What recipe spells a big PR, and a shattered A-goal?
Nice weather? Perfect fueling and hydration? Confidence and just the right amount of nerves? The company of good friends?
I say all of the above.e
This was my seventh half-marathon, and my third time running the Pittsburgh half – second time on this exact course (nice that it actually stayed the same last year to this year). I was long overdue for success on this course, after two years getting totally brutalized by it – and the weather.
So here’s how it all went down.
Expo and pre-race shenanigans
This race was filled with friends. First off, NF’s best friend (who will also be his best man), Dan, was in town for a visit and to join us for the race. NF was bogged down by end-of-semester work plus preparing for his research stint in Knoxville from May to June, so I entertained Dan a bit Friday night, hydrating in advance with some beers at Bar Louie in Station Square (oops), though we still got to bed at a reasonable hour. We tried to get a good amount of sleep, but were still awakened decently early in the morning.
Saturday morning we got right to work on breakfast and headed down to the expo, since NF had a lot to get done that day. I expected to drop a lot of dough on on-sale merchandise, but didn’t actually end up spending a dime. It helped that none of the booths had a pair of Brooks Launch in my size. Oh well. I don’t actually NEED them right now… We got our bibs, shirts, and race packets, and after some meandering around, we headed out.
I spent the afternoon at my place relaxing and hydrating like a fiend. The forecast was still making me nervous: lows in the 50s, but getting up to 70s at some point and very sunny. I had visions of cooking under the hot sun in those last couple miles, wanting to just give up and melt into a puddle on the Birmingham Bridge. I distracted myself with paging through my new issue of Runner’s World and obsessively getting ready for the race, including laying out my whole outfit. I also decided to go ahead and have my splits auto-post to Facebook, and then prayed I didn’t regret that decision.
Around 5:30, NF, Dan, NF’s roommate Rachel, and I went to Giant Eagle to get supplies for dinner – pancake mix, syrup, Greek yogurt, and granola, then headed over to friends Matt and Maria’s place to have a big pancake party (they have a griddle – sweeeeet). NF was the griddle master, and made truly superb pancakes. Our pre-long race and very long run tradition has become pancakes with cinnamon and granola mixed in the batter, then topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt, with more cinnamon and granola sprinkled on top. Matt, Maria, and Dan, in their first venture into this treat, seemed to greatly enjoy it. We were all stuffed full of carbs and very happy, quickly sliding towards Food Coma territory (though not before reading off a bunch of “Anti-Joke Chicken” and “Bad Joke Eel” memes).
We headed out, Dan spending the night in a real bed at Matt and Maria’s place, and NF crashing at mine. We spent some time stretching and foam rolling before we hit the sack – at this point we knew for sure NF wouldn’t be able to run. He’d had to cut a couple runs short in the week and a half leading up the race due to his IT band seizing, and even after taking several days off during the taper, it seized again two miles into a three-mile test/shake-out run Friday morning. He was majorly bummed – as was I – but knew it was the right call.
Lights out before 10, and my alarm at 4:30 had me bolt straight up in bed. I had no race nightmares for once (though I’d chatted with Maria about this phenomenon, describing some I’d had before. She’d never experienced this before… until I mentioned it. Sorry, Maria.)
I got right to work getting into my race outfit – Brooks singlet, lucky race day sports bra (we all have one, don’t we, ladies?), and bum wrap, and lubing and sun-screening up. With full sun, though I tan well, I didn’t want to dick around with sunburn, and knew sunblock would also serve to keep me a little cooler. I had my usual pre-race breakfast of 3/4 cup oatmeal cooked in water and drank some more water. I knew I was pretty adequately hydrated, and didn’t want to have to run to the portos 16 times pre-race, so I mostly just sipped.
By 5:30, we were headed down to my car and swung by to pick up Dan, then to get Rachel, then caravaned downtown with Matt and Maria following us in.
I’m not sure if it was the heightened security, or if we got there a little later than previous years, but the roads were more of a shitshow than I had recalled. We managed to eventually get to a parking lot a few blocks from the corrals, though it cost $10. Womp. Oh well, there are worse things. We also had to jog around a smoker – wtf?
We had enough time to jump into a porto-potty line and get all geared and Gu’d up. And of course high five and get a pre-race group shot.
