A half marathon is a journey.
That journey begins with anxiety and doubt. As you arrive at the start line, you feel your nerves flutter in your chest, lift to the surface of your skin. You feel it well in your throat as you pin on your bib, adjust your shoes, layer your clothes appropriately. The thoughts start to pollute your mind.
What the hell am I doing?
Can I do this?
Can I really run 13 straight miles?
Am I crazy?
I don’t think I can do this.
You huddle among the excited masses in various degrees of running gear. You admire the other shirts, the other hydration systems. You take note of the other brands of running shoes. Then the start. The pack begins to seethe as the stream of heads bob up and down, and the path laid out before you is nothing but runners.
The run begins stiff and rough. You struggle to unearth your rhythm and stride from reluctant muscles and a mind still clouded with contradicting thoughts. The first miles stutter out beneath your feet, your breathing chaotic and seeming unpracticed, your body still protesting the idea.
Yet with each fragment of a mile, the run seems more natural. Your flesh is seduced into the will of your mind, nerves dissolving into the pace, thoughts fading away into the sounds of the road beneath your soles. As you enter the float, the half marathon seems like a brilliant idea, maybe the best you ever had.
You cannot believe how easy and natural it feels to be on the trail. You are honeymooning with your race, euphoric and idealizing. You begin to think of how you’ll describe it when you finish; you begin to plan for the next half you will do. If they all felt this good, you would do one every month.
Then there’s a twinge, a discomfort on the edge of your high. The first ache blooms in a joint or a muscle. Then another sings out in symphony. Random pains begin to crop up over the map of your nerves until the movement of running is lined in discomfort. Maybe you feel a blister forming on the bottom of your foot. Maybe your pelvis becomes a throbbing ring of pain.
The suffering breeds and spreads until you run face first into the wall. Maybe it is your only wall, or perhaps it is the first in a long and painful series. Every cell in your body says, STOP! WALK! TOO MUCH! Your breathing gets heavier; the muscles in your legs start to feel like lead. Strides turn into miles. Time slows down. All you can hear are the calls of your nerves to abandon such a stupid, ill-conceived idea.
You just keep breathing. Out of sheer stubbornness, you just keep running. One foot in front of the other. One more stride. You spend every step waiting for the next mile marker, counting down.
The only thought in your head is, Don’t stop; just keep running. Over and over again.
Yet the pain lifts. It does not disappear. It suspends you in a limbo where you are functional enough to finish. You focus yourself on the stride and breath and once again lose yourself in the core purpose–the run. Then the finish line is in sight. You dig deep and pump your legs until the acid burns under your skin, until your desperate breath is tearing at your throat. You push until you have left everything you have on the pavement.
You sprint sloppily across that line into bliss. Into accomplishment. Into a successful runner’s high. You float over your sore feet as you collect your medal and free banana. You smile stupidly as you regroup with your running party.
In the end, you did it, and that is all that matters.
Yesterday, Trisha and I ran the Equinox Half Marathon in fulfillment of Trisha’s post partum goal (now the second half I have run to satisfy a crazy running mate’s dreams) and also in redemption of the Revel half being cancelled.
The first few miles started stiff with doubt. I could not get a handle on my breathing; the running motion felt awkward and unpracticed. I was questioning my sanity for agreeing to do another half and questioning if I would be able to pull it off at all.
The route was promised to be downhill and scenic, and it did not disappoint. (Note: All race photos in this post were taking while running. I don’t stop even for the perfect shot.) Even the 45-minute early morning bus ride to the start (the Mishawaka Ampitheater) was pleasant to endure. Yet running down the gentle grade, the scenery was engrossing. The temperatures were mild alternating between the rising sun and long shadows cast by the mountains. The high altitude breeze was welcoming.
Like all races, as the first 2-3 miles disappeared behind us, I found my rhythm. A gentle float gradually infiltrated my experience. I was able to see and appreciate the glorious surroundings; I was able to chat with Trisha about inane subjects.
