For the last few months, I've had a secret. The secret was that I started training for a half marathon. I started training because of a running "friend" that I met online and wanted to meet in person. She was training for a race in her home state of Texas and bascially talked me into training with her. I was going to Texas to run it with her on March 6th. We have been so excited about finally getting to meet in person and have been sharing our training virtually.
But sometimes the best laid plans go awry...
It started after my friend did her 10 mile long run, with an achey ankle. She nursed it, cursed it, and finally ended up going to the doctor who told her "no running!" and to rest it. But still, we clung to hope that our plans would come to completion.
You know one of the things I've learned in life is that sometimes when a wrench gets thrown into your plans, sometimes it's just the first sign that maybe the universe has other plans for you and is just choosing not to reveal them yet. But with time reasons are revealed, and the next thing we knew, her mom was diagnosed with cancer. Then, on her next visit to the doctor, because her ankle wasn't getting better, he said, "No running for 6-8 weeks!"
Ahhh, there it is. I'm a big believer in signs and although it sucks, I feel like that ankle "happened" because she was going to need to be sidelined and not even have to worry about thinking about her training or her planned races because ultimately she would need to be with and care for her mom.
In the meantime I was about 90% trained with no place to run... until last week when some local running friends started pinging on me to join them in a half marathon that is held here every February. This is a 'no frills at all' race. No medals and only 3 water/Gatorade stops (in 13.1 miles!), although they have added part chip timing. You do it for the glory of saying that you did it. This race is known to be hilly and to challenge even the best runners. No PRs are set on this course. I've never run it and have pretty much actively avoided it because I've heard the stories of the hills.
But, it only costs $12 to run it and on the application fee it actually says if you don't have the money, just come run it anyway and maybe next year you could pay a little more or make a donation. Just have to love a local race like that, right?
I had every excuse not to run it, including the fact that I'd done NO HILL TRAINING. But my friends just kept after me, even offering to pay fee, telling me I needed it as a stress reliever and one finally said, "well you're all trained up and nowhere to run so why not?" and that made me cave. But why did I give in? I was still feeling all those terrors... but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was what I should do. Do it for my friend because she couldn't run and also because I wanted to do it for her mom. To show them they could face the unknown and conquer it. I'm not kidding people, I was terrified of this race. So, I kept the secret and I didn't tell my friend that I was doing it. That was hard, but I really wanted it to be a surprise for her. (Also, just in case I backed out at the last minute. Shhhhhh.....)
Friday I worked on hydration and carbs - woohoo - carbs for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Saturday morning I got up bright and early to get my hydration going and to eat some breakfast. I had typical race day jitters and my race day stomach. A familiar feeling that doesn't go away until the gun goes off to start the race. My girlfriend picked me up (I think she was afraid I'd back out lol!) and and off we went.
When we arrived, I kept hearing people say that it seemed like there were a lot more people there than usual. As it turned out this was a record number of runners for this race. They ran out of bibs! I think the high turnout might have been thanks to the hard rain we’d had Friday night. The roads were more cleared of snow than usual and it was going to be partly sunny and 35 degrees – not bad for running.
Peeps. OH EM GEE and HOLY CARP. This was the hardest race I have ever done in my entire running career - and that includes the full marathons I've done. Hills? They weren't hills. They were runner slayers, they were pace killers. These hills were so hard and so steep that even the downhills didn't feel good because they trashed your quads and then all you could do was stagger and quiver on the uphills.
The race STARTS on an incline. I had to keep telling myself to hold back and just chug away because though I knew the course was generally hilly, I really had no idea what I was in for even though I'd asked my friends a million questions. I just kept chugging along, and my worst nightmare began to happen even as I ran... I had the sweeper/Police car right behind me for 2 miles! GAH! I kept thinking, how is it that I really did end up being last? But then I had to remind myself that I needed to not focus on negative thinking that I just needed to push through. Literally, I thought of my friend’s mom fighting her cancer and I know how important it was for my SIL Pam to have a positive outlook while she was fighting hers so I made myself start chanting my running mantra, "Just keep running, just keep running, Don't quit, just keep running!" And I did. Slowly but surely, I started picking people off... those who had started too fast were already walking by the time I was around 5 miles in. That tells you just how bad those hills were.
