When I was ready to get out of my fitness slump, I knew I needed another race to fire me up. I had done 5Ks and 10Ks and sprint triathlons, and though it sounds strange to some, the tri’s were mentally less intimidating for me, since I wouldn’t have the monotony of doing the same activity, running, for hours at a time. But since I was looking for a new project, and did have some confidence from my previous races, even thought they were years ago, I decided to try a half-marathon. Yes, 13.1 miles, or almost 22 km! I talked to one of my racing friends who knew that previous to this, I had already aborted a half-marathon plan after a long run of 8 miles. She knew I usually average 3-4 miles per run, 3-4 times per week. She also knewI was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, and immediately suggested the Madison Mini-marathon, as well as Hal Higdon’s training plan. Both of these were strokes of genius; the course gave me a chance to visit Madison, which I ALWAYS LOVE to do, and the plan was great for me, as I didn’t know what my “race pace” would be, and didn’t much care. I needed to build my mileage while cross-training and keeping on schedule, and this plan helped me do that without any fussing over times or distances. I also was not going to stop enjoying other things I love. (Note the wine in the picture!)
That brings me to my next step: What should my goals for the race be? I have learned to set not just one goal, but a few, each a little loftier than the last. Since my miles don’t get much quicker than 10 minutes, the time would be slow, so I had to decide how low, and high, to set my bars. Also, with some of the heat and humidity we’ve had and the unknown weather on race day, I wanted to be conservative.
GOAL #1: Finish (Hey, this is should be a goal in all races for everyone. There could be injury or weather that pops up to foil your plans, and this way, if you finish, you have already succeeded.)
GOAL #2: Under 3 hours. This is 13.7 min mile pace, but again, I’m setting myself up to enjoy the experience, in case I’m inspired to do this again.
GOAL #3: Under 2:55
GOAL #4: Under 2:50
GOAL #5: Under 2:45–I figured if I could come in under this, I’ll be ecstatic!
By some miracle, I actually got more sleep the night before the race than on other insomnia-laden nights, so I figured I was ahead of the game. (True to form, I did have 1 glass of wine with my delicious pre-race dinner at Greenbush.) I headed out to the Memorial Union early in the morning to allow myself a lot of time. I was able to get a great parking space, have all the bathroom access I needed (you racers know what I mean) and relaxed for a while looking out at Lake Mendota, anticipating the finish that I hoped would be coming soon. Because my time goal was so low, I was placed in the last corral for the start…corral J. As in A, B, C…J! Since I hate trying to start slow while feeling pressure to speed up as everyone is crowded and trying to get a good position (really? in the first half mile of a 13.1 mile race?) I was fine with that, and actually found a spot toward the back of J. It was a great few moments: the sun was out and the air was just cool enough to be refreshing, with little humidity. With a slight uphill start, I could see hundreds of people in front of me waiting to start. I was never so calm before a race…I was just HAPPY. I knew I could cover the distance from faithfully following my training plan, even though the longest run I did was less than 11 miles…I could crawl the difference if I had to! And then the race began!
[My plan was to go slow, and then slow down from there! If I felt panicky, which happens to me sometimes for unknown reasons, I will downshift instead of speeding up. I would watch my splits and try not to be too erratic, but would not start running for any particular time until after the Arboretum, which was somewhere after mile 7. A mini-goal I had set for myself was to not feel I went out too fast. That is a classic mistake, which I have made before, and was also everyone’s advice for me.]
I am glad I chose Madison to run my first half, because the course is laid out to take you past many of the great sights of the city, and I hoped the course would help take my mind off this crazy thing I was about to try! I felt good from the very beginning, and the Capitol/State Street section was wonderful. I was glad we were running down State instead of up, which I have done before and do NOT like! But I also knew how tempting it was to pick up the pace, and I reminded myself to keep it to one step above “shuffle.” Then I had my bit of Mini-magic. Part of me always does anything unique and interesting for my dad, who died at 46 of cancer. As I was almost at the end of State Street, I saw a couple who were friends of my father’s, who I NEVER see otherwise. I was able to call out to them and wave, and they were of course surprised to see me, too. I kept on going, but the tears were rolling down my face for a good mile as I was running my first half marathon in the hometown I love. I choose to believe this: dad couldn’t be at the race, so he sent them for me instead.
That was the final piece of the puzzle. I knew I would have a good race and enjoy myself, so I just settled in and looked at the course through happy eyes. The run past the Kohl Center, Union South and Camp Randall was great of course, and it was here that I passed the 2:45 pacer. That group was ahead of me at the start by a couple minutes, and though it was WAY too early to care, part of me knew that if he didn’t pass me, I’d have my A+ goal. The atmosphere changed as we got into the first residential area. Things got quieter and the runners started to spread out, and we had our first tiny rolling hills. By concentrating on my pace, I was able to actually pass some people who had a more up and down pace. I also saw my favorite sign at this point, “We are proud of you, total stranger!” I would take someone who has run to know how nice of a sign that is! (Also to her credit, I saw her twice more on the course…what a great spectator!)
