April 30, 2012

Race Report: More Half Marathon

My last race report was not at all fun to write – in addition to having a bad time out on the course, I found it really hard to be honest about how I was feeling while also being fair to my co-pacer. (That was why I made sure not to use his name and also didn’t post any pics of the race that he was in). I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I also wanted to convey what I actually thought of the race and not pretend like everything was great. It seems like most of you got that, but a few negative comments made me want to clarify, just in case.

And now let’s close out that chapter, because today’s race report is a much happier one – I’d even go so far as to say it was my favorite race that I’ve ever paced. The race itself was not anything super crazy special, the distance (half marathon) is not my favorite, and I wasn’t even an official pacer. But I got to run this race with my mom, who has cheered me on at countless races and supported me all along the way – and I have never been happier or more proud to cross a finish line with someone.

It started back when I got my Athleta sponsorship and was asked to select goals for the year. I was pretty stumped when I tried to pick them. At that point, I was in the middle of a long break from running, and while I was planning to get back into it, I didn’t know how that would go. After running the 50 states in such a short time period, I ended up rather sick of running marathons (ha, you think?), and I still didn’t know if that was a temporary thing that just required some time off before I got back to it, or if I had kind of ruined myself for running forever. I hoped it was the former, but just in case, I was scared to overcommit myself with running goals. I wanted to choose goals that were not just achievable, but that would still be important to me at the end of the year. I decided to throw a total mileage for the year out there because I felt it was expected of me, but I didn’t want to have to focus on running on a daily basis to achieve that; instead, I preferred to set a marathon a month as my goal, with a few extra miles on top of that which could be achieved in a month or two if it came time to the end of the year and I was far from it. (As luck would have it, I’m loving running again and have already covered 380 miles this year, so I think that goal will be easy to beat!).

The one running goal that I was SURE I wanted to achieve, though, was to run a half marathon with my mother. She’s run 5Ks before (though not for years), and I wanted to share with her the joy that I get from distance running. Since the More Half Marathon is aimed at attracting women over 40 doing their first half marathon, it seemed like the perfect race for us to run – so I put together the training plan, helped answer questions, and provided as much support as I could to get my mom ready.

The night before the race, my mom (and her best friend Pam, who was also running More as her first half marathon) were nervous and full of questions. I was giggling to myself as they read through the printed race instructions over and over (“Mom, I swear, NO ONE else reads those. You’re fine.”) and agonized over what to wear. Never mind that my mom and I had already picked out cute matching Athleta outfits for the race – we headed back to the store and browsed the racks to see if we ought to change to a different outfit instead. Our original outfit was a sleeveless tank, which made my mom a little bit uncomfortable, and we tried looking for t-shirts instead, or perhaps a jacket to go over the tank. Luckily, we decided to stick with our original plan – which I thought would be best with the warm weather forecast anyway. To get psyched up and keep everyone off their feet, we watched “Spirit of the Marathon” in the afternoon and then headed to a fabulous pre-race pasta dinner at Lidia Bastianich’s theater district restaurant, Becco. We headed home, laid out everything for the race, and got to bed as early as we could. Big day tomorrow!

I’m lucky to live fairly close to the start at Central Park, so we were able to get a later start than most and didn’t have to wake up until 6:30am. My mom immediately headed for the shower – while I explained to her that people don’t typically shower before going to run a race (or am I just really dirty?), she insisted. Oh, mom 🙂 Eventually we were all set to go, though, and after a quick stop at Starbucks for coffee, we headed to the park.

The start area was crazy crowded – despite getting to the race about 40 minutes ahead of time, people were already packed into the corrals. Meanwhile, we were searching for the Athleta tent, where I was supposed to meet some of my friends from the store. After a kind volunteer let us know that it was actually over by the finish (oops!), we hurried to cut around Sheep’s Meadow, drop off our things, and hit the portapotties before heading back to the corrals. (One nice thing: the portapotties by the finish had much shorter lines than those we had seen at the start). But just as we started to head back to the start area to meet some of my friends and get into our corrals, it started to rain. Yikes! Not exactly perfect first long distance race weather.

We were almost right next to Le Pain Quotidien when the rain started, so we ducked under its awning to stay dry until it got closer to start time. While there, we took a quick picture. All smiles – no nerves! (At least, not visible on the outside).

