Monday, October 10, 2011

BAA Half Marathon - race day recap

I have to be honest. As much as I can talk about this race all day, I have been stalling in writing this recap since I got up. I realized I'm afraid I'll forget something from what ended up being a very, very special day. The memories will only fade the longer I wait, so here I go!

I should back up a bit. My last week of training went pretty well. I did a 12 miler last Sunday and I went great up until mile 8 where I got CRAZY hungry. I felt like, if someone walked by me with a pizza, I'd probably mug them. Gimme your pizza and no one gets hurt! Anyway, that was the point where I was due to take a Gu (energy gel, vanilla flavor only). The fact that it tasted so delicious, like it never had before, told me I wasn't properly fueled. I blamed it on a longer than normal time between food and start and also on being fairly low on fuel due to a stomach bug the day before. Miles 8-10 we're an absolute slog, which resulted in some "what was I thinking, I can't do this" tears. Then I "rubbed some dirt in it and walked it off" as the husband and I say and ran the remaining 2 miles. I finished in just over an 11 minute pace. Not the 10:42 I hoped for, but it was promising that with proper fuel, I would be ok on race day.

The Friday before the race was the last of the BAA's training clinics. It was somewhat of a course overview and then a Q&A with last year's winner, John Korir. Wow. What an awesome guy. Unless I showed you a video of him talking, I can't express how much he loved running. He just beamed with it. It was really inspiring and his message to all of us was: Don't be afraid. Trust your training and just run.

It's very basic, but how many people struggle with that? I do. I felt strangely calm after and was pretty amped up. Maybe I wouldn't have a crazy time, but I wasn't afraid of the result. Mostly I just love the course and couldn't WAIT to get out there and run in what felt like a giant herd of people. I missed out on this for a while when I ran closer to a 12 minute mile. I would be left behind and runs would be very solitary. Now, it's not so much the company, conversations are very limited, but the sound of dozens of footfalls behind you. It's so simple. So back-to-basics. Just people running and smiling. Prior to Sunday, I had run over 20 races (this actually surprised me when I counted them up), but this was the only one where I was SO excited and not afraid at all. You'd think I would be since it was my longest distance, but I just couldn't wait.

Saturday was a rest day and I thought I was going to lose my mind. I had all this anxious energy and nothing to do with it. Of course I needed to save it for Sunday, but I was climbing the walls. I did a quick shake-out run, which was enough to warm up my muscles to get a good stretch. I've been struggling with tight calf muscles (especially on the right side) and it was also starting to be a quadricep issue on that side. The rest of the day I watched tv and followed the Ironman World Championships in Kona live online. What an amazing race that was!

Sunday I woke up at 5:45 and ate my plain bagel with jelly and peanut butter. I usually eat only whole grain bread, but I can't have all that fiber on race day. I need easy to digest and burn carbs! I washed it down with 16oz of coconut water. I love that stuff. Gatorade does well for me during long hot races, but pre-race, it's too much for my stomach to handle. Most likely it's the sugar. It was so weird. I'm normally so nervous before any race, long or short, that I gag while I eat my breakfast. That's part of why I eat so early. I need to be done at least 2 1/2 hours before the race to digest and let the nausea pass. Sunday, I felt completely normal. I think a small part of it is that I'm used to being up even earlier for work. I think most of it was that I just couldn't wait to get out there. I love this race, I loved training and I love the BAA (Boston Athletic Association). I was intimidated by them the first time I ran it, but I learned that they are really about all runners, of all abilities, going out, being active and doing their best. During the clinics, they express how appreciative they are of every single person coming out to run with them. They especially thank the runners doing their first half with them and ease their fears that the cutoff time of 2:30:00 may possibly be just a suggestion and that they want everyone to finish and get a time.

At about 6:45am we left to take the orange line down the the Forest Hills station. From there we took a shuttle bus 1.5 miles to the start. We were there by about 7:30, race time it at 8:30, and had plenty of time to get our bearings, stretch and use the porta potties. Of course, at 8 I figured a second try would be worth it, waited 25 minutes in line, then realized I HAD to go at that point and was IN the porta potty when I heard the national anthem being sung. D'OH! Not the first time that's happened, but I thought 30 minutes would be enough! I flew out of there and sprinted up to the finish line. Nothing like that to ruin the calm and get the heart racing. I excuse-me'd as close as I could get to the 10 minute pace (how exciting is that?! A 12 minute short distance miler belonging up there?) and stretched my calves again. I had said goodbye to the husband earlier, who would most likely run an effortless sub 2 hour race. I can't be jealous because he has done so much to help, push and support me over the last 3 months (and really the last 15 years!).

