Whidbey Island Half Marathon: Race report

On Saturday, I ran the Whidbey Island Half Marathon, just outside of Seattle. It was an absolutely beautiful race. The weather could not have been more perfect, the scenery was pure ocean and Puget Sound and mountain ranges and forests, and even the water tasted good. Plus, I PRed, with a time of 2:01:19! Which, to be honest, was completely unexpected. But I suppose these things can happen when you least expect them.

This race had a lot of cool firsts for me:
- The farthest I’ve ever traveled for a race (850 miles)
- First time I didn’t listen to music at all
- First time I ran with a buddy (Lauren) for the whole race

And look at all these other personal records Strava found!

That’s not actually my 10K PR, just to set the record straight. It’s just the fastest 10K that Strava knows about.

But in reality, the race was so much more than that. And the end was not pretty at all.

Training

Let’s back up a bit. The 12-week training plan for this race started in late January, but at that time I wasn’t even running. I had ankle problems, which I believed to be a peroneal nerve issue, and that caused me to skip the Hot Chocolate 15K in San Francisco. I had to take some time off from training, and it was a bummer to miss that race, but I was determined to be smart about my training. No need to push through the pain early on. It’s a half marathon, not a sprint ;)

I roughly followed this Hal Higdon training plan, starting at week 3, once my ankle felt better. Along with the help of my fantastic trainer, Angela Tieri (check her out if you’re in the Bay Area — she is wonderful, and such an inspiring runner), I followed the advice of “don’t start running again until you can’t even remember you had an injury.” Once that was the case, we got to work on the stability issues around my left knee. Angela also helped me power through some intense workouts (can you say long-jump burpees?) that made me feel like a warrior. This training regimen felt smart, even without a ton of mileage volume. I could feel myself getting stronger every week.

Doing some ball work at the end of a session. Circus-y!

However, the training was not to be so blessed. I was beset with many other setbacks. Ankle problems and residual knee issues contributed to reoccurring hip flexor strain mid-way through. Then I strained a lat in one of my solo weight-lifting sessions, and it came back to haunt me as lower back pain. On top of all that was some emotional strain — I went through a crushing breakup about a month before the race. As a result, what was supposed to be a 9-mile run became a 6-mile run, and a couple of 20 mile weeks turned into ice cream and phone calls with my mom. Not to mention the lack of speed or hill workouts. I thought I would just run Whidbey for fun, with no goal time. A PR seemed out of the question.

As the race week approached, my left ankle started acting up again, in the weirdest way. It would hurt if I sat for too long, but felt better after shaking it out walking or jogging. I took this as a sign to push through the rest of the training plan. My last long run was done in the rain, while hungover, but I was proud that I completed it. Tapering, the savasana of running, was a welcome physical respite. Now, it was time for the mental prep.

Race day prep

The plan was to travel and stay with a few of my close friends, Lauren, Doug, and Maria, on Whidbey Island, and run the race on our own. I flew into Seattle on Friday afternoon and met Lauren for dinner at her house. We ate, drove up to Whidbey, and spent some time helping each other pick out outfits for tomorrow.

Lauren on the left, me on the right. You’re never fully dressed without a smile, and a shiny tat.

Doug and Maria arrived shortly after, and then we all discussed coffee and morning plans. We put on some shiny temporary tattoos for good luck. The alarm clocks were set for 4 am. Gulp.

One of my favorite things about racing is the zone that you get into when it’s time. The days surrounding the race are like a different world. It’s similar to my dance recitals as a kid, or my ultimate frisbee tournaments in college. It’s a world where nothing else exists; a state of pure focus. This feeling was amplified by the night-time guided meditation that Lauren played from her phone as we laid in bed at 10 pm. It’s becoming a tradition for us. We did a meditation session before running the San Francisco Marathon (1st Half) last summer, I loved it then, and I love it now. I highly recommend “Race Day Mantra” for all you other runners out there. If nothing else, it will help you fall asleep.

Race Day!

Pre-dawn gear wrangling. Hi, Doug!

At 4 am, I woke up feeling great, like I actually got enough sleep (what?). We had plenty of time to foam roll and eat breakfast. All were in good spirits, and no one was annoyed by my early-morning chatter, which seems to come with my being something of a morning person, and also being around friends. Thanks for tolerating me, guys :)

North to south, through beautiful Pacific Northwest island terrain.

