December 13, 2007

The Five Phases of Success - or - Venice Christmas Run: A Race Report

The Santa Monica - Venice Christmas 10k is one of those yearly must-do runs. It's the type of race where the locals really dig deep to display their holiday spirit. Whether it be jingle bells tied to running shoes, or reindeer antlers on a wickable cap, there's enough happy and merry at this race to fill us all with our fair share of ho-ho-honess.

As you may know, I've spent the past few months struggling with exercise-limiting physical pain. Though I'm finally able to shuffle about on the road (as opposed to wasting my days on the dreaded elliptical), my achilles still doesn't feel completely healed. Regardless, Catherine and I decided to sign up for the Christmas Run, probably more out of habit than anything. Even so, we didn't have expectations of doing anything but a holiday shuffle.

You can imagine my surprise when the race went extremely well. In fact, it went so well, I was even able to come up with a new philosophy on life - and I know how much you love my life-altering philosophies.

So here you go, little buckaroo... my Christmas Run race report, also known as Ironman Life's Five Phases of Success.

Mile 1, Phase 1: MOTIVATION

There were nearly 1200 people that participated in this year's Christmas Run, but the moment I got to the starting line only one person caught my eye. His name is Phil. Phil the Dancing Grill, to be exact.

There's this company in Santa Monica called Westside Rentals. Their business has nothing to do with my story, so I won't get into that. The reason I bring them up is due to their main promotional effort, which is to have Phil standing on the corner of 11th Street and Wilshire Blvd, usually dressed in a caped gladiator costume, holding an oversized Westside Rentals sign and dancing his butt off all day. For 5 hours per day, 5 days per week, Phil the Dancing Grill stands on the corner and dances like he's in some sort of Saturday Night Fever induced haze.

In fact, you can see Phil in action (sans Gladiator costume) by clicking here.

I don't know Phil, never talked to the guy in my life. But the way he dances, the way he's become a quasi- local celebrity - well, it just irks me in my most irkable locations.

So when I saw Phil standing there at the front of the crowded Christmas Run starting line, all smiling and bouncing, wearing his cape, holding up his Westside Rentals sign and screaming "Weeessst-SIIIIIDE!!!".... well, the irking got reignited. If there's one thing I don't need at 7:30 on a cold Saturday morning, it's irk.

I turned to Catherine. No way in hell is that Westside dancing dork gonna beat me today, I said with a gaze of focused, irk-filled motivation.

It was 7:30am. The gun went off and the crowd started moving. I could see above the crowd separating us that Phil took off like a rocket. Catherine and I were in the middle of the pack, so Gladiator-boy got a good 10-15 second head start before Catherine and I even crossed the starting line.

What with all his dancing and strutting and inane tom-foolery, I assumed Phil was a pretty good runner. I've competed in a few dance marathons in my youth (don't ask) and have come to understand the true value of a running background when it comes to endurance dancing.

Prior to seeing Phil, my strategy was to take the first couple of miles slowly and then pick it up for the last four. But now there was Phil. Now there was motivation. As soon as I hit the starting line, I picked up a pace that was quite faster than "take it slowly." Within a few seconds I had already dropped Catherine. I weaved my way in and out of the crowds, focused and determined to keep my sites on Senior Dancing Grill. He's not getting away from me. Not the dancing gladiator. Not today. Not in my house.

As it turns out, I caught up to Phil within a half mile. I saw the look of struggle crawling across his face as I passed him by. Well what have we here? I told myself. Mr. Dance Machine doesn't have the running gene, after all.

I knew right away that I would probably beat Phil in this race, which is about all I needed to de-irk myself. It was at that point that I noticed my legs were feeling pretty good. I had kicked this race off with a fairly aggressive pace and somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I may actually be able to hold the pace for awhile. I was motivated, I kept moving.

Soon enough I hit the one mile marker and rapidly descended into Phase 2.

Mile 1 split: 7:33

Mile 2, Phase 2: REALIZATION

I looked at my watch as I passed the one mile mark. 7:33.


My mind started bouncing back and forth, mostly saying things like "uh-oh" over and over again. The realization had set in.

Here's the reality: I'm older than 40. I started running when I was 12. I used to run fast in my youth, but I am no longer in my youth. My body is shot, my leg muscles are scar tissue. I'm not a 7:33 miler. It's taken awhile to realize this, but I've finally come to terms with my slowness.

Over the past 4 weeks my average running pace has been a 10:11 mile. I am, at this stage of my existence, a 10 minute miler. Sure, maybe in a race that might translate to 9 minute miles. 8:30 at best. 7:33? No way.

As I moved on into mile 2, I began to convince myself to slow down. You're too old for this, I told myself. You're not good enough.

And just as I was about to slam on the brakes, I decided to buy a bigger bowl. I dared to believe that I could go fast again. What if, I told myself.

What if I could maintain this for the entire race.
What if I believed I was this fast.
What if I tried.

And that's what I did. I blazed through mile 2. I decided to believe I could keep this pace. And as my realization of reality morphed into a new me, I kept passing people and soaking up their energy. And just as quickly I hit mile 3...

