When I first registered for this race, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. What I wanted was to get back into a regular running schedule and to experience the fun of running a huge race again. I wanted to get back in the habit of training for something and have a race that would inspire me to keep going. I wanted to get back into something resembling decent running shape without pissing off my foot, and, most of all, I wanted to enjoy it. When we all started this whole thing, I wasn't entirely sure if all of those goals would be possible.
I mean, I knew that I'd most likely get to the race and finish it, unless I did something incredibly stupid. To keep the foot happy I used a training plan that started from zero and used a very, very conservative mileage build. My other main concern was simply finding the time to get back into running 3 or 4 days a week, since between working full time and taking classes part time and, you know, sleeping, I don't always have a lot of hours left in the day. However, the super-conservative mileage build also helped me carve out the time for running a little at a time. I was super slow and I felt out of shape as I was huffing and puffing through my runs, but I was doing it. I wasn't just running, I was training. Pain-free. And, most importantly, I was loving every second of it.
Then a couple of things happened that I didn't expect. The first thing was that I forgot all about my cranky foot. I was out for a run one day, pondering just how awesome it was that I was running again when it hit me: not only could I not remember the last time my foot was bothering me or keeping me from running, I couldn't even remember the last time I thought about it. Shortly after that, something else strange happened: I was getting faster. My training pace was dropping and, better than that, I was feeling awesome. I felt strong. I felt fast. I felt like I wasn't just going to finish this race, but I was going to rock it. As I was putting together my goals for the race, I knew I could run it in under 2:30. That wasn't even a question. I thought I might be able to come in around my old PR of 2:18 and change. And I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could get under 2:15 if I had a really perfectly awesome day. The strange thing was, while I was pondering finish times (mostly so The Boy would have an idea of when I'd be at certain points on the course), I wasn't all that concerned about it. The night before the race, I was calm, cool, and just looking forward to running the next day. I was completely unworried about the race and, as a result, slept like a baby. (Although the red-eye flight on Friday night might have also had quite a bit to do with that.)
When my alarm went off at 5 a.m., I got right out of bed. I had plenty of time to have breakfast, get dressed and ready, and double-check that I had everything I'd need for the race. The Boy and I headed down to the start area and, once I'd made a port-o-potty stop and dropped my bag at gear check, I headed into my corral. It was about 5 minutes before the race start, so I figured we'd be off and moving soon.
That would be where I was horribly, horribly wrong. Our corral was around the corner from the start line and far enough away that we couldn't hear what was going on. As 7:00 rolled by and turned into 7:10 and then 7:15, I started to wonder what was going on. People would move up a bit, so I'd get all excited and think we were moving, only to stop again for another 5 minutes 10 feet later. It turned out they were using an actual wave start – sending corrals out one or two at a time with a few minutes in between – which explained all of the stopping and starting. This became pretty apparent as we got close enough to hear the announcer at the starting line. By the time my corral (17 out of 20) crossed the start line, it had been 34 minutes since the race started. That's only three minutes less than it took me to reach the start line when I ran the New York Marathon, and New York had twice as many runners. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it was certainly far, far longer than I expected it to take.
However, the advantage to their system was pretty apparent as soon as I got out on the course as I had a lot more room than expected. I did a little bit of weaving around people, but not that much, which was nice. As I started running it became immediately clear to me that it would be in my best interest to make one last bathroom stop, so when I saw a very short line at the port-o-potty just before the mile 1 marker, I took advantage of it. I lost about 3 minutes total here, but I told myself it didn't matter. I wasn't running this for time, just for fun, and I wasn't allowed to haul ass to make up the lost time. That three minutes wasn't going to kill me, and once I got past the first mile marker, I didn't really think of it. In fact, I was able to relax and take in the scenery. We were heading from the convention center out towards Audubon Park through a residential neighborhood and it was just beautiful. The houses were all in the stereotypical "big southern mansion" style and had clearly been there for a while. There was even a good chunk of shade from all the trees, which I am always a fan of. (I was especially a fan of it then, since I had completely neglected to pack sunblock.) Shortly before the mile four marker we split off from the full marathon runners – they headed off to do a loop around Audubon Park and we took a shortcut over to St. Charles Ave.
