The Albatross Slayed: A Successful Sunday Run

I last ran a half marathon in February 2010 (F (55-59); third place; net time: 1:50:03) in Austin, Texas.  Shortly thereafter, I tore my left hamstring at the attachment point. Running came to an abrupt halt. I’ve written about my more than five-year attempt to run with the concomitant frustrations, medical diagnoses, and tears. My clearly stated goal when I started writing for Salty Running was to run a half marathon in August equal to or better than my 2010 time.

The statistics are basic: October 4, 2015, I ran the Portland Half Marathon. Age category: F (60-64). Rank: 2/93. Net time: 1:49:23. The facts, however, belie the journey behind that morning run.

I started training for the Windsor Green half marathon in January using the Run Less Run Faster program. Days before the race in early May, I scratched the run as well as the Water to Wine Half Marathon in August, reluctantly, but smartly (in retrospect), as my chronic injuries prevented me from the training at full strength. The Portland Half Marathon, on my schedule primarily because my husband planned to run the Portland Marathon and the trip gave me an opportunity to visit one of my sisters, was more of a stand-in or possibility after the other opportunities were converted to 10k races.

I duly recorded my daily runs: tempo workouts, track speed work, long easy runs (some with a few miles at half marathon pace thrown into the middle), and cross-training on alternate days. I continued Pilates twice weekly, except when traveling, and had deep massage therapy every two weeks. My right hamstring and gluts were the primary culprits impeding my progress, but I vowed to continue, to be patient, to cut-back occasionally on the longer runs, to skip a few track work-outs, and not to run the recommended 14 miles as my longest run. I did not believe my body would be able to recover from the longer runs in sufficient time to run a half marathon.

About a week before the race, I read an article about pre-marathon preparation. I panicked: yes, I wanted to run the race even though I continued to downplay, in private and in public, my capabilities, but was I really prepared? My anxiety skyrocketed. I not only had to be physically prepared but I also needed the proper nutrition and hydration pre-race day, race day morning, during the race and post-race. I needed to be mentally prepared, reviewing the course maps, maybe walking part of the course, paying attention to weather forecasts, planning my taper, etc. 

The week before race day didn’t portend well: everyone recommends NOT doing major changes during the week pre-race. That makes sense, but during the five days before race day, we moved, lived out of suitcases, stayed in several different motels, visited family, and sat too long in airplanes. My taper plan was interrupted, my eating was less than stellar, and my foam roller was lost in some box on a moving van. Three days pre-race, I received news from my functional medicine doctor that I was deficient in several key nutrients, had very low testosterone, and suffered from potential anemia. He expressed surprise that I was able to do as much running and other physical activities as I was doing. The mental aspect of my race preparation flew out the window.

Yet, despite or because of the setbacks of the past few years and months, I wanted my half marathon goal. The real accomplishment would be to cross the finish line, something I hadn’t been able to do for more than five years; why, for several years I couldn’t run at all. I tried to convince myself that this goal was good. Truthfully, though, I decided on plan A (please, run under 1:50), plan B (1:52), and plan C (under 2:00). I did not share these three targets; I only worried aloud whether I’d start the race Sunday morning. I didn’t know Saturday afternoon when I was viewing a women’s collective art show at Washington Park in Portland whether or not I would run the next morning. My stomach ached with the indecision: to run and increase the pain in my legs; to once again scratch a planned race; or to start the race and, if things weren’t going well, to stop and have DNF beside my name. After all, who really cares? It’s only a run. Right? Yet, my internal competitive drive is working hard these days; so what if it only matters to me?

All the drama and anxiety aside, I woke early Sunday morning, an hour before the alarm, excited to get started. And most everything fell into place. It was sunny in Portland with only a hint of wind while we waited in our designated corrals. Cool at the start at 7:00 a.m., about 50 degrees, with projected 60 degrees for those who finished by 9:00 a.m. I drank lots of water mixed with lime Nuun tablets on Saturday and justified a pumpkin scone as “more carbs.” Sunday morning pre-race food was another scone with almond butter along with more Nuun-water and a coffee. I walked to the start, only a few blocks from my hotel. I gathered at the C Corral, where the 3:45 marathon pacer was stationed. The day before I’d talked with the pacing team who suggested I run just in front of this pacer to target a 1:50 half marathon time.

We had to wait a minute before our corral started for a light rail train to cross the road in front of us. Then we were off.  I was immediately behind the two pacers who were steady and increased/decreased pace depending on hill grades (the pacers and marathoners would turn right around mile eleven of the course while the half-marathoners continued straight for the final miles to the finish). After mile six, I moved slightly in front of the pacers and ran in my own rhythm, not looking at my watch, feeling strong, with good breathing, focusing on tightening my pelvis periodically, swinging my arms purposely back and letting them fall forward, and leaning slightly forward from my Chi Running lessons.

I enjoyed the bands, musicians and pirates along the course, even catching a glimpse of the sun rising in a slight haze above Mt. Hood at about mile three. I smiled (a plan with my massage therapist) periodically, making this run not only about finishing, but also enjoying the day. I didn’t feel any major exertion until mile ten when my right hamstring started to grab and bite, weakening my stride. Oh, no, not again! I began the mantra to keep my form, to breathe deeply, to consider each mile at a time, only three to go, then only two to go, then running beneath the underpass with the finish banner around the corner. The race photos show my form starting to bend and weaken at this point; and, if one had a telescope, maybe a few tears welling in my eyes.

But no mistake, I finished this run and to my absolute delight, I’d completed it just under 1:50, 1:49:23 to be exact, a PR! I placed 2 out of 93 women in my age group. How seriously wonderful that 93 women in their early sixties ran/jogged/walk 13.1 miles! I hobbled along the long finishers’ path, collecting a tee shirt and a rose, foregoing the tree to plant (I was soon to be on an airplane to another hotel), and savoring the medal, the medallion and the pin while deciding against another photo. I made my way back to the hotel and coffee. Relief, joy, pain all flooded together. I texted my husband and sons and sister, “I finished. More to come after a shower.”

I am now paying the price for this albatross's disappearance, but it is worth it. I can now run (once the pain subsides and the weak legs stop buckling) for the pure joy of it--until, perhaps, maybe, I decide to do this again!