Gorges Ithaca Half Marathon

Training

I didn’t specifically “train” for this race. This means that I didn’t actually alter my plans and focus purposefully for a half marathon. I raced the Flower City Half a month and a half ago so I hadn’t decided yet whether I wanted to race this or run with the kids or a friend. Two days before the race, Christina and I were running with our normal Thursday morning group. She asked my plan and I said, “I don’t know what I want to do.” Our friend Teresa, also running with us, planned to race it. I felt like I was ready to race, but also wasn’t sure I really cared to run all out. Christina and I ran Skunk Cabbage and had a blast together. I thought it was rather fun to motivate someone else and have a great run to just enjoy the event and all the moments. I’ve paced my daughter and son before and find that I’m a pretty good supporter for others. I said to Christina, “sure let’s run together.” In that moment, I realized that I wouldn’t need a music playlist, I wouldn’t stress about a PR, and I could just enjoy the day. In the back of my mind I thought, “I can pace Christina to a sub 2 hour race!” Our Skunk time was 2:01 and change and this course was easier. I knew Christina was ready! I’d been running long with her every weekend for the past several weeks. She’s in great shape and I was super confident that we’d stroll into the finish and celebrate our 1:58 or 1:59 and enjoy the after party.

At the start line!

What is Racing?

Just a week prior to the race I had a conversation with a friend. I shared my “to race or not to race” dilemma.  He said, “let’s face it, none of us really race.” I agreed at the time and we had short chat about how none of us ever saw the front of a race, etc.  Later I thought more and realize I completely disagree with this sentiment. We may not all be top racers, but we all RACE when we want to. I remember traveling to a half marathon with a friend who is a much better athlete than me. She asked me my goal time. I said I was shooting for a sub 1:50. She looked at me sadly, put her arm on my shoulder and said, “I can pace you if you want me to.” To someone who routinely runs a 1:30 Half Marathon, 1:50 sounds like an ETERNITY. But it is MY race pace.

Pre-Race

That evening all 4 of us prepped for the race. Xander had signed up with us a LONG time ago and then struggled with injury during the spring track season. He had opted out of the Flower City Half at the last minute because of the injury, but decided he wasn’t missing another race. He ran 3 miles a few days before the race and proudly announced that he was beginning his taper. “You have to run to taper,” we all said!! I predicted the poor guy would be limping by mile 5, but he was determined!!

Elizabeth spent her spring focusing on her golf season. She kept logging the miles, but not with focused purpose. She hit her long runs, but didn’t practice speed or pacing. Still, she had run Flower City in April as well and I predicted she’d have a reasonably comfortable run.

That morning, the 5 of us met in the lot and walked the mile to the start. It was fun and casual with lots of chatting. We were excited though we took note that at 7:15 the air was already very heavy and warm. The light was filtering down in a hazy summer morning feel. I remarked aloud that we were lucky this race started early!

The Start Line

Our splits show the story of what turned into a challenging race.

And this is why I love race season. We arrived and saw so many familiar faces!! We connected with friends ever so briefly as we trudged to the porta potty line. When we realized the race was due to start in 10 minutes and the line was snaking around god knows how far we looked at a field. Yup, this was the only answer. Christina and I headed to the field and on our way we ran into my friend Katie (read all about her 2nd half marathon)!! I was surprised to bump into her with the 600 or so folks milling about. “Wait, we’ll be right back,” I hollered as we headed into the woods. After our stop, we snapped a picture and then hopped into the start area. We were near Katie and several other friends. Our friend Claire was shooting for a sub 2 and wondered if she should stay with us. Not wanting any pressure on us, I advised her to run her own race. Another friend asked us if we planned to run fast to know if she should be ahead or behind us. We said we were out for a fun day and didn’t really know.

