Tuesday, May 3, 2016

13.1 ways of looking at a half marathon

A Pittsburgh Half Marathon race report, with apologies to Wallace Stevens

1. In media res

Between the 2:10 and the 2:15 pacers, sometime between the elite start and the start of my very mortal Corral C wave, it begins to drizzle.
The first worry is: not enough calories. I am shifting from foot to foot, trying to stay warm in t-shirt and shorts. I've been vertical since 5.45am - one and a half hours - and awake since 4.45. Should've finished my second packet of instant oatmeal. Should've finished my coffee. Should've brought a bagel or Honey Stinger waffle to the start. Shouldn't have walked two miles to the start line. At least I have 20,000 new friends around me. We're all keeping each other warm with nervous energy.

2. Begin at the beginning

The starting gun pops. 30,000 people are running today, including full marathoners, marathon relayers, and half marathoners. It's crowded, wet, slippery unknown streets; I don't want to dodge. Instead I play games for a few miles: find someone wearing yellow and black, chase them down; find someone in red, follow them. I soon warm up.
"This is a lot of trouble to go to for a free banana," I hear someone say, as I pass.

3. It's mostly about me, but also about you

A lot of questions pass through one's head during a longish race. Questions like: Why do I run? and, as it rains harder, What possessed me to wear underpants?
The answer to the first is It wouldn't be fun if it wasn't challenging. The Tarahumara Indians consider running a game, jugando. I feel like I run in that ludic spirit.
As for the second, call me agnostic, but it is possible to be on the fence about underpants/ no underpants.
This is an excellent city race. The spectator support is huge. The Gatorade and water stands are hyper-efficient. The volunteers are on point. The bands are ear-splittingly encouraging.
At least one unofficial support station (run by hashers, of course) somewhere around mile 7 or 8 offers beer. It's Natty Light. I don't care how hydrating it is, I did not run 13.1 miles for Natty Light.
Pittsburgh is a fine city for a foodie, with beer and brunch at decidedly un-coastal price points. The night before, we carbo-load with face-sized sandwiches, stuffed full of fries. Later, we have a croque-madame and a bison-burger and a chocolate stout and a mango-salsa burrito and a chicken tikka rice bowl.
I do not take the Natty Light.

4. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it 

A quarter done already. (I can't say 'without thinking about it'. I've been thinking about it since before I even started.) I eat my first shot block.
Miles 3-6 contain three bridges. Look at this elevation map of the half marathon course.

If you also look at my Garmin, you can kind of infer where the bridges are. Mile 11-12 contains HILLS and is my slowest mile (10:44). Actually, just one hill. It's embarrassingly small, too. The tricky part was not knowing exactly where the hill was going to end - more proof that it really is a mental game.


It takes a mile and a half to finish a single shot block, as I am incapable of running and chewing at the same time. This, coupled with trying to drink while running and also not choke on half-masticated shot block bits, keeps me occupied for many happy miles.
I like thinking about race distances in miles; that there are fewer of them than kilometres seems to help them tick by faster.


Mile 6 is a no-man's-land in which I largely blank out and keep putting one foot in front of the other. The thought dominating my head is 'Oh no, not another bridge.'
This race is not for the acrophobic.

7. A change of pace

More than halfway done! Ok, time to pick up the pace.
I attempt to pick up the pace.
My splits do not reflect my experienced reality. If a mile feels harder than you've actually run it, have you run it?
I see the 2:05 pace sign bobbing in the distance. I started so far behind them, I never even saw them for the first mile. I try to catch them repeatedly for the next six miles, and fail.

"Now we only have to hold this pace for an hour more," remarks a nearby runner to her friend.
"If you ran faster you wouldn't have to hold the pace so long," the friend replies.
"Whoa, good point."

8. Give me a sign...or else forget about it 

Chafing The Game
Toenails Are For Losers
Hey Eric, If You Think Running 13.1 Miles Is Hard...Try Waiting For You!
If Trump Can Run 4 President, You Can Run 13.1
Go Random Stranger (same people, same sign, seen twice)

9. Tick tock 

I flirted with the idea of running Garminless.
I did not run Garminless.
The half marathon is a distance where I feel like I have some room for improvement - but not much. Like, I'm not going to be chopping 15 minutes off my time anytime soon. So every minute counts. I run well aware of the beeps, and well aware of my effort, but take no steps to link the two by actually looking at the darn watch face until about mile 8. When I do look I discover that if I run 10:00 miles the rest of the way I will PR. This thought magically transports me up the next bridge.

