The Element of Surprise: 5th Annual Siesta Key Beach 5K Run/Walk for Mental Health Awareness

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Erasing the stigma: 5th Annual Siesta Key Beach 5K Run/Walk for Mental Health Awareness

“It was a dark and stormy night” the night before, but the morning promised to be sunny.

A chill swept over me as I stepped out of the car at 6:20 this morning in Siesta Key, Fla. It wasn’t a premonition; there just happened to be a chilly breeze. I slipped out of my tee shirt and into my running jersey. Number 17. I had thought, last night when I picked up my registration package, of asking for number 40 since today is my 40th birthday, but decided I was probably being a little corny. Slipped into my Brooks Ghosts and wandered to the sign-in table to make sure I was all set. They tore a piece off my number and put it in the door prize pot and set me free to wander about and warm up.

Siesta Key Beach has often been rated the number 1 beach in America. When it’s not, it’s in the top 5. Every year. It’s beautiful. The beach is wide, pretty flat, clean with the finest white sand I’ve ever seen.

I walked out to take a look at the beach after warming up and stretching. Then I walked back to the registration table. They weren’t helping anyone so I asked where the start was.

“On the beach.”

OK. I can deal with that. Guess we’ll start, run across somewhere and hit some hardtop.

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise!”

Eventually we all headed from the wooded picnic area where everyone decided to stretch out to the beach, where we would start. The sand was extremely fine and I quickly built up a collection of it in my shoes. I was not happy.

I got to the start area and removed my shoes, shaking a couple of tablespoons of powdery sand out of each. I looked around and didn’t see a marked path anywhere nearby to head to the hardtop. The only candidate for a path that way was right through an AVP Beach Volleyball tournament that was setting up, so I wasn’t sure where we’d be heading.

The two-minute warning was given and everyone moved closer to the surf, gathering on the hard-packed sand near the water, turning on their music, getting jittery and doing some final stretches.

The days when I would move near the front for something like this are distant memories. I migrated to the middle of the back, adjusted the volume on my phone and made sure my Endomondo workout tracking app was ready to go. Someone announced there was water at the turn-around. Bummer, so just one water point. I had been doing training runs both with and without my 1-liter Camelback-type bladder and had decided not to use it. I was beginning to second guess myself now. Oh, well, 30 seconds to go. Make the best of it. That’s all you can do.

“… along the beach , hit the turn around and come right back.”

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Fine, powdery sand stretches to the Gulf of Mexico along 2 miles of Siesta Key beachline.

Not sure who said it, but with 10 seconds to go, the knowledge I’d be running in the sand the whole time hit me like the Spanish Inquisition.

A whistle blew. The pack surged forward. I moved around a few people, constantly taking inventory: am I starting too fast? Too slow? Is this the best track to take? Move closer to the water? Further away?

And through — and between — each thought a common tune was heard: “The whole course is on the sand? I can’t believe this!”

I tried to focus on my breathing and managed to distract myself as I suddenly thought of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. I’d been stationed there, in the Mojave Desert, for MOS school and then for nearly three years, later, as a permanent duty station. I could remember runs with my units: MCCES, 3rd LAR, H&S Bn. and with my dog Wrangler. At least the sand by the water wasn’t as loose as that sand was. And no sidewinders or scorpions to worry about.

Breathing. Not bad. The bronchial spasms I’m sometimes subject to felt like they were waiting to strike a few times, but so far nothing yet. Breathing was going good. Could I carry on a conversation right now? Probably. OK, good, that’s what a blog I read said was a good way to judge your first mile pace.

Reeled in a few more people. Darn, that barefoot girl is just hanging there off my right heel. Keep an eye out for her when you pass this next group. Clear? Yes. Surge a little bit.

Sign post ahead.

I could see the 1 mile marker up ahead. Time to turn the pace up a notch. Started to stretch my legs out some, but … that negative attitude about the sand reared its ugly head again. The pace kept slacking. I had to fight to keep it going. And the sand at this point wasn’t as hard-packed as the first mile. The way the sand sloped there was a ridge that kept the water from coming up so high, but the water was up to that ridge now. Not sloppy, but loose enough.

Hey! Water! People were bypassing that little table at the turn-around, but not me, I snatched it up like a pro, spun about while chugging the Dixie cup of precious fluid, threw the cup down and sprinted away, a little extra pep in my step.

That third half-mile had been a pain. Why was I so down? I was out running on a beautiful beach in gorgeous weather and who cares if the course is all sand? Let’s run!

Wow! I’m still breathing pretty easy. Feeling good. Mentally casting out a line and reeling in one runner after another. There’s that mile marker, again.

Warp speed, Scotty!

I noticed my stride was a little longer than has been usual since starting to run again back in January. As a matter of fact, it reminded me of the stride I had back when I was a corporal and sergeant, and even as a staff sergeant. Those days when I defied my growing gut and still got sub-20s in the 3-mile PFT run. Exciting.

Breathing? Yeah. Still breathing easy, actually. And now I’m back on the harder-packed sand. Turn up another notch.

There’s a heavy-set gal running in front of me. “No way,” I thought, “just no way I’m not passing her.” And just like that I had caught her and was past. Up ahead was a guy with a sub-10-year-old looking boy at his side. Target marked.

They must have sensed the cross hairs on their backs. They accelerated. Crap.

Where’s the finish line? OK, not going to catch them, but I’ll close in. Kicked up another notch.

Hey, I still feel pretty good. Let’s go!

“I’m givin’ ‘er all I’ve got, Cap’n!”

Two hundred yards to go and I’m sprinting. A bunch of people are standing there. They’re cheering. The Newsboys are telling me I’ve got “One Shot.” And I’m taking it.

31:32.

I didn’t know it, but I ran 15:46 out and back; negative splits. They moved the cones back so that the second half was 1.6 miles instead of 1.5. I was gasping for air, briefly, after the finish but quickly recovered my equilibrium. I kicked back some water and looked at my phone. When I saw the splits I knew I could have done better. And I will.

I’m 40. My kids think I know everything. I don’t, but I hope to keep on learning. Today’s lesson about pacing hurt my pride a little bit, but it’s a good lesson and I’ll be working on that for the next time. And yes, despite my negative feelings about the course being on sand, there will be a next time for this run. The after-run was MCd by people with personality who made it fun. First up were the door prize give-aways. They asked us to be excited. There was polite applause, but no yelling and cheering from those called up.

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That's face of a happy camper. 40 today, first 5K in roughly a decade under his belt and a beautiful morning to enjoy it all.

Well, until the said, “Number 17.” I wooped for joy, jumped up, pumped my fists in the air a few times and ran up on stage. I won’t lie. I wanted a Chick-Fil-A gift card. I knew they had them. I got one for Home Depot instead. I still did a happy dance and received high-fives from the high school girls from Wisconsin who were sharing my picnic table. Sadly, none of them won a door prize — they really wanted to win flowers to give the one girl’s mom.

I took home a gift card, but they took home medals: 1st and 2nd in the 13-15 girls and 1st in 16-18 girls. They’ll definitely have something to show off when the get home from Spring Break in a few days.

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