A note on the race logistics this year: Normally the Whidbey Half Marathon is a loop, but this year it was a point-to-point race. That meant that we had to drive from our Airbnb, which was near the start line, thirty minutes south, to the finish line. Then we had to park, catch a shuttle thirty minutes back to the start line, making sure we would have enough time to do all of the pre-race stuff like go to the bathroom and check our gear. We didn’t have time to pick up our bibs at the expo the night before, so we had to do that at the start line, too, and I was nervous this would be a hassle and take a lot of time.

Thankfully, there was no line and we had all our gear in a couple of minutes (it’s a somewhat small race). After that, we had an hour to kill, so we stood by heat lamps and did some warm-up jogs along the water.

Heat lamps — so hot right now.

As I said earlier, the weather was *perfect* — cool temperature, low humidity, and the sun had just come up. After the start gun, we were off, and the first half mile was actually uphill. It was peaceful and relaxing, and I chose not to put my headphones in to enjoy the atmosphere. Lauren and I were in the first wave, near the back; Doug and Maria were behind the ropes in wave 2.

Peaceful and perfect. The kind of morning where, even if you weren’t running a race, you’d still want to get up early and stretch your legs.

Lauren and I have run together before, but we don’t live in the same city, so we can’t actually train together. We had talked a lot about our mutual training for this race, and I knew she had a lot of speed workouts under her belt. I was sure she’d leave me in the dust, given that my last 12 mile run had an average pace of, like, 10:29 or something. However, the scenery, the excitement, plus the distraction of having someone to talk to made the initial 9:00-ish pace feel right. And, no music — maybe this is better for me? Maybe music slows me down? “The pace feels so good,” I started to think, “Maybe I’ll have to experiment with this no-music thing in regular runs.”

The first couple of miles were rolling hills, and as the sun came up, it warmed our fingers. Around mile 4 the 2:00 pace group caught up with us, which seemed too fast for them — we were certainly running faster than that at the time. They ran with us for a bit, but we let them go on to avoid some of the noise and chatter. Doug and Maria, who had started in the wave after us, caught us during the fourth mile with a, “Wow, was that mile 20 already? I feel great!” shout from behind. Oh, Doug. Running along, we passed an elephant statue, and I let loose on a few downhills, still feeling wonderful. Lauren’s watch said we were still running just a bit under 9:20s, which meant we were on track (according to runningforfitness.org’s pace calculator) to maybe beat my current PR of 2:02:53, and *maybe* even break two hours. I tried not to think about it, and just enjoy myself.

After mile marker 6, we hit the big hill — the one that my shuttle buddy had told me about, and the one that looked the scariest on the race elevation profile I had studied the week before.

Damn that hill.

Lauren and I had talked about this before, and we knew we would push each other to be strong. No need to talk, we agreed. Just make it up the hill. Slow and steady. A mile and a half of straight climbing. You run to it, and then you’re in it.

The first part of the hill went well, with our feet keeping a steady rhythm to which I found myself zoning out. There was a woman behind us had loud music which took me out of my focus. She was playing “This is my fight song,” and I thought her headphones were just super loud. Later, I learned that it was just a speaker on her arm. PSA: This is Not Cool. Don’t do that in a race, please.

After the initial big climb, we turned a corner, and saw … the rest of the hill. Which included a false peak about half a mile later. Woo. It was killing our pace, but we had to keep going. The last bit, the steepest bit, was the hardest — the difference in speed between walking and jogging was basically nothing. We made it to the top, and our average pace was something like 10:30 for that mile.

It’s totally negative splits if you squint a bit.

We were still on track for a PR for me, though, which was surprising, given my training. We made a plan for the rest of the race: stay around a 9:00 pace, and then at mile 10, start accelerating. Lauren is great at negative splits, and she told me this metaphor about picturing the end of your race as a tube of toothpaste, and you try to squeeze out all of your energy without using it up too fast or having too much left in the tube at the end. I thought of this as we trotted on, past the cheering spectators and egg farms and prancing island horses.

