Going into a back-to-back race week, my only strategy was focusing on recovery from the New York City Half-Marathon. Two days of walking around Manhattan on top of an ass-kicking half-marathon, my legs were shot. They were sore through Tuesday– which was also the first time I could actually foam roll without cringing. Wednesday, I’d planned to run a slow shake-out run, but the exhaustion of the past weekend, a late night train, and having to run errands typically reserved for weekends after very busy days at the office all caught up to me so I rested and went to bed early.
I also ate a lot of protein— old-fashioned oatmeal with walnuts for breakfast, tuna salad with hemp seeds on wheat for lunch, Greek yogurt and almond butter for snack, chicken for dinner– slept between 8 and 9 hours a night, foam-rolled while watching TV. My first run was Thursday after work, a planned slow 3-miler, but I didn’t dress warm enough and my legs felt ready, so it ended up being a fast 2-mile loop around the Lincoln Reflecting Pool and back up 17th Street to the office. My legs felt loose, my form felt in line, cardiovascularly was a slight struggle at the end of mile 2 but I’d also left very little time to work up to that pace. I was nervous that I’d just wreaked more havoc on my body than it needed only 4 days after a hard race and 3 days before the next one.
Mentally, my mind was still reflecting back on the past weekend in New York City and coming down from that high. I realized this and figured it was probably a good thing: it meant I wasn’t taking the Shamrock Half-Marathon too seriously, so it could really be what I intended it to be: a fun run. Another notch on my belt, my ticket to Half Fantatic status, and a weekend get-away to the beach. My friend Katy was joining me for this race weekend, and she’s currently training for her first half-marathon at the end of May. Not only was I excited to have some company at this race after having experienced the lonely blues in NYC, but I want her to see that races can be a lot of fun. It’s not just about getting PRs and running hard and learning to accept defeat when it happens, but it’s about having fun being part of something big and a little crazy. It’s all the better when you run a good race, but the experience is a bigger part of it.
I never did come up with a race strategy for the Shamrock Half. Somewhere along the way, I sort of chalked up this half-marathon to be more about training and practicing execution for another race. I knew the course would be flat, unlike New York, but my legs felt tired. I felt heavy. I wanted a PR, but I didn’t want to work for it. It was either going to happen or not. I realized I would probably be happier having executed a perfect race than I would in getting a PR. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset at all. People run races as tune-ups for other races, to have fun, to train, to practice strategy. It’s part of being a runner.
Weekend in Virginia Beach
Part of the reason I chose to run this race was because I’d never been to Virginia Beach before. Sure, I knew it was March and so it would probably not be ideal sunning weather, but I love visiting new places and I’m a huge ocean lover. Katy and I drove down early on Saturday morning, after a Starbucks stop of course, so I could get to the expo on time. We went straight to the expo, which held up as far as being an overstimulating experience in terms of the merchandise you can buy. I’m learning how to say no a lot more. At this event, unlike the NYC Half expo, I was able to find a pair of Brooks running shorts with the event logo and a new magnet for my burgeoning collection at the office. For that, I was happy and I got what I wanted from the race expo. Kudos, J&A Racing.
I’ve always said that it’s important, when you travel for a race, to go with someone who shares similar traveling habits as you do. Katy was awesome for that– we both wanted to do the same things that day, and we clocked 7.73 walked miles that day, too. We went down to the boardwalk and grabbed lunch– one slice of cheese pizza for her, two for me (thank you for not judging!) and sweet tea…which was the only option available for tea. It’s officially the South in Virginia Beach, so no, Yank, we do not have unsweetened tea. No matter, it was delicious. We walked the boardwalk, checked out the pier souvenir shop, watched the surfers bobbing like birds on the waves. Even though the beach was just waking up from the winter months, there were still a lot of people walking around. The weather was a cool 50 degrees with wind, but by the time we stopped walking to get dinner at Lagerheads, both Katy and I were freezing. Both of us ordered lobster mac ‘n cheese and stout beer for dinner, leaving the beach shortly afterwards to head back to the hotel at the Virginia Beach town center. I needed to go to Walgreens because I hadn’t had enough water to drink and I wanted Pop Tarts and a can of Starbucks espresso for breakfast. Through all of that, Katy was a fantastic travel buddy and supporter who also had no problems with my neurotic race preparations and early bedtime. And of course we had good times. You’re the best, girl. 🙂
Race morning hurt. A lot. I was easily able to get to sleep at 9PM, as shallow of sleep as it was. Waking up at 5AM two weekends in a row to run a half-marathon is a rough task when you’re not a morning person. I also don’t typically eat breakfast for two hours after I wake up, so eating Pop Tarts and drinking water before I was fully awake was rough. I just sat there bleary-eyed, foggy-brained in the dark, half-dressed in my running clothes, tempted to roll back over into my still-warm hotel bed sheets. If you ask me, the early wake-up on race day is worse than all the training and race combined.
