Half Marathon – I Did It! – How It Went

Look! I’m going so fast my hair is streaming out behind me!!!!

Well, I did it! The Fort Hill Brewery Half Marathon. Which is kind of amazing seeing that I have never been an athlete – I guess until now – and I was old when I started running almost seven years ago. So while I was not anywhere near as fast as I would have liked, I am giving myself a big pat on the back. I put eleven weeks of training into the preparation, and it was a lot of time and a lot of effort, and I did something I never, ever imagined I’d do.

The Running Explained podcast suggested setting several goals for a race, some that would be very hard to attain, down to your lowest expectations. When I first decided to do the race, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get myself in good enough shape to run 13.1 miles. Before training for this race, the furthest I had run was six miles – and I had done that once. So my first goal, and the goal I gave to my Run With Hal coaching app, was to finish. Happily, I achieved that!

My next hardest goal was to go faster than 15 minutes per mile. I achieved that also, averaging 14:57 per mile. Phew! Close! This was a goal that I set because I looked at the last time this race was run, and the slowest person ran at 15:00 per mile. So this was also a goal to not be dead last. More on this later.

My hardest goal was to break three hours. Yes, that is what very fast full marathoners aim for. Kind of sad to have the same goal for a half – and to miss it. My time was 3:15:56. I would have had to have had an average time of 13:44 per mile to break three hours. I think this should have been doable given my running rates in the past, but I was clearly well off that pace. More on this later also.

In some sense I achieved not being last, but not really. There were two women who came in 20 minutes after I did. I had passed them about a half mile into the race and chatted with them a bit before I zoomed (not!) by. They told me they were planning on walking the whole way. They also had warm clothes covering their bibs, so it wasn’t apparent that they were walking the race, but I knew they were because we talked. So I was only not dead last because I came in ahead of the two walkers.

I also ran the entire race completely by myself. The phrase “Jesus in the wilderness” and “40 days and 40 nights” kept going through my mind. No, I am in no way comparing myself to Jesus or to his trials and tribulations in the desert. (And I mean no disrespect toward the Bible story.) But nevertheless, these phrases were my constant companions because I was totally alone. I guess the results of my Catholic upbringing bubble to the top of my mind in times of distress! It turns out that the person who crossed the finish line before me was only four minutes faster, but I didn’t see her, wasn’t aware of her. And there was a very nice man in a golf cart who checked up on me about five times. The first time he went by I told him there were two women behind me but that they weren’t wearing bibs. At the end he asked me about them because he said they were still expecting two runners. It’s nice to know that they keep track.

I had been worried that they would roll up the sidewalks before I got done, but the water/Gatorade stations, police directing traffic, and signs showing the way were all in place for me, which was very nice. And I thanked them for not laughing that I was so far behind everyone else. They were all lovely. Including the guy in the golf cart. The last time he checked on me, when the Brewery was in sight, I said I thought he was checking to see if I was dead in a ditch along the way. He said he was checking to see how far ahead of him I was. Nice, but sadly untrue. He did ask if I was ok every time he went by. It did make me feel like he was thinking I couldn’t possibly be if I was going that slowly.

What I realized later is that if you look at the times for runners in big races, my performance wouldn’t seem so pathetic. In the recent 2022 Brooklyn Half Marathon, for example, there were 16,396 finishers. There were only 197 finishers in the Fort Hill race. The last person in the Brooklyn Half took 4:56:10, 22:36 per mile, clearly a walker. A person in that race with my exact time, down to the second, was in 15,985th place. There were 411 people coming in behind him. And may I point out his is male between 40 and 44. (I know, he could have injuries or other impediments, but still.) So I felt like I was slogging along in the wilderness, but I would have had plenty of company in a large field. There were 30 women in my age group in the Brooklyn Half. My time would have been 22nd in that group, although the Brooklyn Half has hills, Fort Hill virtually none, so I probably wouldn’t have been 22nd in actuality. But still, I wasn’t as pathetically last as it felt when I put it in context. Oh, and Brooklyn ladies, you were 0.18% of the runners. Here in Western Massachusetts, the two of us were 1% of the field. C’mon older ladies, get out there!

About my lack of speed, I’m a bit baffled. The first thing contributing to this is that Run With Hal had me do NOT ONE speed workout. I told my buddy Hal (Higdon, the elite marathoner from the 1950s and beyond), that I just wanted to finish, and he took me at my word. I regret this a bit. I wish I had at least said I wanted to average 14:00 per mile.

The next thing, I think, is that building endurance, i.e., building muscle, takes so much energy that I just couldn’t get faster at the same time. And my calves in particular definitely were built up by my training for this race. I was rather amazed.

And I never really figured out the fueling aspect of a more-than-three-hour race. I was a bit late in trying to figure this out, and it turns out there are a lot of choices and factors to consider. I will do a post on this separately, lots to mull over and get right if I do another long race.

I felt absolutely fantastic at the start of the race, having hydrated a ton the day before, had my spaghetti dinner, and had oatmeal and an egg for breakfast two hours before the race, and a homemade fueling gunk a half hour before. And I did not start out fast. I had hopes of saving my energy so that I could get faster later in the race. I had another homemade fueling gunk around mile 8 and a Gu gel with caffeine around mile 9, but nothing was giving me any energy by that time. It was disappointing to have felt so good and then to have lost it. Clearly this aspect of doing a half needs work.

Two friends were sweet enough to go to places near the finish, one about a mile out, the other within sight of the Brewery (finish); and then they joined my husband to cheer me at the finish line. Cynthia was about a mile out from the finish and was holding a sign. It wasn’t just my legs that were trashed by then as you can tell by my very slow reaction: I looked and saw a person holding a sign. I thought, “Oh, that’s nice, someone cheering people on. Has the person been there for three hours? That’s really odd.” Then I thought I saw that the sign had “Go Hilary” at the top. It did. It gradually registered that the sign was for me. Someone was out there that late after the start of the race and the sign had my name on it. Finally I figured out that under that hat and mask was my friend, Cynthia (see below). When I got to Missy, who was at the last turn before the finish, in sight of the Brewery, where the finish was, I recognized her without so many mental steps. What a really, really nice thing to have friends out there rooting for my very slow self!

Next steps? I want to get faster so that I can do another half marathon but I want to be able to do it in two and a half hours. That would be 11:45 average per mile. That’s ambitious, but not entirely crazy. So I am going to sign up for a local 5K in October and tell Hal I want to be able to break 11:00 minutes per mile. I did the Hot Chocolate for Safe Passage 5K in 2018 in 11:07 per mile average, so I don’t think it’s a complete fantasy. That means hill work, intervals, more work, more getting in shape. Bring it on!!

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