This was the first running of the Athleta Iron Girl Columbia Half Marathon. For those of you not familiar with Maryland, Columbia is an area about 30 minutes south from downtown Baltimore, and about 40 minutes north of Washington, D.C. It's primarily a busy sprawling suburb with a mall, lots of communities, and businesses. It seems that in recent years, Columbia is becoming one of the top areas in Maryland for races and triathlons. I've heard great things about the Iron Girl Triathlon that's held here every year. It sells out pretty quickly and even though I didn't register for that, in fear of not being ready by August, I did want to get in on some of the action by registering for the half marathon.
Most people don't like to be the 'test subjects' or 'guinea pigs' for an inaugural race. I embrace the opportunity... for me, it's quite entertaining actually. I'm a pretty self sufficient runner. I bring my own gels, hydration, cell phone, keys... so I don't really rely on water stops or bag check. I'm also pretty comfortable with running near traffic since I live in a pretty busy area and I love running in the city. I say all of this to say that there were some popular 'complaints' that came along with this race that didn't really affect me at all. But let's start from the beginning.
I laid out my things the night before, like a good lil' runner and ate my pasta (yummy mostaccioloi napoletana) dinner and tucked myself in for the night all before 10 p.m.
The next morning, my alarm clock went off at 5 a.m....and I turned it off. (-.-) Not to worry, my internal alarm clock eventually screamed at me to get up. I hate early mornings. I did the breakfast/twitter ritual and wished other followers well on their races that they were running in that same day. I threw on my digs and headed out of the door around 6:15 and arrived at the parking lot at about 6:30. The race was scheduled to start at 7 a.m. so I took my time in the car, putting the finishing touches on my ensemble - making sure my iPhone was in the case and secured to my arm, buckling my bib belt, etc. I sleepily dragged myself to the start line and watched in admiration as other people warmed up... I couldn't will my body to move in the damp cold morning and just wanted the crowd to pull in closer around me to keep me warm. I think it was in the lower 40s... so cold for this time of year. I sparked up a conversation with a member of BGR! Atlanta who was standing next to me. She asked if this was my first half marathon (probably because it looked like I had on too many clothes) but I mentioned that it was my fourth and I was not feelin the hype like I used to. I was wearing my BGR! track jacket but I had on a sleeveless shirt underneath. I chose to go with the CW-X full length tights because of the cooler morning temperatures and to avoid fumbling with my compression socks later.
We chatted for a bit until the singer of the National Anthem hushed the crowd. Funny moment: During the National Anthem, we reached the part where the singer says "O say does that star spangled banner..." and a small percentage of us women quietly attempted to carry on the tradition of letting out that big Orioles O but it kinda fizzled out awkwardly. The Atlantan standing next me asked "Oh no! What happened? Did the singer say something wrong?" I had to explain to her that it was a good ol' Baltimore tradition to loudly belt out a big "OOOOOOOOOOOOH!" during that part of the Star Spangled Banner in homage to the Orioles but I guess the women in the crowd felt a bit awkward about it so the sound was a little apprehensive. It was a funny moment. You had to be there.
So back to the race... even though there were pacers peppered throughout the crowd for self seeding purposes, it was still a mass start. We were off at 7a.m.! There was a lot of crowd support for the first few hundred feet and perhaps the first mile...then it sorta fizzled off which was expected for a race snaking through a suburban community at 7a.m. on a Saturday morning. I can't really explain the space I was in mentally. I guess I was on autopilot. I found the 11 min/mi pace group and didn't really care about finish time or any of that. I told myself that I guess I will run by how I felt. I felt okay with the 11 min/ mi pacers but not great. They were definitely running MUCH faster than an 11 min/mi. The performance athlete in me wasn't complaining but the lazy runner who was still halfway asleep was. I kept glancing at my watch and seeing 10:18 min/mi then 10:07 min/mi then 10:36 min/mi. I watched as others around me audibly gasped for air and fell back one by one as we churned up and down the hilly course.
I was holding strong. I didn't let it get to me mentally. Instead I made sure to position myself directly behind the pacers in order to keep up with them. I was careful not to get stuck behind someone who was slowing to a walk right in the middle of a hill. Little did I know how important this strategy was until much later in the race. By mile 4 there was a 'core' group of about 3 of us who stayed with the pacers stride by stride...even at the forced 10:20 min/mi pace. I thought of a few things while running with them:
1) I know that some pacers are so pressed to meet their overall finish time that they sometimes push it hard for most of the race just to make sure they meet or beat that time - but at what cost? This isn't fair to those who truly run an 11 min/mi and nothing more.
