To those of you who stop running because it became tiresome and grindy: I absolutely get it.
The last year of running has been the most unproductive and least enjoyable that I’ve ever had. It’s come from a really bad combination of 1) stressful job that hasn’t let up in this time frame, and 2) bad, lingering injuries that have been extremely slow to heal. I’ve had to mentally put myself in the position of essentially starting from scratch, albeit with the knowledge of having once run 5×1600 with 6:20 splits and a half marathon PR of 1:41.
“Frustrating” is putting it kindly. So when someone expresses their own frustration with running, or dreads going out for a run, or drops it entirely for these reasons, I totally get it.
But if you manage to catch a glimpse of light at the other end, a whiff of progress out of the seemingly-endless grind, it is beautiful.
With very few exceptions, my running the last several months has been consistent down to the week: mid-20s’ worth of mileage.
It’s just that so little of it was actually fun. That the majority was during the absolutely horrific summer we suffered through this year probably didn’t help much, but an enjoyable run in this stretch was the exception, not the rule.
Sheer determination to hit 20+ miles each week, seeing how many weeks in a row I could do it, and stubborn refusal to give up on it were just about the only reasons I kept going out every day. That, and trying to keep my endorphin levels as high as possible with the stress of work. If I wasn’t running, I wasn’t working out, period. And I needed to work out.
So I kept running. But it wasn’t confidence-inspiring; if anything, it did the opposite. When almost every run hurt, my already-dim view of my own abilities only drooped further. It probably doesn’t come as much surprise, then, that when Ath Half rolled around, I was just hoping not to thoroughly embarrass myself.
You can argue that one’s finishing time ultimately doesn’t matter. And you’d be 100% correct! The problem is, once you actually hit the road, that just doesn’t matter anymore. The fact that I haven’t run a half marathon in over 2 hours since 2010 weighed heavily on me as I considered possibly exceeding 2 hours in this race, given how miserable my runs had been.
I was telling everyone ahead of Ath Half that I just wanted to come in under 2 hours.
Truthfully–as runners do–I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to come in under 1:55, since my 2015 Ath Half time was somewhere around low-1:54. C’mon, I thought: at least make a run at last year’s time, right?
But I had absolutely no gauge for what I could do. The last half marathon I’d run in recent memory was the brutal downhill Scream Half, where I posted a respectable 1:53, but the insane elevation change obviated any possibility of comparison. Plus, that was all the way back in June. I had no barometer against which to infer my limits.
And, because the aforementioned summer sucked so freaking much, I wasn’t putting much stock in my abilities. Hence, sub-2 sounded like a treat to me.
Enter race day.
One of our running buddies, Jonathan, was the 1:40 pacer. A bunch of ladies on the Fleet Feet running team were going to hang with him. Going in, I figured I’d stick with the group for the first mile for the lulz, then just coast the rest of the way to the finish. An eclectic plan for sure; it also betrayed just how not-seriously I was taking this race.
(and belied how much I was dreading it)
Still, the weather was quite a bit nicer from Ath Half 2015. That year, it was muggy as hell, and I suffered quite a bit as a result. But while the more pleasant weather was certainly welcome, it did nothing to assuage the dark recesses of my mind worrying about the hills on the back half of the course. They’d be there no matter how nice the weather was.
Thus began the race.
It was clear within the first couple of blocks that I wasn’t going to stick with the 1:40 group; I let them go pretty quickly after the start. Still, I knew I was being pulled along at a decent clip by all the folks around me, so I focused on slowing down.
Cool! But too fast, let’s try to draw it back a little.
Wow, that’s neat. But still too fast. Pull back on the throttle.
Hmm. Is the throttle busted?
Yeah: first 5 miles of the race in 40 minutes flat. I was not expecting that. But at the same time, I knew it was the flattest 5 miles I’d get, so I really, really needed to slow down, no seriously guys, for real, time to slow down.
Somewhere around this time, I caught up to The Lady, who’d fallen off the 1:40 group. I walked alongside her for a bit, checking in and making sure she was ok. I was also confident at this point that I no longer had to worry about living through my WORST NIGHTMARE of coming in over 2 hours (by my math, would’ve had to run 10-minute miles for the remaining distance for this to be a problem).
Turns out, we weren’t far from the next water stop, at which point The Lady stopped there for a bit to collect herself, and I started back up running again. I could feel that my legs were definitely getting heavy, and we’d only just started with the hills. Welp, I figured, I wasn’t going to set any landspeed records anyway. Let’s just see what happens.
