New England Half Marathon

New England Half Marathon Recap

I RAN A RACE THIS WEEKEND!

A real, live, in-person race with a start line and a finish line and a few spectators along the way.

And it was awesome. And it’s been two days since the race, and I still can’t walk up or down the stairs normally!

It’s been a while since I’ve felt that oddly satisfying post-race soreness, and even longer since I’ve written a proper race recap, so buckle up: The recap will likely be longer than the race itself.

First, and very importantly: Covid stuff. Millennium Running, a running store here in New Hampshire that puts on tons of local events, did an amazing job keeping this race safe and abiding by all of New Hampshire’s current pandemic protocols. So while it very much felt like OMG WE ARE BACK AT THE RACES, it was also very different than any race I’ve ever done. A few key points:

  • The race was capped at, I believe, 800 participants. I was lucky I registered early, because I know a lot of people who wanted to run it, but those spots sold out very quickly.
  • Masks were required at the start and at the finish. You could remove your mask when you were running, and if you were passing someone, you were instructed to do so giving as much space as possible.
  • There were hand sanitizing stations all around the start and finish lines, and outside all the porta-potties and at the aid stations along the race course.
  • All staff and volunteers were masked. (And very nice!)
  • And perhaps the biggest change: The race followed a time trial format. Instead of a mass start, one runner crossed the starting mat every 10 seconds, so everyone was super spread out. There were eight waves of 100 people each, so the start line process was three hours from the first runner to the last one. Pretty remarkable! (I was runner #64 in the second wave.)

I really applaud Millennium Running and all the staff and volunteers for making this event so well done. I wouldn’t be surprised if this style of racing starts to pick up around the country where it’s possible. And every single runner I saw was abiding by the rules, which was so awesome and refreshing to see.

OK! Race day!

I was so nervous, which is so silly, but I think that’s because it’s been so long since I’ve done a race. I didn’t sleep at all the night before because I was so afraid of sleeping through my alarm, so I was up and moving by 5 AM.

Every single participant had a wave and a number, which then indicated specific times you were allowed to take the shuttle to the start (if you were taking the shuttle; I wasn’t), arrive at the start, pick up your bib, get into the starting corral, and start the race. As runner #264 — wave two, runner 64 — I was allowed at the start at 6:57 AM, be on my starting cone (they had numbered cones, all six feet apart from each other!) at 7:37, and start my race at 7:57 AM. So precise. I loved it.

I signed up for this race because I couldn’t not: It started at Gould Hill, which is the apple orchard in our town. The one we go to almost every weekend! The one I’ve been going to since I was teeny tiny. The one where I wanted to get married! So yeah. I couldn’t not!

The race course was a point-to-point downhill course from Hopkinton (my town!) to Concord, finishing right in front of the State House on Main Street.

And despite signing up a long time ago, I didn’t train specifically for the race, because…why? I honestly don’t know. I never gave myself a plan, I never did speedwork or hill work. I just kept running six days a week, anywhere between five and eight miles. I should’ve done more long runs. I definitely should’ve done downhill running in preparation! But I didn’t, and that’s fine! I also didn’t have a goal time or anything, so this was just a day to get out and run and have some fun!

My only goal, if I’m being honest, was not to have a mortifying bathroom incident. I’m not totally out of this latest Crohn’s flare, and I still have to stop a bunch on my daily runs, so I assumed I’d be making a few pit stops on my way to Concord, and I just didn’t want them to happen in a public fashion. I didn’t love the idea of using a porta-potty (germs!), but also didn’t want to be seen running for the woods. So yeah. I didn’t want to poop my pants. There ya go.

My dad got up early on race day to drive me to the start, because he is the best. He was in such awe of all the cars and all the people in our tiny town. He loved it. His excitement got me excited!

We got to see a beautiful sunrise over the orchard, and the weather was perfect. Cool, crisp, sunny, with a tiny bit of wind.

I got to hang out with two Sarahs at the start, which was so wonderful. Sarah Canney, who I’ve followed online forever, and my new friend Sarah from Instagram! We jogged a mile or so to warm up, and then all broke off to find our respective cones.

Naturally I cried at the start. I always do. I was a little envious of the race announcer — I miss announcing so much! — but was so grateful just to be there and to get to run, and to do it in a safe way.