We could tell when the race was about 10 minutes away from starting because a murmur went through the crowd at Le Pain and people started heading out. When we stepped out from under the awning, the rain was just a sprinkle, and within a few minutes, it stopped completely. Hooray! It was only a few minutes walk to the corrals, and we found ourselves right in line with corral 8, where my mom and Pam had been placed. We squeezed in and started getting excited 🙂

It was crazy how many people were doing this race – we couldn’t hear any of the pre-race announcements (though I did get a chuckle out of the woman who sang the National Anthem messing up the words) because we were so far back. Even after the race started, it took us a good 10 minutes of slowly shuffling forward before we made it to the start. But then we were off!

The first bit was easy – heading south on the slight downhill from Tavern on the Green. It was pretty crowded, both with runners and cheering spectators, but from where we were, the pace was good. There weren’t many walkers in our corral (since there was a corral specifically designated for walkers), and because we were on the slower side of those who were running, our placement in the last running corral was perfect. Everyone seemed to be going about the same speed and there was a lot less dodging/weaving than I was used to. I advised my mom to try to stay to the left, to make it easier to stay together rather than getting separated or drifting all over the course, and that worked great until things started thinning out around mile 2 or so.

On the way to mile 2, though, we hit the first of the three major hills in the race (well, six hills since we’d do each one twice). Cat Hill, here we are! Starting at the bottom of the hill, I first called my mom’s attention to how it was probably a lot shorter and flatter than she was expecting when she heard about the race – it was pretty comparable to the hill at the end of the street we used to live on when I was growing up. I also pointed out that it was only about 90 seconds from the bottom to the top of the hill, which is not that long at all! I love giving people confidence by breaking the hills down into short intervals like that – thinking of it as a 90 second interval is a lot easier than looking up a seemingly endless hill. As we scaled the hill, I kept up a running commentary, and rediscovered how much fun it is to pace just one individual instead of a group. With a group, my attention is all over the place, and I usually try to keep up more general patter and conversation that everyone can relate to; with an individual, I can speak directly to them (“Come on, Mom, you’ve got this!”) and really focus on their progress and form. My mom’s form looked great – as I had taught her, she was taking smaller steps on the uphill and thinking about lifting her knees up as she went, which helped to propel her to the top. By the time we reached the top, we had other runners cheering her on too (“That’s right, you go, Mom!”) and she looked pretty darn proud of reaching the top. “That’s right; 1 hill done, 5 more to go!” I exclaimed, thrilled with how well she had handled that one. “And then I get a medal!” my mom responded. I came to learn that while I get spurred on by promises of ice cream, beer, brunch, and mimosas, my mom just wanted the race bling. And we were going to get it for her!

We continued past the entrance to the Great Lawn and the Met, and I was loving how well I knew the course. I always make sure when I pace that I’ve studied the course map (or have run it before), so that I have a pretty good idea of what lies ahead, but the Central Park loop was as familiar to me as the layout of my own apartment. As a result, I knew not just the general (“there’s another big hill in 1.5 miles), but the very very specific (“we’re going to do some little bumps for another 1/4 mile and then we’ll hit a straightaway that’s dead flat and where there should be a lot of people out cheering”). There were a lot of out of towners at the race, and I noticed that telling my mom also helped the women around me too (a few thanked me for the info), so I tried to speak loudly enough that others could hear me if they wanted to listen, or ignore me if they didn’t.

After passing the Engineer’s Gate, we headed downhill to approach the 102nd Street Transverse. I knew that the Harlem Hills were coming up, but instead of dwelling on it, I played a game of distraction – pointing out that we had a long glorious downhill with a water station at the bottom. (No mention of the long brutal uphill we’d have right after the water station to get back to our former elevation). As we hit the turn that began our descent, I learned that my mom has the same running tendencies as me – to kill it on the downhills. Dang, she was fast! The 3 mile mark came and went, and soon we were grabbing water and Gatorade at the bottom of the hill.

And then we were at it – the biggest hill of the race. I warned my mom that it was a pretty long one, but would still be done in about 4 minutes. (I later realized this was a terrible estimate, since we were going at a slower pace than I usually did, but my mom later told me that just having a countdown helped, even if it wasn’t the correct length of time). Before I knew it, we were at the top – and mom hadn’t slowed to walk a step! I couldn’t believe it. Many a runner has been felled by the Harlem Hills, but my mom had gritted it out and taken it like a champ! I was so excited and proud, and kept pointing out over and over, “see, that wasn’t that bad, right? Once more and we’re done!” She agreed that no, it wasn’t nearly as bad as she had thought – and added that it was “once more and then I get the medal.” Yes, Mom, and then you get a medal 🙂 I loved it.

