I ran the New Jersey Half Marathon this weekend and it was great.
At least, that’s how I feel about it 10 hours later. I’m all runner’s high-ed now (and exhausted and delirious and insatiably hungry), but the race was actually tough at times. Here’s a wordy rundown…
I signed up for the New Jersey Half a few weeks (months? don’t recall) ago and was planning to run it for fun slash as a training run leading up to the Brooklyn Half in May. The timing worked out well so I could put in an effort and see where I’m at with my training, or I could fun run it with my friends and just call it a long run.
After having the best running week ever last week, I was pretty amped to see what I could do racing in my new home state. But then, naturally, this week was one of the worst running weeks I’ve had. My stomach was a mess — I’m telling myself this is just stress-related stuff that’ll pass and not what it actually feels like, but TBD — and I was lacking motivation. The weather was garbage, I skipped my Track Tuesday workout, and I just couldn’t find ease putting one foot in front of the other. I ditched my watch for the majority of the week so I wouldn’t focus on my pace, and that was nice, but I still struggled a bit and felt crappy. Actually crappy.
I took Friday and Saturday off leading up to the race, hoping that would give my body a little break, and did the usual pre-race things like make a playlist. Muy importante.
Brian, Ellie, and I drove down to the race expo on Saturday and I picked up my bib (and gold safety pins!) at the Monmouth Park Racetrack. (We stayed in a hotel for the night because the race was just far enough from where we live that I justified saving some time on race morning.)
We went to my friend Erin’s house for dinner — burgers and hot dogs and chips and not Outback Steakhouse — and I was asleep by 9:30 PM.
Did the usual: bathroom bathroom bathroom, shower to warm up, little bit of breakfast, bathroom, then got on the road. I was warned about the traffic getting to the start, so we left with tons of time and still sat in loads of traffic. Just FYI if you plan to do this race next year! Give yourself pleeeeenty of time to get to the start.
The Porta-Potty lines were super long, but I found my friend Sarah waiting in them, which passed the time. I used the bathroom but my stomach was still feeling unsettled. Shout-out to Sarah for opening my Imodium for me, though. I couldn’t get the package open, but she saved the day. (Spoiler, though: The Imodium didn’t totally do its job.)
The race is pretty big, and there’s a marathon and half at the same time — the races line up together, start together, and run together for the first 11 miles. I was in Corral 3, and so was my buddy Christine. After some small talk and a National Anthem, it was time to run!
My plan for the race was to cover my watch and run. I just wanted to see what I could do. I wanted to feel like I was racing without putting any pressure on myself to run a certain time. It’s always a goal of mine to go sub-2, but otherwise just getting from the start to the finish would be groovy.
My corral was pretty packed because it had the 1:45 half pace group and the 3:30 marathon pace groups. Lots of people hoping to Boston Qualify! They had really good energy, which was fun to be around, though it also made for a super crowded start.
Once I saw that I was in the corral with the 1:45 pacer, I was like, “You know what, Ali? That’s probably faster than you can run right now, but why not try?” My PR is 1:44:48, and after last week’s confidence boost, I figured I could at least stick with the pacer for as long as possible and run my own race as needed. (The 1:45 pacer was also a familiar face: Keila Merino, whom I don’t know personally, but she’s a bit of a legend on the NYC running scene.)
The weather was great for a half marathon. It was mostly shaded and not too hot, though it was a little too humid for my liking. There was a breeze from the water (wherever the water was for most of the race — gotta brush up on my NJ geography), and I felt really good for the first three or so miles. I was sticking right with Keila and the 1:45 crew, and I was trying to monitor my breathing. I didn’t want to feel like I was working too hard too early on, but I also wanted to remember that I was racing, which requires effort. It was OK to hurt and heave, but not at mile four.
The race course is totally flat (there’s one tiny bridge, but it’s NBD because you go up for a few seconds and then come right back down), and there are lots of turns, which I really liked! Turns keep things exciting and you can’t see where you’re going. Keila was awesome about letting us know when turns were coming and giving us pointers like “eyes up, head up, don’t look down” as we ascended the little bridge.
We ran through lots of neighborhoods, and the spectators were awesome. There was a lot of support along the way. I was pretty focused on staying as close to Keila as possible, because I knew if I started to drift back, I’d be done.
By mile four, though, my stomach started to let me know it was planning on being a presence. COOL, STOMACH, THANKS.
I really didn’t want to make a bathroom stop. I didn’t want to lose time in the bathroom, and I know that it’s so hard to get going after you stop. It would be especially hard trying to hold down a good pace without Keila leading the way, so I didn’t want to lose her.
Each time I passed a Porta-Potty, I asked myself, “Do you really need to use it?” I got a little in my head during this race. I knew I needed a bathroom, but I also haven’t raced a half in a really long time (since last May!), so I kind of forgot what it feels like, even though I’ve run a bunch in my life.