My plan was to leave the hotel at 6AM for a 7AM start. Katy would drop me off near the start line and I’d have plenty of time to check in a bag of dry post-race clothes and hopefully sneak in a photo of the sun rising over the ocean. But sometimes race morning just can’t be planned. Our hotel was about 10 miles from the beach and traffic was backed up on the parallel-running roads along the boardwalk. I was never fully nervous that I was running out of time before my race corral started until I saw the crush of people within a small space. From the time Katy dropped me off about 10 blocks from the starting line, I was rushing to get my gear checked, find a reasonable line for the porta-johns, and join the amoeba-like crowds to get to my corral. There was no time for a sunrise beach photo, even though the beach was literally right there. It’s just that there were so many people it made moving fast impossible. Nerves had somehow started creeping in and I was fighting a deep-set exhaustion and being rushed didn’t wake me up. It made me more tired. What made it all worse was, when my corral was inching closer to the starting line and the first throng of runners was taking off, I looked down at my Garmin and realized the darn thing had shut off! I’d turned it on over 10 minutes ago, in case it took awhile to get a signal, and here I was trotting toward the start line and my stupid watch was off. I was literally the last person in my corral to start, with one of the race volunteers practically pushing me and someone saying, “Come on, Sara, let’s go!” I was seriously annoyed.
Almost right away, I could feel that this race was going to be a tough mental battle. The first two miles, I focused on maintaining a consistent, even 9:15 pace. Spectators were thin at this race, but there was a lot of spirit. I didn’t get sucked in– I kind of already wanted the race to be over with, not because I was annoyed, but because I was afraid that I would have a bad race. It kind of made me shut down. What was I thinking running two half-marathons in 7 days?? I kept my eyes forward. The doubt in my mind was a rock in my shoe. I started searching for positive reinforcements: You can do this; I run this body; Pain is temporary; You’ve trained for this and are ready for this. Nothing seemed to work. So, I just ran.
Here’s why I think the Shamrock Half-Marathon will be one of the hardest mental races I’ve ever run: starting at about mile 3 and not until mile 10 or 11, there were very few spectators. At mile 3, I high-fived a group of high school students standing in a row who all cheered my name as I ran past them, which gave me a temporary boost. I started speeding up, feeling grateful that I had seemed to shake off the dark cloud. But then we turned and headed into a stretch of highway lined with forest on all sides and pretty soon, all we could hear around us was the sound of hundreds of feet hitting concrete. Forests in March are still ugly and brown from the winter– they’re not pretty at all. I’ve run along uglier roads (I’m looking at you, Lincoln, Nebraska), but I couldn’t shake the cloud of doubt and exhaustion from my mind. Plus it felt like my paces were dropping lower, even though they weren’t. I almost asked another runner, “We’re going uphill, right? It’s not just me?” Nope– this was a flat course and here I felt like I was running up the side of a mountain. I was also insanely hot. Having spent the entire afternoon before at the beach and freezing in my layers, I was wearing a tank top, a thermal short-sleeve shirt, and arm warmers with capri tights and I felt like I could have absolutely run this race in the shorts and tank I’d planned all along to wear. Always trust your first instinct on race day. My arm warmers were not meant for racing, so they felt like sweaters on my arms.
If I was in any other state of mind, I probably could have enjoyed this race, but I really needed crowd support today and it just wasn’t there. For miles, with the exception of a couple of locals blasting rock and country music from their pick-up trucks, a local one-guitar rock band, and a few aid stations staffed with exuberant volunteers. At mile 6, there was a big group of spectators, and I remember thinking, Ohhh, thank GOD! And then we started heading down the road and through the open gates of the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story Naval base. As the daughter of a U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel, I have seen my fair share of military bases and they are utterly bland. I kind of had to whimper to myself at the thought of running in a place even uglier than a brown post-winter forest. The two most exciting parts about running through this base was a) the high five I got from a stoic Navy MP at the gates and b) the lighthouse around mile 9. Other than that, there was just nothing beautiful to admire, nothing to really enhance the environment of the race.
