I’m not sure how it happened. I didn’t do many of the things that lead to a successful race. I had not done any race-specific training, no twelve-week plan with a well-timed taper. An unseasonably early cold snap resulted in me running less, yet enjoying it more. I decided to run the Pearl of the Purchase Half Marathon less than 24 hours before race time. No time for course previews. In fact, there wasn’t even a map available at registration. The 9:00 Saturday start time did make it easy for me to prepare at home and then drive 80 minutes to Mayfield, KY.
During the drive, I noticed my car thermometer registered 22 degrees and only moved a couple degrees 23 for most of the trip. It was easy to take along extra clothes and it was looking like I may need them. The Graves County High School cross country team sponsored the race which was small but well-organized. Parking was close and registration was a breeze.
There was plenty of time to enjoy the thermos of Guatemala coffee and English muffin with almond butter and jelly prior I brought to fuel my run. There was actually too much time for me to rethink wardrobe, layering, temperature and winds. After a trip from my car to the bathroom, I added a long-sleeve tech shirt to help keep in the warmth and fend off the wind. Trekking to start I realized the additional shirt was causing friction that would be increasingly unpleasant as the race progressed. Feeling as though I would recover from the cold weather sooner than the chaffing, I ditched the extra layer.
At the starting line, we were given brief instructions regarding the out and back course. “Turn around for the 5K runners will be marked, half marathon continues until the water stop at six and a half miles.” After a quick, thoughtful prayer, the small contingent of brave souls was ready. The sun had warmed the air temperature to 27 degrees, but running directly into the 12 mph north wind made me wonder why I left my balaclava in the car.
The crowd quickly spread out as each runner found their pace. At the 5K turnaround it became apparent that a much smaller number of runners were committed to the half marathon. I knew there were a couple young men running together in the lead and maybe a couple more in front of the guy I could see ahead of me. One thing I like about out and back races is being able to see all the people in front of me.
By mile three I was settled into a pace, more comfortable with the temperature, and truly enjoying the sunshine, fall colors and rural scenery. I was averaging about eight and half minute miles which is a bit fast for me in a half marathon. I’ve never been good at holding back early to negative split a long run. The next couple miles had hills which brought my pace closer to the nine-minute miles I am accustomed to running.
Soon, I started seeing runners returning to the finish. First were the two leaders who looked like they could be on the cross country team. There was a decent gap between them and the other runners who started coming into view. It was easy to encourage them as everyone appeared strong and locked into a decent pace. The guy I was following turned around about a hundred yards ahead of me. I was the seventh person to make the turn but still not in the top fifty percent of runners on the half marathon course.
After a quick drink of water, I calculated my pace and projected a finish time. “Beating two hours should be pretty easy”, I thought. “Wow, if I keep up this pace, I could…wait don’t even go there. You never keep the pace at this distance.” I felt too good to start the negative talk. So I watched for others on the course, trying to keep the guy ahead of me in sight.
My pace for miles seven and eight was surprisingly consistent and I had to remind myself to ingest the second gel which I would certainly need soon. I was grateful for the guy running steadily ahead of me and could now make out ‘CHICAGO’ on the back of his shirt.
Mile nine has historically been my dark place during half marathons. My hips, my quads, and my back hurt, my mind wanders, and I have trouble figuring my pace or projecting a finish time. The math gets hard and I get frustrated that I am not closer to the finish. It’s no wonder the wheels fall off when I invite that much baggage to ride along.
For some reason, this day was different. Maybe it was the Dynamite Coffee. I don’t know why, but I felt good. My thoughts were clear and focused. The pains were acknowledged for what they were and dismissed. I almost believed the people at the water stop who said I was looking good. By mile ten I realized that this could be a special run for me. With only a 5K remaining, my pace could deteriorate a bit and still be close to a personal best. I was definitely closing the gap on ‘CHICAGO’.
Mile eleven was a wide open stretch on the shoulder of a highway, slightly uphill as we headed back to town. It was a great feeling to finally catch up with the guy who had been ahead of me the entire race. I felt relaxed and focused on finishing strong. There was one more rolling hill to conquer and then the school was in sight.
Two entrances. Where are the arrows? “I’m too close to let confusion and the unfamiliar trip me up”, I thought. Arrows go through the first entrance and on to the next. Turning in I notice multiple buildings, parking lots on either side of the road through campus. Too many choices! My confidence waned, but I was determined to find the finish. The cold weather and small field meant there weren’t any spectators cheering or pointing toward the finish. Another faded arrow appeared on the street. I recognized the stop sign which was our starting point and remembered the race director saying to run through to the tent for the finish. The tent was already down, but I was pretty sure that the three people standing in the parking lot were marking the finish. I pushed on to the end and heard the race director say, “1:52 even”. That was a minute, twenty-six seconds faster than my time at the St. Jude Half Marathon last year