Yesterday I ran the Baltimore Half Marathon. It was one of the best days of my life. When I started running about six months ago, I was running away from things in my life. A couple of months ago, I signed up for this race and, in doing so, I started running toward something – a goal. That was a small but very significant shift in direction. You can only run away for so long. But having a goal to work for gave me a new reserve of motivation, energy and purpose. And I’d say I couldn’t have accomplished what I did yesterday without that goal. Running away from something would never have taken me as far as running toward something did.
The day started at 5:30, when I woke up to a hot pot of already brewed coffee. For some reason, despite the fact that I could set up the coffee pot every night and program it to start brewing minutes before I wake up, and despite the fact that when I do that I feel like I won the lottery when I stumble into the kitchen and pour a cup of steaming hot coffee without lifting a finger – despite all that, I rarely set up the coffee pot the night before. But on Friday night, I did. And on Saturday at 5:30, I shuffled into the kitchen and smiled at the scent wafting through the house. Right then, I knew it was going to be a good day.
I ate my breakfast – the same thing I eat every single day – a Morningstar Sausage Patty and a piece of Swiss Cheese. I sipped my coffee, checked my email and Facebook. I posted a comment on Facebook about the race and almost instantly got great comments from friends wishing me stamina, endurance, luck and all kinds of support.
I got dressed in the gear I had been training in for weeks – clothes I knew wouldn’t rub, bunch, fall down or otherwise impair my ability to focus on running. Knowing the race was in October, I’d selected a green UnderArmour tank top and a black long-sleeved dry wick Reebok shirt. Calf length running tights have been the only ‘pants’ I’ve ever run in so they were automatically part of the race day gear, along with a black buzzsaw.com hat that I used to race sailboats in, and that makes me think of (and kinda smells like) victory. I carefully pinned my race bib to the front of my outer shirt. Not knowing how I’d fare in the race, I’d signed up with a guess at a finish time in the 3 hour range, which put me securely in the 5th (and final) wave of race starters with a bib number of 51264. There were about 7800 half-marathon runners and I was poised to start at the very tail end of all of them, which was OK, because either I’d be correct and be running/walking with others paced similar to me, or I’d pick off one after another competitor and build my confidence as I plow through the crowd. I was hoping, obviously, for the latter.
Being a control freak, I’d scouted out the venue the day before, planned my arrival and route to the race start, and on race day I left the house at 6:30 for a 9:45 race start. One reason for my early departure was the 8:00 full marathon start, which I knew would shut down roads all over the city. Another reason was that I needed time to acclimate once I arrived, and being rushed in any way would throw off my mojo. So I headed down the highway, noting that it had been a loooong time since I’d felt truly excited for anything. Somewhere over the past couple of difficult years, I’d stopped setting goals for myself because life kept throwing me curve balls that shifted my focus from me and my goals to any number of other issues, problems, or distractions. But this goal was right in front of me and now that I was in the car, there was very little that could get in my way. Earlier in the week, a sick daughter, a sick husband and the threat of coming down with something myself all loomed as potential dark clouds for race day. But everything was working out and there I was, in the car, almost at the start.
The sky was a beautiful canvas of gray clouds overhead, and pink, orange and white clouds on the horizon. The sun was just coming up so I rolled down the window to take in the morning air. The minute the breeze swept into the car, I felt a tinge of discouragement – the air was warm. Too warm for my two layered, long sleeved race gear. I had miscalculated the temperature for the race, and if I got overheated, who knew the effect that would have on my pace, stamina and ability to finish the race. I started contemplating the options. I could take off the long sleeved shirt and run in the tank top. I could wear the second tank top I’d brought for after the race (just in case I wanted to change and stay for the post race festivities). Or I could stick with my plan and hope for a change in the temperature.
I entered the parking lot after about a 45 minute ride (it’s about 15 minutes from my house without traffic) and gambled that there might be a parking spot up front. I broke away from the stream of cars heading to the back of the lot and, amazingly, there was a spot directly across from the stairs that led to the bridge that led to the racegrounds. Again, I smiled and thought that this day was going beautifully.
I sat in the car after I parked and weighed my options for my race outfit. I got out of the car and gauged how I felt. In the parking lot under the overpass of 395, it was stuffy and still. I switched my race bib to my tank top, and put my long sleeved shirt back on over top. I figured I’d have the option that way, and worst case scenario I could leave the long sleeved shirt at the race start to be donated to someone in need if I didn’t want to wear it or tie it around my waist.