Of course, the loop was far from over. While running down the west side for me always goes quickly, since it just feels like a quick jaunt to get home from there, there are lots of little rolling hills making things tricky as you go. Furthermore, the day was starting to heat up – and I couldn’t resist just a little bit of “I told you so” to my mom as she admitted that she was glad she hadn’t worn a jacket over her sleeveless tank top. Now I just hoped it wouldn’t heat up any more than it already had, or this race was going to turn very nasty very quickly.

I taught my mom how to figure out where in the park you were by reading the numbers on the lampposts, “in case you’re ever visiting and want to come running here without me.” The streets ticked by quickly, and we also enjoyed spotting the two lead runners lapping us around mile 4.5. I was especially excited to see that the woman currently in the lead (who I later found out came in second) had on a Sparkly Soul headband! (Michelle, is the one who sells those.) Besides, it was super cute too 🙂

We passed Strawberry Fields and the 72nd Street transverse, hitting a slew of people as we did so, and I reminded my mom that we were almost back at the start. One more loop to go! We passed the now-empty corrals, picking up water as we did so, and enjoyed the pump-you-up music blasting through the speakers. “Halfway done! Halfway done!” I chanted, getting more and more excited by how well we were doing so far. First loop done in only 1:10! At this rate, I thought we could finish around 2:40 or so, allowing for the extra 1.1 miles and a slight slowdown on the second loop. I got a dance in my step, and found myself singing along to “Girls Run the World.” I must have made a pretty ridiculous sight, bopping along with a huge grin on my face, but it got extra smiles and applause from the spectators for all the runners, so I was fine with it. (And then the announcer at the start called me out with, “Here comes what is quite possibly the happiest person in this race.” YES I AM!)

We looped around the bottom of the park and I took stock with my mom. Her form looked good, and she said she was doing fine, but it was definitely getting a lot hotter out and I knew the second loop would not be so easy. Fortunately, before we had time time to think about it, we got distracted by some spectators from UAlbany – where my mom went to school and two blocks from where I grew up. They had giant signs and were screaming their heads off, so I decided to use their energy to get my mom even more pumped up by telling them, “We’re from Albany! And it’s her first half marathon!” They went nuts, and I was thrilled.

We came around the corner and headed up to the 72nd Street Transverse, and this time, I pointed out the finish line to my mom. Just one more loop around, and that’s where we would be! (And she would get her medal). Most notably, I pointed out that there was a downhill as you approached the 72nd Street Transverse, which would make for a nice final push. (I ignored the fact that there was an uphill to get from the loop to the actual finish line… but it was pretty short anyway, and uphills are a lot easier to handle when the finish line is looming right in front of you). Next stop, our final trip up Cat Hill!

This time was a bit tougher than the last time around, but we made friends as we went. It was neat to get to help other runners even as I focused on helping my mom! We introduced ourselves to some of the women around us, and it felt great to make it to the top. “Only two hills still to go!” But the day was heating up – this loop was not going to be nearly as easy as the last. I tried to comfort my mom with the fact that this side of Central Park was probably going to be a lot sunnier/hotter than the other side, since I thought the trees on the West Side would provide more coverage based on the sun’s location in the sky… but that turned to be incorrect on this gorgeous sunny day. Oops! I felt guilty for that mistake, but my mom told me that it was still nice that she had something to look forward to, which I supposed was true. In the meantime, the stretch between Engineer’s Gate and the 102nd Street Transverse was particularly hot and sticky, and we saw one ambulance go by to pick up a downed runner. Not good at all!

As we hit the big downhill at mile 9, my mom once again took off, and I tagged along behind. “Go Mom!” I was so impressed. We got to the water stop at the bottom of the hill, and as I had done at the last few water stops, I told her to stick to the right and keep going, and I’d jump into the fray on the left to get drinks and bring them to her. (Nice to have a personal water fetcher, huh?) This time, though, as I caught back up to mom and handed her the cup of Gatorade, another runner grabbed the one in my other hand (that I had taken for myself) as she said, “oh, great, I’ll take that!” I realized that she thought I was a volunteer, which I found hysterical – but her friends immediately recognized that I was running too, and berated their friend! Laughing, I told them all that it was absolutely fine, insisted that she keep the drink, and offered to get more for anyone else when I went back for mine (they all declined). Too funny!

