[This is part two. Read part one here.]

On race day, I got up before my alarm went off and was full of jitters. I cooked myself some eggs and toast. I braided my hair. Then, having too much time to spare, I spent a full five minutes obsessing over the possibility that my underwear could chafe; would cotton or an acrylic blend be worse?

Two days prior, I told my dad’s friend Kevin I’d run the Lake Geneva Half Marathon with him, since his race partner had backed out. “Okay,” he said, “But you’ve gotta run with me.” I think he was intimidated by my age; I was 20+ years his junior. Maybe he thought I’d be off like a rabbit at the starting gun. I don’t think he was fully aware of how much I hadn’t prepared for this.

Kevin was going to pick me up at 6am. At 5:45, I was waiting at the front door, pacing from window to window, brooding over what I had gotten myself into. One minute I was thinking, this is no big deal, and the next I had visions of myself collapsing from exhaustion, rolling into a ditch, and disappearing into tall grass only to be found days later by a stray cow. Or turkey vultures.

The night before, over the phone from California, Kirk had wished me good luck and reassured me I could do it. He gave me one piece of advice: “Run your own race.”

~ ~ ~

It was a 40 minute drive to Lake Geneva. We found a parking spot right next to the lake.  Runners in all sorts of fancy running gear walked to and from the registration area. I felt like a faker in my $2 Target leggings and favorite cotton tank top (secondhand from my sister). But this was my running outfit. You’re not supposed to change anything on race day, so I’d heard.

We went inside a hotel to register. I walked up to the table. “What’s your name, please?” the lady asked me.

“Annie…”

“Last name?” she asked.

I looked at Kevin.

“Schueppert,” he said.

“Can you spell that for me?” she asked.

“S-C-H-… U…” I attempted.

“E-P-P-E-R-T,” finished Kevin.

The lady looked at me funny. I grabbed my number from her. “Thank you!” I said, walking quickly away to the next table to get my t-shirt. “Would’ve help to know my own name, wouldn’t it?” I said.

“Whoops,” said Kevin, snickering.

Outside, people had started to gather on the start line. We downed some Gatorade and a Gu Energy Gel (a pudding-like carbohydrate substance you’re supposed to suck down from a packet) and then joined the group. I looked around. Guys with rippling muscles, sweat bands, short shorts and looks of deep determination on their faces kicked and high stepped around like Derby horses. “We probably don’t need to be right on the start line, do we?” I said.

We walked further to the back. A woman standing near us asked if we had ever run a half marathon before. Nope, it was the first time for both of us. Her? She usually ran 5Ks, but had run plenty of halfs, too.

“So what time are you shooting for?” she asked us.

“Two hours,” said Kevin.

“Yep, two,” I agreed.

She laughed. “Really? Good luck. I try to do a 10 and a half minute mile. Usually takes me just under 2:20.”

“Well, good luck to you, too,” I said to her. Kevin gave me a look.

People shuffled around. It was nearly time.

“That was kind of rude,” said Kevin. “Why’d she laugh at us?”

“Is a two hour pace really that hard?” I asked.

I didn’t have time to dwell on it. Kevin looked at his watch. It was 8 o’clock. A ferry boat on the lake blew its horn. “Was that supposed to be the starting gun?” said Kevin. No one seemed to be moving. Then, slowly, the crowd started flowing down the street.

Here we go… We started off in a mob of people. Slowly, the group thinned out. After keeping close to the shoreline for a few tenths of a mile, the route turned away from the lake and out to the country.

Kevin started picking up speed. “Pace alright?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I said, although I was feeling uneasy. I was breathing heavily. We were passing people left and right.

A mille and a half in, Kirk’s advice kept poking at me. If I wanted to finish, I’d need to slow the heck down. “I’m gonna have to fall behind you, Kevin.”

“That’s fine. Go your own pace. I’ll see you at the finish.”

~ ~ ~

The first aid station was at mile 3. I grabbed water and stopped to stretch each of my calves for a few seconds. Because my FiveFinger shoes have no cushioning, they require a fore-foot strike. Landing on the balls of my feet requires my Achilles tendons and calves to work a lot. I try to stretch them out as often as I can. And this half marathon was no exception.

The route took us along a country road. Farmhouses sat on the corners of their fields. Black and white cows stood near the edge of fences. It was overcast and 60 degrees. I couldn’t have asked for better running conditions, and yet I got them: for most of the way, the road had gravel shoulders. I prefer running on anything except pavement. It’s easier on my calves, and I like the the feel of the varied terrain under my feet.

