A few months ago, I mentioned that I wanted to PR my half marathon. This has been a goal of mine for quite some time, and as such I intended to put myself in a situation where PR-ing would be almost inevitable. I know, overall, that I’m a faster runner than I was when I ran my first half marathon, but I wanted to set myself up for success, both by training hard and by strategically choosing a race that would likely yield ideal-for-me race conditions (which is to say: cold.).
The Chi Town Half, also known to just about no one but myself (until these past couple of days) as the biggest goal race I’ve had in a long time, turned out to be exactly what I needed it to be.
While I was happy to talk in general terms about what I hoped to accomplish at Chi Town (a PR), I kept the specifics to myself until about a week before the race. My primary goal was always to PR, period, but I really wanted to run a 2:05 or faster. Last year, runners with a sub-2:05 half marathon qualified for Corral E at the Chicago Marathon, which was the final corral in Wave One. I know, realistically, that the color of a person’s bib does not determine his or her worth as a runner, but man did I want the chance to wear a red bib. Though I don’t know what the qualifying standards for Wave One will be this year–nor do I know if I’ll even want to run in Wave One–for my own sake, I wanted to prove to myself that I could qualify for Wave One (or at least 2013’s Wave One).
So I trained. I trained hard and I trained intentionally. I did intervals once a week (I hadn’t done any intervals at all in two years). I did a tempo run once a week (I had never done a tempo run in my life). I did my long runs. I stretched, I strength trained (…occasionally), I practiced yoga, and I foam rolled every. single. day. (literally. The last day I didn’t foam roll was December 31, 2013.) But even with all that, 2:05 still didn’t sound realistic. When I would talk about running a 2:05, I always said conditions would have to be absolutely perfect to hit that time, and even then I still didn’t actually believe I could actually run a 2:05. It was my pie-in-the-sky goal. My best long run was at a 9:49 pace, and that was only a seven miler. Ultimately, though, my #1 goal was just to PR, and anything better than a 2:22:34 would get me that PR.
I laid low and carbed up on Friday and Saturday, only leaving my apartment for a hair cut and to pick up my “packet.”
Pictured: the entire packet. Honestly, I can’t complain. Who needs all the junk that comes in race bags, anyway? Also, love this race shirt. This is my first tech hoodie, and I think this will be a VERY handy base layer on future cold runs (hood up + hat over hood = improvised balaclava, yes? That’s what I’m telling myself.).
I got to the race site (good ol’ Nature Museum. I do enjoy racing out of there) about 45 minutes before the race began, which gave me plenty of time to check my gear, use the portapotties, warm up, and observe those around me, wondering if I were underdressed for the occasion. Most of the people I saw wore full tights and a long sleeve pullover, while I was rocking crops, a short sleeve shirt, and arm sleeves. I was a bit chilly while we waited for the race to begin, but once we got running I warmed up quickly, and MAN. I don’t know how those people in tights and long sleeves survived. I took my arm sleeves off at mile 6 (woooo first outdoor run in short sleeves of 2014!!), and even then I was still toasty. But I digress.
Late last week, I was talking with a coworker who also would be running the race, and casually said, “I’m never going to break 2 hours.” (I think he thought I meant at Chi Town. I meant…ever. As in, at any point in my life). He, however, was convinced I could break 2:00 (perhaps he didn’t know my current PR was 2:22:34?), and you know how it is once people get those ideas into your head…. He told me, especially in light of my performance at Shamrock, to line up with the 2:00 pace group. I thought that was insane, but decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find a pace group I could stick with. When I got to the race, however, all the pacers were holding minute/mile signs rather than finishing time signs, so I put myself a bit behind the men holding “9:32,” having absolutely no idea what 9:32 translated to in terms of finishing, and hoped for the best. I wanted to start the race a bit slow so I’d have enough left to give at the end, and 9:32 seemed like a good enough group to have in front of me.
