Winning was not on the menu. Sandbagging, well that's another thing. But believe me when I say that even within the fine art of my sandbagging, I never entertained winning for one second in Portland. Not even deep down, as a secret. I didn't think I could finish without walking, much less win.
I'm not going to dive into all the various reasons I have doubted myself as a runner over the years that led to my sandbagging habit. Those old doubts aren't that interesting to me right now, and most of them no longer apply. At the Shamrock Run Half Marathon, I really only had one doubt, and it wasn't that deep. In my scant training, I hadn't been able to run more than 8 miles or so without my arch cramping and needing to take walk breaks, and so I fully expected the same result in this half marathon I hadn't trained for. I'm not injured, I just need to gradually increase volume in a way that lets my muscles and tendons adapt. Which I haven't done. Even though I am a coach, and I know this is stupid, I've been binge and purge running based on snowy weather and availability of run buddies. And thus, I have a weak arch that gets mad when I run farther than I have prepared it for. This arch and surrounding story was the focus on my sandbagging.
If you're not familiar with my favorite athletic past time, sandbagging is a technique of downplaying your strengths and bringing attention to a few reasons you may not be successful. This is a way of diffusing pressure. It's a way of feeling in control when you feel like others' expectations (or your own) may not match your reality. It's a behavior that is useful when you are scared of letting people down, or letting yourself down. It's a bit immature, but at the same time, people do all kinds of weird stuff to get themselves ready to do hard things, and I find sandbagging to be pretty harmless (and effective). It's basically the athletic version of a well-worn business term, "underpromise, over-deliver." Whatever gets you to the line feeling relaxed, I say.
My sandbagging sounded like this as I spoke to people at the Picky Bars booth at the expo the day before the races:
"Oh yeah I'm doing the half, but I haven't trained, and I'll probably have to walk because of this arch thing I have going on, but we were going to be here for the expo anyway and Jesse decided he wanted to really race it so I was like 'why the hell not?'"
I told this to people at the booth who came by to say "hi", people worried about their own races coming up the next day from 8k to half marathon, people who have followed my career over the years and people who haven't. I told them this because they asked about my race, and I was afraid of their expectations, and I was afraid of my own. I don't know how to be a recreational athlete in these environments. I don't know how to stand in front of people without feeling the urge to apologize somehow for changing. And at the same time I know logically that this is silly, and when I put my hand on my heart I am happy with my life choices. I guess what I'm really trying to say is that racing as a retired professional runner is new, and sandbagging is a way of protecting myself, just like it always has been. In a way it's kind of nice to see that some things never change.
What I didn't say to those people was "Yeah, I haven't trained for this race at all, and my arch is blahbitty blah blah, but I am exceptionally gifted at running and have a long history with it so I will be able to race a pace I haven't trained for. That could put me near the front on a good day."
Why wouldn't I say that? Well it would be socially awkward as hell, to start. But there's more going on there. Why is it easier to talk about why we won't be successful, and harder to talk about why we could be? What if we felt comfortable just saying what feels true? Maybe this is a me problem and I should stop saying we, but I suspect I'm not alone here.
I'll tell you something true. When I got out there I planned to run 7:00 miles or so, a pace faster than my training runs (when I do them), and figured the distance would be the challenge. I figured I would need to walk at some point after mile 9 or 10 for a bit, and then I would run and walk as tolerated to the finish line. Even with this as my humble plan, it was still worth doing the race because Bend had been snowy for the last month, and I had a chance to run outside in Portland in the sunshine, on clear roads, with water stops and human support along the way. I mean, even if you have no time goals whatsoever, that is an exciting proposition! An opportunity to take over the streets of a well-loved city and never need to stop at a red light!
That was the plan. But here is what happened.
I went to the 6:00-7:00 minute per mile pace area in the starting corral and it was sparsely populated. I could see pieces of the starting line between the odd clusters of bodies in front of me. I wasn't in the masses. Feeling like I was near the front before even starting activated some hormones, some vestigial competitive drive. When the gun went off I tried to suppress it, focusing only on myself, determined to settle into an effort level that felt fun and sustainable. My watched beeped a mile split of 6:30. I made an effort to settle down. I ran another 6:30. And another. It felt fine. Ok. Ok. Interesting, but let's not get carried away here.
I was bopping along next to this long haired runner dude who had a similar hippie vibe to my legendary college teammate, Olympian Gabe Jennings. He wasn't wearing a watch and looked totally in the moment, and that made me happy. Plus there was a woman 10 meters in front of me, (pause for robot brain malfunction while I tried to process what to do about that). More competitive vestigial hormones started releasing involuntarily. I laughed out loud as I caught myself ditching long-haired dude to reel in the woman during the 4th mile.
