As an autistic person, I'm aware of my natural inclination towards the negative, or rather my freedom from the pronounced optimism bias that pervades most neurotypical thinking. As such, it would have been easy for me to look at the course map for the Fayetteville Half Marathon and see the Fayetteville half empty. Compared to my first race in Winslow which had everything, the Fayetteville course was mostly flat with only three climbs. There would be no gravel, no mud. The temperature at the start would be a comfortable 26 degrees, partly cloudy with just a slight breeze and no chance of rain or snow. It had all the makings of an unremarkable half marathon experience.
Fortunately, though, I'd been horribly ill for almost a month before the start of the race. Whatever cardiovascular training I had missed out on during that time was more than made up for by my non-stop, day-and-night coughing, hard coughing that accomplished nothing because inflamed tissues deep in my body were producing new sputum at the exact rate the old sputum was being ejected. As the 471 of us all gaggled at the starting line, I had a good feeling that my respiratory difficulties, along with the containment uncertainty caused by my two failed attempts to pee immediately before the start, would add just the right adversity to make the experience fun.
The gun went off and we gradually accelerated from a walk to jog as the faster people squeezed through the starting gate. By the time we turned south onto Razorback road past the John McDonnell Field, I was at race speed. I'd observed previously that even the most severe cough tends to disappear completely as soon as I start running, usually to return with vengeance whenever I stop. Indeed, this is what happened, to my great relief. By not coughing, my mind was free to focus on the pressure building in my bladder and the reality that relieving that pressure would not be possible without also relieving the associated pressure in my bowels, which I had not noticed before. This is not a new problem for me, my unruly digestive track. It is a part of me, and my anxiety just wouldn't be anxiety without it! Still, timing Immodium doses before adventures like half marathons and kayaking trips remains an elusive art. No problem, though. The water station at the top of the first hill had port-a-potties with no line. After two minutes in the penalty box, I had improved my sense of well-being to a state even better than it would have been had I been able to go before the race. I was able to fly down the hill on Garland, recapturing most if not all of my lost time, happy to have faced unexpected adversity so early in the race.
Garland was dead flat for the next several miles leading to the U of A Agriculture Department compound where we turned around. I got to see my friend David as he flew past me the other direction, his feet barely touching the ground. At the compound, I got to run a few hundred yards on gravel and then on a grassy shoulder for a while which felt wonderful compared to the pavement that made up the rest of the course. Going back south on Garland, we eventually weaved through a residential area and ended up on the Scull Creek Trail at Sycamore. I was breathing hard but still breathing, running just over ten-minute miles and feeling reasonable well, all things considered.
I knew what was ahead as I passed Wilson Park and the grade of the trail started to build. The hill was no worse than what I run up all the time in training, but I could tell pretty quickly that my conservatively estimated (healthy) finishing time of 2:15 was not going to happen this day, even though I was still on pace for that. Long before I got to the summit on Maple street, I was already taking walk breaks to cover one nostril at a time and blast 30-degree cones of thick, yellow snot on the sides of the race course. Starting the second loop down Garland, I found myself shuffling along unable to recover my breath from the climb onto Maple rather than flying down as I had done the first time. Doing some quick math, I figured out I would need dig down and find something for the last four miles or I would not even beat my Winslow time. There was still a bit of hill left so I kicked it and didn't let off until I was back at Wilson park looking up the hill. Then I kicked it up the hill!
I am profoundly grateful to the passer-by and the runner behind me who both shouted at me as I ran right past a barrier with a large arrow pointing left towards a sidewalk where I was supposed to have turned. It was at the very top of the hill and, even though I had run that section less than an hour earlier, I was in such an hypoxic delirium that I simply blasted right past the sign. Props, guys, you saved the day!
The percussion quartet who were banging on garbage cans with sticks under the one overpass in the university district lifted my spirit immensely but did not seem to lift my pace which had dropped off sharply from the first two-thirds of the race. The shallow downhill grade leading back to the John McDonnell Field did not lift my pace either. I thought entering the track of the team that has won 42 NCAA Track and Field championships would give me a psychological boost and it did, but it still did not lift my pace. Somewhere earlier, I had managed to pass a younger runner who had been pacing me beautifully for almost the entire race. I knew he was close behind me so I veered towards the outer lanes and motioned for him to pass saying that he had paced me the whole way and was going to finish ahead of me. He thanked me but then took off so fast I could not have stayed with him if I had wanted to. I guess he had some kick left! I struggled across the finish line in 2:21:55, almost three minutes faster than I ran at Winslow, and was woozy and unresponsive as the trophy gals gave me my medal and cut the timing chip off my shoe. I did wobble around long enough to regain myself and thank them, though, as I tried to do to all the volunteers around the course. They were awesome!
The coughing resumed almost instantly as I found my way to a bench to retie my shoe that had come untied as as they removed the timing chip. My friend David Dinan, who had just run what for me is an unfathomable personal record time of 1:36, kindly waited around the additional 46 minutes it took me to finish so that he could congratulate me on my own PR. That made me really happy. I was also able to find the gal who shouted to me as I ran off course and thank her. We had passed each other and talked a few times during the course but in the end, I faded and she did not. She finished several minutes ahead of me.
The race was last Sunday. On Tuesday, I finally decided it was time to go to the doctor. I admit I did have fantasies that my illness was this "walking pneumonia" I've heard of--it would be fun to brag that I finished a half marathon with pneumonia--but alas! she said it was mere bronchitis, which is not even close to being a medical emergency. It's not even previously undiagnosed asthma combined with a sinus infection so severe it would require surgery like my sister had when she ran Winslow with me. Still, it's the ailment I had and it provided just the right amount of adversity to turn what could have been an ordinary race into a great one that I can really be proud of. Definitely Fayetteville half full!