Life was pretty busy in the week before the Towpath Half Marathon.

I woke up on Friday to find that one of my tires had finally given up the ghost and died. All four tires on my car were very old and I knew that they would need to be replaced before snow started flying. Longtime readers may remember that I had a flat tire on the way to the Cleveland Marathon Expo. As I made arrangements to deal with my tire, I figured that perhaps the flat tire might be a good omen that signified that I would be having as much success at the Towpath Half as I did at the Cleveland Half Marathon.

Packet pickup was much closer to my house this year, which was nice. Whenever I go to an expo or packet pickup for a race with a distance that I have never previously run, I always feel a bit lost and uncertain…almost like I don’t belong there. I wind up wandering around in a daze and I’m sure that more than a few race volunteers have wondered how I managed to wind up at the starting line! Because I had already run a half marathon, I didn’t feel this way at packet pickup, and I had a good time stopping by the various booths and talking with the various exhibitors who were there. I picked up some Gu packets because I thought the aid stations only had Powerbar gels, which I have never used before.

After taking Sheila to the airport, I spent the evening relaxing at home with some video games and carboloading with a delicious Mexican pasta bake that Sheila made so that I wouldn’t starve while she was gone!

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I could seriously eat Mexican food for every meal. I took some students on a trip on Tuesday and I pointed out multiple Mexican restaurants that I love as we drove and by the end of the trip they were all making fun of my zeal for Mexican food. LOL!

As anyone who has read this blog for awhile now can attest, I have a bad habit of getting to races without much time to spare. I knew that wouldn’t be an issue at this race, because the volunteers were clear about the fact that the roads really would close at 7AM and I knew that I would have a long, cold walk to Brandywine if I didn’t make it there on time and would have had to find parking somewhere else.

Race morning went pretty well until I needed to make my English muffin with peanut butter. Our fridge was full, and I couldn’t find the peanut butter. With time running out, I opened up a brand new jar of Justin’s Organic Nut Butter that we had in the cupboard. I didn’t realize that it had to be stirred before eating, and I wound up getting (expensive) peanut butter all over the kitchen and practically everything that I took with me to the race. In the end, I got nut butter on my shoes, my iPod, my watch, my bag, and my car’s dashboard. Fortunately, I made it to Brandywine on time!

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There was a lot of fog on the way there…I had hoped it would stay around so that we could run through it! Note the reflection of the infamous peanut butter English muffin on the dashboard…

Getting to the starting line so early was weird. I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself! It was around 38 degrees at this time, which meant that it was too cold to stand outside. I brought along a Bible and a runner’s devotional and figured that spending some time in prayer before we started might be a good way to get myself ready, but I couldn’t focus because I was wrestling with what to wear. After my brutal run last Saturday, I absolutely didn’t want to wind up wearing too much. However, the race day temperature was cooler than last Saturday’s temperature. I eventually decided to take off one layer and I told myself that my hat and gloves would help keep me warm until I got warmed up and that I would discard them along the way (thank goodness Dollar Tree carries hats and gloves!).

Eventually, I made my way over to the starting line and I saw my friend Ramona’s husband and daughter. Ramona was doing the 10K. I talked with them for a bit while I stretched, and then it was time to go!

On my way to the starting line, I decided that I needed to tie and retie my shoes for the 1,000th time, which meant that I wound up getting to the starting line late and starting towards the back. I often find myself running at the pace at which those around me are running, and I was worried that starting towards the back would start me off on a slower note. For the first half mile or so, I was convinced that I was going to run a slower first mile than I would have liked. There was a good bit of congestion and I didn’t want to spend too much time running sideways. I saw Ramona along the way and said a quick hello.

Fortunately, I saw that my pace for the first mile was 8:53, which was a relief. The fact that I had ripped off this pace without exerting any energy at all made me give a passing thought to shooting for a sub-2 (running a 13.1 mile half marathon in less than 2 hours), but I dismissed the thought quickly and reminded myself that I had just ran a full marathon only three weeks earlier and that pushing hard could lead to a serious injury.

Miles 2 and 3 went by pretty quickly. Along the way, I saw my friend Stephanie, who is one of my fellow Official Bloggers for the 2014 Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon. I did my best to run tangents on winding Riverview Road. The sun came out in force around this time, and I took off my hat and gloves before I started to feel overheated.

When I checked my watch after Mile 3, I saw that my mile split was 8:47 and I still wasn’t feeling any fatigue at all.

I thought to myself, “Should I try for a sub-2 today?” Shortly thereafter, I thought, “Nah. You can’t keep this pace up for 10.1 more miles.” As I kept on running, this discussion kept going on in my head, and I figured that the best strategy was to keep going as hard as I could without feeling too fatigued and to see what happened later on. I told myself that if I would let up if I started to feel fatigued and rationalized that the benefit of going out so hard early on was that I wouldn’t feel a ton of pressure towards the end of the race.

