NYC Half-Marathon & Almost Quitting

nychalf_002Race day arrived and although it was a bit cold, the weather decided to cooperate for the many thousands of runners. I woke up around 5AM and went through my usual morning routine. Cold oatmeal, coffee, stretch, bathroom, and dress – I have it down by now and it varies so infrequently that I’ve noticed I need less and less time with each race.

The hardest part of the morning was traveling to the start, which meant catching a subway around 5:30AM. Surprisingly, there were quite a few people on the train at that time of the morning. Half the car was people heading off to work for the morning, looking on in bemusement at the other half – a bunch of jaded runners, mentally preparing for the morning ahead. I got chatting to a few people for whom it was their first time and shared my experiences of the run from last year. From my perspective, the hardest part of large races such as this is the lengthy wait to get going once the leaders set off. Last year I was back in the 19K range and the leaders actually lapped me before my group got to the start line.

This year I was placed much higher in the start corrals, so crossed the start line a mere 15 minutes after the leaders. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t trained or even run in about three weeks, I was not expecting a stellar performance of any kind. A true enough, the first couple of miles were quite tough on the legs. Without the preparation, my muscles were screaming for oxygen from an early point. Cat Hill, Harlem Hill and the three peaks down the west side all took their toll, but I was moving along at a modest 9:00 per mile. The next stage of the run gave me and I suspect all the other runners a boost, as we exited the park and cruised down 6th Ave to Times Square. It’s one of the biggest thrills of the NYRR racing calendar, as runners own the busiest street in the city for a few hours and crowds come out to cheer on the runners.

And that’s where the fun ended for me. By then I had a nice big blister going on the instep of my right foot. Unfortunately, the pain was so much that I was unconsciously over-correcting and ran the entire second half of the race favoring the outside of my right foot. The lack of preparation was really starting to show at this point, as all the way down the west side highway, the long stretches of concrete took their toll on my already tired muscles. I stopped to walk on a couple of occasions and at one point, when I stopped to say hi to Jess and plant a big kiss on her lips, I momentarily debated stopping. But given my recent failure at the Manhattan Half and the terrible feelings of shame I had afterward, I decided to suck it up and finish the last two miles.

There was a definite sense of relief crossing the finish line, pretty much the same feeling I had when I ran the Philadelphia Marathon. I completed the run in 2:01:06, just outside my two hour target time, which I think added to my disappointment. For a couple of days after I would ask myself why I kept doing this to myself without ever coming up with an answer. I had enjoyed running for so long, only now to be dealing with feelings of shame, doubt, and disappointment on a regular basis. I’m not sure if I was looking for excuses not to run anymore or if I was just processing what happened, but eventually I realized that I was looking at it all wrong. I had been through three bad race experiences in the space of four months, but the reality was that I set myself up for those bad experiences through poor preparation and failure to follow my race plans. Those are not excuses to not run … they’re lessons to learn for the future. It’s not like all of a sudden I didn’t enjoy running. I was still waking up at 5AM to run and still running through pain to finish races. I was just tired of bad experiences – I want to get back to enjoying my running.

NYC Half-Marathon

2012_nyc_half_001And so the day finally arrived. It started as a personal challenge to myself, and began in early January with some research and a commitment to see it through to the end. Over the following months I logged many training sessions and hundreds of miles in an effort to complete my first serious distance race and it was all over in less than two hours. The physical preparation I put in payed off in spades as I managed to meet and exceed my best expectations. What I was not ready for was the emotion that would overpower me as I took that last corner onto Water St. and caught sight of the finish line for the first time.

Step back a couple of hours to earlier that morning, and all my preparations were complete. I woke early, went through my race day routine, and left my house on time. Standing in the corral for almost an hour, I managed to keep my anxiety and excitement in check. The race began on time, but it took almost 30 minutes for me to reach the actual start line. It was a strange feeling to be approaching the start at the same time that the race leaders were completing their lap of the park.

The first mile or so was a little slower than I expected, having to navigate crowded roads and a slow moving field. I think I passed the mile marker in something like 9:30 – almost half a minute outside my normal training time and almost a minute outside my target that day. However, from that point I started to move a bit faster and notched the next few miles in under nine minutes each. I completed my first 5K split in 27:12 – remarkably, four and a half minutes faster than my very first race in July, 2011. I put my recovery from the slow start down to two factors; my familiarity with the course based on all my training runs, and seeing Jess cheer me on between mile two and mile three.

The next segment of the race went quite well, as I passed the 10K split at 54:32. I was happy to see that I was keeping a consistent pace (27:20 for 5K) and I was making good progress through the field having started so far back. Physically I felt fine, my knees were holding up to the challenge thanks to all the rest over the previous week. Mentally, I was encouraged by passing so many people (almost a 6:1 ratio) and seeing Jess again along the 7th Ave stretch.

The real challenge came in the third segment, as the course turned from a nice downhill stretch along 42nd St to the south side of the West Side Highway. This was a completely new route for me, and I could feel my legs running slightly heavier on the concrete road in comparison to the blacktop in the park. Despite the struggles, I managed to maintain my pace and passed the 15K split at 1:21:05 (26:33 for 5K). Although I had harbored dreams of finishing in under two hours throughout my training, it was really only this point that those dreams began to seem like a reality. My pace was good, and I was taking short walking breaks of 30 seconds or so at every other water station. To keep my mind busy, I kept recalculating my finish time as I checked off each mile marker. Each time I recalculated the time, I got an extra shot of motivation to keep going.

The last segment was especially hard as I began to feel the full effects of my endeavor, but I kept going – taking strength from the thought of crossing the line and the joy of my fellow runners as they whooped and raised hell in the tunnel under Battery Park. I passed the 20K marker at 1:48:17 (27:12 for 5K), the same split as my first 5K. In my mind I knew I had trained well and was in good physically shape to complete the distance in my target time. As we exited the tunnel and took the service road under the FDR and onto Old Slip, I began to feel overwhelmed by the noise from the crowd. Turning the last corner onto Water St., the sights and sounds really sank in and I felt my lower lip tremble and my eyes start to water. The crowd was relentless in their cheering, fully understanding the sacrifices they made to get to that point. Jess was there too – supporting me throughout my efforts. Crossing the line with very little left in the tank, I stopped my watch at 1:54:07 – almost a full minute inside my target time.

I was emotionally and physically drained as I embraced Jess. I had set myself a goal of completing a half-marathon, and I had met that challenge head on and done better than I could have hoped for. Every training session, every mile, and all those sacrifices melted away as the time and effort I invested paled in comparison to what I had just achieved. My finishers medal is proudly displayed at home, and serves as a constant reminder to me of what I can do when I set my mind to it.