Soon Ian was talking and the familiar ram’s horn blared. We were off. We settled into a quick clip and after about a half mile I noticed Katie was right with us. We chatted briefly about her shorts of choice as we’d had a back and forth about shorts recently. She bought Oiselle shorts for the race and was liking them quite well so far. Then, as we turned downhill our friend Teresa caught us. We wished her well as she passed us by. I had my watch set on current pace and we’d been hovering in the low 8s every time I looked. The course was downhill at this point and would start to level out, so I didn’t worry much. As we turned onto the Black Diamond trail and the grade leveled a bit, I said to Christina, “I’m going to slow us down, ok?” She replied that this was ok and I tried to slow us a bit. Still, we didn’t slow very much. She said, “I can’t really talk but I’m ok with that if you are.” I see this as the turning point of the race. We were not yet at mile 3 and she was telling me she wasn’t at a conversational pace. I slowed down more, but not enough. If I had been running with Elizabeth, I would have forced us to a much slower pace, a pace where she could chat easily. I was overconfident that Christina was well trained and overzealous in my own desire to pull her to a sub-2. With these two things conspiring, we kept going pretty close to the pace we had been.

Mile 4

Around mile 4 I felt like we started to settle into a pretty comfortable stride and it was about that time that Xander blew by us. I was surprised to see him. We’d advised him to go out at a 9:30 pace. We told him not to get caught up in the fray. He didn’t listen. I had a twinge of guilt as a mom. I should be running with him in case he has trouble later. That thought quickly left my head when our friend Brenna caught up to us and we chatted a bit. She is from Syracuse and we rarely see her, so it was fun to talk with her on the course. Katie was still with us during this time as well, and we talked occasionally.

The End of the Trail!

The Black Diamond trail is a delightful, forgiving cinder surface. It was fully shaded and delightfully cool on this very warm day. As we neared the end you could feel the climate starting to change. We were going to be spit out into Cass Park in Ithaca and it was going to be HOT! Christina and I had talked about this. She enjoys running in Cass and Stewart parks and I consider them pretty much torture. In fact, that terrain was one of the reasons I was perfectly ok with not racing this half marathon. I always feel like you keep running and running and the miles just don’t build. Every single feels like an eternity. Even though I was unofficially pacing Christina, I was counting on her to pull me through that flat, boring terrain.

“I have a cramp,” Christina said. “Can you walk through it?” I asked her. We chatted about cramp strategy a bit and slowed down more. I thought she’d be able to run through it. Then, she said something about music. “Can you sing to me?” she asked. I laughed in my head. Oh dear. No I do not sing when there is no music. I wish I had put in headphones because I know it would have helped. Instead I replied, “Jenny would sing to you.” She said, “I know,” and told me about a race that Jenny sang to her. (Jenny is a choral music teacher). A few more minutes went by and she realized that a bathroom stop would be a good choice. We started discussing where the bathrooms were and made that our goal – we’d hit the bathroom stop and then the running would be easier. Another woman listening in was happy to know that the bathrooms would be near as well! While this discussion was occurring, suddenly we heard music!! Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” was playing behind us. “Music!” I said. “This is my ring tone for my friend Kathey.” It has been years since I got my phone and she is still the only friend with her own ringtone, custom made even. When I set it up I thought I’d make one for all my friends, but stopped after Scott and Kathey.

Suddenly I was jolted to reality when I heard our pace and time announced behind us. Yes, the music listeners had it set to give them pace updates. “Ok, this will be fine,” I thought. “Maybe they have it on mile increments.” What seemed like just moments later I heard it again. “OH my goodness! Are you kidding me?” I said to Christina. I realized we were actually running the same pace as these people. Our only choice was to speed up or slow down. At the moment speeding up didn’t look like an option. Christina said something to them about these broadcasts. They were happy as larks, as they shared that it was set to update every two minutes. Luckily our bathroom stop would serve to give some distance between us and them.

