For my first half marathon of the year, I set my sights on the GHS Swamp Rabbit Half Marathon here in Greenville. It’s billed as the fastest race in the Upstate thanks to the net downhill on the course, and it is definitely one of the larger events here. My motivation wasn’t the speed of the course, though – I just happened to have 13 miles on my training plan for the Prague Marathon and figured getting a medal at the end of it would make my long run even more fun!
After my unexpectedly triumphant performance at the Green Valley 10-Miler a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to set a goal for this race. However, I struggle a lot with goal setting – I really stress myself out when it comes to time goals, and the mental aspect of my running is something I’m still working on. So, my coach and I decided to set a goal for the race that was definitely within my reach, but still would require me to push a little bit as compared to just an average long run. I have not run under a 10 minute average pace for a half marathon (2:11) in over a year, so I decided to make that my goal!
The Swamp Rabbit Half Marathon is a point-to-point course that starts in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, and runs predominantly down the Swamp Rabbit Trail (a paved multi-use path), finishing in downtown Greenville. The course is a net downhill and is almost entirely a straight shot down the trail. My friend Bobbi, who also happens to be my coach and one of my Nepal travel buddies, came up and stayed with me the night before the race. She is much faster than me but is recovering from knee problems, so she would be running with me! We thought we got to the race plenty early (about 45 minutes before the start), but when we arrived, the police were blocking off the parking lots. The parking was at a local high school, so it definitely wasn’t full, but we, along with everyone else, had to improvise and park on streets and at businesses nearby. We rushed over to the porta potty lines, which were a mile long, and I realized we might not make it to the bathroom before the start. And that was not an option.
I could see some of the other runners heading into woods nearby to use the bathroom, but they weren’t super dense woods. I decided to head over and see if I could scout out an appropriately private spot to use the bathroom, but the options were limited. So I looked at the other runners around me and we all sort of nodded in unison, making a silent pact to not look at each other and just pretend what was about to happen was not happening. And then, I pooped in the woods (and so did they). I silently thanked all the hours spent trekking through swamps for my day job and of course, the squat toilets of Nepal for preparing me for that moment. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
I was shocked by the number of people that were at the start line! There were tons of pace groups, so we lined up somewhere between the 2:07 and 2:15 groups and got going. I had decided not to look at my watch at all, and Bobbi was going to let me set the pace but make sure we stayed on track to come in under 2:11. The miles ticked off quickly early on as we chatted and caught up – we don’t get to see each other very often since we live about 1.5 hours apart, but we text every day!
The morning was surprisingly warm – it was about 60 and somewhat humid when the race started, which is really random. Normally, it is near freezing in the morning! I wasn’t thrilled about the warmer weather but didn’t want to worry about it. As we made our way through the early part of the race, I focused on keeping a steady effort. I knew we were running faster than my normal long run pace (which is about 10 minute miles, give or take 5 seconds in either direction), but I also am not used to talking a lot during my runs since I usually run alone. Therefore, I wasn’t sure how much of the extra exertion was due to the fact that we were talking. Our plan was to walk through the water stops (skipping the first one) and run the rest of the time. The water stops were about every 2 miles, which was perfect, since I usually take water every 2 miles during my long runs.
Again, I had no concept of how fast we were going, and I didn’t care. We ran around the same crowd of people for most of the race, usually passing them between water stops and then having to pass them again after we walked through the stop. Perhaps one day I will learn to drink water while running, but probably not. Around mile 10, I definitely started to feel the effort, and it was getting uncomfortably warm and sunny. I think it was as we passed mile 11 that Bobbi said, “Do you want to know how fast that last mile was?” “ABSOLUTELY NOT,” I responded. “Are you sure?” she said. “I am very sure,” I grunted.
