They always say that for a PR day, there has to be some bit of magic. The stars have to align. The weather is perfect. You’re well-rested, well-fueled. You’re in a strong, positive and relaxed mindset. But sometimes you still have a wall or two to push through, and that can make the personal victory all the sweeter.
Last year when I ran this race, things didn’t go perfectly. We did the 8.1 miler. We woke up late because I mis-set my alarm. We hadn’t done that distance in…a while. I wasn’t as strong – physically or mentally. This year, I was doing the half-marathon: it was my first marathon of 2012, and my fourth lifetime half. A few weeks before, I’d managed to run 8 miles out of a 10 mile race at my goal HM pace to get the holy grail: the sub-two hour half. A numb foot around mile 2-3ish all the way through mile 4.5 scrapped my overall time, but it still boosted my confidence. I could maintain that pace, and pretty comfortably, too. I carbo-loaded a bit during the week, which was effectively a mini-taper. It was really our only big “down” week of the Pittsburgh half training cycle: we were scheduled for three easy effort week day runs. I ran five on Tuesday followed by my evening pilates class (which kicked my butt, as it’s been doing more and more so lately), did a hard effort at spin on Wednesday, and ended up sleeping in Thursday. I didn’t regret it.. much. I made sure to do a very easy two mile effort on Friday. Just a shakeout. I even tackled a bit of Negley hill so my legs would feel what real hill felt like, and remember that the rolling hills at North Park were actually pretty darn nice.
Friday night we tried something different: NB was thinking the usual pasta, but I was a bit pasta’d out after a week of carbo-loading, plus we only had whole wheat pasta, and I didn’t want too much fiber in my tummy. I’d been having some GI issues late in the week, with a bad stomach ache late in the work day on Wednesday that had my gut tied in knots, and it hadn’t quite righted itself. So we committed a race sin: tried a new pre-run dinner the night before a race. We made pancakes, bisquick ones out of the box, so it couldn’t get more simple carb. We doused them with real syrup and I cup a bunch of strawberries to create the illusion of nutrition. And of course we downed a ton of water, getting to bed as early as we could manage for a 5:30 a.m. wakeup.
Other than NB pulling me in for five more cuddly minutes, I got right up in the morning, jumping into some clothes and heading to Coffee Tree Roasters for a cup of black coffee with raw sugar to try to get things moving. When I got back, NB was making us oatmeal, getting driving directions set, and triple-checking the weather. It was still iffy. I had packed pretty much every possible option. I wound up going with a long sleeve tech shirt (heat gear, though, not cold gear) and shorts, planning on wearing my usually hat and starting with gloves, and brought tights and my wind breaker along just in case.
We had a couple snafus with our carpool arrangements. We were driving our friend R. – who NB knows from school and lives just around the corner from him (she’s his future roomie for this next year, actually) plus D., from his program. R. is an avid runner and signed up for the 8.1. D. was a newbie runner racing his first 5K, so he was pretty pumped. We wanted this to be a smooth, enjoyable process for all.
Enter MCC, also in NB’s Ph.D. program. He’s the very definition of impulsive. On a whim the previous week, he’d decided he wanted a motorcycle, gone out to get his temporary license, and was shopping around to buy one. After a conversation with his dad, he changed his mind,cutting up his license. A day or two before the race (he signed up for the 8.1), he decided to try out a friends’ bike… and crashed it. He and D had been planning on driving, but then MCC of course pulled out since his foot was iffy from the crash and D was going to join us, parking at NB’s place and hopping in my car with us. No prob.
About 30 minutes before we’re planning on leaving to pick up R, MCC contacts NB saying he’s changed his mind and he wants to try to run, maybe drop down to the 5K (numerous emails said you can’t drop down the day of – you had to do a bib change prior to the race), and oh if he got DQ’d it was no big he just wanted to run, and other such macho bullshit. D, who had been about to head out, was now stuck in the MCC vortex, since the latter wanted to revert to the earlier driving plan. D really didn’t need this stress on race day, especially since we found out later that MCC wanted to go to a sit down place for breakfast on the way, and D barely talked him into doing something quicker (I think D made himself some oatmeal or similar prior to this, per NB’s suggestion). They ended up getting there just fine – crisis averted. But boy, we are NOT ever agreeing t drive MCC. Sorry, dude.
