Just Run

My sixth half marathon: done

13.1: done

I am still beaming about Sunday’s Chicago Spring Half Marathon, which I ran in 2:08:15, setting a new personal record by almost six minutes. I maintained a consistent pace, and I have never felt stronger or more confident during a race.

This was a special one for me. Last year, I ran it to honor my deceased father on his birthday, and it was my first race after quitting smoking. It was also my fifth half marathon, and I finally beat my time from my first in 2011. This year, I was 15 months’ smoke-free when I crossed the finish line. My lungs were a year stronger and healthier, and I was diligent about staying on track with my training. The pressure, all of it self-imposed, was high to do even better this time. And I did — despite the niggling voice in my head that told me I couldn’t.

Even though I knew I was well-prepared, the voice managed to flame my self-doubt, especially during the final weeks of training. Your pace has been too slow on your long runs, it said. You’ll never be able to beat your PR from last year, it said. It’s not possible to get faster as you get older, it said. Get ready to be disappointed, it said.

By the week before the race, the voice was all I could hear. But then something happened that helped me quiet it. On Mother’s Day, my husband and daughter hung a bulletin board in my home office displaying bibs and photographs from the races I have run and put up two rows of hooks for my medals. Atop the bulletin board, they placed black capital letters that spell out “JUST RUN.” If you are a runner, you know that is often easier said than done. But the words, which were my 13-year-old daughter’s idea, are as brilliant as they are simple. They told me to ignore the voice in my head and focus on my feet hitting the pavement. During the week that followed, that is exactly what I did.

I only had three short, easy runs remaining before the race. Looking over my 12-week training log, I was proud to see that I had only skipped one three-mile run, despite countless available excuses, including two weeks of traveling. I knew I was ready in terms of mileage logged, but, as the voice relentlessly reminded me, my pace was not where I wanted it to be. Even though I was supposed to be tapering and resting, I needed to push myself after those disappointingly slow long runs. I saw the racing bibs and medals on my office wall, I realized how far I had come during the four years since my first 8K, and I heeded the advice above the bulletin board. My pace was strong for all three runs, and it was exactly the confidence boost I needed.

My Mother's Day gift could not have been more perfect in its message and its timing.

My Mother’s Day gift could not have been more perfect in its message or its timing.

When race morning came, the voice inside my head remained surprisingly quiet. Maybe it was the inspirational wall my family made for me. Maybe it was the distraction of my husband and a close friend running the race too. Maybe it was the awesome 2:10 pace group I ran the majority of the race with. Maybe it was all three. But for the first time probably ever during a race, I believed in myself the whole way. When I reached mile 10, I wasn’t just sure I could finish. I knew I would PR. I had no doubts. It was the best I have ever felt during a race because I stopped thinking. I just ran.

When our two rockstar pacers slowed down around mile 11 to ensure the 2:10 finishing time, several of the women who had been running with the group pushed ahead. At first I was unsure about leaving the group behind, but I felt strong and wanted to maintain the 9:45 pace. I knew I could do it, and I did. In fact, I sprinted across the finish line, simultaneously laughing and crying. One of the volunteers stopped me. I think she thought I was hyperventilating. “I’m OK,” I assured her. “I’m just happy.” Happy doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt.

For me, the best part of a race — besides crossing the finish line, of course — is finding my husband afterward. He is always proud of me. He always believes in me, even when I don’t believe in myself. When I told him I PRed, he said he knew I could do it. The difference was this time I knew it too.

Yep, still beaming.

My awesome friend Stacie, me and my husband: PRs for each of us. What an amazing race!

My awesome friend Stacie, me and my husband: PRs for all three of us. What a perfect day for a race!

Who Knew?

The song came on in a random iPhone shuffle seven miles into the race. My blistered foot and searing hamstring were slowing me down, and so was the humid May morning on the Chicago lakefront. I thought about stopping, just for a minute. Then the song started playing, and I knew I had to keep running.

You took my hand, you showed me how…You promised me you’d be around…

It was May 19, my dad’s birthday and also the day before the anniversary of his death. That Pink song had played constantly on the radio in 2006, the year he died. I could feel my dad with me as I looked at the Chicago skyline and the boats in the harbor. A U.S. Navy veteran, he had always loved the water. I did too. It reminded me of him. Tears streamed down my sweat-covered face, but I kept running.

If someone said three years from now, you’d be long gone…

I remembered sitting in my SUV in our driveway after he died, sobbing to those lyrics, not wanting to cry in front of my children but needing the release. It was a love song, but it was about loss and regret, both of which had been constant themes in my relationship with my father. After years of disconnection, we finally found our way back to each other emotionally after my kids were born. Being a parent helped me to forgive him, to love him again. And then he was gone.

When someone said count your blessings now, ’fore they’re long gone, I guess I just didn’t know how…I was all wrong…

My foot and leg ached, but I kept running. I had signed up for this half marathon as a way to keep myself on track after quitting smoking. By race day, I was 145 days smoke-free. My lungs were stronger. I had grown faster. My mantra during those grueling 12 weeks of training had been one of my father’s favorite sayings: “Mother always told me, just do the very best you can.” And on race day, when my foot and leg teamed up to stop me, his words kept me going.

Around Mile 10, the 2:10 pacer passed me and my heart sank. I had wanted so badly to finish at less than a 10-minute-mile pace, and I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I could still beat my 2010 time of 2:17, though. I adjusted my goal and my mind-set. I told myself I only had to run for 30 more minutes. After all those hours of training over the past 12 weeks, 30 minutes was nothing.

At Mile 12, I looked at my Garmin and realized just how much I had slowed down. I knew I had to find a way to pick up the pace. I forgot the pain, the humid air. I focused on my breathing, my stride. When I finally saw the finish line, I sprinted toward it. “Finish strong,” I heard someone in the crowd yell. And I did. My Garmin read 2:14 when I crossed the finish line.

I did it, Dad, I thought. I did the very best I could. I did it for you, to celebrate your life. But more important, I did it for me. I believed in myself, and I made it happen.

Who knew?

My husband and I at the finish line. I couldn't have done it without him, my running buddy and my love.

My husband and me at the finish line of the 2013 Chicago Spring Half Marathon. I couldn’t have done it without him, my running buddy and biggest supporter.