On Sunday, April 27th, 2008, I ran my first half marathon. Inevitably, I did a lot of stupid things leading up to and during this race. Don’t be like me. Learn from my stupidity. Please do the opposite in order to avoid any unnecessary suffering.
I didn’t find out about the Limestone Half Marathon in Kingston until about a week beforehand. My preparation for this race wasn’t exactly ideal. I had run the world university cross country championships in France just three weeks earlier. After the cross country race, I had taken a week off from running altogether. My first week back consisted of about 87 miles of running in singles (no two-a-days) with a 21 miler on Sunday. The next few days involved a tempo run and a track workout that left me with a minor calf strain. It was somewhere around this time that I decided it would be a good idea to run a half marathon that weekend.
I was particularly interested in this race because of the cash prizes ($150 for the winner!) and the cash bonus of $500 for breaking the course record of 1:22:20. Upon discovery of these details, my mind started racing. $650…think of what you could buy with that money, Leslie! Of course you can run faster than that time!
Despite my housemate’s warnings (“Leslie, one should not use their powers for monetary gain!”), I decided to run the race. I informed others of my intentions so that they could give me a guilt trip if I chickened out. I didn’t run on Friday in order to rest my sore calf. I went home early from a party that night. On Saturday, my calf felt fine, thanks to the rest and the magic of ice and compression socks. I was ready.
I encountered a few problems on the morning of the race. The gun was to go off at 9:30, so I would need to eat a good breakfast at 5:30…unless I shut off my alarm while half asleep and didn’t wake up until 6:45. Thankfully, my late breakfast didn’t cause me any distress while racing, but it sure added a lot of unnecessary stress and panic in the morning.
I made it to the race in time to register and relax before I started my warm up. The weather was a bit cool when I arrived, but it was a beautiful, sunny day and the temperature ended up being perfect by the time the race got underway. A few other current and former Queen’s University runners were also racing, so I was able to mingle a bit and stay calm before the race. I did a nice easy jog for my warm up, laced up my new racing flats (the Brooks T4s), and headed over to the start line.
The race course consisted of a flat 5k loop through the Royal Military College, which we would run at the same time as the 5k runners, then an out-and-back route for the remaining 16.1k. The gun went off and both the 5k runners and the half marathoners took off at the same time. This made it a bit difficult to pace myself properly over the first 5k. I followed a group of runners who were doing the 5k for this bit of the race. The pace felt very easy, and my legs, so accustomed to running hard for 5k and then stopping, wanted to go faster. I forced myself to hold back. Even so, my split at 2k was 7:07! Thankfully, the group of guys from the Royal Military College cross country team that I had been following decided that they didn’t like that pace, either. They slowed down a bit, and I told myself to quit racing these guys, relax, and simply follow them for the first 5k of the race. As we made our way back toward the start/finish area, the RMC men began to sprint and left me behind. Despite slowing down, I was in a bit of discomfort. I glanced at my 5k split: 18:30. Oops. I hadn’t wanted to go quite that fast. On the bright side, the one woman ahead of me had branched off towards the 5k finish, so I was now the lead woman in the half marathon.
As I set out for the 16k out-and-back, I started to worry. I had only run 5k, and I was started to feel very, very tired. To make matters worse, I was now running completely alone, since everyone I had been following before had now finished their 5k. I would have to rely only on my splits and my perceived effort in order to keep going at a steady pace. I was worried about my sudden onset of fatigue after only 5k, so I backed off of my pace just slightly, hoping this would help me conserve energy for the latter kilometres of the race. The course wound through the park beside Lake Ontario, and under normal circumstances, I would have been enjoying the beautiful view and the perfect weather. Instead, I was experiencing the “loneliness of the long distance runner.” Surprisingly, my thoughts didn’t wander; I managed to stay focused on the race. But it would have been nice if my thoughts had been a bit more positive. With no other runners for company, I had to rely on the volunteers along the road. Thankfully, they were all very positive and enthusiastic and did an amazing job of cheering me on.
The stretch between 10k and 15k in a half marathon is a dark and depressing place. Until this point, I had only been taking my splits at every 5k, since I didn’t want to be too hung up on time in the first half of the race. But after 11k, I decided that I needed some numbers to measure my effort. I was glad I started taking splits at that point, because my 12th kilometre was a 4:19 (I was supposed to be running each km in the 3:50 range)! At this point, I had forgotten about breaking the course record. My goal was to finish. No, my goal was to avoid falling over and dying at the side of the road. I was in a world of pain. It didn’t help that I had just hit a very hilly section of the course. Hopelessness and despair took over. I had started the race too fast, and now I was at the mercy of this cruel distance, fighting my way up the unforgiving hills of King Street. It was a different sort of pain than I was used to feeling in the latter stages of a race. I knew only the sharp and quick onset of pain that one feels in a 1500m or even in a 5k. This was the kind that built up slowly and lasted much longer. Dealing with this new sort of hurt wasn’t a matter of running through it and telling myself it would be over soon. It was a matter of gritting my teeth, keeping on with it, and trying not to think about it, because I still had a long way to go.
It’s a good thing I’m a stubborn person. That 4:19 kilometre was enough to put quite a bit of fear into my tired body, so I told myself to wake up and keep pushing despite how terrible I felt. I was able to bring the next kilometre down to 3:43 with the help of a downhill, so this gave me a bit of hope.
Upon hitting the 16k mark, I was in a slightly better state. Sure, it was still hilly, I was burning up under the sun, and my feet were starting to hurt, but my split was 1:01 flat! This meant that I could run the final 5.1k in 21 minutes and still break the record! I had previously given up on this goal of running under 1:22:20, but with only 5k to go, it was once again in sight. So I kept on. Besides, the race had become much less lonely since the turnaround. Runners who were still on their way out to the turnaround were cheering me on as the first woman. I would have settled for much less than the support I received from my fellow competitors – I was simply happy to see other people after only the pylons on the course for company over the last 8k. I felt as if my pace was no more than a stumble, but I kept seeing sub-4-minute kilometres as I took my splits, despite some nasty hills. Those little numbers on my watch were all that kept me going. I wondered briefly if there would have been a better way to get through this race than to have concentrated solely on how much pain I was in. Maybe this was why some people run with music. Maybe this was why others simply opt for the 10k instead. Maybe this was why Ryan Hall is a religious man – I’m an atheist and I was about ready to pray, “Dear God, PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!”
I crossed the line at 1:20:48.9, breaking the course record and finishing as the first woman and seventh overall. I guess I probably should have thrown my arms up or celebrated or something to make the pictures more interesting. But I was too tired to put forth the extra effort.
I had to deal with a bit of nausea for the rest of the day, and the soreness I had after this race was even worse than I had expected. I made a lot of beginner mistakes (ie. my the first 5k of the race), and suffered as a result. Nevertheless, I was glad that I decided to run this race. No, not just because of the money (because a $650 paycheck for the day isn’t bad at all!) I suppose one needs to run the race and learn a few things the hard way before excelling at the distance. Running a half marathon was a great experience, and there was no better place to do it than in Kingston. The Kingston Road Runners’ Association always puts on great local races that are well-organized and exciting events, yet still retain that low-key atmosphere. It’s probably because all of the runners in Kingston are so friendly! I will definitely be back next year, and Sunday’s race will certainly not be my last half marathon!
Oh, and I made the local newspaper!