I ran a 1:45:45 half marathon last weekend and I am still smiling. I can hardly believe I did that!
I can’t even remember why I signed up for this race, the Amica Iron Horse Half. I expect the Retiree suggested it because he was pacing the 1:45 group, but I can’t imagine I thought that was a reasonable goal when I registered several months ago. It was a good match from a scheduling standpoint though – about a month after my last half marathon in Redding, CT and just at the beginning of training for the Erie marathon in September. Maybe I signed up because it’s a fairly flat course? I’ve run Iron Horse once before, in 2013, with Fast Friend. That year was so hot, they sent extra ambulances to the race. I remember the color-coded signs changing from green to yellow to red while we were running and seeing people laid out with IVs at the finish line. I can’t remember very much else except feeling like the course was not all that interesting. For whatever reason, I signed up again this year.
I had been targeting Redding as my goal half for the spring, but then that course ended up much hillier than I expected. More than that, I just couldn’t get into a good head space for the race, no matter how hard I tried. I really didn’t want to sandbag the race, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my head on straight and I don’t feel great about how I ran it. That was frustrating, but it did mean I was much hungrier for a big PR going into Iron Horse.
A quick note about PRs. My best half prior to this spring was 1:52:44 at Hartford in October 2016. That was a solid race. I was well trained and I executed it well. The half is also the distance I know the best so unlike some of the other PRs I’ve set this spring, I didn’t regard my half time as soft. At Redding I ran 1:51:28. Better than Hartford for sure, but not the race I felt I was capable of. A look at my trusty race prediction calculators showed times around 1:46-1:47. But the Retiree was pacing 1:45…..Hmmmm.
I don’t know why I couldn’t fix my head for the Redding half, but I know I felt like I “took the deal.” When you’re racing pretty hard, your brain is going to start offering you bargains: You don’t want this that bad, this pace is not sustainable, you’ll do better if you slow down now and save something for the end, it’s pretty hot and there’s another race next month you could do instead, etc. At Redding it was: these women are running too fast for you – if you try to stay with them, you’ll blow up. I took the deal and slowed down and regretted it later. One of my main goals going into Iron Horse was not to take the deal.
It hasn’t been all that long since Redding so it’s not like my training has changed drastically in the last month. We did do a couple things differently though – between Redding and Iron Horse, I had two long runs of more than 13 miles. Between Donna and Redding, I had zero long runs of more than 13 miles. I do think for the half marathon distance, it helps a lot to run a few long runs longer than the race so I was glad to get those in. I also did hill sprints on Thursdays instead of longer intervals on the track, but this was really as early-stage marathon training. I like hill sprints but I can’t imagine they made much difference.
I don’t think the training was the most important difference between Redding and Iron Horse. And even though Iron Horse is a much easier course, I don’t think that was it either. The biggest difference was mental. I’ve been reading Deena Kastor’s new book, Let Your Mind Run, and it’s full of inspiration for “thinking your way to victory.” Deena writes about finding the positive in any given day and about the importance of confidence in your own abilities. Somehow in the week leading up to Redding, I let doubt sneak into my mind. I could feel it happening, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I fixed it for Iron Horse though.
Thursday afternoon before the race, I talked to Coach Mick. I told him straight up: I want to run with the Retiree. But also, that I felt pretty nervous about the idea. We talked about the possibility of things going wrong – if I went out too fast and ended up running 1:53, could I live with that? Yes, I could. Much better to take the risk than to take the deal. I didn’t want to be left wondering again what I might be capable of. I knew what I wanted to do, but Coach Mick helped me believe I could do it. He said the plan was aggressive but do-able and assured me he would tell me if he thought otherwise. By the time we were done talking, I felt a lot more confident.
With two more days until the race, I gathered more positive reinforcement. The Retiree was confident I could stay with him and I knew he would run a well-executed race. High Power Running Mentor #1 was also convinced I could run 1:45. He and the Retiree have engaged in a little mock-competition about which of them is the superior pacer. I will hold my judgement and say, I am astonishingly lucky to have two close friends with this skill who are willing to run with me. Sometimes the chips in life do fall your way and I hit the jackpot with my running friendships.
HPRM#1 and I have had a lot of conversations about pain. Running fast hurts; you can’t deny that. Runners develop complicated relationships with pain. The pain of a race is not entirely to be feared and certainly it won’t help to deny it. Coach Mick talks about bracing yourself for it, knowing the pain is coming and being ready for it. To a certain extent, we runners welcome the pain – it’s a sign we are doing things right. HPRM#1 offered one of his mantras: “This is what you came for.” That’s true and I didn’t want to miss it. I re-read Sarah Crouch’s essay, “Stigmata.” The pain is how we know we’re alive. Sometimes the pain is even a path to God. Deep stuff.
