Every. Second. Counts.
On Sunday, January 14th, 2018, I raced the Houston Half Marathon in nearly perfect conditions. The sun was shining, but it was a little on the cool side, with the temp feeling below zero and the wind around 10kms/hr. This was my first time racing a half marathon where my training was specific to this distance. In the past, I have raced half marathons as a tune-up for a marathon or to return to racing after an injury. This race was also my first goal race in nearly five months, with my last major race being in August at the World Long Distance Mountain Racing Championships in Italy.
Pre-Race Planning and Build
While recovering from the mountain race, I spent my extra time planning. Planning for the Fall of 2017 and ahead to 2018. Okay, maybe even further ahead… After many discussions, back and forth with my coach John, we decided that given how busy 2017 had been to date that I would not have a goal race until the new year and focus on a full recovery, slowly building back up. Not an easy thing to do during peak racing season! I was persistent on racing the Houston marathon in January 2018, but John convinced me to stick with the shorter distances and focus on developing speed, with the plan to return to the marathon in the Fall of 2018. Being as impatient as I am, I tried to convince him otherwise, but as history shows from this past weekend, I lost that battle and agreed that it would be best to focus on racing shorter distances to gain both speed and confidence.
Throughout the Fall of 2017, I did several local trail races, and then the half marathon at Moncton Legs for Literacy as a tune-up to see what I could run without any specific half marathon training. I ran 1:19 and felt strong throughout. For the first time, I believed that I could run a 1:18 half. My personal best in the half marathon was in 2016 where I ran 1:19:38 in Tracadie. I vividly recall when I finished that race feeling as though I could never run faster than this time, as it just about killed me! Racing Moncton gave me the confidence I had been missing.
Fast forward three months, coupled with my hardest training block to date, I was ready to run 1:18, and maybe even 1:17:59 if the stars aligned. In previous builds, I had mostly done one to two workouts per week. For Houston, I was doing three workouts a week, including a few weeks with over 700 minutes of running. The toughest workout I did was 8X8 minutes at 5:53 per mile (3:39 per km for my Canadian firends) with two minutes of recovery after each interval. After this workout, I felt more prepared than I ever have before a race. However, I started to have some doubts, as I had to move indoors for all my workouts due to extreme weather for the three weeks preceding the race. As a result, I started to lose a bit of confidence in whether I would know how to run my goal pace without being guided by the pacing of a treadmill. I am quite sure, though, that I developed some serious mental toughness through these experiences. I did nearly all my easy runs outdoors, despite the -30 temps, to make sure I could still remember how to run on my own for race day. I had great company throughout my build (Evan D., Evan A., Glenn T., Colin M., Dan L., Remi G., Dean S., Steve V., Ryan O., Nat C., and my sister Marcie), and also enjoyed many solo runs on the trails where I would listen to podcasts and audio-books (mostly about running, but also on leadership). I also modified my strength training, which I do at Afterburn three days a week with personal training from Michael Tabor and Terry Blizzard.
A few months before the race, I convinced my husband to join me on the trip to Houston, and his only condition was that he race too. We rarely race on the same day, as we try to be one another’s rock in the days leading up to the race, but mostly on race day. And of course to make sure that there is someone to look after the kids! We were booked for a 5:35am flight the Friday before the race. Saint John is a small airport, and without stowed luggage you can usually arrive at boarding time and be safe. Unfortunately, on this day our seats had been given away just seconds prior to our arrival which coincided with the boarding time. They had called our names prior to boarding and we were not yet there. There had been a flight to Toronto cancelled that morning so they were moving as many people as they could on to our flight. I was devastated as all the other flights going out of Saint John for the rest of the day were full because of the cancellation, and the best they could offer in Saint John was the next day. We opted to drive to Fredericton, which was a good call as Saint John was hit with a major storm on Saturday and all flights were cancelled. On the bright side, we returned home and were able to take the kids to school and get the dogs out for a run before heading to Fredericton to catch a new flight. I even had the chance to meet a colleague for a work meeting at the airport in Fredericton before departing. The revised flight meant we would have a six-hour layover in Montreal; a bummer at first, but then my coach John showed up and we spent the afternoon together, which was awesome as we live nine hours apart and do not get to see each other very often. Evan and I even ended up on the same flight to Houston as my good running friend Mel and shared a cab to our hotels, before settling in late for the night.
