“NO RETREAT. NO SURRENDER. BURN THE BOATS! BURN THE MOTHER FU*KING BOATS!!!!”
The moments that you spend at the starting line before a race are often very telling about how the race will proceed. Are you fidgeting your hands wondering if you did enough as you frantically replay your training runs in your mind? Or are you calm and focused as you visualize yourself exploding off of the starting line to attack the tarmac ahead? The reality is that when paired with a consistent training season an athlete’s mental fitness on race day has the ability to transform any good race into an incredibly rare and highly coveted rare superior race performance.
I stood at the starting line with a huge grin on my face. I softly closed my eyes, tilted my face to the sky and felt the crisp morning air against my skin. I thought to myself, “Whatever happens happens. Today is about smiling at the sky and feeling strong from start to finish. Today I will run with my heart not my head. I will run for myself. I will run for Lilly. Today I will give it all I got- all heart, no regrets!!” A much welcomed, albeit atypical, wave of calm crashed over me; for the first time in my running career I was focused on fully embracing each step of the 13.1 mile journey ahead rather than frantically stressing over the destination, pace and time.
I cupped the burning boat on my left shoulder and softly spoke under my breath, “NO SURRENDER, NO RETREAT. BURN THE BOATS!! SMILE. HAVE FUN. ENJOY THE DAY!!” The soft edges of my lips curled upwards into a smile revealing a passionate toothy grin. “Giddy up, Kass! It’s time to learn into the hurt and have fun!” As I heard the race director count down the remaining second I shifted my weight, offset my stance and slightly tilted my torso towards the asphalt. It was time and I was ready.
The foghorn blew to release the racers into quiet streets of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Within the first quarter mile my heart leaped for joy s I spotted O and Lilly on the sidelines. Nothing on Earth compares to the profound feeling I experience when I see my mini-me’s face light up as I run by.
Surrounded by my competitors I ran with passion straight from the start; in fact, in my mind I was still gunning for a sub-1:30 finish time. Given my goal time I was eager to see exactly what set of legs, breath and body showed up to race that day. Coach Beth instructed me to stay within the pace window of 6:40-7:00 min/mi splits and I had my mind set on maintaining that pace for as long as humanly possible.
Miles 1-3 (6:57, 7:00, 7:00)
A double loop, the Baystate Half Marathon course is mostly flat with a few rolling hills that take you back and forth over the bridges of the Merrimack River.
I mentally devoted miles 1-3 to allow my legs to warm up and get moving. I aimed to keep my splits at a 7:00 pace or just below and ticked off a 6:57, 7:00 and 7:00. During these miles my pace was even, controlled and exactly where I wanted it to be. The breath was smooth and the feet felt light and almost bouncy. By the end of mile 3 the legs had opened up enough that I thought about making my move to pick up the pace and go get my 1:29:xx.
Do I have more in me? HELL YES I DO! But 8-10 seconds a mile more in me? It’s time to burn the boats and go for it!! There’s no race tomorrow Kass!! GO! GO! GO!
Miles 4-6 (6:54, 7:02, 6:56)
You can do this Kass. Even. Steady. Calm. Left foot, right foot. The sun feels so warm on my face and the air is crisp. The perfect day for a PR!! I tilted my head towards the sky and took a deep breath. Before I knew it I had a huge grin plastered all over my face. Ahhhh! The air feels amazing!! This is it! Today is my day! This is MY day!
I leaned into the hurt and added a little pressure in mile 4 to pull a 6:54. Closer, but not quite enough pressure.
Even though the legs were light, the head was focused and the heart was free the extra pep in my step seemed to be missing in action. You need 6:52s to get the 1;30 Kass, you know this. Add more pressure! Burn the boats and just go for it!! Despite knowing this I continued to hold back a half step. Why? Because at 6:55s to 7:05s I felt surprisingly in control of my race performance, I was able to enjoy the experience and I was still working hard! Without realizing it I had just unearthed my racing sweet spot: the magical zone that combines your critical race pace with your mental confidence. With this notion in my head continued to glide along to finish my first lap of the course!
As I finished the first lap of the course I kept my eyes peeled for O’s red hat! I knew he’d be in the crowd somewhere snapping pictures left and right, but something else caught my attention in the crowd. I looked up to spot Lillian wearing my Greater Boston Running Company sweatshirt that reads Run! Run! Run! on it and she looked absolutely adorable! I screamed out and waved to my little munchkin, who looked like an octopus with her extra baggy sweatshirt and long sleeves flapping around in the cold fall air. “Lillian!!!! O!!!!” Ahh! Seeing both of them cheering me on is the best part of every single race! I’m not sure why but it just makes me feel like I’m doing something right as a parent- possibly because I feel like the best version of myself when I run completely alive, free and happy. I quickly threw my hat and gloves to O and made the right turn to lap two of the course.