Eventually, we reached the entrance to the Towpath around Mile 4. As I ran past the Boston Store, I thought about how I hid from the rain last year during the 2012 Towpath Marathon underneath the porch as we waited for our friend and my stepmom and how I decided then and there that the Towpath Marathon would be my first-ever full marathon.

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Langston Hughes once asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The poem doesn’t really give an answer, but I’m confident that the dream that was hatched on this porch in 2012 will be realized to the fullest in 2014!

I know this sounds cheesy, but once I stepped off Boston Mills Road and strode confidently onto the good old familiar crushed limestone of the Towpath and headed towards our turnaround at Station Road, I felt a sense of peace and joy. All of the hard training that I had done over the past few months on the Towpath had prepared for this race, and once I stepped onto the path on which I ran some of the most memorable training runs of my life, I felt my soul telling me that today was going to be special.

The run to the Station Road turnaround went pretty well, and I was glad that my attitude and spirits were staying high. I generally tend to start feeling the “blahs” around Mile 4-5 of a race, but not today. I hadn’t been on this part of the Towpath in a few weeks, and the scenery looked stunning. I was enjoying my music and feeling very happy about how everything was going due to the fact that I was still running at around a 9:00 min\mi pace.

As I approached Station Road Bridge, I looked at my watch and noticed that running a sub-2 half marathon was a distinct possibility. I thought to myself, “You’re almost halfway done with this and you’re not feeling too tired. Why not go for the sub-2?” I thought to myself that there was no way that I was going to be able to keep up this pace, but then I reminded myself that I had done the run from Station Road to the Boston Store multiple times and that it goes by pretty quickly. Although I had stood at the Station Road Bridge last year, I wasn’t sure about the exact location of the turnaround itself. Because of this, I wasn’t able to run too confidently in this area and I posted a 9:12 mile split.

Perhaps the pressure of the moment began to get to me, because I felt the race begin to take a turn for the worse after the turnaround. I started to really feel the effects of my hard running once I left the Station Road Bridge area. We were once again running towards the sun, and I began to feel slightly overheated. I briefly considered seeing if the water stop volunteers at the Red Lock water stop at Vaughn Road would be willing to watch my jacket. However, I didn’t want to risk losing it and I was also afraid that explaining what I wanted would take too much time, so I powered on through.

Making matters worse was the fact that I couldn’t decide if I should stop to use the bathroom. Although I wasn’t trying to hit a specific pacing goal at the Northern Ohio Marathon, I realized that consuming two cups at each of the water stops and drinking from my Nathan belt on a regular basis and not sweating much because of the cool temperatures made me need to use the bathroom far too often. (In my defense, I had read some horror stories about runners whose kidneys shut down during and after a marathon, and I didn’t want that to happen to me!) Because of that, I limited my water intake throughout the run this time around. Nevertheless, I felt like I needed to use the facilities for several miles. Part of me thought that a stop would give me some rest time and allow me to run more quickly afterwards, and the other part of me thought that I didn’t really need to go and that the time lost wouldn’t result in a greater speed payoff later. Eventually, the urge went away and I kept going. I realize that this is probably extreme TMI for my non-runner friends, but I’m also sure that every runner who reads this can relate to this, so there you go!

Around this time, I noticed that I posted a 9:14 mile split. A week or so ago, I was messing around with the Pace Calculator on the Runner’s World website and I saw that I would need to run a 9:10 average pace to post a sub-2. Two mile splits that were greater than that time were disconcerting. I am horrible with doing pacing math while running, and I began to worry that sub-2 was no longer a possibility. To my chagrin, I put my right foot in a big muddy puddle around this time as well. I have grown accustomed to running in the rain (and even enjoying it a bit!), but I can’t say that I’m a fan of running with completely soaked feet.

When I reached Mile 11.5 or so, I started to feel really exhausted. Over the past few miles, I had actually been passing several people, and I began to wonder if I had started to peak too soon. I knew that I had posted some mile splits that were much greater than 9:00 and I still couldn’t figure out if sub-2 was a real possibility. The fact that sub-2 was such a distant goal meant that I had only a vague sense of what my average mile\minute pace would need to be, which was annoying. I knew that if I left everything out on the course, went for it, and didn’t get it, I would be disappointed because I had come so close and I wasn’t sure what I could have done differently. I also knew that if I let up a little and wound up missing sub-2 by a small amount of time that I would be crushed because it would be awhile until I had that much motivation, good feeling, and inspiration during a race again. I figured that going for it and missing it would be much more heroic than simply abandoning the goal because I thought it was unreachable, so I summoned up whatever energy I had left and began to run a bit harder, posting a 9:03 mi\min time.