I was ready. I headed to the racegrounds and went to check my bag. The race program clearly stated that NO MUSIC WAS ALLOWED AT THE RACE. That really bummed me out – I get a lot of motivation from music during my runs. With the help of a lot of running related articles on active.com, I’ve categorized myself as an ‘introverted runner’ – someone who uses distraction (music, daydreaming) during running to enable myself to go further or faster. Some people enjoy hearing each step, each breath, and even the ragged breathing of the people around them at a race. Me? I hate it. I end up counting steps, comparing my breathing with others around me, and even feeling sympathy lethargy for people struggling more than me, which makes me struggle. I need distraction and music tunes out the sounds that slow me down. So despite the fact that I am a staunch ‘rule follower’ I brought my ipod with a specially crafted “Marathon, Baby!” playlist ready to go. I stuffed it in my race bag – full of clothes, options for last minute changes, Powerade (in a variety of flavors), and snacks for pre and post race if I decided I needed them.
I made my way to the bag check. There were literally thousands of people milling around on the race grounds. I scanned the racers to look for ipods. I saw a few, and many people wearing them still had their bags strapped to their backs so I figured they might put them away. I headed to the back of the bag check area, where the slowest of slow racers (5th wave) bags were housed. I stood for probably 7 minutes watching people check bags – not one of them had an ipod on. Finally, discouraged, I tossed my ipod (and possibly my chances of finishing the race) into my bag and handed it over to the bag check lady. As I was walking toward the start, I saw a couple who looked like seasoned runners – short shorts, strong legs, running glasses, lean bodies – BOTH wearing ipods. I made a b-line toward them and I think I even startled them a bit when I asked “Music? Are you going to wear those ipods during the race? I really want to wear mine but I think it’s against the rules”. They scanned me for a second to make sure I wasn’t the Ipod police, and then the woman gave me the best answer I could have imagined – “Um, none of us are Kenyan, so chances are we won’t place, and chances are nobody will care if we wear Ipods.”. I laughed – at the statement but also at the joy I felt that I had just been given permission to retrieve my Ipod! I thanked them, wished them luck, then darted back to the bag check to get my precious music.
The half-marathon start was at the Inner Harbor, at the point where the full marathoner’s hit the 13.1 mile mark, and we were to run side by side for most of the race. Being early, I had the option to stroll to the starting area but excitement and adrenaline made me buzz along the streets and push past the strollers and meanderers. I arrived at the start at 8:30. One hour and 15 minutes before the start. And guess what? The pink and orange hues had left the clouds. The pale gray overhead had turned darker, and the temperature had dropped a few degrees. My ‘ideal’ running conditions, oddly, are misty or even rainy, cool days. I really like running in the rain, and I’d like nothing more than for the skies to open up on us during the race. That might be common for runners, but I didn’t think so. Regardless, the wind started picking up and I made the ‘executive decision’ that my long sleeved shirt was the proper race gear, and promptly stripped off my race bib and positioned it, once again, on the outer shirt. Before I pulled the shirt over my head, I installed my ipod on my left arm – right where it belonged – and pulled the shirt on over top (hey, what’s the harm in hiding it if it’s verboten – like I said, I am usually a rule follower so I didn’t want to call attention to it by wearing it on the outside of my shirt like I usually would). I. Was. Ready.
The Inner Harbor of Baltimore is stinky. The smells came in waves throughout the hour-long wait for the start. I spent the time chatting with other racers about the smells, the race, the weather. I was totally relaxed and ready to go. And then, exactly 15 minutes before the start, I felt a twinge that meant I needed to find a spot-a-pot just to be safe. I headed over to where I saw them, and I noticed people bunched up in front of the potties. I scaned the bunch, which turned into a line, which went around the back of the potties, and up and up and up the street. Probably about 120 people are in line for 6 potties. Forget it. If I needed to pee, I’d stop on the race route.
I gathered with the other 5th wavers to wait for the start. Who, you might ask, is a 5th waver? Well let’s see. There were fat people, old people, people with canes, people with knee braces, people with eye patches, people with beer bellies… you get the picture. There were also a lot of ‘first timers’ who, as I overheard, mostly had run a few miles here and there, used to run in high school, were doing this on a bet, or thought this was a good way to start getting in shape. Ugg. Maybe I wasn’t a 5th waver after all. I’d been training for 6 months. I’d run 10 miles about 5 times and I was pretty serious about running. Well, maybe my goal of picking off competitors would come true.