However, before I get too much further along, two noteworthy sites from those first four miles. The first was just after the mile 1 marker, where a guy was on the second-story balcony of a house along the race route arguing with a couple of cops down on the street. My guess is he'd parked a car on the street and it had been towed, given the snippet of conversation I heard between them. He insisted he'd parked his car there before the signs went up and the cop said, "What? Three days ago?" The best part, though, was when the guy responded with, "This is my house, man!" Which, naturally, is a fantastic argument to use, especially when arguing with law enforcement. One of the runners near me remarked to her running partner, "That guy's going to be in jail by the end of the day." Given that I wasn't entirely sure the guy was sober, I had to agree with her.
The second thing, which was not quite as entertaining, was a sign held up by a spectator just after the mile 2 mark. It read, "How do those beers and raw oysters feel now?" I laughed, but I was also very suddenly very glad that I'd only partaken of fully cooked seafood products the day before the race.
I'd been running a steady but conservative pace (around 10:30-11:00/mile), and was feeling pretty good with it. The sun was coming out, it was warming up and I was enjoying life. The crowds didn't thin out as much as I was hoping when the two races split, and I was finding myself weaving in and out of people on a regular basis despite not running all that fast. Since I was feeling so good, I decided to try picking up the pace a bit. I flew through mile 7 in 9:55 and decided that perhaps I didn't want to pick up the pace quite so much and so early. The decision to slow down was aided by a water stop and a port-o-potty with no line. I'd been scoping them out for a few miles (yes, I needed to stop again), but didn't want to stop if I was going to spend 5 or 10 minutes in line. However, right after the mile 7 water stop there was a whole bank of them with no line. Reasoning I was going to stop and walk for a bit to take my gu an
yway, I figured I wouldn't lose a whole lot of time by jumping into the restroom, so I did.
When I came out to rejoin the race, I was shocked to see The Boy standing on the corner. He'd been standing right near the mile 7 marker (he caught me, but I totally missed him) and saw me duck off course, so he figured he'd hang around and say hi. I'd taken my gloves off a few miles back and tucked them under the shoulder strap of my tank top, and he offered to take them for me. When he said it, it took me a second to figure out what he was talking about since I'd totally forgotten I'd put my gloves there. I handed off the gloves, told him I'd see him at the finish and took off running. All told, the stop only cost me an extra minute or so. Totally worthwhile.
I took mile 8 a little easier, and when I hit the lap button on my watch I noticed that I was an hour and 28 minutes into the race. My half-marathon PR was 2:18 and change. I did some quick math and realized that if I ran the next 5 miles at a sub-10:00/mile pace, I could break that PR. I wasn't sure about the idea – it sounded doable, but it would definitely be pushing it. The fact that I did all that math right on the first try gave me confidence that I did indeed have the energy left to pull that of (y'all might be laughing, but let me tell you: basic math gets really, really hard in a long race like that). I wavered back and forth for a couple of seconds, and finally decided I was going to go for it. Yes, I might blow up and crash hard half a mile before the finish line, but I'd regret not trying more than I'd regret not making it. At that point, I knew that if I did blow up, I'd a) be close enough to the finish line to not have a huge long slog to walk and b) still be able to finish well under 2:30. I decided to go for it and picked up the pace.
From then on, it was counting the miles down. When I hit the mile 9 marker nine minutes and 38 seconds later, I got a little boost of confidence. The pace was a bit more aggressive, but I still felt good. Only four miles left. I could do this. I flew through mile 10 in 9:45 and when I checked my watch, saw that I had 31 minutes to finish off the last 5K. Three more miles just like the last two. Piece of cake. It was right around here that I noticed it had gotten pretty warm out and I finally stripped off my headband and arm warmers. Ahhhh.
