Two seconds: that’s all that separates 1:59:59 from 2:00:01. In between, 2:00:00. There’s nothing fundamentally different about each of those times. Yet two hours, or any other pleasantly round time goal, seems such an insurmountable barrier. At least, it did to me.
Once upon a time (2008 – I’m not that old), I ran my very first half marathon in 2 hours and 43 minutes. Since then, I’d shaved off almost twenty minutes. First ten minutes. Then four. I got it down to 2:11, where it sat for fully three years. If there was a Zeno’s paradox for PRs, this surely was it. And then in May this year, on a misty morning in Pittsburgh, a breakthrough: 2:06.
I signed up for the Baystate Half Marathon this fall with a big question in the back of my mind: Could I finally break two hours? I knew I could do it, in theory. All the race prediction calculators thought so. My brain knew that other runners with the same 5K and 10K PRs had run sub-2:00 handily.
But did my body understand that too? Did I know it in my bones? In my heart?
The Baystate Half Marathon in Lowell, MA, has a reputation for being fast and relatively flat along a river through the former mill town. Close to a quarter of its 2,000 marathon runners qualify for Boston each year. The October race date generally comes with great weather. And it has good food (chicken noodle soup, frozen yogurt bars), a long-sleeved unisex-ish tech shirt, and fun bling, all for $65 fed back into the local economy.
Although for this race I say I had no training plan, I mean I had no ‘official’ training plan; no coach, no Hal Higdon or Pfitzinger or RLRF or Hansons, nothing but my calendar, my own experience and intuition. Nothing, really, but common sense. I started training in July, after a month and a half of running casually and enjoying some summer adventures. The bread and butter of my untraining plan, as with any training plan, included one speed workout, one tempo-ish run, and one long run. Each week I’d throw in one to three more easy runs, and every three to four weeks I’d pencil in a cutback week. Each of those easy runs was between three and five miles miles, though if I had time for only two miles, I let it be.
The Things I Knew Going In to Training
I knew from a previous marathon cycle using Hansons that I was physically capable of running six days a week if I wanted to. I did not end up running six days a week any week of this cycle; a typical week was four or five days of running with one cross-training session at most. My longest week peaked somewhere in the 30s. Honestly, I was in *zero* danger of overtraining.
I knew from experience that it’s very, very hard for me to nail solo speed work. So I committed to my local running group once again for Monday night track sessions.
I knew there were things I was not willing to sacrifice. Time with family, for one. That meant few early morning workouts and lots of weekday lunchtime runs in the full heat of summer. On weekends, it meant sneaking out the door early for my long run and leaving my husband to deal with toddler separation anxiety till I got back.
The Things I Knew Coming Out of Training
That I could hold PR pace comfortably for 13.1 miles, from one of my long runs, and that I could handle a long run without carrying water and drinking only from local water fountains.
That, from my tempo runs, I could handle being a little uncomfortable for five miles.
That fall PRs are forged in the summer heat.
Race weekend weather was 39 (4 degrees C) at the start and high 50s (about 15C) at the finish – perfect weather for running. Not so perfect, however, for standing around in a t-shirt, shorts, arm warmers and gloves. I knew I’d have to eat and drink more to make up for what I’d shiver off at the start line. With that in mind I had leftover spaghetti at 5:00am, a packet of instant oatmeal at 6:00am, and an energy bar at 7:15am before the race start at 8:00.
The one thing my body did not know going in was how to race a half marathon, so I consulted some more-experienced Saltines. The consensus, and my eventual race strategy, was to run the first five miles easy, up the pace for the next few, and ‘just barely hold on for the last three’.
When you’re racing for a PR you don’t really have a lot of spare mental bandwidth to take in the sights. I remember the three frigid extra minutes we waited after 8:00 for the race to start. I remember the scuffed-up bridge crossings on the two-loop course. I remember roadkill on what must have been the busiest main road (don’t step on a dead raccoon, that’ll really put a dent in your race day). I remember water stops staffed by high school students. I remember fall foliage, and getting glimpses of the river along which we ran. I remember small children giving high-fives. I remember seeing my husband with our son on his shoulders at the end of the first loop shouting, “Go, Mama!”
Miles 1-5. Remember overall sub-2 goal pace is 9:10.
9:18 Small rollers, very crowded as we started with the marathoners, lots of crowd support. I stepped in a pothole almost immediately and my ankle wobbled. I heard someone next to me say, “That’s what I’m afraid of.” Further behind us there was an anguished gasp. “Oh man, everyone is finding the potholes.”
9:15 Sign on course: IF TRUMP CAN RUN, SO CAN YOU. A voice behind me bellowed, “HE ISN’T JUST RUNNING, HE’S GOING TO WIN.” I ran a little faster.
9:15 I pulled the arm warmers down to my wrists, covering my Garmin.
Miles 6-10. Goal for these miles was a little slower than my usual 10K/ tempo pace (8:30).
8:39 We began the second loop of the course. I unearthed my Garmin face from beneath the arm-warmer.
8:28 At this point I began to feel like I was working. Not hard – just pushing the pace.
8:52 “Everything hurts,” said a nearby woman to her friend, giving voice to what I was thinking. “It could be worse,” her pacer friend responded, “You could be doing the marathon.” I passed them, still feeling strong and focused.
Miles 11-The End. ‘Just barely holding on’ pace.
8:42 In theory it was time for BIG ENGINES and 5k pace. After 10 miles, this is all I could muster. Still passing people.
9:09 I felt my quads and calves twanging, juuuust on the verge of cramping, and slowed down in order to make it to the finish cramp-free.
The last 0.1 – 0:48:19 (8:04 pace. Did I mention I am not a sprinter?)
Final official time: 1:56:21.
Overall, it felt…not easy, but not super hard, either. Not hands-on-knees breathless. I knew I’d worked for it and would pay in soreness, but my legs weren’t trashed. I’d say this result is probably a good gauge of my current level of fitness. I did not scream. I did not cry. Going in, I was fairly confident I would at least PR, if not go sub-2:00, and so I was not all that astonished by the result.
There’s a saying, credited to an indigenous Indonesian group, that knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle. You could say my heart knew what I could do before the rest of me did. Is that, in some way, a self-fulfilling prophecy? If you’ve done enough work to build your confidence, can that confidence carry you the rest of the way?
So, What’s Next?
Well, for starters, I came down with a cold straight away. I swear there’s something about racing, compared to a mere long run, that shatters your immune system. I did a lot of rolling, stretching, and hip, glute, and core strength work the following week. It’s almost more important for me to have a recovery plan than a training plan, otherwise I’ll either vegetate on the sofa and feel awful because of all the inactivity, or try to do workouts way too soon and feel awful because of all the overactivity (not a risk this time round!).
Over the next few weekends, I’ll head out for some longish meanders, and see if I can’t get a couple of friends to run with me. I’m kind of excited for proper tights weather! But ask me again in February.
On November 13 I’m running the Cambridge Half strictly as a fun run. If I feel good that day I might see if I can go under 2:00 again, but I’m not going to stress out about it if I don’t. New England fall weather is totally unpredictable. It might be raining on race day. There might be sleet. It might be 80 degrees. Who knows?! Several friends are running, and there’s beer and pizza at the finish. And that’ll round me out for the season.
In the end, does there have to be a ‘next’? Why not some downtime, some casual running, and expending my energies on family and work? Running, after all, is supposed to deliver balance, to fit in with the ebb and flow of life. Then: a big hairy audacious goal a year or two away, punctuated by a series of smaller, intermediate steps. There’s no shame in casual running, and there’s no shame in striving either.
All these are things I know.