Last week when I was out on a run, building up my base mileage for the Vermont City Marathon, I got halfway up the damn hill that’s been kicking my butt for the past couple of months and slowed down to a walk. And what was going through my head? I can’t do this. What was I thinking, signing up for this marathon? If this hill kicks my ass after 5 miles, what’s the monster hill at mile 15 of the marathon going to feel like?
Then I remembered another big race I ran, a distance that seemed insurmountable at the time. I remembered being lined up at the start, feeling like I was woefully under=prepared and not at all sure if my legs and lungs would make it the whole way. Now, when you’ve been a runner longer than you’ve been a blogger, there are a lot of races that were particularly important to you that just never got written about. (If you don’t blog about it, did it really happen?) 😉 This was one of those races, so here’s a little blast from the past – my first half marathon experience.
The Covered Bridges Half Marathon, held in the Woodstock-Quechee area in Vermont in June was the first half marathon I ever ran, in 2008. I had been running seriously for probably a little over a year, yet had only one 5K under my racing belt. Races terrified me and I felt like I wasn’t enough of a ‘real’ runner to be entering them. It’s a miracle that I wasn’t injured at all during the first year or so I got into running, given the beginner mistakes I was making. I ran the same (exact same) 6 mile out and back run at least five or six mornings a week. I ran consistently at the same pace. I was begging for an overuse or repetitive stress injury that never came (I can probably thank strength training for saving me). But when Fran’s cousin suggested I run the CBHM with her, I thought she was insane. That was a distance more than double the length I’d ever run. So I signed up for it. (Do something every day that scares you, right?)
I want to hang my head in running shame when I tell you I didn’t search out a training program to follow. I figured I needed to increase the mileage of one of my runs every week for a few weeks prior to the race, so that’s exactly what I did. Two weeks before, I had dinner at a friend’s place and someone asked me if I was tapering. They must have seen the blank look on my face and took pity on me. I explained I was up to an 8 mile long run and was going to do 9 miles next week and 11 miles a couple of days before the race. “No, you’re not,” said my friend. “Tomorrow you’re going to run 10 miles and then you’re going to stick to a few short, easy runs until race day.” I often wonder how badly I would have crashed and burned had I not had that eye-opening conversation at just the right time.
Race day morning was incredibly nerve-wracking. I was up way earlier than I needed to be. I forced some toast and coffee down, while my stomach felt like it was flipping over. I remember not wanting to break out into a run heading down the road towards the start area so I could conserve as much energy as possible. Lined up at the start with my cousin Lizzie, looking around at all these rugged, athletic, Vermonty looking accomplished runners, I thought I was going to throw up. We heard the gun and started shuffling. “I can’t believe we’re about to run 13.1 miles. This is insane,” were my last words before we took off running and I was soon by myself, trying to soak it all in.
There is something to be said about having a strong, consistent running base. I may have had the most half-assed training “plan” in the history of half marathon prep, but consistently clocking over 35 miles a week was obviously a huge benefit. I never felt like I was going to die. I didn’t walk. (This was back when I didn’t realize it was okay to walk in races – I figured if I did I’d be immediately outed as a ‘fake’ runner or something.) I ate some gummi bears at about mile 9. Someone at mile 10 told me I was nearly there and I thought I must have missed mile markers and already be approaching the finish. (And yes, I cursed that spectator for at least half a mile when I saw the big, shiny “11” on the next marker.) And then there it was, the finish line and I felt okay. I felt more than okay, actually, because I sprinted for nearly the last quarter of a mile.
I stopped my little cheapie Timex watch that was basically just a stopwatch. A fancy watch would have been lost on me – I knew how many miles I ran because I methodically plotted out my course on Map My Run beforehand and the word “split” would have brought to mind either gymnastics or bananas. I looked at my time and wondered if that was good. I not only didn’t have a goal or a plan for the race, I didn’t even really know how long, or what pace one should run 13.1 miles.
I kissed Fran, ate cookies, celebrated with free beer, congratulated my cousin when she crossed the line, then went back to my mother-in-law’s house and showered. I kept waiting for my body to fall apart, for my legs to feel like they’d been pummeled. When I realized I felt totally normal and had accomplished this big thing I never would have imagined I could – well, that was a pretty life-affirming moment for me. I’m sure you’ve had this happen – when you surprise yourself with your strength, with an ability you didn’t know you possessed – and you realize that can apply to anything in your life. It’s like a lightbulb going off: “I can conquer anything.”
The Covered Bridges Half Marathon remains one of my very favorite races. I love it partially because it reminds me of a time in my life when the distance felt insurmountable. I’ve never lined up at a half marathon since that day and wondered if I’d make it and it makes me feel stronger to remember a time when I didn’t have that confidence. But I also love it because the course is so beautiful. You start out near a little ski field and along a tree-lined road until you run through a covered bridge into the pretty town of Woodstock. Then you go by farms and along the Ottaquechee river, on a lovely packed dirt road, passing another covered bridge en route. A couple more miles through the town of Quechee brings you to the finish line at the polo grounds there, a huge expanse of lawn filled with tents of food, free massages and free beer.
It’s such a great race that I’ve run it five more times since that first time. Sometimes I wonder if the push to race longer and longer distances comes from chasing that feeling of, “Can I do this? Do I have it in me?” you get at the beginning of a new race distance. Maybe it’s the starting-line high.
Do you remember what your eye-opening race experience was? The one race where you suddenly realized you could conquer anything?