Monday, November 17, 2008

Race Report: Route 66 Half Marathon

I forgot to put up a pre-race post for this race! Well here's what it would have said:

"13.1 miles on Sunday. Longest run since August? 8 miles. But am I nervous? Hell no! Actually, I think I'm in denial."

Or something like that.

This race was a brand new experience for me. I mean, I'd done a half marathon before. Last year, my dad and I did the Wichita Marathon as a two-person relay. So I ran 13.1 miles that time. I was a lot better prepared then, too, and hadn't been fighting injury all season. But this half marathon felt way different from that. I'll explain how in a minute.

Tulsa hosts the Route 66 Marathon, which includes a half, a quarter, and a 5k as well. The mayor of Oklahoma challenged her city to log a million miles of walking and running leading up to the marathon, which doesn't have anything to do with my story, but is pretty encouraging. My parents were kind enough to accompany me; we drove up on Saturday night and settled into our relatively cushy hotel room.

Sunday morning involved a relatively late wake-up call; I didn't have to be up until 6:45! That's way better than your standard 4:00-5:00 triathlon wake up call. Navigating to the race and parking once we got there were ridiculously easy. The race was very well-directed in that respect.

We got to Veterans Park just in time to see the full marathon start at 8:00. I knew that this would be a relatively large race, but I didn't understand just how many people were involved until I watched them all run by. Relative to a race like the LA marathon, or even San Antonio, which was also this weekend, Route 66 was tiny. But I think that this may have been the largest race I've ever been in.

It was certainly the biggest mass start I've ever experienced. We packed into the start corrals, self-seeded (and I think most people did a good job of seeding themselves appropriately). I lined up right behind the 2:15 pacer. I thought to myself, "2:15. I can do 2:15. No matter how I feel, I can do 2:15."

Of course, as soon as the crowd started thinning out, I jetted ahead, running about a 9:30 pace. I figured the 2:15 group would probably catch up to me eventually, at which point I could always hop back in with them. My hope was to pick up the pace again in the last two miles, and finish well ahead of the pace group.

There isn't much to say about those middle miles. The 2:15 group did catch up with me about 1.5 miles in, although I don't know how; I was still running a 9:30 pace, so they must have gone out a little fast, too. At mile 2, there were port-a-potties, and I availed myself of their presence. Of course, while I was in there, I completely lost the 2:15 pace group. I wasn't sure how much farther ahead they were--too far away to see the balloons, at least. I fartleked my way through the next mile (I can't help fartleking when listening to music), and caught the pace group again just a little bit past the 5 k mark.

And there's not much to say about the next 7 miles. The course followed the Arkansas River away from downtown Tulsa on a long out-and-back. The sun was warm and bright; the light had that autumnal quality that makes fall such a wonderful time. The road was completely closed to traffic and littered with a handful of spectators. There were trees lining the lane. It was really a beautiful course. And all this time I was getting to know the few people who remained in my pace group.

The out and back took us through mile 9, and we had about another mile of running through peaceful, pretty neighborhoods. Then, just a little past mile 10, the hills started. And didn't stop.

I got dropped on the first big hill. I got dropped on the second hill. I got dropped on the third hill. Every time, I tried to stick to my own pace, then booked it on the downhills (which is a skill I possess, at least) to catch the group again. We rolled through miles 10 and 11, and I was starting to suffer a little bit. It was getting harder and harder to hang on to my pacers's heels. I just kept telling myself, "2:15 isn't bad. I can run 2:15. I can run 2:15." Knowing that I could hold that pace enabled me to hold that pace, and I kept picking it up to stay with the group, ignoring my heart rate monitor, which was starting to tell me that I was working a little harder than I normally should.

There was a long hill that led us back into downtown Tulsa, and that's where I got dropped for the last time. For the rest of the race (about 1.5 miles to the finish), I kept trying to reel in the pace group again, but I never did. It hurt to let it go; I'd worked hard to stay with it for 12 miles, but in the end it was taking all I had just to keep my feet shuffling along.

I was helped along greatly, that last mile, by one of my favorite songs. To spectators and fellow competitors, it sounded something like this:

"I can't explain all the feelings that you're makin' me feeeel! *pant pant pant* My heart's in overdrive and *pant pant* steering wheeeel *pant pant.*"

No joke. At the top of my lungs. The weird thing is that no one gave me strange looks. No one looked at me at all, really. At that point, we were all focused on our own suffering, on getting ourselves to the finish.

The downside of allowing myself to have such a great time singing was that I paid less and less attention to my running form. At that point, I was so tired that it might not have mattered, but my quads sure took a lot of pounding from the downhills! I noticed at one point how sloppy my running was, and briefly tried to fix it. But then gave up. It was too much work, at that point, and I was almost there.

Coming around the final turn, there was a guy holding a huge sign that said, "SUCK IT UP!" And I really wanted to; I really tried. But by that point, I had so little left that my "kick" was just enough to bring my back to what my pace had been the first mile. Maybe.

Long story short, my time was 2:13:46. Last year, I ran a half marathon in 2:29. That's like a 15-minute PR. And I did it on way less training, with way less pain. And something else extremely significant?

I enjoyed it.

That's right. Before the race, I remember thinking, "Why am I doing this? I don't even like running!" But somewhere around the turn-around for the quarter marathon (when I found, to my surprise, that I wasn't wishing I were running 6.5 miles instead of 13.1), I realized that running actually is enjoyable. Which isn't to say it's easy or even fun all the time. But something about it makes me feel strong and empowered and capable and good. It feels right.

And that's why this marathon was a new experience. It didn't feel like the hardest thing I've ever done. It didn't suck. I didn't spend the last 20-30 minutes thinking, "I am never doing this again." In fact, the race seemed like part of a process; I was excited about this race, because after this one there will be another one. And in that next race, I'll be faster and stronger and better. In short, I couldn't wait to do it again.

So a half marathon no longer seems like a big deal. Which probably means it's time to schedule my first 70.3.

Note: Pictures to come as soon as I find the time to upload them.