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Gasparilla Half Marathon: How I Ran the Perfect Race (for Me)

The week prior to the Gasparilla Half Marathon was not shaping up to be the ideal pre-race week. I was overburdened with and stressed out by work--both at my full-time job and at home with editing projects; I came down with a cold--what seemed to be a combination of a sinus and ear infection; and the weather was turning warmer and more humid than it had been in months. But I was determined to PR this race, which meant I had to be in top shape. I rested, I regularly drank a potent tea of lemon, ginger, honey, garlic (yep), and cinnamon, and I tried to get as much work off my plate as possible. I only ran twice, I did one night of yoga, and I rested Friday and Saturday before the race.

My "Pre-Gaming"
I was feeling pretty good Saturday morning when I got up early to go watch that day's races--the 15k and the 5k. I met up with Josh and his triathlon training group and cheered on the runners passing by. Cheering, when done well, is a lot of work. One must be constant and consistent with the cheers, and that's difficult to do for a couple hours straight. Of course, we gained enthusiasm when we saw someone we knew run by. Just coming up with things to yell out, without boring ourselves with repetition, was a challenge. The most common call-out, by far, was "Good job!" Variations of this took the form of the following: "Great job!" "Good work!" "Great work!" "Really good work!" "Looking good!" "Looking great!" "Looking strong!" Because we were about a half mile away from the finish line, we could also mix in finishing chants, such as these: "Almost there!" (This one was controversial because, as runners, we all knew that a half mile was still a half mile, and the hardest push of a race. But we couldn't resist saying it anyway.) "Keep it up!" "You got this!" "Finish strong!" (I think I'm the only one who said this, but it's what I would have needed to hear.) "Run it in!" (Again, I think that was just me, because I saw some people walking, and they were so close!) And all throughout our hollers, we were also trying to clap continuously. The whole time. And take pictures of people we knew. It was a lot of work--but work I was so happy to do. I definitely got inspired for my race the next morning.

WebMD Said So
Soon after I left the Saturday race grounds, I started to notice a pain in my abdomen, behind my belly button. I thought it was just a stomach cramp, or maybe even a slight muscle pull. I tried to ignore it. But it hurt even when I tried to lie down and take a nap. It hurt worse, in fact. But I slept a little bit, hoping it would be gone when I woke up. It wasn't gone, but it was a bit less prominent. So I went about my day. I worked, I drank tea, I picked up my traditional pre-race dinner: tofu, vegetable, and rice, from any good Thai restaurant. I ate my dinner early, around 6pm, because I wanted my stomach to be as settled as possible prior to the race. But the pain behind my belly button was still there. I began to get worried. I did what I knew I shouldn't do--Internet research. I typed into my search bar "pain behind the belly button." The majority of results pointed me to apendicitis. I read the symptoms. Within a matter of minutes, I was convinced I had it, and that if I ran my race, my appendix would burst. I was afraid to tell anyone, because I knew I would sound like the hypochondriac that I am.

I decided to call my mom, who is a nurse. She didn't answer, so I left a message saying that I had some questions about appendicitis. I was still a little freaked out, so I texted two friends, "I think I have appendicitis." And this was after they'd already sent their well-wishes for my race, which I'd accepted without mention of any stomach issues. So of course they were both highly concerned and offered to take me to the ER. My mom called me back, and I explained to her how I came to my diagnosis. She asked me some questions about symptoms that are specific to appendicitis (ones I'd also seen on websites but chose to ignore), and I told her I didn't have those symptoms. She told me to go out and get some antacids. I felt a little better and took her advice. I went to bed, still planning to race but not knowing how I'd feel, or if I could even run (I didn't want to try to, just in case I couldn't). I set my five alarms, four of them with inspirational messages:

(Why I ever think I'll be alert enough to read these I don't know.) I recall hearing these alarms, plus one placed across the room, but for some reason (perhaps because it was 4am), I didn't get up. It wasn't until 4:40am that I was jolted awake by the thought that I might have overslept for my race. I jumped in the shower, jumped out, swallowed an Imodium (just in case), threw on my clothes, and grabbed my race bag that I'd pre-packed the night before. The race didn't start until 6am, but I wanted a free parking spot at Four Green Fields, a pub really close to the race site. I got there in good time. I sat for a while in my car, eating half of a peanut butter PowerBar and blowing my nose as much as I could (I still had a bit of a cold and/or allergies). At about 5:20 or so, I got out, pinned on my race bib, and jogged off in the direction of the race site.

This was the first time I'd tried to run since feeling the stomach pain the day before. Amazingly, I felt good! My previous main concern, before the more dire appendicitis concern had set in, had been the weather. All week long the weekend forecast called for heat and humidity, with a 20-30% chance of rain. Because it was so early, it wasn't yet too warm. But the humidity was definitely there. Still, I was relieved enough about my stomach that I didn't care a lot about the weather. I got some extra jogging in after I'd made it all the way to the starting area before realizing I'd forgotten my sunglasses (which only ended up serving as a headband, due to the overcast sky) and having to go back to my car and then back to the start.

The Plan
I knew there were two start waves, to break up the congestion of runners at the start of the race. My plan was to stay with the 9:30 pacer (a person designated to run an even pace of 9:30 mins. per mile for a finishing goal of 2:05 hrs.) for the first eight or nine miles of the race. Then, I would pick up my pace slightly until the last two miles of the race, when I would run as fast as I could maintain for that distance. But I was having doubts about whether the 9:30 pace would be enough; I didn't actually do the math but instead based a lot of my plan on my performance last year, which was a significant PR (personal record). My goal was to PR this race, but because I was trying to beat a time that was already so close to two hours, I had in the back of my mind a secondary goal to run a sub-two-hour race. So at the last minute I decided I'd try to stay in between the 2:00-hr pacer and the 2:05-hr pacer. The second wave started with the 2:00-hr pacer, so I was in a good place up front for the start.

