What a difference a year makes! Last year’s Hartford Half resulted in a PR, but also the realization that I was a bit of a mess, physically, mentally, spiritually. It’s been a long road back, but I am definitely getting there. No PR this year, but a totally solid race at 1:55:39 with no foot pain and a completely different attitude about life and running.
The Friday before the race, I was distracted because I had to do some race prep (I was hosting a post-race party) but I also had to give a talk on the German radical right and attend the post-talk dinner. This was a seriously compartmentalized day. I got up early, finished writing the talk, did my 2-mile shake-out run, and checked the mailbox, like I always do. But today I had a surprise waiting for me!
I’ve reconnected with a running friend, Rashi, who sent me the best possible pre-race card in the mail!
I’ve run Hartford a bunch of times and I always end up rushing through the expo because it’s always on Friday when I am, you know, working. This was no different. I got my bib and shirt and made sure to get my sticker for Corral B. I love having a seeded start for this race. Feels so elite!
Once we gathered everyone up, we headed out for Thai food. Nothing like a big gang of marathoners and half marathoners looking for carbs. Lunch was delicious food and lots of tales of races past and plans for the next day.
Friday was such a day of ticking off tasks that it felt a bit like “experience pre-race anxiety” was simply an item on a to-do list. After lunch, but before the talk, my brain cleverly reserved one little pocket of time to worry.
Some questions had been lurking in the back of my head all week and they pushed their way forward Friday afternoon. What if my foot started hurting? What if I started way too slowly? Starting too fast hasn’t usually been much of an issue to me, but my longest training run was 10 miles. What if I died at the end of the race? I sent these off to Coach Mick in a flurry of texts, more or less while grocery shopping, and luckily he always responds quickly: What if your foot is fine? What if you start at the right pace? What if not looking at your watch helps you run faster but not too fast? Ok, fair enough, and with the pre-race anxiety box checked, I went and spoke about the radical right in Germany and enjoyed dinner with colleagues and students.
My friend Corgi Speedster stayed with me, and we got up and did our pre-race routines. I was so lucky to have her staying with me! I haven’t raced a half marathon in a year. A year! Maybe it’s like riding a bike and you don’t forget how, but it sure was nice to have some company. I had my oatmeal and my coffee. I packed up everything on my check list and we headed out into the dark.
We should have left earlier because we hit serious traffic once we got in the vicinity of the race. I started getting pretty antsy looking for parking and kept telling myself to shut up because Corgi Speedster sure didn’t need my pre-race nerves getting her jittery. We eventually just parked semi-legally behind “Johnnie’s Auto Repair” or some such establishment. The Retiree was pacing the half so we met at the pacer group and got an early morning pre-race Sub-30 photo.
We couldn’t find North Shore Strider and she and I had really wanted to start together. But it was getting late, so Corgi Speedster and I did a little mile warm-up jog. I had planned to do some drills but then realized I had totally forgotten to do the lunge matrix I’ve been doing before every run. Now it was only 10 minutes to start time so I just did the lunges and called it good. Oops.
That’s what being out of practice looks like. Show up a bit late, struggle with parking, short-change the warm-up. That’s all right. It’s coming back to me. Then while I was standing in the corral, I spotted North Shore Strider on the sidelines. We could start together after all! I was so happy! She squeezed in next to me and off we went.
The full and the half start together at Hartford and it’s a bit of a disaster. Too many people in too small a space. Last year they seemed to have corrected this issue with the seeded starting corrals, but way more people were in the corrals this year. North Shore Strider and I had a chance to check in and wish each other luck and just run together for that first mile. She is someone I text with every day and I would be so overjoyed if we could run together more often, but I will take any mile I can get at her side.