The weather report for race day was pretty favorable. Upper 50s at the start with humidity higher than desirable, around 80%, but dropping, and some cloud cover. Not the most perfect weather, but given that the Retiree and I individually tend to get more than our allotted share of hot races, we expect near apocalyptic conditions whenever we show up on a race course together. This was far from apocalyptic.
One logistical complication of this race was that the Incredible Mervus was not going to be there. His supportive presence at races this spring has been incredible indeed. But – from a purely practical standpoint – he was leaving town so I lacked child care. Luckily Snarky Girl came through, as she always does, and took both kids for a sleepover the night before the race. I’ve been having bizarre worries about what to eat the night before a long run lately so I just fell back on my pre-marathon meal of whole wheat pasta, tomato sauce, broccoli and vegetarian sausage. Simple and tasty. The Incredible Mervus was still here so we enjoyed a rare meal at home together sans children. When we spotted a coyote in the backyard, he said it was my spirit animal for the race. I got to bed really early.
The predicted weather was unchanged race day morning. I had gotten everything ready the night before, including my brand new On Your Mark Coaching singlet. I’ve been begging Coach Mick to get this project organized for months and I’m so happy the singlets arrived on time for Iron Horse. I did not have time to take one for a test run but I wore it around on Saturday and it was comfortable and moved well. Even though I generally am pretty rigorous about nothing new on race day, this seemed low risk and I went for it. I just wanted so damn bad to wear that shirt!
It’s funny to remember last fall when I was so out of practice with racing that I wasn’t sure what to do. Now it’s like clockwork again. Get up, make coffee, make oatmeal, gather stuff, take care of potty business, etc. HMRP#1 was up insanely early so I texted with him a little, said good bye to Mervus and drove to the race. It was cold. I didn’t want to take my long sleeve shirt off! I took my 5 hour energy shot, went to packet pick-up, and found the Retiree. I texted hello and good luck to Rooster and Teacher Runner for the 10K. Ghostie popped up so we did the warm-up mile together, which was lovely. In just an hour, it had gotten much warmer. The clouds had cleared and now I was comfortable in my singlet instead of freezing in my long sleeves. I worried a little about this development – no one can blame me for being gun shy when it comes to heat – but the weather report had said it wasn’t getting hotter and I chose to believe it. Positive attitude, all the way.
At the starting line there was some jostling and joking around, as usual. We found Sue from the Middletown 10 miler. They sent the wheelchairs off and just like that, it was our turn. I had tried to formulate this whole race as taking care of business and even though I was nervous, it also felt like that. I told both Coach Mick and HPRM#1 that I was tired of being a 1:5x half marathoner and ready to be a 1:4x half marathoner. This was a task that needed to be taken care of. Just get it done. I have worked hard and earned this and I just needed to check the official race box. I was convinced I could run sub 1:50 and it was just a question of finding out how low in the 1:40s I could go – I intended to get as low as possible. My confidence level could hardly have been different from Redding.
In terms of watch-watching – something I have thought about and written about – I had originally planned to check mile splits even though I would be with the Retiree and I knew we would be on pace. My theory had been to use this as sort of exposure therapy. I intend to look at my watch during Erie and this was my last major race before Erie because the weather is surely about to get hot. But trying to figure out my “watch technique” had really messed with my head at Redding and I didn’t like what I did. This time around Coach Mick suggested not overthinking it [Hahahahaha! He clearly momentarily forgot who he was talking to….]. After telling the Retiree that I was going to check splits and not to worry – it was practice and exposure therapy, not doubting his pacing – I decided against it. Coach Mick said, just rely on him, it’s one fewer thing to think about, and I liked that plan. While I was with the Retiree, I only peeked once and it was to check which mile we were in, not pace.
Ghostie decided to run with the other pacer so our little crew turned out to be me, the Retiree, and Sue. Sue was in the mood for chit-chat and she and the Retiree talked about this and that. I was pretty focused right from the beginning. It wasn’t so much that the running was hard as that I didn’t have a lot of extra head space for banter. Like most runners, the Retiree occasionally gets down on himself more than he needs to and I chimed in at those moments to correct the record. Otherwise I was happy to listen to them chatter about past races, the course, future plans.
