming back for more. And for years I've wanted to hold a PR on this course. This year, I started my favorite race with some mixed emotions.
I'm sure it's no secret to anyone that I do a lot of thinking on the run. I think most people do. It's easy for me to dial into a steady pace and let my legs lead the way while my mind goes a mile a minute. Lately, I find my thoughts shifting to the same place.
Mike Powers. He befriended my father during their college years. They became fraternity brothers shortly thereafter and created a lifelong bond that poured into both of our families' hearts and homes. Mike and his wife Joanell Powers have watched me grow up over the years. As kids, they were always apart of family summer vacations. I can't remember a Christmas Day celebration without them. Some of my biggest cheerleaders over the years have been the Powers couple. Joanell has toed the line at many triathlons herself. Mike, always her spectator. His cigar ready for the finish line. Pizza ready to be put in the oven once the day was over. To me? The water boy. Since they live on Crystal Lake, I use their house as a water stop on my long runs. They leave the refrigerator in the garage full of water, and at times I find a note from Mike written on my water bottles. Before a big race, Mike has been known to send me a photo of himself with his "Team Megan" hat with a text attached to it, "I scheduled your psych evaluation for 4pm today. You'll need it after today's race! Good luck!"
Unfortunately, Mike wasn't able to send me such a message for March Madness this year. He passed away On March 9th, 2016.
The last 7 years of his life, he was no stranger to chemo, radiation, and all that follows. Sometimes, I even forgot he was sick. The man who once walked around with a sweat rag on his shoulder while he cooked the Christmas ham could now be seen wearing oven mitts during summer cookouts to keep his hands warm, side effects of the medication. Other than the major temperature swing, you could never really tell Mike wasn't well.
In the days leading up to the race, I felt Mike a lot. I saw him as I passed a car with a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville license plate cover. I could sense him next to me while I purchased the newest Yankee Candle car freshener scents, Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville themed. The man was one of the biggest parrot heads I know. And he rolled with some of the biggest parrot heads, my uncle being one of them. Mike was anything but absent in the final days before the race.
I had a laundry list of reasons to do well on race day. I had been training my butt off all winter and was beyond prepared this year. I was running with one of my longtime running buddies and great friend, Todd, who was bound to give me a run for my money. I had a huge support system of family and friends on the course this year. I even had a chance to visit the famous Dave Davis for one of his phenomenal sports massages the week of the race. Just what my muscles ordered. Above all these, I had a parrot head to impress.
To say I wasn't nervous at the starting line would be a lie. Sure, I knew these roads. I could tell you exactly what mile every hill started and ended. I could definitely tell you that my emotions were high. But I also had a certain level of confidence that I've never had before any race, let alone this race. Something in my gut told me this race was going to go well. And THAT made me nervous. But I had to be careful and not let my mind and emotions get the best of me.
The gun went off and I immediately eased into the exact pace I was striving for. I took the beginning miles conservatively, but a little aggressive at the same time. I used the downhills to my advantage. I steadied myself on the uphills. The back half of this course can completely ruin any confidence you might have gained on the first half. I told myself to bank as much extra time as I could for as long as possible in case I fell apart in the last 3 miles. My goal: bank time until mile 6.
It might have only been 32 degrees at the starting line, but it felt warmer. And by mile 3 I was ready to peal a layer. At mile 4, Todd and I unexpectedly saw friends Lindsey and Brittany on the sidelines cheering so we ripped off our gloves and tossed them. I was getting comfortable with my pace, but fearful that my legs wouldn't allow me to conquer the hills like I wanted. Right around mile 6.5-7 we saw Jacqui, Lauren, and Jess screaming at the top of their lungs. I had just made it up "Sneaky Hill" without any issues and felt better than expected. Seeing them gave me a rush. I was feeling good and wanted to GO. But I knew better.
Thanks to Jacqui for these great pictures :)
Todd sipping on his bottle at Mile 6.5
Just before mile 8 there is an aide station. Todd told me he needed to take this aid station slower to bring his heart rate down and that he would catch up. Todd is famous for leaving me in the dust right around this point of most half marathons. For sure this "slow down" was a way for him to gear up and blow me out of the water. Except.. I never saw him again until the finish line.
Just past the 10 mile mark the course turns into a residential neighborhood. What is standing in front of me? The 10 Mile Bar. A group of enthusiastic big kid adults sipping their adult beverages with a makeshift tiki bar sitting in the middle of the road holding a slew of alcohol. I cracked a smile and thought "This is where Mike belongs."
As I passed the 10 Mile Bar I realized that I was STILL banking time. It was at the same time I also noticed that all of my miles had been sub 8 at this point. New goal: keep all miles under 8 minutes. Mile 11: 7:50. I'll take it. Mile 12: Legs feel like lead. Pace definitely slowing according to my watch. A couple of solid efforts brought the pace up a bit. 8:01. D@%N it! Seriously, 2 seconds off of sub 8!? I was pissed. Shortly after my watched beeped, it happened. I weaved my way around the neighborhood and heard an older man standing in his driveway yelling obscenities to all the runners that passed by him. Things like "Oh come on my grandma runs faster than you!" Just what I need, someone to tell me how much I suck, right before the finish line. I was 2 driveways away when he saw me. I could tell he was thinking about what to say. Do not punch this man in the face. Do not punch this man in the face. And then I heard it.
"LET'S GO PINKY! IT'S TIME TO KICK IT UP NOTCH!"
This man chose to lift me up. This man decided I needed a boost. Between the tiki bar and this guy, I couldn't keep it together. Mike was still very much near me. He found a way to make sure I didn't fall apart at the end. He knew I needed this man. I choked back a few tears and my legs gave me one final push.
I finished that last mile with a smile on my face from ear to ear. I crossed the finish line with an official time of 1:41:04 - over a 2 minute PR. After the race I was greeted by my father and friends. I didn't have long to celebrate before it was time to cheer on Todd, my brother, and first time half marathon friend Ian across the finish line. Everyone had an amazing day. Whether you believe it or not, I know for a fact we had a little bit of help from up above during that race.
Todd finishing strong!
BFG brother's strong finish!
Let the 2016 season begin!
Lauren said it best - Runners are really great people
Congrats to IAN on his first half marathon!
Once I snagged my phone post-race, I had plenty of messages from my mom, Rob, coach Speedy G, and friends out on the course "I'm never giving your gloves back!" (Brittany's great, lemme tell ya.) But one thing I didn't have was a message from my water boy. It's OK though, I know I did him proud.