Badass Boomer and I hatched the plan to run the Yuengling Shamrock Half Marathon last fall. She was looking for a different Boston tune-up race. I was looking for a flat spring marathon. Philadelphia confirmed that my body isn’t ready for the marathon distance yet, but luckily I could easily drop to the half at Virginia Beach. I added the 8K race on Saturday for the Dolphin Challenge. In the meantime, friends from the Sub-30 Club, my online running group, also started making plans to meet for the races in Virginia Beach. Serendipity!
Training for Virginia Beach got off to a rough start. “Recovery” from Philly had included a brief ER visit and an overnight hospital stay for atrial fibrillation, followed by Mohs surgery for basal cell carcinoma on my neck. 2022 was really quite a year. By December, I was physically and mentally exhausted. It’s really hard to keep running when you feel lousy, but it also seemed like it would be worse to stop running so I just kept going.
In early January, we changed some of the supplements I am taking and I started to feel better. My endocrinologist increased the vitamin D2 and I started taking an electrolyte drink called “Zipfizz.” I went to see the Maestro several times to get some help loosening up the right quad. Slowly, things started turn things around. Thyroid and calcium tests also started to come back better. I was able to reduce the dose of calcitriol I am taking from .75mg/day to .5mg/day. No ill effects. That is HUGE. Thank God, during January I also saw a lot of improvement in my voice. Eight months after surgery – maybe things were starting to settle down.
In February, I started racing – see reports on the Run for Refugees 5k, the Colchester Half, and the Shamrock and Roll 5K. Those races were slow times for me, but they were building on each other and it started to feel like my running had some momentum.
At the expo with Sub-30 buddies
I left for Virginia Beach on Friday morning and arrived late Friday afternoon. I met up with Butterfly and other Sub-30 friends and we headed to the expo. After grabbing our bibs and shirts, we headed to Chicho’s for a big Sub-30 meet-up. I think we had 18 people! I wish this event could have gone on longer (and maybe been quieter) because there were so many people I wanted to talk to. But many of us were racing the 8K the next day so we had to get back to the hotel for an early bed and an early start.
Our gang got up early on Saturday to get ready for the 8K. I was using the race as a shakeout run with a medal and a t-shirt so I wasn’t stressed. It was fun to be with a group of friends at a race. That hasn’t happened in a LONG time! I didn’t know these women well ahead of time, but they were a blast to hang out with. We were happy the rain had stopped. I ran pretty easy and then raced two guys at the end down the last 1200 meters of the boardwalk.
Getting to hang out with Butterfly in person was one of the best parts of the weekend!
After a quick stop at Starbucks and a change of clothes, I headed back to the beer tent. I’m not normally one for a big post-race party, but this was really fun. The bands both days were excellent and everyone was in a great mood. We hung out with some guys from Salisbury Virginia, just joking around, telling running tales. Eventually Butterfly and I headed back to the hotel. It wasn’t even noon! We grabbed bathing suits and went for a dip in the rooftop hot tub. She did some cold plunges into the pool but no way was I doing that. After our hot tub adventure, we went back to the room, got dressed, and headed out looking for lunch.
Happy but freezing. Theme of the weekend.
Badass Boomer had arrived from Massachusetts so at some point, I said good-bye to the Sub-30 party girls and met up with Badass. At the expo, we both bought blankets from the previous year to wrap up in before the race. Back to the hotel for a quick nap and then dinner at a nearby Italian place. I resisted fancy pasta and got my usual penne with pomodoro sauce. I did have a glass of red wine! We were back in the room before 8pm and getting ready for an early bedtime.
The day had been chilly and as much as I was trying not to, I was fretting about weather. Control the controllables is a classic runner saying and you can’t control the weather, but it has a big influence on your race. You *can* control what you wear and I was struggling to decide. I finally texted Coach Maverick for advice and just hearing from him helped me calm down. Expected weather was temperature of around 40 but with a windchill of low to mid-30s. Badass Boomer and I eventually made our wardrobe choices. Having done her online pre-race mobility routine, we did my going-to-sleep meditation on Headspace. Perfect digital resource complementarity!