By about mile 3 or 4, I started to feel like I was working. Some of that might have been adrenaline. No matter how much I told myself I was just checking off a box, taking care of business, etc etc – the fact is, I was still starting this race with the goal of an absolutely massive PR. We started much faster than I have ever started a half before. Often I’ve enjoyed the first five miles or so of a half marathon, or even a few more than that, before the real work starts. This race was more like a few miles of focus followed by a lot of miles of work. One of the number one things I’ve learned from running shorter races with pacers this spring is this: I need to start faster. It’s a strange lesson for a marathoner and I don’t know if it applies to the 26.2 distance, but for the half or anything shorter, it’s clearly paying off.
By mile 4 I was already wondering if I was going to be able to stick with the Retiree for the whole race. Or, to be more accurate, I was fairly certain I was not going to be able to stick with him, and was wondering exactly how long I could hold on for. I figured I had better at least make it until mile 5, anything less than that seemed ridiculous. Somewhere around mile 5, he asked how I was doing. I said, I’m working. He said, a little work is not a bad thing. As an aside, that’s a great comment for a pacer to make. He acknowledged that this was not a walk in the park for me, but also that really everything was fine. It’s supposed to be work. I had not expected it to be as much work so early in the race. After mile 5, I took it mile by mile. Every mile that went by, I just thought, good, that’s another one down. Let’s do one more. Hang on for one more. Hang on to get to the halfway mark. I had been expecting a timing mat there so Coach Mick and friends would know how I was doing, but there wasn’t one. I honestly thought – they’ll get the halfway split when I’m on pace and then they won’t know I am going to fall apart until it’s over. Eek – it was not positive thinking 100% of the time. There was a timing mat at 8 miles when the course goes back through the start/finish line and I was still with the Retiree and still on pace.
I told the Retiree after the race that this was going to be a short race report, which is clearly not true! But I have little to say about the course. It was not perfectly flat, as had been promised, but it was much flatter than Middletown and the “hills” were no big deal. The Retiree and Sue chatted sometimes. We passed the 10K people coming back and I saw Rooster and Teacher Runner and waved and said hi. The Retiree quipped: “Too much energy wasted!” Me in my head: “Cheering for other people is supposed to give you energy – that is what both Deena Kastor and Desi Linden seem to be saying! – but I don’t have enough air to talk about this so we will discuss it later. Anyway, just listen to him – he is temporarily in charge here. Don’t tell him that though, he’ll get an even bigger head than he already has.” That was probably the most interesting conversation of the entire race and only his half of it was out loud.
Otherwise, I got this, over and over again:
Brain: Ok, that’s about it. You’ve held this pace as long as you can. It’s time to back off. Switch to 8:20s. That will feel so much better. Maybe even 9s, that would feel wonderful.
Sarah: No, I am not taking the deal this time. Stick with the Retiree. Stay at 8:00.
Brain: This is hard. This is harder than you thought it would be. You will blow up if you keep doing this.
Sarah: It’s supposed to be hard. This is what I came for. I want this. I do NOT want your fucking deal.
Brain: Maybe the Retiree’s pace is too hot. This feels pretty fast.
Sarah: He is not too fast. Coach Mick said I have this in me and I do. I am fine right now. Right this minute, I am running 8:00 and it is fine. Worry about what happens later, later. Hold steady for one more mile and then re-assess.
Brain: I dunno, do you want to be walking later?
Sarah: Shut up! No fucking deal! The Retiree would have to report that to HPRM#1 and how would that be? [This line of thinking strikes me as both inspiring and somewhat hilarious. I have really let these guys inside my head. They might as well know it, if they don’t already, which I am sure they do….]
Sarah, still: No fucking deal. I. Have. Got. This. This is what I came for.
It was pretty much that, over and over, from about mile 4 until about mile 10. Interrupted only very briefly by occasional chatter. By remembering to take my Gu at mile 3 and forgetting (!) at mile 6, but having it at mile 8. By grabbing water at water stops. By the comforting sight of the safety signs staying green. Somewhere around mile 7, I turned on my music, which definitely helped. At mile 9, I barked out “TALK!” and the Retiree chuckled and started rambling. But my effort level had risen from 10K pace to at least 5K pace and even with only 5K left to go, I was pretty sure I was about to lose contact with the pace group. That happened at 10.27 miles, to be exact, because that’s when I finally looked at my watch for the second time during the race.