We got to the race site easily by 7:30, as planned, parking pretty close (next to a VERY BIG HOLE), close enough so I didn’t even have to do bag check, and ran back to the car pre-race to drop crap off. We got out of the car and it was cold. Much colder than we’d been hoping. Per usual the weather had been much nicer in the prior week and got chilly for us on race day. We were just thankful we didn’t have the ridiculous winds like at our last race. I got in line for the bathroom since I was quite hydrated, and also took the opportunity to change into my tights. I wound up going long sleeve tech shirt (thin), my wind vest (pulled the sleeves off), tights, started with gloves (stripped off and stuck in vest pocket), and my Air Force hat. No earband, since that wasn’t really necessary. It wasn’t THAT cold.
After some debate, I ditched my handheld, opting for the water stations, which I knew there would be plenty of. About twenty minutes to start, I jogged to my car to drp off my bag and Camelbak, taking my pre-race Gu and making sure I was geared up: four Gus (just in case), Garmin, iPod. All set. I had set only 2 hours of music, and crossed my fingers. This was of course not before getting stuck watching MCC’s crap when he went to go pin on his bib and then randomly walked away for like an extra five minutes while I silently stewed. Not cool, bro.
Before we knew it, we were heading out to the start, which was separate from the 30Kers. As last year, it was a 5K loop around the ice rink, then 5 mile loops around the lake after that, one for 8.1 miles, two for the half, three for the 30K. We talked strategy for a bit before NB and I gave each other a parting good luck kiss and he went o find the the 1:50 pace group while I stayed a few steps behind the 2 hour group. I knew I had a tendency to start too fast, but it was quite crowded, and I recalled a sizeable hill in the first mile. I hoped to do the first 5K in around 28:30 and keep on from there.
As we eagerly waited, rubbing our hands together and trying to relax and warm our muscles, I tried to relax, reminding myself that PR wasn’t everything, this wasn’t my A race, if not everything cooperated with me it would be okay. Just have fun. A few seconds later, we were off!
We started in a dense knot. I ignored the urge to jog til we passed the timing mat, hitting my Garmin a moment before and hearing it chirp the start. I kept an eye on that 2 hour sign, watching it bob up and down in the hand of a woman in a pink jacket. I heard her calling out encouragement as we rounded a turn and approached the hill, encouraging everyone to stay steady up the hill, and if they had to drop back the pace, telling them they’d have no problem catching up on the other side. I saw an older gentleman also wearing an Air Force hat, and on the first rise of the double-dip hill, I nudged him gently and said, “hey, nice hat,” and he saw mine and laughed. We traded a few pleasantries as we conquered the hill. I occasionally dropped back a bit, but was pretty happy with my overall pace. I didn’t let the hill conquer me. It was longer than I remembered – I had forgotten it was double-dip – but as we saw a patrol car at the top of a much steeper rise, we all sighed in dominoes of relief as we took a sharp turn to the right to ease downhill as mile one clicked over into mile two. My first mile beeped only a few strides before the mile marker (I later found out the race director notoriously mismarks the miles. Oh well) – 9:13. A very respectable first mile, and only a few seconds off pace.
Our pace team leader – whose name I am kicking myself for not getting – reminded everyone to take it easy on the downhill, not blow ourselves out. Things flattened out pretty quickly, and the older guy, whose name was Randy, and I chatted for the next few miles. We talked about this race, other races we’d done, how much we loved Air Force, how his dad was running the 5K there this September, marathon training, and the like. We drifted forward and back of the group, in and out of each other’s stride, and there was something pleasant and distracting about that. I didn’t listen to much of my music those first several miles, and it was nice to know that my half-marathon race pace was conversational, pointing out clearly how much more potential I have for speed at that distance. The next two miles slid nicely under 9 minutes, And I hit the 5K mark pretty much right where I wanted: 28:22. A nice easy effort to start. As we passed over the mats I saw D and asked how he did and congratulated him as he cheered me on under the banner for the first time. One loop down. Now to focus on an even five mile effort. I took it one loop at a time.