Badass Boomer likes to get an early start. I had slept well and I didn’t mind the extra time to get ready. Her alarm went off at 4:45am and mine followed suit at 5:15am. We made coffee and instant oatmeal in the hotel room. Here’s my complete fueling report. For breakfast, two packets of instant oatmeal (300 calories total), a banana, coffee, and a Zipfizz. In addition to my regular meds, I added an extra calcitriol pill (.25mg) on race morning. Did that help? Who knows. It can’t hurt. I had a Tums on the starting line. During the race I had a gel and a Tums at 4 miles and at 8.5 miles. I also had a Tums at the finish because I had a serious quad cramp. I only grabbed water at the mile 4 water stop. That’s surely not ideal, but I am not great at maintaining pace while drinking and I really wanted to maintain pace. This is the best that fueling has gone since surgery. I have started taping the Tums to the gel packet so I don’t have to fuss with getting it out of a ziplock bag. That makes the process a lot smoother. I’ve also done it enough now that the emotion is going out of the process. Introducing the Tums into race day fueling meant a constant reminder of the calcium issue, the surgical misadventure, all the bad stuff that I don’t want to be thinking about mid-race. My therapist has said so many times in the last few months “This is all still so new. It’s normal to need time to adjust. It will get easier.” Frankly, I don’t really want to “adjust” to needing calcium when I race longer distances. I would prefer not to need it. But since I do need calcium mid-race, it is good to have it be just a thing that I do – like taking a gel – rather than a thing that I do that has a lot of emotional baggage along with it. That piece is getting better.
Thank you for your years of service, Banana Republic white cardigan!
As Badass Boomer and I finished getting ready to race, we poked our noses out to the balcony to check the temperature. It was less windy than expected, at least on the hotel balcony. As she put it “My nose isn’t actually hurting.” I’ll take that weather report. I opted for light weight tights, my new light weight MRC long sleeve shirt, gloves with hand warmers, and a hat. I also had an old white cardigan sweater that I wore to the start. Badass Boomer and I wrapped ourselves in our $5 blankets to get to gear check but we liked them so much, that we checked them! We were in different corrals because she is super speedy so we parted ways there. We had done our dynamic warm ups in the hotel but I did about a one minute jog before getting into the corral.
I was nervous before the race, of course, but less nervous than sometimes. Crawling my way back from surgery has meant that I am not in PR shape and it somehow feels like less is on the line. Coach Maverick has me running entirely by effort. I’m not sure I will want to do that forever, but for this season of my running, it’s perfect. Lining up for this windy race, I remembered a particularly windy long run with some quality segments. I didn’t remember “not hitting my paces because of the wind” because there hadn’t been any paces to hit. Instead, I thought of Coach Maverick’s advice in our pre-race phone call: “Give yourself a chance out there.”
Waiting in the corral, I spotted the 3:50 marathon pacer. The race didn’t have anyone pacing a 1:55 half (my goal) but a 3:50 marathon is the same pace and the courses are the same until the last half mile or so. I hadn’t planned to run with a pacer. I don’t generally trust pace groups because they can be erratic and I’m good at pacing on my own. My initial thought was, shoot, that guy is going to be hard to ignore. The corrals moved up, one by one, with the usual nervous chatter as we got closer to the start. They called our corral and off we went.
I reminded myself to be calm and stay in control. Within a few minutes, I had pulled even with the 3:50 pacer. Don’t pass him yet, I thought. Just stay here. The wind was turning out to be much less bad than expected. The race was crowded but unlike in the 8K, everyone was moving well together. Really well. Hmmm.