We headed toward the corrals – Dan and I were both in B. I got a last hug and good luck kiss from NF before we had to disappear into the runner-only area (mad props to the race officials on the security measures. Never felt inconvenienced – though I would not have complained if I had been a little for the sake of safety – and the security presence made me feel relaxed and safe). They were starting to sing the national anthem as we jogged over to the back of Corral B (really more like front of Corral C), much closer than I ever recall getting to the start line. I could see the 3:45 pacer, and knew we were therefore close-ish to the 1:50 half pacer, though we never really found that leader. We danced along to the music that blasted through the speakers, made sure our music and garmins were all set, goofed off and pumped each other up, agreed to run a relaxed 8:45ish first mile, and were raring to go. I was pretty nervous, but gradually relaxed. We were both targeting about 1:50. I knew Dan liked to surge, so I’d have to probably pull him back at points, but he’d keep my pace honest when I needed. Game on.
Before we knew it, the race began! There was the usual shuffle-bottleneck-shuffle as we edged toward the timing mat, but being in Corral B meant that we didn’t have quite the same crowd I’ve struggled with in previous years. I hit START on my Garmin a few seconds before we hit the mat, and tried to ignore the pace and settle in, knowing it’d be a little crazy at first, with the crowds, the dodging, and the tall buildings messing with satellites.
So remember how I said we were going to start easy, 8:45ish?
Yeah, funny joke. It took a while to lock in – I could tell my Garmin was going haywire because of the buildings as we worked our way out of downtown, clocking low 6s, then 6:30s, then low 7s for the first mile, but it beeped at 8:22. AKA goal pace.
We relaxed into a groove, chit chatting a little and soaking up the vibes. The sun was shining, the buildings were glittering, everyone was pumped and positive, screaming spectators and blasting rock bands playing in our ears. We headed under a bridge/tunnel where everyone always yells and whoops, laughing at the echoes, filled with glee. This is it. This is the day we’ve been training so many, many weeks for.
Dan and I settled into a great groove, sticking to each other like glue. I was able to give him a good blow-by-blow of the course, keeping him apprised of the course’s twists, turns, and quirks. We enjoyed the very flat first couple miles going up Liberty, then the turn to get into Penn heading back in the direction of downtown. I warned him that traffic could bottleneck to a stop there, but we didn’t slow much (though I felt someone graze my back accidentally for stability as we screeched around the turn). We cruised along, and I ignored the first water stop, sipping from my 22-oz handheld. I felt mostly relaxed and was having fun. We headed around a ninety-degree turn to the first bridge crossing, which I gave Dan a head’s up about – the beautiful 16th Street Bridge. The fans were out in FORCE, which was fantastic. Every time I saw a great sign, or someone seemed particularly enthusiastic, or we came to a particularly big clump of spectators, I started grinning like an idiot.
As we ran along East Ohio, I took my first gel (about 3.3 miles in). Very quickly we were upon back-to-back-bridges #2 and #3, both decked out with enormous RUNNER OF STEEL banners at the center of each, marking proudly where we had conquered each uphill side before we could coast downhill. Shortly before stepping onto the 9th Street bridge, my Garmin beeped 4 miles, and also gave me the “lap data almost full” warning. Crap. Awesome running buddy Dan held my water bottle while I deleted all but the last month of data – glad I was able to figure it out again while running. Crisis averted.
We conquered 9th Street, and headed across the single block between this bridge and the 7th Street Bridge, Fort Duquensne Blvd lined with a mass of spectators, creating a kind of scream tunnel. I smiled from ear-to-ear, and we went up and over bridge #3. I told Dan now we got a little bit of a break from bridges, though not too long. We hit mile 5 a little after the crossing, mile 2-5 bringing on perfect, beautiful splits.
8:19, 8:06, 8:25; 8:05
We made our way through more of North Side, staying to the right during the first relay exchange, and enjoying a section of the course lined with beautiful, green trees. I realized the miles were clicking away quickly, and I tried my best to soak it all in. I started to take water at the stops – sipping a couple ounces, then dumping the rest on my head and/or down my back. I wasn’t actually all that hot yet, but wanted to keep it that way. I also got to impart a tip to Dan – telling him to pinch the cup and pour the water in through a small corner, thereby preventing up-the-nose or on-the-face splashing.
We approached 10K, and I’d been steadfastly avoiding checking my overall time, but wanted to know if we really were as on-track as I thought we were. During the first six miles, Dan had surged a couple times, but I had always reeled him back in, never letting more than 5-10 seconds open up between us. I calculated in my head that about 52 minutes for the first 10K would mean we were on pace. As we neared the 10K clock, I checked my watch – we squeaked in just under 52. Perfect!
