If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I didn’t feel horribly prepared for this race. Where previous half marathon training plans had me comfortably getting up to 15 miles several times, I failed to get past 12 miles this time around and I was completely drained at the end of both those runs.
So, I showed up in corral A at the ESPN Wide World of Sports with low expectations. I had a few good runs with the kids on the cross country team during the prior week, but those were only 3-4 miles. Based on the 12 mile runs, I was just hoping to get under 2 hours, but cool air came in Friday evening so I thought I might be able to squeak out a 1:45. I decided to run the first few miles at an 8:30 min/mile pace and see how things went from there.
When the fireworks went off, I jogged across the start line just behind Sandy. I had instructed her to go out with 10 minute miles and a few yards down the road, I surged through an opening and left her behind. I didn’t bother to look at my Garmin. I was perfectly comfortable traversing this start since I’d run it twice before in the Race for the Taste 10K. When I reached the 1 mile mark, it read 9:47. I quickly guessed that it was the wheelchair time and glanced at my Garmin to see that I had completed the first mile in 7:47.
“Too fast,” I scolded myself but another voice kicked in and told me I could break 1:40. Conceding that it was too early in the race to start thinking about that mark, I slowed down and decided to just run a comfortable pace for the next mile. I’ll admit that I was a little thrilled when I came through the 2 mile mark in just under 15 minutes. I hadn’t been paying much attention to my pace. I was just running comfortably, but I had sped up in the second mile.
With thoughts of 1:40 in my head, I calmed myself and slowed down. Instead of 8:30 miles, I began to allow myself the goal of 8 minute miles. When I passed the 3 mile mark, I had slowed down, but I was still well under 24 minutes. I focused on putting up a nice 5K split for my text update and Twitter fans. I came through in 23:39 and it was then that I allowed myself to go for 1:40.
Shortly after the 5K mark, the course made its way through the Animal Kingdom parking lot and into the park itself. The entrance was lit by large lamps that looked like tusks on either side of the course. African music played as we wound our way through the jungle like entrance toward the tree of life. The atmosphere had a calming effect and I was able to take several deep breaths and relax. I could feel my pace quickening.
The four mile mark bought me into the Asia section of the park, which was quite dark. Spooky music played in the background as I rounded a corner to see Everest lit in the distance. It was eerie, but cool and I was most definitely enjoying myself. We exited the park through Dinoland USA and traversed some backstage areas before emerging back into the Animal Kingdom parking lot where the course erupted with music and sound at the relay exchange point.
The crowd noise gave me a huge amount of motivation and I surged past several runners toward the 5 mile mark. I started to feel the effort and glanced at my Garmin to see that I had dropped below 6 minute mile pace. I quickly slowed back to a more manageable pace and grabbed some water on my way out of the parking lot.
Back on the roads, I focused on putting up another good time at the 10K mark. A few people passed me near the 6 mile mark, but I just assumed they were fresh runners who had just started out of the relay exchange. I held my pace consistent and crossed the 10K mat in 46:24. I was well under the pace required to break 1:40 for the race and that had most definitely become my goal.
I took a moment to think about the situation. I had bonked in a half marathon back in December because I went out with too ambitious a pace in the beginning. I was afraid of making the same mistake now. I thought back to how I felt at the 10K mark of that race and realized that I was feeling a lot of strain in that race before 6 miles. Tonight, I was just cruising along. I decided that I wasn’t going to bonk, but vowed to remember to get a gel at the fuel station.
I enjoyed the music and watching the slower runners on the other side of the road through 7 miles. Eventually, I passed the back of the race and an overpass where I was able to see how far ahead the leaders were. I figured I was just over a mile back from the leaders as I approached the 8 mile mark and that felt pretty good. I made a swift left past a few runners and headed down an overpass toward the 8 mile mark and the fuel station.
In the darkness, I was unable to see what people were handing out and nobody was announcing flavors so I grabbed the first gel I could. Luckily, it was vanilla – a flavor I can handle. Without time to open the gel, consume it and grab some water, I just held it in my hand as I climbed an exit ramp, made a right turn and headed into the Disney Hollywood Studios.
Through 9 miles, I was below 7:30 minute per mile pace and feeling good except for a twinge in my left knee. I’ve been battling tendonitis in that knee since trying to out sprint one of my high school cross country runners at the end of practice one day. I was starting to get worried the knee would give out on me like it did in the Gasparilla 15K back in February.
I made it through 15K in 1:09:16 a faster time than Gasparilla and crossed my fingers that the knee would hold up for 4 more miles. The pain really kicked up as I passed a few runners in the tunnel next to the wardrobe department of the studios backlot tour. I ignored it and adjusted my stride slightly, but had to focus on an upcoming water station. I thrust the gel into my mouth and ripped it open a little too low, spewing gel all over my hands and my face. I squeezed what was left in the packet into my mouth, then licked my hands and as much of my face as I could.
I grabbed a water as I sped through the water station and sloppily threw it into my face, both hydrating myself and washing my face at the same time. I felt like a mess, but I was feeling good. Through 10 miles, I was still under 7:30 pace and growing more and more confident in a sub 1:40 finish. I sped through the studios, past Darth Vader and into a backstage area near the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. I grabbed another water near the 11 mile mark and used it to get the rest of the gel off my face.
My knee in pain, I followed the runners in front of me across the front of the park and out the main entrance. I coached myself through the pain as I maintained my pace.
“Nothing drastic,” I thought. “Steady pace all the way to the finish”. I squeaked by a couple of runners and onto the narrow pathway between the Studios and the Boardwalk resort area. I kept pace with the runner in front of me down the path and hit the 12 mile mark without any increase in pain.
With my confidence surging, I climbed the bridge next to the Swan and Dolphin resorts, then back down onto a boardwalk lined with spectators. Their encouraging yells propelled me forward past a few more runners and my face became like stone as I focused on the runner in front of me.
We traveled around the lake and up an incline near the International Gateway to Epcot. I knew it would be the last hill I’d have to climb and I gingerly made my way down as the course wound into a backstage area behind Epcot. I began to increase my pace.
The theme from Rocky played and I could not help myself. I began to kick up my pace significantly and started passing runner after runner. I cruised over a sign that read “400 meters to go” painted on the ground, then past the 13 mile mark and wound around a few corners right across the finish line in 1:36:44 – a pace of 7:23 min/mile. So much for 8:30’s! I was 108th overall and the 98th male finisher.
Although I only beat December’s time by 3 seconds, I felt so much better about this race. It’s all about perspective. That day, I did worse than I was hoping to. This time, I did better. That day, I started fast and finished slow. This time, I sped up throughout the entire race. I was jubilant at the finish. I grabbed water and a Powerade, then headed straight to medical where I thanked my left knee for holding out with 20 minutes of ice!