On Sunday morning I finally got to put my training to the test by running the Twin Lights Half Marathon. Going into the race I had 5 main goals, but breaking 2 hours was THE BIG ONE, the one I have been working towards for 12 weeks. I knew I had trained well, but it was far from a sure thing, especially because I chose to make my attempt on such a hilly course.
Prior to race day, I was tempted to abandon my goal, but with the help of some confidence boosting blog comments, I decided not to sell myself short. I refused to let myself focus on my doubts, and I showed up on Sunday morning ready to jump in with both feet.
I woke up at 6:10 AM in order to give myself an hour to slowly get ready. I like to have plenty of time to fart around in the morning, and I’m usually an early riser so this wasn’t a problem. I had plenty of time to eat breakfast, dress in my race day duds, pack up my things, and do some light stretching and foam rolling.
By 7:10, Jeff (aka: my personal support staff) and I were out the door. The race wasn’t set to start until 9 AM but packet pick-up started at 7 AM. I wanted to get there early so I could get a t-shirt that fit and we could get a parking spot in the more convenient lot, so we had over an hour to kill after packet pick up. It was cold (40F) and rainy, so we spent most of this time in the car, but with 20 minutes to go, we ventured out to check out the scenery.
Before heading over to the start line, I did some warm up running. Usually, it takes me about a 1/2 mile to get moving and I didn’t want to waste any time during the race for warm up. Of course, I’ve never done this before and ended up standing around for 15 min afterwards, so I’m not sure if it really made even a little bit of difference.
Finally, it was time to line up. I gave Jeff my gloves and jacket, he wished me luck, took one last picture, and I found a spot between the 9 and 10 min/mile signs. They had played the national anthem when the walkers started, so there wasn’t a lot of standing around at the start line. Before long, we were off!
My goal for the first three miles was to ease into race pace. I did not want to go out too fast, and I focused HARD on staying calm for the first mile. I found a place in the pack (near the middle of the road) and stayed where I was. I purposely avoided zig zagging around people, and I allowed myself to get passed without freaking out. This was difficult, but I knew that keeping up with everyone around me would be a mistake, so I spent the majority of the first couple miles being passed and convincing myself that this was no big deal.
I knew from the elevation map that the first three miles were a climb. What hadn’t sunk in when studying the profile was that in addition to the big hills the course was really just one small hill after another after another (rolling hills sounds deceptively pleasant). I guess the 3 large hills masked this fact. Having run in Gloucester and Rockport before this didn’t exactly come as a shock; I just kind of thought to myself “Oh, okay, so this is how it’s going to be.”
With this realization, I made a decision that I think really affected my entire race. I decided not to hold back on downhills. I’ve never been good at running uphill, (with a lot of hard work and practice I have gone from being abysmal to only slightly below average), but down hills are a different story. I can go pretty fast without feeling out of control and it’s much more comfortable to do this than it is to hold back. For some reason though, I usually force myself to slow down and keep an even pace. I’m not sure why I do this (another question for another time?), and I don’t know what the smart choice is, but in the early miles on Sunday I decided that I was going to let myself fly down those hills, focusing on effort and not worrying about pace.
I came out of the first 3 miles having run 44 seconds faster than planned. This was pretty perfect. It gave me a little confidence boost going into the middle of the race, but it wasn’t unwisely fast.
Mile 4 started just as I had finished climbing the first “Big” Hill. At this point, it was time to start pushing the pace a little. My plan was to run “comfortably hard” through mile ten, aiming for 9 minutes per mile. Because mile 3 had come pretty close to this pace I tried not to speed up too much right away, but with a huge downhill mile 4 flew by.
Despite (or because of?) some decent climbs after this initial downhill mile, the next few miles passed in a blur. These two big hills, one right after another, slowed me down, but there were several distractions that helped take my mind of how hard everything felt. We ran along the coast and through downtown Rockport. The view was amazing and then running through town was fun, as it was the most spectator-ed section along the course.
As we ran out of town, I ate my first gel (I took an entire mile to finish it) and the fast runners started passing us in the opposite direction. I counted them for a while – 20 men before I saw the first woman – as I climbed one of the hills.
When my watch beeped at the 7 mile mark, it snapped me back to the moment. I was done with the gel, and we had been out of town for a while. Distractions are great for running up hills, but I needed to stay focused on running. My last few miles had been slower than what I was aiming for, so I needed to get moving.
