Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Best day ever: NYC Half 2015

I sort of don't even know where to begin with this one. You know when you have a dream that is just so, so great that you don't want to wake up from it? I still sort of can't believe that Sunday wasn't one of those. I had the best, most fun, most magical time on the streets of NYC on Sunday and in the process ran one of the best (if not the best) races I've ever run, and I want to remember forever how I felt for that hour, 32 minutes, and 21 seconds of life.  So to that end, I'm about to write a novel about it. This might as well be a marathon race report, despite the fact that it's about a race that for all intents and purposes was a tune up, non goal, race that I did for fun. But I traveled to another city, so that always counts for at least a few hundred words of rambling about the things I did there, and the race that followed.

Stuff that happened before the race
The week leading up to the race had been fairly stressful, culminating with an obnoxious doctor's appointment to work commute on Friday and a TERRIBLE run commute home later in the day. Both of my hamstrings kept seizing up for no reason and my legs just felt off. I went to support a friend in a dance show on Friday night which did take my mind off things somewhat but I was having some doubts about how this weekend was going to go. I took the 7:30 bus from South Station which of course required getting up insanely early. Joy and I were both half asleep when we met up at the bus terminal but also both excited about the race, which kept us chatting the majority of the way to NYC. The BoltBus ride was fairly uneventful, and we arrived in the city around noon. In the first of many magical things to happen this weekend, the bus dropoff point happened to be a mere 2 blocks away from the expo...perfect? I think so. It was drizzling a bit but I literally couldn't have cared less. I was utterly giddy with the fact that I was back in my favorite city on the planet. I sort of can't explain the weird love I have for NYC. I first set foot there as an 11 year old at dance nationals and it was one of those things where I just immediately was struck by something about the city - the energy, the lights, the pulse of the city that just seems to beat at a slightly faster pace. I traveled there several times during middle and high school for dance competitions and as I got a chance to explore more of the city outside of the typical tourist destinations, my love only grew. I dreamed of eventually living in NYC, and many many years later I lived that dream for 3 months while doing an internship for PT school. If all of my previous trips to the city had been the falling in love part, getting to live there just sealed the deal. Now not only could I love the city from afar, but there were little pieces and corners of if that I felt like were a little bit mine. I hadn't been back since finishing that internship in August of 2012, but the instant I stepped off the bus I felt it again - that 'something' that only New York has for me. As I later thought to myself during the race: "Boston is my home, but NYC is my spririt animal". Yeah, just go with it lol.

We got to the expo and I was immediately struck by what a big race vibe was going on. With 20,000+ entrants, OBVIOUSLY this was a big race on par with the big city marathons like Boston, but I think I had forgotten that other races besides Boston could behave like they were a big deal as well. We got our bibs and shirts, walked around a bit, and then waited in line to get some green screen photos to be posted to facebook at various points during the race (a GREAT decision, as it turns out). I had seeded myself at 1:32, which I did not think was remotely reasonable, but our idea was at the time of sign up that maybe a faster time would hold some sway in the lottery. That seed netted me a number in the 3000s, fairly far up in the pack of nearly 20K. There's always that feeling when someone puts a number in your had the day before a race; of possibility, of nerves, of excitement.
Obligatory "holding up bib at the expo" photo

