I didn’t talk about this race a lot in advance, because to be honest, I wasn’t feeling too confident about it. I haven’t really run that much lately, and while I was really proud of my first place finish in last week’s race – let’s be honest, that was because all the good runners were skipping it to run the real New York City Marathon :) I was very proud of my time in that race, but part of me also thought it might have been a fluke. Maybe my clock got screwed up in the woods, or maybe I just happened to have a superhuman day. But today, I proved that last week was no accident – I PRed by 6 minutes in the Richmond Half Marathon!
It’s been forever since I ran a half marathon, and I felt a twinge of envy at the expo yesterday, watching thousands of runners get their bibs for the full, while I sheepishly took my bib for the half. I don’t have any problem with shorter distance races – in fact, I love them! – but something just didn’t feel right about running the half when the full was a completely viable option. Right up until the week of the race, I hadn’t decided whether to do the half or attempt the full – particularly given that I haven’t run over 13.1 miles in about 6 months, which made it seem silly for me to attempt a full marathon. But what clinched it was getting invited to be a coach for the Urban Girl Squad running group at Athleta. I jumped at the opportunity to be part of such a great organization, but with the first run scheduled for Sunday, I decided I had better not take my chances with the full marathon.
Before the race, I started thinking that maybe if I was only going to do the half, I should shoot for a time goal. I do feel like my running has gotten faster lately, and it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to test that. My friend Adam is a running coach, so I asked him to take a look at my recent times on my 3 mile runs and let me know what he thought was doable. Could I shoot for 1:55? 1:50 even? Unfortunately for me, he gently squashed my dreams by pointing out that while I had been running a 9:05 pace on some hills for three miles, someone who could run a half marathon in 1:50 (8:23 pace) would consider a 9:05 pace for 3 miles to be a super easy run for their recovery days – and that I should have barely broken a sweat doing it (um, not the case). He suggested that an aggressive goal would be to try for 1:55, but that 2:00 might be more realistic. I accepted that – I really hadn’t trained for this race at all – but really wanted to do 2:00 or less.
While my pace was uncertain, I had planned for a while to do either the full or the half (note: “planned” does not equal “trained” in my book) just to complete it, and I was psyched to also get a chance to stay in Richmond and catch up with a good friend. Lindsey and I have known each other since we were six years old, when what started as a ballet class rivalry blossomed into a great friendship. Oddly enough, both Lindsey and I turned from ballet to running, and so it was that she was planning to run the Richmond Half! I was psyched about getting to do a race with my old friend… until she suffered a stress fracture a few weeks ago and was barred from participating! She graciously offered me her bib and encouraged me to come stay with her anyway – so Friday night found me “carb loading” with Lindsey, her roommate, and my favorite meal of cioppino, great bread, and a few tasty beers :)
Despite the fact that daylight savings has been over for more than a week now (and I have been extolling the virtues ever since), I am still not used to the time change. At least, I will assume that’s the reason I was yawning and ready for bed at 8pm on Friday night – but at least I had the excuse of the race the next morning to make me seem a little less lame. Sure enough, I cozied up in bed around 9:30pm to read – and barely made it 10 minutes before I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Time to rest up for the race!
Further proof that I have not yet adjusted to the end of daylight savings came when I woke up. As long as I am well-rested, I tend to wake up naturally a few minutes before my alarm. (I’m not going to pretend to be Sarah Bernhardt or anything, and I certainly still use an alarm clock, but I generally feel pretty confident that if I need to get up at 7am and for some reason my alarm hasn’t gone off, I’ll probably wake up on my own anyway.) This morning, I needed to get up at 6am in order to be out the door for the race by 6:45am – but I found myself waking up wide awake at 5am, and spending the last hour of my planned sleep dozing. See, my brain’s alarm clock is still on standard time! Hopefully I can “reset” it soon.
Fortunately, I still felt great when I woke up. In fact, I felt better than great – I felt fantastic and ready to run! I went through my morning routine, and chowed down on my new favorite travel breakfast. Lately I’ve gotten in the habit of making ziplocks of oatmeal each week, so that I know even if I can’t find a healthy restaurant, I can at least get one healthy meal a day. In each bag, I put 1/3 cup oats, 1 tbsp chia seeds, 1 scoop protein powder, a small handful of dried goji berries, a big shake of cinnamon powder, and a few butterscotch chips. when I add hot water (thank you, hotel coffee maker… or in this case, Lindsey’s microwave) and let it sit for a few minutes, I get an awesome healthy and hearty breakfast, with a few swirls of butterscotch for sweetness once I allow the chips to melt. So tasty!
Having had my breakfast and not needing any coffee (woo hoo, I’ve kicked the habit!), I hopped in the car and headed for the start. Despite my having a car and not wanting her to get up at an early hour (especially since she wasn’t running), Lindsey kindly insisted on driving me to the race – perhaps because of my demonstrated incompetence in getting there last time (I got lost twice and missed the entire race in 2009). This time, I proved that two years older does not necessarily mean two years wiser, when I got down to the car and then had to immediately run back up to the guest room because I had left my bib/timing chip sitting on the futon (at least we hadn’t already started driving when I realized my mistake). Lindsey dropped me off a few blocks away from the race start (ah, the convenience of having a driver instead of parking lightyears away), and I scurried through the chilly Richmond streets with all the other runners.
