I signed up for the Naperville Half Marathon back in July to be a goal race in my build-up for the NYC Marathon. It was 3 weeks before NYC and normally I prefer to do one about 4-5 weeks out from the goal marathon but I was limited in the weekends that I could pick for my goal race since I was hosting the Chicago Marathon meetup and had my best friend’s wedding that I stood up in a couple weekends prior to that. I had run the course before in 2019 as a workout and had a good experience at it and since it was local it was easy to get to!
The buildup to NYC Marathon has been going well but because of the hot, humid, seemingly never-ending summer in Chicagoland this year, I hadn’t really had a long run I felt great about in awhile. My paces have had to be adjusted in every long run that had speedwork in it and this left me feeling unsure of where my fitness was at going into Naperville. I talked with my coach, Jessica, the Wednesday before the race and we both thought realistically I was in shape to run about a 1:25-1:26 half marathon on a good day but recognized that these last 18 months have taken their toll in the form of stress and in just being rusty with racing, not used to being in that type of pain for awhile. My biggest goal was to go run a smart race and to compete and if the splits came, that would be icing on the cake.
I set my alarm for 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. start time. I had a quick bite to eat and brought my UCan in the car since it was a 45 minute drive down to Naperville. I drank that around 6:15, 45 minutes before the scheduled start time. I had to pick up my bib that morning since I didn’t want to drive 90 minutes roundtrip the day before to pick it up so I was a little crunched for time when I arrived since I had a hard time getting to a parking garage with the roads shut down. I found a spot, got out of my car, and the cold air hit me. It was 39 degrees with a real feel of 36 when just the weekend before it had been a low of 73 – it was a drastic change! I started running my warm-up to pick up my bib, and realized I hadn’t grabbed my mask to go into the gymnasium to pick it up! I ran back to the car, grabbed one, and got to the gym to pick up the bib. I had prepaid for race-day packet pickup but there was a glitch in the system and they hadn’t marked me down so this process took a little longer than I had budgeted for. I had time to run a little more and do my 4 strides and got into my corral with about 3 minutes to spare which had me stressed out and adrenaline pumping a bit before I started. I kept telling myself to relax and tried taking several deep breaths knowing that it wasn’t good to be stressed on the start line.
The gun went off and I was flying forward, looked down at my watch and saw it was in the 5’s and pulled it back real fast. I tried to settle into a good rhythm – hoping to start off closer to a 6:40 pace and take it down to a 6:30 after a couple miles. I found some guys that I started working with and we ended up going through mile 1 in a 6:28 and my watch was right on with the mile marker on the course which is always a nice feeling. A little fast so tried to rein it back in for the next mile, and at this point I was nearly by myself with some people ahead and some behind. I realized it was going to be a no-man’s land kind of race – the men ahead of me were way faster than me and there wasn’t really anyone in that 6:30 pace range where I was. There was a water stop at mile 2 and I skipped it since it was so cold and early on in the race that I didn’t think I needed it. The water stop was just before a big hill that I saw would also be the same hill I’d hit mile 8 on – it felt ok now but I knew by mile 8 it was going to feel like a mountain. Mile 2 was a 6:34 and this was a good spot for me to hang out at. I felt slightly uncomfortable. I considered backing off the pace a bit but convinced myself to hang with it and maybe it would pass – sometimes the early miles running fast just don’t feel as natural and I settle into a rhythm after 2-3. We went under and underpass for mile 3 and there were a lot of spectators cheering here. Mile 3 was 6:37 and I used the energy of the crowds to keep moving forward. There was a timing mat around 3.3ish (online it says it was at mile 4 but it also says I ran 4 miles at 5:28 pace so that’s obviously not correct). This part of the course was lonely running around a high school parking lot with no fans around so I tried to trick myself and imagined running around my own high school parking lot back in the day when we’d do workouts in the winter when the track was snow-covered. It sort of worked but mile 4 clicked for me before the sign on the road which was the first mile marker this had happened at; they changed the course this year and because of how off the mile markers were after this I think maybe they were placed in their old locations. I’m not sure but GPS was fine in Naperville since it’s just a suburban town with no skyscrapers like downtown Chicago so I don’t think that was the problem.