One by one, every 10 seconds, runners took their marks, and they were off.

So you would think that I would’ve understood the process, right?

No. Apparently not.

Wave two was eventually instructed to get into the starting corral and onto our cones, and I easily found #64. I made a new friend, Katy, while waiting to start, all the while noticing that runner #63 never made his or her way to the cone. We inched closer and closer to the start, one runner at a time. Runner 62 was off, and then the announcer started to announce runner 63, but I gave a little wave to say that wasn’t me, and to skip that person. My name flashed up on the starting line screen (SO cool!), and I started to run! I was so excited!

EXCEPT I WASN’T SUPPOSED TO START YET. I had to get called back because apparently I had to wait 10 more seconds. So embarrassing. Why am I like this?

(And we’ll come back to this, but I crossed the timing mat and then had to cross it again, and I swear if I lost 10 seconds there because I couldn’t follow the simple instructions… WE’LL GET TO THAT.)

So then, sheepishly, I was off!

And then I ran down, down, down.

So much downhill, which I know, sounds amazing, but turns out, is super hard! I learned this lesson (the painful way) when I ran the Steamtown Marathon in 2014, six years to the day before this race! But oh man, those downhills absolutely shredded me, yet again.

Running on Gould Hill Road is so beautiful, always. The foliage in New Hampshire is at its peak right now, and there are so many gorgeous homes (I WANT THEM) on that road. It’s always been my favorite road in town, and it felt special to get to share it with so many visitors to our tiny town. (Look at me, suddenly claiming this town as my own again. I know, I’m kind of a fraud and an imposter.)

The first mile marker came up SO fast, and as soon as I saw it, I realized I totally forgot to start the Strava app on my phone. I never run with a watch, but I usually run the app, however accurate it may be, so I can look back on my splits and stuff after the fact. And since there were no timing clocks on the course, I was running totally in the dark. Zero idea of pacing. You would think it was my first time ever running based on how completely clueless I felt out there.

I knew I was running pretty hard, but somehow after a decade of running, I still can’t comprehend whether that feeling equates to a 6:30 pace or a 10:30 pace. Will I ever learn? Outlook’s not good!

My whole family — Brian, Annie, Ellie, and my parents — planned to come out to cheer and be at two spots along the way: first at the Cracker Barrel store, 2.5 miles from the start, and then at the finish.

I was cruising on my way to the Cracker Barrel (if you ever go, the chicken salad is really good, and I don’t even like chicken salad). I was flying down the hills, and managed not to totally lose it on the few inclines. And still, I was getting passed constantly. I think I got passed by at least 100 runners between Hopkinton and Concord, and guess how many runners I passed? ZERO. I did not pass one single person!

So I climbed the hill toward the Cracker Barrel, excited to see my family, and…nothing! The sun was shining in my eyes and I saw other people and waved to them, but they were not my family, so I felt a little sad. And then of course, I did that thing where I came up with all the reasons they may not have been there! Was Annie OK? Did something happen to her leg? Was Ellie OK? Did she get diarrhea? Did my dad get in a car accident on his way back from dropping me off? Was Brian awake? All those intrusive thoughts really helped pass the time as the miles ticked away.

By mile four, I realized I probably went out too fast, based on how tired I was already feeling. Always a good sign!

It was fun running on familiar roads — the same ones I run most days of the week, though in the opposite direction. I knew there would be two significant hills, both around mile 8.

Somewhere between mile 6 and 7, I saw pigtails up ahead on the side of the road. My family! (The pigtails were Annie’s. Was that obvious? Perhaps not!)

I was so excited! Too excited! Annie was shaking her tambourine cheering “Go Mommy!” and, as she always does, Ellie jumped in and started running with me, just so excited to be there. (Brian had her on the leash, don’t worry. A good little sprint workout leading up to this year’s Turkey Trot, perhaps!) It made me so happy to see them, and gave me a good boost heading into what I knew would be the harder miles of the race.

I kept running, and then surprisingly saw my family again just a few miles down the road! Such good spectators! By that point, though, I knew I was slowing down. I was just constantly getting passed, and my legs were feeling super heavy and fatigued from the hills.

