by coach Chris McClung
It was a rocky start. I was 2 miles into my fourth-ever 10K with big goals to PR and the wheels were already coming off. I was hurting too much, already starting to fade and didn’t know why. I was ready to stop or quit fighting.
The time was nearly 10 years ago in October 2003. I was running the IBM 10K. And, I knew I couldn’t quit, not for pride, but because I had spent big money to purchase my own personal timing chip (a relic of the past) and sign up for 5 other races to follow in 5 months. It was all for a relatively new race series (at the time) that was collectively called the Distance Challenge (DC), and I wasn’t about to waste that money because of two bad miles.
Partly out of desperation and partly fear of seeing my own train wreck in process, what I did next is something typically not advised while running in midst of a thousand runners at high paces: I closed my eyes. Yep, with runners to my left and right, my eyelids dropped and everything faded to black. When I did this, my attention shifted from my watch and the runners around me to my breathing and how my legs and arms were moving.
As I meditated in this moment of crisis, the tension in my face, arms, shoulders, and legs began to fall away. I went from pushing the pace to letting it come to me, from forcing every effort to relaxing into each movement. It was as if Obi-Wan Kenobi himself was whispering, ”use the force, Chris” in my ear. I had learned what it meant to run relaxed from head to toe, and this lesson came at just the right time.
The rest of the miles are a blur in my minds eye. My next vivid memory emerges as I approach the finish line in a duel state of shock and awe as I see the race clock read a time that would be nearly a one-minute PR.
My Distance Challenge was on and the next five months would teach me running and life lessons that I still draw upon today. These lessons, from my experience, are hard to teach in training, usually requiring the wise instruction of adrenaline, competition, and pain that comes in the middle of a start and finish line.
In the DC, I also learned what it means to really race.
I was a soccer player growing up and never ran competitively in high school or college, so I had not experienced the true head-to-head battles that are often missing from road races as an adult. My races to that point were largely glorified time trials, pitting me against the watch and a previous version of myself. That all changed for me in race two of the Distance Challenge (the Pervasive 10-Miler at the time). In the series, you pretty quickly learn who your fellow competitors are, and 8 miles into race #2, I found myself neck and neck with two others in the DC.
We were battling for 9, 10, and 11th place on the road in this race, and from my perspective at the time, I was the least strong of the 3 of us. The 2 others traded the lead (within our group), each taking turns pushing the pace. I was hanging on for dear life knowing that, if I lost contact, they would be gone for good. With my new tactic in tow (yep, eyes closed), I latched onto the back and managed to stay there. As we approached the finish line, we were still right together. I knew from pre-race scouting that the finish line wasn’t visible from far off, but came quickly about 40 meters after a sharp right turn. Still at the back of the group, I took a wide approach to the final turn and started my kick just before it, slicing through on the inside of my competitors and past them. By the time they reacted to the move, the finish line was there, and I was raising my arms in victory like I’d won the race.
Certainly, I hadn’t really won the race, but I felt like it. It was the first time I had truly raced someone with anything on the line. And, I came out on top. It was exhilarating and fun and contagious. I would go on to to battle with those two throughout the series. Sometimes I came out on top and sometimes they did. We developed a healthy rivalry that changed my perspective on races and pushed me to places I wouldn’t have gone on my own.
The DC series made me a tougher runner and person.
Six tough races in five months is a grind. It’s called the Distance Challenge for a reason. And, that’s what makes it so beautiful. To simply finish, much less compete within it, it is about more than just showing up; you have to work hard and sustain that work consistently over the course of many months. It’s about self-discovery and not just fun. There’s no mud, foam, light or colored powder, just plenty of camaraderie amidst the sweat and tears. It’s not about the Facebook post to show off what you’ve done, it’s about the invisible badge of courage that comes from extending your limits and learning new thresholds for what you can do and accomplish.
With my first Distance Challenge, I did more races and ran more miles in 5 months than I had ever previously. I was tired…. a lot. But, I also set PRs at 5K, 10K, 10 miles, half marathon, 30K, and Marathon in those 5 months. I met friends that I still have, and I logged training miles and learned things that still pay dividends today.
If you’re interested in training for the Austin Distance Challenge, training at Rogue begins September 5th with a special Church of the Long Run Event. Check out marathon training options here and half marathon training options here.