I waited for this moment for a long time!
I flew home from Phoenix two weeks ago but I’m still relishing my victory at the Mesa-PHX Half Marathon on Feb 25.
After 3 years and 10 half marathons, I finally beat my PR time of 2:38:03 (set in 2014 at Rock n’ Roll Vancouver Half Marathon). As such, this will be one of my longest race recaps yet. I kept writing and changing it, unsure of how to put this race into words.
My shin splints/shin pain became a problem for me as I ramped up the intensity of my training after the Star Wars Half in preparation for the Phoenix Half. During the taper period, I shortened, skipped, or switched my runs to an elliptical workout.
The night before the race my fears manifested in nightmare dream land, where a stress fracture became a gruesome snapping of my leg in the middle of the race. Of course, that didn’t happen.
The more I trained for my PR, the more of a sense of dread I had about the possibility that I wouldn’t get it. Again. The last time I tried was at the Twilight Half which had the devastating course mistake.
At the expo, I focused on the excitement of races. Running in a new place, going to the expo, getting loot from our race bags.
Despite my worries, I had a lot of things on my side. I did spend quality training time doing speedwork. I was running a flat course. I had spent a long time building a new running playlist with fresh songs to inspire me. The weather was perfect—mid 60s may feel cold to Arizonians, but not to me!
Dressed in lightweight running gear, it was a little cold even for me in the predawn before the start. Luckily, the race organizers prepared for their audience… they provided dozens of outdoor heaters. Runners clumped around them in small herds.
And finally, I would be running the half with Perrin. Although she is a faster runner (finishing with Jason at the Portland Marathon in October), she was looking to enjoy the Phoenix Half Marathon at an easier pace—mine.
I warned her that I wouldn’t be a sociable running partner this time because I was focused on my PR so she devoted herself and her GPS watch to my cause as a coach and cheerleader.
To earn a PR, I needed to maintain a pace faster than 12:03 per mile. Based on my pace times for previous races, both 10K and Half marathons, I aimed for an 11:50 pace, which I felt was within my grasp.
Pre-Race (Slowest pace ever…)
Although Perrin’s place was only about 20 minutes away from the start line, the alarms went off at the detestable time of 3:30am. It’s a good thing we left as early as we did—race traffic was terrible, causing a huge snarl of cars trying to get into the parking area. Lucky for us, Perrin’s fiancé was driving and we were able to ditch the car and walk to the finish area, where buses waited to take us to the start line (different busses for each race distance).
Once we got through that snarl, things went more smoothly. I loved the idea of running a race that started in one place and ended in another. Once I was on the bus with all the other runners, I knew I was already beginning my journey. Even the length of the bus ride reminded me what an accomplishment 13.1 miles is. And as soon as the bus parked at the start line, my pre-race nerves started to subside.
The start line area was well-provisioned, with plenty of porta-potties, heaters, water and more. Bag check was easy. I thought about my pre-race plan and before I knew it, it was time to line up at the start!
Although there were no corrals, the pacers gave us a good idea of where to line up. I aimed for middle of the pack.
Mile 1-2: Warm-Up (Pace avg: 11:30)
The first few miles are always terrible for me because it takes me so long to warm up and get comfortable. To combat this, I decided to start my interval timer on 30 sec run, 30 sec walk. I’ve used a 30/30 interval several times and I’m very comfortable with it. It’s also very easy to run with when just starting out because the running intervals are so short.
It also prevents race nerves and adrenaline from taking me over by forcing quick walk breaks.
Of course, this only helps a little bit. Once the fireworks went off, the music was pounding and I heard the announcers yell “go!” I was off like a shot! After all my training, all my work, the race was actually starting!
The lack of corrals meant that I had to dodge a few people slower than me, but the street was so wide I didn’t have any issues with congestion.
I listened to my music and my interval timer and as the sky lightened, I told myself that today was the day I would earn my PR.