I had a few things to try out with this race. One big one was racing without looking at my watch. Tina Muir’s group, Running for Real, is hugely enthusiastic about this approach. I am philosophically agnostic about it. That is to say, I am really keen to run fast and if not looking at my watch helps with that project, I am all for it. On the other hand, I’ve run pretty well looking at my watch. But that 5K back in August when I didn’t look was compelling evidence that I should at least try it. The idea is to tune into your body and run by effort rather than try to hit a particular pace. There are all kinds of reasons to do this. Sometimes the watches aren’t that accurate. If it’s hot or windy, you might need to run slower. The pace function on GPS watches also tends to jump around so you might see a big range of numbers. Some people get freaked out and think they can’t run as fast as the watch says they are running. Or they get freaked out in the other direction and give up hope if the watch says they are running too slowly. I’ve pretty much had all of that happen to me.
On the other hand, in distance running, part of the key to success is not going too fast at the beginning and going fast enough at the end. A watch can be a great tool for helping you figure out how to do that. Maybe you push yourself faster when you need to because of what the watch says. Or maybe you hold back even though you are excited because the pace on the watch reminds you to keep it in check.
I’ve argued this both ways in the last few months (because, any argument, either side, right?). But I’m really interested in this training by effort idea and like I said – that 5K from August was pretty compelling. I would have run that way slower if I had paid attention to my watch. A half marathon is more complicated than a 5K but if I eventually want to run a marathon without looking at my watch, I sure need some practice doing a half that way. Anyway, I had promised myself I wasn’t going to look.
Despite the best of intentions though, at the end of that first mile, North Shore Strider looked at her watch and I looked at mine. 9:03. I actually sort of wanted one peek just to calibrate. I mean, if I had been running 9:40 at that point, maybe I wanted to know. Coach Mick and I generally talk about speed in terms of effort rather than pace. So instead of running 8:50-9:00 pace, I might get instructions to run at a pace at which I can talk for 2-3 sentences. That was indeed how I was planning to start the Hartford half and this felt about right. North Shore Strider peeled off for the full at that point and I continued with the half.
For the first 3 miles, I was supposed to stick to 2-3 sentences effort level and I think I pretty much did. My pace got a lot quicker in mile 2, but there’s a big downhill there. The weather had been looking warm and humid and I kept reminding myself of a new friend who ran Chicago very successfully by starting slowly. I also went ahead and dumped water on my head at every water stop. It’s much easier to stay cool than it is to cool off.
The watch still buzzed at me for the mile markers because I left the auto lap function on, but I’ve had the pace function turned off for weeks so “#nowatchme” was much less weird than expected. In addition to that first mile, I peeked and saw 8:40 at mile 4 by mistake. That led me into a mix of feelings. Damn, I looked. Whew, I am not still running 9s. Shoot, is that too fast or too slow? Will I just spend the rest of the race fretting about this? But then I got very Zen about it and just let all that go.
Running #nowatchme is incredibly yogic somehow. When I started to fret about whether I was at the appropriate pace, I would just check in with my breathing and get it to where it was supposed to be and that was that. It was also much less different from running with a watch than I expected. My brain tends to be busy when I’m running. That internal chatter used to focus around pace: “I’m supposed to be at 8:40 now but watch says 8:35. Do I need to slow down or is that just watch bounce? Now it says 8:50 but this is definitely a hill, so that’s ok.” I guess for a lot of runners, this chatter is accompanied by anxiety, but for me, mostly it hasn’t been. I wanted to race well – I still do – and that used to mean being in tune with the watch. Now it means being in tune with my body — but it’s still an ongoing conversation.
For miles 4-10, I was supposed to move to effort at around 1.5-2 sentences. During training runs, I have invariably checked my effort level by pretending to talk to Snarky Girl, but I tell her stuff. While racing, I literally talked about sentence length. Instead of the internal brain chatter about the watch, I now had external chatter about effort level: “Is this one sentence or two sentences?” “Am I still at 1.5 sentences?” “How long are these sentences supposed to be anyway?” Yes, out loud. Don’t race near me if you don’t enjoy this astonishingly boring conversation topic, I guess. In any case, I felt really good, especially around miles 6-9. I was so happy to be running again. I thought about North Shore Strider and Corgi Speedster running the full. I thought about Mervus and Southern Rock and Coach Mick and my girl-gang getting my splits. Every time I crossed the timing mats I thought, “Well, now they know. And they can see I’m having a pretty good day!”
