I never thought I'd run that fast, that far.
Fast being a relative term, of course - but fast for me. Sure, I'd run faster in my twenties, but no further than a 10K, and that was decades ago. In my late forties, it took me over a year and a half of running, a couple of marathons, and many half marathons to break 3 hours in the half, it never seemed within the realm of possibility to break 2:20 in a half marathon.
But I did it yesterday.
Please excuse me for a moment, but WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!
This was the fifth in my personal series of five half marathons this spring (within 7 weeks) to celebrate turning fifty years old this coming June. These races completely exceeded all my expectations, particularly this last one.
My half marathon PR prior to this series was 2:36:23 set at the B&A Half Marathon in March 2006, and that was only about a minute less than my previous PR set in 2002. So any reasonable expectation would be that in a great half marathon I might lower my PR by another minute or two. But with the help of a couple of great pacing buddies, I was able to bring my PR down to 2:26:38 at the B&A Half Marathon on March 4, 2007. I thought that PR was going to stick for a long, long time.
This promised to be a great race at any speed, though. It was the inaugural edition of a point-to-point pancake-flat half marathon going from one bridge to another, ending less than a mile from my home, run as part of Bay Day celebrations at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. I knew the course like the back of my hand, since I bike it almost every weekend and I've been running parts of it regularly since 1999. This is my home. I wanted to run well in this race.
I solicited pacing advice from some of my online correspondents. I got several thoughtful responses and a lot of encouragement. Some told me to work on overtaking runners ahead of me. Some told me to take it out slow and accelerate, mile by mile. Some told me to take the first 5 miles easy, the second 5 miles above goal pace, and hang on for the last 5K. Those all made sense to me. Which way to go?
But David Jones said, "Balls to the wall and hold on. . . . It's only a half." With all due respect, I snorted at that. That's not possible. A HALF MARATHON? 13.1 MILES? Surely you jest. I'd be dead by mile 3 or 4.
Bob Mina said: "1. Take it out easy. First mile will be the slowest all day. Get warm, find a rhythm. 2. Second mile, drop the hammer. Just hit it as best you can. 3. Hang on. 4. Keep hanging on. Sure, you might die. You know what? I bet you won't. . . . Commit. 100% commitment. Total, unreserved, pure commitment. No excuses. The conditions, your current base mileage, experience, and the course won't line up any better than this. . . . Believe. Run it hard, and be ready for what you might be able to do."
I was still deeply skeptical, but these are voices that I respect. But where do they get these absurd, crazy ideas? Let's check the numbers. I went back to my race records. I recently did a very hilly 10-miler in 1:48:52. I thought maybe a couple minutes off that on the flat on a perfect day might be possible, and I just had to push it for another 5K further. Maybe, just maybe something under 2:20 was possible, if the stars aligned and everything happened just right.
Race day dawned absolutely perfectly - clear and sunny, no wind, and with only a slight chill in the air. I wore a singlet, a long-sleeved throwaway tshirt, and carried three gels, 2 salt capsules, and a water bottle. I was fully wired with my Garmin Forerunner 305 on my right wrist and had it set to display current pace, average pace, cumulative distance, and heart rate. On my left wrist my watch would display elapsed time.
I drove over to the start with my training buddy David, checked in, and took the shuttle past both bridges and a half mile further to the elementary school at Tilghman Island. The small crowd of about 60 runners stayed warm inside and enjoyed the use of their facilities until it was time to line up outside. Chug some water, take a salt capsule, and toss the bottle. The start was delayed for a couple of minutes because the drawbridge to the island was UP, but before long the gun sounded and we were off!
Starting down the road I was the dead last runner. I took my time to warm up, letting everyone push on ahead. I knew they were starting too fast and many of them would slow down later. I kept it nice and comfortable and got my body warmed up. My heart rate never comes up to steady-state until the first mile is done, anyway.
At 0.5 miles we crossed the Knapps Narrows drawbridge in a group and the field then began to spread out. We have miles and miles of 8-foot-wide nearly level highway shoulder to run on. Winds were light. Courses just don't get any faster than this. I kept it comfortable but began passing a few people.
Mile 1: 10:07
That pace always feels easy at the start of a race, but "easy" gets slower very rapidly. ACK! Severe cramp about to hit my right calf! Ow, ow, just keep jogging and it will work out, just keep jogging.... Oh well. This is going to be a slow race, I think. I'll just trudge along to the finish and get it done. Finally after 3/4 mile of discomfort, the spasm goes away. Oh well, there goes a perfect day.
