So I promised a full writeup on my half-marathon, and then I kind of forgot about it because I’m so busy frantically writing and nursing my sore leg and registering for the GRE. WHAT!? Yes, registering for a stupid standardized test. I thought I would never have to take one of them again. Also, I made some amazing fish cakes and dilly potatoes from The Scandinavian Cookbook. No photos, sorry, but the recipe is here and you should make them. So. Good.
But back to the half marathon. I registered for this thing way back in August; I saw an e-mail from a friend mentioning that it was a great race and sold out very quickly, so the day that registration opened I went on line and bought myself a spot. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and at that point the race was months away. It just seemed like a good thing to do.
All through this month I felt the half marathon looming. I should do some threshold intervals, I thought. Or maybe I should do some more long runs. Either way, I should probably do something. I hadn’t been training – just doing easy runs and the occasional rollerski. Two weeks before the race, I actually had a good week of training. I did 3 x 15 minutes at threshold, and a rollerski, and some 60-second uphill intervals, and a 10-mile trail run. I knew that it wouldn’t do me any good physiologically, really, but I wanted to be mentally prepared to suffer.
Then the week before the race I woke up one morning hurt. It was my ankle at first – it felt weak and kind of crumbly – but it caused a shooting pain up the outside of my calf when I moved. I had no idea where this was coming from or what I had done to cause it. At first I thought maybe it would go away as quickly as it appeared, so I did an easy run. It didn’t get better. So then I took the two days before the race off. I was nervous, really nervous, that I was going to be limping around for 13 miles.
Luckily, that’s not how it happened. We arrived at the rainy, cold start in Silver Falls State Park about 40 minutes before the race, picked up our bibs, and tried to stay warm. I had an idea that I wasn’t going to go out too fast, that I was going to ease into the first mile to gradually get my heart rate up. The gun went off and I jogged about a quarter mile, and then my competitive juices got going and I thought, what am I doing!? This is a race! I started passing people and went through the first mile in just over seven minutes. My plan had failed, but the andrenaline kept me from noticing my ankle and calf. They didn’t complain one bit.
At first I thought the fast pace was a huge mistake, but then I figured I would just go with it. In every long ski race I’ve ever done, I’ve been afraid to push from the start. I’ve thought about the distance and rationalized my way out of going hard. This time around, I ignored that. I watched my heart rate climb into the high 170s and low and then mid 180s and I embraced it. I just kept running. The first few miles were flat or rolling and it wasn’t until mile four that we had a big climb and I noticed that my legs were heavy and not really working the way they usually do. But oh well: I pushed anyway, and I passed some very athletic-looking guy who was walking. Walking! Four miles into a half marathon! Come on! At that point we were running 7:20, 7:30 miles, too. Walking. Sheesh.
It took a few miles to get to the real waterfalls. I was beginning to think that this race was some sort of hoax and the waterfalls were totally lame. But then: bam! There they were! And they were spectacular. Big cascades coming down from rock ledges. Huge drops. In a few places, the trail cut behind the falls and into the cavernous overhangs they came off of, which is an unusual experience to say the least. I have to give it to these guys for finding a unique and beautiful venue for the race.
Let’s see, blah blah blah. Eventually we started going downhill. When I thought about this race, I thought my strength would be the uphills. But instead, it turned out to be the downhills. All of that skier training – running on the Appalachian Trail, darting down singletrack – has made me relatively fearless. I would pass men and women who were daintily picking their way through the mud and wet leaves, afraid of slipping and falling. Me? I know that running downhill is simply a matter of channeling your momentum, so I just rolled along. It was fun! A friend later told me she thought it was my giant quads that made me good at the technical downhills, and I guess she probably isn’t wrong.
Even early in the race, I began rationalizing the distances. When I had run three miles, I thought to myself, hey, you only have ten miles left! That’s not so bad! Then when I thought about it, I realized that I’d only run ten miles a few times in the last six months, and that was actually still quite a task. Five miles in, I thought, hey, you only have eight miles left! That’s only, like, another hour.
And that’s where things started getting good. My least favorite training as a skier was the long run at a fast pace, or at a pace that’s just below threshold. Pepa would have us do these workouts to prepare for marathons where the entire point was to deplete your energy stores and force your body to metabolize differently. They would be two, two and a half hours of this pretty fast pace, but not fast enough to actually be fun. Just fast enough that two hours later you were amazed that you could keep it up for two hours.
Anyway, that was the best mental toughness training I could ask for. If you tell most people, oh, just run for another hour with your heart rate averaging, say, in the low 180s, they would say, holy shit, that sounds impossible. I thought that too, in half my brain, but in the other half my brain, I was thinking, I’ve got this.
And I did. I may not have maintained an even pace, but I maintained a hard effort. I pushed myself for another hour. Then after another couple miles I could change my mantra to, all you have to do is keep running for another forty five minutes. Why, that was even easier than before! Until I got to the climbs, that is.
From looking at the course profile, I knew that at about eight miles I would start climbing again and the fun would be over. I had it a bit off – the eighth mile was actually pretty easy. It was the ninth one that killed me. And the tenth. And the eleventh. As I said, I wasn’t expecting to feel so sluggish on the uphills, but it was really tough. The clincher was that after mile nine, the really big climb came as a series of stone steps. I was not expecting this. Running up steps is different than running up a hill because you can’t set your own rhythm or cadence – you are bound to take steps exactly as big as the stairs. It was the only time in the whole race where I walked, because after a while I just couldn’t find the right rhythm for those darn steps. And there were a lot of them.
From then on, it was ugly. With two miles to go I tried to pick it up, telling myself that I only had to run for another fifteen minutes, so how bad could it be? The worst of the climbing was over, but there was still plenty of gradual, rolling terrain, and I was beat. My strides had shortened and I felt awkward, like I was hobbling along as fast as I could. Still, I pushed it and I saw my mile splits come back down towards 7 after being up over 9 for the last really steep sections. With one mile to go I thought I could make it. I was so close. Just seven more minutes, I told myself. You can push really hard for seven minutes. Think of all the things you’ve done that are harder than that.
Then I came around a corner and saw a mountain.
No, it wasn’t a mountain. It reminded me a little bit of a hill at the Thetford High School course back in Vermont, actually. It was just that it was quite steep, and not short, and 3/4 of a mile from the finish of a half marathon. That’s a lot different than being two miles into a 5k. When I finally got to the top of that hill – and several people had passed me during the process – I was faced with an equally steep downhill. Maybe even more steep. I’ve already told you I’m good at running downhill, but this was too much. My legs were jelly and I was afraid that they were just going to give out. It was muddy. I was sure I was going to fall, but the finish was so close that I tried to roll along anyway.
When I finally made it across the line, I just wanted to lie down. It feels so good to feel so tired, but it feels bad too. Honestly, I was proud of myself not so much for my time or place but because I had really pushed hard the whole time, harder than in most ski races. I didn’t have any mental issues to deal with, and I didn’t have any pressure: those were the two things that wrecked my ski career. At the half marathon, I didn’t have anything else to think about except working hard, and boy did I work hard.
There wasn’t time to lounge, though. I needed dry clothes, and more of them. I needed something hot to drink. Something hot to eat. I found some of my friends who finished before and after me and we ate chili provided by the race staff. It was great. We drank beer. After the awards we had a party and drank more beer.
And that’s the story of the half marathon. My leg is back to being all messed up, and it’s November, so I don’t think I’ll be doing any more running races in the near future – when I get back in action, I’ll be focusing on skiing – but it was an amazing way to cap off an awesome fall. I beat my half marathon demons and some of my more general racing demons, too. I’m ready to ski!