It had been a long time since a half-marathon had been my full-stop goal race. Wait: I must self-correct. The distance hasn’t ever been the specific focus of my training–I’ve always leaned on it as a fitness test leading into a full marathon. Standing in my corral on Sunday morning, I felt set apart. I wondered how many of the other runners had trained as hard and as specifically as I had for this race. No doubt, I was being judgemental when I assumed most of them had signed up to run it for fun, or as a longer training run.
After a fabulously uninterrupted six hours of sleep (no doubt, the small and warm company of @tejasrunnergirl‘s dog Lola helped with that), I awoke at 4 AM, immediately ate a bowl of highly-salted oatmeal, and then moved methodically through the rest of my race-morning timeline. Body Glided, hydrated, sunblocked, bibbed and bundled, by 4:50 I was in the car, with @tejasrunnergirl at the wheel. Bless her soul for waking in the middle of the night to shuttle me to the start–whenever I’d set out on four wheels this weekend I ended up hopelessly lost. (There must be some preexisting and unresolved bad karma between me and Houston.) @tejasrunnergirl dropped me off with a hug and a big, encouraging smile; I arrived at the George R. Brown early enough that I could attend the 5:30 AM Catholic mass.
While my relationship with God (or the Universe, the Cosmic Lifeforce, or whatever you want to call it) has gotten much stronger this year, I remain quite uneasy about organized religion, including the one within which I was raised. After so many years away, the rituals and vocabulary seem strange and rigid to me. But I decided that I wasn’t against giving a little thanks to a Catholic God before I headed out to conquer the concrete streets of Houston. It ended up being a beautiful gathering. The priest had given mass at the Houston Marathon for over a decade, so in a way he was one of us runners. I was moved by sharing the handshake of peace knowing that everyone around me was about to undertake the same momentous running effort. I also took the opportunity to turn the results of my race over to God, and asked to be satisfied no matter the outcome. That’s my way of taking out an insurance policy against bitter disappointment, just in case everything went terribly wrong out there. Note: this prayer did not lessen the huge amount of pressure and tension I felt.
The rest of the pre-race period couldn’t have been timed any better. I checked my bag, found two blocks to run a 10-minute warm-up, had some quality time in the port-a-potty, then headed to the corral. There are seeded corrals in Houston, but they aren’t broken down by pace–I still had to weave my way up to somewhere between the 7’s and the 8’s. I stretched, told myself to relax, used the port-a-potty one last time (love when they have them in the corral), and tried to ease my game face into something a little bit friendlier than the frown I knew I was wearing. No dice. This is when I surveyed the crowd and wondered who else was out here with serious intent today.
After a few absurd speeches (Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, the mayor) and a scarily enthusiastic prayer (personally, I don’t think God gives a shit how our races go, but whatevs, Preacher), we were off. I was feeling rested but under pressure. Prepared but not necessarily kicky, which might have been because I felt so tight, all my muscles, everywhere.
I knew the first mile was going to be the slowest simply because it was crowded, but when Little G beeped 8:11 I freaked out (I was aiming for 8:05) and sped up a bit too much. My arms were still chilled by the cool breeze. Mile 2 came in at 7:42. That’s when I started repeating the mantra The road will open before you. I can’t say I was feeling especially strong or fluid at this point. I was still warming up, my breathing felt ragged. In fact, whenever I felt relaxed and comfortable, Little G would show me that I was running slower than PR pace and I’d have to push it again. Although the miles did click by quicker than I’d expected, at no point in this race did I just feel like I was cruising. I suppose if you’re chasing an ambitious PR, that’s about right, but it worried me some, and I was constantly doubting if I could maintain the pace. I didn’t know, so I just kept pushing, mile after mile.
My 5k split was 24:42, or a 7:55 pace (of course I didn’t know this at the time). Not bad considering Mile 1 was 17 seconds under that. I had the niggling thought that I might have gone out too fast, but I was working with the knowledge that 7:55 was the slowest I could run and meet my goal, and as a carrot I’d set Little G’s virtual partner at 7:50. Feeding the hunger for more speed was @tejasrunnergirl’s remarkably optimistic battle cry of “1:40,” which she had been repeating to me all week long. I didn’t know my mat splits until after the race, on the course I just had the autolap mile reports from Little G to work with. I was dismayed to see that even by Mile 3 I was over a tenth of a mile up on the course distance, which meant that I’d have to run even faster than Little G said to meet my goal time.
Somewhere around Mile 6 my left foot started to really hurt me. You know, the fascia. Pounding the concrete roads in my racing flats was aggravating the tightness that I’d been keeping at bay through acupuncture and massage-by-golf-ball the past few weeks. Each time I hit a timing mat, I’d think OK @BklynRunner, do your thing! She’d generously agreed to tweet out my splits for my friends. I didn’t know it at the time, but the sub-8 splits I laid down those last five miles gave me a 10k PR (49:27, over a minute improvement) in the middle of the Houston Half-Marathon. (That’s kind of hot, right? 2 PRs in one race?) I kept telling myself I’d done all those fast finish workouts, into headwind, uphill. I decided to go for broke and keep pushing hard. I ate a Hammer gel with some sips of Gatorade; I had trouble catching my breath during the “snack;” this slowed me down and Mile 7 dropped to a 7:57 pace (from 7:49).
The volunteers, by the way, were all so kind. Whenever I said thank you, they all responded with words of encouragement. It was very refreshing to be around such polite, happy people.
