I was at a Holiday party in December with a bunch of people I either didn’t know at all or didn’t know well. So basically, I was nervous and sweating at a table trying to be social when one of the people I sort of knew asked about running. We went through the whole “are you still running a 5K every single day?” stuff, and the conversation turned to running distances. I was asked if I had ever run a marathon or half marathon, and if I’d ever want to do that. The more social person recommended the Myrtle Beach Half Marathon but told me that I’d need to break my running streak and take some days off if I wanted to train for a half marathon.
The rest of the meal was typical Holiday party-ish, but while all the small talk was going on around me, there was a whole debate going on inside my head. “Would I really have to take a day off?”, “What if I just showed up and ran it without training?”, and “What if I trained but didn’t take any rest days? These were a few of the questions I was turning over in my head. When I got home, I may have Googled a few half marathon training plans just to get an idea of what a plan looked like. I gave it a week or so of thought before going to the marathon website and signing up. I took one of the training plans and made some adjustments to fit my needs. I moved the weekly long run to a convenient day, and I took every day that was labeled “rest day” and filled it in with “5K run” instead. Apparently, I was going to run a half marathon.
My training plan. If you're a runner, I know how bad this looks.
The training plan I found was a three-month plan, and as luck would have it, the half marathon was about 2 ½ months away. I was already running more than the first couple of weeks of suggested distances, so it fit perfectly. Each weekend the longer run added a mile, so after a few weeks, I had to adjust my schedule to spend a little more time running. Near the end of the training plan, that longer run edged up to 9, 10, 11, and 12 miles, all distances I’d never tried to run before. I found that I enjoyed the long runs for all the reasons I love running shorter distances each day. Each long run provided a quiet space to think and have conversations with myself. It provided time outside running on my trail and seeing animals, colors and skies. It also increased my appetite, which is cool because I love to eat. On long running days, I’d get up and have a nice, big waffle. In the afternoon I’d run and by the time I finished running it would be time to eat dinner and I’d be ravenously hungry.
When the miles reached double digits, I was running for so long that when I’d stop at the end, I’d feel very dizzy. The sky seemed to be moving or even spinning, and my legs wanted to leave my body. On the last long run before the half marathon I ran 12 miles. When the mileage clicked over to 12, I slowed down and thought about continuing to walk to see if I could avoid the dizziness, but I found myself on the ground instead. My body said “No, I think we’re going to lie here for a few minutes and think about life.”
Luck visited again with the timing of the race. I was on spring break the week leading up to the half marathon. The tiny bit of research I did on how to run a half marathon told me I needed to stock up on some carbs leading up to the race. This meant waffles for breakfast every single morning, and I wasn’t mad about that. There were even some big carb-y meals at dinner.
Wednesday evening, I was walking out the door with Blue, my 13-year-old son, and he coughed in my face. Accidentally, of course, but a cough none-the-less. He had been congested and feeling bad for a couple of weeks, but since he doesn’t get along with pollen, we figured he was reacting to the coming of Spring. When I felt the cough hit my face I wondered if maybe he had been sick and now that sickness was multiplying on my face. This will be important to remember in a couple of paragraphs.
Friday, I got up early and ran my usual 5K in the dark. We loaded up the car for the weekend trip to the beach and headed out. Packet pick-up was held at a Dave and Buster’s location and came with a free-play card, so the kids were thrilled to spend some time playing games. Just like everyone else, they thought their 7.6 million tickets would get them a widescreen TV at the redemption desk. They ended up with some gummy bears and two oversized kazoos. Strangely enough, I was not the bright parent who decided a noisemaker was a good idea on a weekend trip.
Blue on the windy beach.
We got to walk on the beach and taste the strong coastal winds. Tiny sandstorms were blowing down the beach. The temperature was in the upper 50s, but the wind cut right through you. The beach is my happy place, and it was a perfect way to relax before the pre-race jitters. I enjoyed more carbs that evening and started calculating when I’d need to wake up in order to make it to the start line on time. The race began at 7:00 am. We were staying about 20 minutes away from the start line. The only big race I did before this one required absolute chaos just to get to the start line, so I didn’t know how difficult it would be to get there. Roads were going to be closed. Everyone was going to be headed to the same place at the same time. We ended up deciding to get up at a little after 5:00 am and planning to leave at 5:45 am.
