Sunday, May 20, 2012

In which I am a half-marathoner

This is a long post, so make sure you're properly hydrated...

I look pretty damn happy, but to be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to end up with a smile on my face and a medal on my chest.

I was supposed to run my first half-marathon on May 6 with my domestic runner life partner, Sandy. But the training led me to develop a neuroma under the ball of my right foot. I visited an orthopedist in April and got a cortisone shot, but I had to take a week off from running in prime training time.

Thanks to my back injury of late 2011, my training plan was already razor-thin. I couldn't afford to miss a week and even the cortisone shot was not helping entirely. I made the tough call to bow out for fear it would lead to further knee trouble. See, my right knee was starting to compensate for the neuroma and I was having knee pain while running longer distances - something that had never happened before.

I didn't want a pyhrric victory: Finishing the half at the expense of seriously injuring my knee.

So while I closed that door, thus opened a window. I happened to luck into a free entry into the Blackstone Valley Cherry Tree Running Festival. They had a half. If I registered and didn't think I could do it come race day, it's not like I would be out any money.

Cut to yesterday, race day eve, time to make the call. How did I feel? I went to the chiropractor Thursday for an adjustment, so my back was as good as it was going to get. In terms of aches and pains, my back is currently the least of my worries.

I'd been running three times a week with the neuroma and it was doable, it only bothered me when I ran. It still was annoying and occasionally painful, but I noticed it on longer runs (5+ miles) it would flare up and then subside.

So back-OK, neuroma-OK. A new concern was my hamstrings. The last couple of 8+ runs they had, from nowhere, tightened up quite a bit. On a 10-miler in late April, they were really tough for the last two miles. But I knew a run-walk schedule would loosen them during the race if they got bad. OK, there.

But yesterday, I was most worried about my knees. Both were achey, and yesterday was a rest day. I had bootcamp the day before, and while there was a lot of hopping and jumping, I didn't think they should feel like they did. I ran last on Thursday, but it was just 2 slow miles, that shouldn't have angered them.

What to do? The one thing I really worry about are my knees. Screw your knees up and you're out of running - if not all exercise - for a goodly amount of time. And I need exercise for my mental health and weight maintenance.

While my knees were achey, they'd hadn't been acting up on runs, so perhaps it was the bootcamping on Friday. Let's give this a go.

I packed as if I were going away for weeks, so much junk:

  • SPIbelt filled with a baggie of Uncle Sam cereal for mid-race carbs.

  • Salt packets in case I started cramping (it was going to be hot).

  • Nano & Garmin charging, headphones in run bag.

  • Sweaty Band. Made a big decision: no baseball cap. Again, it was going to be hot.

  • Change of clothes and flip flops for post race cool-down.

  • Bowl of Uncle Sam cereal & chia seeds to carb-up when I arrive (about an hour before the start time).

  • Small container of almond milk to pour in the above.

  • Water to drink on the way down.

  • Prescription-strength ibuprofen. I decided to pop 600mg before the race to help with the whole knee thing. I brought along another just in case things got hairy mid-race.

  • Arctic Ease wraps (stored in my daughter's old Hello Kitty lunch box with blue ice) to wrap and ice my knees as I drove home.

  • Seriously, what a load of crap. Soldiers go to war with less. But it was all necessary. I set up alarm for 5 am and hit the hay.

    Woke up at 5 am, ate a NuGo bar (my absolute favorite) and a Diet Coke, then set about getting dressed. I went with a Road Runner short-sleeve white wicking shirt (again, hot), a new pair of Thorlos (which I always run in) and a new pair of 2XU compression tights. I debated compression shorts vs full tights and decided I needed all the help I could get. Plus, the 2XUs are crazy light, so it's not like I would be super hot in them.

    And away we go. It was a gorgeous late spring morning. Sunny, blue skies. I found my way down to the race with relative ease, headed over to registration, picked up my bib and returned to the car to eat my Uncle Sam, pop my ibuprofen and toss up a final status update on Facebook in case I met my demise on the course.

    At 7:30 am, I headed over to the port-a-potties for a pitstop (and a nod to Sandy, queen of the pre-race port-a-potties) before warming up and lining up. After stretching and light cardio warmups, I headed for the 12-minute-milers portion of the pack, cued up and paused my playlist, and waited for the National Anthem.

