It’s a tough lesson to learn as a runner: you won’t always see the numbers on the clock that you hoped for. A lot of factors go into achieving the time you want, getting that PR, whatever your time-related goal may be: fitness, confidence, a fast course, fresh legs, fueled and hydrated body, happy stomach, good weather, and a little bit of magic.
I had a lot of things going for me that Sunday morning at the beginning of this month as I prepared to toe the line at 13.1 Atlanta, prepared to throw down for my tune-up half-marathon of the cycle. I had been acing workouts. Despite any nightmares I had leading up to the race that stated otherwise, I got to chat with my coach about a plan. We didn’t know exactly how fast I was at that point, so the plan was to race by feel. I felt super strong, especially coming off that amazing 18-miler that included the Great Race 10K at goal marathon pace. I then proceeded to stomp a 15K tempo that week and felt better doing striders at the end of a 10-mile treadmill run on Thursday than I felt the previous strider-less miles. I was raring to go.
Saturday morning dawned with drizzly rain, and we drove out of Athens (with all of Georgia and Alabama driving into it – they’d get the worst of the foul weather; the game got absolutely poured on. Atlanta and west were significantly drier) into Atlanta to hit up packet pickup in Buckhead and then crash at our friends Charlie and Jill’s house, watching football, hydrating, eating lovely carbs, and relaxing with them and their puppy and kitty. Ideal pre-race plan, if you ask me. We hit the hay early for a 4:15 alarm, laying out all our stuff and preparing for torrential rain (spoiler alert: didn’t actually happen).
We got to the race site SUPER early and parked in the mall area, about a 2/3 mile walk to the start area. As I got out of the car, I realized why the shorts part of my Oiselle bum wrap hadn’t been feeling right all morning – the right inner seam had split in the middle. Shit. I didn’t have a sewing kit (or skills) nor backup bottoms with me in the car (note to self for future: bring back-up EVERYTHING in the car. Neurotic? Maybe. But also prepared). I put on extra extra EXTRA lube and hoped for the best. I wasn’t going to let a split seam ruin my race if I could help it.
Donning trash bags (that we ended up not super-needing but were briefly helpful against the wind), we walked to the start, which was very quiet for a while. This wasn’t a huge race. I think there were on order of about 1500 finishers total for the half + 5K. We noted with a grimace that the finish seemed to be an uphill, but oh well, everything hurts at that point.
I’d like to take this opportunity to show you the course elevation profile as it appears on the website.
Call me crazy, but that doesn’t look too bad. I looked carefully at the scaling and it didn’t seem awful – rolling hills, but I could use that as a positive. Having raced 4.5 years in Pittsburgh and now living in Athens, rolling hills didn’t scare me. The Georgia Half route in March was fairly hilly, and I ran the 1:45 I knew I was fit for that day, despite the hills. I could work these, too. I was banking on it. And on this day, I was way more fit than back in March.
About 20-25 minutes before the start, I headed out on my quick warmup mile, out and back along the sidewalk where runners were flooding in. One more corral bathroom break (there was a porto right there! Still not sure it wasn’t staff only, but no one stopped me) and finding Ty from Athens Road Runners, we lined ourselves up in Corral B and I squeezed near the 1:40 pace group, eyeing them quietly but knowing I would still follow my feet, my heart, and my breathing. That was pretty much the last moment I saw that group.
The air horn sounded and we had the usual accordion effect before we finally got across the start. I started my watch a good few seconds before crossing the mat, and we were off! I tried not to watch hawk too badly, feeling things out. It had been raining all weekend but wasn’t really raining at the start – the humidity hung in the air and I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem. The race had advertised on its website that there were 11 water stations (foreshadowing moment: I didn’t bring my own water because I figured this would be plenty) and I knew I’d be drinking and dumping water on my head at every station to account for the muggy low to mid-60s weather.
The race start was 7:00 so it was still very dark, and I carefully navigated my footing, using the early downhill to get some momentum and find my breathing. The mile clicked in 7:37, and I tried to restrain my giddiness. I wasn’t on LAP mode, just my overall time, in an effort to feel things out. As the first mile ended and we were about to round under an overpass, I saw the first aid station. Excellent! I thought. So they’ll be nearly every mile, this is great. Oh. Bless my own heart.
Immediately upon turning under the overpass, we headed up the first signifcant hill. It wasn’t terrible, it was a long, slow grind, but over soon enough and I tried to lock back into a rhythm and even out my breathing. The mile 2 mark came and went, and we entered mile 3, which was the worst mile as far as the longest, steepest hill according to my data. It knocked the wind right out of me, and it’s probably at that moment that my early confidence in this race took the biggest hit. I also still hadn’t seen another water stop as we entered into mile 4, and it wasn’t until 4.2ish that a water stop actually showed up. Okay, I thought, Maybe they’re backloading the water. That’s dumb, but it’ll do. Maybe.