Mile 2: 11:02
The cramp only cost me a half minute. I peel off the long-sleeved tshirt and drop it next to a cone. Somehow getting my legs back under me, and seeing the 2 mile marker jolted me awake. OK, let's see what happens if I crank it up to "DIFFICULT" pace and just try to hold it there. I wonder how long it will take before I fall apart and start walking. It's worth a little experiment, I suppose.
Mile 3: 10:37
This is going okay, but there's no way I can hold this. It's only 3 miles and my heart rate is already well into the 170s. I'll just try to keep it up to the water station and then slow down. I take out a gel, suck it down, drop to a racewalk and toss back two cups of water. Back on the run. I pass the wide-hipped girl, the older man shuffling along, and crank it up to get away from the annoying chatty girls running five abreast.
Mile 4: 10:34
No freakin' way can I hold this pace. Maybe I'll just run to that next cone, and if I feel too lousy, I'll just walk then. I know there are about 15 runners behind me, but there is NO ONE left in sight in front of me. I never see another runner in the race until after the finish line. Good thing I have my trusty Garmin along to help me with my pace, or I'd be all alone out here.
Mile 5: 10:19
I can make it to the next cone, but no way can I keep doing this for 8 more miles. That's impossible. But no, Bob said to believe. OK, I'll try it. I begin my mantra in rhythm with my steps: "I believe. I believe." Yeah, right. But whatever works.
Mile 6: 10:22
What the heck - Garmin says my average pace is 10:30 minutes per mile! Can that be right? I cannot possibly keep this up. Just for grins let's get the halfway split at 6.55 miles: 1:09:03. Whoa! If I could keep this up I could break 2:20. But of course that's impossible.
No, it's only impossible if I think it is. "I believe. I believe."
Mile 7: 10:52
Another water stop. Take another gel to keep your blood sugar up. Thank the volunteers. Stay hydrated or that heart rate will skyrocket. It's already in the upper 170s. Oh, yeah, take a salt capsule too or you'll get too dizzy before the end. Every second counts. Time trial. Time trial.
Mile 8: 10:23
Balls to the wall, he said. What a jerk. I can't do this. This is too hard. Five more miles! Ack! Stop with the negative thinking already! "I believe. I believe." Just keep running hard to the water stop. Just that far. Only that far.
Mile 9: 11:05
Yeah, that does it, I'm cooked. It's all over now. No, wait, this is the intersection where I said I was going to pick up the pace for the final stretch. Ugh. That means I have to keep running even harder. Jeez, is that a 10 mile PR? 1:46:23? What did I finish my last 10 mile race in? What were those numbers? I can't remember. It doesn't matter. Focus. Just run.
Mile 10: 10:44
Just hang on until the water stop. Just until the next cone. Toss down the water, silently curse the styrofoam cups, keep on running. Just believe. Try to believe.
Mile 11: 10:45
Wow, this is my old running route. 2000? 2001? How many years ago was that? I can't figure it out. I only know it was about 60 pounds, 3 babies, and about a million miles ago.
Mile 12: 10:43
There's the bridge in the distance. It seems too far to run. I wonder if my training buddy David will come out to finish with me. He said he would. Where the heck is he? He would have finished a half hour ago. Ouch this hurts. My breathing is getting ragged. I cough now and then from the remnants of a chest cold from last weekend. Ahh, there's David! He's waiting with a speedy young runner and they each run alongside me and escort me in. I'm grateful. David chats amiably and asks me how my race went. "Can't. Talk." I can only grunt. They understand. My heart rate is skyrocketing above 180.
Mile 13: 10:29
Where's the finish? Damn gravel path at the end, this hurts a lot. Where's the line? My god, does that clock still say 2:19? That can't be right, can it? Can I make it over the line before it flips over to 2:20? Push hard....
Finishing Time, 13.1 miles: 2:19:28
It's several minutes before I can speak or walk again. My average heart rate on the course was 174 bpm. I definitely gave it all I had today. I'm totally spent and completely satisfied with my effort. I walked around slowly until my heart rate got back near normal and then sprawled on the grass, soaking up the sun.
Much to my surprise, I was awarded a plaque for 3rd place woman in the 40-49 group. Amazing! I'm grateful to the organizers for putting on such a wonderful race.
I'm a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. I never really believed I could do it. But my legs produced the evidence.
Yes, now I believe.