I ran up the first hill around mile 8, but when we reached the second hill — a gradual climb near Concord Hospital — I got a wicked side stitch cramp and had to come to a total stop. I tried all my tricks, tried breathing through it, tried standing tall for it to go away, tried bending over for it to go away, but it was unrelenting. I walked the entire hill, and then the course brought us onto a rail trail, which was cool and beautiful. But oh man, was I in a world of hurt. We were nine miles into the race, with four still to go (math!), and I was just praying that cramp would go away so I could keep moving forward.

But for the rest of the race, I did a fair amount of walk-running. If I jogged slowly, the cramp would subside, but if I tried to pick it up, it would come right back. So the last 5K of the race was not pretty. I was still happy, but frustrated that my body wasn’t doing what I wanted it to be doing. (Though then I had to laugh at myself, because of course your body isn’t doing what you want, Ali! You did not really train as well as you could have, and no doubt you went out way way way too fast! Learn these lessons, will ya?!)

The last few miles wound around a bunch of roads in downtown Concord. Eventually, we turned onto Main Street, and the State House was in sight. I was confused, though: I had seen the mile 11 marker, but never saw the mile 12 marker, so I thought I had so much more to go than I actually did. I don’t know if I actually could’ve picked up my pace at that point, but in hindsight, I think I could have! Maybe. Probably not.

And then I saw my family again! That was exciting! But! I thought I was going to make that right turn after I saw them and I’d be at the finish line, but I actually had to run around an entire city block before I got to it! Surprise!

I shuffled my way around the backside of the State House, and then reached the finishing stretch. At that point, after a lot of walking and standing still, I was hoping I’d managed to break two hours, which is sort of always my goal for any half marathon.

So imagine my surprise when I saw my family and they told me that I finished in 1:44.59. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

MY HALF MARATHON PR IS 1:44.48, AND I HAVE WANTED TO BEAT THAT TIME SINCE I RAN IT IN 2011.

I WAS 11 SECONDS OFF.

I AM YELLING.

It’s laughable, it really is. And don’t get me wrong: I am THRILLED and frankly astonished that I just ran a 1:44.59 half marathon. Thrilled. Shocked. Awed. Proud! Happy!

But also! If I hadn’t false started, would I have PR-ed? If I hadn’t stopped so much, could I have beat my time? Lots of ifs, ands, buts, and whats, but ultimately, wow. It was such a fun and special day.

Brian likes to call me an “unintentional sandbagger,” because I seem to genuinely have no idea what I am capable of, and downplay my abilities every single time.

When I was struggling through those last few miles, I told myself that maybe I’ll stick to 5Ks. Maybe anything longer than 10 miles isn’t for me. And now, unsurprisingly, I want to try again because I would really like to beat that 1:44.48 that’s almost a decade old.

Oh, running! You’re the silliest. I love you.

And now, two days later, my legs are just not working for me. I’m so so so sore. Happily sore. Satisfyingly sore.

This weekend was wonderful. It really was. Life in 2020 has been such a wild ride for everyone, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to feel kind of sort of “normal” for a few hours.

Oh, and did I mention: No bathroom stops. Zero. Goal achieved!

WHAT I WORE:

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Ali

Ali

5 Responses

  1. Oh my gosh that’s amazing!!! I can relate to the feeling of an in person race being a little bit of normal. I’m hopeful that more races like what you’re running (I’ve run one with a distanced running clock start and finish too) will pop up until it’s safe for giant race parties again!

  2. Race recaps are usually so boring and self-congratulatory. Not this one!! Awesome run! I’d have started wrong too. I never understand! Bathroom stops? Crapped my pants at NJ marathon last year…. which made me secretly smile the 2 miles??

  3. Your race recaps are my favorite! So very happy for you that you got to run a real race, had such a supportive cheering section, got to share your little town with people (I always love it when people come to my little NH town, which, for awhile wasn’t “my town” because I was in Boston!), and that you came so close to a PR without knowing it! What a happy post. Love from the 603.

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about ali

I’m the creator of the Ali on the Run blog and the host of the Ali on the Run Show podcast. I’m also a freelance writer and editor, a race announcer, a runner and marathoner, a mom, and a huge fan of Peanut M&Ms, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (way better than the first one!), and reliving my glory days as a competition dancer in the early 2000s. I’m really happy you’re here.
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