At the end of  Mile 11, I told myself, “You are going to run harder than you have ever run before for these next 9 minutes and it is going to be worth it because you’re going to post a sub-2 half marathon!”

Even though I was doing my best to run hard, I still felt myself dragging a bit and I was convinced that I was going to lose my chance at a sub-2 with a slow 12th mile. The song on my iPod at this point was DJ Hyper’s “We Control”, which is the song that played as I ran the final mile at the Towpath 10-10, and I reminded myself of how I overcame feeling wet and exhausted through the majority of that race to post a much better-than-expected time.

When I got to what I thought was Mile 12.5, I switched over to the two songs with which I close big races: “Minas Tirith” and “The White Tree” from soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The powerful swells of the music gave me a shot of adrenaline and I began to run so hard that I started to worry that I would run out of energy before I got the finish line.

As I ran and thought about the corresponding scenes in the movie, I began to think about Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I thought about the bravery of those four hobbits and how they went places and did brave things that they never, ever thought they could do and that nobody around them expected that they could do either.

I also thought about the beautiful ending sequence in The Return of the King when the four hobbits bow before King Aragorn and he says, “My friends. You bow to no one.”

I thought about my amazing running community and how it is not uncommon for folks who post amazing marathon times and all sorts of other excellent times to unabashedly encourage those of us who are thrilled to merely reach the finish line of our first marathon on our feet and not in a rescue cart. Acceptance and self-esteem issues have been struggles of mine for years, and I love the fact that I haven’t yet encountered anyone in the running community who has made me or anyone else feel bad about their performance and that everyone I’ve met has been incredibly encouraging and supportive.

I knew that the end was near when I saw the cemetery on my right and the crowd assembled in the distance. The finish line was around the corner behind the Boston Store, and while I wasn’t sure exactly where it was, I figured that it would be best to run as hard as I could and figure it out later! I barreled on through past all of the spectators, past the porch of the Boston Store where I stood in 2012 and told myself that the Towpath Marathon would be my first marathon, and right around the curve to the finish line!

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When I crossed the finish line, I noticed that the clock said 2:01. However, I knew that I had started well after the starting bell. Shortly thereafter, I also remembered to turn off my GPS watch. When I did so, I noticed that the time was still less than two hours. I felt hopeful that I had pulled off the sub-2, but I didn’t want to celebrate until I saw my official chip time.

By this time, I started to feel a decent amount of pain, so I hobbled around the finishing area for a bit of time, drinking mixtures of Gatorade and water and texting Sheila to let her know that I had possibly run a sub-2 half marathon.

Eventually, I felt good enough to walk around a bit. I eventually saw Stephanie and some of her friends, and it was good to say hello and catch up for a bit. This was Stephanie’s fourth half marathon in a month!

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By this time, I was starting to feel pretty cold, and I also wanted to catch whatever I could of church, so I headed out.

When I got home from church, I was dying to know if I had run a sub-2. I said a quick prayer, looked online, sleuthed around, and found the results…and they said that I posted a 1:59:10 and a 9:06 average pace!

I couldn’t believe it. As I told many people, I had planned on shooting for a sub-2 half marathon at the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon in May 2014 and I was concerned that shooting for that time even after a few months of focused training would be a stretch. Perhaps marathon training and the marathon itself made my body stronger than I had realized? In any case, I was floored and overjoyed.

As I look back on how everything went down during October and November, I’m so grateful for how everything turned out. The government shutdown ruined a dream and a goal for which I had been striving for almost a year. As I watched my friend and stepmom run the 2012 Towpath Marathon in the rain last October, I told myself that this would be my first marathon and I had focused on this goal every time I headed out for a training run from that point forward. Having that dream taken away from me by something totally unexpected that was completely out of my control was more painful than I let on to most people, and I don’t think that I realized how much that it affected me until I ran on the Towpath for the first time after the shutdown.

I can’t deny that there were times when I was frustrated and bummed and I just wanted to throw the towel in on running a marathon in 2013, and I’m so grateful to God that He helped carry me through these past few months and allowed me to write a truly happy ending to the entire government shutdown saga. Running my first marathon at the Northern Ohio Marathon on a course on which I had never previously run was very difficult, but I made it through without an injury and with a smile on my face, and I think that the difficulty and circumstances make my achievement even more meaningful. Because the shutdown forced a rescheduled date for the Towpath Marathon, I was able to run another Towpath run as well…and I was able to complete a time goal that I thought was unattainable within the next few months!

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I’m not sure what my next race-related goal will be, but I am sure that the 2014 Towpath Marathon is already on my 2014 race calendar as my fall marathon. I can’t wait!