This weekend I ran my first half marathon since tearing my ACL in mile 12 of my last one back in October 2012. And it couldn’t have been a better day if I had scripted it!!
My day started out with a bit of anxiety: after 18 months of no running/racing in major races, I had some serious stress dreams about getting to the start. So when 5:30 rolled around I woke up ready but not necessarily rested. I did my usual pre-run routine (coffee, peanut butter bread, half banana, bathroom), and once I slapped some eyebrows on (gotta look good for the race photographer!), I taped up my knees and got dressed, sticking with the tank and shorts & throwing my running rain jacket on at the last minute.
After a quick 25-30 minute drive, we got to the boardwalk and easily found parking – a huge bonus in my book! I was so nervous & couldn’t stop talking in circles – poor Mike kept talking me down, and finally he gave me a look that said he was considering using the KT tape from my knees to cover my mouth, and I kept my insecurities to myself. Bless his heart.
Fig. 1: a terrified runner
We milled around at the start, waiting in the semi-ridiculous port-a-potty line and acclimating to the cold wet weather, when the sun broke through the clouds, causing a huge burst of applause from the crowd. That’s when I called an audible, took the jacket off, and lined up for the start.
Fig. 2: terrified runner, faking optimism
The gun went off and after the usual jostling at the start, we were on our way! As I crossed the timing pad, “Born to Run” blared from a nearby radio station tent and I couldn’t help but smile. Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen, the Jersey Shore, the gritty boardwalk, the finish at the Stone Pony: this race was made for me! I own this! It’s funny how one song can turn your mood around entirely 🙂
So, with my confidence soaring, I settled into a nice easy, conservative 11:30-12:00 min/mile pace and smiled the whole first 2 miles, listening to other runners near me at the back of the pack chatting happily and joking about how they only had “5 more hours to go!” These were my people!
We passed hungover hipsters watching us from the doorways of diners, couples walking their dogs, people getting coffee – it was a gorgeous spring Saturday morning and I felt like I could go forever. We did a nice slow loop around the lake and back along the boardwalk where we got a nice boost from the crowd that still lingered there – and I even got to snag an extra good luck kiss from Mike!
Fig. 3: Happy runner 🙂
Miles 3-5.5 went one way out and miles 5.5-7 passed us in the other direction. It was motivating to pass the faster runners and snag some high-fives to power through. I stopped at the water station at 5.5 for a stretch and some water, then took some almonds and peanut butter M&M’s for energy (gels cramp my stomach) a bit later at 1:07. But I realized too late – I had no water! I mis-timed my stop and found myself jogging with a dry mouth full of paste (that tasted like smoked almonds and chocolate, ugh). I asked a nearby course volunteer where the next water station was and while she didn’t know, she magically reached into her pocket and pulled out a tiny bottle of water for me! I heard angels and saw the skies open up above her, and thanked her about 20 times as I jogged away, recharged.
The last 3rd of the race was along the boardwalk the entire way, and as we ran back past the start/finish area I found Mike one last time and smiled, for the camera, but I knew the rest of this race was going to be tough.
I felt a little bit of fatigue, and looked forward to my planned walk breaks at Mile 10. Just after I passed Mike though, a tiny figure in a neon pink sweatshirt came out of the crowd right before the Casino pier and ran straight for me, screaming, “Jess! Yeah Jess GO!” – it was my friend Tina! I had totally forgotten that she was coming! I was grateful for the chance to stop and hug her, but she (being a seasoned runner with 7 [SEVEN!!] marathons under her belt) knew that if I stopped I wouldn’t start again. So she kept pace with me for about 50 yards, “You’re doing great! How are you feeling? How’s your knee? Can I get you anything at the finish?” I kept running. All I could get out was fragments: “I’m great! 5 and a half to go, knee is awesome, thanks but I’m good!” She trailed off just as I went through the abandoned pier, “Alright, we’ll be there at the finish, you’ve got this!!” I gave her a thumbs up and once I was inside the pier, I found myself sobbing.
I was so overwhelmed with the whole experience – I was running with my new ACL, on track to beat my old time, and here was this friend I completely didn’t expect and needed just at the right moment. I mean come on, no one understands a runner better than another runner. I heard my goofy sobs echoing around the empty pier – then realized that she was probably still only a few yards behind me, dummy, pull yourself together and run your ass off!
So run I did, and started to melt down around 10.5. The boardwalk was an unforgiving surface to run on, and my thin compression socks offered little in the way of cushioning. At every step I could feel every bump and nail in the boards under my feet. My good knee throbbed with every step, but as long as I alternated between jogging and walking, I was good.
I kept an eye on my watch, with my time to beat at 2:56; That was when I crossed the finish line after tearing my ACL in the AC Half. Even if I made it in at 2:55 I would call it a win. So when I passed mile 12 and saw 2:40 on the clock, I panicked. If I walked it at 15 mins/mile, I wouldn’t make it. I’d have to push. So I did.
And just as I came over the last bridge at mile 12.85, there was another friend – Bill. I pointed at him as I jogged towards him, as he stood there smiling at me, waiting to run me in. I had nothing left to give at this point; even speaking was impossible. I felt so bad – I couldn’t answer any of his questions, or even explain to him that I was so close to my time goal because I couldn’t breathe enough to say it!
And honestly, I hadn’t even said my goal out loud, ever. Saying it felt too real. If I came in after 2:56 I couldn’t bear the thought of having to hear everyone tell me, “Well you still did great!”.
So I speed walked, I jogged, and there was Tina and her boyfriend Joe, again at mile 13. This time she snapped a pic of me:
I was laughing, yes – but I think hallucinating too.
I just had to make it up to the boardwalk and sprint the last .1 to finish. I said screw it and just RAN – I’m not even sure of that final pace – but when I could make out the numbers on the finish clock and saw 2:53, I burst into tears. I simply couldn’t hold the emotion in any longer, and crossed that finish line at 2:53:44, sobbing and wheezing.
When I cleared the finishers chute, I found Mike and could only make out the words “I beat my time!” before dissolving into full-on sobs. I hadn’t even told him about my goal, and I didn’t even have the oxygen to do so now! But he knew.
Tina and Bill joined us, for hugs and photos and chatting – it was amazing.
Triumphant Runner 🙂
I felt like I was vibrating. I still do! It was an amazing experience and I enjoyed every moment of it. I left it all on the course and wouldn’t have done it any other way. This race was more than just a race, it proved to me that I could see something through to the end successfully. I guess when it comes to half marathons, my third time was really the charm 😉
The only negative things I can say had to do with the finish and expo/t-shirt pickup situation. When we all parted ways, I realized that I needed water, and maybe a banana or something. I was shaking and my legs were near giving out. But all they had available on the boardwalk near the finish were plastic cups of water – if I wanted anything else I had to walk about a half mile back into town off the boardwalk to the “expo” in a school gymnasium (where they were also giving out race t-shirts). Now, I’d just run 13.27 miles. That unpaved field I had to cross to get to the expo may as well have been made of lava and filled with crocodiles. I still remember standing at the corner, looking at the expo sign in the distance and asking Mike for a piggy-back ride because I couldn’t fathom walking that far!
But even with that, I’d give the Asbury Park Runapalooza about a B+. The expo was cute, the tech shirts are fun orange long sleeve shirts, and I even got a free leg massage after the race! This is definitely a race I can see myself returning to year after year!
How about you? Did you race this weekend? I want to hear all about it!