I should start from the beginning. Or close to the beginning, anyway.
My first half-marathon was the Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon in 2007, just a month shy of my 1-year running anniversary. I was couch-to-5k-to-10k-to-10 mile-to-13.1 in 12 months.
Ten years ago, I lined up for the miniMarathon wearing bib 772. I ran 1:46:36 for 149th female. They used to give out Top 100 prizes, and I really wanted one.
This year, I was accepted as part of the elite field for the same race — and given bib 72. It felt like a homecoming.
Since that first year, I’ve only run this race one other time, and I was horrendously out of shape that year and nothing about it was good. Okay, and two years ago I DNF’d the full. So I was all set for this to be “my year.” Not a year that I ran a breakthrough race and won the whole thing, but a year that I performed to the best of my abilities and put up a time and race I was proud of.
Leading up to the race
That goal was still no small task. In the past few weeks I’ve been in a funk, physically but mostly mentally. I came into the year high, so high, off an amazing fall season that culminated in my first sub-3:00 marathon. But I shouldered feelings of imposter syndrome — and struggled to believe that I really ran that race. At times I asked myself if it was not just a fluke performance, but if the course had been short or I had gone the wrong way or something else that would invalidate my race. (No such thing happened.)
I started the year with a 10 mile race that was long, and my watch splits showed a solid performance but my official time was obviously slower. A bit of a buzzkill. In early March, a similar situation: I ran a great 5k race, beating several girls I don’t usually. Then it turned out it was actually only 2.93 miles long. Granted, I might’ve still finished in the same place and still with a good time, though their estimate would’ve put me at about a one-second PR; my watch pace/distance would’ve garnered me about a 20 second PR. But no. No PR. Not even a good 5k time. It was like the race never happened… Except for in my legs; they were very insistent that the race did, in fact, happen.
That was the first leg of the Triple Crown; I went on to run a decent-but-not-stellar 10k in which I went out at 5k pace and was at least able to hold 10k pace after a much-too-fast first mile. My 10 mile race was solid, but I was feeling discouraged.
Where was the girl who ran 2:57? Who ran fearlessly, not stressing about the numbers on her watch but being one with effort? Who chased down competitors and didn’t give up when workouts and races got hard?
I struggled with speed workouts, either not hitting the paces I expected or on a couple of occasions having to snag extra rest. But still, I was running fine. I was guilty of letting my expectations drift higher than my abilities, despite knowing I shouldn’t.
I wrote to my coach just shy of two weeks ago, asking, “So the question I’m asking myself is, why do I feel like I’m running bad when logically I’m not?” I could see it in my logs. I was putting in the work — a lot of 60+ mile weeks this year and four weeks that were 65+. Solid race performances, even though they weren’t breakthroughs.
Not every race can be a breakthrough.
This is all to say, I had put a lot of pressure on myself. In hindsight, I might’ve done better to race out-of-town more this spring where I didn’t feel like all eyes were on me (they weren’t).
Last weekend, I ran my first-ever 5000 on the track. It was fun! And I didn’t look at my watch, which wasn’t a great strategy for running a fast time, but it helped me dial back into myself. To find that feeling of being one with your effort — of flowing.
“Endurance athletes describe the flow state as one in which they seem to become the thing they are doing,” explains Matt Fitzgerald in “How Bad Do You Want It?”
I stepped off that track without a PR, but with a renewed confidence that was worth much more.
Oh, but you want to know how the half marathon went?
Obviously running a race in town is nice because you’re home. Downside is that I still had to work on Friday, when normally I would’ve been off at least a half day and had some time to get my head together. Also, as I told a friend, I could totally tell you where I wanted to have pre-race dinner if we were in Indianapolis … but I had no idea about Louisville!
I did packet pick-up around lunchtime with a friend. Not much to note, gave out lots of hugs to people I knew working the expo. After work I came home and “packed” all my gear like I would’ve for an out of town race. Basically I made a huge pile of clothes I thought I might want, depending on the weather.
The forecast had been shady all week, and not in the cloudy way. On Friday it was looking like 72° for race start, and either raining or just very humid. I was voting for rain.
Dinner was at Bonefish Grill, which is always good and perfect for pre-race. I am not a picky pre-race eater, but I do have acid reflux so I avoid anything that might make that worse than normal (because pre-race nerves don’t help).
