Sunday, April 29, 2012

2012 Illinois Half Marathon - 1:45:11

This is going to be a crazy race report, it's more about my life than my race. It will be a complicated read, and it tells a story 6 weeks long, but I'm telling the story this way because racing and life are so often just perfect analogs of one another for us crazy few endurance athletes.

Pre Race

Lana and I woke up at 4:30, in a Red Roof Inn in Champaign, after running a 5k the night before. Completing both the 5k and the half netted us a special award, so we duffed the run the previous night.

Breakfast was peanut butter and honey on white bread. Then off to the races. It was stormy morning, and the temp was in the high 40s. The wind was about 20 mph SSE. The rain cleared before the 7am start.

I met my friend Mark and a coworker of his before the start. He was planning on pacing his friend to a 1:44:xx finish. My PR for the half was last year's race where I ran 1:46:34. I knew that if I had a PR in me for today, it would be small and hard fought, and my plan was to stick behind Mark as long as I could and see what happens at mile 10.

The national anthem was sung, we smashed up to the front of our corral, and we were off. After the first mile, my legs already hurt, but I was still conversational. A long winter of aerobic base training my run seemed to have left me with a big aerobic engine and a body unaccustomed running hard. This was going to hurt. Races are, and have always been where I fight against myself.

4 Weeks Prior, Wednesday

“I'm very sorry, but you have a leak in your aortic valve my friend.” A few weeks prior my low heart rate earned me a trip to visit a cardiologist. Then there was a 24 hour halter, a stress test, and echo, and a few EKGs. It was all a big joke. I exercise, I have awesome lipid levels, my resting heart rate is in the low 30s, I'm as fit as people get. But then it wasn't a joke anymore. I had a my heart.

“That's not good” was the only response I could muster. My new cardiologist gave me the gist of it. It's mild to moderate, whatever that means. Maybe I've always had it, or maybe it happened recently. Maybe it will never get worse, or maybe it will. Maybe I'll need open heart surgery someday. Maybe I'll need a valve replacement that comes from a dead person, or one from another place in my heart...but maybe it would be a mechanical valve that would require me to live the rest of my life on blood thinners. Increased risk of bleeding. The end of my days on a racing and competing. Maybe. Or maybe nothing. Or maybe nothing until I'm 80. Where do you go from there?

Where I went wasn't a great place. Worst case scenario. Plan for the worst. Identify the weakest link. Mitigate risk. But that didn't work here. The cold analystics that I apply to engineering computer systems maybe applies to a population of cardiac patients, but not a single person. I'm the single point of failure, the non redundant node. Nothing I could do. Where do you go from there? Where I went was to the lobby. I texted Lana. I had fought so hard to get my life back, to come back from where I was to be here.  And now this.  I sat down and cried. I was totally overwhelmed.

Mile 2

I stuck by Mark. My legs warmed up a little bit and I felt a little better. I never had that “wow, this is easy” taper feeling though. I didn't want to think about how bad it was going to get when the suck found me. For now I just tried to live in the moment. I'd worry about mile 2, mile 13 was a lifetime away.

4 Weeks Prior, Thursday

I didn't even want to get out of bed. I went between panicked, resolved to fight, ready to quit, and back again as I analyzed my new condition. I learned about it, thought about it, and tried to wrap my head and my emotions around the situation. But I did get up. That morning at 5am I did a 2x15 minute bike ride at 95% Threshold. When it got hard I quit. I can count the times I've walked away from a workout on one hand. This was one of them. I was afraid my heart would quit. I'd need to monitor my blood pressure daily now. It was sky high suddenly. I was a ball of stress.

Mile 4

My lungs were starting to work a little harder, my legs were feeling better. I was still in this. I choked down a gu and picked up a few cups of water as we turned into a head wind. Mark was dropping the pace just a little bit, doing a great job leading us towards a 1:44 goal.

3 Weeks Ago

Every morning I wake up, stand in front of the mirror, and brush my teeth. When I do, I'm reminded of my previous life. The 400 pound me is gone now, but not forgotten. I'm reminded of that person every time I look in the mirror and see the 20 pounds of loose skin hanging from body. I carry it with me every day as a reminder.  I had something new to carry with me now.

I spoke to a few other cardiologists, and I got some better news. Alot of the time, the thing I had doesn't get any worse, maybe it will never get worse for me. When it does get worse, it's usually when people are alot older than I am. I was maybe reaching acceptance, maybe, but I had something new to carry around.  I'd need to avoid salt, and take medicine to keep my blood pressure super humanly low.  

Mile 7

I still kept hanging on. It still wasn't easy. I was purposely keeping my blood sugar higher than normal to take the edge off. My legs were starting to fail. Before the suck had really found me, I was in a place where I could no longer will my legs to turn over at the speed required to stick the pace. Frustrating, but I dug deeper. The line was 10 miles. I had to make it to mile 10, then I could gut out the last 5k. Even if I couldn't drop my pace, Mark had banked us enough time that I could PR. If I could just hold on a little longer.