At the start, we were a good 1/3 of a mile from the actual starting line – too far to even hear the announcer do the starts. Because we are at the back, and slightly uphill, I had a good vantage point to see the sea of colorful runners as they started the waves. We walked for about 10 minutes until finally, it was our turn to start. A girl next to me chatted about the weather – it was beginning to rain… YAY! – and how she hasn’t run in weeks, and the most she had run was 7 miles. We high fived at the start and shuffled for the first 1/4 mile because of all of the walkers and slow, slow runners in our path. At around the 1 mile mark, I noticed that she was right beside me. We smiled at eachother and fell in pace together for about another mile, dodging slower runners and then meeting back up here and there. I was wearing one earphone so I could hear her – she wasn’t wearing music and she occasionally made a comment about the terrain, the other runners etc. At one point, she looked at me and said ‘how far have we gone’ to which I replied ‘not far at all!’ laughing. But she wasn’t laughing. She was starting to struggle and we hadn’t reached the two mile mark yet. By three, I couldn’t see or sense her around me and I never saw her again.
The next several miles were wonderful. Seas of colorful runners stretched out in front of me. The mist kept me cool and my long sleeves kept me from getting a chill. My hat protected my face from the spray, and my steps were widening as my muscles warmed up. I’d found, over several months of training, that my easiest miles to run are 7 through 10. It takes that long for my muscles to gel with my brain to gel with my breathing to create that perfect state of running. And true to form, right around mile 7 I started feeling like I was born to run and as if my form was perfect, my strides were longer than ever, and I was moving forward and not bouncing up like I feel when I start running. Streamlined. Powerful. Amazing.
I ignored mile markers and drink stops for awhile. I just ran. I felt grateful to feel so strong – stronger with every step. I enjoyed the cool mist and the rainbow of runners sprawled out ahead of and behind me, and most of all, I enjoyed squeezing in between runners and bumping elbows with people as I passed them. And pass them I did! I realized that my training course at home is a fantastic prep course for hills – and this course had plenty of hills. I actually found myself looking forward to the hills, because I could keep my pace the same – sometimes even faster than the flat road pace. I guess that’s because I have strong legs, and I’ve trained on hills, but whatever the reason, the hills were my highlights during the race. Frankly, the toughest part of the race might have been the trek around the lake – flat. I also hated that I could see the whole lake, and the stream of people that were faster than me coursing all the way around it. So I re-queued my music, put my head down, and bumped and squeezed between everyone I possibly could. Before I knew it, the lake was behind me and the finish was a mere 5 miles away.
The next four miles were pretty uneventful. I saw the gummy bear guy (handing out buckets of gummy bears to the runners) and I couldn’t imagine eating a gummy bear while running so I didn’t. I also couldn’t imagine cleaning up the street around where he was after the race – it was COVERED in gummy bears. Sticky gummy bears.
I saw the guy who stands on his car in a Tiger costume and points at the runners. He was funny. I saw lots of kids giving high fives, some old Baltimorons hooting and hollering at us, and nice people who were giving away bottles of water or oranges from their own houses to help us along. When we turned onto Howard Street, I knew we were in the home stretch. I checked my gas tank and found that I still felt great, and had some energy in reserve to finish this up with a burst of speed at the end. What an amazing feeling!! I was so proud of myself.
The last mile definitely seemed longer than it should have – probably because I turned on the ‘jets’ and really gave it my all. People were lined 5 or more deep on the sidewalk cheering. I think the mile seemed longer because about 1.5 miles from the finish somebody yelled “only half a mile to go” and I thought Oh! Good! I’ll really push it now. And 1.25 miles later I was really looking for the finish line. Running through Camden Yards was awesome! I felt like a celebrity. I was smiling and hooting right along with the crowd. Then we left the yard and there was probably about 1/5 of a mile left to the finish that I honestly don’t remember, except that I was giving it EVERYTHING I had. I heard the announcer naming finishers, I saw the finish line, and when I crossed it I gave myself a high five and a cheer! I did it!!!! The clock said 2:34:44, which bummed me out, but after a little while I realized that was the RACE time and not my chip time. Starting in the 5th wave meant that that time was way different than my time, which I later found out was 2:16:28. Not the 10 minute miles I had optimistically hoped for, but not a 3 hour finish either! HOT DAMN! I am officially a runner. I can’t wait to do it again!!
And that’s how I run like a girl.