It still hasn’t really sunk in for me that I ran a half marathon this weekend in one hour, 41 minutes, and nine seconds.
For more than a decade, I have identified as a 1:44:48 half-marathoner.
I ran that time at the National Half Marathon — which no longer exists — at 25 years old.
I was still living in the apartment I shared with my ex-boyfriend, who had broken up with me a month prior. (Do not recommend post-breakup cohabitation, BTW, but such is life for twenty-somethings in New York City.) Desperate for an escape, I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the weekend, where I ran a 16-minute personal best time in the half, fueled by sadness, rage, late nights on the Upper East Side, and lots of vodka cranberries.
That race turned so much of my sadness into joy. That time on the clock brought me back to life. Back to myself. Into a new, more confident self. It all feels like a lifetime ago, and so, too, had that finish time, for a long time now.
I thought that 1:44:48 would be my lifetime best. That my best running days were behind me. That those stories about races “where everything just clicks” must be myths, or at least exaggerations.
I thought stories about people getting faster were for everyone but me.
I just ran my fastest half marathon in more than a decade at 36 years old, at a pace that was unfathomable to me — until Sunday. Until I did it.
I ran a race where everything clicked, and I felt amazing right up until the end. No exaggeration. No bathroom stops!
I ran with a smile on my face from start to finish. I realize that sounds cheesy as hell, but the photos prove it. I was loving it out there, and I got to do it in my old-but-new-again hometown.
When it comes to running — and pretty much everything — I do things my way. I run because I love it, and because it feels good. Most (all) of my runs are easy runs, and I walk up the hills like 96% of the time. Don’t believe me? It’s all on Strava.
When I race, it’s by feel, and sometimes it works out in my favor, and sometimes (often) it doesn’t.
The key, for me, is keeping it fun and pressure-free.
I now believe that my best, strongest, happiest running days are right now.
For more than 10 years, I have wondered if I could ever do better than that 1:44:48.
And on Sunday, with 11 more years of running experience under my belt, I did it. I broke my own record, by three and a half minutes.
And because there’s always a longer version of the story, and of the time on the clock…
Ever since last year, I knew I wanted to run the New England Half Marathon.
When I ran it last year, it was done in a time-trial format — one runner starting every 15 seconds. It was awesome, and I appreciated the pandemic protocols, but it also meant that I started the race alone, ran alone, and finished alone. There were runners around me and I was psyched to be racing at all during such shaky times. Plus, the race started in my town, and even though I raced it pretty terribly (went out super hard the first few miles, and was walking by mile nine), my finish time was respectable (thanks to banking time early on!), and I loved the (very net downhill) course.
I knew I’d be back in 2021.
I’m now one of the race announcers for Millennium Running, the company that puts on the New England Half, but when I agreed to join the team, it was with one condition: that I wouldn’t work the New England Half or the Millennium Mile, because those were the two races I wanted to be able to run.
We made a deal.
And then I saw the date for this year’s race: October 17.
The day after Annie’s birthday.
If it were on her birthday, I wouldn’t have done it. But the day after? I could make that work.
We would throw a birthday party for her on Saturday, with lots of toddlers running around the yard, and then I’d rally and run 13.1 miles the following morning. Seemed doable!
Of course, by Saturday evening, with balloons and presents and snacks strewn all over the house, I wasn’t feeling so confident about race day.
My feet hurt from wearing heels (I KNOW) all day. I hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day because I was so busy running around and making sure everyone else was fed and hydrated. And I hadn’t prepared the basics, like my race day outfit.
But I woke up on race day feeling excited to give it a shot.
My training had consisted of solid mileage (40–50 miles most weeks) and a handful of confidence-boosting long runs. I’d done two long runs in particular that were encouraging: a run with a group of friends on the New England Half course, where I felt great the entire time, and a 13.1-mile run with just one of those friends, Jonathan, a few weeks later, where I felt great and didn’t have to make any bathroom stops.
I didn’t do any speedwork or workouts for the race, but I was feeling strong, and thought I might be able to get close to my PR, especially since the race would be a mass start instead of a time trial this time.
Plus, we had assembled a crew (which grew on race morning!). When I told Jonathan that my PR was 1:44:48, and that it would be really great to give that an update and an upgrade, he made it his mission to pace me to a PR. “You’re not allowed to think about the pace on race day,” he insisted. “Just stay with me.”
But then, after my trip to New York City two weeks ago, my stomach revolted. I had been feeling so good, and my Crohn’s disease was being so well-behaved. But I got back from that trip, and it took a sudden and immediate nosedive. Without offering too many details, just know that there was a lot of blood in my intestines.
Suddenly, my dreams of a potential PR turned to a new race plan: “Just try to make it through without needing bathroom stops — or at least without anything too tragic happening.”
And then, it was like the clouds parted and then sun came out. The day before the race, the bleeding stopped. I can’t explain it. But it felt like some kind of running miracle, granted upon me by the Gods of Des, Shalane, and Molly.
So, race morning. I woke up with sore feet from those aforementioned heels, but otherwise feeling excited to give a PR a shot.
I jogged to the start with plenty of time to get my bib and use the Porta Potty before the 8 AM start time.
I chatted with friends and made some new friends while we lined up at Gould Hill Farm.
