How to Have a Blast While Trying Not to Suck: Angelica’s Ghost Train Half Marathon Report

My feelings about this race ranged from excited expectation to business-like execution to serendipitous joy. The Ghost Train Half Marathon is a small local race put on by the Parks and Rec Department of the towns of East Hampton, Colchester, and Hebron, CT.

Five years ago, I introduced my friends Snarky Girl and Fast Friend at this race and they ended up running the whole thing together. It was the start of our teaming up for lots of shared running adventures. I had initially been looking forward to meeting up with the two of them this year, but then Fast Friend pulled her back and couldn’t run. For me, it was also only three weeks post-Hartford. In the days leading up to the race, my original excitement shifted to a case of the blahs.

While texting Coach Mick on Thursday, he threw in the word “relentless.” He doesn’t know it, but that word has been something of a touchstone for me this year. Something to focus on when getting up to go swim or ride the video bike last winter. “Relentless pursuit” — of getting healthy, of running faster, of figuring out how to live and run on my own terms. My daughter Rose can be incredibly relentless — not always a lovable attribute in a child — but maybe she got that from me.

Friday before the race was a good day. I did some solid writing for work. I met Rashi for coffee. It was all fine, but I felt like I was checking off boxes mentally. My main mantra for the race seemed to be: Don’t screw up, which felt less than inspiring. I told Coach Mick and he texted back: “Try Not To Suck” (Joe Maddon — Cubs manager). I wondered if the Cubs were a great source of inspiration … but that was their motto for 2016, the year they won the World Series. That puts a whole different twist on it.

“Trying Not To Suck” in my mind means no major mistakes. It means things like, eat the pre-race breakfast that works, get to the race on time for a proper warm-up. Line up appropriately. Don’t go out too fast. Remember to fuel and hydrate. Do a cool down and take care of my foot. This is sort of basic stuff in some ways, but it’s surprisingly easy to goof it up. It is a little like checking off boxes though and for the first time in my life I thought – is this what people mean when they say running feels like a job? Is remembering to pack Gu the equivalent of getting your PowerPoint presentation in order? Is this “professionalization” of race routine the thing that sucks joy out of running for so many people? Then I thought, nah, at least not for me. I still love running and come to think of it, I like my job pretty well too. It’s ok to want to do both of those things well and “Trying Not To Suck” is for sure a part of that.

“Trying Not To Suck” came together as a five-point plan for this race. 1) Get to the race on time and do the planned warm-up. 2) Stay on top of fueling and hydration. Particularly because this race supposedly only had three water stops and because not looking at my watch has left me a little disconnected from fueling. 3) Start slow to finish fast — i.e., don’t go out too fast. 4) Stay strong at the end — relentless pursuit. 5) Do a cool down and post-run foot routine.

Race day morning prep was solo this time and I missed Corgi Speedster’s excellent spirit! But the Incredible Mervus left out a fun note for me.

I wanted to balance “Relentless” and “Try Not To Suck” so I took them both with me by writing them on my forearms.

Snarky Girl and I drove together and arrived on time for the very first shuttle to the start. So far so good in terms of Operation Try Not To Suck. We got our bibs and the very nice race shirts and hung out with Fast Friend’s husband in the school gym. Eventually I said I wanted to warm up and Snarky Girl moaned and groaned a bit but came with me, as she always does. We found a little dirt track, did a little running and some drills, all perfectly timed for the start of the race. Yeah!

Then I went back into the school for one last chance to pee. Uh oh. Earlier there had been no one but now the line was HUGE. Oops. It was 8:50 with a 9 a.m. start time and there were a bunch of women ahead of me. No waiting for the men’s room, though, so I started agitating with another woman that we should just go ahead. The men coming out said “You don’t want to go in there. The smell is terrible. Place is a mess.” Hmmmm. I said I can stand a little smell in order to make it to the start on time and my fellow agitator made her move. I followed. The smell was fine. We had to be careful where we looked because, well, not everyone in a men’s room pees in a stall. But we were done quickly and we weren’t the only women invading that “male space” that day.

Out at the starting line, I found my friends getting ready to line up. They had an actual chalk line on the street for the starting line, completing the Beardy Guy nature of the race. I am not even sure they had a gun because we didn’t hear anything so maybe someone up at the front just said Go! And off we went.

I ran 1:55:39 at Hartford three weeks prior to this race in hotter weather on a hillier course. I was hoping to go a bit faster at the Ghost Train run but I was pretty sure I was not close to PR territory of 1:52:44. Part of the reason for the feeling of box-checking was surely that I felt pretty confident I could beat my Hartford time and equally confident that I was not in shape to PR. Where’s the excitement in that?

