Brain v Legs, The Never-ending Battle

It was only a week before that I crashed out of the Orcas Island 50km ultra-marathon trail race before I found myself stepping toe to toe with the some of best at the start line of the Vancouver First Half Half-Marathon last weekend.

The week before I had thrown myself in for only my second (and determinedly not to be my last) 50km trail race, over on the scenic, beautiful, sun-shining Orcas island, only to find myself screaming in agony in an ambulance at the 32km aid station, and thus was a little trepiditious and nervous pre-race only a week later.

My calves felt fine and I knew I was in good enough shape to not find myself placed among the DNF’s, but with my local running club supporting along the way (in-fact they organised the whole thing), and a PB of 1:22:59 only 1 month earlier, the usual pre-race nerves were finding themselves in unusual good spirits, unlike my usual joviality and throw-away nature which were lacking in humour. Luckily, as I found out later, resolve and stubbornness were also here for the party, and they were most welcome guests come finish time!

I hoped however that as soon as that gun went off I could relax (?) into a good pace and grit on through to a good finish time. I was aiming for somewhere inbetween a 3:40 – 3:45km pace to start, knowing that it would give me a slight barrier for a 3:50-3:55 worst case scenario in the later part of the race and still hit my hopeful 1:21 – 1:23 finishing time.

Double check of my shoe laces, re-tie for no other reason than nerves, re-check the watch, settle up behind Barry for the start, triple check the watch, pretend to know the Canadian national anthem, and ‘BANG’ we were off.

As with all my races I get a little carried away in the first couple of km’s, the problem being that I can run 3:20 – 3:30 pace for a little while, and so it was after a couple of k, that I found myself on for a 3:35 average pace, knowing I was being a naughty runner, yet enjoying the space, freedom and speed that this pace gives. At mile 1 we passed the start line again and I waved to my adoring fans (ahem?), momentarily ran backwards for the camera (read – Han, Steve, Susan, Julia, David and other PRR members) and woke up to reality.

Running backwards

“Ok Nick calm down, relax, being slower is just fine, you’ll appreciate me telling you this later on” noted the reliable, sensible brain.

“But I feel fine right now, lets carry on like we are .., wahey look at me go, I’m flying man” responded the amnesic race legs.

And so it was for the first 3-4 km that I battled between the physicality of the race, and the mental knowledge of what was to come. By km 5 though one of my fellow PRR running buddies, Barry Young, was pulling away sufficiently for my competitive nature not to get caught up in a race I couldn’t win, and I started to hit that race-pace that I hoped I could sustain for another 16km. By km 7 my hopes of staying in touch with Ellie Greenwood were dissipating as well as her ultra-trail legs pulled her onwards away from sight, and so it was that any runners I knew were gone from my vision and I could concentrate on my own pace, and my own race. A lesson I suspect I need to learn, and one alone that experience will hopefully teach me.

The next 8-9km were fairly normal and uneventful (as half marathons go) as I found myself settling behind ‘Mr Light Blue Top’ and probably thoroughly annoyed him as I let him lead me on a 3:45-3:50 pace without ever taking the brunt of the work, never leading upfront to pull him along.

And so it was once again I found myself hitting Lost Lagoon (we passed the lake once on the way out, then hit it again on the way back) around the 14-15km mark and things started to ‘properly’ hurt. Sure I was in pain and working hard, gritting and bearing the pace before this, but I was in the last 6-7km of the race and I found myself both mentally revelling and physically hurting in this fact. The gritting got stronger, and the bearing got harder.

And then I hit a moment of serenity and calm.

I had recently been reading the book ‘Born to Run’ and passages kept popping up in my head of people who were running ridiculous 100mile plus races who had to dig deeper and find unknown reserves of willpower that I couldn’t even imagine finding. I always felt (and feel) inspired by these people and find myself wondering if I could ever do the same. Sure this ‘little’ half-marathon isn’t in the same league, but I felt that I had to prove a little something to myself. The logical and aforementioned reliable brain started to talk …

“Nick, you can be as strong as those people. Sure it’s going hurt right now, but in 30mins time you’re really going to be thankful for staying on pace!’

‘But it reaaaalllllly hurts.’ my wimpering legs lamented in response.

‘STFU and keep moving you f**king wimp!’ the brain retorted.

And I decided to listen.

Sure the moment of serenity and peacefulness probably lasted about 2 seconds, but that’s all I needed to kick my legs that one step harder and to not let the pace drop (reviewing my stats after the race I stayed at nearly the same pace all throughout bar the opening speed workout). And this is what I’m most proud of in the race – this moment around the 15km mark when things were tough and I had to find out if I had something that last weekend had me doubting I had.

KM16 passed, KM17 popped up and I found myself even making a joke with the aid station staff asking for a taxi, km18 ….. it hurts, km19 – where’d this small hill appear from, I can’t remember this on the way out, km20, ok this is really hurting right now, but just one more to go …..

And ‘Bam’ there was the finish line.

And so I found myself gritting harder and working harder up-to the finish line to secure myself a 1:21:09 half marathon. A new P.B., but more than that some re-kindling of belief that I can sustain some element of running pain and exhaustion, and once again a personal agreement to myself that next time I’ll train harder so it doesn’t hurt as much.

‘But it will hurt just as much, you’ll just be a bit faster.’

Leave me alone brain, just help me find those free post-race raspberry muffins …..

The Vancouver First Half Half Marathon is put on my running club Pacific Road Runners and raised over $50,000 for the charity Variety this year, due to the amazing volunteering done by the club members.






One response to “Brain v Legs, The Never-ending Battle”

  1. Dad Avatar

    Well done Nick and proud that you have the gritty determination which runs in our family. Never give up!
    Even your vocabulary has improved using words I didn’t know existed.
    Proud of you as always.