Friday, January 19, 2018

Heusden to Houston

A few years back, I mentioned to a college team mate that I was running a 5k in Heusden. It was July at the time. “Houston? Hopefully it won’t be too hot there.” Oh no, sorry, I said. Not Houston, Heusden - a little suburban town in Belgium. Heusden is to Brussels as New Jersey is to New York City. The nicer parts of Jersey, that is. And most Belgians don’t really commute. They ride bikes and walk places.

The summer European racing experience has been much doted upon in the blogs and Instagrams of many an American distance runner, myself included. Memories of riding a fart tube across the pond and trickling down through Ireland and over to Belgium from track race to track race each summer will always hold a beloved place in my heart.

Exploring the walls of Luxembourg, scarfing down the homey hospitality of Irish meet committees, climbing on castles, rolling ankles on cobblestones - this is what it’s meant to be a runner on the European ‘B’ track circuit. So far, my years as a professional runner have culminated in the annual July trip to Europe.

Heusden. The KBC Nacht Athletics Meeting held there every July is a must do if you’re a member of the extremely specific blood type American-middle-distance-runner-looking-to-make-it. It’s the meet a lot of people run fast at, but no one back home has really ever heard of. 

2013. It was my first year running Heusden (The statute of limitations is up on this war story). On a warm Belgian evening, the pacer for the ‘B’ heat of the 5,000m dropped out 3,000 meters into the race, leaving our nationally diverse pack of straining runners to propel each other to time standard glory on our lonesome own. Planters of carnations flicked by our feet on the infield. Avicii or something similar played from the press box. A kid dropped his waffle in the grass.

Last year's 5,000m in Heusden. Photo Fabienne Nicolas

As usually happens in these races, the pace slacked with about three laps to go. I decided to be a brash 23 year old (what’s my age again?), put myself on the sacrificial goat side of things, and push the pace at the front of the race. It works, sometimes. Other times it doesn’t.

My goal of 13:30 was in reach on the backstretch of the final lap. “All” I had to do was run a 45 second last 300 meters.

But I ran a 49, and a 13:34, and rode the late bus home to Leuven, the best little medieval, circular town in Europe, pleased with my effort but disappointed with the result.

The Heusden after party in Leuven is also famous amongst those of the aforementioned athlete-traveler persuasion. Stella Artois world HQ is in Leuven, and the beer is cheaper by the glass than water at restaurants in the square at the center of town. The Heusden 5k was to be my final race of the season. We drank a lot of Stella, danced our faces off, and didn’t go home until the sky woke up.

But also not before Aric Van Halen mentioned he was running a 3,000m over in Kortrijk later that day, Sunday, an hour’s train ride away, and would I run it too? On a whim, the last thing I did before collapsing drunkenly on my mattress in our small apartment was enter myself in the Kortrijk meet online.

I woke up feeling surprisingly good. Chugged some water, went for a walk, and ate a Doner Kebab. It was well past noon. Maybe I would go run this 3k in Kortrijk for the hell of it. You don’t think at a deep level when you have a hangover. In this case, that turned out to be the ticket.

…To a win and 3k personal best of 7:49 for 3,000m in Kortrijk. I don’t remember feeling any pain. The good ones sometimes go that way. Your body sends less stress signals. My brain was fuzzy from a long night out. It said shut up! to the any high rpm thoughts trying to escape my prefrontal cortex. 

I spent a few more years chasing times and a breakthrough across the country and world.

Zap Fitness training run in beloved Todd, NC.

2018. I’m 28, and on Sunday morning, I really did run in Houston - the one in big Texas. Not a 5k, but a half marathon. That’s right, I’m allowed to plant a 13.1 sticker on my bike. Yeah, I run. (It actually technically wasn’t my debut. My brother, David beat me up in a half in Milwaukee in what seems like an earlier life.)

When we planned for it back in September, the Houston half marathon represented a literal and figurative change of pace for my running career.  My body had to get used to running 100+ mile weeks again. I dubbed November “niggle November” for the roughly seven moderate injuries that paraded through my muscles and joints that month with the increased workload. Above all, I looked forward to trying something other than than chasing increasingly elderly personal bests on the track.

And then, around the time the new year hit, just two weeks before Houston, I entered a mental rough patch.

I’ve been running professionally for nearly five years now, and it’s been exhilarating, heartbreaking, fun, boring, enlightening, maddening, and the best thing I could imagine myself doing. When you start out after college, you have a gas tank full of excitement and expectation for the future. It gets you through the hard days and bad performances, helping you come back hungry. But it leaks and gets used up. It becomes exponentially harder to improve, so you sift through a long string of new mindsets, subtly different training methods, and meditation rituals.

You look around and realize that most of your colleagues, the runners your age, who you raced when you were kids, have hung up the spikes, have “real jobs”, are married and having kids of their own. American society does a double take when you say you run for a living. And the the longer you do it, the stranger it is. All runners are weirdos, and we thrive on it. But sometimes it’s hard to keep weird. (Maybe I need to visit a former home - Austin, TX).

