Thursday, December 06, 2018

Who's afraid of the big bad half marathon: Philly Half 2018 race report

It's been a minute since I wrote here...again...probably because I haven't really done a whole lot in the way of racing lately! However, I feel like the Philly Half most definitely deserves a report for two reasons: I ran a very unexpected PR, and I finally ran a half marathon where I wasn't a total head case for half of the race!

Backing up for a moment, I signed up for the Philly Half in August or something, while drinking, and entirely due to peer pressure. At the time November seemed a long way off, and I thought that perhaps I would be able to drum up some motivation after a relatively slothful summer to really go for it and train for a PR half. That...did not turn out to be the case. While I managed to convince myself to do a couple of workouts and run at least 10 or 11 miles on the weekends, the number of weeks that I would consider to be quality training weeks leading up to the race were fairly minimal. So much so that I found myself the week before the race feeling incredibly anxious that I was completely unprepared, was going to run just a miserable time, etc. I somehow managed to stop really caring about any of that in time for the trip down to Philly and decided to just enjoy the weekend - I already didn't really care what time I was going to run, and figured at the worst it would be a good reminder of what long distance racing was like. 

Joy and I took the Amtrak train down to Philly on Friday and spent the majority of the ride talking about various running related topics, including our planned cheering route for the marathon and what marathons we would run instead if we didn't get into Berlin (spoiler alert: we did not :(). Our Air BnB was a quick 15 minute walk from the train station, and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring, picking up our numbers at the expo, grabbing martinis at a bar that we were not anticipating to be a martini bar, (oops, but also whatever) and eating a nice Italian dinner at a BYOB restaurant...WHY is this not a thing everywhere?! 

Race morning dawned, and my teammate Erin and I made our way towards the start. Again, the Air BnB was clutch - we were just under a mile from the starting area which made for a perfect warmup. We most likely would have warmed up a bit more, but we arrived at the starting area about half an hour before the start to discover literally 1/4 mile long security lines to get into the starting area! W.T.F. I think in the end this was a blessing in disguise, because I was so anxious about just getting into the corral to start the race on time that I completely forgot to be nervous about the actual race itself! After waiting for awhile, moving minimally and getting increasingly frustrated, we sort of hopped into line on the other side of the road and wandered our way through the single metal detector that they had to finally reach the corrals. After a quick porta potty stop, I reached my corral about 2 minutes before the start - the race ended up starting a couple of minutes late (likely the security lines were a factor) - so this was actually perfect!

The weather for the race was literally perfect. In fact, I thought about it later and I'm pretty sure this was actually the BEST weather I've ever raced in. This, combined with the fact that I had successfully reached my corral and the fact that I had chosen to race with music in order to maintain my chill/not really racing/enjoying the day vibe, actually had me in a pretty good mood as we counted down towards the start! I've never been to Philly and I literally had no idea about the course besides knowing that there was a sizeable hill somewhere around mile 10. This was just going to be a fun, random jaunt through a new city. The gun went off...and everyone on our side of the corral just stood there...apparently whoever was at the front on our side didn't realize that they could start the race, lol. After about 30 seconds of just standing there we moved towards the start and headed off.

I really can't explain it, but from moment one of this race I felt amazing. Maybe it was my dinosaur socks. Maybe it was the techno pumping into my ears. Maybe it was just the total novelty of running a half that isn't New Bedford. But whatever it was, I felt light, powerful, springy, and ready to go. I had no idea what pace I was running but decided that I would look at my watch for the first mile, see what the pace was, and then just forget about the watch for the rest of the race. I was surprised, amused, and utterly amazed to come through the first mile in an absolutely ridiculous 6:41. Hey, you know what race I usually see a split like that in? A 5 miler. Often even a 5K. But I decided that while it may possibly have been idiotic to go out at that pace, if it was feeling good it was feeling good, and I just wasn't going to worry about it. The first part of the race sort of jaunts around through the city. It was flat, lovely, there was a surprising amount of crowd support, and I was feeling absolutely excellent. In fact, I was having FUN. I was simply bopping along, jamming to my techno, not worrying about if this feeling would last but just enjoying my life. I wound up running with a great pack of 4 other women for awhile; it was a blast to be feeding off each other's pacing and leapfrog back and forth for a couple of miles. At some point we made a turn down towards the river, where there was a great view of a large bridge before we turned to run parallel with the river for a bit. At some point around mile 3, my stupid headphones shorted out - having made the decision to listen to music for this race, I was super unwilling to part with it so early in the race, so I took my phone out, fiddled with the headphone jack, hit play, and got my phone back in my waistband...while running a 6:44 mile. Yup. OK.