We ran a couple of miles like that. I thought about my “why” for racing. I thought especially about Rose, how strong she is and how much I want to set a good example for her, that we can do hard things even under challenging circumstances. I thought about staying relaxed and not working too hard this early in the race. Everything felt pretty good. I was still not just “with” the pace group but really “in” the group. It was the closest pack I’ve ever run with, but I figured maybe the other people were blocking the wind. Some people were talking – learning about the pacer’s background, a few questions about the course. Other times when I’ve been with a pace group, I found this chatter extremely irritating but on this day, it was fine. I realized my music wasn’t turned on so it was ok to have something to listen to.
I had my first gel and Tums at 4 miles. It was the easiest version of this combo I’ve done yet. I’m learning how to use the surgical tape to cover half the Tums so it doesn’t fall off, but I can get it off with my teeth. I grabbed a cup of water and slowed to get a good drink. I realized I didn’t want the pace group to pull away so I slowly worked my way back to them.
Over the next mile or so, I committed to staying with that 3:50 pacer as long as possible. I ran the Iron Horse half marathon in 2018 with the Retiree as the pacer. I was pretty sure on that day that I couldn’t say with the group for the entire race, but I stayed much longer than I had thought possible. Give yourself a chance, said Coach Maverick. We were only 4 miles into this race and it was starting to feel like work, but I know that’s ok. Not just ok – if you’re going to run fast, a half marathon should start to feel like work around then.
After that, I took it one mile at a time. For the next several miles, I thought every mile might be the last one with the group. I knew that a 1:55 half is right around an 8:45 pace. I thought I could hold that for quite a few miles, but I didn’t know how many. A lot of what I’ve learned about racing started coming back to me. Des Linden says she races out of curiosity – how fast can she go for how long? There is no way to know unless you try. Five miles down. Could I get to six?
This part of the course goes through Fort Story, a military base. The sun was out, the wind was less strong than expected, I was feeling good. I took my hat off and remembered that it is currently messing up my Aftershokz for some reason. I managed to turn my music on.
We crossed a timing mat and I thought about Mervus back home tracking me. I remembered the tracking mat at Hartford last fall. They had a clock there. I saw my time and it messed with my mind. Even the memory of that moment last fall made running harder. I thought of other races where I have slowed a lot after crossing a timing mat. It’s like, I send that info to my loved ones and then I can collapse because they *think* I am ok. Running is so mental. Then I thought – Yeah, running is mental and this slow down is also only mental. You are breathing fine. Your legs are fine. Stay with that pacer until mile 7 and you’ll have made it more than half the race. What a triumph that will be!
I’m too cheap to buy bad race photos. Especially when these murals spotted on the streets of Virginia Beach are so epic.
Mile 7 came up faster than expect, which NEVER happens! I was delighted. The thought crossed my mind – whatever happens after this, this race is a huge success. You’ve run 7 good solid miles. Even if this turns into a tempo workout, you’ve run 7 miles at tempo, which is huge. Other people were talking but I have no idea what they were saying. We were still running really close together and every now and then someone bumped someone and apologized. I stepped on someone’s foot and apologized. But these little bumps didn’t hinder us. It was almost like we were some kind of running machine, pushing onward. I sure didn’t want to get dropped off the back of the machine. I told myself if I made it to mile 8 and had to slow down, that was ok. Still a huge triumph.
Then we got to mile 8! I realized that idea about slowing down now – that was “the deal” that your brain will offer you as a way to escape discomfort. Coach Mick and I used to talk about Howie Mandell, host of the game show “Deal or No Deal.” Howie will show up in your head mid-race and tell you that you’ve done enough. He’ll say it’s ok to back off or even to walk, be satisfied with what you’ve already done. No way, Howie. Not today.
I kept running, but an image kept flashing through my mind. Me, standing by the side of the road, unable to get my breath, having stopped, having to convince myself to start running again. Ugh. At that point I thought, take another gel. Maybe you need fuel. Don’t wait until mile 9, have it now. So I did. Another smooth consumption of Tums and gel. This is the first race where I didn’t *drop* a Tums. I don’t like having to take calcium mid-race, but I’m getting better at it.
