This past weekend, I ran the Savannah Women’s Half Marathon. It was really hard (but also a lot of fun), much warmer than expected (though thankfully not very humid), and I finished 1 full minute faster than my Ath Half 2022 time last October.
Cathryn–who did most of the groundwork logistics for this trip, and I can’t thank her enough for that–got us a beautiful Airbnb in the historic part of town, within walking distance from pretty much everything, including the Start and Finish lines. She also set up reservations for dinner for us the night before at an awesome sushi restaurant, Current. The vibe was perfect, and the food was delicious.
We didn’t sleep very well that night, but that’s pretty much par for the course the night before a big race. The fact that we didn’t have to first put a toddler to bed and then wake her up, dress her, and feed her the next morning was pretty clutch.
The race started off with the 5K (which Cathryn ran) and the Half (which I ran) running together for the first few miles, so that was pretty neat to be able to run together for the first bit.
I hung with the 2:15 pace group for the first half of the race before feeling as though I hit a wall, but was still happy to have held on for that long. The rest of my race was a walk/run, trying to run every other song on my playlist. Cathryn found me around mile 11 and ran with me for a bit–which was a godsend–though it was then I realized: my breathing was completely fine. It wasn’t exactly a revelation to know that my mental fitness was lightyears behind my physical fitness, but it crystallized for me in that moment. Of course my muscles were absolutely shot by then, but I managed to run the whole time Cathryn was with me.
The finisher’s chute was pretty neat, especially on a course that didn’t have as much crowd support as I was used to from Ath Half. I came in right around 2:31:30 and promptly fell on my back on the shady grass of Forsyth Park and waited for Cathryn to home in on my still-active Strava beacon.
After the race, Cathryn and I prioritized “doing whatever we wanted to do,” which for us often involves day-in-the-life type touring around: walking, dropping in on coffee shops and book stores, checking out a few landmarks, and generally soaking in the surroundings. We capitalized on a few restaurant recommendations from Savannah natives–all of which were excellent–walked through Forsyth Park, read books at a coffee shop, dropped in on a bookstore where cats lived, and of course sampled Leopold’s Ice Cream. This whole trip, while three years in the making, was effectively our 9-year wedding anniversary (technically, it’s Wednesday, but close enough) and only the second multi-day trip the two of us have ever taken together since our daughter was born.
Savannah is beautiful, y’all. We got really lucky with weather–the humidity can get stifling, but this past weekend it felt dry–and the biting sand gnats are a constant annoyance. But it was a gorgeous weekend for a race, and a lovely weekend for a couple who have been together for 17 years this fall (!!!) to get away, relax, and run together–one of the things that really brought us together.
Ok. Now. Some multi-year context that’s been rattling around my head since last October. Ahemahemahem.
I threw together a quick Python plot using my monthly mileage off Garmin Connect, going back to Oct 2019 when I was training for the Chickamauga Marathon.
It’s pretty apparent: in the time between March 2020 and August 2020, my running went from 100+ miles per month to… basically 0. In fact, August and September were exactly 0, with some activity coming back in October. To be fair, my daughter was born in that span of time, but that alone doesn’t wholly explain the sheer cliff before it, nor the fact that my running still hasn’t recovered since.
You see, dear reader: I had registered to run the Savannah Women’s Half Marathon in April 2020. That was going to be my next race after the Chickamauga Marathon, my next opportunity to showcase my continuing improvements in the half after running a sub-1:45 Swamp Rabbit Half in Feb 2019 (I missed Ath Half in Oct 2019 because of my marathon training; just couldn’t fit the race into my schedule).
Savannah in April 2020 was also going to be my wife and I’s babymoon: a weekend getaway and race together ahead of the arrival of our daughter. We’d never visited Savannah together, and we wanted to run a race together before pregnancy made my wife too uncomfortable to run longer distances.
Then, suffice to say, COVID hit. Along with the rest of, well, everything, the race was canceled. My running fell off a cliff as stress mounted: job-related, COVID-related, and with impending baby arrival preparations. But even after my daughter was born, COVID stressors persisted as people refused to take even the most basic precautions against its spread, and my job increasingly shrugged its shoulders in response to some of the most expert voices in public health and epidemiology, ceding to volume space previously intended for veracity.
Since then, running for me has changed. Dramatically. In fact, it’s literally been unprecedented: I’ve never worked as hard or long to get through “easy” runs than I have in the past year+. I have no illusions that a lot of this is privilege speaking: I was always athletic and genetically blessed in that regard, and so when I “started” running back in 2010 I still had a very athletic base from which to draw and therefore most of my initial races, while slow for me at the time, were much faster than what I can do now.
Last October’s Ath Half (I never got around to writing a race report for that one) was a 2:32 finish time, by far my slowest half marathon time; previously, my slowest time had been my very first half during Thanksgiving in 2010, when I finished around 2:09. Four years later I’d record what still stands as my half marathon PR, a 1:41 at Pittsburgh.
