I’ve done a few biathlons over the past couple of years, and even poached a frostbite series race in early ’05 (10k, I think), but nothing prepared me for what I experienced on Sunday at the GO! St. Louis marathon/half-marathon. You can talk to tons of people who’ve done it before, and still the enormity of the event is hard to comprehend until you actually head to the start line. I can’t really say I was nervous for this, my first attempt at a half-marathon – my training had gone by the book, I had a good week of taper, and physically I felt just about perfect. I also knew that however the day turned out was entirely up to me – a welcome change from the crits and road races where I always have to worry about some bonehead crashing me out (shouldn’t be as much a problem this year, as I plan to do strictly geezer category from now on). I had a goal, and today I would find out whether I would achieve it. What I was feeling was anticipation, excitement, and pure wonder at the seething mass of humanity gathering behind a thin orange line on Market Street and 14th. As it turned out, over 13,000 people were toeing the line on what looked to be an absolutely perfect day for a race. My run group leader, Jen, was doing the marathon, and we had had some good training runs in the weeks leading up to the race. Over those weeks we discussed what kind of time I might be able to shoot for. After doing my 1st mile test (I hadn’t run for several months before that), she thought a sub-2hr was a good target. “I know that seems slow, but that’s a good time for a first half-marathon,” she said. After a few weeks of speed work, however, she looked at my times and thought maybe I could do an 8:30-pace (~1:52). In the final weeks, my times had improved to the point that she decided I should shoot for 8-min miles, which would be a finishing time of 1:45. So that was my goal (the one I kept secret in the last post). I really wasn’t sure I could do it – an 8:30 pace seemed much more doable – but the challenge was there, I had to go for it.
I found Jen at the start line – she told me to meet her at the 8:00 pace sign. Jen was shooting for 3:30 in the marathon – also an 8-min pace, and since the marathoners and half-marathoners would run the same course until the 9-mile mark, the plan was for me to run with her pace group and see how I felt. How great is that, to be able to run with my coach for the first 9 miles of my first half-marathon. The race started, and I was across the start line in under 2 minutes – quite different from my experience at L’Etape du Tour, where I lined up near the back of ~7,000 racers and didn’t cross the start line until almost half an hour after the start. Anyway, the pace leader quickly established a slightly sub-8 pace. For the first 6 miles I felt fine – it was a fast pace for me, but I’ve done short distances at faster pace. Jen and I chatted while I soaked in the experience of cheering fans along the course (in this way it was very much like L’Etape du Tour). We came back through the starting area – here the crowds were huge – and then headed west on Market Street for miles 6-9 before the marathoners and half-marathoners separated. I started feeling like I was in a little bit of trouble. Jen had moved up in front of the pace leader, but I had gotten back a little bit and just could not close the gap. All the way down Market and onto Forest Parkway I stuggled a bit to keep the gap from getting any bigger. It’s not a problem like in a bike race, where you lose a draft and then you’re sunk, but I just didn’t want to throw away the slight time cushion that the pace leader had established on our target time. At mile 8 I felt a twinge in my left hamstring – uh oh! I favored it a little and it didn’t feel any better, so I ran normal on it and it didn’t feel any worse. I pushed the creeping thoughts of a DNF out of my head – lah lah lah! I wanted to wish Jen luck when we separated at mile 9, but she was too far up, so I split off with the other half-marathoners. I suddenfly felt alone – there were plenty of people to get behind when we were all together, but now we were spaced apart pretty well and I had to go hunting for people who I thought were keeping a good pace that I could draft behind. I checked my watch, and I was about a minute up on my target pace – I did some quick mental calculations and felt a little relieved knowing that I could run an 8:24 pace for the last 4 miles and still hit my goal of 1:45. I was not feeling good, and miles 10-13 would be uncharted territory for me.
Right after the split, we passed the first GU handout station – I grabbed one and sucked it down and then drank some water. I settled behind this one guy who looked like he was keeping the pace. Eventually I started feeling like I could go faster, so I latched onto a girl who had come by me. After a few seconds, she looked back and then veered sharply to the side of the course – hmm, I guess she didn’t want me on her very pleasing tail! So I grabbed onto another guy on the other side of the course. We passed her. At each mile sign I looked at my watch and could see that not only was I not losing time on my pace, I was actually gaining time – sweet! The last mile was pretty tough, but it was all downhill and I was now concentrating on trying to gain as much time as possible – I didn’t want to just make 1:45, I wanted to beat it. When I came around the last corner I looked at my watch and saw I had gained another minute in those last 4 miles – gotta love negative splits! I crossed the line at 1:43:08 – average pace 7:52! Okay, I know – that’s nothing compared to the winner, who ticked out a 5:30 pace to finish in 1:08 plus change, but I’m not a runner, remember? Lynne and the girls said they saw me break into a big grin when I looked at my watch near the finish.
My legs were pretty trashed afterwards – my hamstring was really bothering me (although it has recovered fine since and apparently was not a muscle pull, as I had feared). We hung around to watch the marathoners finish, and I especially wanted to see if Jen would hit her 3:30 target. Just before her expected arrival I found a good spot near the finish – it was a strange dichotomy watching the elite marathoners finishing down one chute with the slowest of the half-marathoners trotting, walking, and limping down the other chute. At 3:27 Jen came around the corner looking fabulous – she, too, had continued to gain time on her target pace. Not only was this a PR for her, but it was good enough for 3rd OVERALL MASTERS WOMEN – wow! I’m proud just to say who I’ve been training with! Congratulations, Jen!
I am first and formost a cyclist – that will not change. But doing a half-marathon was really fun – fun training for it, and fun racing it. Even though I’ll never be a true runner, I’ll definitely do another half-marathon – and maybe someday the full!