I am also usually a champion pre-race sleeper. Maybe I should’ve checked myself into a hotel. Before many marathons, I’ve been asleep by 10:30 even while my husband has the hotel room TV on. And I sleep hard. Not this time. I was asleep around 11:00, but woke up around 2:30 as a huge storm rolled through. The thunder shook our house and I could hear hail pelting the roof.
I also realized I was sweating, even though I haven’t had night sweats in a few weeks (not uncommon for me; cause undetermined). I fell back asleep and had a crazy dream involving the characters from the Wizard of Oz.
My alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. I was out of the house just after 6:00 and parked by 6:20, with a full hour to get to the start a half-mile away and get in my two mile warm up. I figured I had a few minutes, so I was trolling social media when I saw the announcement:
Race delayed 30 minutes.
Another round of storms was about to hit, possibly bringing inch-sized hail. Well, I didn’t want to get hailed on and I was already early, so I jammed in my car for a bit.
I headed to the start once I concluded it wasn’t going to hail, and got there a little after 7:00. Instead of jogging, I just walked, because I had plenty of time. I had a small bag with me that had my racing flats and nutrition in it, and could hold my warm ups while I ran.
As forecasted, it was in the low 70s and humid. Around 7:15 I took my gel (the only breakfast I planned on) and Hammer’s Fully Charged pre-workout. I started warming up around 7:20. I ran 1.75 miles easy, and when I got back to the starting area I learned they had added another 30 minute delay. This time they told us to take shelter immediately — they cleared the entire starting area, some 13,000 people. Everyone scrambled to find an open building or get back to their car or a parking garage.
The sky looked sinister, but it passed just to the north. Okay. 8:30 start time, now.
At 8:11, I started another warm up. I went out a half mile and was headed back when I found out there was ANOTHER delay. New start time, 9 a.m. To hell with this, I thought, and started walking. No point in jogging back.
I was getting frustrated, and texted my coach a couple of times hoping he’d tell me to bag it and find a race the next weekend instead. He didn’t.
I didn’t warm up a third time because they were hemming and hawing about 9:00 being the start time. At 10 til 9:00 I did a few strides, shucked my warm ups, and hopped in the corral after peeing in the elite port-o-john area for the 50th time.
Did I mention there was no water to be found? Now, stupid me, I should’ve packed a second bottle. But, I wasn’t expecting the delay and I’m a nervous drinker so I try to stop myself after a certain point. I had 10 ounces between 5:45 and 6:45, and then six more ounces with Fully Charged at 7:15. No fluids from 7:15 until the first water stop. Yikes.
Then they pushed the start back until 9:10 because they were getting everyone back into the corrals. Sweet baby Jesus, were we ever going to run this race? By now I would’ve been finished!
I had a second gel tucked in my sports bra in case I wanted it mid-race (I’ve gone back and forth on this for half-marathons). But my stomach was literally starting to growl. I ate it in the corral minutes before the start, hoping it would top off my glycogen stores and give me some electrolytes I knew I would need.
Attitudes in the elite corral were varied. We still wanted to run, but we knew it was going to be a suffer-fest. As we stood there, waiting for the start that they said was really coming this time, it finally started to rain. Hallelujah. If the option is rain or humidity, I take rain any day. I tightened my visor, took the completely unnecessary half step-and-crouch, and readied myself.
Since the race, people have talked about the mental challenge of the delays. Honestly, they probably did me some good. I had time to relax, let my nerves go, and approach the race with a “whatever” attitude.
My race plan for the first five miles was to relax and assess — figure out what impact the weather would have on my pace, and adjust. Of course, it was raining for the first few miles and feeling much better.
I had lined up alongside two girls who had run 61 minutes for the 10 miler (whereas I was just under 65), so I knew to let them go. I focused on settling into a rhythm and not fretting about the pace or heart rate.
There’s so much back-and-forth in the early miles that I wasn’t too concerned about girls going past me or being ahead of me. A day like this is a day you know people will come back to you if you run your plan and be smart.
The first few miles have pockets of spectators, and some people who probably didn’t plan to spectate at 7:30 a.m. but hey, here we were at 9! The first 5k zips by. Around 4.5 miles we pass by a huge cheering area and my work.
