Please forgive the length of this post. Writing it is a form of therapy for me in coping with a disappointing day. I also apologize for the lack of photos. I failed in every form of technology usage today, including forgetting my camera behind at home.
Let me start by talking about the Delaware Half Marathon in general. I’m hoping it will give you a bit more perspective leading into the race, and will also provide more of an unbiased view of the event than my own personal experience can share. This was my first time running Delaware. Every time I spoke with veterans of the race, they stated how much they loved the event, which was quickly followed by a comment about the hilliness of the course. I found that these two sentiments were exactly in line with my own experience.
The Delaware Marathon Running Festival is a small race with a big-race feel, which is pretty close to perfect in my mind. Packet pick-up was simple. I drove down to Wilmington, parked in a lot right next to the park where the race starts, walked into the tent, and was immediately asked for my race number. After collecting my bib, I swung by to get my gear bag, t-shirt, pint glass, and hat. I was back in my car in less than ten minutes. On race morning, the pre-race routine was also a walk in the park. I drove down with my family, found a free parking spot on the street without a problem, and enjoying a short 5-10 minute walk to the race start. There were a lot of runners and families milling around, but once again, there was a very relaxed feeling to the event. As someone who tries to plan for every scenario, I am usually at the race start a minimum of 90 minutes before the starting time. Today, I wandered in with about 40 minutes to go and felt completely okay with that. I waited a couple of minutes in the bathroom lines, then met up with a friend, kissed my family goodbye, and chatted casually as we approached the race start. With about 8 minutes to go, we sauntered over to the start, walked into the chute, and lined ourselves up according to our predicted pace. I said goodbye to my speedier friend, found myself a spot, and checked to make sure that my technology was ready to go. That’s when everything started to fall apart.
I usually like to race without music, preferring to take in my surroundings and the feel of the event. I have found, however, that music can really help me through tough spots in a race, especially when I am running on my own, as I planned to do today. Since I knew that I was going to be pushing hard in hopes of a possible PR, I decided that music might give me the boost I needed. Yesterday I spent close to an hour crafting the perfect playlist, even timing it to finish at my goal time. I charged my iPod, and even checked last night to make sure that the playlist had downloaded correctly. With five minutes till the race start, I turned on my iPod to adjust the volume to a nice background level, insuring that I could still hear any runners or course marshals around me. Imagine my dismay when the iPod turned on, began to play the first song, and then informed me that it was shutting off due to a low battery. In the past, I have had this inexplicably happen, even when the device appeared charged, but I never considered that possibility today. Happily, I allowed myself to feel a few moments of disappointment, and was then able to put this setback aside and refocus on the race. I decided that I would drop the iPod with my family when I saw them at mile 1, and just enjoy the course.
One of the benefits of a small race is that you don’t waste a lot of time hanging out in the corrals. The race started at 7am on the nose, and I crossed the starting line less than 30 seconds later. I hit the start button on my GPS, looked down to check that the time had started correctly, and was greeted by a message that informed me that the memory was full and needed to be cleared before any further recordings could take place. I stared in disbelief at the watch. I’ve used it for a year and never received that message before. Which means that I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the memory was full, but really, what are the odds that this would happen in a race when I really needed to know my pace? One of the downsides to the smaller size of the race was that I knew to only expect clocks on the course at miles 1, 5, and 10, which makes it hard to track your pace. I stubbornly pushed the start button several more times, but after repeatedly being greeted with the same message, I gave up and resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be running this race completely technology-free. Fortunately I met up with my family just a few minutes into the race, and was able to chuck my useless devices at them before continuing on my way.
The weather at the start of the race was cloudy and close to 70 degrees. Warmer than ideal conditions, but as someone who actually prefers to run in hotter conditions, I wasn’t too worried. What I didn’t factor on, however, was the humidity, which was over 90% at the start of the race. As a result, I found it hard to settle into an easy pace. When I passed the 1-mile marker, the clock read 9:30, which told me I had run the first mile in a nearly straight 9-minute mile pace. A bit faster than I had planned, but I took it as a sign that I might be on track to PR today. I only needed to average 9:20 or better to beat my previous personal best and since I have been training at longer distances, I was hopeful that the later miles would feel easier than usual. Back to that humidity, however.
By mile 2, I realized that the weather was going to play a bigger role than I had anticipated. I passed my family again and told my husband to expect me closer to 2:10 than the 2:00 I was hoping for. I just couldn’t get comfortable in the conditions. The pace already felt hard just a few miles in. I should have registered that and slowed down, but my stubborn streak thought that if I could just keep pushing, I might be able to settle in to a comfortable rhythm. I often find that 3-4 miles is the magic spot in my training runs, so I pushed on with optimism.
