Monday, May 5, 2008

Run Like Eight Belles

On this day I ran a Half-Marathon that started right next to the famous Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island in Brooklyn, and that was appropriate because this was the most rollercoaster day I have experienced in a long time.

It was the day I ran a PR of 2:15:46 (10:21 pace) at the Brooklyn Half-Marathon, making continuous improvement for me. And it was the day that I would look forward to cheering for my favorite racehorse Eight Belles, who I had been telling everyone I knew about the previous week. We were both going to make triumphant runs on this day, and I was so psyched to go from my race to watch her hopefully become the first filly in 20 years to win the Kentucky Derby.

The day started cold and in the dark for me. It was 6:30 when the buses left Central Park, rumbling down Fifth Avenue past Rolex and Trump and Bergdorf's. When we were dropped off at Coney Island, I had two hours to kill. Last year, that was a dream, because it was warm and you could lay on the beach and just listen to music and psyche up for the Half-Marathon. This time it was cold and windy, and I actually spent 15 minutes in a portapotty just to kill time and have windblock.

This was my seventh Half, and my first race since the St. Louis Marathon 3 weeks earlier. Nearly the first two miles were run on wooden Boardwalk planks going in every different direction, sometimes sandy, and they are pretty hazardous as they are often loose and have these bit bolt heads sticking out of some of them. One of those caught my sole and almost knocked me off balance. Last year at this event, a woman tumbled right in front of me and she was down a long time. I heard of other people falling during this event. It just happens so be careful if you enter this.

You can see what I mean by watching the official race video here >

I was packing two GUs and a baggie of crushed salty pretzels that were safety-pinned to my left hip, also 4 or 5 little salt packets. As we were running the first mile heading out to the switchback, we all saw the eventual race winner galloping toward us in the opposite direction -- John Henwood of New Zealand. He would go on to finish it in almost exactly half the time I did, and once again I had the same reaction I always do seeing the elite runners: This is the only sport where you can truly participate in an event with the greatest in that sport. I can say the same thing this November when Lance Armstrong and Mark Newman run the NYC Marathon again.

It was also really cool to see my friend Alicia at about the Mile 1 marker on the Boardwalk. She was my Team for Kids teammate last year during the NYC Marathon -- and the one who tried to "pick me up" when my foot was killing me entering Queens. I am happy to hear she is a reader of this blog! It always makes some of the time fly by when you have someone to talk to, so that was cool. I looked up and it was Mile 3 today, so I had the good fortune at that point of feeling like I just had a 10-miler. Alicia is doing Team for Kids again heading toward the next NYC Marathon. I told her I am going to pass and just run the event unattached this time, but I wore my Team for Kids longsleeve shirt on this day and I recruited two possible new members for them after overhearing these women say they aren't sure if they'll get in via the lottery. It was a great experience helping TFK.

I think I went through some different kind of experience this time, kind of a businesslike approach once I hit 6 miles. I don't know what it was, just a different outlook than ever before. Almost like at that point I reminded myself that, Oh yeah, you really do have to put one foot in front of each other for the next half+ of this race, bud. It's as if I had run so many Halfs before and early on it was like I had thought it was a foregone conclusion I was going to kick butt or something...and then midway through your brain tells you to humble the hell up and focus on your form with your arm swing and your stride and running tall. Maybe some other runners will appreciate what I am saying, I am not even really sure I am explaining it well. It's not like I'm fast or anything, I just had a reality check of some kind at the midway point. Whatever the case, I felt pretty focused in the second half, and I blocked out the walk-time temptations more than usual.

In fact, I ran a negative split today! What's that all about? I think it was right there at Mile 6 or 7. It was obviously wherever there was not a fluid station (and walk) during that mile, probably the seventh. But the mile after that I added 20 or 30 seconds, and then a little more the mile after that. When I arrived at Prospect Park for the last few miles, I felt I was going to be able to hit the 2:10 area, and that's when I had to go to the bathroom.

