I don’t remember how the topic of distance running came up, but suddenly I was sitting in Alaska with a bunch of women I had just met talking about half marathons. And before I knew it, I was on my smart phone, checking the registration situation for the Detroit International Half Marathon.
My friends thought I would have an amazing race in this my fifth and final 13.1-mile race of the year because I was so excited. It wasn’t just the race which had me excited, although there is a coolness factor about running into Canada over the Ambassador Bridge and back into the U.S.A. via tunnel. What had me excited was the whole weekend — the road trip, the new city and spending time with new friends. I was relaxed and confident. In some ways it was a strange sensation for me. In other ways, it felt like I was exactly in the right spot at the right time for the right reasons.
My friend Nora was my hostess for the weekend, showing me Detroit, a city not unlike Buffalo which has the spotlight on its problems rather than on its revival much of the time. We toured Eastern Market on Saturday morning, a fabulous farmer’s market, then picked up our packets in the afternoon. The process was simple, even with the random check by customs. The weather report was perfect. My legs felt good. This was shaping up to be a great race.
Sunday morning we parked in downtown Detroit with relative ease thanks in large part to Nora and I sharing a desire to be ridiculously early rather than rushing to arrive. It was a chilly morning with temperatures in the high 30s and slight, but noticeable wind. We took refuge in a mass transit station while waiting for another friend to arrive. In the starting corral, I reluctantly took off my sweatshirt but huddled it close to my body. Momentarily I doubted my decision to wear shortsleeves and a running skirt. Once I started running, the thought never crossed my mind again.
It took a bit of time to cross the start line with 24,000 other runners. And those first few miles were congested and difficult to find running space. Instead of frustrating me, it became a bit of a distraction as I parkoured my way through the streets and up to the Ambassador Bridge. By this time my pre-ordained warm-up period was over and I was on to my intervals (six minutes hard effort, six minute recovery effort). But that wasn’t happening so much here. People stopped. They needed to walk the nearly two miles it took to climb to the top of the bridge. They wanted to take pictures. Again it took some maneuvering to keep running. But my usual annoyance level was absent. The sun was starting to rise and the view was amazing. Who cared if my pace was a few seconds slow? This was spectacular.
As we arrived into Canada (with the glorious downhill portion of the bridge) a race announcer greeted us. “What took you so long? Did you guys stop for coffee? We’ve been waiting for you.” I can’t remember another race which had announcers along the route, but the guys were all enthusiastic and supportive and some were quite witty. And that helped move me along. The Canadian side of the race was along the river and again just beautiful as the early morning sun warmed the day. I ditched my gloves and settled into my intervals.
Then just past Mile 6 I spotted a pace group. I tucked in behind Pacer Amy (that’s what the back of her bib said) and ran with them for a minute. Their pace was a bit slower than what I was hoping for, but since I had to catch up to them to begin with, I took this as good sign. Even if I stayed with them, I would finish about where I wanted. My goal for the next few miles was to keep them behind me.
At Mile 7 we entered the tunnel for one of the Detroit Marathon’s attractions — the underwater mile. The first part is a screaming downhill. I didn’t charge it, but I did pick it up. Then for a moment I saw what was ahead, what I knew was ahead from checking out the course elevation profile — a steep climb out of the tunnel.
I learned a few things about running in a tunnel. 1. There is no wind, so no air flow. 2. The no air flow makes it hot. 3. The walls cut off your perspective. Without landscape to judge against, you can not see that you are running straight uphill. 4. That means you really aren’t dying. You’re just hot and tired and running up a mountain.
That was the longest mile on the course. I emerged from the tunnel and high-fived one of the customs officials. (Note: When officials say, “Have your bib number visible,” they mean it. Don’t test the international boarder crossings. Even in a marathon.)
I gave myself a minute to recover and was ready to get back to work on my intervals when the course took a turn over another overpass. It wasn’t that big, certainly not compared with the bridge or tunnel, but it definitely had an impact on me mentally. At this point I was neck and neck with the pace group I had passed in Canada. Now was the critical time in the race. Now was the time I needed to make a decision.
It was the final three miles of the race. I could push really hard, put myself in a world of hurt and try to break my PR. Or I could settle in, stay strong, run smart, and enjoy the rest of the race. The last three miles aren’t easy. They’ve never been easy for me. I did the Lucy Half Marathon just seven days before. This was my third half marathon in the last five weeks. I felt great. And I wanted to keep feeling great. So I fell in with the pace group.
I started chatting a bit with Pacer Amy. She promptly made a joke that my name would be easy for her to remember. She talked me through the last three miles. Because even though I was feeling good and cruising in, part of me desperately wanted to completely pack it in and walk. That gremlin voice that wanted to fold, that insisted this was too hard, that said I should settle for much less, started to get louder. But I was feeling too good to give in. And Pacer Amy was awesome. She told me while I was working hard, I looked strong. “You’ve got this,” she told me.
As we crossed Mile 12 the split between the marathon and half marathon course was coming up. I started to pick up the pace. “Way to be strong at the end Amy!” Pacer Amy yelled to me. I felt her encouragement as I turned the corner. I stayed strong. I picked it up the final 500 yards. I crossed the line with a smile on face.
It wasn’t my fastest time. It wasn’t my slowest time. But it was one of the best times I’ve had on a half marathon course.
My friends were right. I had an amazing race, not because of my final time, but because of everything internal. I was relaxed and confident. I was smart and strong. I made choices based on what I wanted, not out of fear. And I celebrated by cheering in Nora as she crossed the finish line.
I was impressed by the race. It was well-organized and spot-on in pretty much every way. But truly what I was most impressed by was Detroit. The spectators were the best I’ve seen at a marathon or triathlon. Their signs were creative and made me laugh. Some of the highlights included:
You trained longer than Kim Kardashian’s marriage.
You’re running better than the government.
If a marathon were easy it’d be called your mother.
Good job random stranger!
Along with the creativity was the sense of community and support. Spectators cheered for everyone, not just the people they knew. (Spectators everywhere take note.) Two older women in one of the neighborhoods came out to tell us all that we were superheroes. I don’t know if I felt like a superhero. But I did feel the love from random strangers. And that’s one of the amazing aspects of running — it creates an instant community and creates lifelong friendships.