I got to the first aid station at mile 4, clocking in a 6:31 mile. At this point the volunteers were cheering for me yelling things like “you’re the first female” which was really exciting to hear. I grabbed a cup of water and tried to down my gel quickly because unfortunately, it was a plastic cup which meant I couldn’t drink much of the water at all. It mostly ended up all over my face instead. (Side note: I don’t know why races are using plastic cups lately. They’re not good for the environment, first of all, and second of all, they’re terrible for runners because we can’t crease the top to control the liquid coming into our mouths while continuing to run!) At this point I was only 26 minutes into my race but I knew running at a faster pace would mean I was burning through my fuel faster – ideally I could’ve taken a gel at mile 5 and mile 10 but I knew ahead of time that there were aid stations at 2, 4, 6, 8, and 12 so 4 and 8 made the most sense.
Mile 5 was consistent with a 6:33 and I used some energy from fans that were in downtown Naperville to propel me along. There was also a DJ playing music along this mile and he yelled out my name as I ran by which was pretty neat! When we got out of downtown, it was pretty lonely again and there was another uphill climb to get to mile 6. This slowed me down a bit and I hit the mile in 6:40. I tried to maintain my effort here since things started feeling much harder and headed for a short out-and-back section where I had the opportunity to see who was behind me for the first time. I was still in first female at this point but could see there was a woman maybe 10 seconds back on me and gaining. I also saw another female who was maybe 30 seconds back at this point and another one shortly behind her. I focused on keeping it together. I could tell the woman 10 seconds back looked a lot fresher than me but tried to focus on my race. She ended up catching me in the next half mile or so and I tried to match the move but just couldn’t go with her; she ended up talking to someone on the sidelines who yelled out to her so I could tell she wasn’t exerting herself as much as I was and was probably pretty comfortable! Sure enough I had maintained the effort hitting mile 7 in 6:43. I knew the next mile would have the big hill in it again from mile 2 since they had changed the course to be just 2 loops of the same thing so I tried to mentally prepare for that. I took my second gel at the aid station near mile 8 and grimaced my way up the hill. 6:46. I think this hill took the life out of my legs because I was never able to fully recover after that. I kept moving, knowing I had definitely slowed down and this is when it hit me that this was the moment that would be the difference between a PR day and a non-PR day.
It’s hard to feel your goal slipping away and not being able to battle for it. At this point I was fighting a lot of mental demons wanting to be done with the race but I reminded myself that it was only 5 miles and I could finish it. I tried to give myself a mile to regroup, hitting mile 9 in 6:58, but my legs just didn’t want to go anymore. At this point I was still in the second-place female position and I figured the women behind me must have slowed down as well since they hadn’t passed me yet. I ran through the empty high school parking lot again, hitting mile 10 at a 7:00 pace and tried to do some mental math. My PR of 1:27:48 was probably out of the question at this point unless I could pick it back up to the 6:30s again but I was really proud of how I was battling and staying in it till the end. It was between mile 10 and 11 that another woman passed me running alongside a man and I tried to latch on to the back of them and go with but it wasn’t happening. They looked strong and I focused on the fact that I had less than 3 miles to go! Mile 11 clicked in at 7:12 – oof, my slowest mile of the day. We came through downtown with the cheers again and then hit a hill right at the most convenient time at mile 12! Ouch. That burned. 7:11 for mile 12. At least I’m consistent? I had to do the out and back section again where I could see if others were behind me. I didn’t see any other females and figured they must have faded so it looked like I was going to be locked in for third which was still exciting! Hitting 13 in a 7:09 but not being at the mile 13 marker was a bit rough so I focused on just sprinting it in from here. The faster I ran, the faster I was going to be done. I ended up averaging a 6:23 pace for the last .28 miles – I thought I had done a pretty good job of hugging the curves and running the tangents since I was by myself so I do think the course was a bit long, but more on that a little later. I came through the shoot sprinting seeing the clock and threw my hands up as I crossed the line. It wasn’t the race I was dreaming of but it still felt like a really big accomplishment to finish third female on tired, marathon-trained legs only 3 weeks out from the goal race before any tapering. My official time was a 1:30 but if the course was long, which I believe it to be (I’m very honest about this kind of thing – I’m not one of those people who will try to tell you that I ran over 27 miles at the Chicago Marathon – I know it’s skyscrapers messing with that!) it was a 1:29.
