Going out of town for races has become my version of a mini-vacation. Now that I have my car with me in DC, I have the ability to participate in a bunch of races that I never really had the opportunity to run before. During my carless years, if the race was out of town, my only options were to find friends with cars who were also running the race (cough, mooch, cough) or make a whole huge vacation out of it, like I did with Chicago and the Disney races of 2013. I could have always rented a car to drive to the races, but on top of registration fees, meals, and hotel costs, adding a car rental and insurance expenses on top of it really made for an expensive race that most of the time never even happened. Before I moved away from DC, running the Richmond Marathon was always on my list of races to run, but this was the first time I could actually make it happen.
With Friday off work, I made the two-hour drive to Richmond so I could beat the weekend traffic mass exodus out of DC, which is not only total gridlock at times, but people stop on the Interstate for no good reason so you really have to keep an eye on how people are driving or you’ll end up slamming on your brakes and fish-tailing into the next lane to keep from hitting the person in front of you who stopped for literally no good reason…. not that this actually happened to me….seriously, no accident up ahead, no construction, no police activity….why did you people stop at all? Sorry…a necessary sidebar. Anyway. The drive to Richmond in the fall is absolutely stunning. Once you get squarely out of the DC metro and its surrounding suburbs like Woodbridge or Stafford, you get into rural Virginia and the Interstate heading south is lined with skyscrapers for trees that are brilliantly rufescent and gold against a sapphire sky. It’s spectacular. I adore Virginia.
Once I made it to Richmond, I headed first to the race expo, which was held at the Arthur Ashe Sports Arena. The expo was a little bit crowded and widely attended to an almost hectic and chaotic degree. I was still pretty shopped out from the Chicago Marathon expo, where I definitely went a little nuts picking up some race swag, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of my time browsing the racks of “I thought they said ‘rum'” headbands and discounted Yurbuds (which I did actually need a new set, but I was skeptical about buying a pair of ear buds that had broken within 4 months of my having purchased them). I did pick up a few things, like a new sippy-cup for my morning smoothies, courtesy of HCA Sports Medicine, a cowbell from Care First that I considered wearing during the race, and a t-shirt from Sports Backers that said “I run Richmond” with an image of a runner girl stick figure in place of the word “run.” But really, since I was “only” running the half-marathon, I didn’t feel the need for a lot of running swag.
After checking into the Wyndham Virginia Crossings hotel around dusk, I meandered over to the on-premise restaurant in search of race fuel. I chose this hotel for two reasons: a) I am creeped out by cheap hotels, even if it’s “just” to hang my hat for the night, and b) it’s a stunning choice for a race-cation like this. Why not enjoy my time out of the Beltway? I ordered a winter ale and the only pasta dish on the menu, a Cajun seafood pasta with lobster, shrimp, and probably the most amazing cheese sauce I’ve ever eaten. Seafood pasta is my favorite meal of all time; I don’t believe I could have even dreamt of a better sauce if I tried. Even though I was seriously stuffed from carb-loading with 3 packages of Pop Tarts and hydrating with 4 Nalgenes throughout the day, I didn’t leave a single bite on the plate. Two hours later, I ordered room service– a black raspberry chocolate lava cake and a glass of malbec— and watched episodes of Covert Affairs on my Kindle. Bed came early– 9:30. I predicted about 8 hours of sleep with a 5:30 wake-up call.
Race day morning was bleary. I didn’t actually get out of bed until 5:45AM and I was immediately reaching for coffee the moment I was on my feet. Literally. I lurched out of bed and trudged straight to the coffee maker. I left my hotel at 6:15, dressed warily in my selected race attire for a 25-degree start time (am I going to be warm enough??) and double-fisting Wolfgang Puck coffee in my gloved hands with a pile of post-race clothes in my arms and two bottles of water. The morning was freezing. It was astonishing how cold it was outside. I knew my race clothes were likely not sufficient, even if the day was expected to reach into the lower 40’s by noon. I tore off my purple jacket and threw on a Nike running top that was lined with micro-fleece, had thumb holes, and a funnel neck. Sorry, purple jacket, it’s not your fault I’m a huge pansy about the cold. The drive into Richmond went smoothly and the dawn light made the red and orange leaves glow in a way that made me want to resign sleeping in forever. To be honest, I had literally no idea where the start line was. I knew it was downtown Richmond somewhere, but I also figured there’d be enough cars with ‘13.1’ and ‘26.2’ stickers on them for me to follow. Not something I would recommend– it generated a little pre-race panic until I saw several parking garage lines. Another thing I wouldn’t recommend if you’re driving into a race? Not bringing cash. Of course none of the garages around were accepting cards and by this point, it was nearly 7AM and I had about 30 minutes to find a place to park in a town I’m not familiar with for a race that I don’t even know where the starting line exists. After waiting in a huge line for the only garage in town accepting cards, I made a split second decision to split from the line at a quiet intersection and was able to find a parking lot that accepted cards at a parking metere for a quaint $4 for 10 hours. Sweet! But, after being nestled in my snug car for nearly an hour, getting out in the cold was even worse than it was when I emerged from the hotel. I walked several blocks to the starting line, shivering violently the entire time, pausing in annoyed reverance for the national anthem, and got to my corral right before it was set to go off. Actually, I let my corral pass me by and went with the following group for no real reason except that I just didn’t feel the pressure to start running yet. I didn’t have a time goal before I got there, and at that point when my eyeballs were starting to glaze over from the cold and my phalanges were so numb I couldn’t even feel them, my only goal for the race was to get back to my hotel for a hot bath and cuddle time under my finisher’s blanket.
