The last few years, I've been lamenting lost speed. ("Speed" being a relative term, mind you.) As each year vanishes from the calendar, minutes have compounded on my race times. I couldn't believe I ever used to routinely finish at or below 1:50 for a half-marathon, and it seemed like sub-2:00 hours was becoming a slippery goal to grasp as well. Taking an honest look, I had to admit my times are now routinely 1:58 or 1:59. Fine times...just not what I'd been capable of three, four, or five years ago.
But thanks to numerous track workouts with my training partner, Molly, and core-strengthening barre-style classes at The Refinery, I decided I might have a glory-days-ish time in my (aging) body. So, at the urging of Molly and a few other friends, I jumped into the Foot Traffic Holiday Half, a popular Portland 13.1-mile race that was, oh, 4 days away from when I committed to running it. (Molly and I are both training for a January 19 half-marathon, so this impulsive decision wasn't quite as foolhardy as it sounds.)
So, after an abbreviated taper and a trip to a unique local craft store for some holiday-themed adornments (including a 2-foot, flannel, patchwork Christmas tree quilt), I was eagerly bouncing at the starting line with about 2,000 other racers. Surrounded by runners in reindeer antlers; elf hats; Santa beards; candy-cane-striped socks; blinking lights; and penguin costumes, I am giddy.
The gun sounds, and we are off. Fittingly, the first song on my playlist is titled YOUNGBLOOD. While the fluid flowing through my veins doesn't quite qualify as young, I feel surprisingly peppy and nimble as I dodge red- and green-outfitted runners as we zig and zag through narrow side streets. By the time we connect with the main thoroughfare that most of the out-and-back race is to be run on, I settle into a surprisingly comfortable 8:35 pace.
Not wanting to put too fine a point on it, I set my time goal as, "closer to 1:50 than 1:55," which translates to anywhere between 8:23 and 8:46 per mile. The misty chill makes for ideal running conditions for this Pacific Northwest gal, but I sense the quilted tree pinned to the back of my Saucony Sonic ViZi Vest might make me overheat so even before 2-mile marker, I toss my gloves at cheering-from-the-sidelines Molly.
The course wends its way north on a road I often trot; running along a familiar stretch of road lets me push my pace with confidence. A mile after Molly, I practice a trick honed in training that allows me to be more Zen without slacking off: Pretending my eyes are binoculars, I mentally twist them to narrow my field of vision. I'm still aware of my surroundings, but I'm less distracted by them.
The miles click by, my music, a Mile-4 Jet Blackberry GU, and orange Nuun fueling me just right. Never once do I think about letting my foot off the proverbial gas; not once do I second-guess my intentions or goal. I feel strong and at ease; I'm pushing the pace, but not to a place I immediately want to vacate. I'm exuberant.
After the turnaround, I jockey with a woman in a royal blue tee and another in a patterned skirt--the race has more than twice as many women running as men, and it's a delight to be surrounded by so many strong women. As we hit the lone hill of the race under the St. John's Bridge, I pass the two women I'd been trading leads with. Surging on a hill enhances the spring in my step. I gleefully high-5 Joanne, my kids' beloved kindergarten teacher, as she's heading out and I'm nearly Mile 8.
When I slow to a walk to take in another GU and more Nuun at Mile 8, Bryan, the husband of a mother runner friend, makes me laugh as he yells out, "SBS, I've been following that dang Christmas tree on your back this whole time; didn't realize it was you!"
Only occasionally glancing at my aqua-blue Soleus mini, I know my pace is staying pretty much where I want it. "Closer to 8:23 than 8:46," I silently repeat. Just before Mile 11, approaching the aid station where my friend Sharon is working, I shout out to her to pass me a bottle of Nuun I'd left on her porch. Forever thoughtful, Sharon remembers to exclaim, "Go, Champy, Champy, GO!"
One more GU, the Nuun, and I mentally hunker down to push through Mile 11, knowing adrenaline--and a slight downhill--will carry me through the final mile. Needing a boost, I encourage a few women to hang with me, but I don't get a taker until the final quarter-mile. Ultimately she sprints past me, but by then I'm busy whipping my arms in the air to get a cheer from the crowd. I'm in giddy-overdrive as stomp on the finish mats.
My official time ends up being 1:53:12--closer to 1:55 than 1:50. Yet I'm as jolly as the Santa and the elves I pose for pictures with. My mood stays elevated all afternoon (heck, ever since!), especially as I peruse my race stats on Athlinks.com. There, in the glow of the computer screen, I realize my Holiday Half finish is the fastest half I've run in almost 3.5 years. Ho, ho, ho!