Upon feeling how cold it was (and I was just wearing my race clothes, choosing not to deal with the hassle of a drop bag), I promptly started looking around for someplace indoors to hang out before the race. As I neared the start, I saw the Hilton Garden Inn looming ahead, its lobby teeming with runners. Perfect! As a non-guest, I didn’t use the bathrooms or otherwise take any of their facilities, but it was nice to have a lobby to wait in for a bit so I wouldn’t have to freeze my buns off at the starting line for quite so long.
With about 15 minutes to go, I headed for the start, arriving just in time for the national anthem. While everyone was assigned to a specific corral and the gatekeepers on the sides of each corral were extremely strict, it seemed that the race organizers were also having people enter from the starting line and then make their way back to their assigned corral – so really, you could stop anywhere. I saw many people in the A corral who, by body shape, did not seem to me to be in shape to run a sub-3:15 marathon, which made me really frustrated with the system. Why seed people at all if you’re going to let people start anywhere, with inexperienced runners clogging up the road for everyone behind? Meanwhile, I tried my best to get back to my assigned corral, but couldn’t get any further than the third corral back – CA – because of the crowds. I didn’t stress too much though – while my bib put me in the group aiming for a 2:15-2:30 half marathon, I was hoping to run sub-2, or exactly the recommended pace for the CA corral.
One thing I will commend the Richmond organizers for: instead of using the corrals just to separate groups but having everyone start together, they took an approach that is not usually all that common: having a separate start for each corral. The starts were only two minutes apart, so it didn’t require people in the back to have to wait forever, but it was nice to get your own personalized start and be able to run as soon as you crossed the start mats. Each start was accompanied by a great pump-you-up song too. As I heard the corrals in front of me get their starts, I actually got tears in my eyes. It had been so long since I’ve been at the start of a big race like this, and when I thought of my friends who weren’t able to run that day (Lindsey, Katie), I just felt so lucky to be there and be able to run. “Kick it” (the lyrics of the song they were playing) was exactly what I was about to do!
I inched up to the start with mounting anticipation, and when the starting gun went off, I took off with it. Dodging my way around other runners in my corral who were starting at a more conservative (okay, fine, much smarter pace), I found myself in the front of the pack, leading the way with a huge grin on my face. I was running! In a race! On a gorgeous day for running! And right then and there, I knew what I had been thinking all morning but was too afraid to really allow myself to consciously admit: I was going to set a PR today.
With the sounds of the start music fading as I ran further, I turned on the music on my phone. The first song up ended up being the first song I had listened to in my very first marathon: Carrie Underwood’s “Crazy Dreams”, and I marveled at how appropriate it was. The lyrics: “Hello you long shots, dark horse runners… thank god even crazy dreams come true.” Every time I listen to that song, I get so jazzed up. I was never supposed to be a runner. I’m a musical theater kid who hated gym class! But somewhere along the way, that changed, and now I’ve accomplished a pretty crazy dream that most people don’t even believe when I tell them about it. AND I LOVE IT!
In order to achieve a PR time, I needed to break 1:57. I hadn’t made a pace bracelet for this race, but I had memorized the average split times I needed for each mile: 8:23 if I wanted to finish in 1:50, 8:46 if I wanted to finish in 1:55, and 9:09 to break 2:00. When I was back at home checking out these paces, I made up a little rhyme that I chanted to myself. It went something like this:
My first mile flew by in 7:59, thanks to my speedy sprint, but then I settled into doing about 8:30 until mile 7. In the course of these miles, we ran through an industrial area, through a residential suburban area, and then turned into a park at mile 6 to loop around a pond. While the course didn’t have any major hills to write home about, the park was a little bit up and down throughout – with me easing up on the pace going up the hills, and then “falling” down the hill and allowing myself to fly past the other runners on the downhills. The up and down nature enabled me to do this pretty easily, since I never had to worry about getting out of control when I let myself fly – something I’ve gotten scared about on courses with long steep downhills. Instead, I got to just enjoy it! I hit the 10K split in 53:02, and shortly after, the halfway point right around 55 minutes. That meant I had done the first half on pace to run a 1:50 – but could I keep it up?
Mile 8 brought us out of the park and on our longest hill of the course – which was over in about a minute. We headed out of the park we were in and into another, where I was dismayed to find that they gave out Gu only about 3 feet before a water station. When will race organizers learn to put the Gatorade before the water (also a problem in this race) and put the Gu a tenth of a mile or so before the drinks, so that you have time to eat your Gu/drink your Gatorade and then get water to wash it down? I’ve never understood why even well-organized races don’t even follow those principles.
