I decided to run the Governor’s Cup Half Marathon kind of on a whim. It’s a popular race here in Columbia and is in it’s 41st year – pretty impressive! Despite living and running here for 5 years, I’ve never participated. After my surprising 10k PR a couple weeks ago, I decided to look into doing the half marathon as a gauge of my fitness for the upcoming Kiawah Island Marathon, where I will hypothetically attempt to break 4 hours in the marathon.
So, first things first. I needed to solicit pacers, because I don’t trust myself to maintain a tough pace. Sad, but true. I just don’t have the personal confidence. My friend Murray volunteered to come in from Myrtle Beach and pace me to my somewhat lofty goal of 1:54 – an 8:41 pace. My previous PR was 1:56:05, earned at the Divas Half Marathon back in April, but I just didn’t feel like I had had enough training time since recovering from my stress fracture. It seemed like a PR was perhaps possible, but 1:54 was a miracle scenario. All the stars would need to align. As luck would have it, my friend and pacer extraordinaire Chuck was also available to run with me. The more people to yell at me when I got lazy, the better!
Murray apparently was highly motivated by the pacing request, so he kept sending me facebook messages and texts about the speedwork he was doing. “Did 9 miles at 8:15 pace this morning! Going back out for 6 more tonight!” they would say. When I told him not to get too carried away because I wanted to do 1:54, he said “Oh, you’ve got 1:54, no problem. I was thinking more like 1:52.” Gulp. Meanwhile, I’m panicking because I don’t even know if I can hold 8:41 the whole time, let alone any faster. I knew he was going to be ready, but I was growing increasingly concerned about whether or not I would. Then I had that perfect run the other day, so I figured maybe it wasn’t quite so ridiculous after all.
Murray stayed at our house the night before the race, so we set off for the race start around 7 am. As we were driving down the highway, we rode past a semi truck with the slogan “On Time. On Target. No Exceptions.” painted on the side. It seemed like an omen! We agreed it would be the motto for the race. At the start area, we found Chuck and Bobbi and some other friends, and it was a very nice change from the lonely starts I’ve had at the last couple of races. I found my friend Doug, who is one of my running heroes and was pacing the 2:15 group. He is excellent at helping me calm down before and during runs, so I asked him for one of his patented “don’t panic” speeches. He simply asked me what there was to panic about. Well, when you put it like that… I guess nothing? He said that the first mile is mostly downhill, mile two is mostly uphill, and then the race is mostly downhill until mile 8, when it goes back uphill for the remainder of the course.
This intel lead Murray, Chuck and I to decide to bank a little time until mile 8, so we would try to stick at 8:30 pace so we would have a cushion going into the later uphill miles. So we lined up what seemed like dangerously close to the front. I guess we didn’t want to have to dodge too many people, but it seemed like a bad idea. I saw Doug’s wife, Sharen, at the start line, and she said she was hoping to run around 1:51, so I figured we wouldn’t see her much, which was a shame, because it would have been fun to run together! Well, we shot out of the gate like bats out of hell. I could barely breathe…and we were going downhill. I trusted Murray and Chuck to maintain the right pace, and I really didn’t want to look down at my watch and find out we were running 9 minute miles and I’m huffing and puffing. Well, there was a clock at the one mile marker. We hit mile one in 7:58. Umm…
At that point, I told Chuck in no uncertain terms that we absolutely needed to slow down. I didn’t feel that terrible by the time we reached mile 1, but I didn’t want to screw my chances for a PR by going out too fast. Murray kept going, but Chuck and I dialed it back a little bit while always keep him in our sights, usually about 20 yards ahead of us. I told Chuck I was taking a vow of silence for the race, meaning I didn’t want to waste too much energy by talking, but he kept me entertained with the occasional story. Mostly, we just enjoyed the surprisingly excellent crowd support and I really liked running a course I was so familiar with. Much of the race followed the route of many of our Team in Training runs, so I knew exactly when each hill was coming, which was very reassuring. We also got to pass a water stop run by Team in Training twice, which was awesome – I loved seeing all my friends out there!
Our friend Bobbi was not too far ahead of us, which was really screwing with me psychologically. Bobbi is really fast and qualified for Boston. She was using the race as a training run and was running much slower than she has the capacity to, but the fact that she was only a few steps in front of me was messing with my mind! If I’m that close to her, I must be running fast. I told Chuck and Murray that we could not pass her or my head would probably spontaneously combust.
