We arrived in Houston at about 3p.m. where we were met by Chris, the man who had volunteered to open his home for us. Almost instantly, the three of us bonded. Chris drove us to pick up our packets for the Houston Half Marathon. As we walked in, Chris mentioned he had met a woman earlier named Patty who told him to tell me that she said hi to Julio. Chris stated that Patty laughed and said I would know what that means. I certainly did as I responded with my own laugh. Chris took Jen and me to Nifa's for some amazing Mexican food that night. The next morning, we woke up early to get to the starting line area of the Olympic trials. The 300 best elite runners in the world would compete to represent Team USA for the Marathon in this summer's Olympic Games. It was cold. Jen mocked me for being from Chicago where it was snowing and temps were in the teens yet I was shivering for temps in the middle thirties. A thunderous roar from the crowd greeted the male then later, female runners as they ran by us. To be that close to the best runners in the world was very moving. The races were exciting. The men made their way through 26.2 miles and neared the finish. The crowd was electric. As touching as it was, I was more intrigued by the women's race. It came down to the wire as the amazing Shalane, Desiree, and Kara finished one, two, and three earning the spots to represent USA. It was a powerful moment which sent chills up my spine. It was magical to be just feet from those athletes as they celebrated their achievement.
On Saturday afternoon, Chris, Jen, and I join seventy other individuals at a lunch-in for the C Different Foundation, the non profit started by my friend, contractor, model, actor, film producer, triathlete, spokesperson, Matt Miller. The director of the Texas chapter of the C Different Foundation, David Adame, was the master of ceremonies. As Jen, Chris, and I walked into the restaurant, a car drove by and someone yelled out from inside the car, "You're my hero!" I told Chris, "I think they're talking to you." A bit later, as we enjoyed our meal, Matt Miller walked up and sat at our table. He asked, "Did you hear me earlier? I was the one who yelled out in the parking lot Israel, you're my hero!" We had a wonderful time with some wonderful people. Later, it was time to prepare for the next day's mission. Jen would be my sighted guide for the Half Marathon as I hoped to shatter my previous personal best at the 13.1 mile distance. The last half marathon I ran was in 2010 when Michael and Brian Crissie helped me to a finish time of 2:24. My hope was that I could break that by as much as fifty minutes and finish in about 1:35:00. Truth be told, that was a maybe pie in the sky thinking, but I figured I might as well set my goal high so that if I can not reach it, I will still have it and the motivation to eventually get it. Even if I missed it by one, five, or twenty minutes, I would be proud because I would still crush my current personal best. Besides, Jen guiding me, triathlete, Stu Evans would also assist by running along side and if need be, taking over guiding duties from Jen if an issue would arise.
I tossed and turned Saturday night. Jen placed my bib on my CDF top and I had put out all my clothes for the next morning. I kept trying to relax myself. I should be confident from my last long distance run, Chicago Marathon. I had reached the halfway point in just over two hours so I should be able at the very least, push myself to finish this race in under two hours. What if I could not maintain a 7:30 or 8:00 pace? What if I start out at that pace, but get tired and struggle down the final few miles? I tried visualizing positive images. I thought of other long races where I was confident and fluid. I kept telling myself just run to the next aid station. I could get to the next one, walk to recover, then pick it up again. I wanted to avoid making excuses while pushing myself in a way I have never done. I was most excited that this would be the first time ever where Jen would guide me when I was fresh. Usually, she takes over during the second half of races when I am struggling. Often, by the point she takes over, I can not maintain and need to walk. In this event, I would walk as little as possible.
