This weekend I headed down to the shore for my second running of the Atlantic City Half Marathon – and I couldn’t be happier! Considering I tore my ACL at Mile 12 the last time I raced it back in 2012, just crossing the finish line with both knees intact was a win.
Anyway, we got down to the hotel at around 1:30PM on Saturday and headed right for the expo. We lucked out and got a hotel room in the same hotel as the expo and where the race starts/finishes (thanks, Mom! AKA the Penny Slot Queen), so it was a nice easy elevator ride to their convention floor. The expo was a little smaller than I expected – I had hoped to pick up some new arm warmers but only one booth was selling them, and they weren’t even really what I wanted! (As an aside, does anyone want to buy a nice pair of brand new, never worn neon coral Saucony arm warmers, size ladies L for $20? It’s $10 less than I paid, but I’ll never wear them!) 🙂
One exciting thing that happened at the Expo: I finally met fellow Mermaid Club member Alain!
Earlier in the summer we both had to drop from the full to the half, and he had promised to run the whole race with me. Now, I rarely run with other people. I’m more of a lone wolf. And I told him as much: don’t expect much conversation, DO expect to go SLOW. He promised that he could talk enough for two people, and didn’t care about time. I figured he’d hang on for a mile or two then get tired of me and head off on his way. This guy had run full marathons before, no way he was going to hang out with a back of the pack-er for almost 3 hours!
We chatted for a while and parted ways for our own pre-race dinner and evening plans at around 5PM. I decided to fill the last 4 hours of my night with a hot tub, crab-topped cheese fries, and some relaxing with family and friends, including these fantastic chicks that drove all the way down to cheer me on!
My nerves were pretty shot, but after spending an hour laying out my gear and taping my knees, I hit the hay around 9:30 and actually had a pretty restful night before my alarm went off at 6am! I picked running crops instead of the originally planned shorts, and I’m SO glad I did because it was chilly!! We made the short journey downstairs to the boardwalk and found a good crowd already gathering as the sun tried to break through the clouds. Here’s a nice handful of pics taken before the race to give you an idea of the scene:
After meeting up with Alain and chatting with Mike and my parents for a few minutes, suddenly the national anthem was being sung and we were rushing off to take our place behind the starting line!
Fun Fact: these pictures were taken like thirteen seconds apart.
Start – Mile 4
Before I could even have time to get super nervous, the horn blew and we were off! This is the first time I’ve repeated a course, so I had fun testing my memory of what was coming up next. The wind was pretty nasty even at 8AM, but my arm warmers and capri combo was absolutely perfect to keep me warm.
As we jogged through Mile 1 off the boardwalk and into the city, Alain kept pace with me and made me promise to tell him if we were going too fast. Then as we fell into a nice 12:15-ish pace, he started to regale me with tales of his training adventures, alternative breathing techniques, favorite Melissa McCarthy movies – you name it. And after we passed Mile 2 in the middle of a tunnel, I realized that I was still feeling remarkably well, so I started to chime in and chat with him. Not full-blown conversation, mind you.
The sun was still hiding behind clouds and the wind was BRUTAL with a capital B – but it honestly didn’t bother me much! We pointed out Bally’s (which was now 3.X miles away) and I got a little cocky: “That’s where we started running. And I’m not even tired! We’re freakin’ badasses!” The truth was, having someone there to talk with (and/or listen to) really did make it easier to tune out the monotony, pain, and depressing existential-crisis-type thinking that I’m prone to focus on basically every mile after 4. So when I hit mile 4, I was in really good spirits!
We motored along and peeled off for quick bathroom stops and gummy bear/Gu fueling at the 5-mile and 10K points, walking through the water breaks and chatting with fellow runners. This was also a new experience: being absorbed in my headphones for every other run, I never noticed that little snippets of conversation were going on all around me – but now I was a part of them!
Around Mile 7 I started to get very fatigued – my knees were achy and my calves were tight, and if I focused too much on the fact that I still had another 6 miles to go, I felt that existential anger creeping up on me. We chatted about family now, and started to do frequent “How are you feeling?” checks – between my knees and his plantar fasciitis, we probably added up to one healthy runner. I told him about how I turn into Mean Jess when I get to this point, and apologized in advance for any nasty things I might say to him when things got tough in the coming 6 miles. And to his credit, he did not run away from me!