Adventure to Arrive in Houston
Saturday morning, we did a 30 minute shakeout run. We ran to the starting line to make sure we knew where to go in the morning, and then to the finish line, so that we could visualize the end of the race. I did one mile at race pace and it felt effortless - I knew I was ready for a great race the next morning. We then spent a few hours at the expo, and headed back to the hotel and did something we have never done before – we binged watched Netflix! I totally get it now!! We had a one bedroom suite with a kitchen, so we prepared our own food for supper, which consisted of sweet baked potatoes and chicken. It was an early night because of the time difference and because we had to get up at 4:30am for the 7:00am start.
After a pretty good sleep, I had my usual toast with PB and banana for breakfast. We hung out in our room for a bit and then headed to our corral at 6:15am, which ended up being an easy six-minute jog. We were in the corral just behind the elites (but before Corral A) as part of the Athlete Development Program. I wanted to be sure that we knew where to go, so we went into our corral right away, only to find out that we could not exit again, after we were already in. There was no space to run around, so our six-minute jog at 6:15am was going to be it for a warm-up. We could do some drills, but there were too many people around, so I decided to make the best of it and go to the front of the corral and watch the elites warm-up. It was amazing to see the incredibly fast Canadian women and men in the field and this gave me the boost I needed that I was missing from my own warm-up. Plus, it distracted me from how cold I was. I was especially excited to see Molly Huddle warming up, who just an hour later went on to break the US half marathon record!
I was eager to get a good position at the start, as I was planning to go after lowering my 10-mile provincial record, as my goal pace for the half was well under my previous best 10 mile time of 1:01:20. I learned the hard way after my marathon record in Boston that it is gun and not chip time that is used for records, so I was determined to get as close up as I could. My coach had organized an official timer to be at mile 10 to record my time. I also knew that I would have a shot at moving into second spot for the 15k best times in NB, and had this in the back of my mind as well. Two minutes before the gun went off, our corral was shuttled up behind the elites. I was with Evan a few rows back in our corral, and at the last second (literally), I moved up one row, which would eventually save me about one second, although at the time I did not realize the significance of this move. I figured I was about 5 seconds off the gun from where I was, which I was more than happy with considering that this was one of the fastest half marathon fields in US history.
When the gun went off, I made a rash decision to not use my GPS for the first 5k, rather to go on feel. I could see my friend Mel just up ahead running effortlessly, so I kept my eyes on her for as long as I could to pull me along (side note, she ended up running under 1:16!). The field spread out fast and I was caught between two packs. The pack ahead was going a little too fast, especially where I was already running a little quicker than planned, and the pack behind was running too inconsistently. I was okay though, as I have a lot of experience running alone in workouts and races and wanted to run my own race. I went through 5k faster than I had planned at 18:16. I contemplated dropping my pace, but then thought that anyone tracking me may think I was already blowing up and they may worry about me, so I held on to the pace for another 10k, going through at 36:39. I was feeling strong, and knew that if I held this pace I would have a solid 15k and 10 mile time, so I used these milestones as a distraction to keep pushing hard to the next check-point. I went through 15k at 54:54, which was a PB by over 2 minutes and would move me into the second spot in the NB standings for this distance. As I approached the 10-mile mark, I gave an extra push knowing that I was close to running under 59 mins! I went through at 58:45, which was 2 minutes 35 seconds faster than the current NB record for that distance. As I went through though I did not see an official timer there, so I was a little bummed about possibly not getting the time recorded, but quickly changed my frame of mind as I knew that having these check-points really pushed me in the middle part of the race, when I probably would have held back for a safer finish.
At mile 11, there was a right turn with pretty much a straightaway for the final two miles. I had my eyes set on that turn and, as planned with my coach, I picked it up and gave it everything I had left for the final two miles. When I looked at my watch after I made the right turn, I realized with a little math that my average pace was close to what the record was and that I had to give it a shot and finish the race with no regrets. I would need to run my last two miles faster than any of my first 11, and factor in gun time. I thought to myself that up to this point in the race, I had run my bravest race ever, and if I could just hold on for another 12 minutes, I might come close to the record. If nothing else, run a low 1:17, which in that moment was just as good. At no point leading up to this race had I planned to go after the half marathon record, in fact it was not even in the plans for 2018. I wished for a moment that Patty had not set the bar so high, but that thought quickly escaped as I knew that without Patty setting this standard that I would possibly have settled for less.