Miles 7-9 (7:04, 7:02, 7:02)
This is your day. Just breathe, have fun and run with your heart Kass. No matter what happens, just run with your heart.
I pushed onward and started to notice something strange occurring around me. While I was finally finding my groove and maintaining my pace other racers were gradually starting to pull back and I actually started to pass other runners. I glanced at my watch to reveal low 7’s; the pace was too high for my sub1:30, but I still felt good. Somewhere in these miles I peacefully let go of the 1;30 goal, stayed present in the moment, had fun and added just the right amount of pressure to maximize my potential. I’ll be honest- I FELT GREAT!
This feels amazing. I feel amazing. This is YOUR day!
A race day first I actually started to pick off my competitors one by one and was able to pass about 7-8 other runners during these miles.
What is going on here?!? How on Earth am I starting to pull ahead without even increasing my pace?! Who cares Kass, just take it! Please and thank you! NO SURRENDER! NO RETREAT! NEVER STOP RUNNING!!!
My confidence skyrocketed with each passing runner I overcame and I had now made it to my racing sweet spot to maximize my race day performance.
Miles 10-13.1 (6:56, 7:11, 6:59, 6:48)
By mile 10 I knew that too many of my splits were over 6:52s to pull a sub 1:30, but for some reason I just didn’t care. I was enjoying the journey too much to be bogged down in the details of missing the mark. I was running hard, passing others and actually starting to negative split the final miles (with the exception of mile 11 where I lost a few seconds to a mishap at the water station- yes I’m a bonehead and can’t grab cups while in motion).
For the first time in my three years of road racing I felt fully in control of my body. The feet felt light, the legs felt strong, the mind was focused and everything was in sync. A surreal and empowering experience, it was unlike any I have ever encountered on the road. It was truly the race of a lifetime.
The final miles were completed side by side with another female runner who came up from behind. Older, more experienced and a faster racer she could have easily left me in the dust in mile 11, but no. She rested on my left shoulder and we paces each other pushing ever so slightly harder and harder until she spoke, “You and me. We got this!” The camaraderie I felt with this near stranger was commanding. Moving within our own two foot long magnetic field we half stepped each other pushing and pulling the other to the finish line in an effort to fully expose our ability.
I turned the final corner to face the finishers chute. It was at that time that the clock appeared with a large 1:32:xx on it slowly ticking up, up, up. I noticed (of course I noticed) but I chose to smile in that moment because honestly I was having a hell of a time! I half-stepped with a mystery runner, negative split the final course miles and felt in control from start to finish- who wouldn’t be grinning ear to ear!! THIS is what running is about! The journey! Feeling free! Feeling alive! All from start to finish!
No, I didn’t hit my goal time of 1:30. Heck I didn’t even PR with a sub 1:32:02, but YES I just had the RACE OF A LIFETIME and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!!
**A huge thank you to my coach Beth Shutt at Your26.2 for helping me get both physically and mentally fit for race day, my husband and daughter for coming out to cheer me on during the race and Dana, Amanda and several other racing friends whose words of wisdom kept me motivated and focused throughout the race! The race wouldn’t have been the same without any of you! Thank you so much.**
Could I have raced faster? Possibly. My heart rate data indicated that I was fit enough to reach my goal of 6:52 splits, but racing is so much more than a numbers game. The ever elusive run-game combines both the mental and physical to yield a runner’s race outcome. A runner who is physically fit but doesn’t 100% believe her ability to hit her pace marks is likely to not maximize her fitness potential come race day. However, a runner who is too confident without the fitness and durability to back it up will often make poor race day pacing/nutrition decisions; this poor foresight often leads to bonking in later stages of the race. Discovering the highly coveted racing sweet spot may be a tricky endeavor, but an undoubtedly worthwhile pursuit. Like I said, could I have raced faster than 6:555’s? Probably. But you also can’t help but wonder if my confidence would have waned and anxiety risen to the point of bonking on the run if I had ran splits closer to 6:52s.
I guess I’ll never know. But honestly after what felt like the best run of my life I don’t really care.
Behold the beauty of the run-game.
Never Stop Running,
Kass/The Lone Runner