A full marathon is 26.2 miles, making the half 13.1. On Saturday I was actually more nervous about how I was going to get to the start of the race than I was about finishing it. Among the pros and cons of New Orleans, street quality and city planning is definitely one of the latter. Luckily I have a charming wife that agreed to wake up well before dawn on her Sunday to navigate back roads and drop me off a couple of blocks from the start location. The race began in a spot sandwiched between the river and a bunch of streets that were going to be closed to traffic by 6am. Great idea course designers; make everybody walk 1.5 miles before running 26.
Interesting fact: February in the northern hemisphere falls into the season called "winter," during which, average temperatures are what they call "cold." Even in steamy NOLA, it is cold in mid February, especially when the sun has been focused on the other side of the planet for the last 12 hours or so. I jumped out of the car and began trailing other people with race bibs on their shirts. It was 05:45 hours, 38 degrees out, no sunlight, with me wearing shorts and a t-shirt. One hour and a quarter until start time.
The atmosphere in the starting area overpowered the misery of the cold and of being awake way too early. Thousands of people milling around in a big graveled area; food and drink tables set up along one fence, portable toilets on another, a line of gear check trucks forming a third wall. A jazz band played the New Orleans standards to a crowd of people eating bananas and Powerbars. 34,000 legs with massive glycogen buildups, waiting to be ignited and burned off over the next few hours. I wonder how much of that energy I burned off shivering in the hour before sunrise...
The runners were placed in starting positions based on the anticipated finish time they provided during registration. I was back with the people that expected to average ten minute miles. I had no idea how I'd do. Part of the reason you're supposed to train is so you know what to expect; what foods you can eat before long runs, what clothing to wear, what to consume during the run, and of course, how fast you can go. Seeing as I had done a total of eight runs and only decided two weeks beforehand to actually do the half marathon, I was going to be jogging blind on some of these things. I definitely figured out what not to eat before running during a training outing (too much grease, fiber, and hot coffee right before a run makes for a miserable experience). Aside from that, crap I read on the internet was going to be my training and help get me through as smoothly as possible.
Shortly after the sun rose, the national anthem was sung, and the first runners were released. Little by little, my group started walking toward the starting line for our start. 15 minutes after the fast guys started, I finally crossed the line and began. Now, they say to start off slowly so as not to burn through your energy too early. I understood that perfectly well. But the thick pack of runners in which I was stuck was really taking that to heart. I stayed with most of them and matched their pace until I approached the first mile marker and race clock. The time was almost 25 minutes, and I had started around 15, so I now knew what a ten minute mile pace was, and also knew that I could do better. I made my way to the edge of the mass of people and started passing. Group by group, I kept going around them while gently pushing my pace. The first mile was easy. The second mile was easy. Third mile, yup, easy.
The pain in my right knee that usually bothers me came around mile four, but wasn't too terrible and went numb by mile six. I ran mile two faster than mile one, mile three faster than two, and kept increasing the pace through mile seven, at which point I leveled off through mile ten. It all went so quickly and the scenery was changing so much that as I try to remember more specific parts of the run I'm kind of at a loss. I felt good throughout most of it, the weather warmed up a bit and was perfect for running, and the crowds and bands along the way helped keep everybody moving. Most of it just seemed pleasant and easy.
Then came the last three mile stretch down Esplanade. I could feel my leg muscles giving up at mile 11. That was the point where it became a fight between mental stubbornness and physical reality. Physical reality says that you've burned through all your energy and should stop for rest and replenishment of vital materials. Mental stubbornness says "screw you legs, I'm in control, keep moving." I have no shortage of stubbornness, so I managed to keep running, but my pace during the last two miles was quite a bit slower than before. I also managed to not take some of the jello shots that a spectator was handing out at mile 12. Alcohol helps you perform better physically, right?
It was a good feeling to cross the finish line, get a little medal, pick up a bagel and some water. I could finally give my legs the rest they had been demanding. This run ended in City Park, where they had ample space to let the runners and their groupies meet up and relax after the finish. I wandered around for a while, had a snack, picked up my two complimentary beers. It wasn't even 9:30am on a gorgeous February morning.
I was quickly struck by that feeling of "what's next?" Ok, so I finished, that's it? I managed to do it in 1:53, which I was happy with. There's the mental high that comes with finishing something, but that's immediately followed by the want to do something bigger and better. The path out of the park to meet my ride home took me alongside the finish line to the full marathon. I saw a couple of people cross the finish line. One of them was a 46 year old, finishing around 2:45. I don't know yet if that's inspiring or disheartening. A guy almost twice my age running faster than I would likely be able to do if I were in peak condition right now. I'll have to vote for inspiring. People are capable of doing difficult and amazing things. Recognizing that ability in others should help you discover that ability within yourself.
It's been almost a week since I finished those 13ish miles. I'm fighting the knee pain that I've felt on the couple of short jogs I did this week. Time to get a new pair of shoes and a few days of rest. I've got plenty of time to work my way up to 26.2 for next year's race.
Photos and a video of me finishing the half. I'm the sweaty pale guy in a white t-shirt.