Before this first-ever half marathon, I had run the distance (or slightly more) a few times. But I had never felt that I had conquered those last 4 miles. They always seemed to take a lot of mental effort to complete, mostly because my legs would be giving out. Over half of these longer training runs were run totally barefoot. A few were run in my Moc3′s, since that was what I would wear on much of the course. So, it was with some reservations that I began the actual race.
Everyone from my race-experienced husband to the new friends in the starting mob told me the course for this Famous Potato Half Marathon was first-time-half-marathon user friendly. I wanted to believe my husband, but too many times he hasn’t remembered “how big this hill is.” Since we DID have to drive UP to the dam, I figured there was a chance he was right this time. I tried to relax into the event, which included not worrying about getting lost.
The first couple of miles were a gentle downhill, during which the racers in my ranks shuffled and shifted as people settled into their paces. This is definitely a middle rank problem that my husband doesn’t have to deal with, since he is usually contending for a top place, so he hadn’t coached me on this. It is similar to walking through the subway system in Taipei. I am never sure just how polite to be and still get to where I need to be, because if I keep giving way, people keep taking it.
A few people had running partners and I found myself wishing I had someone to run and visit with. I felt isolated in the swell of bodies. There was no one to mention it to, so I told it to God in a casual way. I was running comfortably in the cool early morning air, intent on watching for all directions. When I had been reading about last year’s race, there was mention of quite a few people going the wrong way. This year there were definitely enough orange cones, white arrows, and volunteers to guide even me. Being directionally challenged, and watching the people around me to avoid collisions, I had very little idea of where I was during the whole race. I was just in my own little bubble, into which others randomly converged.
Around half a mile later, I was gradually overtaking a man. Right as I was passing him, he said, “Ah, a barefoot runner!” I responded, “Well, I’m wearing my running moccasins now.” He replied to the effect of, “I could tell by your form.” He then picked up his pace to run alongside me and we chatted for the next 7 miles.
Early in our encounter, he mentioned his wearing Vibram Five Fingers (VFF), which he also trains in. Our conversation made the miles go by much more quickly. We talked about everything from pure barefoot running to weight loss, injuries, and families. He talked about how much his brother, a semi-barefoot ultra runner, encourages him. I told him I wouldn’t be running a half marathon without my husband’s coaching.
Then, my new running buddy got to meet my husband, Greg. Greg showed up in my bubble periodically to take pictures and wave. This time he came over to run a couple of hundred feet with me. Greg was wearing jeans and a thick long sleeve shirt, plus trying not to jiggle is 4 week post-op shoulder. But he felt good enough to say things like, “What’s taking you so long? I have other things to do today!” Several of the other runners around me were highly diverted by this, which started a group conversation that centered on eating as much ice cream as we wanted that day. Then, Greg disappeared.
My VFF running partner asked me once in a while how I was doing and what pace we were keeping. (I was wearing my Garmin) After hearing the pace information, he said he was running about 1.5 minutes per mile faster by running with me. I was comfortably handling approximately an 8:40 minute mile (mm) pace, but I warned him that I didn’t know if I’d be able to maintain it. My long distance training paces had been more frequently closer to 9:30 mm. He wondered if I ever had trouble with my toes going numb (No, not while running), and told me about back injuries he sustained as a young boy.
Around mile 9, my legs were getting fatigued and my new friend pulled ahead of me. I recognized the dreaded plodding syndrome trying to take hold and there was tightness developing behind my right knee. I knew that picking up the pace could help combat this, so despite being quite tired, I accelerated some. It made a difference and I was encouraged.
All along, I had been thinking of WHEN I could take off my running moccasins. However, 6 weeks prior, when Greg and I had tested what he thought was the course from when he ran it, there had been some very rough sections of gravel along the river. So, I was waiting for this and continued to wear my Moc3′s. I was also considering whether or not I would be putting my feet at risk because I was getting tired enough that I might not be as good at concentrating on my footing.
It turns out, I could have taken the running moccasins off much sooner. The gravel never came. I finally decided to remove them around mile 11. Just the brief stop gave my calf muscles a chance to tighten up, but after a little running it all felt so good to be totally barefoot. I started floating and passing people with ease. But the breezy finish was not to be. The lovely 1/2 mile ended abruptly when my right calf muscle cramped so dramatically that it stopped me dead in my tracks, almost tripping the runner behind me. For a few moments, all I could do was stay bent and apply pressure to the cramp. It seemed like a long time, but my Garmin says that between stopping to remove my footwear and the cramp, I only had 30 seconds of non-running.
While I was frozen there, I did a quick assessment of my situation. I neither wanted to quit or walk the last 2 miles. I gave the calf muscle a few more massaging motions, then tentatively began to run slowly again. I gradually got back to something that felt like running, every step filled with suspense. I was still enjoying being barefoot, and I think it helped me fine tune my form to avoid more cramping. I was concentrating intensely, so I probably didn’t look friendly to the crowds that lined the last mile.
On the final stretch, I heard several of the usual amazed barefoot comments. I felt a little guilty, knowing I had only run really barefoot for those last 2 miles. The twisted moccasins in my hand probably didn’t look like shoes to anyone. I was trying too hard to interact with anyone, though. I didn’t think I was running all that fast, but, again, my Garmin says the last .1 miles was at an 8 mm pace, which is clipping along for me after running that distance.
I crossed the finish line at 1 hour 55 minutes 46 seconds, with an average pace of 8:51 mm. I was very happy to have completed the course in under 2 hours. This made me 8th in my age group of 50 (top 16%), 144th of 770 women (top 19 %), and 440th out of 1362 half marathon finishers (top 32%). I am satisfied with this for a first half marathon.
As I told Greg about my troubles the last 2 miles, he suggested that I hadn’t consumed enough of my lemonade/electrolyte solution. I had only drunk one small bottle because I hadn’t felt thirsty. He also agrees with me that it may have been partly that my legs are not used to going that fast after so many miles. Then, he lead me over to attempt to eat some of the watermelon available to runners. I had 2 small slices of that, but when I tried to eat a piece of bagel it made me feel rather sick. I couldn’t really eat anything else for a couple of hours, other than the thin strawberry-banana smoothie Greg made me when we got home.
I am actually rather shocked to find myself speaking of “next time” I run a half marathon. At mile 11, I just wanted to be done. But then, being barefoot those last couple of miles made me feel so much fresher, even with the cramping. I know it was a relatively easy race route, but I think going faster for the full 13.1 miles would be fun! I know some people will think there is a diagnosis for this, but judging from the number of people in the race, I’m not alone. Besides, if running is “the disease” and “the cure,” it all works out. Plus, Greg says an over 80 year old man was only behind me by a couple of minutes. If he can do it, I can.