Start Your Engines Virtual Half Marathon

It’s February, which means that herds of people are falling off of the healthy living wagon, and fitness-themed organizations are pulling out all the stops to keep their readers and subscribers motivated for the long wintry slog ahead.  My Stroller Strides group is doing a “Mom Olympics,” the fitness magazines are full of inspiration to stay strong after the January rush, and one of my favorite organizations – Moms RUN This Town, a confederation of running moms organized by locale – hosted a winter virtual race.  I signed up back in November, for one primary reason: the race included a finisher’s medal (and I love finisher’s medals even more than I love long-sleeved t-shirts) and it was only $11!  I don’t know of any other race that includes a finisher’s medal at such a low price, so I was all over that.

Here’s the idea: there were three possible distances: a 5K (3.1 miles for my non-running friends), a 10K (6.2 miles), and a half marathon (13.1 miles).  You could sign up for any of the three, and whatever distance you chose, you had the entire month of February to complete it.  All the group asked was that you complete the distance on foot if possible (no bike or elliptical unless absolutely necessary – say, if you’re injured) and that you do it in a time frame that personally challenges you.  So if you choose the half marathon and it would be challenging for you to complete the distance in the space of a week, then that’s what you should do.  It’s a very laid-back approach to conducting a race, and I love that.

I chose the half marathon distance, because I wanted to do another half (I ran the Virginia Wine Country Half in 2011), and I wanted to do one sooner rather than later.  I also have this strange quirk where I don’t like to claim a t-shirt or finisher’s medal that covers multiple distances unless I’ve done the longest distance.  (Weird, I know.  It’s not like there are rules about this.  It’s just a thing I have.)  So I knew I wanted to run the full 13.1, and the only question was whether I’d do the entire distance all at once, or break it up into multiple days.  Running 13.1 miles over a week wouldn’t really challenge me, but I thought it would be a bit challenging to do it over a weekend – say, 6.1 miles on Saturday and 7.0 on Sunday – so that was my backup plan.  Plan A, though, was to run the whole distance in one shot, and I really wanted to do it.

I trained as though the winter virtual was a “real” race, in which I’d have no choice but to run 13.1 miles in one shot, or else take a DNF.  (More about my training next week.  This isn’t a running blog, but I do want to say a few words about training for the run, because 13.1 miles is a looooooong way to go and I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t respect the distance or that I set out for this run without training.)  So when I stepped out the door to run 13.1 miles on Saturday, I knew that I was prepared.  I also knew, however, that it was going to be a tougher-than-usual run, because most of my route looked like this:

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Here’s something I’ve learned about running, after training for this event through the early winter in Buffalo: you don’t truly appreciate dry pavement until you haven’t got it.  Running on snow, ice, or slush is a completely different animal from running on a dry trail on a lovely fall day.  (Just a dream I had…)  You’re using all kinds of muscles, including stabilizing muscles that don’t come into play at all on those “perfect running days.”  Just to stay upright requires what sometimes feels like a superhuman effort.

I felt as though in some ways, I got lucky with the weather on Saturday.  The sun was shining in a crystal clear blue sky (I know it doesn’t look it in the pictures – the sun washed out my iPhone camera and is making the sky look white), there wasn’t too much wind, and there was no slush to speak of.  The downside: the RealFeel temperature was -5 degrees Fahrenheit and my entire route, excepting maybe 5%, was packed snow.  Packed snow is a better running surface than ice or slush, but really, that’s not saying much.  Still, I knew that (1) Sunday would be a worse day, weather-wise; and (2) I really wanted to get this half marathon done.  Yes, I had all month to do it, but I prefer to procrastinate over laundry than half marathons.  So, on Saturday, after hanging around the house charging my Garmin and complaining about the cold for WAY too long, I finally laced up my shoes and headed out to run 13.1 miles.

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The picture above was an accidental snap – I was trying to put my phone in my pocket at the time – but it perfectly illustrates the running surface I enjoyed for most of the half marathon.  U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you UGLY.  Anyway.