Mile 6 – 8:14
Official 10K split – 51:56
Dan and I celebrated our little victory, then let a little downhill that follow carry us as we neared bridge #4, the West End Bridge. This was of course bigger than the previous three, but as we crossed, keeping our perfect pace, relaxing into the uphill, we gazed out at the gorgeous view of downtown, taking a mental snapshot. “Look at that view, everybody!” I said to the runners around me, getting plenty of smiles as everyone took a moment to look at that beautiful skyline bathed in sunlight.
We meandered through West End, Dan still pulling away a bit at points, with me taking a little longer to catch up each time, but maintaining my steady pace. I took my second Gu at mile 7, noting that I had yet to feel bonky. Then began the long slog on Carson Street. We stuck together like glue for the next mile and a half or so, getting high fives from the Army folks and struggling up the slope a bit after (those high fives always get me a little bit too amped). I noted around mile 8 that my left upper calf and IT band were letting me know they were there, a familiar sensation that’d been creeping into the end of my runs the last week and a half of training. I told myself to relax, that keeping calm and keeping my speed up would do me more favors than freaking out and slowing down.
8:13, 8:17, 8:21
Somewhere in the midst of mile 10, after getting a premonition from a slight ache in my right side, I realized I was getting a full blown stitch. Determined not to walk unless it became so bad that breathing was a struggled, I pulled up a touch, massaging the cramping area and putting my right arm over my head to try to ease the pain. I visualized my breath going right there and moving that lactic acid out of there, praying this would leave. I comforted myself with the thought that, even if I had a slow mile or two and missed my A goal of sub-1:50, I was still in for a PR, and a great race no matter what. At this point, Dan pulled further away, and once the mile 10 marker hit, I had lost him completely in the crowd and the throngs of screaming spectators in South Side.
Into mile 11, I veered to the left of the cones as we approached the full/half-marathon split off. We’d both stream across the Birmingham Bridge, but on opposite sides, with the halfers going left and the marathoners going right. As we were still on Carson Street, a girl with long red hair and an even, smooth gait came up beside me. She looks really familiar, I thought. It couldn’t be…
I looked over at her more directly. “Didn’t we run together at the Frigid Five?”
She looked back at me, then gave a surprised look and a smile. “We did!”
We introduced ourselves and chatted about how our race was going – I told her about my gnarly stitch (and how it had thankfully passed) and she said her stomach wasn’t feeling all that great. We were both targeting 1:50, so I said, “let’s bring this in together!”
We made that turn onto Birmingham Bridge, and as it loomed large under the sun, I muttered to myself, “Time to make you my bitch.” We both eased into the bridge. I briefly lost my buddy, but she caught back up at the halfway point, giving a big grin as she pulled abreast once again. We headed down the other side and around a curve, knowing we were done with the bridges, but not the hills, having finished mile 11 started into mile 12, probably the toughest mile on the course between the end of the bridge, and a huge, steep climb almost immediately after.
We churned up it, keeping as relaxed as possible. We made it up to the top, which dumped us onto the overpass section of Blvd of the Allies (also known as the worst part of the Great Race – a long, grueling, even as it is slight climb, fully under the sun). At a water stop about halfway across, I spotted Dan’s bright spandex shorts and the penguin secured to his waist. He had slowed down for the water stop, suffering a bit, and I called some encouragement to him, and he hopped on our tails.
Official 11.3 mile split: 1:34.33
We kept as relaxed as we could, uttering short sentences of encouragement as we approached the exit ramp. We floated down, and gave each other permission to take off and kick whenever each of us felt ready to do so, thanking each other for the pacing and the push. With 1.1 to go, we had about 9:30 left to finish to squeak in under 1:50.
Afraid of getting greedy, I prevented myself from starting to kick until we were about 2/3 down that exit ramp. Then, a horrible optical illusion, I saw the finish line, appearing much closer than it actually was. I knew my Garmin was about .15 or so off the total distance, but at that point, I felt my legs just start to go, and I let the urge to fly carry me.
The road leveled out and I remembered that last little uphill, at which point the finish line banner disappears, and I realized I had a bit longer than I thought. I switched to overall time view, having been staring at lap pace estimate the entire race.
As I kept pushing, kept grinding, I scanned each side of the crowd for NF, wishing I’d arranged with him which side to look for him on, but also knowing I’d probably not have the presence of mind to recall that even if he had. He apparently did call my name, but the only one I heard was my friend from spin class, Janice, shrieking “Go Cathryn!” I pivoted my head and shot her a big grin (probably marred with a look of pain). My feet were on fire. I was gasping for air, trying to bring that yellow finish banner closer to me. Don’t give up. Don’t you dare give up now. You have this. You have this. Keep pushing. Commit.