When I hit the mile 11 marker with a split of 9:24, I knew I had it. It was starting to hurt, but I only had two miles to go. I wasn't going to give up now. However, here's where the course just started to get mean. Shortly after the mile 11 marker, we came almost to the entrance of the park where the finish line was. However, we turned right to do a quick out and back before going into the park. It was obvious that we ran down the road for a bit, then crossed over the river and came back to the park entrance. However, it was hard to see how far down that turnaround was. It didn't look very far at first, but it turns out that where I thought I saw people crossing over the river? Was just a bend in the road. The real crossing was much further down. Then once we got there? We turned right again for a quick out and back down a side street which, again, seemed to take forever. It was sunny, it was kind of warm, and I was suddenly very aware of the fact that I'd been sweating more than I thought and, subsequently, hadn't been drinking enough water. Oops.
Lucky for me, there was a water station just past the mile 12 marker, and I grabbed cups of both water and Cytomax. Now, I've never had Cytomax before, but I knew it was Gatorade-like and figured it had to taste about the same, right?
Wrong. So, so very wrong. I drank some water, then poured the rest into the Cytomax to cut the sweetness a bit and then took a big gulp. Oh, it was gross. So very gross. I must have made a big face because one of the volunteers I was passing at that point said, "Yeah, it's pretty bad." Ugh. As bad as it tasted, I felt much much better after forcing the cup of it down. One mile to go. It was going to hurt, but I was going to keep hauling ass because, dude, one more mile. I had it.
The little hill on the bridge going over the river was, seriously, the biggest incline on the entire course. This was one of those flat race courses that really was that flat. It was impressively flat, and at first that little incline felt sort of hard. Then I told myself that, really, this was barely a speed bump compared to what I was used to running over. I powered through it and continued passing people left and right. I passed the 20k mark just before entering the park and did a little happy dance knowing that I only had about 3/4 of a mile left to go.
Sadly, turning into the park meant turning into the wind. It wasn't horrible, but it was just enough to make you go, "Oh, seriously? Really?" and call Mother Nature some nasty names. I kept on hauling, though, and this was one of those times where I thought I was pushing the pace to avoid slowing down, but really I was just running my ass off. I could hear the finish line as we came around the museum, but I couldn't see it yet. I was looking for it and kept pushing and was thinking to myself, "just give me something I can see." When I hit the mile 13 marker, I knew I was almost there but I still couldn't see it. Grrrr.
Then we came around one last corner and, finally, I could see it. The course got a bit narrower and I got stuck behind a couple of people, but as soon as I was clear I kicked it into the highest gear I had left and flew through the finish line. I didn't see The Boy there, but heard him yell my name as I went past. I didn't even think to wave at the finish line cameras because I was so focused on getting my butt across it as quickly as possible. As soon as I did? I looked at my watch. 2:16:55. A new PR. By two minutes. I couldn't believe it.
Overall, I was absolutely thrilled with the race. I set a new PR despite losing almost 5 minutes to bathroom stops and going out relatively slowly at the start. Could I have run a faster race if it was more evenly paced? Probably. Would I rather take those 5 minutes of bathroom stops off my time? Sure. Am I bothered by either of those things? Not at all. During the race, I was just so happy to be running and feeling good about it that the record time was just a happy bonus. This race really wasn't about the time at all – it was about the running. I was thrilled because this race did everything I wanted it to. It got me running again. It showed me that I could make time for training in my insane schedule. And it reminded me just how very much I love running and racing.
Plus, the fact that I ran that time despite the uneven pacing and the time lost to stops is actually very encouraging. I used to think that a two-hour half was something I'd never see, but now I'm thinking that it's entirely possible. Maybe even sooner rather than later. And that sub-60-minute 10K I want to run? Totally in the bag, since I was 83% there with the last 5 miles of this race. I've got a whole slew of races planned for the year, and now I'm really looking forward to them. I nailed this race – let's see what else I can do.