Racing is My Destiny: Seattle Half Marathon 2023

by Jon Lindenauer

"I can't do this anymore," said a bloody, teary-eyed Luke Rockhold as he stood in the UFC octagon for his final post-fight interview, propping himself up against the black chain linked cage, "I gave it my all but I’m.. too old."

He had been battered to a pulp for three straight rounds by Paulo Costa, a middleweight title contender six years his junior. After the first round his mouth around hung open, gasping from exhaustion, leaning over clutching his knees in spare moments to regain himself. The same courage and grit was there, but this was no longer the same fighter who had won the Strikeforce title ten years earlier and defended it, or the man who won the undisputed UFC title three years later. This looked like a fighter who was literally beaten into retirement. He staggered out of the ring, crying, taking heavy steps, being crushed under the weight of believing this would be his final walk back to the locker rooms as an MMA fighter. The crowds roared for him in a standing ovation "ROCK! HOLD! ROCK! HOLD!" and he acknowledged them throwing a fist in the air before slinking off-camera down a hallway.

After all this it came as a surprise to virtually everyone in the combat sports community to hear Luke was scheduled for yet another fight. This time it was with Bare Knuckle Boxing League, against the undefeated poster-boy of the organization "Platinum" Michael Perry.

Luke took no time in addressing the main question he knew would be at the forefront of everyone's mind: why are you coming back out of retirement? What changed?

“Fighting makes you feel alive, you know," he calmly stated, between sips from his ceramic mug, “When you put yourself, and you’re putting something on the line and it’s real, and it makes your heart beat, it makes your blood pulse, it makes every bit of you focus in that moment. And you have to be as present as you possibly can. It makes life worth living."

There was nothing ostensibly forcing him out of retirement. He had won title fights. He had an estimated net worth of $3 million (far better than average for someone who spent their career in professional mixed martial arts). Former double-champion Daniel Cormier called Luke's final fight a "storybook ending" to his MMA career. The primary impetus for his return was the plain fact that he loves to fight.

Even as a non-combat sports athlete, I do feel as though I can relate to the 2007 jiu-jitsu world champion.

Months prior to my trip out to Seattle - which was collectively arranged by my family as an opportunity for us all to spend Thanksgiving together, despite being dispersed across three different time zones - I had resolved to use the trip as a pretense to run in the biggest annual road race in Washington State, the Seattle Half Marathon. Though I had visited Washington numerous times previously this would only be my second time ever running a race there: the first being an Independence Day 10k in 2021 which was the day I proposed to my wife. I was perhaps afraid that with all the fantastic memories I had accumulated of the city and the surrounding region over the years a major dud of a race would possibly sour those feelings. Kennebunkport, Maine had been spoiled for me in that manner.

There were also a number of factors going into the race which put me in a more anxious state than others. For one, I had registered as an Elite - this is not to say I would have received any sort of penalty if I did not hit my elite qualification time, but I took it as a point of pride my performance would be worthy of that status, by running something equivalent or better. Second, Seattle is NOT a flat city. This race had two major grinding hills, at approximately the eight and the eleven mile marks. The hill at mile eight kept going and going for an absolutely relentless mile and a half and change. The hill at mile eleven was less distance but far, far steeper. It was "the main one you worry about" according to a Seattle local I was standing beside at the race expo, co-observing the various colored tracings of the course map, "I'll be walking it," he continued. Third, and maybe the biggest mystery variable was the fact that I was seriously ill with a prolonged coughing illness leading up to the race.

I had previous raced the Schenectady Stockade-athon in the throes of sickness. Following a lackluster performance, I hacked so intensely beside my car that the coughing fit induced me to throw up. A weekend later as I completed my long run, I clung to a rail fence which buckled and made loud clanging noises as I gripped it, coughing for minutes in an otherwise quiet alleyway. I probably should not be running right now, I told myself as a clung to the metal for support. But I know I am going to anyway.

The day prior to the race I made a special point of running at Seattle's Green Lake. The lake was part of the marathon course, and as I would only be running the half marathon course, I wanted to still give myself a chance to experience it. My sister road an e-bike beside me to keep me company. Even on a bike without pedal assistance it would have been fairly easy for her to keep pace with my jogging speed on a bicycle. She would sometimes get ahead and list from side to side through the smattering of red and yellow leaves, waiting for me to surge back up within conversational distance.

"This lake, this run, it reminds me of a time when I was younger."

I recounted to her a story of when I was a child on vacation in Florida, years before she was born. My family had gone to a lake that was a similar circumference to this one and decided a short while into our walk that we would jog the rest of the way around instead. Everyone else vanished in the distance as I huffed and puffed and staggered my way through the path which seemed to stretch endlessly onward. Occasionally I would look off to the side, across the lake - it offered no sense of how far I had gone or how much I had left to run. It was pouring rain by the time I had finished, and long gone was any misconception I might have held that I was a naturally gifted runner.

"I think about that time every now and then," I said, "It helps to remind me how far I've come." On this day, at this lake, I completed several full loops; this was my easy day.

Before the race I had told my father that if I had a great day and everything went right, I could have a chance at finishing in the top 10. The course had gone through a number of revisions over the years but the amount of high-level competitors had remained fairly consistent. For 2023 there were more than 3200 people registered for the half, representing a massive increase over the prior year. News stories, electronic billboards, road closure signs all around the city declared the impending race. It would have been seriously difficult to live in or around the city of Seattle and NOT know this event was about to happen.