The pain set in as I hit mile 12. My legs were screaming and I was starting to feel a little weak. It was also this stage of the race when the sun came out from behind the buildings and blinded us on the final homestretch. I am not sure if it was the pain or the sun, but I had my eyes closed for a fair bit of the final mile (see evidence in pic below). I opened my eyes wide when an older lady out of nowhere yelled out to me and said “You only have a quarter mile to go. How bad do you want it?” Two things from this: 1) she quoted my favorite running book (which I listen to before every major goal race, including this one) and 2) she made me realize I only had 1 minute and 25 seconds left. That was nothing compared to what I had already endured. I started my final kick and it was not until a slight right turn in the final 50 metres of the race that I could see the finish line and race clock. As I turned the corner, the clock read 1:16:58. I did not take my eyes off the clock until I crossed the line, giving it everything I possibly could (which later showed to be high 4:00/mile pace)! When I crossed the finish line, I was not sure what my official time was, but knew it was going to be close to the record. I was immediately greeted by Alan Brookes, the race director for the Toronto Marathon (among other races) and I shared with him the excitement about my race. Regardless of the record, I felt on top of the world for running so much faster than my goal time. I was moved along to keep the flow going, but tried not to go too far as I knew my hubby was on his way in. In the meantime, a nice man allowed me to use his phone and, just as I did in Boston, called home within a minute of finishing. My sister Marcie, mother, father, and step sister LeeAnn were all at my house tracking us and my brother was checking in from work (while our kids were in catechism). They enthusiastically shared with me my chip time, which was 1:17:07, and after stalling to be sure they had it correct, they shared my gun time of 1:17:10!! One second. One! There were so many times in the race that I could have lost a second, beginning with my last second move at the starting line when I moved up one row. Or the water stations I skipped to stay on pace for the 5k splits. Or, had I not given that the extra push to get to 10 miles. Moments later, my sister was shouting in the background “Evan just went through, he broke 1:21"!! I turned around and there he was, high-fiving the volunteers and happier than I have ever seen him. What an incredible moment to share!!
Evan and I worked our way through the post-race chute and headed back to the hotel by 8:30am, making it back in time for breakfast! I downed my Liv9 recovery blend and we vegged out in the hotel lobby connecting with other runners who had also just finished their race. We had planned to do touristy things, but changed our minds and headed back to the race to watch others finish in the marathon. We hung out with many of the other Canadians (who had incredible races) and spent the afternoon roaming around the post-race party. We went out for a celebratory dinner at a tex mex restaurant and then picked up where we left off with our Netflix binge.
For the first time, I went for broke in a road race, and ended up running a 15k, 10 mile, and half marathon personal best. I was even seconds off my 10k best time when adding the two 5k splits at 15k and 20k, running 36:27 (PB = 36:23), and likely a PB if I were to use my 11k to 21k, as my final mile was my fastest in the race (5:45/mile). I hope this inspires others to go after ambitious goals to see what you are capable of, whether that be with running or anything in life, believe me it is worth it!
Running in no man’s land for most of the race, I did a lot of refection. One of the things going through my mind was how lucky I was to be healthy. Since I started running four years ago, I have spent most Januarys injured and, despite the pain I was putting myself through, knew that the pain I was feeling in the race was far less than the pain I have felt from being sidelined. Speaking of pain, I went into the race expecting it to hurt. I wanted to run so that I had nothing left at the end. In nearly every race I have done in the past (aside from the mountain race in Italy) I have felt as though I did not leave it all out there. More than a specific arbitrary time on Sunday, I wanted to cross the line feeling like I gave it 100% the entire race. And I did. Every second!
I am so thankful for all the support I have received from my family, friends, training partners, colleagues, coach, personal trainers, rehab team (Angela Alexander, Jessica Holland, Colleen McQuaid, and Tara Jackson), and sponsors (River & Trail Outdoor Company, Liv9 Nutrition, Salomon, and Suunto). I could feel the support from back home in the lead up to the race and every step of the way. While I may have raced by myself, never did I feel as though I was alone.