Our “Sub-1:44 Crew” consisted of Jonathan, our fearless leader, my new friend Skip (who was wearing AfterShokz!), Sam (making his half-marathon debut), Justine, Nicole, and me. Plus, Jonathan would be guiding Noah, who has nonverbal autism and has been crushing his races lately. It was a great group, and I felt really excited to be a part of it. My goal was to tuck in and hang in.
I know this race course very well. It runs on my familiar hometown roads, and then heads into Concord, on roads I run and drive all the time. I know the turns, the elevation, and the beautiful sights (peak foliage weekend!) along the way. Last year, I even drove the course to figure out the best non-Porta-Potty options, should Crohn’s kick in mid-race. (I didn’t end up needing them — either time!)
We started to run, and I saw Brian, Annie, Ellie, and Brian’s mom (Leslee / Grandma) and her boyfriend (Colin / Grandpa) at the first mile marker. Everyone was passing us, and Jonathan kept telling our group to slow down and pull it back. The first mile felt easy. Too easy!
At mile 1.3, I saw the town cop who questioned me when my parents were robbed. I was in high school, and someone broke into our house and stole a bunch of my dad’s liquor. The cop came to our house and questioned me! Apparently when you have teenage kids, that’s where you start the questioning, especially since the person (or people) stole things like Smirnoff and Skyy and not, say, my dad’s very, very expensive bottles of Scotch.
So I saw Officer Pecora and waved! I don’t think he remembers me, but maybe! He was clapping for the runners!
(And it was NOT me who robbed my parents. Please. I love rules.)
At mile two, I saw my parents with my niece (Abby) and nephew (Tyler)! That was a fun surprise.
I knew I wouldn’t see any other family members until the finish, so from there it was just about staying upright and running.
But it felt easy!
And Jonathan kept telling us to slow down. So we did.
And honestly, that could be my entire race recap.
I felt great. I felt great on the downhills, and great on the flats. It was hot when we were in the sun, but with plenty of turns along the way, the sun quickly turned to shade.
We hit our first of two uphills around mile eight, and it didn’t feel bad at all.
The second uphill was the one that crushed me last year, and forced me to a walk. But this year, it felt fine. I remember saying to our group, “We’ve got this guys” (it was down to just me, Jonathan, Noah, and Skip at that point), and we did got this! We crested the hill and ran onto the mile-long trail portion of the race.
The trail was tricky. I remember liking it last year, but this year, the ground was wet, and the wet leaves on top of the little rocks made for tough footing. I was happy when we came off the trail and were back on the roads.
Despite knowing the course really well, I remember asking Jonathan if there were “any more ups” until the finish, and he told me there weren’t. He tried to make small talk with all of us along the way, but I ignored him every time. (Sorry, Jonathan! I was conserving energy!)
Every now and then, Noah would pick up the pace and start to pull ahead of it, and I secretly loved it when Jonathan would say, “Pull it back, Noah.” It wasn’t feeling too hard, but I loved the idea of getting to slow down just a little! I’m always afraid to push it too hard too soon.
I was also shocked by how good I felt, consistently.
My normal “positive splits for positive people” mantra is cute and fun to say, but in practice, it’s an awful strategy. Last year, I felt terrible during the final miles of this race. I had gone out so hard (I wasn’t wearing a watch and there were no clocks on the course, so I had no idea where I was at), and I crashed and burned, badly.
I’ve never really run a race with nice, even splits.
But Jonathan did such a brilliant job, letting us pick it up a little on the downhills so we could ease up a little on the climbs. Our effort felt consistent, and so, for the first time ever, I felt great right up until the end.
When we hit mile 11, Jonathan told us to pick it up if we were feeling good. I didn’t feel ready to leave the comfort of our group yet, so I didn’t make a move.
At mile 12, Jonathan said, “Ali, if you’re feeling good, go.” And then he said, “1:41!” I didn’t know if he meant we were currently at 1:41, but that didn’t seem right, and it also didn’t seem plausible that he meant I could hit 1:41 if I pushed the final mile.
But I went. And I don’t have splits or anything of my own, but I tried to surge just a little in the last mile through downtown Concord.
I rounded the last .2 miles around the State House, where I saw Brian, Annie, Ellie, Grandma, and Grandpa. I was so excited to see them, and I kept moving. I didn’t feel like I was sprinting, but I’m not sure I could’ve pushed much harder. As the finish line came into view, I realized Jonathan was right. I saw 1:40:xx on the clock, and realized he was right. I was going to run a 1:41 half.
I crossed the finish line and was just giddy.
I got my medal and saw my family and saw tons of friends and was at the finish line for an hour, just basking in the excitement of it all.
I’m so grateful for Jonathan for the expert pacing and for being really encouraging but not overbearing throughout the race. Without him, I would’ve done the old “fly and die” method, and it was just so cool to still feel strong at mile 12 of a half marathon.
I thought a lot about the conversations I’ve had with professional athletes on the Ali on the Run Show. There were a few times when I started thinking, “What if I need to go to the bathroom?” or “What if I start cramping?” But I was able to turn it around and keep it positive, and that feels like a major mental achievement, which is worth celebrating as much as the physical.
It was a great day. A great weekend.
And I think, maybe, I could do it again. A little faster.
WHAT I WORE & MORE: