Event: San Diego Holiday Half Marathon

When: December 28, 2014 at 7:30 AM

Type of race: Point to point

Other: a USATF certified course, chip timed

Personal time: 1:35.09 (gun time), 1:35.07 (chip time); 41:43 for the 10K split

Place: 5th woman in age division; 38th woman overall; 208th person overall

High on the Long Beach half marathon six weeks ago, eager to see if I could push to a new PR, and mindful of wanting to add three more half marathons to my races this coming year, I looked at the San Diego Holiday Half a couple of days after returning from the LBC. Heralded as a mostly downhill course, the San Diego Holiday Half for that reason at first did not sound appealing. I could maybe get a PR but on a downhill? Would that be comparable to a flat course or a hilly course? The fact that it marketed itself as a potential PR course threw me off balance a bit. Would that be a good thing ultimately? My gut said “no.” A course can only be compared to itself, in the end.

But then my dad wanted to run it, and I noticed that the race fell directly on my birthday. My 35th birthday! What could be a better gift to give myself than a long race on my birthday? It would be memorable, an adventure, and a way to celebrate being in the fittest condition of my life.

I never once thought a PR was a given today, though I worried that others thought so; or worse, that they thought I thought so. I knew going into the race that I would be dealing with variables with which I’d not much experience: racing more than one half in a quarter, frigid temperatures, etc. Still, I am an eternal optimist, and I thought a PR might not only be possible but probable, given how well training had gone through November and most of December. I’d had my first sub-6:00 mile on the track; accomplished a 50+ mile week; ran my first training run over 13.1 miles, and so on. Even I caught my eyes a couple of times on the bright allure of a mostly downhill course. At the very least, PR or not, it would be a nice change from the demanding and relentless hills of Temecula. I often feel I run uphill to get out of my neighborhood and uphill to get back into it—if that’s even possible!

But nothing is guaranteed. As runners, we know that, especially on a new course. There are our bodies with which to contend, also. I kept up my training faithfully through the holidays, even on the Christmas Eve and Christmas. I did the best I could do leading up to the race.

One of my great fears in life is being thought of as not a hard enough worker, or lazy, or a slacker. Seriously. Or worse, that I will wake up one day and discover for myself (reputation aside) that I have become so, with respect to anything: being a wife, a mother, daughter, an athlete, a reader, a thinker, etc. etc. The fear of not working hard enough every day drives me, and that fear is a taskmaster to be sure. Because I have been public with my running, and because I have found that my progress in races has been mostly (though not exclusively) linear, I worry that a misstep will be the cue to ask, “Did she not work hard enough? Did she not give her best this morning?”

When I think about it carefully, though, I know no one really gives that a second thought; I certainly don’t assess other people this way. These questions are the echoes of my own mind, my own worries about my inner self. When the race is done, and we look back rested, we wonder—or at least I do—could I have given any more than I gave? How do I know for sure that I did what I could? It is easy to look back in a rested state, out of the moment, and be critical of ourselves. It’s certainly easy for me, and it is the story of my life with respect to every Mock Trial competition, test, college essay, college major, moment of labor and delivery, interaction with my children, speech competition, etc. I’m kind of a mess that way, I guess! I’ve had to learn to feel that self-criticism and then step out of it and laugh at myself for it and then be at peace. I can do that now in my 30s, but I still have to go through the self-critical part as part of the process.

This race was not my best. It was, however, a learning experience, because I have chosen to look at it that way…and for that I am grateful. I did not achieve a PR today, and I watched many people pass me the last few miles. It is a hard thing indeed to watch oneself slipping with every mile, but then again there is victory over the self by continuing to push on. This was neither my fastest race, nor my slowest. I started age 35 by reminding myself how to bounce back and learn from not reaching a goal.

Still, there were moments to celebrate:

1. I started the first mile, a hill ascending 70 feet, well, clocking in at 6:32. It is possible, since this was a pace on a hill, that on flat it would have been much faster….and that, therefore, I went out too fast for a half marathon. This could also be part of my “learning” section. Still, I celebrate that I had speed.

