I’m not going to sugar-coat it: This race was a rough one for me.
But first, I’m going to talk briefly about what I liked about the race, which is plenty (just because I had a rough day doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the fun stuff!). The course is absolutely wonderful, showcasing all sorts of cool neighborhoods in Philly without too many hills or weird detours aimed only at adding mileage. The race is extremely well-organized, from the well-timed starting corrals to the warm chicken broth handed out post-race (whoever thought of this as the perfect post-race fuel for cold runners after a November race should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). The shirt is incredible—a long-sleeve tech tee that seemed to fit everyone in our group perfectly. The crowd support is terrific, from the 76ers doling out high-fives on the sidelines to the costumed spectators, including a particularly amazing group of people in “green man” body suits at mile 11.
Now: My own personal race experience on Sunday. From the start, I knew I wasn’t in this race to win it. My training for it was cut short, my pre-race plans including tailgating for a football game, I had a stone in my shoe, the sun in my eyes—you get the picture. But even though I wasn’t expecting a PR, I was sort of hoping for something more like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon in 2010—and, more importantly, I wasn’t expecting it to hurt as much as it did.
I made a big mistake right off the bat by “running by feel.” This strategy works well when I’ve trained well for a distance race, or when the race is short enough that a late-race bonk isn’t a huge problem. But on Sunday, the fact that I got caught up in the crowd, running a happy, easy 8:30-minute-mile pace for the first two or three miles was probably not ideal.
But even if I had run a perfectly paced, slower race, it was what happened at mile 7 that made this race so incredibly difficult for me. On my playlist, I have a Ramones cover of “What a Wonderful World,” the song my dad and I danced to at my wedding. Usually, it gives me a boost of energy and motivation. When it came on my iPod on Sunday, at the bottom of one of the race’s two significant hills, it stopped me in my tracks, filling me with such a sense of grief and longing, I immediately burst into tears.
In front of me, I saw a girl wearing a purple shirt with angel wings on each shoulder blade, above the words “running for my angel, [name forgotten].” I looked at her, and looked at the hill I stood at the bottom of. My stomach clenched up, my face flushed with heat, and I wondered for the first time that day if I might as well just stop running.
Have you ever tried to run up a hill while bawling? It’s not easy. Also not easy: trying to regain your composure after such a breakdown to the point that you can run six more miles.
I would like to tell you that I cried it out, took a deep breath and finished the race in my dad’s spirit. Here’s what actually happened: I wheezed my way to the top of the next hill. Then, I started beating myself up. I had started to slow down a bit even before mile 7, and I spent the next couple miles thinking some version of the following: How funny that I was worried about how I’d get back into the hotel. Like I wasn’t going to get back there an hour after everyone else. Like I wasn’t the slowest person in the group. Stupid. Everyone’s already showered by now. I’m just out here on the course. Slow and stupid.
It continued as I ran up the other significant hill on the course, at mile 9. I glanced down at my Garmin, which I was only wearing to help keep my speed in check in the beginning (ha!), and noticed that I was running 11-minute miles up the hill. Slow and stupid. I even spent a little bit of time beating myself up for being so dramatic, and for having such little mental discipline. The mental game is the only part of racing that I’m really good at, and I’m even botching this!
Finally, after reaching the top of the mile-9 hill, and after deciding that I did, in fact, want to finish the race, I took a deep breath and focused on moving forward. I was shameless in my microgoals, promising myself I could lay down in the bushes and hide if I could only make it to the next water stop. (Though I definitely spent a long time walking through the water stops, I’m pleased to report that I did not actually lay down and hide anywhere). I also thought a lot about that awesome shirt. When Steve asked post-race why I kept running, even when I wasn’t having fun by any definition, I answered honestly that at least 99 percent of my motivation came from the fact that I wanted to wear that shirt, dammit.
At mile 10, a killer migraine hit—a mid-race first. I also started feeling sand from some long-ago beach run surface in my shoes, despite my efforts to shake it all out pre-race. At mile 11, I decided to push myself to try to make it to the finish line in less than 2:10 (a completely arbitrary number based on the fact that my watch said 1:50 at the moment, and that 2:10 seemed reasonable). I shuffled over the line in 2:13:28, meaning my average pace was 10:10-minute miles—not bad for someone who took several minutes on the course to weep, wheeze and walk through water stops!
When I got done, I was smiling, but completely spent in every way possible: Physically, mentally, emotionally. My head was pounding. The ouchies (I think Kara Goucher calls them “niggles”) that occasionally bothered me during training were all shouting for attention—among other sore spots, I felt like someone had stabbed me in my left glute. And that sand in my shoes had caused an unbelievably gross blood blister on my right pinkie toe.
I hobbled back to the hotel, feeling like I’d run 26.2 miles rather than 13.1. I told all my friends what happened, and listened to their stories about their own races—some involved PRs, others disappointments. After a while, talk turned to where we’d get lunch, what we were up to for Thanksgiving, and other non-running-related stuff. You know—the important stuff.
I keep thinking about a shirt I saw near the end of the race, a guy whose back bore the words: “The struggles make you stronger and the changes make you wise.” I’m excited that I signed up for the Surf n Santa 10-miler not because I want to go fast, but because I want a chance to test my newfound strength—I must have built up some serious fortitude on Sunday, right?