This past Saturday, September 10th, I reached a milestone that I never thought I would accomplish. I ran my first half marathon, the 16th Annual UPMC Urgent Care Montour Trail 1/2 Marathon. I completed a 13.1 mile race.
If you had told me in September 2009 that in two years time I would complete a half marathon, I would have maybe laughed, depending on how depressed I was feeling on that particular day. I definitely would have been sent into a negative thought spiral, about how far I was from any fitness level, how fat I was, and how running any distance would be impossible.
I would have given you a million reasons why I could never do it.
I would not have thought about how my life would change in order to reach this milestone. I wouldn’t realize that in order to reach that type of goal, the months of preparation required would change me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I would not have wanted to think about it, either – positive thoughts scared me, because I believed good things were not possible for me.
With therapy, support, and vigilance, I entered remission from my depression. I’ve been able to stick with a training program that not only helped keep my mental health in a good place, it helped me lose nearly thirty pounds and gain incredible cardio health. It’s been quite a ride, from signing up for my first 5k to finishing a half-marathon. It’s interesting, though – prior to the half, I felt the exact same level of self-doubt, dread and anxiety as I did for that first 5k.
The last few days leading up to the race, I felt incredibly negative. I was planning on blogging about it, but I felt too keyed up to do anything besides an unorganized mess of a tumblr post. I was also panicking about the pre-race carbo-loading that I needed to do, because my intestines were all LOL WE HATE YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU’RE EATING. And they loudly, painfully, and repeatedly let me know this. Not eating wasn’t exactly an option, but I was scared of angering the intestines any further.
I also got horrible sleep all week long. I didn’t expect to get quality sleep the night before the race, but they say if you’ve got some good sleep banked from the past couple of days, race day you’ll be fine. Somehow, I got amazing sleep the night before the race. Go figure. As usual, I prepared all my gear the night before, and I even picked up my race packet two days before the race. I wanted as little to worry about on race morning as possible.
I had my usual gear, but I did the big race day no-no: I used a new piece of gear, and I wore my hair differently. While on the surface this sounds like no big deal whatsoever, you should never (never never) test new equipment, hydration, energy gels, etc. on race day. Never use something during a race that you haven’t tested on a similar training run. If it sucks on race day, it can jack your whole experience.
New, even though I knew this going in, I felt I had no choice. The new piece of equipment was this SPIbelt, because due to this new long distance, I needed to have more energy gels than I could carry in my tank top pockets. I had heard good things about it, so I decided to go for it. Also, if it rained, I would feel much better about my iPhone not getting ruined inside the water-resistant pouch. Yay!
As for my hair, I usually have it pulled up like this – high and tight. While this works for shorter runs, I’m finding that it may be contributing to bad headaches post-long runs. Instead of pulling it up, I wove it into two braids behind my head, and then secured them together like a ponytail. I hoped this would put less tension on my scalp – this hurrrrr is heavy! I also did not wear sunglasses or my visor – two other items that may be putting pressure on my head resulting in headaches.
We decided to stop at a fast food joint prior to parking at the race site so that I could avoid epic porta-potty lines. It helped, but I ended up queueing anyway so I wouldn’t have to stop while I was racing. The lines were so long that a race volunteer began moving the half-marathoners to the front, asking the 5k participants to concede their places as the 5k started later. At that point I was already at the front of the line.
There were over 800 people running the half! It was a site to see – definitely the largest race in which I’ve participated. I of course lined up at the back of the pack – no need to hinder the faster runners at the front and middle of the pack with my slow ass. I couldn’t really hear the announcements being made over the loudspeaker, and suddenly it was starting time!
Even though I was at the back of the line, there were timing mats on the starting line, which means my time would be as accurate as possible. Instead of everyone having the same start time, each individual would have a unique starting time: the second they crossed the start line. This is a fantastic feature for the larger races, because your time is completely legit from start to finish. Love it!
The course began on top of a huge hill and wound down approximately 3/4 of a mile on paved roads to the bottom, where the course turned onto the Montour Trail. Downhill was a terrific way to begin a race! Being towards the back, it was great seeing all the runners in front of me, winding their way down the hill. I felt exhilaration at this point – everyone was in good spirits, there was a cool breeze, my blood was pumping, and the anxiety was gone.
I knew my first mile would be faster than normal since it was downhill, so I tried to be mindful of my pace once we hit the trail. I’m used to being almost alone when running races, but for entire first half of the run there were people everywhere. I settled into a relatively consistent 11:25/mile pace, which was basically what I average on my long training runs. I went into the race not thinking about what pace I would try to maintain – probably because I was too busy obsessing over whether I would finish.
There was great support along the way – police and race volunteers stopping traffic at the points when the trail crossed roads. I never felt in danger crossing, and tried to thank everyone I could. There were several water stations along the course with more wonderful volunteers.