The Race
The anthem was sung, the first wave was off, and 10 minutes later, my race began. The first turn of the race took us onto Davis Island, via a bridge, which means we were funneled, so it took some time to get enough space to feel comfortable. I wasn't sweating the slower pace for the first mile, because I knew I'd have plenty of time to break out. The pacer for the 2:05-hr finish group was running a bit faster than a 9:30 pace (about 9:18), but it was a pace I felt comfortable with, so I kept with it. Because my average pace was staying around 9:17/9:18 for the first several miles (after mile 1), I decided I couldn't drop back to 9:30 anyway, because it would just make it harder to pick it up later in the race. So I maintained that pace for all of the miles on Davids Island, and then had a little help coming downhill off the bridge from Davis Island and onto Bayshore Blvd. This is always where it feels like the race begins for me, because this is my most familiar training ground. This is also where I saw two familiar faces on the sidelines, cheering runners on. I was so happy to see them that I flashed this happy grin:

As you can see, it's still pretty dark. You can even see the humidity in this picture. On me.

Soon after this, we saw the lead runner come in across the median (the course is an out-and-back one, which means that runners can see every single person who's raster than they are). He actually has an amazing story about running this race. You can read it here.

I began feeling antsy about my pace, wanting to push it a little. But I tried consciously to hold off until mile 9, as I didn't want to start a faster pace too soon and not be able to maintain it. By this point, I'd long ago abandoned the 2:05-hr pacer, who must have settled in at a 9:30 pace. But I couldn't see the 2:00-hr pacer (they hold up signs with their pace on it during the entire race), so I knew I was still in between the two. I always train by my watch anyway, so it was normal for me to look down at the pace to keep on track. I knew the turnaround, at Gandy Blvd., was coming up, and after that, only about four miles remained. That was my permission to push. So I picked it up, slightly at first. But I grew more anxious about not making my second goal of a sub-2:00 race. I pretty much knew I'd PR. I remembered my average pace from last year was 9:17, and that was with the speedier finishing miles. I just tried to push a little bit harder with each mile, giving the last two my biggest effort. I was pretty concerned that I still couldn't see the 2:00-hr pacer. That meant I had more distance to make up. Also, I have a tendency to run extra distance in races (most people do, because they're not running the tangents precisely as they were measured), so I also had to take that into consideration.

I began thinking about the people who were waiting for me at the finish: my dad, who'd come in from Orlando; my twin sister, brother-in-law, and niece; and my good friend Josh. I thought about how proud I wanted to make them. I thought about my niece, who, while only two years old, might look up to me some day as an example of something positive (god forbid), and this felt like the best example I could offer her at the present time. I knew that Josh knew my desire to PR, but also my more secret desire to come in under two hours. I wanted him to be happy for me, too. I also just really wanted to be proud of myself. I knew I'd worked hard for this, and after having a somewhat disappointing fall running season, I really needed this. And then I passed the place where I'd stood the day before, cheering on others in my position now. And I knew I only had a half mile left. The finish line came into view, and I pushed even harder. Then, coming down the finishing chute, I finally saw the 2:00-hr pacer. I was so happy. I saw him turn around to face his group, smile, and slow down, which meant I only had to keep going at the pace I was at to pass him and come in under two hours. Then, I could just make out the numbers on the clock at the finish line, and I saw that the third number to the right had just turned to a nine, which meant I had one minute to run it in (I should point out that I have really good vision from far away). I gave it a final kick and came in with time to spare: 1:59:33 (official).

Here I am, coming in:

This is after I just passed the pacer:

And here's how it all went down, in numbers:

I was overcome with emotion for a moment, but I was also a little dizzy and seeing spots. A volunteer kindly helped me walk over to the wet rag station, which is a new thing, while I caught my breath. I saw Josh on the other side of the fence and told him, "I did it!" I wasn't sure if he knew I'd started in the second wave, which was 10 minutes after the official clock started. I continued walking through the long finishers' coral, collecting my medal, a water, and a banana on the way out. Then I saw my family, and I was overjoyed. I held my niece, who probably didn't understand what was going on, but she liked playing with my medal:

My Sappy Thanks
For most of that day, I couldn't have been happier. I had overcome my nonexistent appendicitis, the weather turned out to be no big deal, and I'd surpassed my two goals. AND I had loved ones at the finish line. As proud as I was of myself, what I felt more was gratitude. I was so thankful for the people who'd helped get me there. Some people I know run half marathons every other weekend. It's not a huge ordeal. But when I run them, I usually take them seriously (maybe too seriously?) and set out an important goal for myself. It sort of takes a village to support me, and a village I had. I trained with several new people over the past couple of months, and they really helped me get my pace down. But the regular folks I run with and workout with are as important to me as ever--if not more so. I know how quickly a runner can be out of the game, and to know that people will be there ready to pick up with you when you come back is a great feeling. And to have family and friends who continue to care about and encourage me through something that probably seems long past its period of interest is truly heartwarming. I am one very happy runner right now. Regardless of what happens in the future or what has happened in the past, I am enjoying this moment immensely.


Deedra Hickman said…
You have come such a long way since your injury in 2012. What a great start to 2013. Crossing my fingers that you remain strong and healthy all year.

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