I started running faster, and it didn’t actually feel that bad. I think the caffeine had kicked in from the energy gel, and then I hit another bunch of downhill sections. We had looped back through town again, which was just as fun as the first time. There were more people out this time, despite the bad weather, and their cheers helped keep me moving. It was just what I needed to get myself back on track.
As I left the town and spectators behind, my watched beeped for the end of mile 9. I was glad to see another good split time; I had one more mile before my final push. My legs were starting to get tired from all the hills, and the wind and rain had picked up. I was cold – my hands freezing, and it was hard to see the nice views while squinting against the wind and rain, but I was riding high from two speedy downhill miles and cheering strangers. Even though I knew there were a few more hills coming up, I wasn’t afraid. The last two miles had given me a boost, and I’d already climbed the worst hill, so I was feeling confident. Imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw:
THE BIGGEST HILL I’VE EVER SEEN.
I can’t even understand how that’s possible, I’d already climbed a bigger hill that day and I barely even remember it. But that one I was coming to…that one was the thing nightmares are made of. I started to laugh. As I passed the last few spectators, one shouted “Don’t worry, there’s no hill there!” And I laughed even harder. It doesn’t sound very funny now, but at the time I thought the whole thing was hilarious. So, in good spirits (delusional), I started to climb.
The steep hill lasted for about a half mile before I got some relief (ha!) in the form of small rolling hills. I wasn’t looking at my pace at the time (probably the only reason I didn’t completely give up), but checking after, I found I was over 13 min/mile at some points. There weren’t many people around, but of the ones that were, a few were walking. At the time I thought they were geniuses, and I seriously contemplated walking, too. But I had no plan for walk breaks. Hope was not yet completely lost, and I knew that if I started walking without a plan I would allow myself to walk longer than I should and I would continue to take walk breaks after the hill was over. I have nothing against walk breaks, but I had serious qualms about deviating from THE PLAN. So I kept running, and after what felt like 20 minutes later, I reached the top of the hill.
Although my split times weren’t a consistent 9 min/mile pace for these seven middle miles (thanks to the hills), they averaged out pretty perfectly. I finished this section only 1 second slower than planned.
Going into the final miles, I was losing confidence that I would make my goal. I knew that I still had a cushion (~45 seconds) from running a little fast in the early miles, but I also knew that the last three miles needed to be my fastest. (8:50, 8:40, and 8:30, what was I thinking?) The mountain I climbed in mile 10 had really taken it’s toll, and my legs were zapped, but I had promised myself that I would keep pushing, even if I needed to shoot for sub 2:05 instead of sub 2.
The conversation I had in my head when my watch beeped at mile 10 went something like this:
Me: Ugh, 9:28, that was slow.
Smarter Me: So what?! Go faster!
Me: I don’t think I can do this.
Smarter Me: That doesn’t matter. Go faster!
Because I’m so smart, I listened to my inner speedster and tried to find another gear. I knew the worst of the hills were over, and it was time for my second gel. Besides, mile 11 was only supposed to be a little faster than mile 10, I could worry about the last two miles later.
As I ran over the final miles of rolling hills, I chanted my wish list paces in my head and just did the best I could. My legs were fading from the constant hills, but I was not giving up and I was running as fast as I could. I had switched the display on my watch so I could now see distance, pace, and overall time, (I had been viewing only distance and my split times until this point), and being able to see the clock ticking was good motivation for the end of the race.
In the last 3 miles, I did not hit a single one of my goal times. I finished miles 11 through 13 over a minute slower than I had planned.
Lucky for me, a half marathon doesn’t end at mile 13.
When creating my pace wish list, I gave myself 2 and half minutes to run the last tenth of a mile. I built in this extra time in case my Garmin distance didn’t match the course or just in case I was close and I needed a little extra time.
When my watch beeped for mile 13, I saw that I had been 30 seconds slower than I wanted, but that didn’t matter. I could see the finish line, and I knew I had plenty of time to reach it. I sprinted the last tenth of a mile and crossed the finish line – exhausted, thrilled, and with a final time of 1:58:29!!!!
I did it! It certainly wasn’t easy, but I pulled it out – and with time to spare! I had my doubts during training, and I certainly had doubts during the race (basically every time I ran up a hill), but I made the decision not to listen to them, and everything worked out just fine!