Last Sunday I ran my fifth half-marathon, but it was an experience of firsts:
- First time running through a national park
- First time on a course free of spectators
- First time running a race with 95% humidity
- First time running a race with over 800 feet of elevation gains
Needless to say, the firsts made it difficult. I’d say it was my most difficult race yet — even compared to a 10k I stupidly ran with an IT band injury.
While I enjoyed the beauty of Prince William National Park in Virginia, the shade from the trees was not enough to escape the warmth of the last day in July. The humidity hung thickly in the air, and fat drops of moisture fell from the trees’ leaves every few minutes. Each time one of the drops hit my body, it found friends in the beads of sweat covering every bit of my skin; I was sopping wet by the time I crossed the finish line. Luckily, I came prepared with baby wipes, facial wipes, deodorant, and a complete change of clothes.
If you’re not used to running in the humidity, let me tell you why it’s so difficult: sweat cannot evaporate at its normal rate when it’s humid, so it sits on your skin instead, raising your body’s temperature. Humid conditions can be quite dangerous for runners. Even a runner like me, who’s experienced with the conditions, has to be careful to properly balance fluid intakes. Too much water can dilute the body’s electrolytes to unsafe levels. An hour before the race, I had about 22 ounces of a sports drink. During the race, I drank less than usual; I’m sure the intake of fluids before the race was why. Plus, I didn’t want to dilute my electrolyte balance. I had to chug a salt packet during the race. I’ve been doing this on long runs lately because I’m a salt sweater. Once I hit ten miles in humid conditions, my legs often cramp up. Salt eliminates that problem and has left me feeling less like a potato chip at the end of a run!
The loop circling the park for cars to use comprised most of the half-marathon course. Since the course was not a trail full of trees, I had no problem seeing the never-ending hills stretching out before me. I will say that I did a great job conquering them. Training in hilly Ellicott City, Maryland, prepared me for such a feat. However, once I hit about mile 11 — there were no mile marker signs at all, so that’s an educated guess — my legs decided they’d had it. My brain wanted to keep going, but my legs won twice; I walked for maybe two minutes total during the race.
The next day, my upper body was more sore than my lower body — by a lot. At my sports massage, the therapist spent most of the time on my back and shoulders. When running uphill, a runner’s form changes. Good form is to lean back — though to lean forward is the natural tendency — and to drive the hips and quadriceps up, using them as the power source. In a hot, hard race, though, good form only lasts so long. I think right before my legs had to slow to a walk, I was slouching. I did try, however, to actively think about my form as I ascended every hill.
Three of the five half-marathons I’ve completed have been in large cities: Baltimore and D.C. Those races were buzzing with the energy of spectators, and it fueled me through the hardest moments. The witty race signs people waved and the high-fives from random strangers charged me up when I was at my worst. But there was NOTHING during this race besides a few pathetic water stations with one person there to hand out and refill the cups. It was the most shocking and difficult part of the race. To me, half the fun of racing is the energy from the crowds.
I was charged with a desire to do my best, sure, but it was hard to not feel as though I were just on a routine long run. I held my place leading the middle pack of runners for the entire race, so I ran alone for most of the time. I had silenced the voice coach on my running app thinking it would bother other runners — but there were none around — so I never knew what mile I was at either. It was a lonely 13 miles; the cheering came during the last 100 meters from other runners who had already finished.
The unexpected victory
I’m not going to lie: I did not expect a good finish time at all, especially when I slowed to a walk the first time. I kept telling myself that the humidity and hills meant I had to adjust my goal to be: come in under two hours. Somehow, though, I finished at 1:51, which was a minute faster than my times at both Baltimore Half-Marathons. I was nowhere near the PR of 1:43 I ran in March, but it also wasn’t butting up against the two-hour mark.
Even more surprising, I won my age group award. Yes, it was a small race — I’d say 100 or so runners ran the half-marathon. Still, it meant a lot to me because I’m now in one of the largest age groups for races. I took my age group medal with pride.
I’m not the only one who was victorious that day! My fiance ran the 5k, and he also won his age group award — his very first! I think I was more proud of him than I was of myself.
As with most of my other half-marathons, I learned quite a bit about myself. I learned that I’m a stronger runner than I was even in March when I set my PR. That Savannah would’ve beaten herself up for walking, and she may have needed to walk far more. I’ve done far more training with hills and in the heat since then. I’m also more mentally prepared these days to handle unexpected obstacles and to take running as it comes, letting my body dictate its needs when it truly matters. (When it’s hot and hilly, it matters! I didn’t want to risk heat stroke or some other form of overexertion.)
I learned to celebrate the victories of all runners — my fiance and the winner of the half-marathon who was celebrating his 18th birthday! The old Savannah wouldn’t stop comparing her times to those of other runners who finished before her. This time, I knew that I had given it my all and done my absolute best given the new conditions.
I walked away from the race knowing that it was the perfect race to prepare me for the Baltimore Marathon this fall. It was hard in terms of weather, course and course conditions: the trifecta for a grueling race.
And you know what’s really grueling?!
Running 26.2 miles … or so they say.