That night I went to bed around 10:00 pm dreading the early alarm. I also felt kind of bad. I had a headache and my nose was stopping up. I kept thinking about Blue coughing on me. After 2 ½ months of training and being lucky enough to stay healthy and avoid injuries, a single 13-year-old cough was going to bring me down. I slept from 10:00 pm until 2:00 am. Then I woke up at least once an hour until finally giving up on sleep just before the alarm went off. I felt terrible. I couldn’t breathe and my head was throbbing. I knew I was still running but now the pre-race fears were amping up and making me think about dropping dead on the course. What if my head exploded? What if my heart stopped? I’ve been told I can have an overactive imagination.
I tossed a couple of Ibuprofen down my throat, ate a banana and a granola bar, and threw on my running clothes which suddenly felt a lot less warm than I would have preferred. I did look at the weather forecast in advance and planned what I would wear. At home I run in low 30s temperatures all winter in shorts. I don’t bother with long sleeves unless it’s below freezing. I expected to start out chilly and warm up quickly from running but since I knew there’s often a good breeze at the beach, I opted to take a long sleeve running shirt just in case. I walked to the car in shorts, a short sleeve shirt under a long sleeve shirt, a beanie, and my running gloves. I was cold.
We got to the drop off point fast, and I was able to walk right up to the start line. The wind was barreling down the street, and there was no protection from the wind except inside the line of port-a-potties. I had no intention of going in one of those unless I had an emergency. I jumped in place and turned my body sideways to offer less wind resistance. I swayed, walked in circles, and thought about hot summer days. I was still freezing. As more and more bodies crowded into the space, the wind didn’t seem as bad. I kept my mind busy and didn’t really get nervous about the race. I told myself I could run the distance, and I wasn’t concerned about my time because I really had nothing to use for comparison.
The starting line beginning to fill in with bodies.
I had looked back at my pace over the last several long runs and figured out that I wanted to be as close to the 2-hour mark as possible. I expected 2 hours and 15 minutes would be my finish time, so I made my way between the 2-hour pacer and the 2 ½ hour pacer in the corrals. When the official gun started the race, it was a good minute before we started moving beyond a slow walk. As with most races, people who had no intention of going fast were at the front and 90% of the other people had to maneuver around them in the first mile. I was happy to be running, and I was warm almost immediately. Runners started shedding their outer layers and tossing them on the sidewalk. Everyone was jockeying for position to pass and trying to find their pace. I had been warned by Blue’s cross-country coach that everyone goes out too fast and then regrets that error, but my first mile was slower than all my other miles except for the last two.
As I squeezed between slower runners, and tried not to kick anyone’s legs, I watched the people around me. There was the female runner just past the start line who got tripped and then almost trampled. She was smiling as I looked back at her to make sure she was OK. Someone was helping her up. Then there was the lady who ran in front of me for almost 3 miles before swerving hard to the right toward the sidewalk. There was a cute little family with signs on the sidewalk, and I assumed she was going to high five or hug them. Instead she ran around them and into a small grove of live oak trees before turning around and dropping her pants as she squatted down. Once I realized what was happening, I averted my eyes.
I admit to being a tiny bit competitive when it comes to running. I know I’m not trying out for the Olympic team in my lifetime, but if you’re in front of me, I’m going to try to change that. In a 5K race I figure out my place easily. I eyeball the competition before the race. I see who is where during the first mile, and I set my sights on the people I need to pass. For the most part, runners’ bodies in a 5K will provide the information I need. In a half marathon, all of that was out the window. I was getting lapped by people three times my size. People who looked like they had never run a day in their lives were speeding by and staying ahead. People who looked fast were stopping to walk (or heave). It was a new game to consider, but I had picked my spot, and I was happy to just see if I could cross the finish line alive.
Luckily, running is great for congestion. My head and nose cleared as soon as the race began, and I felt great. I had cursed Blue for giving me the Corona virus and potentially killing me while I tried to run a ridiculous distance, but I was fine. My legs even felt fast. I go to the beach a lot, and I’m very familiar with the roads and landmarks, but I don’t really pay attention to the distances between things until I’m running by them. The race that started by Broadway at the Beach had me running by the local airport and through The Market Common. I tried not to think about how far that was. I tried to enjoy the sights. There was a big FedEx plane landing when I ran by the runway. There were funny posters held by non-running comedians on the sidewalks. There were runners around me to watch. There was even a head-to-toe snowman costume with a sign that said, “Don’t Melt Down”. One of my favorite signs read “If you think this is hard, try dating you!” Another great one was a lady easily in her 70s holding a sign that said, “Smile If You Are A BADASS!”