I was feeling great. I missed the water stop right after the 5K and therefore didn’t take an early Gu as I had originally planned, but I was honestly just fine without it. I was feeling remarkably well, still chatting intermittently with Randy, and had to make sure I didn’t move up any more than abreast of the pace group. I may be feeling good, but I had a long way to go, and I didn’t want to get greedy. Sub-2 was in reach, and with my previous PR of 2:04.14, I didn’t want to wreck it by trying for too much. Around mile four we crossed the first bridge and the pace leader gave us a heads up on the water stop. I grabbed a Roctane and downed it, snaking a hand out for a water and swallowing about half of it before pitching it in a nearby trash bag. A girl near the pace team was having trouble drinking the water – I think her dad was trying to get her to try anyway – and I suggested that she pinch the cup so it wouldn’t spill or splash. Seemed to work for her. I had fallen off pace a little but it was to be expected, and I quickly caught up.
Around mile five or so, my old friend GI crampy reared his ugly head. No welcome. GI cramps had destroyed my sub-2 hour hopes at Air Force last September, and I was determined not to let it happen again. I breathed through it, managing to keep pace, staying on the heels of the tight-knit group. So far it was at manageable level, and was in and out. I could do this.
We had another short bridge crossing and soon after were on a narrow section of the course. I remembered from last year not liking this at all. There was a lot of heel clipping and “oops, sorry!” and quick passes and cars honking at athletes that veered outside the cones to try to keep at their desired pace. But it was over soon enough, and I still was right with my group.
Mile seven was where I feared it would all fall apart. The cramps were growing steadily worse with unpleasant gurgles all runners are familiar with. And then for a moment it felt like someone had grabbed my insides with a fist and was squeezing them with all their might. I had to stop. I had to walk. I willed myself not to get frustrated or cry or give up. This was my do or die moment: I wouldn’t be defeated, but I had to be prepared to face reality. Today might not be my sub-2 day. I let the group go, watching my mile pace fall several seconds. But I only walked for maybe 20 seconds, stepping to the side a bit to let other runners pass. When the worst of it subsided, I gave it another go. I was a bit back from the group, but kept an ye on them, reminding myself not to surge, just to keep steady and slowly reel them in. I would get them. I would catch up. The cramps were still there, but they never got that bad again during the race, thank goodness. The mile clicked off in a surprising 9:15. I was shocked. I hadn’t lost any time, given I had a couple miles that were 9 minutes or a few seconds faster that more than made up the deficit.
I slid right back in with the group. We were closing in on the end of the first loop, and I saw the tantalizing glimpse of the finish/loop through the trees. Keeping my eye on the prize, I took stock: cramps still there, still imminent, but my legs, lungs and heart felt fantastic. I had this.
We crossed that loop feeling strong, bunching up a bit but keeping pace. I reached for my second Gu, this time ready for that water station just after the loop. The pacer, who I was running stride for stride with, thanked me for the reminder and told everyone they should probably take a gel within the next mile or two. I sucked down the second Roctane, thanked the volunteers for the water, and kept on keeping on. Our group was shrinking a bit, from those who either had surged ahead or fallen behind. I intermittently saw Randy, but our group was mainly ladies and one or two dudes at this point. Two girls in almost matching tech jackets – one white, one black – stuck together like glue (obviously friends), and we chatted a bit about the race and race gear (I complimented them on their jackets). The pacer talked about the other races she was pacing, including those where she didn’t feel so great but had to keep up her pace. That day she ran like she had a metronome inside of her. She kept reminding us of hills, of water stops (letting us know if she was stopping for water or keeping on), telling us how well we were doing. She asked me how I was feeling. I mentioned my cramps but said I was ignoring them. She asked if I had ever gone sub-2 and I said no, but I had a good feeling about this day, thanking her for her perfect, even pacing.
