Every so often in the running journey, there are particular runs or races that come along that are life-changers. They’re the type of runs you look back on years from now as events that helped define who you are as a runner. For me, I have a few moments that stand out before I started blogging — my first race comes to mind, as does my first long-distance race in the Virginia 10 Miler in 2006. Since I started writing three years ago, I haven’t had too many of those moments. Besides the marathon in 2007, nothing is worth talking about. That is, until January of this year.
In late January, I had my first-ever mountain run. That run set the tone for the rest of the winter. If it wasn’t for that run, other things with my running wouldn’t have fallen into place. I most likely wouldn’t have gotten out in the snow as much as I did; my streak of 10-mile runs wouldn’t have been nearly as long; and all that would have translated into another disappointing Shamrock Half Marathon. I credit that run to leading to my PR in the half and to last week’s 5K PR … and to tackling what I did today: the first-ever Blue Ridge Half Marathon in Roanoke.
The experience of this half is just unbelievable. After a relatively flat mile, the next two-plus miles were uphill. As in straight uphill. As in, you have to live near the mountains to appreciate a hill like this. Timing wise, I kind of messed up — at mile one, I hit stop instead of lap, so I missed exactly what the second mile was. Two of the first three miles were in 19:40; my friend Travis called out about a 9-minute mile when we got to the second mile. We intentionally started slow, knowing what was about to come. We even did some power walking at some point to keep things fresh. It was funny to watch people pass us the few times we walked only to pass them again a minute later.
Somehow, though, going uphill, we pushed along pretty well. Fortunately mile 4 had a nice downhill … only to have to make a turn right back up the hill we glided down. Mile 4: 8:33. The next mile was by far the toughest of the race. Straight uphill toward the Roanoke Star. This mile included some walking as well, helping me feel completely in control. Had I forced myself to run, I honestly wouldn’t have made it to the end. This was not a race against the clock, but rather a true test of endurance to finish in one piece. That mile was in 11:05. Early in the race, I said it would be awesome if we could do the first five miles in a less than 10-minute pace. Do that and we can nail this race in less than 2 hours, a quiet goal that I had.
After just a little more incline, we made the turn for the best view of the race at the Star, took my time drinking some water and even grabbed a couple of pretzels for the journey down the mountain. I also touched a small alligator that someone was holding from the nearby Mill Mountain Zoo. YES, I touched an alligator during a half marathon. How awesome is that?
And then it was on.
Mile 6 was in 8:06; mile 7 was in 7:24; and mile 8 was in 8:09. Those three miles were a bit slower than I expected, but I was quite shocked at how much I actually had to hold myself back on the decline to stay in control. By the time we made it to the bottom of the mountain, I could feel some cramps in my lower legs and even in my lower back just a bit — the mountain had certainly taken it’s toll, but we kept going.
While the course elevation map looked flat, the last five miles were not — considering the literal mountain we had to climb and descend, of course it would seem like the streets of Roanoke would be flat. It was more of the rolling hills variety, but after the first 8 miles, the little up and down hills were hurting by this point. Mile 9 was in 8:39 and mile 10 was in 9:02, which included a small walk up a hill.
With 5K to go, when I would normally have a push in a half marathon, I had nothing left to give. I just kept it steady, finishing the race with miles of 8:58, 9:03, 8:52 and a final tenth in 52 seconds. My chip time was 1:57:39, finishing 117th out of 450 runners and 93rd out of 216 males. (Travis had some fuel left at the end and finished in 1:56:01.)
When I crossed the finish line, I immediately had this new feeling of respect for the sport of running. Besides my one and only marathon, the difficulty level of this easily surpassed any road race I have ever done. This doesn’t touch the heat I experienced in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in August 2008. There were times today in which I really second-guessed what I was doing. I was never vocal about it and I knew that the uphill climb wouldn’t last forever. There were other times after going up and down the mountain that I just wanted to slow down. I wanted to revert back to the way running was just six months ago — I just wanted to slip down to a lower gear and log the miles and just finish.
Oddly enough, I never felt like I had to dig too deep to get those thoughts out of my head. When I had a negative thought, I could void it out quickly. I thought about how two years ago today was the worst day ever in my career and that I wouldn’t let this April 24 be a story about a bad race experience. I thought about all these people out there who called us runners crazy for doing this today. Tell me, please, what’s so crazy about reaching a mountain top?
This race is an instant classic in my running journey. How it changes me will take a while to figure out, but I just know that after today I am a new runner.