Post Stop

We only saw the bathroom because the woman who was with us jetted over there. I told Christina to head there and planned to meet her at the water stop (just 50 yards away). Friend friend Cory West was working the stop and I chatted with him about his upcoming 100 miler!! Soon, Christina was back and I greeted her with water. “Ready?” I asked. “Do you feel better?” I was still optimistic at this time that she could rebound from this.

That optimism evaporated as she started running and it was immediately clear she didn’t feel better. She quickly started walking and said she wished she hadn’t stopped. I told her she had no choice, and tried to encourage her not to second guess it. I don’t really remember being too helpful at this point. My brain was struggling with what I should do. Should I push her or should I be comforting? With Elizabeth or my sister I would push. But I’d never been through a rough race with Christina and she isn’t my relative. We were only a bit past halfway at this point and suddenly finishing the race seemed questionable. Her breathing was shallow and strained and I could tell she was really stuck in her head. We kept run/walking and she started to tell me to leave her.

No I will NOT Leave

And this is where pacing became a growth experience for me. I remember when my sister ran Western States and her friend Desiree paced her. No this was NOT the same thing – we are only running 13.1 miles TOTAL and Desiree wasn’t even allowed to join Sarah until mile 60. However, I remember Desiree saying that those 30 miles that she paced Sarah were some of the toughest miles she faced. Sarah struggled for a lot of the time. Desiree was sleep deprived and she was trying to motivate a friend to keep going. She had to dig deep to be her best person to help pull Sarah through. It would have been easier for both Christina and me in the short term to have me leave. She wouldn’t have been embarrassed and I wouldn’t have had to figure out how to keep her positive and running her best race that she had in her that day.

“I would feel better if you just left,” she said on several occasions. Her breathing was still really labored. Just then, we heard ambulance sirens in the distance. It was HOT and people were struggling in the heat. I knew that Christina was affected by the heavy air. She said something about possibly dropping. Knowing she would be really angry with herself after the event if she did that, I said, “let’s get to the next water stop and make a call.” She started running and then walking. “Just walk,” I said. “I think you might be panicking. I’m not leaving and I don’t care about the time. Please accept that I’m not leaving.” I’m sure that those weren’t my exact words, but they express the sentiment. Soon we ran by a guy shouting, “350, 351” and I surmised that this was our placement in the pack of 600 or so runners. “Does he really think that helps anyone?” I asked. “Seriously that is annoying.”

Sometime between that point and the next water stop Christina became comfortable with the fact that I was staying with her. Her breathing settled. I know this because I couldn’t hear hear breathing anymore. She started running more and walking less. I felt optimistic for her. She would finish this race and give it the best she had today.

But where is Elizabeth?

So while all of this was happening I was thinking that it was GREAT that we hadn’t caught Xander. That meant he was probably doing ok. But, then I realized that I hadn’t seen Elizabeth yet. I knew we hadn’t passed her and she hadn’t passed us. That meant she was going slower than us. I still had my watch set on current pace.  I didn’t even have the heart to look at it. I was afraid that if I saw the pace I’d start trying to push Christina to speed up. I knew that wasn’t the right thing to do in the moment. So, I just hoped that Elizabeth would catch us soon. And soon she did. She arrived shortly after mile 9 looking out of breath. “I’ve had a cramp since mile 4,” she said.

“Oh dear!” this race was proving to be challenging for many. We chatted a bit and kept things upbeat. Soon, a woman behind us said, “I’m unofficially with you. I’m having a rough race as well.” I thought, “Oh great! We look like we’re struggling so much that someone has identified with us as people who are having a rough race.” Our little motley crew continued onward. I think Elizabeth left us a bit before mile 11 and I knew our friends Jenny, Chantelle and Joel would be catching us soon. They planned to run slowly and just enjoy the course. Jenny and Chantelle hadn’t trained at all for the race. They just knew it was going to be a fun slow run for them.