I had heard that Rick, the race director, was a lunatic and would pop out of nowhere along the course and run with people. I'm so slow I never thought I would see him after the beginning race announcements. As I approached the mile 6 mark, I saw a directional arrow on the road and a guy standing in the middle of the road. As I approached I realized it was Rick. He high fived me and said, "HEY!! YOU'RE DOING GREAT! I'm going to run with you... look at those hills! Isn't it beautiful? Hey, what's your name? Where are you from? (I'm gasping answers because we are running up a hill. Well, he ran, I staggered.) You must be a first timer, don't recognize the name! You know how to conquer this race? Just SCREAM, I LOVE HILLS! I LOVE HILLS!"
I wanted to say, "No offense, dude but please shut up." But I didn't. Really his enthusiasm was infectious and gave me a little shot of adrenaline that definitely helped me get through the next few miles. Little did I know it, the monster hill at mile 8 was on it's way. I couldn't run it folks. I tried but I can't explain how monstrous this sucker was. I walked and didn't even feel bad about it because every single other runner I could see was walking too. At the top of that hill was one of the aid stations and I looked right at the volunteers and said, "I'm getting ready to cry like a girl," which made them laugh. Ha Ha very funny. That hill added a full 90 seconds to my overall average race pace and took just about everything out of me. I was never able to make up that 90 seconds per minute and right then gave up the idea that I might finish in 2:30, which I had been on track to do. The race continued to alternate between being on paved roads and dirt trails (which still had hills!) and there was nothing to do but try to enjoy the scenery and slog along.
As I came out of the trail part of the run and back onto the main road there was a volunteer yelling as I staggered past, "Pizza, pasta, and non-alcoholic beverages are just 2.1 miles up the road!" Hurray! Except, no one warned me that the last two miles would be a steady climb up hill. So, the race starts on an incline and finishes on an incline? Yikes! Oh, did I mention the wind had picked up and was blowing straight in my face? Ever tried to run up a hill with the wind blowing you backwards?
I briefly considered quitting right at this point. I had developed severe cramping and charley horses in my right calf, plus my achilles tendon was not happy. Stupid hills. But again, I literally used thoughts of Shelley and her mom, along with my running mantra, to power me through. As I got to the 11.5 mile mark, I kept hearing a strange noise. I was still picking off a few runners at this point and there was one ahead me who seemed to be struggling worse than I was. As I got right up behind him I realized the noise I was hearing was him screaming at the top of his lungs. I asked him what was wrong and he was crying and whimpering that his right knee and left ankle were killing him and he just wanted to die. Then he would scream. Then he would whimper that he just wanted to go home. Then he would scream. All of a sudden my various aches and pains didn't seem all that bad. In fact, I was just behind him giggling my head off, thinking, it's true, this race does take down grown men and make them cry!
As it turned out, I would pass him and then he would get mad motivated and speed up to get back by me. But when he realized I had on a Garmin, he kept turning around between screams to ask me how much longer, farther, etc. and so I decided to stay right behind him and coach him through the last mile. He was terrified of being last and though I told him he wasn't, (and at this point who even cares if you are - you've conquered this hilly race!) he wouldn't stop worrying about it. It was actually quite comical! Suddenly I saw a sign that said, "School Zone" and I looked at my Garmin and we were at 13 miles. So I told him, "It's only 1/10th of a mile. Run because there will be people with cameras!" So we ran and a couple of my friends were patiently waiting for me as I crossed the finish line. The man I coached was literally seconds in front of me and after I crossed he grabbed me, gave me a big bear hug, and told my friends, "This woman saved my life!"
Yes, that's how hard this race was. But you know what? Still not as hard as what my friend and her family, or many other families are going through. It was a good reminder to me that positive attitude can carry us a long way and if we fight, we do make it to the finish line.
I didn’t have my best time - in fact my pace was more like a full marathon pace. But no matter. I'll celebrate the simple fact that I finished a really hard race. There were over 470 starters and only 409 finished - that's how hard this race is.
Plus, when I got home I texted my friend a couple of photos including a photo of my racing bib, that I had written on for her mom. It made her cry. But it made me feel like Queen of the Hills!