2) Maybe these pace leaders know something about this course that I don't know. I mean, I didn't really look at the course map all that well and I am unfamiliar with some of the side streets and back roads. Perhaps we'll hit a rough patch that will level this out in the end.
3) I really don't think they know how fast they are going. They are so oblivious! I'll keep up as long as possible and if I have to, I will fall back into a comfortable and TRUE 11 min/mi pace.
I'm pretty sure I was right about #2 and #3. There were a few moments when a faster runner would drop back a bit and speak to the pace leaders who then glanced at their watches and slowed down. NOTE: I was so out of it that I needed something to wake me up to get me going so I tuned into my mixtape and turned up the volume to the point where I couldn't hear that little voice that wanted me to get back in bed and be lazy haha. So I can only assume what was actually said during these little Garmin-check exchanges. As for knowing something about the course, yeah. So at mile 6, I was cruising along and heard my Garmin beep that lovely mile split beep. I looked at my watch and said "OH! Mile 6 already?! Hmm" I was feeling great! I took in my first Gu gel and kept churning along with my group of four (including the pace leaders). Then it happened.
The hill that separated the lay woman from the Iron Girls. This hill boasted of a 300 ft climb. The pace leader started barking out orders..."LEAN INTO IT! STAY ON YOUR TOES! LIFT YOUR HEAD TO CONTROL YOUR BREATHING!!" Here's the thing with me... I can not focus if people are talking around me. I turned down the music before 'the hill incident' but desperately clambered to turn up the music to drown out her orders and to simultaneously keep moving. It was effing hard. I tried my best not to stop running. I got about halfway up and took 3 walking steps...then I saw a sign that read "MAKE THIS HILL YOUR B!$#&!" and I got my butt in gear and stutter stepped, tippy-toed, and whatever else I needed to do to get up that monster of a hill. I reached the top, and my hamstrings and glutes cried UNCLE! I had to recover...and I wasn't in hill running shape to recover while trotting along so I walked. I walked for a little over a minute staying honest with myself about starting back up to run - not making excuses and not letting any pain set in. My group of four was starting to move farther and farther away from me, but I dug in deep and caught up to them at the 6.5 mile mark. Thankfully there was a water stop ahead and the pace leaders slowed a bit. I was refreshed and back on their heels (literally).
By now, Columbia was waking up, and we could see the traffic backing up as we crossed major intersections and pathways leading out of the sleepy suburban communities. At one point, police were letting cars try their luck at speeding through openings between groups of runners. Pretty stupid if you ask me. I'm assuming they were getting chewed out by the neighbors for the hold up. Given our pace, I just knew that there were plenty of other runners behind us and I could only imagine how much worse traffic would get before the end of the race. I kept trotting along...still rolling up the hills and down the hills, and finally to a flatter elevation. I was feeling pretty good by mile 11 and stretched out my legs a little, leaving the pace group. I figured if I lost some steam later on in the race and couldn't carry myself through the finish line, I would naturally drop back to the pace group and will push myself to finish with them...but that never happened.
More mental strategy...
I told myself that if I hit mile 12 and still felt good, I would kick it until the finish line and that's exactly what happened. Mile 12 and ZOOM! I was off... I kicked it into high gear and REALLY felt comfortable in my stride when I realized that we were done with the hills. I excused myself as I squeezed between weary runners, saying "EXCUSE ME! I'm goin after a PR!" I couldn't believe what I was seeing! I thought I had a chance of PR'ing by 4 minutes around mile 11 but no! I was looking at 2:08:XX on my Garmin towards the end of mile 11...so I just knew I could pull through with a PR! I relied on some of that cadence rhythm from spin class and kept it up with quick efficient steps - eliminating long strides. I stayed steady... and eventually saw the finish line! I couldn't believe it! I looked down at my watch as it ticked pass 2:15:XX and into 2:16:XX!! It was happening!!! I WAS GOING TO PR!
I sprinted through the finish, clenching my fists, and mimicking the image of victory in my very grasp. I YELLED "PR BABY!" as I crossed the finish line. An amazing moment that I will NEVER forget. This was my fourth half marathon. My fastest time to date before this race was 2:24:22. On this day, I PR'd and ran this race in 2:17:00 exactly.
Who would've thought? Almost three months ago, I cried in my doctor's office, thinking I would NEVER run anything faster than a 2:30:00 half marathon ever again because I was "broken". There's something to be said about positive thinking, listening to your body, and training hard but more importantly TRAINING SMART to get what you want.
It was a gift to myself...something I so desperately needed.
I am an Iron Girl.