Once I hit the five mile mark, I felt like I was jumping off into an abyss of the unknown. To my knowledge, I had never run 5 miles before.

The next aid station was at mile 6.5. I stopped again to stretch. I was feeling pretty good. No cramps in my calves. Off again, and soon I passed mile 7. I was now over halfway! I smilled. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.

Then, near disaster struck. To cross an intersection, I stepped from the shoulder onto the road. Stepping back onto shoulder and into the gravel, I jammed a rock into my toe, catching it on my toenail and lifting it up. $@%&^! That hurt like hell. I stopped and tried to stretch the shoe away from my toes, and pushed my toenail down in a futile effort to undo the damage. I wiggled my toe a few times; it seemed OK. I started running. A minute later, it caught again. Dangit. I got back on the road. No more running on the “plush” gravel shoulder. With 5.5 more miles still to go, I was worried my muscles might rebel against the hard pavement.

Somewhere around mile 8 or 9, a fork in the road appeared. A tiny sign was stapled to a stake on the side of the road. I almost had to squint to read it:

1/2 –>

<– Marathon

I took a right.

Mile 10 went by, but I didn’t see a marker. I fell in step behind a pair of older guys. One of the guys was wearing a high-tech watch that talked to him. “You are at ten point five miles. Your pace is at nine point three six minutes per mile. Two point six miles remain.” Now that was cool.

Up until this point, I was glad I didn’t know how fast I was going, or how long I had run, or exactly how much of the race was left. Without any external knowledge, I had fallen into a comfortable pace — one that should get me to the finish. Now, with just over two miles left, barring any freak tornado touch downs or mad cow stampedes, I should make it to the end — maybe even within my two-hour goal.

At the pace these guys were running, we’d all finish somewhere around 2:05 or 2:06. I followed them until the guy’s watch announced mile 12. Alright, one mile and change to go. Let’s go for 2 flat! I started picking up speed. At the top of a hill, I took off.

Down I flew, spinning my legs like Road Runner. I passed lots of people who had already passed me. I hit the bottom of the hill and felt my new speed catching up to me. Too fast too early? Maybe so, but I couldn’t slow down now. I couldn’t let those people who passed me once pass me again! My lungs felt ragged. Up and down another hill. At the bottom, a guy in his 70’s wearing a floppy fishing hat held a sign that read “Last 1/2 mile

“You can do it!” he yelled. “Only a half mile to go!”

I smiled and almost teared up. That guy buoyed my spirits. Okay, okay, one more hill. (Seriously?) At the top, I heard a clock tower start to clang. I knew what that meant: it was 10 o’clock. My two hour mark. Below me, the lake came into view and the road curved toward it. The finish was somewhere there, behind the trees, just a few hundred yards away. I beat down the hill, lungs pumping, legs like Jell-O. Just don’t fall on your face!

Now the banner came into view, orange cones leading the way, and lots of people. I passed a guy swinging a flag saying, “Take a right, and 20 yards to the finish line!” With such a hard turn into the finish, there wasn’t much room to mount an epic final sprint. Oh well. I made the turn  and spotted the clock as I ran over the line: 2:02:10. Not two hours flat, but darn close!

I did it!

I stopped running. I scanned the crowd. No Kevin. I grabbed a bagel and a bottle of water. I could only eat half. I kept looking around, and started feeling worried. Kevin was way ahead of me, he should of finished at least 10 or even 15 minutes ago.

I looked back at the finish line, and there he was, crossing it! What the hell? 

He spotted me. “Hey–” I said.

“I am so pissed!” he spat.

“What the heck happened to you?”

“Well, I was I was just running along, looking at my feet and thinking, ‘OK, the finish line has to be here somewhere.’ All of a sudden, I see mile marker 14. FOURTEEN. Do you remember that stupid little sign? I took the wrong turn!” He was fuming.

I laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding me! You must be the first person ever to run a fourteen-mile half marathon! Congrats!”

“Gahh!” He kicked the dirt. “”Damnit!

Kevin cooled off about his miss-race. We calculated that he probably would have finished around 1:45, give or take a few minutes. It was hard to say, given the entire extra mile he ran plus the time it took him to flag down a car to bring him back to the half marathon finish line.

“Well, Schroeder, you’ve got to be happy. Finishing in 2 hours! Pretty incredible for all that training you did,” he said.

“I know, hey?” I was happy.

And, I was happy, too, I that I’d run my own race. ☼

 

[Thanks to my dad, Kevin now has a new nickname: ‘Wrong-Way Charlie.’]