The stretch along the river felt a bit long and I had lost my lady pack and was running somewhat alone, which I feel somehow ALWAYS happens to me no matter how large the race! I don't pace like a normal person, apparently. I don't have too much to say about the next couple of miles - I was running, still feeling pretty good and powerful, and not worrying about a damn thing in the world. I knew that Joy and Brenda were going to be cheering somewhere near the 10K mark (when we would run directly past our air Bnb!) and I figured I would reassess my life after that. At some point in this stretch two things happened: my stupid headphones stopped working AGAIN, and I decided I was actually kind of warm and needed to get rid of my arm warmers. All I could think of as I stripped off my arm warmers was the moment at the end of the NYC marathon this year when one of the top men just ripped off his hat and the announcers were like "THE HATS ARE COMING OFF, THIS IS SERIOUS!" Well, the arm warmers were coming off - this was serious, apparently.

The street that we turned onto around the 10K mark, Maple or Walnut or some other tree name, was just wonderful. The crowds for this race really showed up and they were loud and rowdy all along this stretch. It was just such a strange feeling to be at the halfway mark of a half, and be feeling not only good, but actually genuinely HAPPY. My typical half marathon race goes like this: mile 1-2 feel OK but like the effort is too hard, miles 3-5 literally have a panic attack because there's no way I can sustain this pace for 7 more miles, miles 6-9 back off a little bit because of said panic and feel marginally better, miles 10-13 at some point, die. I have no idea if it's because I literally didn't feel like I had the training to back up any reasonable performance and so just did not care a bit if I blew up, but I never had a mental crisis during this race. Each mile was just kind of like...OK! Yup! Hooray! Let's continue! By the time I saw my friends at 6.5, the combination of this magical good feeling, the cheers, and the techno blasting through my ears had me amped, to the point that I ran my fastest mile of the race, a 6:34, for mile 7. 

We headed up and over a bridge, where I vividly remember looking around at the sun sparkling on the river and just thinking how beautiful it all was, and how lucky I was to be doing this, and really just a whole lot of feelings of gratitude that I typically do not experience at mile 7.5 of a half marathon. I wasn't afraid of hitting any sort of wall; honestly I was more just curious as to what my body was going to give me for the last 5 miles of the race. I had a feeling that some kind of difficulty was coming; there was just no WAY that a feeling this good could last a whole race, particularly one without the mileage to back it up. But again, strangely, I just wasn't worried about it - I was just doing the best I could, in the moment, and that was good enough for me.

Around mile 8 we headed up a not particularly steep but lengthy incline, and the first sort of questionable signals started moving from my legs to my brain. Still, I kept positive, and focused on getting my knees up and pushing off to power up the hill. Somewhere in here I also saw a woman who was out cheering with two pitbull puppies dressed in PAJAMAS and that was cute enough to get me up the hill just a little faster. Sadly as we got further away from downtown the crowds died off, and I soon found myself running down a fairly desolate stretch of road, suddenly feeling not quite so great as before. This of course was also the moment my headphones chose to short out...again! Yes, one could argue that perhaps I shouldn't have been wearing headphones in the first place, but you know what, I NEEDED this techno! So I once again got my phone out and fiddled with it, only to discover that this time the music would short out every time I tried to put my phone back in my pocket. I debated the pros and cons for awhile of just giving up on the music all together, but eventually decided that this was the point in the race that I needed it the most, and so committed to running the rest of the race with my phone in my a giant noob. Yup. It should also be noted that the entire time I was having this mental struggle, I was running up a neverending hill, suddenly feeling like hot trash, and hilariously received a text which popped up on my watch from a friend who was tracking me and said that I was "KILLING IT!". Lol. In this particular moment, I did NOT feel like I was killing it. As the cutting-in-and-out version of "Pyramids" by DVVBS, a song which will now probably haunt my dreams, played, I slogged up the hill, feeling like I was running 10 minute pace. Remember that lack of quality training we discussed? It was finally coming back to haunt me. Still, when I came through mile 9 and then 10 both in 7:19 I can't say I was overwhelmed with joy...but I also recognized that it could have been a lot worse. 