The problem with this course was the setting. This is the third year, and not just the third course for this race, but third different area of Atlanta they’ve hosted it in. For those familiar, it’s in the northwest corner of the city, near Cobb Galleria. We were essentially running through office parks, and there were tons of out-and-backs and little repeated loops, so not very scenic. And as with most office parks, there were hills. EVERYWHERE. And not rolling hills, but sudden and steep ups-and-downs. These were not workable hills – these were momentum-and-rhythm-destroying hills. The cumulative effect was startling, but mid-race I didn’t really realize how bad it was until it was too late.
8:04, 8:24 (seriously, the worst hill), 7:57, 8:08
The rain began somewhere around 5-6, but it was light and hardly noticeable – the humidity dominated the day. Right around the 10K mark there was a short-ish out and back that made for a double water stop. This was the first time I saw Shannon, and we caught a quick high five (he’s still dealing with metatarsalgia, but was running the race for fun and totally dominated the course in 1:53, I was SO proud of him, especially with almost no running and so much biking lately, on such a rough course). I gleefully sucked down water at the first out-and-back stop, drinking half and dumping half on my head to cool myself – I had taken my first gel during mile 5 so I was finally getting to wash it down. On the way back I reached for a second cup and completely fumbled it, cursing aloud (sorry, volunteer – not your fault). I needed that water since it was becoming clear that there wasn’t nearly as much as advertised. With this out and back, there had been 4 in the first 10K, with 2 being within a quarter mile of each other.
After the cup fumble, we headed up another crushing hill and I felt my pace just tank. I really wanted to walk. Honestly, I kind of wanted to quit. But I convinced myself I should at least feebly jog, that it wouldn’t destroy my pace as much, and surely the hills would get better soon and I could make up some time.
We did have one nice out and back that crossed the Chattahoochee, and I tried to enjoy the view and the relative flat (well, nicely rolling) and get back into a rhythm and a better mental place. I caught Shannon for another out-and-back high five at this point. He looked strong but I knew the course was affecting him, too. I tried to put on a happy face. Moments before seeing him at that point, too, I noticed another Oiselle runner and grinned big. Seeing her and then seeing my husband within seconds did give me a great mental boost, I have to say. At some point in this vicinity was another water stop…and if I recall right, that was the last water stop on course. Mile 10 was a horrific hill, and I tried to ignore the 9:00+ time that flashed up on my watch.
7:59, 8:21, 8:03, 8:21, 9:07
I did notice from fairly early on and throughout the race, I didn’t have a lot of female company where I was running. About halfway through I started running near and yo-yo’ing with a couple girls, but it was mostly guys around me, which before the race started going very badly for me, gave me a nice mental boost. With such a small field, maybe I could have a competitive finish? This thought drifted away as the hills stacked up.
Ty and I caught up to one another around this point as well, heading back up the mile 1 hill we had been able to go down, and hopping onto a trail by the river for a short piece. We yo-yo’d a bit and complained about the course and lack of water, but it was motivating to try to match pace with him. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, I bitched once more about the lack of water and then turned it on a bit and passed him for the rest of the race (he had Chicago the following weekend so wasn’t supposed to race hard).
The last 5K absolutely broke me. I had taken my second and final gel around 9-something, expecting a water stop at any moment. There were zero – I REPEAT, THERE WERE ZERO – water stops in the final 4+ miles of the race. That is COMPLETELY unacceptable under ANY circumstances, let alone a hilly, humid race in Atlanta (I sent a strongly worded email to the race organizers about this fact). We headed out on one final out and back on a big hill – which was basically as a result a double down-and-up, and as we passed the hill I knew we’d be heading to right after, I said aloud, “you have GOT to be shitting me.” I pushed as much as I could on the downs and grinded the ups. I saw Shannon and the Volee runner one more time, though Shannon was deeply focused and possibly in the pain cave, so he didn’t see me (nor the vehement thumbs-down I flashed his way to sum up my general feelings at that moment). Heading up that hill we previewed, I shouted out loud as a course marshal drove by, “Where is the friggin’ water???” Not a proud moment, but I was I think justifiably pissed about the water situation.
And I walked. For no more than a tenth of a mile (probably less), in the middle of a half-marathon, not at a water stop, for the first time in YEARS, I walked. Just to the top of the hill and then I slid back in and kept my pace under 9:00, but still.
