About 20 minutes before I officially crossed the finish line of my first marathon, punching my ticket to Boston, I was screaming at the top of my lungs.
"FUCK," I yelled, to no one in particular, hoping that someone might notice me.
Somewhere between the 23 and 24-mile mark, my right hamstring began throbbing in pain, nearly sending me toppling to the pavement.
Severely dehydrated, my vision began to blur and I couldn't see any runners in the 50-to-75 yards or so that remained somewhat clear ahead of me. On the verge of stopping to walk, I promised myself I'd make it to the next aid station before re-evaluating my current state.
As I continued along, the throbbing began to subside, but my language grew more colorful. Eventually, after what felt like a three-hour tour across the Tempe Town Bridge, I meandered across the finish line, earning a spot in Boston in the process.
Fifteen months separated the finish line in Phoenix from the starting line in Hopkinton, and within days after securing a qualifying time, I laid out a detailed plan of how I would prepare for the most important race of my life.
Technically speaking, I have no obligation to compete in Boston. I could show up out of shape, jog the course, stop for an hour and chat with the women from Wellesley College at Mile 13, and call it a day. But this is the Boston Marathon, the world's most prestigious annual race, and in the words of Wiz Khalifa, "Ballin's not a hobby, it's my occupation."
With April 17, 2017 on my mind, I decided to pursue a process that would maintain my running fitness while allowing me to keep the mileage and stress on my legs relatively low.
To prepare for Boston, I decided to run three half-marathons over a 12-month period, culminating with the Arizona Rock N' Roll Half-Marathon in January, 2017. By racing at a 13.1 mile distance in January, I'd stay on a 20-to-22 week training program for Boston I could start in December, while still having a race to look forward to in the dark, gloomy winter months.
"The process," a term familiar to fans of low-level NBA franchises, began in May of 2016, when I set out to run the Surfer's Path Capitola Half-Marathon near Santa Cruz, California. Considered one of the most beautiful courses in the country, the Surfer's Path track is nestled up against the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and finishes on the beach.
I chose the Surfer's Path because it was held two weeks after my college graduation, at a time when I planned on returning home to San Francisco, and most importantly, because I could run with my older sister.
My sister Jill had never raced competitively before, but took an interest in running long before I did. A club soccer player and a novice crew team member at San Diego State, Jill's athletic background was far superior to mine. She played a pair of college sports competitively, while I spent four years trying to convince people intramural flag football is really important.
Running with Jill was a great opportunity to share a passion of mine with a family member, but unfortunately, it didn't provide the training inspiration it should have.
In preparation for Surfer's Path, I tried to run four miles on a daily basis, fit in a pair of 10-mile training runs, and basically became the public relations director of The Vine Tavern and Eatery in Tempe, Arizona.
In the weeks leading up to and the days immediately following my graduation from Arizona State, I doubt anyone spent more money on Vinesday (Vine Wednesdays) than me. Long known for its $1 well drink special on Vinesdays, no one got quite the same pleasure out of telling their friends, "Hey, the next one is on me!" charging $10 to their credit card, and coming back with fistfuls of whatever the doctors ordered than I did.
Treating Vinesdays as part of my training regimen was probably ill-advised, but by the time I arrived to the start line of the Surfer's Path with my sister, "The Process" had begun.
A race consisting of roughly 1,500 competitors annually, I remember showing up to the start line with a quiet sense of confidence, finally able to run in 55-degree weather again after spending April and May laboring through my four-mile training sessions in the 85-degree Phoenix heat.
Before the gun went off, I surveyed the crowd to see who might provide the stiffest competition. I remember seeing a skinny guy, roughly my age, wearing UC Irvine track and field sweats. I thought, "Ok, well I'm not beating that guy, but no one else looks like much of a threat."
Thinking that sort of a thought is typically a huge mistake in running. If there's one thing I've come to learn when I show up to races, it's often times the out-of-shape-looking old people who whiz by me in the final miles as I limp to the finish line.
But for some reason, outside of the slender dude from UC Irvine, no one else was much of a threat.
On a brutally hilly course, I ran with the lead pack from the opening gun, holding a slight lead at the one-mile mark. Somehow, three years after collapsing in my shower after my first half-marathon, I was LEADING a race. Sure, there were only 1,500 runners, but it was a surreal feeling.
As soon as we hit the one-mile marker, though, the Irvine runner made his move, and a few minutes later, he vanished from my sight.
Running without a watch to keep time and without clocks at every mile marker (Surfer's Path is a fairly low-budget affair), I had no idea how fast I was running. What I did know, is that I was sprinting stride-for-stride with another young guy from miles two to 10, as we traded off positioning in second place.
Around mile 10, I remember telling my racing compadre, "It's all you, man. My knee is giving out. Take it from here, I'm falling back."
The only problem with that statement is that as I was saying it, he was slowly losing momentum, as his lack of breath caught up to him. Without having to run particularly hard over the final three miles, I cruised across the finish line with a half-marathon personal record of 1:20:52, a pace of 6:10 per mile.
Where that came from, I honestly have no idea. Maybe the lack of on-course clocks were a blessing, maybe every half-marathoner should include the Vine at their training regimen, or maybe it was the cool air and rolling hills, but somehow, I shaved 11 minutes off my time from my first half-marathon that I ran during my freshman year.
About 30 minutes later, my sister Jill crossed the finish line, securing a phenomenal time for a first-time competitor, especially someone who had never run more than eight miles in her life.
Though the road to step one of the process wasn't exactly a smooth one, it culminated with the best possible result I could have asked for. A new PR, a second place finisher's trophy (in this race, a custom replica Surfboard), and a case to be made that the Vine should be paying me for all the publicity I give that place.
My sister and me after running finishing 13.1 miles.
Accepting my second place finisher's custom surfboard. Probably the coolest prize a mediocre runner will ever receive.