    I put my hand over my heart for the Anthem. I could feel my heart beating like crazy. I was nervous, and I hadn't been nervous for a race in a long time.

    Anthem over, the mayor of Pawtucket gave the "Runners at your marks" cue (or, "Runnahs at ya mahks"), then hit the air horn.

    I passed over the timing pads, hit start on the Garmin and shuffle on my playlist. Here we go.

    The race was relatively small, maybe several hundred runners. Initially this gave me pause as I worried, "What if I was the last runner to finish?" To which I would answer, "You finished!"

    In the first couple of miles I admonished myself to go slow and run my own race, and I took stock of my fellow pacers. I quickly categorized who's who by what they were wearing/doing. There's Compression Socks Guy. There's Weird Stride Woman. There's Guy Running In A Skirt (yeah, you read that right). There's Old Lady I Absolutely Cannot Finish Behind.

    The first two miles I went out relatively fast, for me: 11-minute miles. I wanted to average 12-12:30, and I figured as I faded, I would. I kept telling myself: Get the numbers out of your head. Keep your core tight, everything else loose and just run. Just run loose.

    Around Mile 4 I could feel the neuroma starting to kick in and by Mile 5, there was my right knee balking. Crap, too early for that. But I pushed through. It wasn't dangerous, stop-and-walk, you're-risking-major-injury pain, and I figured I would try to run through it and see if it subsides like it has been in training.

    I decided to keep my eyes off my watch and just run from mile marker to mile marker, one mile at a time. Don't worry about time, just make it to the next mile marker. It was a strategy that worked, the miles seemed to be piling up relatively quickly and mentally I felt good.

    Soon, I was at Mile 6, which I considered halfway. When it came to this race, I'd always think, It's just 6 miles out and back. I know it's really 6.55, but for some reason the extra .55 sounded daunting. Let's just pretend 6 is halfway.

    The race was very well organized, with 11 water and Gatorade stops over the 13.1 miles. At every water stop I would grab two cups, get off to the side and walk until I finished them. I can't run and drink. Sure, it looks cool, but more water ends up on the ground or on my shirt than in my body. Plus, it wasn't like I was going to win the race, I could stop and walk for a minute.

    At the halfway mark I grabbed more water and Gatorade and some Gu. I had never tried it before, but I figured, why not. I know why not, it's friggin' nasty. Turns out it was chocolate flavor, so it was like chocolate slime. Ewww, gahd, it was horrid. I pulled out my Uncle Sam cereal, grabbed a handful and walked until I was done chewing and drinking.

    As I started running, I thought, Wow, I feel really fresh. It was getting hot, but I felt very good. Even the knee and neuroma were subsiding. Mentally I was spot on, not tired, not hot or flushed.

    Another fortuitous event happened at 6 miles - we were finally on the Blackstone Valley bike path portion of the course. Up until that point we were winding through the City of Pawtucket and neighborhoods with no shade, the sun reflecting off the black asphalt and typical city-road terrain.

    The bikepath was shaded, smooth and cool. This lasted until Mile 11, thank goodness. By Mile 8, I felt my hamstrings starting to tighten, so I made a decision to run-walk. I would walk for 1 minute, then run for 4. This method is advocated by running expert Jenny Hadfield, who notes that the walking won't adversely affect your time because it will help you run better, so you make it up.

    Just those 1-minute walk breaks really helped. My hamstrings loosened and it let me really run 4 good minutes at a time. I kept track of my splits at each mile and she was right: My pace averages were better with the run-walk than they were with the straight run when my hamstrings started to give me trouble.

    Soon I spied the marker for Mile 10 and looked at my watch. I'd been running for 2 hours. Wow, I had? I still felt really good (hamstrings nonwithstanding). I could do this. I was really going to finish this.

    At Mile 11, it was good news, bad news. Bad news was we were off the bike path and back in the city. The good news: We only had 2 miles to go! I pushed myself on, You'll be done in less than 35 minutes!

    And thank goodness, because it was hot. I passed an electronic thermometer on a business sign and it read 80. I believed it. But by Mile 12, I could have been running on hot coals and nothing would have stopped me. I was almost done.