Just a mile and change to go, I turned it on as best I could, trying to kick on a long downhill before the uphill finish knocked me out. My watch had been ahead of the mile markers for a while (the typical amount for GPS) but I clicked mile 13 right at the marker – possibly due to multiple overpasses. 7:39. First mile on pace since…the first mile. The road sloped back uphill and I gritted my teeth, feeling like I was running through sludge. It felt like I was running a 10:00 pace but apparently I managed to sprint 7:09 pace up the hill. I ran through the line and hit stop across the second mat, thankful for a small field so I could wobble around as I tried to find my balance.
Finish time (chip): 1:47:45 (8:12 average)
Oh. So ugly. I stumbled toward the volunteers, waiting for one to untangle her medals before stumbling toward another one who was ready. I grabbed a water, a banana, and some protein recovery squeeze pack thing (that was actually pretty tasty) and tried to figure out where to go to wait for Shannon, whom I knew was no more than a couple minutes behind me.
I neared the finish photo area and wanted to wait for him there. They weren’t monitoring that area very much or telling people to move along as in big races, so I took that moment to sit on the curb, and sob. I looked up through bleary eyes at another finisher who came up to me – a man who said I ran a great race and looked really strong on the hills, that I was an inspiration. I thanked him in earnest, but I didn’t believe him. Not right then.
A few minutes later, I saw Shannon gathering his medal and post-race food and when he spotted me, I broke down once more and he came over and hugged me tightly. I cursed the course. I cursed the lack of water. I cursed my weakness in walking, in giving up, in my time. I had felt so strong and prepared and ready to crush it, and here I was, 7+ minutes off my PR, and almost 3 minutes slower than I was in March, when I was far less fit.
Before I got too cold, and after squeezing in our finishers’ photos, I forced myself to get on with my cool down. Ty managed to get a real smile and laugh out of me as he saw me running out as he was walking back to his car, shouting, “Shut up! Stop it right now! What are you doing??” in a teasing tone. I laughed and reassured him I was just running a quick cool down mile.
It took me a while to be willing to post my data. Or to post on social media about the race. But once I did, the flood of support from friends and my coach came in. The Oiselle team ladies were amazing, and it was a great moment when I learned that a fellow bird broke the tape at the race.
She also commented on the challenging nature of the course, and when I looked at her results and her race history (the internet is forever – sorry!), I saw she was a good 5+ minutes off her best as well. I began to think, So maybe it wasn’t just me.
Remember that course elevation from the site I posted earlier? Here’s the elevation from Strava:
I posted the link to my Strava data on twitter, and got an “uh WTF?!” response from my coach at the elevation. It was no joke. To compare, the pretty darn hilly Georgia Half in Atlanta this March had just under 600 ft elevation gain over 13.1 miles. This course? About 1,100 ft of elevation gain. That’s a little ridiculous. And more than enough to explain why my fitness and effort didn’t spell the time on the clock I had been hoping for.
We headed back to Charlie and Jill’s to get cleaned up and share our woes. I discovered that yes, I chafed VERY badly from the ripped seam (OUCH), but I got into comfy clothes and some Vaseline helped it from getting rubbed raw throughout the day.
My wounds may have been raw, but the more time I had to think and reflect and talk, the better I felt. Shannon and I stuffed ourselves on breakfast food at a great Jewish-style deli in Atlanta and made the drive home (watching the flood of traffic *out* of Athens this time). We downloaded about the race in detail: the course, the water, those hills, the weather, how we felt, how it stacked up against other challenging courses, the routes we run in Athens. And I started to feel a little proud of my fight.
And then, later that evening, I checked my official results at last…
3rd in my age group, and 14th woman overall??? I was floored.
And the truth that I had started to come to terms with as the day went on, finally, in the end, washed over me – this race wasn’t about the number on the clock, not really. It was about how I fought through the odds and still gave it my all with what I had that day, in the conditions I ran through, the cards I was dealt.
If that realization wasn’t enough, the next week of training hit me over the head with it: I ran 6 sore but happy recovery miles Monday after work with the Fleet Feet group, 9 gorgeous autumn morning miles with my usually crew (George and I running easy and commenting on how fantastic we felt – my legs felt inexplicably spectacular), and destroyed a 12 mile workout with 4×1200 at 10K pace on Thursday, feeling strong and free. On Sunday, after wussing out on Athens Road Runner’s usual Saturday’s run due to rain (there had been calls for t-storms but I don’t think they ended up happening during the run), I joined the Rogue Runners on their long run for my 18-miler, and got the little push outside my comfort zone that I probably needed, and walked away sore but victorious.
Including this week, there are five weeks to race day. Each workout is giving me confidence. Each one is teaching me something, getting me a little stronger. That race was a hard workout – my legs will attest to that. And now I’m just hungry for more.