10. Goodbye, separation anxiety

I run faster, because I ran down this way to get to the start and I know the terrain. Also, I really want to see my No. 1 Fan Club on the course. They're standing around at mile 10. I run over, kiss both of them, and dart off. According to the husband, baby bear howls for ten minutes after I vanish. Knowing this exact thing would happen, I run faster to finish sooner and get back to them. When I finish, little bear is asleep and snoozes in the carrier until I find them, whereupon he wakes up and grumbles till we get back to the apartment.

11. Oh, baby! 

Spectating is hard work. After we get home from lunch, little bear hibernates for two and a half hours. It's like he ran the half marathon instead of me. I briefly consider running a half every weekend so he'll nap.

12. I think I can, I think I can 

I'm giving it everything I have. My calves are starting to burn. What goes up must come down, right?
I think about Amy, whose virtual training partnership has been invaluable. I don't think I could have done this without her. There's a lot to be said for cheering each other on and being each other's reality check and commiserating about the joys of training while working/ living/ parenting. She's only halfway, and I wonder how she's doing on those full-marathon hills.

13. Lessons

I finish in 2:06. So, no 2:00. I knew that was a stretch goal going in. But 2:06 is a respectable five-minute PR on patchy training and a rolling course. Not bad for my first half marathon in almost two years.
Post-race resolutions are like New Year's resolutions. More strength work, glutes and core, will power me up hills and stave off cramps. Shoulda done a 14-mile long run at least once, instead of the 10s and 12s.
The challenge is putting the resolutions into practice. How to make myself get to the gym for strength work? How do I do speedwork alone? How badly do I really want it? Tell me how you do it.

0.1. Unique selling point

A good marketing slogan can be absurdly effective, people. In the near-bronchiospasm conditions of a sprint into the finish, one thing pops into my head over and over: 'I will what I want (and I want my PR)'.
Coming into the last half-mile I legit have tears in my eyes and am starting to have trouble breathing, knowing I'm going to PR - and more importantly, knowing I gave it my best effort today.

As I wobble through the exit chute, I give myself an extra free banana.


  1. A 5 minute PB is huge! Especially when you've produced a little human in the time between this and your last half marathon. Congratulations Grace.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, for about a year of that time I wasn't even training with any degree of seriousness! The half marathon, at this point, is a tricky beast. I think sub-2 is within reach but I have a few things to learn about pacing. Right now I'm just going to spend the next few days enjoying the afterglow of that PB.

  2. Woo-Hoo! Congrats on the PR (again)! I had such a great time yesterday. It all feels like a dream...except for my aching legs and insatiable hunger. Thanks so much for being such a great virtual training partner. I appreciate all the texts of encouragement. I am sure I would not have done my race without you!

    1. Thanks! Congrats on a solid race (and tour of your hometown neighbourhoods)! You should get those race pics.
      You and Rory were excellent training partners, and I LOVED getting to meet her. Thank you! :)

  3. And you deserved a second free banana, with that time ;-) Congrats. Well-run race.

    1. Thanks! Ha. That's what I told myself. 'This is so well-organised. They're such nice people. They'll have more bananas for people who come after me. So I can take the extra banana I deserve.'

  4. CONGRATS!! A 5 minute PR is huge. Great job!

    (Also, good call on the Natty Lite. *shudders*)

  5. WOOHOO!!! Congrats!! Also - I'm impressed by how much food you can put away the night before a race. You must have guts of steel. :)

    As for solo speedwork, this is what has worked for me this year: I decide on a workout, then I spend the night before getting myself excited to run fast the next day. I think about the exact plan - what time, which route - and that helps to solidify my resolve. I find that my mental attitude has a HUGE impact on my workout. I also know that I usually feel SO accomplished afterwards. I don't know if it's the endorphins or what, but it's an awesome feeling. So that's always motivating...not to mention the huge improvements in the first few weeks of speedwork.

    It doesn't seem sustainable to do solo speedwork for a long time, so I'd limit it to the 6-8 weeks before your goal race. We can be virtual training partners if you'd like. :)

    1. I ought to clarify - the giant sandwich was the carbo-loading; everything else was the post-race refuelling (with husband and friends)!

      I think you're absolutely right about having an exact plan laid out beforehand. It's the mental equivalent of having your running clothes laid out the night before, ready to go in the morning. Virtual training - after Danville? I have yet to decide on my next race, heh.

    2. I'm targeting a half marathon in early August, which probably won't work with East Coast summers...although, you've run in way hotter and more humid conditions than Boston! But feel free to send me a plan whenever you're ready. :)

  6. Just got round to reading this and I am so happy for you!! PR princess!! I also remember the first time I ran past the Dude at M12 of a half and he also couldn't understand why I hadn't stopped and he cried for ages!

    Seriously though...well done, lovely!