I was awake at midnight and at 3:00 a.m., mesmerized by the super moon sparkling on the Pacific Ocean outside our motel window and the high waves crashing against the sandy beach. The alarm sounded at 5:00 a.m., the sky pitch black after the orange orb slipped beneath the water. Two hours and fifteen minutes until race time, my first half marathon since the Portland last fall (which itself was my first half marathon in five and a half years).
That early morning, I was surprisingly calm after weeks of anxiety, questioning my readiness and fitness level; most of all, I suppose, wondering whether I’d be pushing my legs beyond what I should or could do. The several 10k races I’d run earlier in the summer had been difficult, legs sluggish, breathing labored, the miles too slowly passing. Earlier in the spring I’d reworked my running form, starting with one coach and ending with another. I’d followed religiously his prescribed training program but I still had doubts. Was I too old for this sport? Should I lower my expectations of running a decent pace? Could I run 13.1 miles without being competitive, with myself mainly? So many questions; disappointments; temporary recoveries; perhaps too much time and attention to this thing that I love? I knew, however, that I had to run this race for myself, to gauge my running fitness, to understand what I still can and cannot do with this body. I had to shake the monkey off my back.
I ate my whole wheat energy bar with almond butter, drank a large coffee (decaffeinated), and gobbled a few peanut butter M&Ms. I’d tried to fuel better the past few weeks, difficult for me to purposely eat more than what I normally do, but I’d been admonished (and knew) about bonking and its relationship to adequate food and hydration intake the days and weeks before a race. I didn’t need my long-standing love/hate relationship with eating to upend all my training, so I tried not to count calories, but to think about protein, good fats (yikes!), and healthy carbs.
Doug and I chose the Surfer’s Point Half Marathon only because we’d seized the opportunity to visit Alex and Glory in California; the weekend coincided with Alex’s fall marathon plans. Since we’d cancelled The Other Half in Moab, Utah, a few weeks before due to work conflicts (and my concern about trying to run a good race at altitude with several crucial hills), this race also seemed a good fit. The course was a figure-eight loop, run entirely along the Pacific Ocean at Ventura Beach. Billed as “flat and fast,” in fact there were a few hills at the northern part of the course. The well-documented ocean breeze was missing, portending a potentially slower race due to heat. I rarely wear short-sleeved shirts in November but the almost 60 degrees at the start and likely 75 degrees two hours (or less, I hoped) later at the finish made the decision for me.
I’d inquired about pacers, having difficulty knowing exactly what my pace would be at sea level, since all my running except for the few weeks in Berlin has been at 5500’ altitude. I’d been assured that there’d be plenty of pace times from which to choose. As we lined up at the start, though, there was a gap between the 1:45 and 2:00 hour pacers, my hoped-for 1:50 pacer non-existent. I’d have to rely on myself.
My coach had given me the race day plan: run first five miles at a controlled pace, 8:50-9:00 min/mile, then slowly increase pace, if I felt good, perhaps 5-10 seconds faster each mile. With those paces, though, I wouldn’t hit my “A” goal (to equal last year’s half marathon PR), but I also knew the principles were sound: negative splits, get the feel of the course, let my legs loosen up, hydrate well with the warm weather, focus on the present. And then, if all is going well, pick up the pace the back half of the race.
I started with another woman whose goal times were slightly slower than mine, but given the small number of runners at the front of the pack (in larger races, we’d be at the middle), it made sense to run together. I didn’t push the first miles, reminding myself that I’d have to report to Darren how his strategy worked, and I didn’t want to blow up the race, reminding myself that I’d started too fast on the 10k's this summer and had to stop several times mid-race to catch my breath. I needed to run smarter.
The flat course surprised me with some hills, but the view was exquisite: along the ocean the entire course, watching surfers catching and riding big, long waves, the sun continuing to rise higher above the Palm trees. The participants quickly spread out, a disadvantage to a small race, but I kept a few runners in my sight line, trying to pace myself with them. I kept in mind my family, how fortunate to be running the same race as Doug while Alex attempted the marathon (unfortunately thwarted yet again by a sore ankle).
I ran more by effort and feel than by the time on my watch, steadily, carefully, not gasping for air, feeling strong. Clearly, training at altitude even if only 5500’ has advantages when racing at sea level! Stopping at every other water stop to down a little water or Gatorade, I tried to stay hydrated. I focused on the key mileage markers, the first turn-around at 5.13 miles, past the start/finish at eleven miles, and the final turn-around at twelve miles. I looked at my watch with just a little over a mile to go and realized that I could make my secret A+ goal (to PR) so I kicked up the pace, swerving between walkers, strollers, roller-skaters, and other runners (the start/finish was at the promenade at Ventura beach so lots of people besides us runners were taking in the sunshine and unusually high surf), and crossed the finish line with Doug, Alex, Glory and her mother cheering me on. The clock read 1:48:37, a PR by almost a minute.
That Sunday morning everything worked: my mantra throughout the 13.1 miles to be strong, to stay at a comfortable pace, to enjoy the beautiful scenery, to watch the spectacle of being on a California board walk and bike trail on a sunny day in November, to reap the benefits of all the training, and to appreciate that I WAS running despite the starts and stops of the past almost seven years. That day, I rediscovered the joy in running that the months of training and false starts had diminished. I am so excited to be able to do this sport that I've loved since the first time I started running many, many years ago.