Nina Simone’s rendition of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” has been my go to song when I’ve been needing or wanting extra inspiration the past several months. While the history of this song carries tremendous weight, the verse “I wish I could do all the things that I can do, though I’m way overdue I’d be starting anew” has recently triggered reflections on my journey as an athlete. In many deep, emotional ways, the Knoxville Half race ended up being one of those moments in life that I will never forget: embracing the intensity of feeling alive and happy but also continue my personal pursuit and discovery of what makes me feel free.
This was our third year in a row coming to Knoxville and we were very excited to leave town and take our first family road trip of the year. Our Knoxville family always take amazing care of us and their hospitality is unparalleled; it almost feels like a second home to us. During the drive down I could feel my confidence building ever so slightly. In the days prior, I had been talking to coach Greg about expectations for the race and I mentioned to him that I just wanted to make sure I executed what I knew I was capable of doing given the consistency of my training this past winter and spring. I was determined to pursuit this race with courage and attitude. I wanted to have the courage of making critical race decisions while having a sound mental attitude to race to my best potential.
Come race morning I was feeling rested and relaxed. All of my equipment and nutritional needs that needed to be checked had been checked. As Irma, her brother and I started to walk towards the swim start, Nina Simone’s tunes came back into my head and I immediately thought “This is great!” – my confidence skyrocketed.
My plan for the swim was to stay relaxed but keep an honest pace. I knew that finding a good rhythm was going to be key. As the swim started, I could see that one really good swimmer took the lead and with the sun in our faces I thought it would be best to follow his lead and have him do the sighting work. Once we made it to the turnaround point it was much easier to sight our way back to the dock and my plan was to keep the pace relatively relaxed but not let this first swimmer get ahead too much.
Just like the week prior at the Kinetic Sprint race, when I came out of the water my heart did not feel like it was pounding hard and I was happy to know that I wasn’t going to work too hard to get my heart rate down once on the bike. When I came out of T1 my friend Eric gave me a split that I was 40 seconds behind the leader and I immediately committed to catching him with prudence. While I had an idea of what type of effort I could sustain for the bike leg, I didn’t want to burn all of my matches trying to catch up the leader. After the first 15 mins went by I could see the lead motorcycle vehicle and the race leader not too far ahead. At that point I saw in my bike computer that I was going much harder than what I had planned with Greg but I was feeling really good and when I saw an opportunity during a false flat to pass the leader I took it. I committed to staying at that higher-than-planned bike effort as long as I was feeling good. For the next 40 miles things went great, I kept taking my nutrition on point, ejected bottles I didn’t need and slowed down to take some fresh water in the bike support segments. At some point during the last 10 miles Ms. Simone’s song came back again in my head and for a couple of minutes I soaked everything in: feeling one with the bike, fearlessly taking corners, blissfully absorbing every minute of it. I felt like a feather; I felt free.
Coming out of T2 was another joyous moment as I was more than ready to run. This time around I was resolved not to be so obsessed with my pace and rather just breakdown the half marathon into thirds: first third find your groove, second third sustain it, last third bring it home smartly. I was feeling too good in the first mile and as I checked my pace I could tell I was way too excited and my motto then was “mas lento, mas lento” (slow down, slow down). I had also planned to stop at every run aid station and cool down and take some liquid calories. The volunteers at these run aid stations were fantastic and extremely helpful. After the first 5 or 6 miles I finally looked at my running pace and saw that I was going much faster than what I had planned and the temptation to push it a bit more flashed immediately and I thought about a recent conversation I had with my high school track coach (Gracias Osiris!) about pacing. I decided to put the excitement aside and stay within the more comfortable pace I was holding.
After the last turnaround I knew I only had 3 more miles or so and the excitement of keeping the lead started to influence again my running decisions. Despite feeling super excited I really struggled the last three miles to maintain my running form. All I kept telling myself was to keep it together and just execute, no need to do anything crazy. In the last hill my friend Dagmar, who has been another great training partner these past years, gave me a much needed pacing push but I wasn’t sure I would get a pacing penalty so I asked her to stop. The Rev3 organizers do an incredible job making these events very much friend and family oriented but I didn’t want to risk any penalties at that point.
Approaching the finishing chute I could hear Irma cheering and Isa incredibly excited waiting for me. As I ran by them, Isa and I locked hands and we crossed the finishing line with a great cheer from the crowd. It was a beautiful moment that I will never forget.