There was a different voice coming at me now, not my brain, but my legs, which weren’t responding how they had been even as I yelled at them. Ok, time for phase two. This will sound more premeditated than it was, but it worked better than expected. The 8:20 idea wasn’t random. An 8:20 pace yields a 1:50 half marathon and my number one goal was to get under 1:50. I was pretty sure that I would lose the Retiree at some point. I figured if I stuck with him as long as I could and then only backed off to 8:20, I would still be under 1:50. So when I lost contact with the pace group, assuming he was on pace – which he was – I knew that even if I ran 3 miles at 8:20, it would only add a minute or so to my time, so still 1:46 and change. I felt good because I had hung on longer than I thought I could. I also suddenly flashed to a discussion I had had with HPRM#1 after Redding. I had been running with two women in that race and then I let them get away from me and well out of my sight. HPRM#1 said it’s hard to know whether to stick with people in that situation, but you can try to keep them in view. That’s what I had done with a runner at Sprint into Spring and it had gone much better. The Retiree and Sue were both in neon yellow so it was easy to spot them when the course was straight. I tried to keep them in sight.
Now I was on my own for pacing and I knew I still had a couple of hills to manage and a stretch through some fields that might be hot. I had hoped to hang on through mile 11 because of this, but it just wasn’t happening. I am completely satisfied that I didn’t take the deal – I gave what I had to give. Now I had to handle the fields and the hills alone. The fields came first and I could still see the pace group inching ahead of me. But the sun was much less bad than predicted so this segment was really fine. [Side note: I am totally channeling Deena here! My brain was re-framing everything to find the positive angle. Go me!]
At mile 11, I started counting. I usually try to put this off until the last mile, but here, I needed it earlier. I know it takes me about a 500 count to run a mile and I figured: I can do anything for a count of 1000. I won’t say this section of the race was easy, but it was differently hard. It was a relief not to have to keep up with the Retiree. I was in charge of pace now and I looked at the watch a few times, to be sure I wasn’t slower than 8:20. The first mile split I saw was 8:06. Not bad at all! Just those 5-6 seconds a mile slower were also making a huge difference in how I felt. Instead of panicking and feeling despair that I was losing the pace group, I felt a kind of lightness. 8:06 felt so fantastically much better than 8:00. Instead of their chatter plus my music, I now had just my music plus my counting. The road here had a steep camber so I focused on running on the yellow divider line where it was flatter. I was so focused that a couple of times I almost ran right into the cones dividing the runners from traffic.
For the last two miles, I counted. I thought, this is what I came for. I tried to find God on the road at the end of a long, hard race and maybe I did, just a little. No more pace group. No external voices. Just me, and God, and my music, and that double yellow line, stretching on, hopefully not for forever, but just for a count of 1000. I saw a clock that said 1:32:xx or possibly 1:35:xx and I suppose that must have been at the 12 mile marker. I saw another one at 1:42:xx and I suppose that was the 13 mile marker. My math skills were pretty much zero and I didn’t have a ton of confidence that the mile markers were placed correctly anyway. But when I saw the finishing clock at 1:45:30, that was clear enough. I found a bit of a kick for the last few yards after all and I knew when I was done that I had run 1:45:xx. YES YES YES!
I crossed the line absolutely elated. I was sad Mervus wasn’t there but the Retiree more or less caught me and I didn’t knock him over. Why-Not was handing out medals and it was an extreme honor that she gave me mine. The Retiree got me some water and I sat on a railing for a bit catching my breath. Ghostie was there and some other folks from the Manchester Running Company. I like this gang a LOT and I was just over the moon with happiness about the run. The only drawback of the MRC folks is they don’t seem to hug enough so I started working to break them out of that. Every time I remembered my time it was like a new jolt of happiness coursed through me. THIS is how it feels to run a really great race!
Once I caught my breath, we went and checked the results for the official time: 1:45:45! 5th in age group! Then I got my bag so I could call Coach Mick and Mervus. I shoved some of the post-race food onto a plate and somehow ended up eating it. Then I forced out a slow cool down mile and did a little stretching. We had settled on Ana’s Kitchen for our post-race brunch and it was excellent. The only drawback was that they don’t have a liquor license so no post-race mimosa. I took care of that on the way home though and had one on the porch while talking with HPRM#1 on the phone. Snarky Girl brought back the kids and proposed dinner out and who am I to argue with that idea? And if we had cosmos instead of mimosas, I can live with that as well.
I will be smiling about this race for a long time to come. More than any other race this spring, I understand what a 1:45:xx half marathon means about the kind of runner I am becoming. It’s been a long road and a lot of work, with more to come. But the payoff is even sweeter than I imagined it being. Bring on Erie.