Mile 3-4: Switching to Race Interval (Pace avg: 11:15)
Early on, I saw a blue banner that said Mile 14. “Easiest 14 miles ever,” I joked with Perrin. From there on, the blue banners that marked the miles for the full marathon would indicated that my mile marker, a red banner, was just beyond and Perrin would be giving me a pace check.
Just as planned, after about 2 miles, my race interval timer switched to a different interval, 60/30. These intervals are much more difficult for me and I prefer the more comfortable interval of 50/30 for longer distances.
But I didn’t want a comfortable pace. I wanted a PR.
Early in the race, we ran past beautiful citrus groves and I mused that in any other race, I might stop for a picture. There were so many you could smell the fruit. The sun was shining and I felt like I hadn’t seen it in months after the cold winter we’ve had in Oregon. It was a perfect day to be running.
I was also in danger of going out too fast, but luckily Perrin warned be that I was way ahead of my pace goal with the switch to 60/30 intervals.
Mile 5-6: Settling in (Pace avg: 11:32)
I delayed reining in my pace until after a really awesome song, but then I concentrated on finding a good tempo that I felt I could maintain. I reminded myself that I hadn’t even reached the halfway point.
I felt good. My shins weren’t hurting. I also knew my best miles in a half marathon are usually between mile 5 and mile 9. At some point during these miles, I feel great. I’m on this journey and it’s great to be alive. I’ve already come far and I’m going farther and I can be so strong. Not everyone can run a half marathon. Even if it only lasts a few miles, its worth the willpower, time and training to feel this way.
As we reached mile 6, we approached a fuel stop and Perrin peeled off to use the restrooms. Unfortunately, she had to wait 5 minutes, and it wasn’t until just before the mile 8 marker that she caught up with me again.
Mile 7-8: Solo Running
During training, I had planned to run the entire race by myself. I know I am good at maintaining an even pace. For a few miles, I was running the race I had expected to run. Alone, concentrating on maintaining a proven rhythm no matter how hard it would get.
And after the halfway point, i started to get my first nigglings of doubt. I was feeling the miles more than I usually did. This was hard. I still felt like I could sustain my pace until the end of the race, but I now realized that it wouldn’t be easy… or fun.
Mile 9-11: This is a long race (12:01)
Luckily, my cheerleader caught back up to me, complaining that my pace was so good it made it harder for her to catch me. Perrin might have been irritated, but it really cheered me up. I was filled with a wicked joy that was compounded by her letting me know I was still beyond my PR pace.
But the pace was starting to take its toll. knowing that I still had a significant portion of the race, I slowed just slightly, afraid that if I kept going, I wouldn’t have anything left to finish. I had toyed with the idea of going under 2:30, but I refocused my attention on just making sure I could get the PR.
I also found out from Perrin that Jason hadn’t gotten the PR he’d hoped for, although he had been close. That made my resolve stronger and drove me through these miles.
After mile 11, I started to really struggle. My pace slowed even further when I chose to walk through a minute run interval for the first time. The heat was getting to me and at a water stop, I splashed some water over my head. Right after I walked through my run interval, my interval timer switched back to 30/30 intervals. Although I had planned for this switch, Perrin, looking at her watch and my pace, told me that if I switched back to 30/30s, getting my PR was going to be extremely difficult.
I was so happy to hear that 30/30 bell. So grateful to it. It took a great amount of willpower to take out my timer and switch it back to 60/30s. But I did it. I wanted my PR and the thought of not getting it after so much hard work was excruciating. It was more painful than the actual race.
I needed to pick up the pace for the last 2 miles.
Mile 12-13.1: She’s a madwoman! (11:07)
After having total confidence earlier in the race that I would get my PR, I suddenly felt like I could lose it at any moment. The thought was devastating. It wasn’t just my current suffering in this race that would be in vain, it would be all of those stupid training runs, the speed work, the treadmill, everything. And above all, facing the crushing disappointment, like I had so many times before, of missing my PR time again.