The rest of the day after the expo was super enjoyable. Our first stop was Connelley's Irish Pub near Times Square for our first beer of the trip (Bronx Pale Ale for me) - because we "weren't taking this seriously" this was totally acceptable - lunch, and I got to catch the end of the Badgers game. We then headed to our hotel to check in but the room wasn't ready yet so we decided to grab some coffee and go wander around Central Park for a bit. All of the memories from my summer of running the Central Park loop came flooding back, and I began to get ridiculously excited. The park was pretty cool looking, caught right between winter and spring. We kept making jokes about "OMG I CAN SEE PAVEMENT!", such a rarity in Boston this winter, and how there were even flowers blooming!
Joy hadn't taken a day off all week, but I wanted to do a quick shakeout run for two reasons: 1) the more running in Central Park, the better, and 2) For some reason I had woken up Saturday with INSANELY sore glutes on both sides. I will literally never know why; my only guess is that I had been compensating weirdly for my hamstrings on Friday's run and jacked something up. Either way, I wanted to try to shake some of that shit loose, or at least figure out how it was going to feel to try to run on it. I went out down the west side of the park, where we would be running back down the next day, and I was seriously just living the dream. I was listening to music and at one point I crested this hill and "This Is Gallifrey" (from Doctor Who because I'm cool, but it's this majestic, gorgeous song) reached it's peak and I just spread out my arms and flew down the hill. I guess maybe I should have known then that this was destined to be a special race but I was really too caught up in my enjoyment of the scenery and the situation to even worry about the race I was running the next day. 

I sort of wanted to run around in Central Park for the rest of the day, but I eventually reminded myself that I did actually have to race tomorrow and headed back to the hotel. We then headed out to dinner at Tony DiNapoli with a couple of Joy's friends from vet school, but first, more drinks! We were trying to figure out a place to grab a drink near Times Square and I remembered a place I'd gone with my mom that was a really cool bar...unfortunately I couldn't for the life of me remember the name or which side of Times Square it was on, or really anything about it besides how it looked. So I did the logical thing and Googled "bar with high ceilings near Times Square" - and lo and behold, it popped up! Google, you're amazing, (Lillie's Victorian Establishment is the bar, if you're wondering). There I drank a Bell's Two Hearted because AHH BELL'S that I can't get in MA, and we met up with Joy's friend and headed to the restaurant. On the way we saw a girl literally walk straight into a pole which sent us all laughing nearly to the point of tears...if I ever walk into a pole, feel free to laugh at me, but I couldn't stop myself. The restaurant was totally great - total old school, Italian, family style situation, and the food was delicious. There was plenty of eggplant pasta, fried zucchini, mozzarella, and chicken marsala to go around, and all of it was great - pretty much a perfect pre-race meal! We headed back to the hotel but not before being total tourists and taking some ridiculous pictures in Times Square...several attempts at selfies that completely failed followed by finally getting someone to take our picture...
Ready for Broadway

So finally we arrived back at the hotel and attempted to sleep. And I could. not. sleep. As far as I could tell it wasn't prerace nerves, I just couldn't get comfortable and then there'd be a car horn or someone slamming a door in the hallway and all I could think was ahhh I'm going to be so tired tomorrow need to sleep need to sleep need to sleep GO TO SLEEP DAMN IT BODY why aren't you comfortable?! Which of course was not terribly productive. The only saving grace was that I refused to let myself look at the clock and eventually I did fall asleep, my guess is around 11.

Race day
5:15 am came. SO. FREAKING. EARLY. I'm not sure I've ever been so grumpy to hear "Centuries" come blasting out of my phone. My plan to go out to Dunkin to get coffee immediately went out the window in favor of hitting snooze twice. I knew that it would take me about 5 seconds to get dressed and ready but I knew that needing to eat more than an hour and a half before the race would limit how late I could get up. I finally rolled out of bed and started wandering around, attempted to make some hotel room coffee which was the most FOUL thing I've ever tasted, and begrudgingly munched on a Clif Bar that tasted like sand in my mouth. I now remember the reason that I've been eating buttered bagels for pre-race meals lately; it's because I actually enjoy them and can convince myself they taste good even when the last thing I want to do is eat. Such things are not possible with Clif Bars. They're OK at times, but don't sit well when you're already not excited about eating. Time passed quickly, and soon enough it was 6:30 and time to head down to the starting area. Here's where the magic starts to happen.

As we walked out of the elevator into the lobby of our hotel, we were greeted by several hotel employees/doormen, all of whom were VERY excited about the fact that we were running the race. Are you ready? You're going to run fast! Go, go, you can do it! It was dark and the streets were empty of all except runners and police as we jogged down to bag check. There's a certain something about heading to the start of a race in the dark; the world's asleep but there you are, awake for a reason and getting ready to go. Bag check was well organized and soon enough I was down to my shorts and throwaway sweatshirt (an aside about this sweatshirt: I LOVED this sweatshirt, which I bought in NYC circa 2005 at H and M. It's a brown polka dotted hoodie that I wore so much I literally wore holes through both elbows. It was slightly painful to toss it, but it's so ratty I never wear it anymore and it's lived a good life. I felt like it was fitting that I threw it away in the same place I bought it). We headed through security, which was fairly intense (metal detectors, whoa) and jogged off to find a porta potty. After jogging around a bit more, stretching, doing some leg swings, and jogging some more, it was 7:00 and we had run out of things to do. It was time to head into the corrals.
Early morning pre-race selfie...RIP, brown polka dot sweatshirt

This race really was a great prep race for Boston, in that it was all about dealing with large crowds of people, many many runners, the intensity level of an expo, etc and the nerves it creates, and perhaps most of all, waiting around. And now, we wait. There was a bit of a wind blowing and standing around in the corral for half an hour got a little bit chilly. Things got significantly chillier when, at 7:15, there was some confusion about what I think was the elite women's start, and all of a sudden everyone started moving up in the corrals and it seemed like, bizarrely, the race was going to start 15 minutes early. I panicked and threw my beloved sweatshirt to a random bystander, ending it's life with me 15 minutes early and depriving myself of 15 precious minutes of warmth. Because those next 15 minutes were COLD. I was just wearing a singlet, no arm warmers, and I was not comfortable. I also felt like I vaguely needed to pee which was not an enjoyable sensation when there was clearly no way out of the corrals at this point. As I shivered and hopped up and down and made a comment about being cold, a guy in the blue shirt just behind me was like "no worries, you'll be warm before you know it!" (trust me this will be relevant later). Minutes passed, slowly. A cheer went up during the elite announcements as Meb's name was called. And finally, off in the distance, a horn blew, and up ahead we could see the stream of runners start pouring off the line, and into Central Park. 85558962BBDA40B3BEC1-14263531871346.jpg (2048×1536)
Expo pic for "we're at the starting line!"

So now it's time to finally write about the race. It took about a minute and a half for us to get to the starting line, which I for some reason felt the need to turn and say to Joy as we shuffled up "OK, so the clocks on the course will be 1:30ish ahead of where we actually are".  And then we crossed the line and it was go time. There was a quick downhill followed by an uphill that seemed to pass in about 2 seconds - and I could believe when I looked up and saw the panther statue at the top. Cat Hill. I turned to Joy and laughed - "That was one of the 'real' hills!".  I was giddy. We were in CENTRAL PARK! We headed around the far side of the reservoir, and I had a flashback of running 800 repeats in the dark there, for no reason other than I felt like I should be doing a workout. What was happening right now was way, way more fun than that had been. Things were definitely a bit crowded in the early miles, and a couple of times I got stuck behind giant men or packs of people, but I was generally able to get out and around without too much hassle. I also had no idea at this point what pace I should be running, what pace I was running, or how I should feel at the moment. When I saw that my first mile split was 7:07, I was actually a little bit alarmed. That seemed slow, but I decided to chalk it up to congestion and, what the hell, try to pick it up for the next mile. Convieniently the next mile also featured the GIANT downhill before Harlem Hill, and so I ran a 6:36 and felt like a rockstar doing it. My friend from the start came up behind me at some point during this mile and asked if I had warmed up yet - "yeah, mostly!" So far, so good. 

