My husband, who likes to say he runs only when chased, gave me a great piece of advice for racing: let your body run, not your brain.
At the ING Rock’n’Roll Philadelphia half-marathon last Sunday, my mind was ahead of my body. I ran in 1h28m55, my second-best time ever on the distance, just 55 seconds more than my record, set in January in New York. I wasn’t able to train specifically for the distance in the past months, so I should have been thrilled about the result.
Yet a thought has been nagging me before, during and after the race. It’s a mathematical theory for time predicting, in reverse: the rule of thumb in predicting a marathon time is multiplying your time at a half-marathon and adding 10 minutes. Since I ran the Boston marathon in 3h01m43 this year, I should be able to run a half in 1h25m and 51 1/2 seconds. My brain knew that my body wasn’t properly trained for it and that a sub-1h30 would be a great time for me. But my brain still dreamed of 1h25, creating a tinge of disappointment.
The tinge didn’t spoil the joy of running in the streets of Philadelphia and along the Schuylkill River on a warm and sunny September morning. The race was homage to my previous run here, in 2007, when my husband and I had just started seeing each other. The 2007 Philadelphia half-marathon was my running introduction to what would become my adopted city. I also established a personal record at the time: 1h35m15.
The 2010 race started on a frustrating note. After warming up, I lined up to use the bathroom about 20 minutes before the start, thinking foolishly I would have enough time. I soon realized that the Rock’n’Roll management had failed to provide enough portable toilets for the more than 15,000 participants, a basic mistake akin to forgetting to provide enough chairs at a classical music concert. When I realized that there were about 30 people ahead of me, I gave up. My husband, always on the lookout for solutions to any problem, spotted a lone Porta Potty on the other side of the road that looked free. While running around the starting line to get to the miraculously free toilet, I got the chance to see some of the elite runners warming up, including Ryan Hall, the American winner of the 2009 race (He finished 13th this year). The potty was for them — the elite — I was told. I wasn’t fast enough a runner to earn the right to pee.
Back at the start, I was ideally located behind the elite, in the first corral. During the first four miles of the race, which took us from Benjamin Franklin Parkway (the “Champs-Elysées” of Philadelphia) to the historical Center City and Independence Hall, something new happened to me. I started fast, at a pace of about 6m30s a mile (14.9 km/h), but I felt great. I am usually a relatively slow starter who needs many miles to warm up and picks up the pace later in the race, sometimes leading to reverse splits (when the pace is faster in the second half of the run than in the first). This time, I wasn’t hurting, or at least not hurting as much as when I ran the first few miles of the Wilmington, Delaware, half-marathon in March.
When I passed the 5k mark in 20m31s, at a pace of 6m36s, I thought “I can do this.” I ran the 10k at an average of 6m47s. My legs and my body were feeling fine in spite of the lack of speedwork training (the repeat sessions of a mile or less at a very fast pace that build up strength and enable a runner to maintain speed during a race.)
((The Philadelphia skyline in the background. Feeling good at mile 5.))
I was looking forward to mile 5, where my husband would be waiting to cheer me, as he did three years ago. Once I got my marital encouragements, I was on my own along the river for the rest of the race.
Around mile 7, I overheard a conversation between two tall men.
“What was your time last year?” one of them asked. “1h26,” responded the other.
“That should get us there” the first man said, meaning that pace.
I thought, “Here is my 1h26 bus! All aboard!!,” and positioned myself behind them: front seat.
Not so fast. I realized I misunderstood: the answer was “1h24.” Soon, I dropped off the bus and saw it gaining ground over me, passing other people. After 5 or 10 minutes, the men were out of sight. “There goes my bus,” I thought.
That’s when I realized that my pace had fallen to over 7 minutes a mile. Unlike some runners who wear satellite-based watches informing them at anytime of their pace, mileage and heart beat, I avoid obsessing about the time. The organizers provided a clock at almost every mile, so avoiding it completely was difficult. I like to calculate my pace because it occupies my mind, and usually I can just feel if I’m too fast or too slow.
This time was different. I thought I had maintained my pace. I was surrounded by a group of runners who were going at about the same pace, which may have created the illusion that we were all maintaining our speed. When I tried to pick up, the pace stayed around 7 minutes a mile. I couldn’t even force to the point of hurting myself: my body seems to have a built-in fuse that pops when I try to get in the red zone and caps my pace at a certain limit, no matter how hard I try. I knew then I had reached a ceiling and that only one thing would have helped me get through it: better preparation for the distance and weekly speedwork sessions. Too late.
I was mile 9 or so, when it started to get really difficult. I pushed myself, and took water at the fluid station to make sure I wouldn’t run out of steam.
I spotted a young woman with legs as long as I am tall. What I also noticed was that she was slowing down. To stay motivated now that I knew I wouldn’t approach 1h25 and probably wouldn’t beat my 1h28 personal record, I decided to catch up with her. Once she was behind me, I looked for the next female runner ahead of me. The course was fairly flat, with a few very mild slopes. Hills are my strength, because I train on them: there’s no flat ground around my house. The female runner was slowing down uphill, so I picked up the pace. After some effort, I passed her. She wasn’t done and stayed close behind. For the next mile, we pushed each other.
((The final push, with the Philadelphia Museum of Arts in the background.))
A shirtless man passed me, taunting me in Spanish to pick up the pace. I answered in French, as a joke, and realized he was talking to a fellow runner behind us. Never mind, I took up the challenge and started to race with him. He finished 8 seconds ahead of me but I didn’t give up the fight easily.
It was a fine day in Philadelphia. As I sprinted toward the finish line, near the stairs leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art that were made famous by a scene in “Rocky,” the music theme of the movie aptly blasted out from the loudspeakers.
((Let the “Rocky” soundtrack play, Adriaaaannnnnn!))