On the plus side of the drink situation, we ran into the hashers around mile 9 – stationed just after a regular water/Gatorade station. Knowing that they usually don’t have good quality beers at these stations, I was planning to pass – but then when my Gatorade wasn’t enough for me and I was getting wiped out, I grabbed a cup of beer from a hasher anyway. I guess the look on my face must have been one of dazed exhaustion where they thought I didn’t know what I was grabbing, because that brought a pack of hashers down upon me: “No, it’s beer! Not water! Beer! Water is back there!” I laughed and gulped it down, telling them it was just what I needed. Thanks, guys!
We headed through some more neighborhoods, some with a gentle uphill, and then came out to a main road again. I started getting really tired in this area, and called my mom for support. Since I can’t always have my friends/family at a race, my mom has learned that if I call her during a race and don’t say anything when she answers, it means I am wiped out and looking for her to support me from afar – which she does by cheering just as if she was standing alongside the course. “You are amazing, bunny!” (Yeah, she calls me bunny…) “You can do it! Keep going! I am so proud of you!” Let me tell you, when she can’t be there in person, getting her calls and texts of encouragement is the next best thing to help push me to do my best :)
After I gasped out a “thank you” to her and got off the phone, I hit mile 10 – 1:26:24 on my watch. Only a 5K to go! I got jazzed up by the idea that I was so close, particularly since I knew for sure at this point I was going to PR. Even if I did 10 minute miles from here on out (which I was NOT going to do), I would still squeak in just under my old PR. Now the question was – how much could I push the pace to make a PR that would be hard to break in the future?
The next mile was rough, despite the appearance of an aid station that was Alice in Wonderland themed (volunteers dressed in fun costumes, signs with quirky sayings reminiscent of things Alice would have seen along the way, etc). I chuckled at the aid station, but on the inside, I was dying. This mile was brutal, and I couldn’t figure out why! Later, when I looked at my splits on Cardiotrainer, I discovered the answer: because I had done it about 25 seconds faster than all the previous miles! I wasn’t wiped out; I was just pushing a little bit harder. The end was in sight!
We came to another uphill around mile 11, and found the aid station at the bottom of the hill. Just where I like it! I took a cup of Gatorade and walked up the hill, combining the drink break with a chance to rest on the uphill. A volunteer came up to me and asked if I was okay (I guess I looked worse than I thought!), and encouraged me to keep going, pointing out that the end was only 2 miles away. I knew that, but thanked him anyway for the encouragement, and took off a second later. Only about 15 more minutes and I would be done, and with a shiny new PR to boot! I was pumped.
In the last two miles, as I pushed the pace more and more, I found myself passing everyone around me – so much that I ended up staying to the far left and even veering a bit outside the cones designed to keep us on the right side of the road (though as far as I could tell, that was more for the 8K participants to avoid the marathoners than for any traffic). This is why I love the last few miles of a race – I am typically used to the distance enough to keep going strong, so even if I’m not speeding up, I’m passing people who have hit their breaking point and are slowing down. But to me, that feels like flying! I got a few calls of “nice pace, girl!” as I went by, and murmured a few “good job, you can do it!”s of my own. When we came to the last mile, I shouted out, “come on guys, one more mile – 10 minutes and we are DONE!” I guess part of me can’t help being a cheerleading pacer even when I’m running by myself :)
There was a pair of runners in front of me who were talking strategy: “when we hit the turn, that’s when we’ll push it to the end.” Seizing on an opportunity to get advice from someone who knew the course, I queried, “after the turn, is it downhill from there?” “Oh, YEAH!” they replied. Woo hoo! My favorite kind of finish. Before getting to that turn though, we came upon one final aid station: a group of women playing “Jump On It”. I wasn’t about to sacrifice my team so much as to do the whole hip-shaking dance, but I waved my arms in the air to show how I appreciated their music, and they cheered me on.
We took the final left turn, and the runners ahead of me had been right: pure downhill as far as I could see. Yippee! I zoomed down the side, a huge grin on my face, just as one of my favorite finishing songs of all time came on (Rascal Flatts – “Where You Are”). With a gigantic grin on my face, I flew down that hill to the bottom. Usually I hate when the race flattens out right before the finish line, because the transition from downhill to flat usually makes you feel exhausted, but this time, I was so pumped I didn’t even notice. Sprinting across the finish line with a clock time under 2 hours (which I have never yet done, due to only ever having done a sub-2 half marathon by chip time), I threw my arms over my head in a victory V and immediately burst into tears – even forgetting to stop my watch for a bit. I had done it! I had come back into the racing scene, and I had come back strong, breaking my old PR by over 6 minutes (or 27 seconds per mile). I couldn’t believe that it brought me to tears (something I hadn’t done even when I finished my 50 states), but I felt so proud of myself and so accomplished that I couldn’t even help it. And I wasn’t even all that sore/tired! How do you like THEM apples, Adam? (Yes, I may have texted that to him from the finish line).
Despite PRing, my running for the weekend was not over yet! Stay tuned for my Sunday…
Distance: 13.1 miles
Overall place: 1366/6236
Gender place: 486/3820
Age group place: 103/741