We hit that narrow section again but things had thinned out plenty by then that it wasn’t as bad. I did clip heels with a couple dudes a couple times, but they were all very nice about it, as runners tend to be. The miles were clicking by faster now, passing familiar landmarks, both from the previous year and the previous loop. The pacer gave us all permission to surge if we were feeling good, but I held back just a little longer. As I felt our pace drop about a mile and a half from the finish, seeing the girls in white and black surge ahead, I knew it was time. I let my pace creep below nine minutes. I focused on my breathing, switching my Garmin screen back and forth between the lap pace and my overall time, seeing how much room I had to spare. I wouldn’t let myself walk now, but it was nice to know I wouldn’t be scrambling too much. I crept faster and faster, reeling in the girls in white and black. As we passed the 12 mile mark, I said aloud: only 1.1 to go. My pace was settling into the high end of my tempo pace. I was close to redlining as I knew my tank was much emptier than during a tempo run, getting to this pace at mile 13 instead of miles 2, 3, or 4 or a shorter run. My iPod playlist was ramping up, all my pace-setting songs done – those that set a beat to hold me back – leaving only the final pulsing finishing songs to push me on and on. We saw the finish through the trees, and I focused on keeping my breath even. I visualized the track, how many laps remained. It didn’t help that my garmin was a good quarter mile off at this point, so I had longer to go than I would have liked.
I was hot on the girls’ heels now, and we sliced around one last sharp turn heading towards the finish. The last mile marker took forever to appear,and long before it my garmin beeped a mile: 8:01. Cones appeared to divide the finishers from the loopers, and at last we were on the right: set to finish. We came around one last curve in that final tenth of a mile, and I saw NB and R and D shouting and cheering. I looked at my watch, I looked at the clock. I was going to do it! I was going to make it! My legs felt like jello.
My lungs felt like they were going to explode. I didn’t look at my pace, knowing I was giving it all, leaving it all out there, though I felt like I was running through water or thick snow, my legs barely moving. As I crossed the mat under the finish banner, the clock reading under two hours, I managed one final leap of joy, throwing my arms in the air and grinning like crazy.
I hit stop a few strides there, and a photographer was starting her shift. I looked into the lens with a disbelieving smile, and a few seconds later, turned to shake the hands of the girls in black and white, smiling and telling them it as a great race. They were also elated.
I wobbled. I was exhausted. I stumbled through the chute to a girl who handed me my finisher’s medal, and found my group. Rob was of course there, too, and had finished the 30K a couple minutes faster than I ran the half (ha!). I got lots of hugs and congratulations, and since I still had my druthers, I wandered back near the chute to wait for my pacer. I saw her in her pink jacket, still holding the sign, alone except for one other runner. I came up to her, told her I did it, reached out to shake her hand and said, “Can I please hug you? I couldn’t have done this without you.” She laughed and we embraced. It was fantastic. SHE was fantastic. I don’t think I could have done that without such an amazing pacer, and without that amazingly supportive pace group.
The rest of the time was pure celebration. D really enjoyed his race, R kicked ass as usual, MCC had gone home, and NB had walked away with an impressive PR of sub-1:44. I was so proud! He’d started with the 1:50 pace group to try to get under his previous 1:53 PR, then when a young cross country runner broke off early, he followed her, suffering the whole time and completing spanking the race. Awesome.
I grabbed lots of cookies and a banana, and NB had greeted me at the end with a water (what a guy). As we walked back to the car holding our loot, this little girl in a stroller waved at me and me alone, and I thought she liked me until I realized I was holding about five bags of cookies. D’oh. We headed to iHop and per usual my post-race appetite lagged a bit, though I had some eggs, hash browns and bacon, and some chocolate milk and water. Later that day I scarfed down a chipotle burrito like I hadn’t eaten in months.
So now what? Well, we’re in the final few weeks of hard training. Last week rather sucked. I skipped an easy run, my tempo run sucked a big one, but then I had a good easy run. Our long run Saturday was rough for me: I started bonking at mile 8, taking two Gus t try to ward it off, then another a couple miles later, but still finishing 13 miles totally empty. Oh well. Recovery from a race can be tough. That’s my story, anyway. I don’t know what to expect at Pittsburgh. But I know what I’m capable of. I’ll probably still try to stick withe 2 hour pace group (if I can find them in that huge race) and maybe tr to spank the last 5K if I’m feeling it. If not, I got my PR, and I can just enjoy myself. Because this is why I do it – for the love of running.
tl;dr? Over a month out from my first A race and I cracked my previous PR by more than 5 minutes, running my first sub-2 hour half-marathon! Chip time: 1:59.03. Booya!