The big downhill had been a great boost, and now we headed out into a little out and back which I had pointed out on the course map the day before as something that might be obnoxious. It was, indeed, obnoxious. During this section of the race, I honestly didn't feel all that great, and it was kind of concerning. Suddenly I was just focused on the fact that my stomach felt weird, and this pace felt hard. I needed to calm the eff down. And so, I grabbed some water at the first aid station, focused on the girl in front of me with "Bermuda" on the back of her singlet, and tried to get a grip. I knew that Harlem Hill was coming up and now was absolutely not the time to lose my cool. Mile 3 turned out to be a 6:47 on a basically flat mile, so things feeling hard made quite a bit of sense. I passed the 5K mark in 21:36 - yeah, I've run more than a few flat 5K races in slower times than that. Back into the park we went, and now started heading up the hill. As I knew it would, it sucked. My goal was to just stay relaxed and get through it, then reassess and hammer the next downhill, but the hill took WAY more out of me than I thought it would. By the time I got to the top everything was feeling discombobulated, and the downhill that followed wasn't long enough to make up for it. This was definitely the hardest part of the race for me, because I just didn't know ANYTHING. Was this it? Was I done? Could I bring it back? Should I even try? Was I stupid to run those two sub-7 miles? What I was I thinking anyway? Is my leg cramping? Why do I still have to pee? There were just a lot of questions going through my head and I had answers to exactly zero of them. So, I went back to my now-beloved old standby: "keep this pace relaxed". Because if you feel relaxed, you are relaxed, right?

We ran past "my" entrance to the park from that summer at 103rd street, which gave me a bit of a boost. Unfortunately, I had conveniently forgotten until that moment that the first mile of "my" Central Park loop was mostly uphill. Whoops. Miles 4 and 5 were my slowest of the race, both clocking in at 7:10. I was still hanging with pretty much the same people who had been near me at the start, although a few people had made passes on me by this point. Again, I couldn't decide whether it was a good idea to attempt to respond or not. In the moment, what I needed was to calm down, try to keep running reasonably fast, but also not be an idiot. Those things were kind of contradicting each other in my head, and so "relax" was the one that eventually won out. I kept staring at this girl and her Bermuda shirt and trying to figure out if she was from Bermuda, or if that was like a county or a school or something. (PS - After creeping on the results, I'm 99% sure I figured out who it was and she WAS from Bermuda! And I beat her.) We had gotten through the more uphill part of Central Park by this point and it suddenly dawned on me: there are literally no more hills in this race. I started to think a little bit. I didn't really feel THAT bad. Running at 7:10 pace was still feeling pretty OK. Maybe I should try running...faster?

We continued on through the park and I started to try picking up the pace, just a little bit. I still was in my head about the whole thing, feeling pretty uncertain about my ability to hold the pace and sort of what was going to happen as the rest of this played out. I hadn't enjoyed Central Park quite as much as I'd intended to, so what did that mean for the rest of the race. As it turns out, I really shouldn't have worried. Mile 6 was at 7:00, and things were beginning to flow a little bit more. And then a bunch of things happened all at once. As I ran down our last stretch of Central Park, I was running close to the side of the road where a bunch of spectators lined up. And one after the other, like 5 or 6 people in a row, each yelled at me "Go Greater Boston", "Looking strong Greater Boston", etc, with the last person to yell at me "Yes Greater Boston! Boston Strong!". Then I turned the corner onto 7th Ave, saw Times Square looming off in the distance, and I kid you not, I damn near burst into tears. I was hyperventilating and trying not to cry and grinning and just had this massive emotional wave crashing over me. I was entirely present in this moment where the only emotion I could feel was pride and joy and just feeling so damned grateful that I could do this - I am here, representing my team and my city that I love, IN a city that I love, running a race that I am proud of. The crowds were denser here, and while nothing compared to Boston it was still enough to overwhelm me. There really aren't the exact right words I can put together to describe the sensation I felt running those next two miles, but all I can say is this - it was AMAZING. I was grinning from ear to ear while running sub-7 miles over halfway through a half marathon. I think there are very few moments in life where we truly get a chance to experience pure joy. Happiness is so often tempered by other things going on in life, other people's feelings about the situation, just other thoughts crowding it out. And I tend to be a thinker, not a feeler, so it's rare for me to stop thinking about the emotion that I'm feeling at a given time and just, you know, feel it. But at this moment of this race, running those miles, there was literally nothing in me besides joy. That was it. I was purely and truly happy. I'm honestly not sure I've ever experienced a moment quite like that in running (in dance, yes) and I don't think I will ever forget it.
Don't worry, I think I have to buy this one. What happiness looks like.