Around mile four or so, the trail went through the Enlow tunnel, an old 576-foot long railroad tunnel. It was pretty sweet to run through, because it was nice and cool. Also around this point, the elite super-fast runners were passing me in the opposite direction. Since the course is out and back, those runners had made it all the way to the turn-around and back. Heh. Some of them didn’t even look winded. It’s amazing to think that they were literally running twice as fast as I was… consistently… for thirteen miles.
Anyway. Mile six was a huge pain in the ass, literally and figuratively, because it was a much steeper grade than the rest of the course. That last mile before the turn-around seemed to go on forever. More and more people were passing me, and I caught sight of Adrian, my new blog friend/running maven/inspiration/all-around badass, flying by me! I wished her luck on her first half, although she didn’t need it. She had an amazing finish time of two hours, five minutes. Congrats, Adrian!
Finally it was turn-around time… and there was no water station. Arg. This is my one and only complaint about the entire event, so I’d say they did pretty well. I was ready to pound some water with a Clif Shot, but unfortunately had to wait until mile 8. At this point I did another no-no: I drank Gatorade. I normally train with electrolyte-enhanced water, and drink water during races. However, I actually felt hunger pangs between mile seven and eight, something I usually never feel during a run. I decided the Gatorade might help with the hunger, so it was a gamble I was willing to take. Fortunately my stomach was fine with this decision.
There were fewer and fewer people around and ahead of me at this time, and again, I have no problem with running alone. It gives me a chance to count only on myself, putting one foot in front of the other, getting me to my goal. I guess it would be nice in theory to have a running partner, but honestly I think I would stress out over having to keep up with someone. I’m still so new to running that I really need to pay attention to keeping my pace consistent. Maybe I’ll be ready for a partner after I get a few more races under my belt.
I did stop to walk a few times, and at every hydration station (in the hopes of keeping side stitches at bay). I used to hate doing this, but sometimes it’s necessary. I never walked for more than a minute at a time, just enough to lower my heart rate, and continued running when I felt ready. I think this is a fine strategy for me, so I’ll keep doing it until I become strong enough to run all the way.
When I reached mile ten, I realized that with every step I took, it was the farthest I had ever run. It was a great thought, but it was hard to keep concentrating on it. I tried telling myself that it was just a 5k – another half hour or so of running. I was almost home! Keep going, don’t stop, keep going.
I really started to droop mentally and physically around mile 12. A lot of it was knowing just how close I was to the finish, but feeling the effects of the long run made that last stretch feel longer than the entire course. I was also feeling a lot of fatigue in my hip flexors at this point, and there were definite hot spots on the soles of my feet. I started to feel sore in muscles I didn’t know I had, which actually has some truth to it: as you begin to tire, your stride and posture change, you rely heavily on muscles that normally are secondary, and you start feeling fatigue everywhere.
Soon, though, I could see the finish line. I knew it was time to pick up my speed and sprint across the line. I must have walked for a good portion of that last mile, though, because according to my splits, it was my third-slowest mile. Oh well. Once I saw that line, I knew I couldn’t stop. I saw Luke from about 40 yards away and waved – I wanted to make sure he saw me so he could get finish line photos!
In contrast to my last race, Luke said I looked strong as I finished. I really tried to focus on my form and speed – Meghan sent me videos she shot of my last race… and I was embarrassed watching. I just looked exhausted, which is understandable, but I decided to fake it till I make it at the end of this race. In a lot of my near finish photos that Luke’s taken in the past, I look miserable. I know it’s just my determination to finish strong, but I decided to make an effort to look happy, to reflect on my face what I’m feeling inside.
My official time was 2:36:29, which made my official pace exactly 12:00/mile. Kind of a bummer, because my Nike+ pace was 11:39/mile. Apparently it’s not as accurate as I thought… but who cares! I RAN 13.1 MILES. I’m a half-marathoner! I didn’t get injured, the weather was perfect, and Luke was there. It was a morning I will not soon forget.
I placed 774/820 overall, and 74/79 in my age group.
When we got home, I hopped into an ice bath, but it was so cold I couldn’t take it. I added some hot water to make it bearable, but I’m pretty sure that defeated the purpose of an ice bath in the first place. Next time, I’ll know better: get in the tub of cold water, become accustomed to the temperature, then throw in the ice. Try not to scream obscenities.
My recovery has been going okay, but I was hoping to feel better than I am currently. The day after, walking was an unfortunate site. I was doing the post-marathon shuffle on Sunday, and Monday was slightly faster-moving. Today, I mainly feel ouchy in my right calf. Going down stairs is terrifying. I’m not sure when I will venture out for my first post-half run, but I will be sure to listen to my body and not rush out too soon. I already can’t wait for my next half so I can PR!