I saw the gun time was only slightly over 1:50, maybe even under 1:52, and knew I had it. All I had to do was NOT collapse.
Everything else disappeared, all I saw was that bright yellow, and I crossed the finish line with arms in the arm, stumbling past the line and hitting stop a few seconds later, chest heaving, heart hammering.
Last .26 (running-the-tangents fail): 6:27 pace
Garmin time: 1:49.26
Chip time: 1:49.21 (8:21 avg) – new PR***
I heaved and gasped. I felt my eyes filling with tears as I put my hands over my mouth. A couple volunteers began to ask me if I was alright, but quickly surmised I was merely overwhelmed by emotion. I thanked them all profusely, barely able to hold it together for the one putting the finisher’s medal around my neck. Come to think of it, I missed getting my official finish line photo entirely (where the hell was that?).
My pacer buddy caught up with me, and we both had made it under 1:50, congratulating each other on great races, and offering our earnest thanks for the awesome pacing those last couple of miles. We both echoed to each other, I couldn’t have done it without you.
We limped our way to all the goodies. I sucked down a cup of Gatorade followed by some water, got a heat blanket draped around me, and was handed a plastic bag. BRILLIANT. Every been at a finish line with hands full of bananas, bagels, cookies, fruit, and a water bottle and not known how the fuck to carry all of it? This was an awesome idea. Pacer buddy and I loaded up on everything we could find, and kept gushing about the race and perfect day. I pulled a major creep-o and asked if it would be weird if we could get together to run sometime, given that we’re clearly really good pace partners. She actually lives on the other side of the state, but her family is in Pittsburgh, so she told me her last name so I could Facebook her. We should be able to meet up at future races for sure! 🙂
After one last congratulations and thanks, we split off so I could go to the family meeting area. I found my big, tall, handsome, supportive, sweet redheaded fiance, and I limped over, since my IT band had COMPLETELY seized after the finish line. He gave me a big hug and congratulations as I started to gush about the race, how great it felt, how I couldn’t believe I did it, how Dan had helped me keep on pace so perfectly for 9 miles, how I wrestled with the side stitch, and how I’d found the girl I’d told him about from the Frigid Five again at mile 11, and we pulled each other in. We were quickly joined by more buddies. Dan and Rachel weren’t far behind me, and my friend Carmen, whom I went to high school with, Had just missed sub-1:50 by 4 seconds and was close behind them meeting up with us after getting his timing printout. A little later, we chatted and I had put on my compression socks and was trying to choke down a banana (tummy didn’t really want to eat), Matt and Maria joined us on the heels of an equally successful venture, having finished together in about 2:15, with Maria’s toe – which had been giving her problems – cooperating with her for the whole race!
After some more hanging out, we eventually wandered back to our cars and headed back to NF’s, picking up some bagels and blobbifying ourselves for the afternoon before celebrating with an early dinner with the whole group plus a few more (Ragnar teammates Tim and Alys, and friends Devin and Jose, who hadn’t raced but joined in on the fun) with junk food (burgers!) and beer at Rock Bottom before seeing Iron Man 3 (highly entertaining), and crashing hard for the night after that.
After the celebrating, and I’m still in celebration mode now, to be honest, I’ll be taking at least a week off from running, possibly two. I usually take at least a handful of days, but with my IT band on such a razor’s edge, I know I need to be cautious and get it back in working order. This will mean lots of stretching, foam rolling, and strengthening. I took today totally off, and tomorrow night will go to pilates (where my instructor will ask me how my race went, because she’s awesome). I’m hoping to get a good core and lower body strength routine going and be much more diligent about it. I let the strength/cross-training slide in the last month of training per usual, and now I’m paying for it. When I start running again, I’ll go garmin-less for a bit – run familiar routes and maybe check start and finish times if I care to or even remember to, but otherwise just get some happy miles in. I don’t start structured training again until early/mid-July, and want to enjoy every second of this between-cycle pseudo-off-season.
I honestly still can’t believe how far I’ve come. From a 2:09.58 in my first half-marathon on Thanksgiving Day 2010 to a 1:49.21 in May 2013. Wow. NF thinks I should shoot for 1:45 at Air Force in September. We’ll see how I feel in the coming weeks. All I care about now is recovery -including for NF and his poor IT band and enjoying running, eventually with my boy again.