Then, around 11.5 miles, my knees started to hurt. Both of them. In the joints, not the muscles, which sucked, because I’m good at mentally pushing through muscle fatigue or mental fatigue or hard breathing, but not joints. Joints get me. After a half mile, I decided to take my patellar band off, and it felt a little better. Then I remembered something I heard once about marathon runners, long before I started running: how their legs would just go numb and that’s how they finished without getting tired. This resonated with me. “My legs are just numb,” I thought. “That’s what’s happening. I’m not tired, and I’m breathing easy, so I’ll just keep moving my legs and not think about them.”

This worked! There was a hill in the 12th mile, and I found myself pulling away from Lauren, and then passing other runners and walkers on the incline. My dad is an intense Nordic skier, and he taught my sister and I to sprint the uphills on our skis. Passing people on hills feels right. I like it, and it mentally invigorated me; I momentarily forgot about my knee pain. I even started singing, “This is my fight song,” to myself, in my head. I made it to the top of that last hill feeling stronger than ever.

But, I felt bad about leaving Lauren. We had both told each other that it was totally okay to go ahead if we needed, and I was excited about the prospect of PRing, or breaking two hours. But still. It was kind of a jerk move to leave her on a hill. I made a deal with myself that if I turned around and I could see that she was close, I would wait for her. I was worried that it might ruin my pace and cause me to not get a cool time, but it felt like the right thing to do.

In the end, it’s so lucky that I did — maybe I subconsciously knew that I would need her for the last mile. I turned around and she was barely seconds behind me.

And then, at at the mile 13 marker, it all started going to hell.

We were accelerating. Mile 13 started for us at 1:52 (Lauren’s PR), and all of a sudden, my left leg was dead. I couldn’t feel the muscles — like, really couldn’t feel them — and my joints, from hip to knee to ankle, were in pain. It was like when you sleep on your arm and wake up in the middle of the night before the pins and needles start, so you have to just swing it around to give it space. I had to swing my left leg forward on every step just to keep moving. I was relying completely on my right leg’s muscles to keep me moving.

I tried to stop and shake the muscles, stretch it out, but nothing was helping. I cried out in frustration. I was so close, and I had no idea what was wrong with me, what was going on. I was worried I would have to limp across the finish line. The thing that actually kept me going was my buddy. Lauren was there, pulling me forward with her voice.

“Come on. Let’s go. We’re so close, you can do it. Every step gets you closer. Come on.”

I stopped several more times. I screamed in anger, and in pain. I had a mild panic attack when I thought about tripping or limping or having something really bad be wrong with my leg, and that caused me to start wheezing in a way that felt like asthma (I don’t have asthma). I was so freaking frustrated. What was going on? The fucking last mile. The downhill mile. We should have been cruising, but my body was failing me.

“Come on, Alex, come on! Keep going! We’re almost there, look, that’s mile 26, only 0.2 miles left. Look, you can see the finish line, you’re almost there! You’re going to do it! You could walk now and still PR! You’re so close, you’ve got this!”

And though I was screaming and groaning out loud, inside I was thinking, “oh my god, Lauren, thank you.” I gasped, and I pushed and swung my leg around, and then we crossed the finish line, together.

That last fucking mile.

We hugged. I started crying. Then I started wheezing again, so I made myself exhale to calm down, successfully fending off a panic attack. Doug and Maria were there and someone put a medal around my neck and I wasn’t tired but I was so, so, done. It was the hardest experience I’ve ever had in a race.

I went to the medical tent and drank some electrolytes and they massaged my IT band and put me in some ice and compression and the rest of the day the limp slowly got better. “I’m taking some time off after this,” I decided, and the rest of the weekend passed in a lovely haze of beaches and sunsets and beer and bird songs on the porch.

Olympics in the distance, islands all around.

I am so, so grateful to everyone who got me through this race. Angela for her training and support, my San Francisco running buddies (keep pusheen on!), Doug and Maria for being so game and willing to join us, and especially Lauren, for literally saving me when I needed it the most.

more?!

This was my first race report ever, which makes it the last first for Whidbey. I’ve always enjoyed reading other’s reports, and if you’re looking for more cool runners to read, here are some recommendations:

Keep going, everyone. You got this.

GO TEAM!
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