2. A 1:35.09 is capable! It’s not my best, but it was an average 7:14 pace. It’s better than my first Long Beach by quite a bit, and in the 1:30-range.

3. I wanted to quit—like seriously start walking—shortly after 4 miles. But I didn’t. I tried to finish out my 10K fighting as hard as I could, and up til then had a majority of miles sub-7:00. That moment when you want to cry, quit, curse, give up, but you don’t? That’s a victory over the self, a victory over immediate gratification in pursuit of something more. I do not often have the thought of wanting to quit come into my head, but it was coming in attack formation for most of the race. This was the most PAINFUL race I’ve experienced, just beating out Falafel-gate (Billy Mills 10K in Sac this past summer) because of its crazy 13.1 mile length. At least I could be done at 6.2 at the Billy Mills. By 10K  today, I still had SEVEN—7!!!!—more miles to run feeling like I wanted to keel over. I have never wanted to be done with a race more than I wanted to be done with this one. However, every time we refuse to give in to those feelings, every time we take a stand against the dark, each time we fight the pessimism and the cynicism, we triumph. I gave whatever I could and fought for every step. That has to count for something, and to me it does. I had to slow down my pace to breathe, but I kept going and finished.

So what went wrong? And what can I learn?

1. The basic problem for me this morning was that I felt like I could not fully breathe. There is a breathing rhythm I get into when I am running at race pace, and my lungs could not do it. The 39 degree air in which we began was frigid beyond belief. My lungs felt sooo tight. Temecula is cold in the morning, and I run and swim in it all the time…but not often at race pace. Most intervals/speedwork I do in 50+ degrees later in the day. What can I do in the future? I can train to suck in really cold air. I can train for winter racing. Suffice it to say, and this is not an exaggeration, every breath hurt this morning. Every. Breath. How many times does a runner breathe on a half marathon course? Yup. I would inhale and inhale trying to go deep, and it felt like my lungs and my stomach and intestines were locked. I don’t know how else to describe it. In fact, hours later: my lungs are still sore from what I tried to get them to do. They are far more sore than my legs. And because I could not properly oxygenate my legs, I could not break into my full stride after a point.

2. As far as my stomach goes… I followed my normal protocol this morning, but I am still feeling the effects of my stomach bug a week and a half ago. (More on that in a moment). My Superfood Slam never settled in; even eating it at 5:30 AM, I could feel it was going in wrong and almost had to choke it down. I also had a full Powerade. Nothing settled correctly. I felt it stationary in my stomach well after 7 miles, which is when they should be on the move. I kept burping up bits of Slam. On Mile 8, struggling with my lungs and feeling my stomach inert, I had a gag reflex and almost threw up. Shades of Falafel-gate. And still 5 more dang miles to go.

3. The stomach bug was detrimental in other ways, and I tried to account for it but should have worked on it harder… I lost several pounds of reserves (including hydration) during my stomach bug. About a week out from this race, I kept getting readings of being underweight (there is a certain weight at which I like to race, which through trial and error has come to be optimum). To try to gain weight, I was permissive with things like gingerbread cookies (sugar is not the way, my friends, not the way) and rice pudding and leftover chocolate torte, and I ate liberally on Christmas Eve and Day. Nothing sounded good for about a week, and it still doesn’t…I thought a couple of days off the scale and eating whatever I wanted would help put it back on, but it didn’t. In fact, I am still showing signs of needing more hydration. So although I still believe my intestines are recovering from the bug (in terms of anything sounding good), I should have tended to this a lot more. I know the weight at which I need to race, and I am sure I am not quite at it (though closer to it than last week). That was a variable in my control that I could have had in better order.