So, what do you do when you’re tired from a previous half-marathon and have very little if anything to take away from your surroundings to uplift you? You suck it up. I didn’t take the lack of crowd support and course aesthetics as a reason to quit. I was still running a half-marathon; the time from this race would count because I wanted it to count– I decided it would count when I signed up for this. My friend Katy had driven 3 hours to support me, and I wasn’t going to waste her time by giving up on myself. You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you give. I didn’t tell myself this either–I just did it. I don’t know how I held my paces consistent, I just did. I took responsibility for how this race would go; I owned it. That’s what you do when it gets tough.
By mile 11, I was so thoroughly exhausted that my paces started to slack off even as I was pushing hard. I passed a runner walking and said, “You can do this; let’s go!” which was also for my own benefit. I’m sure he wanted to kill me for that. I started looking for Katy who was wearing an orange knit hat with a furball on top, but I wouldn’t see her until right before the finish line on the boardwalk. I was also fidgeting with my water bottle, the hand clutch all sweaty from the miles before me and still rather full from the Cocogo I’d poured into it. I was tempted to throw it away– I just wanted to be free of it, to feel like I didn’t need anything anymore to get through this race. No more crutches; just me running honestly. My frugal side won– I didn’t want to spend $20 to replace it.
The moment when I realized this was all worth it was when I turned the corner near where I’d started the race under 2 hours earlier, saw the ocean in front of me, and felt the cool ocean air breathe onto my hot face. I could smell the brine– I love, love, love that smell. And suddenly I felt a happiness from the strength I felt from that pure air and running with my happy place literally right over the railing from me. Joe Nichol’s “Yeah” was playing in my ears, it felt like summer. The crowds were thick and cheering– I saw Katy and waved to her– and to my left the waves were rolling and the sun was casting a white glimmer on the waves and the sand in a morning sky that was white and gray from disappearing clouds. That was a perfect moment which made the entire previous 12 miles totally worthwhile.
After I crossed the finish line, I didn’t look at my Garmin for a few minutes. I was just so thankful to be done. I knew I’d had a strong race, having tracked my splits at every mile, but I just wasn’t * really * running for a PR unlike New York when I checked my time almost right away. I didn’t think I had run a stronger race than I did the week before; I just knew I’d had a strong race. I think part of me just wanted to stay right there in the appiness of knowing I’d run well. I didn’t want to be disappointed. But I took the chance and finally looked at my Garmin. I couldn’t believe what I saw: 1:58:01, average pace 8:59. That meant….oh my gosh….I might have just run a PR with that race. It would literally come down to seconds if I had beat it or not. I needed a 1:57:34. I didn’t actually find out for several hours that I came within 39 seconds of my PR and unseated the United NYC Half as my second fastest half-marathon with this race. My official time was 1:58:14, average pace 9:02.
I can’t believe I ran that well in Virginia Beach. It’s strange, after having been through a lot of injuries and only having run 2 half-marathons and 1 full marathon last year, that I had just come within striking distance of my half-marathon PR. Coming up on a year ago, I finished the Lincoln Half-Marathon in 2:21:17, or an average pace of 10:46. I thought my fast days were over; that the brief time I ran them, it was just a fluke. It’s great to see that I’m coming back to my fast days with all the hard work I’ve put into training, but what I think I am most proud of is that I’ve stopped making excuses for myself and have stopped accepting good enough in the moment. I know I told myself during the harder miles of this race that if I wanted to slow down or stop and catch my breath that I could; that it was okay. But I also knew I would feel like I gave up if I did do that. I’ve started to accept that pain is part of the process of running, I’ve stopped making myself a victim of it, and now I see that seeing improvements like this proves that there is a higher purpose for it all.
I feel like, seeing a time like this one, I’m finally ready to work toward the dreams I’ve had for myself since I started running marathons. I’ve had a dream of running a 4:00 marathon for awhile now; I may just be ready to go and get that time in Baltimore this October. And as for beating my half-marathon PR, I have three chances for redemption in May. Bring it on.