Mile 2 split: 7:11

Mile 3, Phase 3: PERSPIRATION

The joy of once again running 7-somethings lasts about 2 miles. Though you can motivate yourself to run faster than another person and you can convince yourself to believe a new paradigm of life, there comes a point when the facade of happiness wears off and reality sets in. That happened around mile 3.

Motivation got me through the first mile. A new realization got me through the second. Mile three is where the hard work began.

My body started reacting, fighting, perspiring. My heart rate had been in the high 160s since the starting gun and now I was firmly implanted in the 170s. The lactic acid was building up and my breathing was getting more difficult. My mind began arguing with my body. Slow down, it would scream. What the hell are you doing to yourself?!

I opened my mouth to ingest more oxygen. To breathe life into me as I pushed forward in man's ultimate battle between the travails of discomfort and ease of mediocrity.

Do I slow down? Do I give up on myself? Or do I push harder, knowing that this beating of my heart, this gasping of my lungs, this burning in my legs - this is what it means to be alive.

I chose life.

And so I began to concentrate further, to delve deeper into myself and keep moving forward. Until, eventually, I got to Phase 4.

Mile 3 split: 7:28

Mile 4, Phase 4: ACTUALIZATION

In any difficult challenge, there comes a transition point between the body and the mind in which the two begin to reverse roles. The body, once the driver, begins to fade into the background; to move into autopilot and be driven by the power of the mind. It is often not a smooth transition. The body fights and struggles. It claws at the mind, scraping and screaming for it to give in.

For an athlete, this is often the phase in which life displays itself in vivid bursts. It is the phase in which the strength of your character is manifested.

As I delved deeper into Mile 4, I was cognizant of this battle. Already more than half way done with the race, I knew I couldn't give in. And I knew that this mile was going to be my big challenge.

As my body mauled and molested my mind, I fought back. I went faster. I delved into the depths of concentration and, like a sad excuse for a character out of Heroes, I pushed the evil into the dark corners of the past. I struggled to stay in the present, feeling every movement, every breath, every step.

Save the runner, save the world.

And soon enough, I was on Mile 5.

Mile 4 split: 7:24

Mile 5, Phase 5: DETERMINATION

Two miles is not far to go. Two miles is near the end. Two miles is a warm-up, a cool-down, a swim distance. Two miles is a sprint.

With only two miles to go, I knew I could do this. I could hold this pace. I could push myself further.

My body was moving faster but I couldn't sense a difference. I was being driven by my mind, focused on nothing but the present. I was determined.

Suddenly, I started passing more and more people. Those that had been seemingly minutes ahead of me, were now images in my rear view mirror. I could breathe. I felt the sanctity of life, of goodliness and spirit, course through my veins. I focused all of my efforts on just finishing this mile. This is it, I said. This is easy.

I smiled. And laughed. And I reached the mile 5 marker.

Mile 5 split: 7:19

Mile 6, Phase 6: ELEVATION

They call it "being in the Zone" when everything is working together perfectly. Full involvement. Energized focus. Flow.

There is a profound clarity you get in the moments of flow. For me, I feel as if my feet don't touch the ground. Literally, I'm flying. All of the hard work, the pain and struggle, it becomes effortless.

Mid-way through mile 6, I achieved the flow. I was completely, utterly in the present. Moving without effort, focused, determined and serene. Chills ran up my spine.

There's a shift in the space-time continuum when you are in the Zone. Though you're moving fast, responding in milliseconds, every step is in slow motion. It's like you're in the middle of The Matrix, battling the forces of evil with such little effort as your limbs move in preposterously fast maneuvers.

I picked up the pace even more, moving my legs to their limit. I wished my joints were more limber to enable me to go faster. If I could, I would.

I ran. Harder, faster, stronger. Free-er.

Mile 6 split: 7:06

I crossed the line in 45:17. Not a PR, but one of the most blissfully satisfying races I've had this decade. I changed my reality and saw that I still had something deep inside.

As I've been out on the road this week, shuffling along at my regular 10+ minute per mile pace, something seems different. A light had been lit inside me and I knew - I know - that I can be the person that I strive to be. Life, I've been reminded, is not easy. We go through phases of growth - motivation, battle, acceptance - but in the end, if we are dedicated to our purpose, determined to be the best that we can be, we are elevated.

It's all in the flow.


Catherine said...

maybe you should read your aug. 12th post for a little more reality ... you've been running 7 min. miles, when you need to, for months now.

KayVee said...

Coolest race report ever. Amazing what you can do when "you put your mind to it." We do the opposite to ourselves all the time, don't we? Way to go!

j. said...

good point, catherine... i suppose i have run 7-somethings twice this year. guess i had forgotten about that while i was out on the 10k course. maybe i'm not getting old and decrepit after all.

stronger said...

Elevate- I like it. Great report. Nice work passing up the grill.

jbmmommy said...

I guess you'll never be quite so irked by Phil again after the motivation he inspired. Nice race, too, that's some speed.

triathlonmom said...

OMG, that sounds like a beautiful race, and well deserved after a leash of injury for so long.