Brightly sunny with just a hint of coolness in the air, Saturday was a perfect summer day for running. I set off to meet Molly, wearing a smile. Two GU packets were tucked into my Ultimate Direction Thunderbolt belt; the bottles held cold orange nuun. Molly and I had a lot more catching up to do—during our five miles on Wednesday morning, we’d only scratched the surface of my family’s trip to San Francisco and the goings-on of her three teenage daughters. I excitedly felt our 12 miles, prep for the Happy Girls Forest Grove Half-Marathon, were going to roll by in a blur.
Instead, it turned into an epic fail.
All week, Molly had been fighting what we joking called, “the plague,” a hacking cough that refused to produce any spit-able results. On Wednesday, we’d decided to skip 2 x 2 miles at tempo; Saturday morning I told Molly if she didn’t feel up for it, we didn’t have to run 4 of our 12 miles at half-marathon pace, as the Half-Marathon: Own It plan from Train Like a Mother: How to Get Across Any Finish Line - and Not Lose Your Family, Job, or Sanity called for. But when we stopped for our first GU at mile 4, she gamely reminded me we needed to pick up the pace. We agreed anything under 9:00 sounded good. (Up to that point, we’d been running 10- to 10:15-minute miles.)
After resetting my Garmin, I gave my legs and lungs some time to settle into the faster pace. A right turn, another right turn, then a left onto a slightly uphill road, and I was still waiting for the pace to feel good. Or even not torturously difficult, which was what it was feeling to me. Relaying a story about my family’s visit to Muir Woods, I could only gasp out a few words before gulping oxygen. “The twins argued….and whined…yet Phoebe….was oblivious…pointing out…sword ferns and…hemlock trees….” Since when had 8:40-minute miles felt so heinous?
“Can we blame this…on the two pints….of beer…I drank last night?” I asked.
By the time we turned onto a flat straightaway, Molly was a step or two ahead of me, something that had never happened to us in the middle of a run. Usually she starts a run faster than I like, but our paces are usually well matched for most of a run, and I always have a strong finish. My face was slick with exertion: I flicked sweat off my eyebrows in an effort to stop it from running into my eyes. Another turn onto another flat road, one of my favorite long stretches—wide fields on either side were home to numerous songbirds and wildflowers. But at just over halfway into our four miles at race pace, I could only concentrate on Molly’s bright orange tee. We’d given up trying to talk; I was barely hanging onto a 9:20 pace. Forget sub-9:00s.
It made no sense: A week before, thanks to being in my beloved San Francisco and a peppy race playlist on my iPod, I continually found myself running race pace without even trying. Now my legs refused to move any faster, and my body felt starved for oxygen. My hands were cold, and my forearms tingled like they have the few times I’ve run a timed mile. Staring at Molly’s back, a cacophony of thoughts pinged in my head: “I’ll never run fast again. Getting old sucks. How did I ever run that marathon faster than Molly? She’s kicking my butt on hill repeats lately. I’m slow. I’m old. This sucks.”
Then, out loud, “I give in….Molly, you go ahead.” And, just like that, just past three miles, I did something I never do on a run: I slowed to a walk. Molly kept chugging along; I soon lost sight of her vivid tee. After a few minutes, I tried to resume running at race pace, which lasted all of about 90 seconds. I walked some more, then finally started running a slow shuffle. Now all I kept thinking was, “wait for me, Molly; please wait for me.” The idea of running five miles home solo, with no music, loomed interminable, like sitting through a three-hour economics lecture—in Swahili.
I was losing hope when I heard her say, “Over here, Sarah.” Phew: There was Molly, sipping her water and suggesting we splash cold water on our faces at the bathroom of the adjacent DMV emissions-testing center.
Usually a disco-bath reinvigorates me but the effects of this one only lasted a few steps. Even at a much slower pace, the miles’ long incline back toward our houses was a major slog. It seemed even the birds were mocking my effort, "Caw-caw-CAW!" At one point, after bending down to pick up a rusty nail in the road, I complained about feeling dizzy. “I think you’re coming down with the plague, too,” Molly suggested kindly. I just thought, “Nope, I’m just old and slow."
About 11 miles into our run, Molly started telling me about this woman she knows who trains guide dogs as well as doing all other sorts of volunteering. We got to talking about how it seems the majority of volunteer work is done by a minority of people.
Bam! It hit me. “I donated blood yesterday, Molly! I donated blood!” I doubled over, clutching my stomach as deep laughter shook my body—then tears sprung to my eyes. I wasn’t going to run a woefully slower-for-me pace for the rest of my life; my fitness wasn’t in the toilet. I was just down a pint of the good stuff!
I was still gasping for air for that final mile home, but at least now it was because I was chuckling—and there was a reason for my slow down.
Mother runners: How does donating blood affect your running?