I stood by the baggage drop van taking last minute puffs of my inhaler.
“Um, are you OK to run 13 miles?” The nice lady manning the van asked me, genuine concern in her voice.
“Yeah, of course,” I replied, much more confidently than I felt. I was about to run the Richmond Half through Kew Gardens — my first half marathon.
During my training runs I questioned why I was doing this, but when my alarm went off at 6:30am, I really started to doubt my silly before-I-turn-30 goal. But I suited up, downed my overnight oats, and hopped on the tube to Richmond. The train was filled with other runners boasting their half or 10K bibs. And like true sheeple, when we got off at the Kew Gardens stop, each of thought “I’ll just follow the other runners, they’ll know where they’re going,” and we all started walking in the complete opposite direction of Kew Gardens, despite the fact that we all had GPS on our phones. After a couple blocks the runner in front pulled out the map and realized we were going the wrong way. Just what I wanted to do before running 13.1 miles — walk an extra mile. It was good warm up I guess. I still arrived with plenty of time to use the loo, and then immediately join the queue for the loo again because there was no way I was stopping along the course to use a porta-potty. I dropped off my bag and made my way to the start just as they were calling for my wave. Could not have timed it better.
We all started in a giant group, which made it hard to pick up speed or pass anyone. We moved as a giant amoeba through the scenic garden.
Then before I knew it, I was on my own — where had the rest of my amoeba gone?
The thing I love about running is that it can be either a solo or group sport. I was surprised to see more runners running the race by themselves than with groups of friends. Yet there was this subtle “we’re all in this together” spirit in the air as we powered towards the same finish line. At times running can be lonely though. At mile 5 we were back in the woods dodging sticks, rocks and whatever a pothole is called when it’s in the woods. To get the full experience (and because I read they were banned) I ran without headphones, so I only had the jukebox in my head. Which for some inexplicable reason was playing Jim Steinman’s Left in the Dark on repeat. It’s a sad song about an unfaithful lover. It is the furthest thing from a pump up running song. But I went with it. The only thing I had to focus on was not tripping, and even that wasn’t going well — I tried to dodge a rock and almost wiped out, but luckily caught myself without getting injured.
Around mile 5.5 we went through a cheering tunnel, which was encouraging. I felt ready to sprint towards the finish. But then I realized the cheering was meant for those doubling back on mile 11.5. There were people already 6 miles ahead of me. I still had 7.5 miles to go. I ate a Jelly Baby and buckled down for the long haul.
I always assumed I would walk a portion of the race. Besides my 10K race last November, I never run non-stop. There are always stoplights and stop signs along my routes, and even when I’m only doing 4 miles, I often have to take a walking break just to blow my nose and catch my breath (and most recently, catch a Pokemon). So it was just a matter of when my walking break would be. Around mile 7 my knee started to hurt. Just make it to mile 8, I told myself. That’s a respectable, even number. You can say you ran 8 miles non-stop. But then at mile 8 I ate a Jelly Baby and didn’t feel a desire to stop. So I pushed on. Slowly, mind you, but at a pace faster than walking. “You only have 5K left!” I told myself, then quickly realized it was 5 miles, not 5K (3 miles). Bollocks. Cue more Left in the Dark.
At mile 9 something weird came over me. I expected to be feeling like death, alternating a minute of walking with a minute of running. But instead this inner voice piped up: “What if you did it? What if you actually ran this entire half marathon? You only have 4 miles left. That’s a literal walk (run) in the park.” So I ran, getting a little boost each time I passed a runner who had thrown in the towel and started walking.
At mile 10 I decided to reward myself. Since I had made it 10 whole miles without a walking break, I opened up Pokemon Go and hatched my 10K egg (which was at 9.1K so I only had to run 0.9K). (I got a Pinsir in case you were wondering. I did not have him. It made me momentarily happy, which is what I hoped it would do). At mile 11.5 I ran through the cheering tunnel again and got a boost from all the charity volunteers. I was actually doing this! I was running — RUNNING — a half marathon! And I only had 2 miles left! At mile 12 volunteers rang bells and cheered us on. “One more mile!” They shouted. I spotted a photographer and gave him a thumbs up — thumbs up at mile 12. Who am I?
And then I remembered what I overheard a runner say around mile 10: “I hate the finish line of this race. You get into the park and everyone’s cheering and then you think you’re done, but they make you weave around.”
She was right. I was hurting, sure, but I had this fire inside me and was ready to finish. I ran into the park, high-fiving the crowds of supporters. I was on cloud nine! I could see the finish line! I looked at MapMyRun and saw my time — 2 hours and 10 minutes. I said I didn’t have a goal for this half aside from finishing, but my farfetched goal was 2:15. I couldn’t believe there was a chance I could attain that. I just had to go 100m, turn right, and sprint towards the finish. …but then I realized there was a sign after that 100m. “Half Marathon turn left, 10K turn right.” Turning right took you right to the finish. Turning left took you alllll around the park. I wanted to cry. I suddenly was emotionally and physically drained. It was the longest half mile of my life. Every runner around me was either walking or making “I want to die” huffing noises. There were no supporters around us — just grass, barriers and runners running out of gas.
I want to say I powered through, dug deep, gave an inspirational speech to those around me, and shot towards the finish. But I feel like I need to be honest with you, dear readers. I walked. Only for about 10 seconds, just to blow my nose, but at mile 12.8 of my first half marathon I took my first walking break. “You don’t get near the finish line and stop!” Jillian Michaels used to scream at me while I did her exercise DVDs. Well, apparently I do.
But this part happened for real — when I rounded the bend and saw the finish line straight ahead, I dug deep. I sprinted like it was a 200m race. I like to think the other runners plodding along gazed on in amazement as I shot past them. And then, like a scene from a cheesy movie, I actually threw my arms up in the air and crossed the finish line in that pose, victorious. (I can’t wait to see the photo, though I doubt it’s as magnificent as it is in my head). A volunteer handed me a medal, I put it on and held it up proudly for the photographer, and then my eyes started to water as the mental and physical exhaustion started to hit me. I ran a half marathon. And I actually RAN it, aside from that tiny infraction close to the finish line that we won’t talk about. My time ended up being 2:16 — 1 minute from my goal. By no means fast, but a solid first effort.
When I texted my runner friend the news she asked me if I was ready for a full now. As I write this Jim Steinman’s What Part of My Body Hurts the Most is playing in my head, so the thought of putting my body through 26.2 miles seems insane. I think I’d rather focus on improving my 5K, 10K and (maybe) half times. But then again, when I finished my first 10K race I thought there was no way I could run twice that distance, so in the words of (ugh) Justin Bieber — never say never.