Somewhere in The Market Common area there was a stretch of spectators gathered along the sidewalks. People were smiling and cheering for strangers running a ridiculous distance. One larger group of people gathered with posters, and they were noticeably louder. They were cheering a little more individually for people, singling runners out and speaking directly to them. It was kind of cool. I liked these people. When I noticed them, I swerved to the right, smiled really big, and held up my hand for high fives. They all eagerly held up their hands for a long line of high fives. I’m sure I sped up 4 miles per hour at that moment. It’s amazing how powerful encouragement can be.
The wind was powerful too. It kept coming back. Between buildings and in areas with no natural barriers, the wind sliced through, bringing a chill to my body wet with sweaty clothes. The amount of sweat generated in a long run surprised me. I’m a good sweater anyway, but when I would finish a long run and notice salt deposits on my face and head, that was something I wasn’t used to seeing. I was glad to have both my shirts on, but now both were holding sweat, and the wind cooled it quickly.
We ran back up Ocean Boulevard past all the places familiar to me as a kid. Part of me grew up on this road. Every summer I was there at least once, but often several times with my family and with others. I was running past signs and hotel names that seem like childhood friends. Just past the Gay Dolphin and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, we turned left and headed back inland toward the finish line. An older lady kept running past me and then walking, running past me and then walking. It was getting on my nerves. A white-haired guy in a red shirt seemed to be barely moving and yet he remained in front of me. Also annoying. I was cold. I was starting to remember that I had legs, and they were hurting a little. I run every day on dirt and grass, and the 13 miles of asphalt and concrete were wearing on my knees. Still, I knew I had more. I wasn’t worried about not making it. I knew I could finish, and I didn’t think I was going to die.
I had never finished a half marathon before and didn’t know what to expect. I knew G and the kids were planning to be at the finish line. They said they’d cheer. As I rounded the corner and saw the finish line approaching, everyone seemed to be cheering. I know my brain was not working properly, so I’m sure I wasn’t processing everything normally, but there was a lot to see and hear. My brain seemed to be focusing all its power on keeping me upright. I crossed the finish line and heard a roar of noise. Someone handed me a medal. I stared silently at some kid until he handed me a bottle of water. I grabbed one of those foil emergency blankets because that’s what I always see people do after a race. That’s when I heard the kazoos.
The oversized kazoos Blue and Violet had won with their tickets at the arcade were blaring. I looked over and saw the family stalking me as I made my way from the finish line to the post-race stuff. They had watched me cross the finish line while cheering and blasting those freakin’ kazoos (much to the dismay of their mother and everyone in earshot around them). They had to be behind a barrier, so they were walking along the barrier until they could get to me. I vaguely remember some photos. There was a finisher shirt all runners were supposed to get after the race, and the promise of free pizza, doughnuts, and beer. I waited in a line in the still freezing wind to get the shirt. I had a small piece of cheese pizza that I don’t even remember eating. There were so many cases of bananas, and all I wanted was a banana, but the bananas were so green I couldn’t even peel one. At this point I realized I was just being negative, and I needed coffee and food as fast as possible. On the way to the car in the still chilly morning air, I realized I wanted a hot shower before any of that.
I had a ripe banana and a water in the car, and I started to feel happier. After the hot shower, my soul came back to my body. It brought with it the desperate need to have coffee and food. I made a quick trip to Starbucks and Krispy Kreme before deciding it was time for lunch. The Crab melt at The Grilled Cheese & Crabcake Company was honestly the best thing I’ve eaten in months. It was amazing. The runner’s high was in full swing at this point. I was happy and talkative. After lunch we went back to the condo and made our way out on the beach. After a good walk in the sun, (and wind) it was time to go meet our friend Rose for dinner. Violet and I walked to the steps, dropped our warm outer layers, and ran into the very cold ocean. She made it to her knees before turning around. I made it about waist deep and went under. The cold water hurt for a few minutes, but I think it helped my leg muscles recover. It was exhilarating.
Another hot shower was justified, and another meal was enjoyed. In the quieter moments between conversations and meals, my mind was processing the race. I actually ran a half marathon and didn’t die. I trained for a half marathon without missing a single day of running 3.1 miles. I set my mind to something and made it happen. I took something that I was afraid of and turned it into a fun adventure.
A week later the world around us seems anxious and stressed. The thing that we all fear the most, change, is knocking our inboxes around and forcing us to alter our plans. Many of these things seem out of our control, and that leaves us feeling helpless and afraid. Y’all, we’ve trained for this. We know the importance of thinking positive and being kind to those around us. Some moments we are the fellow runners in this metaphorical race telling each other “good job” as we pass each other or offering a hand to help someone who has tripped. Other moments we get to stand on the sidewalk and hold up signs while offering a high five to someone who looks tired. But all of us are going to make it across that finish line. We are strong. We are smiling because we know we are badasses.