Within a few minutes, the gun sounded. Then we waited another few minutes just to walk towards the start. I wasn't even sure if that was our gun or the wheelchair gun. We started running and there you go! It's race time! I normally have a very hard time at first. It takes a while for me to get in a groove and I am usually plagued with self-doubt for the first few miles. That is especially hard in a 5K when at the point I snap out of it, I only have 1.1 left and I'm pretty tired then! This time was different. I was just kind of in love with the race at this point. Does that sound silly? Cheesy? Stupid? I just can't think of another way to describe it that that really fits better. I grew a lot as a person and a runner while training. A lot of that I credit to my trainer for keeping me in check and really pushing me. I wasn't worried about the time because I knew it would be a decent time at worst and I also knew the pace/time wasn't the most important outcome. I started the race so happy and so calm that I wasn't sure it was me!

I had a definite strategy that I practiced during training. I called it the hydration station hop! Haha. There would be water or water and gatorade every two miles. All I had to do was run two miles. 13.1 is overwhelming. 2 miles is not. I cannot, at this point, run and drink. I swallow too much air and get stupid crazy cramps. I lose much less time walking to drink and then picking the pace right back up without trouble. All I had to so was run two miles. Times were at every mile and were clearly marked. By mile two I was slightly faster than race pace (by a few seconds) but felt okay and knew I'd lose time in miles 6 and 7, aka the first big hill. I carried my own vanilla Gu that I knew I could tolerate and took that at mile 4. Although, I was thrown off a little since the 4 mile station was at about 3.5 and I almost didn't take my Gu then. I took about 10 steps from the station and realized it was mile 4's table, but early. You have to take about 8oz of water (but not Gatorade because that's too much combined sugar) with Gu. I had only drank about 4oz and I like to take the Gu and then drink. Whatever...I figured if that was the biggest glitch, I was ok.

At that point, we ran over the Route 9 over pass, turned around at 4.6 miles and headed back to Franklin Park where we had started. Although we weren't halfway done, it was still comforting to be headed in the direction of the finish while I still felt good. Right before mile 6, Lululemon had a cheer station and a DJ was there, which was a nice surprise! I pepped up a little and managed to distract myself. I got to the water table at mile 6, which also had Power Gel, and still felt good, I was hitting my pace and alternately not believing it and emptying my mind so I wouldn't ruin it. At this point the run had been joyful. Again, maybe that's cheesy, but it was! I loved it! I felt lucky and so grateful to be healthy, strong and more fit than I have ever been (even if I still feel like I have a lot of work to do!). In hindsight, based of the rapidly warming temps (67 at race start time and that is already too hot for this salty super-sweater, never mind an hour+ later) and my waning energy, I should have taken the second and last Gu then and used the Power Gel for my planned mile 8 fuel. Well, really I should have brought 3 Gu packs, but I had only grabbed two and a back up Power Gel from mile 6. I was afraid to take a gel I had never used before because my stomach is so sensitive. Instead, I took more water and willed myself to just run two more miles to the station at mile 8. Mile 6-7 was the first big hill and fairly tough. I was happy I stayed pretty strong and steady and passed quite a few people then. Mile 7 was pretty fun. There were many people along the Arborway in lawn chairs and on blankets, hanging out with their families and cheering us on. One guy was sitting all alone, yelling an endless stream of personalized encouragement at us. Just past him was a line of 3 or 4 young kids waiting for high fives. Every high five they got resulted in a very excited "WOO!" What I loved was that there was this little teeny toddler boy, shyly standing about a foot back from the older kids with his hand out, hoping for a high five. I made sure to get him too and he waved his hands with such excitement that he almost fell over. Glad he didn't!

I got to station 8 and that's when I started to hurt. My right calf had been tight the whole time and by 8 it was also my hamstrings and my right glute. It felt like someone was punching me in the butt! It hurt! It also happened that mile 8-9 was going back up the overpass into Forest Hills. It was hot. HOT! And the entire mile was up and over the overpass...rough, crackled concrete where you felt like you were running, no, death-marching, up into the sun. It really felt like that! I had been running with the same big pack of people the whole time, which had been comforting, but every single one of us deflated half way up the climb. I tried to push it and a few tried to follow. We got about 3/4 up and the walk-monster got us. I walked to the top and eased into a run on the way down. Downhills usually help me to get my momentum back, but I felt like I was being beat up at this point. I was starting to get a little weary and feeling like the 4-5 miles I had left was so long. This was the first point I felt like this and I tried to push it out of my mind. I got to mile 9 exhausted. I was also super hungry, just like on my last long run. I ate closer to race time, but it wasn't enough. Next long race, I'm going to practice with a solid fuel, maybe Cliff Shot-blocks. I took some Gatorade, which I hadn't planned, and hoped for the best. It sat okay and I think it helped with the hunger.

