October 15, 2017. The day dawned gray, overcast, and slightly foggy–the sort of weather that usually makes me want to crawl back into bed. I was wide awake that morning, however. In a few hours, I would be running the race that had recently been designated (somewhat unofficially) as the Massachusetts half marathon state championship. The New England Harvest Half Marathon promised to be both beautiful and challenging, taking runners through the quiet rural neighborhoods of Swansea and Rehoboth along roads that were maybe a 6 out of 10 on the “hilly scale,” per the race director’s email. My mom, who has never missed a race to date, was as excited as I was.
“I have to warn you,” I told her, “I looked at the course map, and I really don’t think I’m going to PR.”
“So what?” she said. “Just have fun. Treat it like a long run in a new place. It’s a change of scenery.”
That much was true. We listened to the radio on the way to Swansea Mall Drive (read: Mom got stuck listening to my singing for almost half an hour and had no way to escape) and arrived to find nearly 300 runners waiting to toe the line. A few sponsor tents had been set up in the parking lot, and as promised, there was a DJ–a very lively, very positive DJ who practically had us dancing our way into the starting chute (see the image above!).
“All right, runners!” he hollered. “Thirty seconds till go time! Here’s how this is gonna work! I’ll say 3, 2, 1, go, and you go on ‘go’! Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? You go on ‘go.’ Have a great run out there! You’re amazing! You’re gonna crush it! Everyone loves you!”
I looked over my shoulder at my mom, giggling, and gave her a thumbs-up. Twenty seconds. Fifteen. Ten. Just before go, she mouthed have fun and snapped one last picture. I reined it in until I got to the top of Swansea Mall Drive–yes, this race actually had an uphill start!–and then settled into a comfortable pace for the first 3-4 miles while taking in the gorgeous autumn views. There were cow pastures, rolling hayfields, and porches crowded with mums and carved pumpkins. Vibrant fall foliage wreathed the course from start to finish. Somewhere around the three-mile mark, an elderly man who had come outside to cheer us on caught my eye and yelled, “Hurry up! That guy’s ahead of you!”
I laughed and gave him a thumbs-up. “I’ll get there!” I said. Of course, I couldn’t have cared less about who was ahead of me. I was happy to be out there, happy that my legs were cooperating, and happy that all of the hills I had encountered thus far were small compared to my beloved Schooner Drive and Ford Farm Road. It was just another long run–easy, therapeutic, and fun. So of course, I was stunned when I glanced down at my watch and saw that I had somehow managed to average a 7:15 pace for the first five miles.
That’s my PR half marathon pace, I thought. Did I go out too fast? I didn’t think so, because I wasn’t gasping for breath and my legs weren’t sore. Then I realized that I was overthinking it. Just do what feels right, I told myself. You’re in control. Miles five through nine were moderately hilly, with a few steep inclines but nothing too extreme. I checked my splits again only once before passing the ten-mile mark, by which time I was averaging 7:17 per mile. Then a left turn at the end of a quiet residential street brought me face-to-face with The Hill.
The Hill wasn’t quite as steep as Ford Farm Road, but 10.5 miles in, it certainly felt like it. I felt my pace start to slow as I leaned into the climb, making an effort to stay on the balls of my feet. I thought about what my friend Maurice had written to me after the Newport Marathon–don’t let a DNF be your conclusion; build off it. That was why I had signed up for this half in the first place. I didn’t want a DNF to be my most recent race memory, but more importantly, this run–like every run–was an opportunity to build.
The Hill came and went, and when my watch beeped again, I couldn’t help glancing down at my most recent split. Mile 11 came to 7:36. Well, if that’s my slowest one yet, I thought, I really can’t complain. Mile 12 was a breeze–flat and fast–and then the finish line was in sight before I knew it. Even from 0.10 miles away, I could see my mom jumping up and down as she filmed me coming in. “Third!” she yelled. “Third! You’re third!”
The DJ, as lively as ever, announced me by name as I crossed the finish line. “Third female finisher, right here! Let’s give her a hand!” he yelled. “You’re amazing! You crushed it! Everybody loves you!”
A smiling volunteer handed me a finisher’s medal and a bottle of water. My official time was 1:36:09–exactly one minute shy of my half marathon PR. Given the elevation profile of the course, I was very pleased. My mom met me at the gate and walked me over to the awards tent, where I learned that my prize for finishing third was a beautifully made trophy with the race date engraved on the front. “I can’t believe it!” I laughed as she called my sister to tell her the news. “This couldn’t have gone better.”
We stuck around for a while, visiting the sponsor tents to sample apple cider, pumpkin pie, and other goodies and chat with the other runners. I met Kerry, the woman who had finished first with a time of 1:31:54. We exchanged enthusiastic congratulations, and my mom took a picture of the two of us together. I also met Lucia, who told me about her experience running the Chicago Marathon in 2016. “If you want to BQ,” she told me, “that’s the race to run!”
“So!” said my mom as we made our way back to the car. “What do you think, sis? Was it a good run?”
“Was it ever!” I gushed. “Do you think there’s another one next weekend? I think I heard someone talking about the Black Goose races in Seekonk…”
She smiled. “Are we back in the saddle?”
I nodded. 1:36:09 with hills galore on a beautiful fall morning, and I’d had the time of my life doing it. Back in the saddle indeed.