But the laughter stopped when we hit the West Side – it was time for our final trip up the massive Harlem Hill. This time around was much tougher than the last, due to both fatigue setting in and also how hot we all were. To try to boost my mom’s energy, I offered to play one of my power songs for her, but I ended up turning it off after a little while because it didn’t seem to be helping that much and I didn’t want to annoy other runners (usually I’ve only done this around mile 20 in marathons I’m pacing where no one but my pace team is around anyway; here, there were a ton of people and I felt awkward). Instead, I focused on calling out how long we had left in the hill, and providing as much positive encouragement as I could. While we weren’t going fast, I was really impressed that my mom was still running up the hill and not taking a walk break – she’s got guts!

As we neared the top, I started cheering even more than before – pointing out the traffic light that marked the top of the hill and also signaled the start of a nice recovery downhill. Just as we got to the top, I also saw Alisa from Athleta, so I said hello and cheered her on too. Five out of the six big hills in the race were now done (including the two biggest); now it was just a matter of hanging in there for the final 3 miles.

Unfortunately, hanging in there is not all that easy when you’re coming down the West Side. True, there are no more major hills once you’re out of Harlem, but there are tons of little rollers. These are fine when you’re on fresh legs and feeling good; when you’re hot and tired, they can be just as bad as Cat Hill. Over the course of the next mile, we took a few walk breaks, but always with an endpoint in mind (“we’ll run again when we get to that tree up ahead”). I find that the mind does better readjusting to running (from walking) when it’s a set point instead of just “maybe I’ll run when I feel a little better.” If you follow the latter strategy, you’ll never feel better, and you’ll end up walking the whole rest of the race – you have to force yourself to push it for a little while until you get back in the groove.

As we headed past the Delacorte Theater, I tried calling my best friend to see if he had made it out to Columbus Circle to cheer with the signs I had made for my mom. No dice… but I did reach my friend Laura, who had finished the race (her first half marathon!) in an insanely fast 1:46, and was heading over to brunch with her parents. We circled down past the pond and came toward the transverse, and there they were, cheering their hearts out for us! I had never met Laura’s parents before, so I thought it was especially great that they were cheering my mom and I on. (After I met them at brunch and discovered how wonderful and amazing they are, I understood though!).

We headed on the slight incline up to Tavern on the Green, and then it was downhill to the end of the park and around the corner. One mile to go! However, my mom was really feeling it now, and I knew this was where she needed me the most. We took a few walk breaks here and there, but I kept reminding her that we had less than 10 minutes to go, and encouraging her to keep the pace up. I wanted to make sure she gave it everything she had – but at the same time, on a hot day like this one (and on her very first half marathon!), I didn’t want to push her to the point where something bad happened. (That’s always the trouble with pacing – you have to figure out where someone’s breaking point is and push them just to that but not any further.)

We rounded the southeast corner of the loop and headed for home – seeing all the other finishers walking around with their medals reminded us just how close we were, since you always know that finishers don’t want to walk any further than they have to 🙂 We finally hit the top of the baby hill on the west side of the park, and then headed downhill toward the 72nd Street Transverse. Finish line right ahead! We took the left turn, and then there was a slight uphill to the finish (ugh), but I was so excited to be finishing side by side with my mom that I didn’t care. I grabbed her hand and squeezed it for support as we took those final steps, and as we came to the finish line, I thrust it in the air in a big V for Victory. I had tears in my eyes and was definitely getting a major case of runner’s high – we had done it!

Had you told me five years ago that I would run a half marathon (let alone a marathon), I never would have believed you. Had you told my mom even two years ago that she would run a half marathon, she never would have believed you. And yet, there we were, crossing the finish line together!

I later found out that the women from my running group had finished strong too – which made me so proud. I remember so vividly one of our first training runs, where we ran 2 miles and many of the women took long walk breaks for the small hills we encountered on that run. Now, they had covered 13.1 miles and climbed much bigger hills – and at a faster average pace than they had done that first run! Similarly, I remember going running with my mom when she was in town for Christmas and we first hatched this plan – she had come so far since that day too.

If you can dream it, you can do it.

Race stats:
Distance: 13.1 miles
Time: 2:40:49
Pace: 12:17
Overall place: 5484/7125
Age group place: 1107/1250


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