I didn’t even realize I’d started the race when I did. I began running and immediately thought, “Why can’t I feel my feet!?!” Seriously, there was no feeling in my feet. I was apparently that cold. I think being that cold was a great distraction– immediately, I was going pretty fast but I couldn’t care less about my pace as long as I could warm up, please God, I need to warm up! The crowds in Richmond were sparse– didn’t blame them for not coming out– and for about the first mile, I just ran with the crowd at whatever pace they set. It felt like a normal weekend run except that I probably would have called it quits if I was home from being so cold. I didn’t really feel my feet until about mile 2 when I started wondering if I was about to bonk this race from running a fast pace. At this point, the marathon had began for the elite runners who ran by the 2:00-2:10 half-marathoners in shorts and tanks and arm warmers. The crowds cheered for them and I thought, “In the time it took me to run 2 miles….” I didn’t finish the math and instead put that thought of mind almost right away. I barely looked at my Garmin, afraid that I would see myself going fast and panic or see that I was actually running slow and panic. Mile 3 took us past the arena where the expo had been held and at that point, I settled into whatever pace I was running and decided to just let hell break loose over the next 10 miles. I was ready.
Mile 4 flew by, and at Mile 5, I sucked down a Caramel Macchiato Gu that was so delicious I wanted to eat one for a mid-day snack. The course was taking a turn out of some sleepy neighborhoods and into Bryan Park where I would run through one of the prettiest miles in my life. The technical part of the race came with some slightly graveled roads and immediately, I felt the challenge of running on unstable ground. But we were running through a golden paradise of autumn leaves in the morning light. All I could see were leaves around me. I felt cocooned and happy and wondered why on earth there were no race photographers in easily the most photogenic area of the race. I wanted to stop a take a photo for myself, but I knew that it might mess up my pace and time, and even though I hadn’t looked at my Garmin for awhile, I could feel like I was making incredible time. This would have to be a mile I’d have to remember in my mind’s eye, but here’s a tip if you’re thinking about running the Richmond race next year: I would run this race again every year for the rest of my life JUST for that mile. It was perfect.
And then, the breakdown started to occur.
About halfway through the 6th mile, I realized my right knee had been hurting for awhile and now it was really starting to hurt as I was running over the trail. This was really alarming to me– I don’t get knee pain. I think, one of the benefits of not having been an athlete until my mid20’s, is that my joints aren’t completely trashed from years of soccer tournaments or ballet recitals. So why it was making an appareance partway through my half-marathon, I don’t know, but it was starting to hurt so badly I was considering stopping at an aid station. Up until this point, too, I knew I’d been running paces that I hadn’t been able to run in awhile, especially not over 13 miles. The cardiovascular exhaustion was starting to catch up to me, too, and I could feel waves of exhaustion start to coil into my mind. Just slow down if you need to, I told myself, but I was immediately annoyed by that. I’m so sick of telling myself that it’s okay if I slow down. I’ve never crashed through that wall of “I can’t” with a spectacular performance before. For the first time in awhile, I glanced down at my Garmin, just in case I was sprinting instead of running— a 9:02 pace. No wonder that felt hard. At this point, spectators had gathered in the park and were playing Will Smith. It was a high that I needed. Someone else also running near to me turned around and said, “You feel like running another 10K with me?” and I thought he was talking to me until I heard someone respond. I said out loud, “I thought you were talking to me; I was like ‘hell yeah I do!'” which actually solicited a few laughs from other runners, including him, who responded, “Alright, come along! Everyone’s welcome!” It was a boost I needed.
Mile 7-8 introduced the runners to some hills as we closed the loop through Bryan Park. The hills hurt. By mile 9, I was so exhausted and my knee was killing me that I wanted to slow to a shuffle. I was passing a group of spectators at a table who were passing out cups of beer, including an older stout man with a gruffy voice and beard who said, “Come on, you guys, why wait for the beer?” in a manner that was so hilarious I almost did take a cup of beer. I decided I really loved spectators who could make us runners not take the race so seriously. At mile 10, I was noticing a lot more people walking around me and yet, despite knee pain that was stabbing me so hard I had several fleeting thoughts of the what if I can’t race anymore!?! persuasion. Come on, Sara, just 3 more miles….it’ll be over in, like 26 minutes. You can do this! I promise, knee, no more races for awhile– just get me through the next 3 miles. I high-fived a Santa on a block where people were dressed in Christmas costumes and blaring Christmas music. I was sure I’d be slowing down by now, but no– I was holding a consistent pace and finished mile 10 in 9:24. Partway through mile 11, the song “Kingdom Dance” from the Disney movie Tangled came on in my ears. The rythm of that music set a good pace for me and I hit repeat a few times to help me hold my pace consistent.
