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For the past couple of years in Chicago, I’ve run a hilly half-marathon in early-to-mid March.  It was the first big race of the season, so it gave me a chance to see what kind of shape I was in.  Plus it was a chance to see and hang out with a bunch of my running people that, odds were, I hadn’t seen in 4-5 months while we all hibernated through the Chicago winter.  Good times all around, really.  Once I found out I wouldn’t be in Chicago in March, I started looking around for a similar race in Seattle.  Sure, it wouldn’t have the same colorful post-race brunch, but it would still give me a chance to see where I was starting my racing season at.  Luckily, Seattle has the Mercer Island Half Marathon – hilly, in the beginning of March, local to my new location.  Perfect!

My plan, at least as of January, was to spend the first few months of the year really working on building up a good base and a little bit of speed and then to run a really fast half.  And through January and February, it looked like that was a good plan.  I was running on hills all the time now, so I knew those wouldn’t be a surprise, and I was starting to work in a bit of faster running.  Then, two weeks before the race, my legs went on strike.  They’d decided they’d had enough of this “all hills, all the time” crap and I had the worst long run ever, which was followed by a reduced training schedule and a need to seek out flat ground to give my muscles a chance to really recover.  So much for my super-fast half.

Over the next two weeks, my legs started to feel a little more rested and a little better, but I still wasn’t quite at 100%.  I started to get worried about the race.  The longest run I’d done since November was 10 miles.  On flat ground.  13 miles on hills?  Oh dear.  This could be bad.  Really, really bad.  I told myself it would be OK.  I told myself that we just needed to think of this as less of a “race” and more of a “supported training run.”  I’d bring along one of the many MP3 players I have floating around the house and if it got bad?  I could throw some music on and take my time getting to the finish.  It would be fine.  Just fiiiine.

The morning of the race came along and while I wound up jumping out of the car and letting The Boy deal with fighting traffic and finding a parking space so I could get to the start on time (I’d forgotten that the reason I get to races an hour early is to avoid the worst of the traffic and parking congestion…. oops), I felt surprisingly unrushed.  After jogging from the freeway exit to the start area, I wound up having a few minutes to relax before the race started.  I had time to clear my head and get my goals set.  They were simple: get from start to finish without wanting to die, and if I could, average around a 12-minute per mile pace.

The race had a downhill start, and I focused less on the time on my watch and more on making sure I was running at a steady yet sustainable effort.  After the first few miles, I noticed I was right under my pace goal.  Awesome.  I also noticed that while there were lots of gently rolling hills, there wasn’t anything too nasty.  Also awesome.  The roads were twisty and turny and banked pretty steeply (which my hips are feeling today), so I tried to run on the relatively level shoulders when I could.  By the time I got to mile 5 and saw The Boy staked out with his camera, I was feeling pretty good.

The next few miles were… fine.  Not bad, but not great either as we wound our way up to the high elevation point of the race.  On the plus side, I knew that there would be a lot of uphill in this chunk of the race since I’d, for once, been smart enough to check out the elevation chart.  Score one for me.  Again, the best thing is that while the constant uphill got tiring, there weren’t really any steep climbs.  It was all gradual and rolling, just the rolls up were bigger than the rolls down.  My legs were starting to feel a little tired, but nowhere near as bad as I thought they’d be feeling.  In fact, they felt good enough that when I hit mile 9, I picked up the effort a little bit.  I knew that I was, overall, uphill from the finish, and I figured with 4 miles to go I could afford to kick it up a notch.

The best part about kicking it up a notch?  Is I started passing people.  The hills on this chunk of the island were a little bigger than in the first half of the course, and I had to stop and walk up them a few times in the interest of saving my legs, but I was still steadily moving forward, staying under my goal pace, and gradually passing people.  Then I passed by mile 11, rejoiced in that I totally had another 2 miles left in me and could pick up the pace even a little more, then turned the corner and was faced with a hill that made me say, “Oh, hell.  We’re not even going to try and run up that fucker.”

So I walked up it, and then once I got to the top I started running like I meant it.  I knew I only had another mile and a half or so to go, and my plan was once I hit mile 12 to give it everything I got.  I also planned to run up all of the hills in the last mile – at that point, I didn’t need to worry about saving my legs as much, and I wasn’t going to lose the extra couple of minutes to walking.  Oddly enough, this was the first time in the whole race that I looked at my watch and did the “how fast can I finish” math.  I knew that 2:30 wasn’t possible, but I never expected it to be.  I realized, though, that if I stepped on it, I could probably make 2:35.

So step on it I did, and was immediately faced with a big ol’ uphill.  Yargh.  I put my head down and chugged up it, while the volunteers at the top cheered us on.  From there it was mostly flat until the last hill at mile 13.  The only good thing I can say about that hill is that I knew it was coming – when I was jogging from the car to the start, I turned the corner and hit a hill big enough that, on fresh legs, made me go, “Damn, yo.  This is kind of a big one.”  Then I saw the mile 13 marker at the corner and went, “Oh HELL no.”  So, you know, I’d been warned.  That didn’t make it suck any less, although the knowledge that I was almost done helped a wee bit.

I flew into the finish right on the 2:35 mark, happy to be done but even happier that I’d felt as good as I did throughout the whole thing.  Mercer Island is absolutely beautiful, and I was able to enjoy the course as well as spectacular views of Mount Ranier and downtown Seattle while running.  The volunteers were great (although easily the oldest race volunteers I’ve ever seen, as they were all from the Rotary club), and the water stations were every 1.5 to 2 miles like clockwork, just as promised.  Heck, they were even giving out Clif shots on the course!  (A helpful hint from me to you: Don’t eat the offered Clif shot if it’s only 45 degrees out because it will be cold and really, really gross.  Put it in your pocket or down your pants or sports bra or whatever, give it some time to warm up, then eat it.)

Will I do this race next year?  You bet.  Especially since by then I should be totally adapted to the hilly terrain around here and fully able to kick ass and take names.

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