In the meantime, while my heart had been full to bursting with happiness, my legs had also come along for the ride and I had just run a 6:53 and a 6:38. I knew that we were approaching the turn onto the West Side Highway, with a long, straight shot to the finish. I took my Gu at the water stop at mile 8 and got ready for the turnaround. While the emotional ecstasy of Times Square had been an incredible moment, it was now time to resume racing and figure out how the last 5 miles of this were going to go down. We made a quick switchback onto the highway (I was trying to read a sign for some moving company which read something like "I'm getting ready to buy a pig, said no one ever", which for some reason I found HILARIOUS) and then began the long stretch towards lower Manhattan. This stretch was all flat gloriousness, although the wind started picking up a little bit and I laughed at the New Bedford Half, which is known for it's windy last several miles along the ocean and which I normally would have been running that day, for taunting me from afar.  I started thinking about some random things here. I thought about the fact that we were kind of by the Pony Bar, and beer sounded great. I thought about the fact that I was running kind of well and I actually might PR. In my Stu's post I wrote something along the lines of "I wonder what would happen if I actually had confidence/trusted in myself to run fast and stopped trying to just stay relaxed all the time". Well, mile 8 or 9 of this race was when I decided it would be a good idea to find out.  It was just so FLAT and I knew that there were no more hills coming, and I just thought to myself, really, what's the point of holding back now? Let's be honest, this course is fast. The second half of runner's paradise downhills and flats more than made up for the lack of fun in miles 3-5. But I have never in my life consciously made a choice 2/3 of the way through a race to speed up...and then actually be able to do it. I always slow down. I never negative split. I put those thoughts away, and for once in my life, I did just that.

There weren't as many spectators in this area but those that were out were super enthusiastic and I got plenty more "Go Greater Boston" cheers, each of which made me smile and/or give a thumbs up. I passed the 15K mark in an unofficial PR (by 2 minutes), then the 10 mile mark in an unofficial PR (by...a lot haha). A "cheer station" near mile 10 started playing "Shipping Up To Boston" at high volumes and I totally flipped out and started smiling and doing weird things with my arms and trying to make eye contact with the DJ to let him know how awesome he was for playing that song at that exact moment. It was totally out of control and totally ridiculous and totally amazing. Mile 9 was a 6:57 and mile 10 was a 7:06. Of course, by this point, I was starting to feel pretty damn tired. And yet, it wasn't the kind of tired where your legs just kind of start gradually slowing down, like an engine grinding to a halt. It was a tired that I was aware of, but that I could actually overcome. And THAT is something I have never experienced in a double digit race - being tired, but not actually needing to slow down. By this point I was passing people far more often than I was being passed, which was another delightful surprise. Near mile 11, another cheer station was playing Pitbull's "Fireball", which for some reason has become one of my training anthems this winter. Yet again, I burst into a grin and cruised. 