Agony and ecstasy. Photo Jason Honeycutt

Coming into Houston, running didn’t exactly feel new and shiny anymore. Maybe I was afraid I’d bomb the race. It would mean failing to grab ahold of the life preserver that the half marathon was trying to throw me from the horizon-bound sail boat of my running career.

Feeding my dark mood was a the fact that my big toes and feet had been suddenly and randomly losing control and going floppy at faster paces, especially after longer periods of running. So like, exactly what the half marathon entails. Those symptoms point to a funky sciatic nerve. There was no pain, but my foot plant was being affected, causing my calves to tighten up. And a small mechanical problem could add up over 13.1 miles.

I’ve looked back to that summer 2013 weekend in Heusden and Kortrijk, Belgium for inspiration and example many times. Not for the wild night, but for the place my mind was in when I started the 3,000 on the second day. My brain was animal, then. It didn’t care. It was blind to outside factors.

I had to get my sh*t together for this race in Houston. I had trained too hard to let myself get distracted by the future, or where else and what else I could be doing.

It started getting easier when we left our hotel in Tallahassee for travel to Houston on Thursday. Easier with the familiarity of airports and flights, by now strong associations with race weekends, sizing up competitors in hotel lobbies, feeling the tractor beam of excitement and nervousness beginning to suck us all towards the adrenaline moment of the starting gun on Sunday morning.

When I began feeling these things, I knew I was safe, safe in running. My instincts would handle everything. I was trained.

On Saturday, the day before the race, some of the elite runners in the race spoke in front of a large group of Houston kids who’d run a 5k that morning. One of their questions was typical of these kinds of sessions, and went something like

“what do you guys think about, like in your heads, when you run? How do you keep from wanting to stop?”

Wanting to stop is at the core of running. You heard it from a twelve year old.

When the mic came my way, I had time, and space, and temporality in my head, themes in these less than happy several weeks. I evoked the teachings of Master Yoda in my best impression:

“All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was... what he was doing.”

I told them: be in the mile you’re in, in the footstep you’re in, not thinking about how far there is to go. Back in the hotel room I re-watched the scene with Luke Skywalker and Yoda on Degobah in The Empire Strikes Back. Chills. I hopped up and did another round of neural flossing for my sciatic nerve.

The half and full marathons start at the same time in Houston. 7:00am. They share the same route for about seven miles before the half course turns off and heads back downtown to the finish. One mile into the race, I found myself running in the full marathon lead pack. Their pacer was assigned to hit halfway in 1:03:00, perfect for me. But by mile three it was clear the marathoners were rolling just a tad slower than I wanted. I peeked around the side of their lead truck. Up the road, Matt and the half marathon chase pack were a block of vacant pavement away.

Decision time. Pass the truck, dive into the vacumn, and hope for help from a fellow white-bibbed half marathoner? Or stay put and wait?

I went around the truck. Moments later, a small but powerful figure materialized on my shoulder in the form of Luis Orta, Venezuela’s star runner. Luis and I ran the entire remainder of the race together, bouncing moments of fatigue and spurts of energy off each other as we tackled Houston block by block.  My foot strike got numb and floppy at a few points, but by relaxing and not dwelling on it I kept it in the background. We never did gain ground on Matt’s group, but with each other’s presence we could exist in what would have been no man’s land. The sun rose, all golden light and signpost shadows, during mile four.

Luis Orta and I kicking to the finish in Houston. Photo Michael Scott

Luis and I battled all the way to the line, catching some good scalps in the final 200 meters. He just out-leaned me to break the Venezuelan half marathon record.

In the end, Houston and a debut at the half marathon distance gave me what I needed. I ran 63:35, a good time, not a breakout performance, but enough to be proud of. Sitting here five days later I’m still feeling the delicious soreness in my quads and hamstrings left by Houston’s pavement. It feels good to have a new personal best. Damn good, actually. Even if it’s a first go. I like that the distance feels so different than the stinging pain of a track 5,000m - like a novella that does some unfolding before you’re through with it. 

Writing this in Tallahassee during a little down week in training, I think I have my spark back. I’m looking forward to another debut. Somehow, I’ve made it all this way never having run a 10,000m on the track. 25 laps fits snugly between the new experience of 13.1 miles on the road and the quick pace of the 5,000m, a world I’m quite well versed in.

Winning is fun. Being healthy and happy and PR’ing is fun. Especially when these things come easy, like in Kortrijk. When I drank a bunch of beer and shouldn't have run well, but did. The memory of that race is a curse, too, for how little I had to struggle for success. A simultaneously good and bad example from the past, for the future.

They're amazing, the intangibles in running. In any endeavor, for that matter. Wanting to stop, and then not having stopped - that's how you win.

It’s nice when life goes your way. But no one gets these things all the time.

If you did, you’d know nothing about yourself.

Here are some things I'm looking forward to:
DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
March 30Raleigh RelaysRaleigh, NCTrack 1500
April 14B.A.A. 5kBoston, MARoad 5k
May 3Payton Jordan InvitePalo Alto, CATrack 10,000m
June 21 - 24USATF Outdoor ChampionshipsDes Moines, IAWho knows?
July 4Peachtree ChallengeAtlanta, GARoad 10k

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