2 Weeks Ago

Friend, uber endurance runner, and cardiologist Dennis tried to ease my mind about the situation. After talking to him I was reassured. Alot of the time it just doesn't get any worse. Nothing is for sure in life, but if the news is that I might need heart surgery when I'm 70...well, who can't say that?

Sometimes it degrades really quickly, but I'm not sometimes. This is probably something I did to myself with uncontrolled high blood pressure, when I was 400 pounds, doing my best to commit suicide by food.  

It's a hard lesson to learn. There are things you can do to yourself that can't be undone by an older wiser you. It's an obvious lesson, I suppose. Life is hard, but success for me has always been measured more by “showing up every day” and less about winning the big race.

My mind went to a quote I just saw in a friend's email signature:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”
-Rocky Balboa

Mile 10

I made it, Mark was still in sight, but I was falling off the back. He was dropping to the 7:30s I guessed, and I couldn't follow. I surged, tried to catch up, and then fell back and recovered into a sustainable pace. If I could hold on, I could PR.

Mile 11
The suck finally found me. The seconds ticked by, everything hurt, and my goal became to get to mile 12 at my current pace. My brain disassociated with the physical stuff. A PR was still possible. I couldn't will my legs any faster, so I just focused on trying to be as economical as possible.

There may be a day I can't do this anymore. My heart valve might give out. Or maybe it will be my knee, that was supposed to never work well again, but it does.

My mind went to something else I heard, this time not from Rocky but from Aragorn, in “The Return of the King.”

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me! A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of Men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! 

There may be a day when I can't do this anymore, but that day isn't this day. Finally I was able to let the suffering in, let it wash over me, and welcome its familiarity.

And I got faster.

Mile 12-13.1

I saw Seth and Ryan (who ran the half in 74 running a cool down around mile 13.  I was in my groove and rushing to the finish.  I had just enough to kick a little bit on the .1.  I crossed the line in 1:47 gun time, a PR for sure. I walked a bit to cool down but I was a real mess.  There was no way I could have run another step.  


It's no secret I'm not much of a runner. A 1:45 half is nothing special to be sure, as far as 30-34M goes at least, but today I did pretty good. (And in the words of Billy Madison “It was hard for me, so back off!”) I put it all on the table, there was nothing else left. I finished running my 5k pace, in complete agony, but smiling, proud of where I was able to take myself. I crossed the line in 1:45:11 chip time, 666th out of 6756.


1 – 8:11
2 – 8:01
3 – 7:56
4 – 7:56
5 – 7:51
6 – 7:39
7 – 7:59
8 – 7:44
9 – 7:46
10 – 7:59
11 – 7:56
12 - 8:08
13 – 7:53
13.1 – 7:22

The Next Day

I regained consciousness at about 6:30. I moved my legs and pain was reintroduced into the vocabulary of my mind. Ouch. William was moving down stairs. I was hungry and there was a bowl of oatmeal with my name on it. I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was my beautiful wife laying next to me. Yesterday I fought against myself and won. I was up for an easy Sunday morning. I can't help but feel very lucky.

A few days ago I told Curt from “Running on Guinness” that sometimes it's like having two different lives, coming from where he and I were to where I am now. That's true, but also, getting from there to here has involved so many struggles and hard fought victories, of which a screwed up heart valve is just the newest.

“my life has been extraordinary
blessed and cursed and won
time heals but i'm forever broken
by and by the way...

i know that i am meant for this world”
-Muzzel, Smashing Pumpkins


  1. Amazingly written.
    Jill O

  2. Wow, just wow. You should write a book! Well, I guess writing these blog posts is like a book that never ends. Amazing story - you have an outlook that we all should adopt!


  3. Thanks Lauren. A book huh? Interesting idea...maybe?

  4. Thank you for blogging. I have been reading your blog since about September 2011. Your journey is amazing and inspiring. Please keep blogging. I hope to see you at the 2013 Illinois 1/2. I want to cross the finish line, too!

    1. Angie, that's very kind. Thanks! I'll keep writing!

  5. Mike, I had no idea, I'm speechless. There are so many things that you wrote that hit home... I literally got chills reading this. You are honest, real, make no excuses, and utterly inspirational because of that.

    1. Thanks Laura. I really went round and round about talking about the heart thing. I started this whole thing with the idea that putting it all out there might help someone else that's been where I was, but sometimes it's a struggle to talk about the big stuff.

      Anyway, thanks, to have an awesome athlete like you say they're inspired by my crazy blog, that's a high compliment for sure. :)

      Sorry I missed your talk last night, was curious to hear it. Take care!