On Saturday, November 12th, I ran my first ever half-marathon at Thunder Road in Charlotte, NC. It was the culmination of 3+ months of formal dedicated training (the first time I had probably really stuck to a training plan since back in college) and I was rewarded by my hard work with an excellent finish and a fantastic race experience to remember for years to come.
Saturday dawned cool and clear – the cloudless skies the night before had let the temperature drop so that it wasn’t even above freezing when I left my house in the morning to drive down to Charlotte. I was a little worried about the gear I planned to wear – even though I had run in it before at these temperatures, it was never for this distance and I was also worried about a long standing period prior to the start that would chill me and possibly lead to injury. I kept my sweats on as long as possible, checking them at the bag check just 20 minutes before the start of the race to try to stay warm as long as possible.
I walked/jogged over to the starting area and felt my first signs of panic. There were starting corrals for the runners broken out by goal times, but my racing strategy (based on the excellent advice from some fellow Charlotte runners on RunningAhead.com) involved me starting off a bit slower and picking up the pace about halfway through the race if I still felt strong. I was unsure of which corral to start in, as my goal pace would put me in front of one group but behind another. I ended up moving up to the 1:45 group and figured it would be easier for people to move around me if I wasn’t going fast enough than for me to fight through a crowd of slower runners to try to stay on pace. Initially I did move to the sides of the course rather than stay in the middle of the pack, though, to allow people to pass me more easily (this is why my watch ended up reading 13.2 miles total, I believe).
I was surprised at how quickly we got moving after the leaders took off – it was only about 30 seconds after the crowd started shuffling forward to when we crossed the starting line. The sheer mass of people around me was exhilarating and I could not keep a smile off my face as we wound our way through the streets of Charlotte and headed down our first hill on the way out of downtown. I was having a blast, and hoped I would feel this good for the remainder of the race.
As expected, a lot of people passed me in the first few miles. I kept holding myself back, knowing that if I picked up the pace to stay with them, I’d most likely be walking up the hills in the second half of the race. It was hard enough to restrain myself to 8:15-8:20 pace when I was originally shooting for 8:30s for the first 5 miles. Still, I felt good and my strides kept chewing up the miles. Since I was going a little faster than planned, I decided to hold that pace for the first 6 miles (instead of 5) before picking it up.
I loved all the people that were cheering along the roadsides. I passed high school cheerleaders, marching band drum sections, parents with cowbells and kids in strollers, residents along the route sipping their morning coffee and waving hello, and hundreds of people with signs of encouragement. I gave a big smile to the lady with the sign that said “Strangers – I Am Proud of You” and laughed out loud at the woman with the sign that said “Worst. Parade. Ever. (Where’s my candy?)” [Mental note: bring candy in a pocket next year to throw at her so she can’t gripe anymore.]
Come mile marker 6, I held true to my word and dropped the pace down to 7:50-8:00 minute miles, after sucking down a GU energy gel (note for next time: those things are a lot harder to eat on the run when you don’t slow down at all – I need to practice that on my long runs). I figured if I could keep this up until the last 5K, I could “race” that a bit faster (or in this case, since I knew there were some killer hills at the end, I could try to hold steady) and still end up right where I wanted to be. On one of the downhill stretches of Sharon around mile 8-9 I think I hyper-extended my right knee a bit and had to favor it a little on the downhills for the rest of the race. While this meant I had to ease off on the downhills a bit, I was determined to make up the time by attacking the uphills and keep my pace.
I did a pretty fair job of this up until about 11.5 miles, when my body finally started to flag and I started wondering whether I had picked up the pace too much too soon. I started wishing I had brought a second energy gel with me to have around mile 10. I started wishing I had brought a motor scooter that I could sit down on and ride to the finish. I started wishing I was still asleep in bed, dreaming about running a half-marathon. And then I hit the top of the hill, shook my head, and decided to just finish the race, and finish it strong. I picked up the pace and told myself the only thing standing between me and the finish line was a measly little mile and a half, and pictured the last 1.5 miles of my long runs on the Mallard Creek Greenway, and just pretended I was there. I picked up the pace until I was gunning along at a 7:15 pace, and drove it home with a 150m sprint to the finish.
When I crossed that finish line, I was astonished to see my time. I knew I had been running strong, and had beat my goal of 1:50, but I had no idea that I beat it by almost 5 minutes! I finished with an official chip time of 1:45:18 (8:03 average mile pace) and felt like I was floating. Actually, I felt like I was limping and wheezing and stumbling and sweating like a pig, but none of that could dissuade me from the euphoria I felt at finishing my first ever half marathon in such an extraordinary (for me) fashion. I walked out of the finisher’s area with my medal around my neck and a giant grin on my face.
I’m sure this won’t be my last half marathon. I’m not a one-and-done kind of guy. But the recovery after the race was pretty rough and I definitely need some time to get back to normal. In spite of that, though, this was an amazing first race and a great reminder of how hard work and proper training can pay off in a big way. I’ll be back for another 13.1 sometime soon. And this time, I have a REAL time goal to shoot for.