When I went to the results tent, however, I found out that I was in fourth place. I found the woman who I thought was in second and she also thought she was second and I was third but we accepted that maybe someone started later and finished with an overall faster elapsed time. We parted ways but later that morning she contacted me and had found the other woman’s data on Strava and saw that at the second out-and-back section she had turned into the finish shoot instead of doing the out-and-back which cut off about a half mile from her total distance. Her watch read 12.8 at the end. We submitted this to the race directors to try to verify the results since there were prizes for second and third overall female and it was a bit disappointing to not be awarded our correct prizes. They responded on Monday saying they’d look into it and as of posting this we have still not heard back which is a little frustrating.
I think it makes sense to break down the post-race thoughts into two categories, things I could have controlled and things I couldn’t have controlled. We’ll start with the uncontrollable since those are easier to list.
- The plastic cup situation. I think I drank less than 6 oz. total on the course because of these plastic cups that were filled only a third of the way and that I couldn’t crease to get water down. This really isn’t ideal for running hard and it made it really tough to get the gels down since they are so sticky on their own.
- Running by myself. There wasn’t a good pack to run with around a 6:30/6:40 pace. The men ahead of me were either way faster (sub 1:20 shape), the people behind weren’t coming up, and the few people around me didn’t really work together and played cat and mouse with each other. When I ran my PR half at Indy and in CIM I ran with a pack for half of the race and then raced on my own the second half and this is definitely how I race best – I like to sit with a group and then pick it up like a workout. In the past this race has had faster pace groups which is why I picked it but with covid I think they had less pacers sign up.
- The course. The course map changed after I had signed up and became two loops of the same thing instead of the usual course I was anticipating which was one bigger loop. I liked the big loop and I knew it well from racing previously so I was a bit thrown off a few days before the race when I realized it wasn’t going to be the same. It made for a little boring experience and mentally challenging to start the second loop. The course also seemed long – most people’s data I saw on Strava showed about 13.3 miles as well. When I mapped it out online, it actually showed it being 13.48 miles long so this doesn’t seem unrealistic!
- The weather. I hesitated to mention this because it seems so picky after the Chicago marathoners got a 73-degree day for their race the weekend before but after being told by several people after the race that my lips were blue in photos or in person, it probably played a role. 39 with a real feel of 36 felt really cold to me that morning but I did feel like I heated up a bit. Fortunately there wasn’t much wind to deal with!
- I probably should’ve gotten up at 4:30 instead of 5:00. Lesson learned to account for things outside of your control taking up extra time in the morning to leave room to not stress out about timing.
- My mental game. I’ve been struggling with this a lot more this cycle than in previous ones. Some of it has to do with the fact that I haven’t had a long-run workout go exactly to plan this cycle and have had to adjust all of them for hot and humid conditions. When I trained for CIM in 2019 I was hitting peak weeks in October and November because the race was in December and I had forgotten how much nicer that made the workouts and long runs! Another piece of the mental side of things has to do with not racing much during the pandemic and getting a little rusty on mental toughness. It’s like a muscle – if you don’t exercise mental toughness, it becomes weaker and weaker over time. Last year I focused mostly on running for endurance and maintaining a good base. This spring I tried racing a half and the course marshals turned us the wrong way around mile 4, I regrouped and tried to race a week later into 40 mph wind gusts which obviously didn’t go great, so I never got to really race. I try to remember that I ran a 3:14 solo marathon self-supported last Halloween as a workout (3 miles off, 2 miles on) and that helps remind me how tough I can be, but I’m still getting back into this whole racing for real thing again and it’s hard. As I’ve told several of my athletes lately, the life stress also adds up and certainly plays a role in our mental toughness, too. It’s been a hard 18 months for all of us and we shouldn’t forget that it can have an effect on our running.
Overall I’m really proud of this effort. While it wasn’t the dream “return-to-racing” day that we’ve all been envisioning after a long pandemic, it was the first time in a long time I’ve seen a glimmer of my old self who was more confident in her racing and herself. I am the strongest athlete I’ve ever been – all the work in the gym has paid off for sure – and now I just need to get my mind on board with the rest of my body for New York. I recovered the fastest I ever have from this half; the race was Sunday and I was a little sore and stiff Monday but by Tuesday all soreness was gone and by Wednesday it was like I hadn’t just run a half marathon and I attribute most of this to smart training and all the lifting but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that these carbon-plated shoes really help save the legs from as much pounding as a daily trainer. (More on that in a future post.) I am excited to race a major marathon again for the first time since Boston in April 2019 and ready to take chance on myself and see what I’m capable of! I know I haven’t peaked yet in the marathon and that there’s lots of runway ahead, but I’m truly enjoying the journey and the process along the way.