    I crossed a street and the cop stopping traffic said, "Only .65 left."

    Wow. I did my last run-walk interval and thought, Screw it. I am running the last bit straight. I want my medal now.

    Soon, there was the Mile 13 marker. I could see Pawtucket City Hall in the distance (the starting/finish line) and soon the blue chutes. This was it, the final tenth.

    I turned the corner and started to give it whatever I had left. High on adrenaline, I still felt good and was about to realize my dream of finishing a half-marathon. I really couldn't believe it.

    Now, funny thing. I put together a wonderful playlist last night (below, click to enlarge. It was too long for one screenshot).

    It was like a Melissa's Greatest Hits, as I went through all my running playlists and picked out my favorites from each. I loaded on 2.7 hrs of music, more than I would need, and hit Shuffle when I started the race. I thought it would be fun to not know which song I would cross the finish line to, and I wondered throughout the race, What song will it be? As each song came on during the race, I'd think, Well, it won't be this one.

    CHASE's "Get It On" finished just as I entered the chutes. I put on my best determined-runner face for the race photographers as I strode toward the finish line. I heard the race announcer call my name, "Here's another half-marathon finisher, Melissa Shaw!" The crowd at the chutes began to cheer. I wanted to cry, it was so amazing.

    In the distance, I saw the official clock, the timing pads and beyond them a volunteer holding out my finisher's medal in the air. I crossed one pad, then another. I held out my hand and grabbed my medal. I lifted it in the air, over my head in a triumphant fist-pump and I heard the crowd off to the right yell, "Yeah! Way to go!"

    I slowed to a walk, grabbed some water from another volunteer and realized: I have no idea what song I finished on.

    Oh, well. I guess I'll just have to run another.

    That would be the perfect ending to this post, but I can't leave you hanging on the post-race wrapup, eg, How do you feel?

    Surprisingly, very good, which means my training was right on. Yeah, I'm stiff in the hamstrings if I sit for an extended period of time, but otherwise I feel great. I'm very surprised how fast the race seemed to go.

    One of my concerns when training was it would feel like I was running forever, but it seemed to pass pretty quick. I didn't experience any mental fatigue. When I crossed the finish, I was happy to be done running, for sure, but I wasn't beat up or dead. I still felt good, which was wonderful because 13.1 miles was the longest I've ever run in time (2:46) and distance (previous longest run was 10 miles).

    A year ago today, I fully ran my first 5K. It was a huge, monumental event for me. Now, here I was, just a year later strongly finishing a freaking half-marathon.

    Last year at this time, my big goal was to finish a 3.1-mile race. I did it, and signed up for another. Then another. Then, I turned around and 3.1 didn't seem to hard. But, 4 miles? Could I run 4? So I did. Then 5 and 6.

    I signed up and trained all summer for a 10K. While training for that I did an 8-mile run. I ran 8 miles! And, all of a sudden, 13.1 didn't seem impossible.

    A half-marathon? 13.1 miles? Are you kidding?

    Running is very similar to losing weight in many ways. You want to lose weight but it seems like you've got so much to lose, it will take so long. But you give it a try. You have some success. You try more. You lose a little more. You may have a setback here and there, but you keep trying. You push on.

    You want to run. 3.1 miles seems so far. You're nervous, but you try. It's hard, it's awkward at first, but you try. You learn. You keep running, a little bit more every day.

    The pounds lost add up, and all of a sudden you're doing it. You're really, truly doing it. Then comes that magic day when it hits you and you realize, I am going to do this. I am going to get to goal.

    It's like turning that corner, seeing the chutes and realizing your dream is literally in sight.

    Whether it's running or losing weight, what seem like small advances, slow progress or little successes, they add up. And they pay off. All of a sudden, you're the person you always wanted to be and you earn this:


    1. I'm so proud of you! You're such a rock star and I know you're a fantastic WW leader because you're really living the program and the process! <3

    2. WTG Melissa!!! You are such a rock star and continue to be such an inspiration to me. While I've struggled so much trying to find my way back to weight loss, you and Rebecca have both been there showing me the way and that it IS possible to lose the pounds again. Congrats on reaching such a HUGE milestone today!!!

    3. You are an inspiration to all of us. It only shows that you are a brave woman and never give up.

      knee pain