Race morning. The race began at 7a.m. If all went well I would be done before nine o'clock. Chris drove us to the race. We wished each other well. He left to meet up with his friends with whom he would run the half marathon and we walked to the start coral to meet up with Stu. I was nervous. Stu and Jen went over last minute guiding ideas. Stu decided for the aid stations, he would ask what I wanted then run off and get it so Jen would guide me completely around the aid station. Jen said in order for me to hit my goal, it was important I not walk at any point. We would run from the second we crossed the start line until we crossed the finish line. I would not stop for liquids, cramps, or soreness. So much for my run to the aid station plan. I was anxious. The only other time I was successful with Jen's plan was in my very first half marathon when my goal was to run the distance. I did, but it took 2:57:08. I was going at a much slower pace. I did not know if it would be possible to accomplish that in this case. I did not think I was prepared for that. The gun sounded. We walked behind the crowd. Then we crossed the start. Okay, time to run. We moved along. I was scared. Jen informed me we were moving at a 9:30 pace well below our target. My nerves were acting up so much that I was okay with it, but I knew I had to pick it up. I did. Before long Jen told me we were at a 8:19 pace. We made it to the one mile mark. The miles rolled by. Jen and Stu encouraged me. We reached an aid station. I started to slow down. Jen insisted I keep up my pace. "No. We said no stopping at aid stations. Let's go." I had to keep going. Stu went to get my water then caught up to us. In the fourth mile, my shoe laces became untied. We had to stop. Stu tied them up as Jen nudged me insisting I did that on purpose in order to stop. Of course not, but I welcomed the pause. We started up again. We had to make up some time. At around the fifth mile I heard a voice from my left yelling, "Yeah! Go Israel! Let's go Julio!" It was Patty Godfrey. I smiled and picked it up a little bit. We neared the sixth mile. Wow, I was still running. Stu would get my water or energy drink and Jen kept pushing me. I started to feel tired. It was still early, but I felt that it was because I had not planned to run all the way through and it was catching up with me. Stu remained positive and insisted I was doing well. We made it to mile seven. Less miles to run than what I had already run. I began to notice something which was evident the rest of the race. Although my legs were tired, it was more my stomach giving me problems. I felt winded. I often kept having to take deep breaths in an attempt to relax myself. Nervous energy filled my body. Doubt crept in. I was not sure if I could continue running all the way. The miles kept piling up. We neared mile ten. I needed to stop. Jen insisted on a compromise. Although she would prefer simply pushing harder to finish faster, she would be willing to slow down so long as we kept running and did not stop to walk. She had not come to Houston to walk. She had heard me talk about how in 2012 I would no longer be satisfied with participating. I wanted to race. She would not let me walk. Pardon my language here, but if she had to go into "bitch mode" she would to get me to my goal. Jen made it clear, if I would end up walking then she would never volunteer to guide me in a race. My legs were hurting. My stomach kept giving me issues. Again, it was not upset. It was just a case that I felt winded and short of breath. Jen yelled at me to dig deep. She told me y pace. I was still hanging around 8:35 pace. It felt like we slowed down to double digit minute per mile pace, but as I later found out, we never did. It only felt that way. As I started to almost cry thinking to myself, I do not want this as badly as I thought, Jen kept pushing me to push myself. I kept slowing down preparing to walk, but Jen screamed at me to not walk and keep running. I would gather myself and then pick it up again. As we neared the final mile, Stu also began to push me to drive forward. Where before, he was telling me how well I was running, he began to focus on preventing me from walking. He began to yell at me too. I kept digging. I kept fighting the urge to walk. I knew that I needed to be like Shalane, Desiree, and Kara. I needed to show myself that I did want it that badly. I began to drive forward with such anger and such purpose as jen and Stu informed me how close we were. Others ran by me encouraging me. Throughout the run, people had run by expressing what an inspiration I was. They were telling Jen and Stu how moving it was to see them guiding me. Now these individuals were cheering me on as only a few hundred meters separated me from the end. I wanted to sprint. I had nothing left. I wanted to move faster. I could not. Then Stu said, "Raise your hands up to cross the finish." I did. Within a few feet I felt the finish line. I had done it! I had gone the distance running the entire way. I had done so faster than I had ever run my previous half marathons. I averaged 8:53 pace and had completed the Houston Half Marathon in 1:57:23. Twenty-seven minutes faster than my previous best time. Of course, I wanted this. I was also motivated by the fact that if I slowed down to a walk at any point, Jen would never volunteer to guide me ever again. I love running with Jen. she gets the best out of me. she drives me hard. I love that about her. I had to run the entire way so that I could get another chance to run with Jen.
My body was sore. I felt cramps. I did not care. Jen and Stu had helped me achieve something special. I now had a new standard and record to break. I had shown myself it is possible and I can improve. I am hungrier to continue working to accomplish much more. Might this be the first race where I truly raced? Possibly. This may in fact be the dawn of a new Israel. One who races.
After meeting back up with Chris who also rocked his half marathon race, we went home, cleaned ourselves off, and attended a Houston Texans playoff viewing party which had amazing food, drinks, and entertainment. Later in the evening, Chris drove us to the airport where Jen and I said good bye to our new friend for life and made our way back towards Chicago. Houston was an amazing time. It was wonderful to see David, Patty, and Matt again while meeting some new folks. It was wonderful to run with Jen and Stu. I loved meeting Chris who has a heart of gold. I have always respected Jen Pfaff and have appreciated her friendship. Now, my level of respect, appreciation, and love has reached new heights. She truly is one of those dear friends who has brought meaning and purpose to my life. I am grateful and know that she and I have many more races to run together. I will achieve so much more in years to come because of the amazing Jen!