Then, just a minute or two after we started, Ghostie popped up next to me. Ghostie is a friend of the Retiree’s who I have met on a few occasions, most recently pre- and post-Hartford. He asked me what I was running and I said sub-1:55. He said something or other about pace and I said I was running without looking at my watch. Then he made an interesting move and covered his own watch. We agreed to run together for awhile, as long as it worked out.

The first mile was definitely too fast, but of course, the start is exciting and the weather was perfect and this race starts downhill. Ghostie asked how I was feeling and I said, this is too fast. I had planned to check my watch after the first mile because I had done that at Hartford and I liked being able to calibrate how things were feeling. 8:20. Yup, too fast. But it wasn’t just the number on the watch — it felt too fast. For the next mile or so, I worked to get back to the pace where I wanted to be. Snarky Girl passed us. A girls’ cross country team passed us. Some other folks passed us. Let them go, I thought. Better to start slow. Try Not To Suck stage 3.

Then Ghostie and I fell into a fantastic groove. We were running at a decent clip. Fast enough that I knew we weren’t too slow, but slow enough that we could chat. We filled each other in on our various friends who were racing that day. We discussed the Hartford race again. We talked a bit about running and racing without a watch. We went over how many times we had each done the Ghost Run. It was absolutely downright delightful.

Unlike Hartford where I felt very dialed in on my breathing and focused on maintaining the right effort level, here I had an actual conversation partner so it was much easier to tell my pace in terms of “sentences.” The whole first 3 miles were a tad faster than I would have wanted them to be, but we settled into a good pace and I figured I did not need to speed up much after mile 3. Ghostie sometimes pulled ahead a little when someone passed us or at water stations and I just let him go. He slowed a bit and waited for me. We passed a lot of happy miles that way with his occasionally checking on my effort level and my occasionally holding him back a tad. At one point I did see my watch by mistake and caught sight of an 8:42 split. Perfect.

This race is billed as flat and by Connecticut standards, it is flat, but Strava shows that you actually run downhill for the first 8 miles and then uphill for the last 5. We got to the uphill portion and it certainly felt like more work. Ghostie again asked how I was doing and I said something about wishing we didn’t have quite as far to go. Miles 8-10 were the hardest of the race for me and that shows in the splits. I caught a glimpse of the 9:07 mile by mistake and thought, urg, let’s get going here.

By mile 10 I remembered the plan of trying to pick up the pace, if possible. I wondered about the wisdom of the somewhat-quicker-than-planned start again, but heck, it was only a 5K to go at that point and I found a little bit of gas left in the tank, even going uphill. Ghostie and I were so tuned in to each other that he felt this too, of course, and I said, it’s ok, this is part of the plan. Conversation had dwindled on my part by now. But then we saw Snarky Girl ahead of us and we were reeling her in. Passing Snarky Girl in a race is not something I have a lot of experience with (by which I mean, zero experience) and I admit to enjoying it even though she was running with a slower friend. Then we saw that girls’ cross country team ahead of us and I said oh, let’s get those girls too. I threw in a bit of a surge and we sailed by. Fun!

Then it was pedal to the metal until the end. I know this stretch of trail pretty well and I flashed back to a training run with Fast Friend and Snarky Girl when I was running so hard I was almost hallucinating and they were chugging along having some conversation about a TV show about cats. That was three years ago! Funny how certain stretches of ground can trigger a particular memory.

By now we were almost done. I tripped on a rock and almost went down, which would have taken the race right into boy-did-that-suck territory, but luckily I stayed upright. Finally we rounded the last corner and ran into the school parking lot to cross the finish line. Ghostie and I high fived each other like crazy. 1:54:24! Running with him was SO much fun!

I have said not looking at your watch meant you get your splits as a surprise at the end so we took a peek. Very happy with the results! This is my second race without looking at my watch and mostly we were right on track. The start was a little fast and I had one slower mile when the hill at the end got into my head, but otherwise good. I’m completely shocked at how fast I’ve acclimated to running #nowatchme and how much I like it.

Fast Friend met us at the finish line with her adorable daughter, Mini-J. I continued with stage five of Try Not To Suck and managed a short cool down, but I was pretty darn done. Instead I mostly enjoyed the post-race chili, chatted with friends, and played a bit on the playground with Mini-J. Third in my age group really Did Not Suck though I know that’s mostly about who shows up on race day.

Snarky Girl and I stopped for donuts and coffee on the way home and I did my post-run foot routine at home because they didn’t have ice at the race. I also went out to dinner with the family to our favorite race-day restaurant. These are also boxes to get checked off, in a sense. I feel really good about how this race went, both in terms of results and the process. I did not suck. Combined with Hartford, the two races give me a good sense of where my fitness is and also show me that I didn’t forget how to do this race thing. Maybe most importantly, I got two chances to do what I love and I still love it even after that big break. Bring on marathon training.

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