But that’s when we turned a corner onto Atlantic Avenue and got hit with – no lie – the worst wind I’ve ever had the misery to run in. Seriously, it stopped us dead in our tracks. I even remember Alain saying, and I quote: “If I were running the marathon and got hit with this, I’d be saying ‘Fuck this shit’.” This also was the point where I realized that Alain and I were now BFF’les and I wasn’t letting him leave my side, ever.
We stopped at around mile 8 and stretched – my hips were starting to lock up and I could feel my form breaking down. But we walked a bit after the stretch, I took some more gummy bears and geared up for the last portion of the race. It’s amazing how a little sugar and some stretching can turn a race around, because once we hit that ramp to the boardwalk, I felt renewed and ready!
On the boards, the wind finally died down enough to give us room to run, and the crowd had thinned out too. No matter – we were coming up on the Start/Finish area again, which was now packed with finishers and spectators. As we cruised through, I spotted my two girlfriends Jenny & Julia, and oh, did they have signs. And lungs. Seriously, Jenny screamed so hard I thought the boardwalk was coming down, and I loved it!
I could describe the overwhelming emotions that I went through when I saw them there: happiness, relief, joy, excitement, pride… But I think the sequence of pictures that Julia took here can tell the story better than I ever could:
That’s everything that makes my heart swell, in 4 photos 🙂
After some restorative hugs (and stifling some happy tears), we continued on through miles 10-11.5. These were the hardest miles for me back in 2012. I was watching everyone faster than me loop back, thinking that it would be so nice to just jump in with them! But this time, Alain kept my mind focused (and kept me honest) by picking a spot about a quarter of a mile ahead: “Let’s run to that brown building with the weird fake Spanish architecture/that flag/that sign and then we can walk.” My inner competitor pushed me past those points without a word, and I discovered: he was pushing me to run farther each time and I didn’t even know it! Sneaky Alain!
So when we finally flipped around the cones at mile 11.5ish to run the last 1.8 back to the finish, he finally asked me: “What’s your goal here?” I told him I ran a 2:56 here in 2012 when I tore my ACL, so anything under that would be awesome. But I ran a 2:53 in Asbury and would love to beat that. He asked me for our current running time and mileage, did some quick math, and finally announced, “You’re going to PR.”
“Don’t say it. Don’t jinx me!” I said. But he was not even smiling. “You’re going to PR, I know it.”
Armed with that fuel, we hit mile 12 and I finally told him, “I’m going to get really quiet now, ok?” He just nodded and said OK. So I turned my music up just a little bit in one headphone and started to push to around a 10-minute mile pace. Of course, this is where I started to fall apart!
I couldn’t maintain that kind of speed, so I would slow every .2 miles or so, and poor Alain probably wanted to throttle me at this point. But I kept an eye on my watch and knew that PR would be mine – as long as I pushed. So push I did, with sprints and slower intervals until I could see the finish line. I could hear him behind me cheering me on as I dug in for the final kick through the finisher’s chute, past all the cheering spectators, where we crossed the finish line just feet apart with huge smiles and arms thrown wide – at an amazing 2:50:30!!
After the ridiculous kick I gave to cross that finish line, my lungs immediately seized up and I started crying – what can I say, I’m a big sap! Especially when I saw my mom on the sidelines, crying her eyes out. That’s all it took for me, I was a goner.
She grabbed me over the fence and pulled me in for a hug and I was sobbing: “I did it, I PR’d” – it was a blur. I hugged everyone down the line: my dad, Mike, Jenny, Julia – they were all there, and they were getting the full Jess ugly-cry face. Alain was still right there with me too, and I kept thanking him – I knew I couldn’t have done this without him. I wouldn’t have even come close. I would have walked much more, stopped more, gotten so down on myself… it wouldn’t have been pretty. But he showed me that I have it within me to do some amazing things, and for that I am SO grateful!
After we took one more happy Mermaid Club photo with our medals, we parted ways so he could shower and catch up with friends running the full, and so that I could go hang out with my cheering squad back on the other side of the Finisher’s Village.
So overall, this was a fantastic, well-organized race that I can honestly say I will be back to run again and again – now that I know what I’m capable of, I’ve got some big goals on the horizon and I can’t wait to chase them on the Atlantic City boardwalk!