The first few miles took us along the Wilmington waterfront, back past the race start, and then out to the Brandywine Park. We ran along the water, and crossed over a swinging bridge, which was oddly bouncy. I couldn’t decide if I found the spring to be helpful or unsettling. The elevation map made it seem as though there were only 4 uphill sections of the course, but I quickly realized that the map was deceptive. In reality, it felt as though there was very little of the course that was actually flat. We enjoyed many gentle downhill sections, but an equal number of gradual uphills, which sapped the life out of you when combined with the heat and humidity.
When we crossed the 5-mile mark, I knew I was in trouble. The clock time read 45:35, which meant that I had maintained those 9-minute miles throughout the early part of the course. With a long hill anticipated at mile 6, however, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to hold that pace much longer. I also began to feel the effects of the humidity, experiencing repeated stomach cramps that would come and go randomly. They seemed to be worse shortly after water stops, but I knew that taking water was nonnegotiable, so I resolved to handle them as best I could and slog on.
The hill at mile 6 was as challenging as I had expected. I think that the total elevation climb was only about 200 feet, but it was a very gradual rise that went on for almost a mile straight. It took all of my energy to make it up that hill without stopping. I kept my sights set on a runner just in front of me and resolved to just keep following her. Fortunately for me, she didn’t stop. About halfway up, we passed the marathon leader sprinting down in the other direction, looking way too comfortable for the conditions. There wasn’t another single runner anywhere near him. At the top of the hill we traveled into a beautiful neighborhood section that provided lovely views, much-appreciated shade, and some gentle downhill slopes. At that point, I knew that my PR goal was basically gone, but I kept hoping that if I could just soldier on, I might still be able to come in under 2:05, which would feel like a successful day. I was still fighting the side stitches, along with a few brief waves of nausea and dizziness, but I tried to put that all aside and just soldier on. We left the neighborhoods, swung out to Little Italy, and then thankfully made the turn back towards the race start. I approached the 10-mile mark with a burning curiosity to see where I was. I even had a moment of hoping that perhaps I was feeling so lousy because I was running so fast. Of course, since you all are not in the state of a disillusioned runner, you know where this is heading. The clock at 10 miles read 1:36. Not bad, but a considerable drop in pace over the past five miles. I immediately felt my spirits drop, so much so that I slowed to a walk for the next uphill section. I had been pushing so hard, and to know that I wasn’t going to come closer to my goal time was just a crushing blow.
Fortunately my pity party was short-lived. I briefly considered walking the rest of the way in before deciding that I would be immensely angry with myself if I allowed that to happen. I couldn’t run a great time, but I still had the chance to salvage a decent one. I settled on a new goal of 2:10, and began to once again chug forward. Fate was finally on my side, and I was soon met with the long hill that I had struggled up at mile 6. I let my legs fly as much as possible, relishing the feeling of moving forward with relatively little effort. Of course, in a race this punishing, it wasn’t quite that easy. After the long downhill, we turned the corner at mile 12 onto King Street and were met with one more uphill climb before the finish. Once again, a gradual ascent, but one that lasted almost half a mile. At that point in the race, it was incredibly demoralizing. I pushed on as best as I could, shuffling when possible and walking when all else failed. When I spied the top of the hill I resolved to run it on in no matter what. If the final 1/2 mile hadn’t been downhill, I’m not sure if that would have happened, but I just moved forward, following the runners in front of me. As I rounded the curve to the finish, I spotted my family on the sidelines, big smiles on their faces as they watched me approach. I could have cried from relief. Instead, I high-fived my kids and urged them to join me in the final sprint to the finish line. My son hesitated, but my daughter jumped right in. We rounded the corner and to my delight, spotted the finish just 100 yards ahead. It’s a sign of how wiped I was that my daughter, who is much more of a walker than a runner, sprinted a few steps ahead of me to the finish. Her push in those final few steps allowed me to cross the finish line with a smile on my face. Final time? 2:09:27.
I feel fortunate that I had my family at the race to lift my spirits. Of course, the free champagne that was offered at the finish helped me to temper my disappointment as well. There was also a wonderful spread of food at the hospitality tent so I loaded my plate and then shared the snacks with my family. At that point the only thing that I could stomach was some wonderfully salty potato chips. As I cooled down and returned to the land of the sane and rational thinkers, I was able to realize that the exhaustion, stomach cramps, nausea, and dizziness were all clear signs that I was struggling with the heat throughout the race. Which made me glad that my body was smarter than my brain and that my pace just naturally slowed. I probably wouldn’t have finished the race otherwise. When I returned home, I did some reading about the effects of heat and humidity on running, and discovered that many pacing adjustment charts allowed that for today’s weather conditions you should expect your pace to drop by at least 45 seconds per mile. If I factored that into my finish, I would have run a sub-2 hour half today, which would have beaten my best time by several minutes. It’s all about the perspective I guess. That, and the knowledge that you can only control so many factors, so sometimes you just have to do your best, and cede one to Mother Nature every now and then.
A brief shout-out to everyone involved in the Delaware Running Festival, who put on a top-level event despite all of the weather challenges. In spite of everything, I managed to enjoy myself today.