Last Sunday, standing on the Washington side of the Bridge of the Gods in the Columbia River Gorge with almost 700 other half-marathon participants, I felt primed to take on 13.1 miles. All the pieces were in place: I'd been training since early June with Coach Briana "Bri" Boehmer, pushing out paces I hadn't clocked in several years in pursuit of a speedy times at October's Victoria Marathon. I'd carb-loaded and hydrated with an intensity I don't think I've ever done before. I had a jammin' new playlist on Spotify (set on shuffle, if you can believe it!!). My running partner, Molly, and I had done a great coach-prescribed warm-up that left me feeling loose and peppy, if a bit damp already. Yes, the course ahead was hilly and the sun was already shining too brightly, but I was optimistic.
As Bri had instructed, I eased into the race for the first two miles. The first few hundred meters were across the grid-bottomed bridge, giving a view straight through to the rushing green river below. Freaky! I didn't glance down at the GPS on my wrist or the rushing water. Bri and I had agreed I'd run at a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 6 or 7 (out of 1-to-10 scale) after mile 2; she thought this would average out to about 9:02-minute miles over the course of the race.
The race was almost entirely on a paved trail that loped through woods, occasionally having us run parallel to a highway. The canopy of trees offered welcome shade, yet when the trail went near the road, we were blasted by direct sun; the contrast was striking. I picked a few women, close to my age yet far more lean than I, to try to hang with in the early miles. One was a tall, slender triathlete with a race-bib belt and matching aqua-blue tank and Lycra shorts; the other was also lanky with a pale yellow tank and patterned shorts.
As we wound past towering pine trees, the course rolled up and down; it never seemed to flatten out. On the longer climbs, my two tall "rabbits" would get 10 to 30 feet ahead of me, but I consistently reeled them in and passed them in the top third of every hill. I felt immense pride every time.
On the hills, several of which were a quarter-mile or longer, my RPE climbed up to 7 and sometimes to 8. I was feeling powerful, yet my mile splits were nowhere near the 8:50-9:10 pace "window" Bri had suggested I run. Except for the hills, my RPE was where Bri wanted it to be, but with the unrelenting climbs, my mile splits ranged from 9:17 to 9:55 in the first half. This situation left me feeling confident during the bulk of the the mile, but when my GPS would inform me of my pace for the last mile, I was bummed. By Mile 5, I knew the hills would be defeat my pace goal. I was disappointed, but not out of the game (yet).
Just after mile 6, we were greeted by a particularly punishing climb: switchbacks in hot, exposed sunshine. It was like something a runner would encounter in Utah or Colorado, not verdant, rolling Oregon! On the final switchback, I was delighted to spy Molly toward the base of it; I yelled out to her waved.
It was the last elation I felt in the race.
Shortly after the heinous climb, we reached the turnaround spot of the race. Thankfully, we got to go right back down the switchbacks. But instead of feeling downhill-wheee! I felt all what-the-what? tingly. My arms and legs suddenly felt prickly. "Need GU. Now!" shrieked my brain. Usually I'm a planned-gel'er--at miles 4, 8, and 11 of a half--but the tingly-prickly sensation told me it was time to spontaneously GU. As I sucked down a Blueberry-Pomegranate Roctane and drank some water, I felt a tickle on my shoulder and heard a hastily asked, "You okay?" It was Molly opening up on the downhill. "Go, Molls!," was all I could muster in reply.
The sugar Roctane quickly made the tingly feeling pass, but it was as if electrical currents had passed through me and fried my circuit board. Even going downhill felt like a major effort. I was confused: I had been nailing workouts for weeks, now running downhill seemed strenuous. Repeating, "strong! strong! strong!" in my head didn't work its usual mantra-magic. I reminded myself what Dimity often tells people at race expos: "Races mimic the peaks and valleys of life. You can be on the highest high one minute, and the lowest low the next. It's all a lovely rhythm." I tried to calm myself, thinking, "Just like Dim says: just because I'm sucking now, doesn't mean I will for the rest of the race."
Well, Dimity was right about the peaks and valleys of a race--I just didn't realize this craptastic feeling I had was actually a high, not a low, in this second half of the half. In mile 9 (or was it 8?), we started up a long, slow climb. Not super-steep, but continuous. My breath sounded like it had when I'd been at 9,000' elevation in Colorado two weeks prior--rapid and empty. Like with the "GU. Now!" instructions, my brain commanded me to "walk!"
Walk: something I'd never done in a race before except when I sucked down a gel or drank. Yet my feet followed the command because my body felt so alien and weak. Even at a walking pace, my breath heaved my chest at a RPE of 5 or 6; my heart was a burning muscle in my chest. I was briefly dejected, thinking I was letting down Bri, but mainly I just felt confused and panicky. Why was I breathing so rapidly? Since when was walking uphill so challenging?
Eventually I started running, but when I encountered the nearly mile-long climb at mile 10, I reverted to walking. I channeled my inner Dimity at Ironman, trying to powerwalk. I was in good company--many other racers were walking by this point, too. I walked at least half a mile, averaging 12:50 for that mile.
Much of the final 2.1 miles were in direct sun, but I gutted them out as best as I could--I wanted this race to be d-o-n-e. The final mile was one of the longest I've ever run. I was mad and dejected, but mainly still confused. I had been cruising along, then my plug had been inexplicably yanked.
Molly was cheering for me as I crossed the line, motioning me to raise my arms in triumph. Ever compliant, I mimicked her gesture, yet as soon as my Sauconys touched the timing mat, I jack-knifed at the waist, resting my hands on my super-slick-with-sweat knees. With the help of Molly and our 10K'er friend Joanne, I stumbled toward a grove of trees to collapse in the shade; my kind nursemaids got me a chair, where I slumped like a convalescing senior citizen in a wheelchair.
Describing my nauseated, tingly dizziness, Dr. Molly (a veterinarian) initially diagnosed heat exhaustion, but later she--and Coach Bri--decided I had hit the electrolytes too hard the day before the race. Bri had told me to hydrate really well, so I'd dutifully drank bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle of Nuun, sometimes dropping two Nuun All Day tablets into 24 ounces of water. (Proof there can be too much of a good thing: I took in 8 to 10 tablets on Saturday.) As Molly and Bri see it, I overloaded my system with electrolytes, raising my blood pressure. Then my heart (and lungs) had to work extra hard during the race, causing my panting, burning heart-sensation, and energy drain.
My 2:12 finish was my slowest half-marathon save for a runDisney race or two, yet without the "excuse" of stopping for photos opps with Mrs. Incredible or the Lost Boys. On a morning run, Molly once blurted out to me, "You really are unrelentingly optimistic." For that very reason, I'm not dwelling on this disappointing race result. I know I can prove myself marathon-ready plenty of times in the challenging workouts Bri will set out for me in the coming two months.