There was a part of me that wanted to slow down. That wanted to say, “Nah, I’m only in it for 5Ks these days” and just enjoy a leisurely jog to the beach. Another part of me knew to keep pushing and moving forward and not quit on myself.
I was able to stay with Keila all the way to mile 8, but then she started to pull away. At this point, I knew it was in my best interest to stop and use a bathroom. As much as I didn’t want to stop, I knew I would feel so much better after, both physically and mentally. I was tired of spending the entire race tuned into how my intestines were feeling, so I figured I could make a 20-second pit stop and get back on my way.
Around mile 9, the race goes down a strange Main Street (probably not called Main Street, but I thought it was a weird road) and there were tons of spectators. Of course I would need to use a Porta-Potty with maximum crowd support.
I finally saw some bathrooms and darted off the course with the hopes of getting the job done as quickly as possible. But as soon as I sat down, my legs started to cramp up, and as soon as things started to happen (sorry), I knew I wouldn’t be out of there in 20 seconds. I never did reveal my watch, but I counted (Mississippi-ly) to 96 while I was in there, so I definitely lost some time. (Part of that time was trying to get the damn toilet paper into a bundle. Sweaty hands + the thinnest TP around = impossible.)
I was afraid I’d get out of the bathroom and wouldn’t be able to keep moving, but I exited at the exact time the 3:35 pace group was running by, so I was like cool, I can try to stick with them! People to pace me! I was hurting and was ready for the race to be over, but at least I had a pack to try and stick with — for one mile, before the marathoners turned right and the halfers went left.
I have never been so happy to make a left turn in my life. How did I used to run — and enjoy — marathons?! That seems so far now.
It was nice never knowing what to expect on this course. Eventually, we made a turn and the beach and ocean came into full view. I think I gasped, it was such a pretty sight. Even though there were mile markers along the way and I knew we were only just past mile 11, I somehow expected to be close to the finish. It felt like a finishing straightaway!
But let me tell ya, as pretty as that oceanfront view was at first, it went on for-e-ver. Miles 11 and 12 felt so hard. I thought I was running 14-minute miles at this point, and I was so desperate to get to the finish. Some of that was in my head — I was telling myself I wanted to be done even before my body echoed that sentiment.
The straightaway just kept going. I enjoyed the cute town (Long Branch?) and was excited to see all the fun stores! I debated stopping in at Lululemon mid-race, but it wasn’t open yet, so I figured I’d keep hustling.
We ran through a roundabout, then kept running straight until finally the finish came into view. I saw my friend Sam cheering, then tried to kick it with what I had left — I love feeling totally and completely gassed at the end of a race — and saw Brian and Ellie, which of course made me so happy.
I saw the finish clock, which read 1:50, and knew I started two minutes late, so I was thrilled to have gone sub-1:50 even with the bathroom stop!
Official finish time: 1:47:32! (Here’s the fun Strava data.) I overran the course a bit (13.2 miles) despite my best efforts to run the tangents, but am super happy with how the day went. I would’ve loved to have not made the bathroom stop, but better to make it to the bathroom than to, well, not.
I was especially thrilled to look at my splits and see that I did OK after my bathroom stop! Other than mile 10 with the stop, my slowest mile was mile 12 at an 8:16 pace. Other than that, I was mostly under or close to 8-minute miles!
This race was a good lesson in mental training for me. It definitely supports my watchless running position — I run so much better when I’m not focused on time goals and paces. I of course knew roughly what pace I was running while I was with Keila and the 1:45 group (though according to my post-race data, we were running a bit quicker than I thought), but not staring at my own watch is so beneficial for me. The only negative thoughts on my brain were “oh god, I need a bathroom” for a while, and “I’m ready to stop running now, please.” But I practiced trying to turn that around and focus on the positives and being grateful to run and taking in the scenery instead of dwelling on what hurt or might eventually start to hurt.
I thought about some of my super badass friends — Ed, Myles, Jason — and never let myself slow down just because it hurt. They would never do that. They fight to the finish and don’t quit on themselves just because things get hard. I tried to embrace that spirit whenever my head went to the dark side.
Other than the starting traffic, the race was well organized, and the volunteers were great. There was so much support and enthusiasm along the way, and I will definitely do this race again in the future. And shoutout to Keila, who was the best. I only wish I could’ve finished with you, Keila!
Congratulations to all of this weekend’s racers! From the Red Hook Crit to the Shape Half Marathon to Big Sur and New Jersey, there was so much sweat from coast to coast! And I’m so grateful to get to be a part of it.
IF YOU RACED THIS WEEKEND, TELL ME (AND ELLIE) HOW IT WENT!