This happened last year. Only here it gets comical. At Mile 12 I finally find a portapotty -- I had 3 Immodiums in the previous 24 hours and I will leave TMI at that -- and there were two of them. The little red lock was visible, and I kept asking loudly if anyone is in there. Valuable seconds were ticking off. Finally I could not stand it anymore, losing time on my finish and really having to go. So I bolted back into the pack, and of course then someone came out. I lost a minute thanks to that little snafu. It just shows you how time can add up in these races.

I was proud of myself pouring it on up the hills of Prospect Park. That included the final 200 or 400 meters, straight uphill, and I was just churning. I felt good about that -- no cramps unlike this race last year, having also consumed Life water before the race and the usual water/Gatorade fueling. I believe that so much of this is mental, as my endurance keeps improving every month and my desire to walk gradually lessens. I finished at the midpoint mark (48.4 percentile) within my age group, too, after being a back-of-the-packer for all those months, and I finished No. 2989 among men in another pretty crowded field (I think there were something like 350,000 finishers...ahaha).

After getting my bagel and getting my race picture taken by myself and with fellow Big Cat Racing Team member Runner aka La Lynx, I headed for the yellow schoolbus that had the zero on it, matching the last digit in my bib number (8970). My blue bag was on there as I had left it before the start of the race. I got out my sweatshirt and my new Blackberry Curve (which I love!), and I stretched a bit and asked another runner if she would please take a victory shot, which I promptly texted to my awesome friend Maura, who emailed it around.

I went home and was eager to get in a bath. Then I iced my sore left Achilles tendon, and put a bag of frozen peas on my right knee, which has been a little sore just under the lower part of the kneecap. I had a slice of chocolate cake from next door. I got a big burger, onion rings and beer. I settled in to watch my favorite new girl to do her part. It was time to watch Eight Belles win the Kentucky Derby.

I had seen something in her in watching Derby entrant videos earlier in the week on She had run a four-horse race in which she surged late to the lead, then was overtaken, and then got pissy and refused to lose, bolting to the wire. She was big, like the boys. Great closing speed. I had a feeling this was her year, her race. I told everyone, and when the race finally began, I was yelling at the TV. Go baby go!

Eight Belles was just like me on this day. She just ran and ran and toward the last fourth of the race, she was right there in position for something individually great. She led entering the final turn, with glory ahead. Feeling great, obviously. I was texting back and forth with others. I couldn't believe it. Then came Big Brown, just too strong, too perfect a racehorse on this day. I called a 5-20-10 trifecta, and it was 20-5, with Colonel John not finishing in the money.

I was still happy with that, just thrilled for Eight Belles after she ran such a beautiful race and showed she belonged. I just felt a connection. Then, all of a sudden, ABC tells us that Eight Belles is down on the dirt, while we are watching the surreal scene of Big Brown's ownership group celebrating. The place is too big; no one knows what's going on there. I've been to enough major sports events, including the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, to know that is suddenly becomes chaos. I had been to the 2001 Daytona and was the last person ever to take a photo of Dale Earnhardt's face when he was alive, and I remember how that ended with chaos and rumors. Then I am watching the ABC turf reporter, and he has the doctor right there, and then finally he says the word "unfortunately"...

Oh, no.

It couldn't be.

He said the word "euthanize" -- and for the longest second of my life, I had to stop and think about what the word means again. It wasn't a human term. It was the word we usually use when we talk about trying to rescue cats and dogs from pounds before they are killed. After that pregnant pause, it hit me hard that Eight Belles was no more.

I was devastated the rest of the night. Still am. She was such a beautiful horse, such a beautiful spirit. She snapped both ankles pulling up after the finish, why I still have no idea, and the doctor said there was no alternative. I will never understand that in my life. I am amazed that science cannot figure out how to save horses with fractured bones. It was so crushing, and it made it seem like my own dinky PR in a Brooklyn Half-Marathon was so long ago and forgotten.

Eight Belles, you will never be forgotten. What an athlete you were.

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