“Ugh, let this be over already.”
No, I’m not struggling through mile seven of my first half marathon, but milling about the starting line 45 minutes before it begins. Thankful as I am that I’m not late, the free time has restarted an ongoing mental tug-of-war.
“Shit, did I stretch enough last night?” “I should’ve done more strength work.”
On the other side of the rope though, is my training base. Not only had I already ran the half marathon distance, but I’d exceeded my goal time by four minutes and enjoyed myself in the process. Not to mention the 5 AM five milers and lakeside long runs.
But thankfully for my sanity, the starting line fills earlier than planned. At first, I squeeze into the 1:50 pace group, intending to start easy and speed up upon settling into the race. Remembering the 1:46 half marathon I’d cranked out during training, however, I reconsider. Race day finally here, why hold back? So as the National Anthem begins, I sneak into the lead pack. Not the very front, mind you, but their sponsored race singlets still suggest their speed. Watching them tinker with their watches, I bounce on the balls of my feet, thinking,” Yo, I’m just happy to be here.”
And I’m even more glad when the gun finally goes off.
Amidst a roaring crowd, anxiety transforms to adrenaline, which carries me through mile one in…Jesus Christ, 7:26? My shrinking sense of self preservation dictates that I at least slow to an eight-minute pace for now.
But at the second mile marker? 14:04. Resigned to my aggressive race strategy, I resolve to keep the momentum going as long as possible. When some of the elite runners speed 10, 50, 100 meters ahead, I briefly wonder whether I’m already fading. Reluctant to spend 11 more miles mired in false comparisons, though, I redirect my attention inward.
In so doing, I let myself appreciate the moment. Six years ago, two-miles at ten minute pace had reduced me to a sweat-soaked mess. Now? Not only had I slayed two miles, but I was FUCKING AMPED for an additional 11.1. I reminisce on past runs, from high school XC to tours of Barcelona and downtown Chicago. I express my gratitude to my body, my mind, my friends and family, my surroundings. As I admire the wooded scenery, the male leaders, fresh off the turnaround, pass by on my left and, yes, I admired them too. Each mile marker, though, prompts my addition, subtraction, and multiplication. To my disbelief, five, six miles in, each mile is coming less than eight minutes after the last.
Only at the halfway point, when I’m turning around to repeat the same 6.55 mile stretch, does some negativity surface. As the footsteps behind me get louder and my legs get heavier, horror stories of half marathon flameouts flood my mind. Recognizing the beginning of a self-fulfilling prophecy, I renew strength from my surroundings. To my left, hundreds of runners approach the turnaround point, faces contorted in conviction. Once I offer a “Keep it up!” to the 2:00 pace group, I realize that contrary to any form of logic, I’m feeling stronger than ever. Bouncing off the balls of my feet, stupid grin stretching my face, rocking to the rhythm of my breath, I repeat my new mantra .
` “I’m enjoying every second of this.”
Passing the seven mile mark, my mental math tells that barring disaster, I’m going to beat my previous PR, which a middle-aged man confirms upon asking about my goal time.
“I did a 1:46 last month, so hopefully somewhere around there. How about you?” I respond, amazed that I’m capable of full sentences.
“You’re going to crush 1:45 at this pace.”
Not if I run comfortably enough to hold conversation, I won’t. Grateful for his company, I wish him well before ditching him. Indeed, once I hit the eight mile mark, competitive fire joins my contentment. My calculations tell that even a nine-minute pace will yield my desired 1:45. But after hundreds of fast five-milers, anything less than a 1:40
New mantra? “I’m passing that bitch in the legwarmers if it’s the last thing I do.”
Feminist friendly? No. Effective? Yes.
As mile ten begets ten and eleven, I begin to feel vaguely tired, but it seems that my two mantras carried me past both mounting doubt and fading competitors. That is, until I hit mile 12.5. Turns out that running’s a lot harder when your knees don’t bend. Never mind that I’ve killed 12 7:30 mile repeats. 800 meters now seems a herculean task.
New mantra? “Cliff Bars and coffee in a mile!”
Fueled by impending food and fear of failure, I forge on. Eventually, the 13 mile mark materializes like a mirage in the desert. After confirming it’s real, I check the time. 1:38:55. My math skills are fading as quickly as my muscles, but I’m still confident I can run a tenth of a mile in 65 seconds.
Lest I get comfortable, a woman yells,” Push for that 1:40, let’s go!”
Sufficiently motivated, I pump my arms and move my feet in a sprinting motion. But with my overworked lower body fully on strike, I’m left bounding off of straight legs as I will myself to the finish. As the clock ticks closer to 1:40:00, I remember years of 5 AM five milers and annoying ab workouts mounted toward a seemingly impossible vision. Once I stomp on that finish line in 1:39:43, I know that every one was worth it.
And once I regain feeling in my quads, I’m signing up for that 20 miler in September.