Passing the 11 mile mark in 6:56 was the final straw.  I knew then, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was currently in the midst of a PR race. Not just a couple of second PR, but a big honking PR. A PR that would move me from "sort of OK" to "actually close to being kind of fast". I could see the new World Trade tower looming in the distance, what a beautiful building, and I just continued to fly. I was starting to get tired, sure, and the flat road was starting to seem a little long. But I just didn't care. I was having fun, and running fast, and that was all that I could possibly want. By this point I was pretty consistently passing people as I went along, having held pace (hell, picked UP the pace!) over the second half of the race. I think my Garmin got a little confused around mile 12, because it clocked me at a 6:12 which I feel like can't possibly be right. We then headed into the Battery tunnel, which apparently is a fairly well known feature of this race but which I had NO IDEA existed until I was running into it (apparently the second place woman had the same issue, haha). I had no idea how long it was, or anything else about it. And after running into the tunnel, suddenly my body was like ohhhh hey. Being done running would really feel soooo nice right about now. Still we were kind of running downhill and the sensation of running through this long freeway tunnel was kind of neat. Someone nearby was whooping, listening to the sound echo off the tunnel walls. There were also actually a couple of spectators in the tunnel, which seemed so out of place but was pretty neat as well. I knew that we had to be approaching the final stretch, so I tried to keep pushing and passing as many people as I could. The tunnel ended after about half a mile in a sharp uphill, which took me aback a little bit after running on flat ground for so long. Now, I was tired. But I knew that the finish had to be literally just around the corner, and it was time to just go for it. Since New Bedford is my template for all half marathons, I thought to myself "you just crested that huge stupid hill, and now you're headed down to the finish. Go. GO!" And I went.

I kicked as hard as I possibly could, now finally feeling the impact of my efforts over the last hour and a half but also so overwhelmed with excitement that my vision seemed to narrow to that 1:32 on the clock. Just before I finished the announcer made an announcement about "Greater Boston", to which I actually raised my arms and fist pumped before crossing the line. That. just. happened. As I started walking, giant smile on my face, a guy walking next to me said "I was trying to reel you in the whole last half!" It was none other than my blue-shirted friend from the corral - kind of a crazy coincidence that we finished at the same time. I made my way through the finish chute floating on a cloud of endorphins, excitement, and happiness. I grinned and thanked every volunteer I saw. I took a ridiculous finish line photo with jazz hands. Everything was magical, nothing hurt, and life was so, so good.
PR smile. I can't even control the grins.

After a few moments of concern over Joy and my planned meeting spot not being where I thought it would be, I found my way over to the Dead Rabbit Grog & Grocery, aka one of my new favorite places in the city. Joy had finished just a few minutes after me so we met up and decided to head into the (apparently open) bar to warm up. Warming up just seemed incomplete without also adding some victory drinks to the mix, and so that's the story of how I drank the most delicious Bell's Two Hearted of my life at 9:30 am on a Sunday.

Happy humans with our amazing revolutionary war mural

We eventually made our way back to the hotel and followed up showers with an excellent 5 hours in NYC that included bottomless brunch at L'asso (during which I may have consumed a PR number of mimosas), a trip to a bar/bakery where the barista's response to the fact that we had run a half marathon was as follows: "HOLY SHIT! What the fuck?! I mean, congratulations, because that's amazing. But why would you do that? I heard that people's nipples bleed?" It was hilarious. I was also extremely delighted by how friendly people were on the subway and around the city when they saw our capes, asking about the race, where it was, if we ran well, etc. Totally not what I would think of as typical New Yorker behavior! It's amazing what a mylar cape and a medal do for your street cred haha. We finished up the day at Rattle & Hum, one of my favorite beer bars ever, with beer flights, bar snacks, and watching the Badgers win the Big 10 tournament in overtime. In summary, it was basically a perfect, perfect day.
Post mimosas. Bahahaha.

So that's the story of how I actually ran my seed that I thought was ridiculous, ran a minute and a half PR in the half, and ran quite possibly my best comparative time ever. As cheesy as it sounds, it's when I run from my heart and soul that I really run well. And this race - it was really, truly from the heart. And I can't wait to keep running this way and see where it takes me. 

So. How about letting the joy flow on April 20, huh? 

For curiosity's sake, and because I can't quite believe them, here are my 5K splits:
1 - 21:36 (6:58)
2 - 22:27 (7:14)
3 - 21:50 (7:02)
4 - 21:44 (7:00)
last 0.7 4:44 (6:45)

United Airlines NYC Half 2015
Official time 1:32:21, 968/19434 OA, 171/10147 F, 60/2324 F25-29

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