I was mentally kicking myself at every mile, as I kept watch-hawking. I couldn’t seem to help myself; I was going by feel, but at the same time felt an overwhelming need to check the distance, check my splits, blah blah blah. I knew it was mental, that my mind wasn’t the honed, sharpened, hardened diamond it had once been, and as a result I was doing things and engaging in habits that were counter-productive in a race environment. But the discipline just wasn’t there. I tried to shake it off and just keep on going.
Yep, definitely slowing down (though I did walk this mile…).
Huh, apparently not.
This is where it started getting hard: the hills kept coming and my mental game wasn’t improving. Turning down some extremely rolling terrain, I tried to focus entirely on the relief I still felt that it was nigh-impossible at this point to finish in over 2 hours.
Still, that damn hill coming out of River Rd is effing brutal. I used the water stop there as an excuse to stop and re-tie my right shoe, which had become loose enough that it was becoming a distraction. I recalled at the starting line it had crossed my mind to double-knot my shoes, then something shiny must’ve come along. Go me.
At this point I was coming into the home stretch where we loop around the stadium a few times. It’s both electrifying (lots of cheering sections) and deflating (so close to the finish for so long). I was still allowing myself to slow considerably on uphills; I’d like to say it was because I was refusing to walk at any point, but really it was because I was just mentally lazy and knew that I’d come in under 2 hours, so who cares about shaving off a few seconds on this hill.
Then I finally did the math–wait, I’m less than a mile out and barely into the 1:40s? I CAN BREAK 1:50?!
I tried to kick, I honestly did. My legs were burning pretty good at this point, and my chest felt like it was being compressed by an anvil, but for once in the entire race I managed to push my mental laziness aside and give it everything I had left–an average 6:43 pace.
I couldn’t believe it.
I just finished Ath Half–ATH HALF–not only faster than last year, but under 1:49!
For comparison, here’s the mile-by-mile breakdowns of Ath Half 2016 versus last year:
One hell of an improvement!
This is not to say I’M BACK B#^*%ES. I still have a ton of work to do. My cadence fell off considerably, especially in the last few miles. Given my foot issues from the last year, cadence is the one thing that I absolutely cannot slack on; it needs to stay above 160, preferably around 170.
Speaking of slacking, my mental game is a joke. I had absolutely zero capacity to settle in, let the world around me disappear, and just let go and go. I kept glancing at my watch at least a couple of times each mile, I kept oscillating between worry about the next hill and worry about embarrassing myself. And I had no ability to push myself in the last few miles, instead getting lazy and just slowing down, even though I clearly still had gas left in the tank. Speedwork and tempo runs will help with this, though.
And hills–in a not-so-distant previous life, a source of strength and motivation–have become borderline intimidating. That’s a little worrisome; downhills have always been hard for me, but it’s helped that I always got a boost out of uphills, even if it was only psychological.
But! Yes, there is, in fact, a “but.”
There’s a core here worth building on. Something has clearly been clicking for the past several months, to the point where I could run a sub-1:50 under less-than-ideal conditions; my previous sub-1:50 performance was at last year’s Chickamauga Battlefield half marathon. Absolutely perfect conditions–extremely gentle hills, near-freezing temperatures, and perfectly sunny–and it was still a squeaker: I came in somewhere around 1:49:57, and only after redlining the last two miles to do it.
I had time to spare this year, on a much harder course. Time that, of all things, I spent being mentally lazy on the final climbs. Had I really pushed myself that last 5K, who knows how much room under 1:50 I would’ve had.
I’ve been telling people how this past year has basically felt like starting over from zero, except with all the knowledge and experience of “I used to be able to do this…”, which has made it so easy to be so hard on myself. It’s been true in a big sense: I’ve had to accept limitations I haven’t experienced since I started running, and at that time I was blissfully unaware of said limitations.
That’s made it hard. Really hard. Which is why I understand if you’ve been in this position and have chosen to walk away and try something else. And who knows: maybe this race was an anomaly and running will go right back to sucking in the near future.
All I know is something clicked at Ath Half, and for something to click in a half marathon, something has to be clicking for weeks before that. Plus, I told The Lady years ago that I would retire when I broke a 1:35 half marathon; can’t stop now that I’m making headway toward that goal again!