Somewhere around mile 8, I started to get impatient. Like, what the hell. Let’s just get to the faster part of this race already. This is also the section of the course that goes through Elizabeth Park. It’s the prettiest section and now that my son goes to school in Hartford, I know this neighborhood better. I had one of those runner high moments when we ran by the UConn soccer fields. Hey, my kid plays there! My kid is so amazing! He’s going to this cool magnet school! He’s going to grow up to do amazing things! I love Hartford! Yeah, running can do weird things to your brain. Still, I’ll take happy thoughts over sad ones any time.
During those joyful miles, Let It Go came on the shuffle. I know it’s a bit cheesy. I know the song has been played a million times and some people are sick of it, but I’m not. It felt like everything I wanted at that moment. The chance to let go of the last year. Let go of being injured and sad. Let go of the pre-running me, who used to be so shy and nervous and wall-flowery. I listened to that song two or three times and loved every minute of running free with a heart full of joy.
Finally around mile 10, it was time to speed up a bit. I was running near a couple of classic Old Guys. These guys were certainly in their 60s, possibly 70s. Running together with their matching short grey hair and neon t-shirts and beautiful upright posture. They just radiated Old Running Friends and they were so calm that I knew they would hold a good pace. I thought, oh good, I’ll just tuck in behind these Old Guys. I’ll finish with them. We’ll have a big hug at the finish line and thank each other for pushing each other. It will be lovely. But after a few minutes I thought, huh, I am faster than these particular Old Guys. I need to go ahead and pass them and we’ll see if they come with me. So I did. And they didn’t. Which was also ok, but if someday that is me and Snarky Girl, flying down the streets of Hartford at a good clip with gray ponytails streaming out behind us? I can think of a lot of worse things in life.
In the last mile, the Retiree popped up to run me in as he had said he might. He asked how I was doing and I wasn’t really talking much at that point so I guess I had achieved the effort level of “words” which was the goal. He asked how I was feeling and I think I just gave him a grunt and a thumbs-up. He asked about my foot and I said it was fine. Which was true! I had completely forgotten about my foot until around mile 9, when it was clearly ok. We ran on together like that for a bit and then he turned to go and called out “F–k Plantar Fasciitis!” and I almost lost it. I thought, damn you, I have 400 meters to go, I can NOT start crying now, though I really wanted to.
Instead of crying, I ran on towards the finishing chute. Now I could see the finishing time and it was around 1:55, which is just what I would have predicted, if I had had to bet on it. Finish time: 1:55:39.
Would I race #nowatchme again? You bet. With a grand total of two races sans watch under my belt, I can hardly imagine going back. It’s not that I don’t care about my time because I certainly do. Focusing internally instead of externally just feels better, more appropriate somehow. Running a marathon like this will be an even bigger challenge, but it’s one I am looking forward to.
I got my water, medal and food, I found my way to the post-race “banquet.” I’ve never eaten the race food at Hartford before and I’ve no idea whether it is actually any good or not, but it tasted like the best soup of my life. After plopping on the ground for awhile, I called the Incredible Mervus and chatted for a few minutes. I texted everyone I could think of. Then I collected myself and did a cool down mile on the way to the car to get changed. Back at the finish line I watched Corgi Speedster finish with a massive BQ! I also saw North Shore Strider come in with a HUGE PR, but no BQ, so that was bittersweet.
We definitely PR’d the post-race celebrating this year. We hung out at the race for a bit. We got massages, ahhhh. We headed to a brew pub for pizza and amazing beer (all post-race beer is amazing, with the exception of Michelob Ultra). Later, a gang came over to my place for cocktails and soup. It was about the most perfect comeback race day I could wish for.