Just goes to show how much the world has changed since I was in high school, because this term actually would have been accurate. Real-life air guns signaled the start of races at my track meets, as well as town runs. Now, I either get an automated foghorn sound or, if the race is in Danbury, Conn., a Dunkin Donuts-fueled dude’s voice physically shouting “On your mark, get set, go!” I shouldn’t judge, really, considering that race cost me a quarter of what the fancy New York races do. And I didn’t have to show up two hours early to stand around in my start corral, go numb from cold and watch everyone around me take selfies.
Back to the old school gun. Whether it was practicality or political correctness that eliminated it, it certainly takes some of the oomph out of the start line experience. This is because a) Every race scene from every famous running movie no longer runs through my head and b) I’d actually be able to hear it over my music. My girl Pink can certainly project.
This may be somewhat anti-climactic because depending on how big the race is, it could take you up to five minutes to actually get to the starting line. I run with a GPS watch, so upon crossing the start, it’s the “Timer Started,” alert that jolts me into go-mode.
There are any number of things that can hamper one’s start, but here are the ones that stand out in my experience:
- Crowds thicker than the 4/5/6 morning rush
- Completely frozen feet (see Pre-Gun)
- Laces you realize are just not quite tight enough
- A bladder you realized you probably should have emptied one more time
In addition, the start of a slow trickle of questions that will continue to drip like the sweat off your forehead, to the point where you may even find yourself asking them out-loud between labored breaths. I really have this whole damn race ahead of me? Is this going to be the race where I get injured? Running is a selfish, pointless activity. Should I just quit right now?
And, since none of the aforementioned concerns or questions have actually forced me to stop, mile 1 begins.
It would make sense for me to love Mile 1. I’m energized and pumped up by the cheers from the sidelines, and I always crush a split that’s just straight up fast. But—this is exactly why I despise mile 1. Because when I get my final time, I don’t care how fast I ran mile 1. In fact, if I’m unhappy with my time (or at least convinced I could have run faster, which is almost always the case), I tell myself it was that darn first mile split that screwed me over. Yet, I still never pace mile 1—I continue to sprint it. The racing brain is complicated.
The 2.5 mark holds a lot of significance for me because 2.5 miles was the length of the first race I ever ran. I was a freshman in high school—14 years old and embarrassingly not athletic. My mom told me I had to join a sport or else, wait for it, I wouldn’t have the extracurricular activities to get me into college. I joined the cross-country team partly because there were no cuts, but mostly because my friend’s older sister was a senior on the team and could drive me home from practice. #Priorities.
My first high school race I clocked in at around 45 minutes. I cried the rest of the day. In my last half-marathon, I hit 2.5 miles in just over 19 minutes. No tears, just another 10.6 left to go and a half-sheepish, half-sincere “Thanks, Mom.”
Longest mile in the race, hands down. Don’t ask me why, but it’s like when the subway stops and you’re planning on a 2-minute delay—and then 15 minutes later your laundromat has closed for the night and you have no sheets to sleep on. Maybe because if I were running a 5K, I’d only have .1 to go? Regardless, in my last race, my Pink Pandora station decided to play Adele during mile 3—and this would have majorly sucked during any mile. Adele gives me runner’s rage, and not the kind that makes you go faster.
The next miles until the halfway point is usually pretty chill. The crowds have thinned, I’ve managed to grab a few cups of water (from the aid stations, mind you, because I would rather run in a chicken costume than wear a fluid belt) and I’m no longer sprinting, but my pace is strong. Some races will have the halfway point marked, but even when it’s not, I can sense it without looking at my GPS watch. A switch flips in my brain as the familiar reality sinks in: The rest of this race is going to be hard. Yes, half marathons are hard. I tell people they’re not, but they are. How could 13.1 miles not be? No one should trust anything a runner says about half marathons.
Quads: It is now that I remember I have them, and they are jam-packed with lactic acid and have tiny little tears forming in the fibers. I wonder how hard I would have to foam roll for them to just rip open? Now is not the time to think about foam rolling. Foam rolling comes later, after shower but before nap.
Lungs? Meh. Arms? Stiff. Stomach? Iffy. Feet? There’s definitely going to be one of those massive fluid-filled blisters to pop.
Oh hell no. This should be mile 10. I swear the last marker said mile 9. I’ve been pacing for mile 10. At what point did I suddenly decide this was mile 10?
But yes, I will take the disgusting Gu packet (for crying out loud, I always manage to get vanilla bean) usually offered at this point in the race, swallow half of it, instantly gag, curse the ultra-marathoners who can devour entire pizzas while they run, and use some of the anger this stupid mile is generating to pass the person in front of me. They almost always look to be about my mom’s age.
Ten miles to me would be the ideal length for a race. Not too short, not too long. Thinking this does not help my cause during this mile. It is always, without fail, my absolute slowest.
And then all of a sudden there is a sort of numbness that sets in. In my last half, I ran mile 11 just as fast as I ran mile 1. I do remember Taylor Swift coming on—but nah, this mile is just so close to the end, I can totally start booking it. Except…
…Now my body decides to revolt against that plan. Numbness turns to flat out, unforgiving, un-maskable pain. Lungs, muscles, joints, stomach. Dizziness, nausea. It’s like I have the flu and with each step I am closer to a shot of Nyquil and 12 hours of sleep. Long, heavy strides, blurred vision. Gotta make my goal time or I’ll hate myself…or would I really hate myself? How long would that hate actually last? Screw it—I’m sprinting.
500 feet. Full-on sprint. Minor freak-out when I see the time on the finish clock but then remember that’s the overall gun time, not my chip time. Phew. Shoulders forward across the finish. Hit the stop button on my watch before I can stop moving. Grab my medal and wander off to the side with facial contortions I’m assuming I would never, ever want to see in the mirror.
But I made my goal time! Technically I have always made my goal time. Tired, but ehh, I could have cut another two minutes—at least. I need to do more hill training.
Post-race (and post-shower, foam roll, nap and major salt and grease consumption)
I skip down until I see “F” for “female” while looking at race results online. It’s official: the first female finisher is not a human, the next batch are professionals and then the rest who came in before me are all approaching the same age group as that woman I passed in mile 9. I don’t want to get old, but now? 50’s not looking so shabby.
Wait though—the woman in front of me is in my age group. And she lives in Brooklyn too? I’m totally finding her on Facebook. We could hang out… And talk about…running? Nah. I don’t need someone to fuel the obsession further. I need friends who remind me that there are other ways to spend my non-work hours besides training. And foam rolling. And hand washing my sports bras.
Well, I have found one other way to spend my non-work hours—so thanks for reading.