It was very cold and foggy the actual morning of the race. In my experiences Seattle was not at all like New York City in the sense that even in the innermost sanctum of the city it was *definitely* a city that sleeps. This made waking up early for a massive event feel particularly eerie. The shops and the bars and other places of business were all closed with the roads very sparsely populated. Then the closer you crept to the Space Needle, the iconic structure which demarcated both the start and finish of the marathon and half marathon, the more vibrant that cold, foggy Seattle morning began to feel. There was pop music blaring and ebbing throngs of hundreds and hundreds in bundled-up cardio attire - jogging, shuffling, trotting to a starting banner splayed across Fifth Avenue. Seattle was awake only for this.

The starting signal echoed in my bones. Right away - at least placing-wise - I was not at all elite status. An enormous cluster of backs and legs loomed far ahead. Even miles into the race I had only been able to pick off a few stragglers who had gone out entirely too fast for their own good. Through a lengthy tunnel section mentally I felt isolated and alone. I was already passing people at the very back of the pack for the marathon (that had gone off half an hour earlier than the half-marathon) but the next group of runners for my own race seemed distant. The tunnel was long and dark and footfalls reverberated loudly throughout it. "At eight miles, that is when the race really starts," is what I told myself as I wove through trudging marathoners, "that is the race within the race."

An outstanding highlight of the course occurs along mile seven. Seattle Gas Works Park - added to the national list of historic places in 2013 and formerly a prominent gasification plant - and now the site of local EDM concerts and other festivals. Its hulking rusty silos overlooking Lake Union. Even without any park-goers it was a spectacular site to behold. On this day all the paths were lined. Cowbells clanged. There was cheering and face paint and a human hallway of handmade signs. My father was thrilled to see I was in ninth place overall, my pre-race goal was still (precariously) attainable. This was a time to be galvanized before the course - quite literally - took a brutal turn.

Without ever having run it, I knew what this part of the course would look like. It was the one portion of the race I had singularly fixated upon. I had not dwelt upon it in a constructive way - instead I imagined being a tube of human toothpaste with very little left in the tube, so it is being crushed to get that last bit out, and in the metaphor the paste represented any energy and/or willpower I had left for running. There was a great deal of ground I did make up on this stretch, despite slowing just as everyone else had. It was not just a personal mantra, this lengthy, torturous segment WAS the race. And it transitioned quickly into the part I had been warned about. Over the Aurora Bridge, back toward Queen Anne, the race ascended into a gray, foggy abyss. The racer who had been battling for sixth place through eleven miles stopped to walk and was overtaken by me and three others. It was me and these other three going head-to-head, step for step over the final mile and a half.

The Space Needle asserted itself more and more as our chase pack wound through the final turns of the course. "There are four of us, all within a few seconds of each other," I told myself, “and so whatever it takes, I'm not going to be the fourth finisher out of this pack of four." I thought back again to that time when I was a child at that lake in Florida, out of shape and left behind. Not even fast enough to see the next slowest member of my family off in the distance ahead. With less than a quarter mile to go, I kicked with everything I had in me and blew past one of them to place eighth overall - a top ten finisher. I immediately collapsed to the ground vomiting after crossing the finish line. My main feeling though was not sickness or weariness, it was fulfillment. I had battled the whole way. I had stayed strong through the parts I knew would be the most arduous. I had done what I had set out to do. Decades removed from that time when I could not even keep up with my own family, I had kept pace with some of the best runners in the Northwest.

“MMA, that’s my life passion. I’m working right now to get back in the game," said Rockhold in an August 2023 interview. He had lost by second-round TKO in his bare-knuckle fight with Mike Perry, having one of his teeth punched out of his mouth in a graphic spatter of spit and blood. Perry remains undefeated in bare knuckle boxing as of December 2023, most recently having pummeled former UFC undisputed champ Eddie "The Underground King" Alvarez to the point of having his left eye swollen shut.

Rockhold now has a subscription-based social media account dedicated to posting his training and fitness routines. Several grappling bouts had been rumored for him in the latter half of 2023 but nothing had fully materialized; including pairings against Craig Jones and UFC legend and two-division champion George St. Pierre. Chael Sonnen - himself a multi-time undisputed UFC title challenger - one said of Rockhold, "If you judge a fighter based on how they looked when they were at their peak, the Luke Rockhold who beat Chris Weidman [for the undisputed UFC title] was the greatest middleweight of all time."

"...Bare knuckle boxing is out, but there is fighting, boxing, jiu jitsu," Rockhold went on to say, "I’m going to finish this off right–and on my terms.”

The day after the half marathon I ran along the Seattle waterfront. It was a clear day where you could see Mount Rainier along with the Olympic and Northern Cascade Mountain ranges, out across Puget Sound. You would need to have a heart of complete stone to not feel any stirring of the spirit when you beheld such a scene. What a magnificent race in a magnificent city, I thought. I resolved that yesterday's race would not be my last for this town, whether it was the same race again another year or some other big Seattle running event. Already, hardly twenty-four hours removed from the race, I was already hungry for the next one. I was addicted to the feeling of it - of racing, of competing, of fighting. I loved to fight because it makes you feel alive. It makes life worth living.

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