Mile 11

And they caught us!! I heard Joel in the distance and I knew they were here. We talked at the mile 11 water stop and suddenly we had a group. Joel was jovial and not working very hard. I had fun chatting with him, shouting thank you to course volunteers and suddenly felt energized to cheer Christina on more. Maybe it was that I felt like I had permission to talk because there was someone else who was kind of along for the ride with me. We both knew we could run faster but we were with our friends who were running not as fast. Joel is one of the most fun people you’ll ever meet, and I enjoyed the opportunity to interact with him on this portion of the race.

As we passed the high school we saw a woman passed out on the side of the road. There was a crew around her and the ambulance had arrived. I looked at Christina and had thoughts of gratitude that she wasn’t lying on the ground. The heat was hard on many a runner this morning and while she was suffering, she was in in a pretty good situation all things considered.

I saw what I thought was one last water stop up ahead and said to Christina, “Do you want to get water here?” I don’tremember her answer, but I imagine it was something like, “YES!” Only the thing was when we arrived we realized it was just a few girls with donuts. While that was super sweet, donuts on a super hot, humid day and no water seemed about as appealing as hot chocolate at that moment!! I was sad that I had gotten Christina’s hopes up. It was time to just soldier on to the end.

We’re almost there

As we hit the last bit of the race, my friend and swim coach Shane was out on the course, followed by friend Jeff. They cheered us on and gave us the oomph to keep going on. I could tell that Christina was well past the struggle. She had hit her 2nd wind physically, even if she didn’t know it at this point. Soon we neared the chute and I slowed down a little bit. I thought it would be nice to let her finish a bit ahead of me. She sweetly stopped and said, “Oh no I’m not crossing this line without you.” We crossed the finish line together.

The After Party

A reunion of friends!! Food, beer, music! It was just past 9:30 in the morning and soon we were eating and drinking and chatting with everyone. It was festive and fun and before long all our memories were just that. Our friend Brenda crossed the line and we learned she had also had a rough race. We walked over to our friends’ house a few blocks from the Commons and piled into our Subaru for the drive home to Tburg.

(back) Jenny, Joel, Chantelle, me, Scott, Xander, Elizabeth (front) Brenna, Christina

Final Thoughts

I am proud of Christina. I thought a lot about this after the race. I am someone who won’t even run near a pacing group. It freaks me out to know that I might not be able to keep up. My mind gets consumed with, “What if I fall off their pace?” The closest I’ve ever come to being vulnerable on a run is when I was training for a 50K with my friend Jenny. We had some tough runs, but with runs of that distance, it was usually a back and forth kind of thing. We both had highs and lows in the same training run. And, it was trail. There’s just something about trail that makes things feel emotionally safer. It is crazy weird, but it is an alternate universe to road running. It was HARD for Christina to struggle like that in front of a friend. It would have been so easy for her to quit, stomp her feet and say, “LEAVE” and actually mean it!! She kept going and she reached deep and gave that course everything she had that day.

I am proud of myself. I have never been in a situation where I had to motivate a friend like that. I don’t have a lot of close friends. It is something I really struggle with. I’ve found my closest connections through running, and in the case of Christina, it has been through race organizing, running and parenting. I knew I would never leave her on the course, but I also didn’t know if I could really help her to finish either. I was afraid she might leave me and quit the race. I also dug deep to be supportive and encouraging and kind. She remembers this as her worst race ever, and I can understand that. I know I would too if our roles were reversed. I think of it as a growth opportunity for both of us. It is a day I wouldn’t trade, and I am grateful that I could act as a good friend to her. Oh and Scott’s race? He ended up 13th overall and 1st Master’s Male!! Read his report.

Results

Our results were really not that bad all things considered. We ended up with an average pace of 10:10 and an overall time of 2:13. It would have been ok had we set out to run this speed, but with hoping for about 15 minutest faster, it made for a disappointing event for us both. Still, it was fun to see friends and enjoy the lovely warm day (after the race)! Official Results

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