Heading to mile 10, we enter Franklin Park again. Thank you to all the spectators there! Crowd support was good all along, but this was a really tough patch. I should have felt good coming off a 1/2 mile downhill, but I felt awful. I felt completely overheated and was desperate for water. I think part of the reason I sweat so much is that I am not an efficient cooler. I'm hoping that will change as I get more fit and lose more weight. What was great about this awful patch was my mind frame. I just decided I'd run as much and as fast as I could and it would be good enough. I wasn't stressed and the voice that told me I was too slow and not good enough was completely absent. Did I outrun it? Was it gone for good? Mile 10 was at a switch back and heading towards 11 was downhill. I lost a lot of time on mile 9 at the overpass and 10 being a bit uphill. I made up some at 11 but I knew what was waiting. The nice easy downhill at the start was mile 12 on the way back. Almost a whole mile of a fairly decent grade uphill. I thought I was tough. I though I could gut it out. Maybe if it was in the 60s I could but it doesn't matter because it didn't work out like that. In reality, mile 12 kind of punched me in the face. We were a group of struggling walk-joggers up this hill. Everyone was trying so hard to run but only going about 30 seconds before the heat, incline and distance got to them. I saw many people meet up with their kids, friends and family and started to feel alone. I knew I had the husband and a friend at the finish, but I started to get sad. I was only half way up the hill. I turned that sadness into fuel and did a super slow jog up the rest of it. I just wanted to get away from there. I think that mile was about a 13 minute pace. Yikes!

At that point we ran into the Franklin Park Zoo and found mile 12. Glorious, glorious mile 12! Only 1.1 left, although it felt like 1.1 was an unfathomable endless distance at that point. It was REALLY hot at this point. I'd bet it was about 80 since it was close to 11am and the high got to 87 that day. In the zoo I remember running by a giant parakeet aviary, seeing mile 12 and a zillion spectators/zoo-goers and then completely shutting down mentally. All I could think about was not stopping and breathing normally. I stared at my feet and hunkered down. I was already past the 2:20:00 crazy fast goal I set. I had a mile to go and 6 minutes to get to my 2:30:00 secondary goal. I knew that was unlikely as well. At that point, other than the last resort just-finish-goal, I HAD to finish at a sub 12 pace. I worked too hard to fall back into that. I don't care if I worked hard mostly at running faster at shorter distances, I was training for faster longer races as well. I just didn't have the experience.

I came out of the zoo and really dug in. I had been able to hear the finish area announcements for the last mile and it was making me crazy. I knew the finish was on the track in the stadium and when I saw the stadium looming in the distance, I was a bit dismayed. I knew it was less than a mile, but it looked so far away. I buckled down again, focused on my feet and blurred my mind. I literally counted to 10 over and over until I reached the chute leading to the stadium where some kind guy yelled, "go aqua shirt girl! You're killing it! 500 meters to go!" As kind as that was, I ran FOR. EV. ER. and then someone told me I had 450 to go. THEY were wrong as well because I saw the 400 remaining mark over a minute later and I was running much faster than that at that point. I love that the BAA knows we need to know how much is left. I have to say that signage, staffing and the volunteers were top-notch for this race. I just loved it. I can't say enough good things about it. Halfway down the chute I felt like my heart was going to explode with happy and running and exertion and adrenaline. I was finishing my race and it was a 100% respectable effort! Was it fast? No. Did I try my hardest, enjoy it and have a good attitude the whole time? Absolutely! I had never had a race where I was so positive.

I rounded a corner and realized I was about to enter the stadium. I hadn't thought of it, but how exciting is a track finish in a stadium?! In the distance, I saw the gun time was about 2:38:00, which meant my net time was about 2:34:00 and I had only a couple of minutes to book it 200 meters to get in under a 12 minute pace. I sprinted through the finish, stopped my watch around 2:35:00 and knew I did it. Did I have a breakthrough? In some ways, yes. I thought a breakthrough would be great cool weather and a 10 minute pace, but I had no idea how much I'd learn about myself in the 2 1/2 hours I was out there. I tried to put it in words above, but I'm not sure I really did. I guess, how I feel is that, even though it was only an 11:52 pace, I am excited for what's to come. I know what effort I can put out in major pain and super hot uncomfortable conditions. I also realize that I'm still getting fitter and losing weight. At some point all of this will come together.

I ran across the finish line and just felt happy. I smiled at everyone as I scanned for the husband. I saw him just outside of the stadium track where we were exiting and ran towards him. I don't know what came over me, but I just started to cry. It was very emotional. The whole training had been an emotional test. I constantly felt on the verge of not being capable of what I was doing, but somehow, just scrapping by. I had plenty of encouragement, but my inner voice was always the loudest and my biggest critic. Maybe it knew to let up on race day? It never had before. For the first time, I ran a race where, even though I struggled, I never said "I can't" and knew I was doing my best. I actually enjoyed the whole race, pain and all, and lived in the moment.

I pulled myself together and the husband gave me some Gatorade and a fruit leather, which I ate in about two bites. He seemed to understand exactly what the tears were about without me having to struggle for words. Then a race photographer took a picture of us together, so I'll be sure to share the picture of me with sweat, tears and snot on my face! Listen, it's not gross. It's part of running!

My official time was 2:35:25. It's a 35 minute PR over my first attempt where I was injured and walked almost all of the last 6 miles. I wish I had run in the 10 minute mile range, anything sub 11, but I'm really okay with it. Sub-12 was the biggest deal.

Here's the big lesson. Like John Korir said, don't be afraid. Just try. It doesn't matter what happens, you will learn so much about yourself. Getting to the start line sometimes takes more courage than running the entire race!

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