When I signed up for the race, I’d intended to run about four miles downtown, run by the river a bit, then run back to my neighborhood and finish the day in one of the nearby parks.  A few weeks into training, however, it became clear that wasn’t going to be an option unless the weather changed drastically.  As you can see, it didn’t.  So I jettisoned the plan that would have me running on sporadically shoveled sidewalks and headed, instead, to the park where I’d done most of my training runs.  The park had the best running surface of all the bad options, but the negative?  The loop is only 1.8 miles around.  It’s really pretty the first few times you run it, but becomes mind-numbingly boring by lap number 5.  Still, I decided I’d rather be bored than wear a cast for the next six weeks.  (Oh, I’m such a drama queen!)  The park it was.

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Just some snowbanks.  Nothing to see here.

Miles 1-3: Head out my door and run up my street toward a big museum (that I haven’t yet made time to visit, for shame), then turn and head toward the park.  It’s about 1.25 miles or so before I make the turn onto the park’s ring road and it’s a pleasant little jog over there.  Not too much ice, and I’m feeling good.  As each mile pops up on my Garmin, I tick it off.  “Only 12.1 to go!  Only 11.1 to go!”  I could do this all day.

Miles 3-5:  Wheeeeeee!  This is fun!  Hi, cross-country skier!  Hi, doggie!  What a great day!  Yippee!

Mile 6:  I’m not hungry yet, but I slow to a walk and break into the Ziploc baggie of dates I brought for fuel.  I’d rather eat one before I start to get hungry than face a growling, upset tummy.  The dates are frozen solid, so that’s fun.  I eat one, toss the pit aside and wonder if I’ll see a date tree on my runs this spring.  Do dates even grow on trees?  Where do dates come from?  I ponder this for a little while.

Miles 7-9: I’m bored.  Bored bored bored.  Bored bored bored bored bored.  I try to figure out how many loops I’ve made around the park, can’t.  Lost count about 30 minutes ago.  Do some math to figure out how many more laps I need to run before I can go home.  Have lost ability to do math.  Eat two more frozen dates.  Whimper a little bit.

Mile 10: SECOND WIIIIIIIIIIIIIIND!  I’m a freaking gazelle!

Mile 11: Sweet baby carrots, I’m tired.

Mile 12: Everything hurts.  I mean, everything.  There’s a knot in the back of my neck and I’m wondering if maybe someone shot me and I didn’t notice because my legs were hurting and distracting me.  My quads are frozen and yet in hideous pain at the same time.  How is that possible?  A new mantra pops into my head: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  I’ve never used this mantra on a run before, but it seems appropriate here.  I’ve left the park now – I had another lap to go but couldn’t face it, so I decided to finish off the run in the neighborhood instead.  I chant my mantra silently and watch each crack in the pavement scroll by under my feet.  I turn and start heading home.

Mile 12.6: Slip on an icy patch and skid several feet.  Make a pact with myself: don’t fall and crack your head open here, and you can go ahead and die once you hit mile 13.1.

Mile 12.8: Okay, the home stretch!  I pretend there’s a finish line ahead and start sprinting for all I’m worth.  (That’s probably about a 10 minute mile… sad… but it’s been a long, snowy road.)  Push, push, push.

Mile 13.1: DONE!  Final time 2:37:02.  That’s a big PR for me (although part of my terrible time in my last half was due to being held up for ten minutes while a crossing guard let cars go by, much to the chagrin of the increasingly irate group of runners standing by the side of the road plotting to smother him with Gu).  But even taking that ten minutes out of the equation, it’s still a PR, and a good one, and I did it in the snow and in temps below freezing.  I’m THRILLED.  I start walking the half mile I have left to get home, relying on my runner’s high and PR adrenaline to keep me upright.  I did it!

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When I got home, there was a small – but very welcome – package on the doorstep.  My finisher’s medal!  Perfect timing!  I tore open the package and immediately put on the medal, which is beautifully made and really cool looking.  And since the virtual race was organized by a moms’ running group, I posed for a pic with the girl who made me a mom.  (She loved my medal, by the way.  She totally thinks it’s hers.  And I taught her a new word: “Bling.”)

Here’s a better view of the medal:

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The newest addition to the collection!  And many more to come, I hope.  (More about that – my race calendar for 2014 – coming soon.)  Thanks to Moms RUN This Town for hosting this event – super fun!

Did you do anything fun last weekend?

11 thoughts on “Start Your Engines Virtual Half Marathon

    • Thanks, lovely! Hope we can get out for some runs together next time you’re in town. And I hope it’s warmer. Seriously, I’d take 20 degrees right now. That sounds tropical. Ha!

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