4. The stomach bug happened the week before Taper Week (this week). I lost two days of swimming (one because I could in no way make it there, and one because I was being responsible and not infecting the entire pool). I also lost a day of intervals. I did manage to run 26 miles, but I was scheduled for 35-40, and on most of those miles I wanted to throw up. I don’t think these losses to training in themselves affected this race, but they did affect my head. I feel that most of my racing progress has resulted from consistency, and two weeks out I could not be consistent. So I put more pressure on myself. I was by no means defeatist, but I didn’t feel loose and carefree today; I believed I had to compensate a bit and that I was going into a battle with my body a bit. I wasn’t feeling negative, but I also had been having a hard time visualizing (which I swear by) total success. Most of my problem today was physical, but some of it might have been mental, too.

5. Out of my control: The people in charge of the race delayed us by 15 minutes at the start. Seems like no big deal, right? It was 39 degrees, and I had timed everything down to the minute: my bathrooms, my strides, my last sips of water, my shedding of the outer layers. I took my outer layers off, and there we were. I chattered my teeth and shook for 15 minutes, actually a bit more. Everyone was doing the same; some runners obviously were better adapted. By the time we started, I could no longer feel most of my feet. I was wearing my racing flats, which are thin. It was horrible. Not sure how I could account for this in the future, except to have layers I intend to shed while on course. I used up some energy in those minutes, and I am sure that didn’t help!

I came toward the finish line, and my husband and children were cheering for me. I was already feeling emotional, in pain, and just keeping it together, but when I heard my kids call out, “Go, Mommy!” right as I crossed over the line, I burst into tears. I had been feeling like I wasn’t making myself proud of myself, giving in even a little bit to my discomfort, and yet here my kids were being proud of me. This dual feeling took me over, and combined with the pain and the relief of being done, I smiled for a photographer and then burst into tears. I went to the car to compose myself, get warm, and wait for my dad. I joked with Bill as my tears streamed down, “Happy Birthday to me!!”

Seriously, though, I love that I had this experience. It was heck at the moment, but that’s how races go sometimes. I got to be a runner today, and I got to try my best at something really hard. I had a beautiful night before the race in San Diego with my family, and I got to make memories—good, bad, better, or best, everything is a memory and part of what makes us who we are—that I will always have. As difficult as it was, I would do it all again. Like delivering children, I guess! The tears were short lived, and within twenty minutes, I had my head screwed back on and was thinking like an athlete.

What can I learn? What can I do next time? It’s all in stride. Running taught me that. How we deal with the hard moments is everything we are, and I am honest to goodness grateful for the hard moments today. I wanted to give myself the gift of running on my birthday, and I did: and I gave myself the gift of starting this new year of my life with the theme of resilience. Perhaps this will set the positive tone for the whole year. I choose to look at what goes right, while resolving to learn from what went wrong.

Pictures from a great birthday weekend:

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Race bib pick up and expo at Roadrunner Sports. Why is it I can find almost nothing to wear in a mall, but I can find thousands of dollars worth of clothes I want in the running store? Oh well, just browsing!

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View from our hotel room near the finish line

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Dinner at a little Italian restaurant, still decorated for Christmas and so festive. I loved that it still felt like the holidays! I always want them to be longer than they are.

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Picking up the bib!

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After dinner, we went back to the hotel and sat in the outdoor lounge by the hearth and had dessert—galore—and coffee!

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Trying to be cheerful at the start despite the cold! Love the lady behind me: it is a great picture of her, whomever she is! She appears to have a variation of my Ink N Burn shirt, too!

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Ready to race on my birthday with my dad and his trainer/our friend Val

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My dad earned a PR today. That made my heart instantly lighter when I learned that. He’s been working so very, very hard for it. Glad it was his day!

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Tired in the hotel room after the race. Took awhile to warm up! Still feeling thrashed, much more than Long Beach.

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About to cross the finish line. The struggle on my face is real. It hurt! But hurt is a great teacher. Glad I got to celebrate my 35th birthday doing exactly what I love to do!

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