The race started right on time and took us out to the Lakefront Trail to head south towards North Ave. (Side note: I’ve heard that last year there were issues with volunteers/course markings. The course could not have been better staffed or more clearly marked this year. A++ to All Community Events — I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Lakefront Trail race so well marked). I hit my first mile in 9:05, which seemed way too fast, so I tried to hold back a bit. Those trusty 9:32 pacers were still in front of me, so I figured as long as I stayed put, I’d be fine.
The course was a bit crowded for the first few miles, what with all of us half marathoners and 10K runners traipsing along the trail together (which undoubtedly thrilled everyone else on the trail Sunday morning), but again, I was trying to hold back, so this was fine by me. We continued on our merry way back into Lincoln Park, where I generally just kept hangin’ in there behind that 9:32 group. After taking the first three miles to settle into the pace, those pacers were spot on. 9:26, 9:33, 9:30 — I’ve never run a race so evenly in my life.
After we headed under Fullerton, someone approached one of the 9:32 pacers, who had ended up a little closer to me after a water station and asked the pacer what time we’d finish in. He said:
Huh. Well then.
So as it turns out, I had, entirely unintentionally, found myself running with a pace group that was not only going to get me a PR, but was going to get me my ultimate goal time. I’ve never really run a race with a pace group before, so I guess my opinion may not count for much, but GOOD HEAVENS. I cannot say enough about these pacers. They were consistent, they gave us course info on the run (“Take water here: we don’t have another water station for another 1.5 miles!”), they watched out for us (“Huge pothole coming up!” “Muddy trail!”). They were perfect. I mean, seriously. Check out these stats:
We ran all the way up to Foster, and once we turned south were greeted by a lovely headwind. Not necessarily the ideal conditions for the last fourish miles of a half marathon, but it wasn’t the worst wind I’ve ever run into. I spent most of this time trying to figure out when I wanted to really kick it in and attempt to ditch my pace group (I had not, mind you, been running with them, per se, for this race. Though they kept me on pace, I was generally about 20-30 feet behind the pacers and the group of runners immediately surrounding them). With the headwind, I figured I’d wait until the last mile or so and see how I felt before attempting anything.
And then, out of absolutely nowhere, at about mile 10.5 I found myself passing the 9:32 pace group, and I never saw them again.
Never once in my running life have I gotten a second wind, but BOY OH BOY did I get a second wind on Sunday. I didn’t want to freak myself out, so I told myself I couldn’t look at my watch. Buttttt then when I hit mile 11, I couldn’t help myself. 9:13. All right. Better than I had been doing, so, for the love of God, Bethany, do not look at your watch anymore! Don’t think about it! Buttttt then when I hit mile 12, I couldn’t help myself. 9:06. Who am I?? Where was this coming from??
I snuck another peek at my Garmin just beyond the 12 mile mark and saw I was at 1:52. Running a sub-8:00 mile for the last 1.1 seemed a bit out of the question, so I knew I couldn’t be hitting sub-2:00, which, honestly, was totally fine. I had NO intentions of actually running that fast, regardless of what my coworker thought I could do. But being beyond mile 12 at 1:52 did mean a 2:05 seemed completely reasonable. My legs were killing me, my feet hurt, I was sweaty and tired, but doggone it, I did NOT run intervals into the wind, I did NOT suffer through treadmill hills, and I did NOT bundle up for long runs in sub-zero wind chills to quit with 1.1 miles left. I stepped up my game as we headed back onto the limestone trail and knocked out an 8:53 (which included seeing my coworker, who was happy to yell at me, “Come on! You can do better than that!”) and a 7:41-pace last .08 miles (by my Garmin; .1, officially), for an overall official finishing time of:
I was exhausted, but I crossed that finish line with an enormous smile on my face. I took almost 20 full minutes off my previous PR (19:44, technically). I not only PRed, but I destroyed the time I realistically expected to run (2:10-2:15) and smashed the goal I never, ever, EVER really dreamed I would hit (2:05).
Hard work pays off.