Week 8 of marathon training for New York City saw me get back to a starting line for the first time in over a month. I had signed up for the Wilson Bridge Half Marathon several months ago, lured by its timing (mid-September, good point for a fitness test), location and scenery (running from Mt. Vernon, VA to the National Harbor in Maryland), and the challenge of racing across a big bridge (bridge crossings after all, are a staple of the NYC Marathon).
Training so far this cycle has not been the easiest, starting in the brutally hot, humid conditions that enveloped the DC area all summer. It was indeed a relief to see the humidity start dropping as the calendar flipped to September. Still I felt a certain amount of fatigue in the legs and things really seemed to come to a head the day before Labor Day, when I had a 21-mile run that turned really ugly with about 5 miles to go. Yet somehow, I bounced back from that day and by mid-week, I punched out a really nice interval workout and based on that I felt like just maybe, I was back to my old self. I then went into a 10-day taper period, and by race day I felt confident and ready.
I slept poorly on Saturday night – no surprise there, really – as I just couldn’t stop thinking about the race. But when I got up at 4:30 am, I shrugged that off, had my usual pre-race breakfast and got quickly down to National Harbor to catch the shuttle ride back to Mt. Vernon and the start.
I had trained at Mt. Vernon in the past, but always on the bike trail. Today would go parallel to that trail, on the GW Parkway. As the horn went off we all headed out from George Washington’s estate onto the parkway. I had never noticed, I guess never paid attention, to the fact that the parkway in this area is not asphalt but rather crushed stone/concrete pad. I thought, it couldn’t be like that all the way…could it? As we rocketed down a steep hill in Mile 1 it was hard to control my speed or the shock of running on that surface. Mile 1 split – 6:18.
In the second mile we started climbing back upwards a bit, and the pack at the front was now beginning to lengthen a bit. Knowing this was a fast field and it was a long race, I told myself not to worry about placement for now, just run and keep the effort consistent. I came through faster than expected, but wondering if I could sustain the pace. Mile 2 split – 6:38.
The next two miles were relatively flat but that concrete pad was still underneath my feet and it was beginning to let me know every step. We hit the first water station at 2.5. I knew I was probably going to slow down again, but that was fine with me; I just wanted to settle into a comfortable pace that would put me in position for a strong move late in the race. Mile 3 split – 6:52.
The next water station came up at the 4-mile mark and perhaps because of that I missed the chance to take my split. As in the earlier miles there were some rolling hills in this two-mile segment. I wasn’t sure after missing the split but I felt like I might be slowing down too much and told myself to work harder. As we hit the 5-mile mark there was a large group of cheering spectators watching from the overpass as we went through it. Miles 4 & 5 – 14:00.
Not happy with dropping to 7:00 mile pace, I stepped it up in Mile 6. The relentless pounding on the concrete road was definitely taking its toll, so rather than exacerbating it by overstriding I worked really hard on quickening my cadence and keeping my form together and it seemed to pay off. Mile 6 split – 6:50.
I was now at the point where it was time to start thinking about “making my move” – but maybe not just yet. In other words it was about staying strong. I took in a gel to get myself ready for that moment, whenever it would come. Still my legs were feeling every step; this course was brutal and we hadn’t even gotten to the bridge yet, though I could now see it ahead. Mile 7 split – 6:58.
We now entered more or less into Alexandria and at long last, the concrete pad gave way to asphalt pavement. It would be short-lived relief, but relief nonetheless. Unfortunately for me, it seemed the damage was done, though. I was still on a sub-90 minute pace, but had slipped off of my PR pace. I was fighting it tooth and nail, but slowly and surely, the wheels were coming off. Mile 8 split – 7:03
The mighty Wilson Bridge was shortly upon us, and we transitioned from the roadway to a pedestrian path that led to the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. As we turned the corner and headed up the bridge ramp, we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. On more concrete. Each pounding step just seemed to rip that goal time a little more out of my hands. My whole lower body at this point was hurting. I thought, how on earth could this be happening in a half marathon? I felt like I was in about Mile 21 of a marathon at this point! Still I pushed on despite some other runners who had started to walk. As we hit the Mile 9 mark, the climbing continued, unabated. Mile 9 – 7:23.
Mile 10 started level off a little bit and the remainder of the bridge crossing was reasonably flat. That is, until we came to the pedestrian footbridge that crossed over to the other side and would lead us down into National Harbor. So up we went again, passing the 10-mile mark and the timing mat on the overpass. I hit the 10-mile mark in 69:24. Quick calculations in my head told me that it would take a sub-20 5k to PR; that wasn’t going to happen today, not at the pace I was now running. Mile 10 – 7:22.
Coming off the pedestrian bridge we were now in Oxon Hill, MD having made the journey from Virginia. We got a blacktop slightly downhill stretch but another big hill loomed ahead. On top of that I could feel my left calf starting to cramp. As I passed the aid station I took in as much water as I could to try and stave it off. But I knew it would be battle with my body the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Michael Wardian came jogging by in the other direction, doing his cooldown. Mile 11 – 7:11.
We finally reached that hill and as I did the calf seemed ready to blow up on me. I once again tried to work on my form, figuring the better the form, the less likely disaster would ensue. I guess it worked, because I got up the hill, albeit slower than I would have liked. Then again at this stage I knew all the goals for the day were gone and it was all about just finishing. The course now took us onto a gravel & sand path right along the waterfront. The softer ground was a nice change but the gravel was not exactly hard-packed, and traction was definitely a challenge for legs that had already taken a beating for nearly 80 minutes. By now I was tired, physically but also tired of being beaten mentally by this race. As we slogged through the gravel and passed the 12-mile mark, I was mad, and resolved that this course was not going to have the last word. It was time to dig deep and fight back, cramping calf be damned. Mile 12 – 7:31.
The gravel path wound along and I struggled to find a faster pace. At 12.5 we hit the final water stop and I thought about taking some and then told myself, no, just run! Get to work! I pushed my aching legs as hard as they would go and finally after being passed by many over the previous three miles, now I was doing the passing again. The gravel path gave way to pavement and as we entered the National Harbor complex the crowds grew larger as spectators, bar patrons and confused tourists all got caught up in the excitement. I used that energy and pushed again for the final quarter. I was at least going to finish strong, nothing was going to stop me from that. I whipped around the final bend and there was the finish. Done! Final 1.1 miles in 7:58.
As I crossed the line I was greeted by a familiar volunteer, Lisa from the Pacers Fairfax store. We know each other well and she’s helped get me into a lot of good shoes over the years. After we shared a laugh and a sweaty hug, I quickly moved on, slammed down the water she had given me, and hoped my legs wouldn’t rebel too much.
According to my watch the time was 1:32:06 (later adjusted officially to 1:32:09). That’s nowhere near the time goal I had in mind (sub-90) but I did salvage one minor goal, to finish in the top 100 overall, not bad in a field of over 3200. I ended up 6th in the 45-49 age group, which interestingly is the same spot I finished in at National Half Marathon earlier this year when I PRed. So in some respects, relatively speaking it was a par-for-the-course performance, even if it didn’t feel that way initially.
This was one tough race. And in the aftermath, I have the DOMS to prove it. This is first half marathon I’ve ever run that made me “marathon sore” and moreso at that than several of my marathons. Without a doubt I’m looking at a recovery week now before resuming training. Would I do this race again? Not sure. But if it toughens me up for New York, it will have been worth it.