I have been known to sometimes go into a very dark place at the end of races. Mental toughness is not my strong suit when it comes to running, and I’ve been working really hard on it this training cycle. It was growing increasingly hard for me to speak, my heart rate was rising, and I felt like I might puke at any moment, probably because of the temps. I also was starting to get really frustrated because I felt like I was slowing down a lot, which bothered me because my last miles of my long runs have been my fastest during this cycle – something I’ve been working on in order to help me finish strong in the marathon. I was determined not to be negative out loud, since Bobbi is running with me in Prague and may not want to run with me if she knows how grumpy I can be. I also knew that wouldn’t solve anything. So, I decided to come up with a mantra. Here’s where you can tell my mental game needs work. The mantra I came up with was “I am strong. I can stay steady. I will not vomit.” First of all, that’s a little (a lot) long. Second, it’s kind of negative. So I shortened it to “Strong and steady” and just kept repeating that in my head over and over. I was ready to murder someone if it meant that the next water stop would appear and I could walk.
I often want to slow down or walk when running starts to feel hard. I mean, everyone does, right? The thing is, I am not used to racing hard. Even when I ran a lot of races, I didn’t race very often. Obviously, if you are giving your best effort, the end of the race is going to be hard. I kept telling myself that it’s supposed to be hard, trying to will myself to keep up the pace. Still, I was so, so ready to be done and I really was starting to grow concerned that I actually might puke (even though I actually can no longer vomit thanks to my stomach surgery – but I wasn’t thinking totally clearly at that point). In the last quarter mile or so, I decided to start counting people as I passed them (my new favorite game) and we passed 8 people. I have rarely been so happy to see a finish line, and I was shocked at what I saw on the clock – right around 2:01. I gave it everything I had for a finishing kick and we crossed the line in 2:01:39 – 9:18 per mile pace!
I’d like to say that I was immediately thrilled when we crossed the line, but that’s not really true. Yes, I was happy with my time (since my original goal was to come in under 2:11 and I had thought during the race that we would be around 2:05), but at first, I was honestly frustrated. As I mentioned, I’ve been really focusing on finishing strong during my long runs, so I was a little upset because I figured I had gone out way too fast at the beginning and crashed and burned at the end. Also, I was so exhausted at the end, and while that’s actually a good thing because it means I left it all on the course, in the moment, I sometimes just get mad that I feel tired at all. That’s irrational, I know.
It wasn’t until several hours after the race that I actually looked at my splits on my watch and discovered what actually happened. In reality, I hadn’t started out the race too fast at all – I actually negative split the race by about 2 minutes! That’s my second negative split race in a row after negative splitting maybe a total of 4 times in my life in my first 6 years of running. All of my fastest miles were in the last half of the race, and my fastest mile was mile 12! It turns out I had actually run a really smart race at a much faster pace than I thought I could, in conditions that weren’t ideal (for me – I prefer cold!)! Huge!
Several days after the race, I started to wonder about how my time compared to other races I’ve run since my back surgery in April 2014. I was shocked to find out that this race ties my post-back surgery PR exactly – I ran the Newberry Half Marathon in 2:01:39 in 2015 – and it is my third fastest half marathon EVER. While speed isn’t the goal at all this training cycle and never will be, it is still exciting to feel like I am getting my fitness back. That makes me feel way more confident moving forward with this training cycle!
There are many lessons to be learned here, but the main one is this – the tough mental training I am doing is paying off. Yes, the physical part is really important (and going great!) but I am seeing the biggest improvements in my mental game. I need to get better about celebrating victories (like being happy about crushing my goal) without immediately looking for the negative, but there were a lot of really strong moments, too. I didn’t quit when I was exhausted and tired – in fact, I got faster! I used a mantra, even if my mantra-making needs some work. I didn’t get vocally negative, and I stuck to my plan and only walked during water stops, even when I wanted to lay down on the side of the trail. That’s major progress!
After the race, we met up with our friend Pearce, who Bobbi knows from running in Columbia and who I have been running with here! We enjoyed a well-earned brunch outside in the sunshine, which was delightful after I was no longer running in it.
Overall, I’m super proud of this race! I far exceeded my expectations. Maybe I should let other people tell me what my expectations should be, because I clearly underestimate myself. The mental training will continue! Prague Marathon, I’m coming for you!