The final race in my spring half-marathon series came off better than I could have ever dreamed. Running all the way on a humid day with my nephew John, we beat our 2 hour goal by 4.5 minutes, felt great at the end, absorbing all the family history captured on the campus of Notre Dame.
All the Details
This weekend was more than I could possible capture in a blog post. At levels multiple, it was more than I could have imagined. I’ll just write here about the running parts; family memories and connections ran even deeper.
All of this came about due to some amazing things happening for my nephew. John is the oldest son of my oldest sister; I was in fifth grade when he was born, so over the years we’ve grown to be much more like brothers than uncle/nephew. John had an amazing epiphany a year or so ago, resulting him deciding to lose over 60 pounds by the end of 2007, gaining significant improvement in his overall health. To secure these excellent health gains, he began to run in late January this year. He had actually run a half marathon and some shorter races near his home in San Diego in the mid 90s, and, like many of us, came back to running as an effective way to get and stay in shape.
In February, he and I began toying with the idea of doing a race together, someday. After a lot of discussion, the Sunburst half marathon seemed to make sense. The time was right, the family connections with Notre Dame were profound, his training could lead to it…so he and I booked it. It proved to be a solid goal for John to pursue and a wonderful chance for me to host him.
He flew in Thursday night, had supper with us, David, Susan and Matt. Friday, he and I drove across the flatlands of northern Indiana to South Bend. After getting our race packets, we toured the course. Since John has spent virtually all of his life in southern California, our open agricultural lands, lush green grass, tree-lined streets, even the pop-up thunderstorm we had Friday night all were wonderful reminders not everyplace is a desert, packed densely with people. He also found what we call “hills” to be hilarious…after his training in San Diego he called them “speed bumps.” This proved to be an ongoing joke all weekend.
Among the gazillion things John and I have in common was a love for getting to races early, leaving nothing to chance. So, we were up at 4:50am and at the starting line at 6:00am, not minding our race did not begin until 7:30. We watched the marathoners start at 6, then scored a nice park bench from which to watch the masses of 5K runners prepare, then sprint off at 7:15am.
We had decided to go for a 2 hour half marathon. Our training distances and paces were virtually identical; I knew we could stay together. However, I had my doubts as to whether or not the humidity would take too much of a toll. Yet, John was really keen on getting under 2 if we could. So I told him I’d go for 2 with him, but not 1:59…only a 2 hour race. Agreed. I programmed the Garmin for this time and made the mental calibration.
We lined up in the grid, stood for the National Anthem, then looked at each other, almost incredulous all the preparation had some to fruition. It was an amazing feeling. We both wore shirts with my Dad’s Notre Dame football photo on the back from 1937…we were running to honor him, to carry on what he taught us and it was all coming together as we stood there. The gun sounded and we were over the start mats in less than a minute, along with a thousand other half marathoners.
The first couple of miles were, as usual, a matter of finding a rhythm. Around mile one, John commented “so this is what humidity does?” as he found sweat building up on his forehead and shirt. Yep. And, right on cue, we encountered our first “hill”; a 200m long slope that perhaps had 40 feet of vertical rise. “These are hills, John,” I countered. We grinned and motored on.
We turned onto some residential streets with trees on both sides, touching at the top, a complete shaded canopy in which to run. The sleepy St. Joe River lazed along on the right. It was awesome; John was entranced, I was thrilled to have the Midwest look so good.
Having driven the course the day before, we knew what to expect. Miles 2 and 3 went smoothly. The Garmin told me we had a couple hundred feet in the bank for our goal. I had to remind John at several places we were OK and should save some gas for the end. We only walked at water stops; taking 20-30 seconds to hydrate well, collect ourselves and start again. It seemed to work well. Before we really knew it, we had done 7 miles and were over half way done with the race. We felt fine, yet ran conservatively. I was starting to think we just might be able to hang on, if we ran intelligently.
We crossed the St Joe River around mile 9 and began meandering towards the Notre Dame campus. A year ago, I bonked in this part of the course, so wondered just what would happen this year. This time, we just ran, holding the pace, doing miles slightly over or under 9 minutes. We popped out of the loop and I remarked to John “Boy, that loop went quickly.” Sub 2 looked more and more possible.
Just before mile 11, we encountered the only real “hill” on the entire course, a modest incline about 400m long with maybe 100 feet of vertical climb, which we had come to call "Mount South Bend. John and I broke (as we are both prone to do) into British accents as we started, speaking of the ascent before us, the thin air, the challenge of the peak, the place we would plant the flag. Laugh as we might, John attacked the hill with vengeance and left me and all my fellow Hoosiers in the dust. He paused at the top, waiting for me; I pointed out all his hill running proved itself. We had the time lost on the “mountain” made up in another 600m and passed the 11 mile mark.
The previous day, we had agreed we’d assess our condition at 11 miles and determine if we needed to push hard to the end or could enjoy the approach to and run on the ND campus. The Garmin told me we had nearly 300m in the bank; we agreed we’d enjoy and absorb the event.
And, boy did we.
The emotional high point for the race came a few minutes later. Due to road construction, we had a slight change in the race route from previous years. This time, the course turned onto the famous Notre Dame Avenue for a block, significant because it lines up perfectly with the famous Golden Dome of Notre Dame. John and I ran down the middle of the road, taking in the scene my Dad described to me many times as first seeing as a college freshman from the farm going to the big college to play football in 1933. I was flooded with memories of Dad and all that meant for him, all he gave to his children and grandchildren. It was astounding; lasting only a minute or two, it is indelibly imprinted on my mind.
A couple more turns and we were alongside Notre Dame Stadium. One last right and we were in the tunnel at the north end of the stadium, pulsating with the Notre Dame Fight Song. John and I barreled onto the field; I grabbed his hand around the 20 yard line and we ran across the finish line, hands linked, arms in the air. It was an awesome finish to an awesome run. Punching my watch and seeing 1:55 only made it better.
Wanting to absorb as much of this as we could, we hung around on the hallowed turf of Notre Dame Stadium for a full hour after we crossed the line. We talked with lots of folks we had run with; we talked with race officials; we marveled at the stadium; we remembered my Dad; we soaked in everything. When we left, we left satisfied.
Analyzing our splits later revealed we did the first 6 miles in 54:02 and the second 6 miles in 54:01…incredibly even, despite the “hills.” Throw in our last 1.1 at a 7:57 pace, this is a negative split. I was stunned when I saw this.
The drive home had much conversation, revealing one very fascinating story. John and I were both amazed that on a humid day with wind and temps in the mid to upper 60s, we could put down a 1:55 half marathon. How could this have happened? We realized two key things took place. John wanted to go for a sub 2, a goal I would not have done on my own. During the race, he kept pushing that pace. That was good and vital. With the experience I have from running more than John has and running in humidity, I helped to hold the pace in check through the middle miles of the race, when John said he would have been temped to crank out some 8:15 miles. That was good and vital. As a result of working together, we beat our goal AND has gas left in the mental and physical tanks to finish strong, absorbing all the race had to offer. Yeah. We need each other. It’s a story that extends far beyond running.
Much, much more happened…this is just the running side. Thanks for coming along for the ride. And keep persevering.