First five: 6:26, 6:29, 6:27, 6:28, 6:32.
Second part of the race plan: count plusses and minuses for the next five miles. Passing someone is plus one; getting passed is minus one. This is largely just to stay mentally in the race, and give me something to think about. I started working my way up to a large pack ahead of me, reeling in a few guys along the way. At 5.5 we started a series of quick turns to loop around a park, and I knew the turns so I hit the tangents.
Lots of crowd support including a music and a loudspeaker at mile six. Okay. Almost halfway. Feeling fine. Trying to moderate the effort and not go too hard.
We’re on a long straight stretch until 7.5, and I can see two girls ahead of me. One had passed me earlier (and looked about 12); the other was one of the 61-minute girls. If I could see her, she wasn’t having a good day. If I could see any woman, I had the fire to hunt them down.
I was a little confused in this section because I remembered Churchill Downs being more miles 6-7, not 8-9. We entered the track right at the eight mile marker. (I’ve checked the map; I had remembered it wrong.)
They tout this as a fun part of the race. Run around the infield, they say. See the twin spires, they say. See horses working out, they say.
But for realz, you have to run down this really steep dark tunnel under the grandstands and back up a steep uphill, then you run surrounded by hot dog carts and beer tents before going back down and up the tunnel.
I caught the younger girl while in the infield. We split from the marathoners just before the nine mile marker and I was happy to wave goodbye. We mostly had a long straight short north, with a couple of turns in the last 1.5 miles.
Just past the 9 mile marker I passed the other girl. We exchanged a couple of sentences; I may be ruthless in racing but I am not mean. I knew she wasn’t feeling good.
Meanwhile, I dumped Powerade in my hair. I had been drinking and dumping a cup at every aid station. There were 12 on the course, I missed the last one but hit all the others. (Also I missed the last one and used some choice language because they had flipped the cup order so I missed water.)
I got passed by two guys in this five mile segment, caught two girls. I had given up counting total plusses somewhere around 10 when I literally lost count and gave up.
Second 5: 6:32, 6:30, 6:39, 6:44, 6:39. Ugh. The wheels were coming off.
Last 5k to go. Grit it out and go. Give it whatever you’ve got. But not too much, yet. By now the field was really strung out and I could see guys up ahead but there wasn’t anyone around me. Fortunately I was still running past people I knew and getting cheers, which kept me going.
I put my head down and went to work. I told myself it was just one more 20 minute section. Just one more 5k. That is nothing. One mile at a time, keep working and do. not. give. up. See, I’ve had a few races lately that I let girls pass me and I didn’t make an attempt to fight them off. Or I’ve been enough in the lead that I didn’t have to work very hard.
We ran past my work again, on the other side, and I reminded myself that I’ve walked from my office basically the distance I had left many times. It’s nothing. We’re at about 11.5. I’m biting it off in chunks. I stopped at looking at the pace, because the past few splits hadn’t been great. I just ran.
The crowd support started to pick up and I found myself chasing down the two guys who passed me in that last five mile segment. We make the turn back onto Main Street at 12.5.
Someone told me I was the 8th female at some point. I used that turn to see if I can see any other girls trailing me. I saw literally nobody.
At mile 13, we made the final turn and I kicked for all I had on the downhill final stretch.
I couldn’t find the clock, and I didn’t change my watch screens to have running time.
Oh! There it was. On the right covered in a garbage bag.
It was under 1:26. I kept pushing until I crossed the line, hands thrown up. Not because I ran the best race of my life, but because I ran my legs out, ran my heart out. I gave it everything I had. I earned every second of that 20-second PR.
Last 5k: 6:48, 6:47, 6:26, 0:30 (5:30 average, thanks downhill finish!).
I was shooting for 1:25 flat, and think I would’ve had it if we had started on time and the weather had been a tad more cooperative.
10th female, 50th overall. Not only did I earn that top 100 ranking I wanted a decade ago, but I won it in the men’s division, with plenty to spare. And I beat my seed! (I don’t think we were actually numerically seeded, but it’s always a fun game to play.)
I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of the runner I’ve become. I’m proud of the race I ran.
Now time to rest, recover, and relight the fire that’ll keep me warm until Chicago.
Have you ever had a crazy start to a race and still snailed it?