Mile 8 seemed really long. But finally we came out of Fort Story. Somewhere in there we hit mile 9. Four miles to go. Whenever I get to the 4 mile mark, I think of Corgi Speedster and her 4 mile races in Central Park. I made an executive decision to skip water. I felt good. Water stops make me slow down. I didn’t want to lose the pace group.
Mile 9 also seemed really long. Finally we got to 10 and I allowed myself to start counting. I counted to 100 and back down for each finger. I was almost done with that when we hit mile 11.
Mile 11 is where I lost contact with the pace group at the half marathon back in 2018. I felt myself fade a little and then thought – that’s not me today. That’s me in 2018, fading at mile 11. This is a LOT of work, but I am still doing the work. That’s when I realized, I was probably going to be able to hang onto this pace. If I could stay with the pace group, I could run under 1:55. Wow.
During these hard miles, I realized I was racing smart and hard and UNAFRAID. Yes, I might blow up. It was possible that I would end up standing by the side of the road gasping for breath. But maybe, if I gave myself a chance, and hung with this pace group, I could get under 1:55. I didn’t care that my PR is more than 10 minutes faster than that. I found a huge piece of myself on that course in Virginia Beach. I remembered that Mama Tiger image from when my kids were babies. Mama Tiger is fierce and she protects her babies. But Mama Tiger also knows that she must protect herself first. Without being true to herself, she can not take care of her babies or anyone else. It’s not selfishness; it’s just reality.
That Mama Tiger is really brave, but the last 10 months of medical crap scared her. Scared her, but didn’t kill her apparently, because here she was, showing up in my head in a half marathon in Virginia Beach, ready to fight to get under 1:55. I learned in an instant it truly isn’t about the time on the clock. It’s about the ability to get the best out of yourself on a given day. Fear had robbed me of that ability for the past year, but I’ve been getting braver. I got a big notch braver at Virginia Beach.
When Coach Maverick asked me what I wanted from this race, I said I wanted to get to the edge and stay there as long as possible. “The edge” is what I call that horrible wonderful feeling when you are completely unsure about whether you can keep going. To me, this is how a race is supposed to feel. There’s so much clarity because there is only one task. That’s how I found myself about halfway through the race in Virginia Beach. My best self. She is still there. The experience of being so physically and mentally alienated from myself over the past year has been one of the most difficult things I’ve had to confront in life. But my best self is still there and I am finding her again.
Mile 11 – I knew at some point we would turn left and head back to the boardwalk. But apparently not yet. My legs were starting to feel weird. Was that calcium or just exhaustion? Just two more miles. Hang on. My counting was getting a big jagged and I had to keep starting over. Someone dropped something in front of me and I sort of leaped over it.
Mile 12 – Just one mile to go. I am going to lose the pace group soon but it’s ok. They have crept a tiny bit in front of me but I am hanging on. Then the sign – half marathoners to the left, marathoners to the right. They peel off and I head left. I remember the race with the kid with the big hair from Saturday. I have about 1200 yards to go. I try to speed up, but I’m at my max. The Neptune statue looks to be a million miles away, but I know counting four fingers worth of 100s will get me to him. I think about Badass Boomer’s tip of uncrunching the can, think about form, drive the knees, SO close! I cross the line and find a fence to hang on. Medical asks me if I am ok, the usual. My watch says 1:55:16, but chip time turns out to be 1:54:15. I am very much okay. I am finding my way back to myself.
The rest of the day was for celebrating. Badass Boomer found me at the finish line. We grabbed our gear bags and headed back to the hotel for hot showers. It was less cold than expected but still chilly. After brunch, we went back to the tent for more beer, music, and general carousing. The after party really is fun! I was singing with my broken voice at the top of my lungs – it didn’t matter that my voice is broken because no one could hear me anyway. I just felt jolts of pure joy coursing through me. It’s been a long long haul and it’s not over yet. Whatever “the end” of this looks like or “the new normal” – it’s still a big unknown. I really hope I can get back to normal singing. I really hope I can get back to faster running. But the last few weeks have felt much more like myself and that is an enormous blessing.
The 3:50 pacer!