Running along Lake Wingra near the zoo was also great for me; my family spent many a summer day at this free zoo, and I was able to let my mind wander to my family and childhood in Madison. It wasn’t listed as one of the sights on the map, but we were also running very close to St. Mary’s hospital, where I was born…I guess that sight-seeing moment was just for me. I was feeling good as we entered the Arboretum, which was a mental checkpoint for me. I knew it would be shaded (it was) so I was hoping to collect my strength if I needed to, or just keep up the pace if I was feeling good, which I was. I continued to stop at each aid station for a water and a Gatorade, and though I walked while I drank, I was never walking for more than a minute and a half, and was able to run the rest of the time. When I came out of the Arboretum, I did some very basic math, and knew I had a shot at 2:45!
We headed back towards the University through surface streets and a stretch of four lane road. I was still feeling good, but obviously getting more tired as the miles wore on. I would just start to feel a bit sluggish when an aid station would appear, and my cup of Gatorade rinsed down by a cup of water would revive me. My next landmark was the University Hospital, marking more than 10 miles, which was my longest training run. I had slowly noticed that I had passed most of the people that I was with for the first part of the race, and other than a few people who were still getting further from me, I seemed to be running the same pace as most, and passing others. This reminded me of a movie quote, “I’m not going faster, Harry, everyone else is going slower!” Needless to say, I was pretty proud of myself, since my plan of not going out too fast seemed to work, and others may have fallen victim to that mistake.
The last couple miles were strange and new for me, because I don’t recall anyone overtaking me, but it seemed like I was passing many people! This is when I decided I would ALWAYS start towards the back of my starting group…it feels great to imagine you are speedy! I knew I had been bouncing slightly between 11:30- and 12:00-minute miles (definitely NOT speedy), and I was happy with the consistency of my splits; I felt good enough to push a bit harder the last 2 miles. Thankfully, the course did not take us up Observatory hill, but along the lake on a much flatter paved/packed dirt road. There were some inclines and declines, and that, with the tiredness and the mounting excitement, made me start losing my breath for the first time. I had still walked only while drinking, so I had to be sure to remember that I would still be running for about 20 more minutes, and I had to make sure I didn’t reach exhaustion too early. Thankfully, the organizers of the race broke the last mile into pieces, because I lost all concept of time, and that last mile did feel the longest! I had to stay calm as I passed the 3/4, 1/2 and 1/4 mile markers, trying to gauge how much energy I had left.
The last couple hundred yards was kinda rough, with a downhill followed by an uphill as the roads and driveways along the lake fluctuate up and down, but I knew this stretch and knew exactly how far the finish line was, so I decided that I could power through the distance (~0.1 mi) that was left. As we turned onto Park St, I prepared to give what I had left (which is not much, since I am NOT a sprinter, as my slow miles bears out,) and then I see Chad. He is standing at the top of what little incline I have left, with his camera at the ready. My adrenaline gives me the power to raise my hand over my head to wave, and I know he sees me. I don’t remember breathing as I round the last corner and see the finish line. I don’t know how many people were there when the majority of racers finished, but I remember there were still a sea of faces and I did hear my name as I approached the finish. I crossed the line at 2:36:32, exceeding every goal I had set for myself!
The finishing chute was wide, and since finishers were sparse now, we had plenty of room and did not bottleneck as we slowed to a walk. I got my water and a volunteer placed my medal around my neck (yippee!) There were snacks aplenty; chocolate milk, bananas, chips, cookies, granola bars, but other than the medal, I was most grateful for the sweat towels they handed out! I made a beeline for the lake shore, where Chad found me right away. We snapped a couple pictures and I got my free beer! Those who know me at all know that I don’t drink beer, but, boy, did I drink this one! I got my results from the receipts they print out for you; this is a great new invention! (Have I been out of the fun run scene that long, or do they only do this for larger races? Great to have this right after the race; there was a time it would take days to get results!) Chad allowed me to bask in my post-race glory as we sat at the Union and people-watched.
This is the best race I have ever run, and many things made that happen: great weather, great course, great town, etc., but I think the confidence built from my long runs and my happy anticipation were key. Chad was a great support for me; training involves quite a time commitment, and he never rolled his eyes at my training. In fact, he never scoffed once in June and July, as I was babying a raging case of plantar fasciitis with ice, massage and a funky nighttime foot brace. It could be said that I didn’t set a realistic or challenging enough goal, but as many have told me when planning for this, “the first one is just for fun.” And it was!
Net Time: 2:36:32
5 Mile Pace: 11:49
10 Mile Pace: 12:06
Last 5K Pace: 11:31
Division Place: 211/244 (Ahh…BOP yet again!)