By mile 12, I felt like I was cracking in two. I could feel my whole body getting tense with exhaustion, I felt like I could barely breathe, my knee– oh my gosh, my poor knee. But I refused to relent and that was one of my fastest miles in the race. The final mile sign before the finish came– 13, thank God!!!– and I was running so fast that I literally thought I was going to trip and fall. It felt purely robotic, the way I just pounded the pavement underneath me. My song from the 2013 Goofy Challenge– “Go the Distance from Disney’s Hercules— was playing and to hear it as I was about to soar across the finish line. I saw the clock– 2:14– and immediately felt dismayed, but then remembered that I started about 10 minutes after the gun. Holy crap, did I really just bust out a 2:04 half-marathon!?!! I did indeed– 2:04:42. I immediately remembered the half-marathon I’d run in Alexandria in May 2013, also a 2:04. Holy cow, this race was in contention for one of my top half-marathons. I was back?!?!?! I WAS BACK. Yeah baby!
Exhausted, I stumbled around fiddling with my Garmin–what on earth was my pace, come on, tell me!! When I saw my average pace over 13.1 mile was a 9:29, I couldn’t even believe it. No, that’s not a PR. But how did I go from a 2:21 half-marathon in May to a 2:04 half-marathon in November with a marathon in the middle? It astounds me. I’m still astounded. These are the paces I knew I was capable of running. I just did it.
It’s safe to say that I absolutely love the Richmond Half-Marathon for a number of reasons before I even ran the race. The course was spectacular– now I know why they hold it the same weekend every November. The runner support was outstanding (with the exception of an aid station positioned at mile 8 that resulted in a huge bottleneck for runners). The community support was subdued in numbers, but everyone who was there had heart for all of us on the course. Someone called out to a runner next to me, “Way to go, Aubrey!” and she was audibly delighted that someone cheered for her by name (I remember the moment a stranger cheered for me by name during my first half-marathon at a critical moment at mile 11 and it’s still one of my lasting memories of racing). The after-party was so much fun— I just wish I could have stayed, but I was freezing in my wet clothes and I had to get a shower and check out of my hotel an hour and a half after finishing the race.
Did I mention the swag?? Awesome medals, a finisher’s hat that will be perfect for wearing in the rain on runs, and a fleece finisher’s blanket. To be honest, I like running races for the medals, but this race, for me, was all about that finisher’s blanket. Few things about finishing a race in which you’ve exerted yourself to exhaustion sound better than cozying up in a fleece blanket reserved for people who finished a race. I think even the weight of a finisher’s medal around my neck didn’t compare to that blanket. Plus, walking back to my car covered in evaporating sweat and cold winds wrapped in fleece probably kept me from my death from cold.
And I still can’t believe how well I ran. I was not at all expecting a time like that. In the end, it was my 4th fastest half-marathon, almost beating out my May 2013 Alexandria Half-Marathon by a mere 4 seconds. If I’d known that was how I was going to race, I’d have laughed at the thought. If I had run like that all 26.2 miles of a full marathon, I’d have likely gotten a safe 4:10-4:15 finish time. This is when it starts to feel like I am a contender to myself: when I come this close to beating previous records. For this race, there was just no way I felt I could run like that. I was hoping– at least– to beat my May 2014 Lincoln Half-Marathon time of 2:21, a race that I ran with an injury and ended up with a time I had to tell myself to ignore and be happy that I finished, but deep down loathed for the way it made me feel about my running. And here I was with a new 4th fastest half-marathon that almost unseated my 3rd fastest half. No way that could be real. But it was. I made it happen.
So, that race is the final half-marathon of my 2014 year in racing. 2014 with its 2 half-marathons and 1 full marathon was a quieter year in racing compared to 2013’s 5K, 10K, 5 half-marathons, and 3 full marathons. I’ve got a couple more races– some holiday-themed 5Ks that I am hoping to get a solid PR on. I know that, before this race, all I wanted was to put racing on the shelf for a little while and focus on my overall condition and fitness level so I can have an unforgettable 2015 year in racing. But I admit that I’m freaked out that I’ve just finally gotten back to my old self just to back down. I want to capitalize on how I feel about running and racing right now, not let the momentum ferment and get lost again. Maybe I am addicted to racing and training– I feel a little lost without something to train for right now. I’m not totally sure how to structure my exercise life without a run in there. Am I going to stop running completely? Oh gosh, no way. But what do I do next?