"There is a long way to go," I warned.
"Why the hell not have some fun while you can?" I decided.
The course headed into the hills at that point, and I found that I was strong. I maintained my pace despite the incline, and I was passing people. This is not normally my jam.
"The nordic skiing has made me better at hills," I noticed.
"This is surprising," I decided. "This is fun."
The incline got steeper and my heart rate climbed with it. I was pushing hard, and enjoying it. At one point I smiled (literally!) as I climbed, pleased at the simple realization that I still loved to push myself for the sake of it. I had no aspirations for the race itself, no end goal, and yet here I was running harder, finding my edge and tuning it within the undulations of the course, just because! Then at a turnaround about halfway through the race, I realized that I was gaining ground on the women's leader, my teammate Lyndy Davis. THE Lyndy Davis. Lyndy just had a baby four months earlier, and I thought back to watching her race the Olympic Marathon Trials. Can I catch her, I wondered? Will I get a chance to run with Lyndy before my arch cramps up and I have to walk? Her flyte tank and bright tall socks disappeared around a bend. And just like that I had a simple goal:
Run strong until you can't.
I went into this other mode. I straightened my posture. I ran all the tangents with precision. I did a body inventory and relaxed every muscle that wasn't absolutely required. I managed my effort level right up against the bad place without crossing over. It was a game, and I was having the absolute best time. I was overwhelmed with the glee of really racing, and couldn't believe how good it felt to race with nothing on the line, nothing to fear. No part of my ego needed this. I wanted to be doing only this forever. My watch beeped to mark 10 miles. I had been running under 6:00 miles. I was getting quite tired, unsure I'd be able to keep this pace up much longer, but I remembered.
Run strong until you can't.
For so much of my career I have operated at a level where I pretty much knew what I was capable of before stepping on the line. I could guess my 5k fitness within a few seconds. And here I was blowing myself away. I realized how freeing if felt to NOT know what I was capable of. To race straight into the unknown. My plan had been to run with Lyndy if I caught her, with a fantasy of running side by side until my foot complained, but now that I was in her slipstream, I wanted to know. I wanted to see what was inside me today. I pulled away on a downhill, running a pace that was entirely unsustainable.
Run strong until you can't.
With each mile I continued to push, chasing nobody but a feeling. This feeling of full declaration, of the body, and heart...this feeling of doing my best. I heard my dad's voice as clearly as I did before little league softball games, before high school track meets, before college exams, when I went to him to comfort my nerves. "Just do your best, honey. That's all you can do." That's what it's always been about. I just forgot sometimes.
With a mile to go, I wanted the race to be over because I couldn't physically sustain this much longer, but at the same time I never wanted it to end. I saw the finish line in the distance and I leaned into the ache of my quads, the rise of my chin, the rhythm my body had locked into, this pace I wasn't trained for but could summon from my bones, and I wondered...should I kick it in? My brain chimed in: it wouldn't matter to my place, and I didn't care about my time. Why bother?
But here I was, racing. Here I was, with no expectations, completely carried away with the beauty of going for it. Activated by something deep inside me, and so happy I said yes. To signing up for the race. To listening to my body on the hills. To chasing Lyndy for the hell of it. To making a bold move. To staying in the moment like I rarely managed to do when I was a professional at this thing.
This lion heart just won't quit, I thought. And it felt so fucking true that a huge smile spread across my entire body and you bet your ass I sprinted the final straightaway and finished with my hands on my knees.
Is it weird to say I loved myself that day? I realize it is quite a departure from the sandbagging that started this whole thing. I loved winning of course, but that's not the thing that really did it for me. I loved myself before I took the lead.
I loved the way I let myself be in the world that day. I don't have many moments when I feel overwhelmingly proud of me. Feeling this way, during a race like this, gave me so much hope for a future in this sport. Lighting up with joy and competitive fire, choosing not to compare my paces to former races, being fully taken with the moment, getting carried away, the way a race has a story to tell you if you listen up...it means a lot to me to know running can still offer me this.
It means a lot to me to find a new home for my dad's words in my running too, because I've really missed sharing it with him. Near the end of his life, I had a tendency to translate his heartfelt "do your best" to the very different "be the best." That was on me. My best, right here and now-- that's the shit worth showing up for over and over again. And of course it's what he meant all along.