As I crossed the finish line on the historic C&O canal, a huge smile cracked across my face. My boyfriend and his dog were standing just beyond the finish line, cheering me on as I blew past my previous personal record by 3 minutes or so. After my marathon in October, I have taken a much more relaxed training stance, running at whatever pace feels comfortably challenging, but not pushing myself hard, not trying to stick to a specific pace; running to run. This method has paid off.
The course was flat, easy, and one I am all too familiar with. The C&O canal, a former transportation route in the 1800’s for goods and services from DC to Western Maryland is incredibly flat; the only hills are up and over the locks that control the flow of water in the canal. Having spent many summers riding my bike from Pittsburg to DC, most of which was along the 186 mile stretch of the canal, I have a fond appreciation and strong tie to this pebble path.
As the race started, we headed south on the canal from just below Great Falls, aiming for just north of Georgetown in DC. I always go out strong and fast in races, sometimes too fast. As I’ve become more accustomed to running longer distance races, I can tamper my initial speed out of the gate, knowing when I’m just caught up in the competition and when I need to pull back to save my legs later in the race. This is especially important to me right now, as I have had some strange pains in my ankles during races that shoot up my inner leg to my knee. Pacing early helps tamper this pain and relieve me of the threat a DNF poses to my psyche.
At the turnaround point in the race, I was pacing at a 7:57! This is the fastest I have ever gone out in a half, and I was boosted by this speed. Being a race that was primarily serious runners, it was nice to have some good competition that pushed me to push myself. It also helped that my fellow racers were keenly aware of what pacing during a race means, and how to pick a pace that suites them, and stick to it. Too often I will run a race that brings in both serious and recreational runners and get caught up in a mix of runners who maintain their pace as well as runners who burst and relax. This burst and relax method (one that in my experience comes from runners who do not specifically train for endurance sport) throws me off, so it was nice to have steady pacers with me the whole way that gave me that sense of peace.
Just when I was feeling strong, tragedy hit. Around mile 7 I started feeling the pain creep up my leg earlier in the race, but pushed it to the back of my mind. Now, the pain was searing my right ankle and shooting up to my knee. Internal strife ensued: do I keep going or do I stop and take care of myself. I pulled my pace back, adjusted my stride, and shorted my cadence. Taking care to tread tenderly on my right foot, I slowly felt the pain subside. Testing my ankle with a series of longer, powerful strides and felt little pain, so I cranked up my pace a bit, and settled in for the end of the race. I knew I was on pace to meet or exceed my personal best, and just had to hang on.
At 1:47:15, I crushed my old record and pushed myself in to a whole new level of competition. Setting my sights on new and faster goals for 2016, I look forward to taking the lessons I have learned in 2015 and bringing it with me to race smarter, faster, and stronger in the new year!