I didn’t check my watch except at the 10k mark, and it was just so I could find out if I (unofficially) PRed. I did, sure enough – I want to say I was just slightly over 50 minutes at the 10k. Other than that, I didn’t really want to know how fast we were running. Every once in awhile, Chuck would look down at his watch as it hit the mile marker and say “Oh, shit!” so I knew we were ahead of pace, but I didn’t know how much. What I did know was that running 8:30 miles would yield a 1:52 finish. So, at mile 8, which is right before the course started to go back uphill, I checked my watch to see where we were in relation to that pace. We were about 1.5 minutes ahead of where we needed to be, which shocked the hell out of me, but I figured we surely would lose that time on the uphill portions. I started playing my favorite race game – mental math! So from mile 8 on, I calculated where we needed to be in terms of time at each mile marker, and it helped me break down the race into manageable segments.
The big hill at mile 8 is one we run all the time during Team in Training runs, so I wasn’t worried about it too much. I knew what to expect and exactly how long it was. We covered that hill at perfect 8:30 pace, and Chuck was duly impressed. “On Time. On Target. No Exceptions,” I said. After that, I just took it one mile at a time. Amazingly, I really wasn’t out of breath or feeling bad. If I started to get a side stitch, I would do the breathing technique Doug taught me and remind myself to panic. I would literally say to myself “Doug says don’t panic,” because I’m that crazy.
At mile 11, Chuck asked me how I was doing. We were still about 1.5 minutes ahead of finishing in 1:52, but I knew the worst hill was coming in the last mile. I was starting to feel tired, but I told him that I was ok with that because being tired at mile 11 of a PR attempt half marathon seems reasonable. I was reassuring myself, and it worked. We hit mile 12 at the same pace and started climbing up Blossom Street, which is the toughest and longest hill on the course. It felt like we were crawling. If I could have caught my breath, I probably would have wailed to Chuck that we must be running 12 minute pace, but he kept saying “you’re doing great. You’re killing it.” I could hear him breathing kind of hard, which gave me some type of strange validation that maybe I was doing something right, because he’s faster than me.
Murray was still a bit ahead of us and running strong. I knew that after we turned off Blossom, it would be a steep uphill to the finish. I thought that we would turn the corner and immediately see the finish line at the top of the hill, but we didn’t. I had no idea where it was and I felt so defeated. I told Chuck I needed to walk for a second and I kissed my idea of a 1:52 finish goodbye. In reality, I walked for maybe 10 or 15 seconds, but it seemed like forever. Nonetheless, I figured we might as well keep going, so I started running up the hill again. A guy yelled “Go T-Rex!” and I smiled, thinking he was reading my shirt. As we came to the top of the hill, we made another turn, and although the finish line wasn’t in view yet, the road got flat and I picked up the pace. I knew the finish couldn’t be far away, so I tried mightily to kick it into my last gear and “sprint” into the finish. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the clock at the finish line and realized that not only was I going to crush my “A” goal of 1:54, I was also going to beat 1:52…and actually, we were going to come in under 1:51. Sure enough, we crossed the finish line in 1:50:33, a PR of 5 minutes and 32 seconds! Our pace was 8:25, which is just insane.
Murray ended up finishing 8 seconds ahead of us, landing a major PR for himself – something like 7 minutes! I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in a finish area. The whole thing seemed like a dream. Then, I saw someone who looked oddly familiar – a woman with dark hair who had a lot of tattoos. She was standing by herself, and I realized it was the mystery runner who runs through my neighborhood and who I not-so-secretly want to be best friends with. So, I put my awkwardness aside and introduced myself, and it turns out she lives less than a mile away and runs ultras! She’s faster than me, but not crazily so, and we made plans to run together in the future! Then, the man who had cheered for me on the hill introduced himself to me as Brian and mentioned that he reads this blog! It’s always cool to meet a reader, and he and his friend were so helpful and told me about all sorts of running groups in the area. What a day. So many successes – including my friend Kristen, who also PRed with a 2:04:43! I cheered her in to the finish line, which was more fun than it probably should have been.
I think the best part of the whole day wasn’t the PR or the perfect weather or any of that. I mean, don’t get me wrong – the PR didn’t hurt. The best part was the overwhelming amount of support I felt from my friends as I worked towards my goal. Murray, who never doubted that I could get 1:54 and set the bar higher right from the beginning. Chuck, who quietly reassured me the whole race with the occasional “You’re killing it!” or “Awesome, Danielle.” and didn’t let the pace get too crazy. Doug, who saw me after the race and, when I told him how I did, gave me a big smile and said “I knew you had it in you. See? Nothing to panic about.” And I think he’s told me about 18 times since then that I did a good job. And you know what? I did do a good job. I stayed focused, avoided panicking, ran strong, and made adjustments as needed. But all that would seem very empty without the support of my friends and the awesome running community I’m a part of, and that’s why I do this.
So now, for my next trick, barring some type of international incident and/or an injury or illness, I’m going for that sub-4 marathon at Kiawah. Sharen and I decided we’re going to kill it!