It’s about 7:30 in the morning on Nov. 12 and the anticipation is overwhelming. I feel like I’m about to jump out of my skin. I’m ready to take off. I’m standing in the corral with hundreds of other runners — or fidgeting, more like, the soles of my Brooks Adrenalines bouncing eagerly on the pavement — as we wait for our wave’s turn to cross the start line.
I’ve been preparing for the Richmond Half Marathon since June, a longer than usual training cycle but one marred by long runs cut short in the sweltering heat of a seemingly never-ending summer. My last half marathon ended in heat exhaustion, and I’m anxious to complete this one sans medical assistance. Doubt clouds my mind, but the energy of my fellow runners warms my spirit and adrenaline kicks in.
Finally, we’re off. Just 13.1 miles between me and the finish line. I keep my hands balled into tight fists in the cold morning air, unable to feel my fingers, but I know a frigid start will give way to perfect racing temperatures after the first mile. I keep glancing down at my GPS watch, trying to maintain a steady pace so I don’t expend too much energy too soon.
Before I know it, I pass the first mile marker. I won’t allow myself to look too far ahead. I focus on making it to the next interval, on the determined percussion of feet against the pavement, on the passing blur of urban structures and sunlit storefronts that give way to picturesque residential areas.
Shortly before mile six we round the corner into Joseph Bryan Park. The crisp fall foliage is a welcome sight. I know from running this race the previous year that I’m almost at the halfway point. When my foot strikes the mat at the 10K marker, I pick up speed. Around mile seven is the designated “party zone” for the half marathon. The Macarena blares through the speakers and beckons the runners to the other side of the park, where a large crowd of friends and strangers has gathered early on a Saturday morning to cheer us on.
Even after we exit the park, the crowds are abundant and enthusiastic. The race is aptly nicknamed “America’s Friendliest Marathon,” and the spectators do not disappoint. People I’ve never met before cheer for me (my name is conveniently printed in bold letters on my bib), wave and high-five, assuring all of us that we look great even when by this point many of us appear anything but.
I’ve felt so energized this time that I thought I could avoid the dreaded Blerch, that foul beast so accurately memorialized by The Oatmeal who fills you with agony and doubt just when you crave motivation the most. The Blerch usually hits me around mile nine, and despite the outpouring of crowd support and inviting neighborhood views, he rears his ugly head again this time. The entire lower half of my body suddenly feels unbearably heavy, and I’m confident Jell-O has replaced my legs. A painful stitch pierces my stomach, mounting pressure wedges between my shoulder blades and I want to crumple on the ground in an exhausted heap.
What is wrong with me? Why do I put myself through this? Pay money to put myself through this, when I could burrow in the plush bed at the hotel instead? Going into this race my only goal was to finish within five minutes of my PR – last year’s Richmond Half Marathon time of 2:03:06. But when I glance down at my watch at the 10-mile marker, I realize that not only could I match my PR, but I could beat it.
And that’s when I book it.
Suddenly I have a second wind and I’m racing the last stretch like it’s a 5K, not the end of a grueling distance run. I quicken my pace. One-two, one-two. My steady breathing turns into a labored huff. I turn the corner down Grace Street heading back into downtown and the crowds multiply in number and amplify in exuberance. My watch beeps at the 12-mile marker and breaking two hours is within my reach.
I can hear the announcer at the finish line at Brown’s Island. Almost there. The best part about the Richmond Half Marathon is that it ends on a glorious downhill, first a steady decline then a steep drop. I reach the downward slope and the cheers and cowbells are music to my ears. I’m not running anymore but flying as I let gravity propel me toward the finish, hoping I don’t trip and tumble the rest of the way. A sharp pain punctuates my knee but I won’t hold back. I’m pushing, panting, smiling, then crying as I shoot across the finish line in 1:58:48.
I actually broke two hours. A check off my “things to do before I’m 30” bucket list. Through the uncertainty and discomfort, I pushed my tired body and mind to places I never thought possible a few short years ago, emboldened by this generous running community.
After I recover, I watch the other runners finish while I wait for my husband to complete the marathon (a PR for him as well at 3:05: 48). Remember the scene in “Love, Actually” when Hugh Grant says he likes to think of the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport when he gets gloomy with the state of the world? That’s how I feel about the finish line. Perhaps because of the emotionally draining events of the past few days or because 2016 has in so many ways, for lack of a better word, sucked, I’m profoundly moved by what I see even more so than usual. People of all races, nationalities, genders, orientations and creeds embrace each other, celebrate together and laugh and cry as one, not caring an ounce about each other’s differences. We are all runners here.
This is why I put myself through this instead of burrowing in the bed. This is why I wake up on what I wish at the time were lazy weekend mornings to log 10 miles in the park. This feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie that only comes with testing your limits, holding each other up when you fall and reveling in the shared victories.
This is why I run.