We finally hit some downhill and as I assessed where the course was going as we headed towards mile 11 I realized something - the hill that I had thought was at mile 11? That was the hill I had JUST ALREADY DEALT WITH! I realized that based on my understanding of the course, the remainder of the race was for the most part flat or downhill. After hitting mile 11 in 7:15, I started trying to do some mental math. Sure, I had not come into this race with any expectations of a PR, but here I was on the brink of one and it seemed simply idiotic to give up when I was that close. And so, I did something I don't think I have EVER done in a half marathon: I managed to speed up. I gritted my teeth and I told myself that I had to hold on for 2 more miles, because there was absolutely no excuse not to. I was already here and so close, and I knew that I would be mad at myself forever if I didn't run a PR just because I gave in at the end of the race. And so, I fought. And it SUCKED, oh man did it suck. My legs were simply running out of strength to carry me forward. It wasn't even pain so much as feeling like I was going to collapse at any second. We were running on another really pretty, but silent stretch on the other side of the river, and I just kept telling myself that the finish line was close and I had to hold on. We hit the 12 mile mark almost simultaneously as the last song on my playlist came on, "Elements of Life" by Tiesto which is like 8 minutes long or something. I was like, OK, all you have to do is just hang on through this song. That's it. I pretty much turned off my brain and tried to flow with the beat of the music and somehow get through the last mile without slowing back down. And the last mile was awful, but awful in an empowering way - a way that told me I was going all the way down to the bottom of my abilities on this particular day. There was a slight uphill about a half mile before the finish and again, my legs just literally felt like they weren't going to carry me up it. But they did, somehow. I had stopped trying too hard to think about the time, but as I squinted at the finish line from a point where I could actually see the clock, I could see it just tick over from the 1:31s. Damn! (I had apparently set a goal to run a 1:31 at some point midrace, OK then). But I dragged myself across the line in 1:32:10, which is most definitely, unlike my questionable is-it-or-isn't it PR of last year, a half marathon PR. 

I am not exaggerating when I say that I don't think I could have run another 200 meters at that pace. It was all I could do to stay on my feet crossing the line. And I hate to actually admit this, but while I was definitely damn happy, I was also sort of...disappointed?  Don't get me wrong, I did not in ANY way deserve to have a breakthrough race at this race, and the fact that I even managed a PR is miraculous and/or a testament to the general level of fitness I try to maintain throughout the year. But ugh, could I have not found 11 SECONDS somewhere out on the course? If I had known that the hill at mile 9 was THE hill, and that there wasn't another one coming, would I have pushed a little harder? Well, maybe. But that's easy to say in hindsight. As I mentioned above, in the moment, I truly think I left everything I had on the day out there. I get to take a PR away from this race, but I also think I get to take away a level of confidence in myself at this distance that I definitely didn't have before. I can definitely run a 1:31 half marathon. I can almost definitely run a 1:30 half marathon. Hell, I think I can probably run a 1:29 half marathon! But what it took to make me believe that was a race where I had no expectations (which I continue to prove time and time again is how I race best), a new city, perfect weather, and perhaps a little bit of techno.

Also the half marathon was sponsored by MEAT, which I just couldn't get over. And I eventually got a hot dog hat! 

The rest of the weekend was marvelous and included visiting many Philly breweries and absolutely outdoing ourselves in terms of cheering. We ran almost 8 miles, including running through a sketch neighborhood where junkyard dogs ran amok, dressed as pizzas and tacos and cacti. We hike/scrambled down a steep embankment because there was NO TIME to find a normal route to the course when our teammates were on their way. One of my teammates ran an amazing comeback marathon after 5 years injured, while others ran huge breakthroughs and PRs. It was a great day, and a great weekend. And while this race may have begun as a perfect example of the phrase "seemed like a good idea at the time", in the end, it WAS a good idea. I'm not scared of the half marathon anymore, and I have Philly to thank for that. Everything about this race aside from the security ridiculousness in the morning was absolutely amazing - the city was fantastic, the organization was great, I really enjoyed the course and time of year, and the crowds were awesome. I definitely think I'll be back to race the half again - and maybe at some point the full! But in the meantime...Boston training awaits!

Cheer squad


Philadelphia Half Marathon
1:32:10 (PR) 
375/9526 OA, 78/5926 women, 18/665 F 30-34