We began to honeymoon with our race, perhaps Trisha even more than me, both knowing full well what was happening. Yet, even with the complete knowledge that this was merely a phase in the journey that would have a painful and abrupt transition, it was impossible not to be seduced by it. We felt amazing, invincible. I thought how happy I was to be out here, how right it felt to be running this race. I mused at how maybe all my training had actually been accumulating and paying off after all.
We were stupid. I made the fatal mistake I so often make with fitness. I permitted the word “easy” to slide across my mind, lining the nail up over my coffin just by flirting with the idea. Even as I thought to myself, Wow, this race might actually be easy, I knew my trespass. I knew the price that would later have to be paid. But so entrenched was I in the float, that I did not even care.
We floated high and hard for over 5 full miles (the full distance of other runs we do). This half seemed like the best idea we ever had; I couldn’t wait to come home and write about it. Even when the solitary hill greeted us at the end of mile 7, I felt good, refreshed even. More than once, Trisha had to reel me in from the float coasting me faster and faster down the hills. I felt like I could have just let go and let the hill run me down.
Then the sun emerged in full, horrific glory. The glowing orb of suffering climbed the sky, up over the crests of the peaks. Shade vanished; temperatures rose. Our easy, fun floating came to a sweating halt. The sun is my nemesis in life and most vividly in running. The run became a run again, and we had to work for it.
The heat affected Trisha more, for potentially the first time in our partnership. I think because I pressed her pace in the preceding miles. Nausea began to wear on her, begging her to stop and walk for just a moment. I, being the relentless drill sergeant of a running mate that I am, would not comply. There was yelling; there was me being a stubborn bitch; there was me jogging in little circles while she dry heaved on the side of the road. I wanted to stick with her; I wanted us to finish this together, especially with the majority behind us.
The last 4 miles were long and seemingly endless miles. At every length, we looked for the next mile sign. Every stride was forced; every breath was sour. It was a battle against the sun, the heat, the ache in our joints, the exhaustion in our muscles.
I fell out of euphoria and the honeymoon phase and began to notice what I did not enjoy about the run. The strange side grade of the mountain rode exerted my calves in new and unpracticed ways, making me feel like I was always falling over. The road was not closed to traffic; we were relegated to a bike lane’s width on the shoulder lined with cones that kept getting run over. The closer we got to the finish, the closer the massive trucks towing campers seemed to get to killing us.
Through the entire run, I did not exert much cardio. The delightful downhill grade shifted the run out of my lungs and concentrated it within my muscles. I did not even sweat until the sun greeted us at the top of the late hill (a first since I sweat an inordinate amount). It was a strange change, since I spend so much of my running career winded and sweaty. Yet the last miles felt more familiar, as the grade disappeared and my body became more drained. Every part of me, from my blistering feet to my chapped lips, were in sloppy concert to finish.
At mile 12, I lost Trisha. She had to puke on the side of the road, and I could not stop. If I hesitated, I would have walked that final mile. She called out to me to continue running, and it was all I could do to comply. The sun seemed to bake even hotter; the course had lost all scenery and decline and became slow, flat torture. I just kept running. Through the burning pain in my soles I knew would become blisters, through the encompassing ache surrounding my hips, through the heavy burn in my legs. Just kept running and desperately searching for the finish.
I managed a tragic sprint once the finish arch was in sight. I crossed the line a shell of a person.
Something unusual then happened to me after the race. Even after the exertion faded, even after my heart rate calmed and my body temperature regulated, I did not feel right. My head felt foggy and dizzy; my legs felt agitated and uncomfortable; my stomach felt unsettled and refused food. Unfortunately, my runner’s high was delayed until food and water back in Fort Collins resolved whatever dehydration or blood sugar crash I had earned myself.
All told, I finished in 2:42:43, which is actually 4 minutes faster than my original half marathon time in NOLA.
I will take it. And when I looked at our splits from the race, we were much more consistent than it felt. Zombie turtles, no doubt.
The question becomes, will I ever do another half again? And the answer is, I have no idea.
I think saying I will never run a half marathon again would be stupid; however, it is probably safe to say that it will be a LONG time. I checked it off my bucket list then proved to myself I could do it again after having my son. If the right race or fitness level comes along in the distant future, maybe. Other than that, I am moving on to fall running season and races over 5K and under 10 miles!
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