Near the end of the race, the fastest marathoners finally passed me, as I had expected. “I’ve been waiting for you to catch up to me,” I yelled at them, but that was the last time I had any thought outside of my PR.
Tearing up at the idea that I could lose my PR, a goal I had set that I could never seem to attain, I started to run faster again. I gave up caring about anything but moving forward.
How many times had I felt after a race that I had more left in tank than I expected? How many times had I finished only to realize I probably could have run harder? The only thing that was stopping me was my brain and it was trying to slow me down.
Perrin tells me I kept running faster. In the last mile, my brain divorced itself from my legs. The only thing that registered was locomotion: my legs moving forward. Anything that was sore, tired or painful was gone, only movement was left. It was a very strange experience.
My eyes were watering and the only thing I was thinking was “go faster.”
A short downhill brought us to mile 13. I skipped my walk interval to take advantage of running down the hill. I ran faster on my next interval. I could see the finishing chute ahead but it had never seemed so far away.
Even with the finish so close, I felt like the race might never end.
Just out of reach of the finish line, I came to a near stop. I have no explanation for it. I was still yelling at my legs to move, but they just didn’t respond. Then suddenly, I was able to shake it off and started sprinting as I had never sprinted before.
I was yelling as I tried to run even harder. I don’t know what I must have sounded like (a crazy raging person)? But each bit of speed took a phenomenal effort that felt like I was pulling out from deep within myself.
I could see the clock, but my eyes were swimming and brain couldn’t register what the numbers were telling me. I burst across the finish line and right behind me was Perrin. At that point, she was the only one I trusted to tell me my time, my pace, as she had done throughout the race. As a person tried to hand me a medal, I kept asking her “PR? PR?”
Total Average: 11:39/mi
Not only had I finally gotten my PR, but I PR’d by nearly 4 minutes with a time of 2:34:13. I could scarcely believe it and tears kept welling up. Unlike any of my previous best times, I had put everything I had out there for this one. It was such a hard, long race and I had invested so much into this idea I could scarcely believe I had gotten the time.
I am not usually emotional after a race, but this time I was overwhelmed. It felt so hard. I had put so much of myself out there. This wasn’t like any of my other PRs. I wanted it and worked for it, putting away all other goals or thoughts.
And I was overjoyed to see a PR bell at this race and being able to ring it for the first time.
The finish area was blurred by my haze of happiness and exhaustion, although I kept being handed food, a bag to put all my stuff in, water and more. I nibbled at my french toast and made a beeline for some ice cream, but mostly I wanted to meet up with my husband Jason who had finished over an hour earlier than me and had already met up with Perrin’s fiancé.
If only two more of us had run, we could have completed the star with our amazing Phoenix medals.
Bag check was a mess and as we waited for our bags, I was still shaking from the effort and the resulting emotions.
I’m still surprised that this race happened the way it did. I ran the last 5K of this race faster than I did the 5K two weeks previously. I’m still shaken by how I overcame the difficulty. And I have recommitted to my vow to never try for a PR at a runDisney race (Seriously, the way I ran this race would have ruined a Disney experience for me, not just during the race, but if I had any intention of visiting the park the following day.. I was so sore for the rest of the trip).
But it was all worth it. I reached my goal and earned my medal. I’m a slow runner. I will never win a race. I will never run the Boston Marathon (well, unless I’m a faster runner at 80 than I am now). But like runners of any speed, I can still dedicate the time, effort and sheer willpower to beat myself. And honestly, sometimes you are the hardest person to beat, making it a true victory.
It was a great way to start our short Arizona vacation. After showers and a delicious breakfast, Jason and I met up with his parents and enjoyed the rest of our day by attending the Chicago Cubs’ spring training opener!
We had to wear our medals of course, since the race happened right next to Sloan Park!
Ran With: Perrin
Perfect Song for the Race: The Phoenix by Fall Out Boy