I finished Savannah in 2:31, almost exactly 1 minute faster than last October’s Ath Half. This particular event certainly had its own challenges: it was very, very flat, which seems appealing in a vacuum, but means you’re using the same exact muscles with absolutely minimal variations in form for the entire event, something which is highly unusual for most runners unless they spend a lot of time on treadmills; it was also much warmer than I’ve been accustomed to from training, with the event starting at 68F where, for the past couple months, that’s often been the day’s high temperature.
Then there were other factors out of my control but no less impactful: work has been particularly stressful the last few weeks with the start of weekly seminars as part of an NSF grant I’m on and a pair of graduate students preparing their theses and defenses later this month; also, work began two weeks ago on long-stalled master bathroom renovations which, when completed, would give us use of our shower for the first time in over three years, but in the meantime has effectively taken our bedroom entirely out of play (far too dusty) and upended all of our at-home routines… not to mention our sleep.
Finally, there’s also the unconfirmed factor of long COVID. Back in December, COVID finally caught up with our family during our holiday trip to see extended family in Arizona; I tested positive on NYE night. Since then, about 30-40% of my runs have involved extreme chest tightness in the first mile that, frankly, feels like drowning: I simply can’t get enough air. It’ll subside after about a mile, but often precipitates multiple walk breaks within that first mile, and absolutely tanks my mental state–which has an outsized downstream effect on longer runs, tiring me out faster. I’ve been incorporating some additional stretches that open up my torso, and adding some breathing exercises before starting any runs, and they may very well be helping. It’s also entirely possible that this isn’t long COVID at all, but it’s difficult if not impossible to tease out.
I know some folks have been hit a hell of a lot harder by long COVID than chest tightness that goes away after 10-15 minutes of physical activity, and my intention here is not to minimize what they’re going through. I just want to contextualize the full extent of my experience trying to get back into running form… or, perhaps more poignantly, contextualize my experience in learning to re-contextualizing my own understanding of what “running form” actually means.
It all equates to a very uneven running comeback, and one which has required a lot–a LOT–of grace. I haven’t figured out how to balance work (which is changing, so that’s added complication, on top of what was already stressful), parenting, running, sleep, and–for lack of a better term–“things and activities that make me feel whole” (hardware/software tinkering, reading, gaming, cleaning, etc). I am still very, very burned out; I’m recovering, but it’s very obvious very quickly when I’ve pushed beyond what my body is ready for, and that can crop up unexpectedly and throw a huge and immensely frustrating wrench in well-laid plans. And it’s frustrating, oh so frustrating, to think about “how fast I used to be”–even though that kind of comparison is textbook toxic, and I know that–and then try to motivate myself to take even one more step.
There’s been a lot of anger, frustration, and self-ridicule in the past year; a lot of doubt, uncertainty, and questioning whether things will improve, or whether I can even find satisfaction with how far I’ve already come:
- It’s hard to see from the figure at the top, but March 2023’s 64.55 miles is the highest monthly mileage I’ve recorded since June 2020, which is arguably when the wheels started falling off
- This training cycle is the most consistent week-to-week I’ve had in a long, long time: every week since January 23 (9 weeks straight) has been double-digit mileage. Even my Ath Half 2022 training wasn’t that consistent.
- I had a 20-mile week during this training cycle that wasn’t even a race week!
These are milestones that show huge improvements from even 6 months ago. It’s just… easy to lose perspective.
As for what comes next: I honestly don’t know.
We’re heading into the hottest part of the year, and while I’m grateful to no longer have to change outfits halfway through the day, I really struggle with the heat in the dead summer, even aside from running. I do want to establish a regular weightlifting cadence, and to that end Cathryn and I are planning to finally pull the trigger on a family Y membership. We’ve been mulling this one for quite awhile, but with Cathryn’s weightlifting outstripping the home dumbbells’ weights, and having canceled access to our university gym almost a year ago, it’d be really nice to have access to a fully-stocked gym again–and one that several of our friends (also with small children) highly recommend. I know it’s controversial, but I really like treadmills as a tool for training: they came in particular handy in Pittsburgh when there was 2ft of snow outside, and they’ve come in handy here in Athens when it was 75F at 6am. I’m also looking into dietitians who work specifically with athletes–and who eschew the toxicity of “diet culture”–to see if that will help.
Of course, all of this is predicated on some availability of time, money, and bandwidth. As I said earlier, I already feel like I can’t keep up with everything; how would I fit regular weightlifting into my weekly regimen? How will I have the bandwidth to put my diet under a microscope for a long period of time? Are we going to be able to afford any of this (especially with the aforementioned job change)?
I don’t have the answers to these questions right now, but maybe that’s ok for the time being. After all, one thing we runners are too good at is moving the goalposts: regardless of whether we missed our race’s goal or nailed it, we immediately move on to the next race and what those goals and training plans should look like. Maybe, just for now, it’s ok to leave that a little ambiguous.
Believe me: I can hear my therapist’s voice in my head, asking me if the reason I run is numbers related–is the whole point to run more miles? run faster miles? look good in race photos (see below)? or is there some other reason, what it could possibly be, hmmmmm.
To that end, please enjoy these awful, awful race photos of me. The very last might be my favorite: the photographer caught me on a down-beat and I look about two seconds from melting into the street.
And hey, maybe I’ll blog here more often 🙂