As I pulled into the parking lot, about the fourth car arriving ridiculously early for the half marathon start, I rolled down my window to ask the volunteer directing cars a question.
“Where are the porta potties?” I asked.
“Why?” he responded gruffly.
Wait. What? For real? Do you really want me to explain why I want to know where the bathroom is? Because as an endurance athlete I have practically no filter when it comes to discussing bodily functions in public. Do you really want to go there?
It was all part of a comical race morning. As the date for the Mighty Niagara Half Marathon approached, the weather forecast became more and more insane. In the end, it was a pretty constant rain, temperatures a bit warm in the mid-60s and humidity as high as all get out. (Of course it was humid. Hence the rain.) The night before I had finally made peace with the weather. A good thing, since while I like to believe I have superhero powers, changing the weather is not in my repertoire. I woke up on Saturday morning about half an hour before my alarm was set to go off. I looked at the clock to check the time, turned back into my pillow and … the power went out. Really? This meant no coffee. This meant I couldn’t heat up my race day oatmeal. This meant NO COFFEE.
I could have sat in my dark apartment with my headlamp on my head. Or I could just leave for the race. So I got dressed, got my stuff together and headed to Tim Hortons for my coffee fix and a plain dry bagel. I then headed up to Lewiston to park at the race start. Hence I was two hours and 15 minutes early. That’s early even by my standards. But sometimes, you just have to embrace the silliness. And because of the steady rain, I spent most of the two hours sitting in my car, staying try and fending off boredom. Thank goodness I have some amazing friends who played along with my insanity and texted with me. Running may be an individual sport, but I feel fortunate to have a “team.” I don’t get to train with them because they live too far away (or are far too talented to hang around me) but they always have my back, including gently slapping me when I need a good dose of perspective.
Runners huddled under rain jackets and garbage bags at the start line. I started chatting with random people, as is my custom. One woman and I started chatting. It was her first half marathon and she was excited and nervous. We heard the gun go off, wished each other luck and began our 13.1 mile journey.
I flew through the first four miles. Running on six-minute intervals, I alternated between hard effort and recovery effort. But I couldn’t help it. I flew. I felt good even in the rain. And I made a deal with myself — I would leave everything out on the course. I decided that was most important. Not the time. Not my pace. After I spent a week rolling over my time and pace goals in my head, I came to the conclusion that what mattered most was my effort and how I responded to those moments when the wheels would start to come off.
There were no clocks on the course and since I wanted to be free from the mental anguish that my Garmin can inflict, I had no idea what kind of pace I was running. For the first five miles I was hanging with a bunch of girls from Nardin. That made me feel good. Then they took off. Oh well. That’s fine, I told myself. Run your race. About halfway through the race the 2-hour pace group passed me. That’s fine, I told myself. That wasn’t your goal anyway. Not for this race. (P.S. I passed two of the Nardin girls later in the race. Just sayin’.)
I don’t remember the exact nature of the rain. But I know it didn’t stop. And at the times when it did let up, I desperately wished it would have started again because it was warm and humid and my hands were starting to get sticky and my quads were starting to feel heavy. I couldn’t get my fluid intake quite right. (It didn’t help that we were told there was Gatorade at Miles 3 and 5 and, well there weren’t any water stops at Miles 3 and 5.) I had a small side cramp early on. Then I had sloshy stomach.
As we went through Old Fort Niagara I saw my parents. I was closing in on Mile 9 and starting to feel the effects of my quick start, the rain, the humidity and the distance. My watch beeped every six minutes. I didn’t know how much I could give to my “hard” intervals, but I kept on going. At this point, I got to know (visually) the other runners around me. I kept leapfrogging with a woman wearing light blue. She served as marker for me — a person to focus on. I didn’t feel the need to beat her, but I knew my pace was slightly quicker than hers and I could pass her if I just kept steady and didn’t try to earn it all back in the next 10 seconds.
The final three miles became painful. My pace slowed, but I kept myself going. Only walk the water stops, I told myself. (For the record I always walk the water stops. I can not run and drink at the same time. Nor do I feel the need to learn. It’s the running equivalent of flip turns for me.) The only walk breaks I took were at water stops. Then I’d start jogging and ease back into a run. At least in my head it was a run. My legs were pretty beat and I’m not sure exactly how quickly they were turning over. But they were turning over nonetheless. By Mile 11 I knew I had it. I’ve got this, I said to myself. Occasionally I’d say “we’ve got this” to fellow runners as we gutted out those final two miles in the steady rain.
The final mile of the course turned into Four Mile Creek State Park. The last mile of any race never freaking ends. And this was no exception. We went around. And around. And around. For the love of GOD where is this finish? Finally the course turned right and there was Mile 13. Only the last 528 feet were crazy. We ran across a grass path which at this point was pure mud. I wanted to pick it up, but my right sneaker got sucked into the mud. SPLOOSH. Luckily, my sneaker remained attached to my foot. I continued to run downhill, cross a road, and then up to the finish line in what was the oddest finish to a road half marathon I’ve ever experienced.
I high-fived my parents and promptly found chocolate milk and a space blanket. After wandering around in the rain listening to Strictly Hip play some of my favorite songs I ran across the woman I chatted with at the start line. She finished her first half marathon and did a marvelous job. She asked if I would take her picture. Of course! There is nothing like the pain of 13.1 miles to make fast friends. Even if you never know that person’s name.
I was spent and could tell the muscle soreness would set in by tomorrow. I was pleased. I had given my absolute best effort and while in hindsight I wondered if I should have moderated my pace a bit more in the early miles, I ran relatively smart. The time goal I was aiming for wasn’t in my reach on this day, but in the end, I ran my second fastest half marathon time, missing a personal best by 40 seconds. More importantly, I showed myself that I could survive sub-optimal conditions. I showed myself that I could keep going even when it hurt physically and emotionally. I showed myself that I’ve grown stronger, wiser and more consistent. And those are things an average pace can never fully provide.