Then I saw @tejasrunnergirl, who was waiting for me close to Mile 7. The entire mile leading up to me spotting her went by in a flash because I was focusing on finding her–so grateful for that distraction. When she saw me she went bonkers cheering, there was jumping, waving and shouting involved, plus this awesome sign. Clearly @tejasrunnergirl knows what’s what. I told her my pace (7:50’s) which I hadn’t yet realized had dropped by practically ten seconds.
I struggled the next three miles to drop the pace back down to the 7:50 range. Little G tells me Miles 8 and 9 were 7:54 and 7:55. I was a nearly a quarter of a mile off the race’s mile markers, so I knew I was tracking with less speed against the clock. I felt in my bones that I wasn’t going to negative split, which for me is the sign of a race poorly executed. (After much mind-bending math more than 24 hours after the race, I can confirm that I did not run a negative split. The first 6.55 miles took me 51:36; the second took me 52:42.) By this point my left foot was hurting so much that when I’d roll it along the road in my stride, I told myself the massage felt good. I should have raced in my trainers on that concrete–but there’s a lesson learned the (literally) hard way. Also, my lower back was starting to talk back, and I suspected I might be dehydrated.
Mile 10 was where @tejasrunnergirl was meeting me next. Perhaps it was out of vanity (I didn’t want such an incredible athlete to see me hurting or slowing down) but I picked it up to clock a 7:44 there. This time she was holding up her “Toenails Are Overrated” sign, which I could see from a mile away since it was flourescent green. She told me I was looking good but I was feeling the strain. I admitted to her that my foot hurt bad. Right before I saw her, I’d crossed the 14.5k mats in 1:12, or a 7:51 pace.
Mile 11 was painful (7:50); and in Mile 12 I gritted my teeth and pulled out 7:43–but Little G’s splits were still 0.15 of a mile behind the course markers, so I knew I was about 4 or 5 seconds behind the pace Little G was telling me. The out and back between miles 7 and 11 seemed endless, but it was broken up by @mdwsterNYer catching me on the way back with a big shout. I barely acknowledged her as I was already hurting but I was so grateful to catch a glimpse of my Monday morning running buddy; it brought me back–you’re just running, dudette! I know how to run. I started to feel waves of the chills come over me, and I knew I was dehydrated, so I made a point to grab a cup of whatever and sip it each time I passed the “runner’s bar.”
I was wearing the same shorts and singlet I’d worn for the New York City Marathon back in 2008, which still remains my greatest race (even though I’ve bested the time, I have yet to execute a race as perfectly). I deliberately chose the outfit for that very reason; but unfortunately I just didn’t have a negative split in me on January 15, 2012.
Somewhere right before the 20k mark (20k-1:38:30, or a 7:58 pace) there was @grapevinerunner along a quiet stretch of road. I was looking for her, I knew she’d have a sign. By this point I was too exhausted and dizzy to read the whole thing–all I saw was that it was designed like a tweet and had my handle in there! Even better were her spoken words, “You’ve got this TK. Just a little bit more, you’ve got this.” Even though I’d been confident since the first mile I’d break 1:45, I wasn’t sure by how much–that was what kept driving me forward, that desire to burn myself as far away from 1:45 as possible. Hearing my friend tell me I had it, and feeling her support in my bones, let me release some of my tension. That’s right–I’ve got this. No matter the result, today was a great race. I kept running.
Not 50 feet up the road, I looked to my right and who did I see but Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and Adam Goucher, running along the course towards us, out for a little recovery run! I couldn’t believe it; I snapped awake. Hi Kara, Hi Shalane! Hey guys! Kara oddly ducked her head, while Shalane and Adam looked over, wondering who was calling out. I ran a few more paces, kind of shocked at the sighting. Then I thought, Well, the least I can do, given their effort yesterday, is run faster now. So I put the pedal to the metal, thought about how I have a high pain threshold (if this is true or not I have no idea; I might have lied to myself to get the job done), and hammered out a 7:16 Mile 13 and ran the last bit to the finish at a 6:40 pace.
I crossed the line and my eyesight was blurry, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I felt the ground pulling at me. I was a little faint. I’d been here before and knew what to do; I found the smiley old guys monitoring the finish line and let them escort me forward. I let them ask me how I was until I felt I could walk on my own without fear of tipping over. Hey, it’s been over a year since I’ve been on a date: I was grateful for the opportunity to lean on a kind gentleman’s arm for a short walk.
With my official time of 1:43:18, I’d pulled out a half marathon PR by 3 minutes and 18 seconds. Along the way I PRed in the 10k by a minute and seven seconds. I know I had that crazy grin on, the one where I’m so bursting with happiness that I look like a deranged dervish. I got my medal, my bag, and met @grapevinerunner, @mdwsternNYer and @tejasrunnergirl at the reunion area. We swapped stories until I thought the ground buckled beneath me–um, time to eat!
And there you have it. Not my most strategic race ever, but perhaps my gutsiest. I had the help of excellent training as designed and assigned by my coach, Meg Stolt; the bolstering support of friends new and old; and the calming force of God reminding me that I am so much more than my race results. I had the inspiration of the Olympic marathon trials the day before, and the good fortune of absolutely perfect weather conditions–high 40’s/low 50’s, no breeze and overcast. In a big shift from my usual attitude of low confidence/modest goals, I went with the motto of “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” I dreamed bigger. I dared to believe I could break 1:45 by multiple minutes, and then did it.
I hope everyone else out there had the same support and success as I did yesterday, regardless of their degree of serious intent. Running is running is running, virtuous and joyous in its essential execution. The goals are a separate thing, to be spared of outside judgement or ranking. I am a runner; but I can talk about other things if you’d like.