Mile 1: It’s 6:59 AM. I just peed 10 minutes ago and I really have to go again because despite the cold, I’m only wearing a tank top and capri yoga pants, and I’ve just chugged a cup of coffee to warm up and a bottle of water to combat the dehydrating effect of the coffee, as well as the desiccating salt of the bacon I ate in the rental car on the several thousand foot ascent up the mesa in the pre-sunrise hours of the day. The train of cars kicked up so much dust that my companions wondered if we were in intense fog, even though there is a total lack of humidity in south-western Utah. We all wondered how far we’d roll if our intrepid driver, who, like all of us, got only four hours of restless sleep, messed up and went off the edge. But there’s no time to pee; the judge fired the gun and we’re off.
Mile 2: We’re going at too slow a pace for my liking because the path is narrow and everyone is clumped up. A few of my friends pull ahead of me. Despite several of them having trained consistently at much longer distances than I ever did, they’ve made it clear that they think I’ll come in first out of our fantastic group of ten. I have never been convinced of this. The furthest I’ve run is 9.2 miles, and that was with a 15 minute break after mile five. But still I wonder, will I be embarrassed if I don’t come out on top? Should I try to pull ahead at this early stage or take it easy for a few miles? We aren’t competitive with each other in any aspects of our lives, sports included. We are a supportive group, all participating in exercise and outdoor pursuits to varying degrees, encouraging each other as needed, proud of each other’s accomplishments. But a competition makes me feel, well, competitive.
Mile 3: The hills begin. Short, but steep, hills. Outside of inclines on the treadmill at Orange Theory, I didn’t train on hills. I’ve trained on mostly hard, flat road. This is soft track that rises over and over. But we’ve broken off into running pairs at this point, and my buddy isn’t slowing down, so neither am I. Plus, I’m wearing a Colorado bandanna. Coloradans are known for their athleticism at altitude. I’ve got to do my adopted state proud. So I push on. And on and on.
Mile 4: Now I’m in my sweet spot. Miles two and three are always hardest for me because so much of the road lies ahead, but by mile four, I’m getting into a rhythm. I don’t run with music or a tracker or anything distracting; only my body and the great wide open exist. We smile as we pass a race photographer, feeling good as the rising sun warms our faces. The road ahead is long, but I’m grateful the distance is now under ten miles, and I believe I can sustain this pace, or even surpass it. Moving faster becomes my unspoken goal when I see the 2:10 pacer not that far ahead of us. That is, until an untied shoelace forces me to pause after I crest yet another energy-sapping hill.
Mile 5: My running mate has pushed on ahead and I pass the five mile flag alone, aware that the pacer is now further ahead of me as well. But this mile features a lot of downhill and I envision my legs in the Road Runner whirl. I make great time and even after my first water fill up of the race and a brief stretch of the course that goes across an unevenly plowed farmer’s field, forcing me to run cautiously, I make up the lost time.
Mile 6: I complete the 10k distance and smile broadly. Now I’m really in a new-for-me race. I’m almost halfway done and despite a slight twinge in my left knee that resolved itself after a few minutes, my body feels strong. I continue pounding one foot in front of the other, expertly dodging rocks, cow dung, slower runners, and a dead rabbit. My breathing is measured and steady.
Mile 7: My breathing is perhaps too measured and steady. At mile seven, which coincides with mile thirteen and veers to the right off the finish line, the cheers of the spectators are drowned out by my awareness that I feel faint. My blood pressure is always dangerously low, and now I’m lightheaded and slightly dizzy. This isn’t a runner’s high. My right leg nearly gives way a few times and I begin coaching myself mentally, talking myself out of this condition and applauding myself on for making it more than halfway. My companion might be telepathic because even though I don’t say anything, she saves the day by offering me some gummies. They stick to my teeth obnoxiously, but most likely prevent me from actual collapse.
Mile 8: At this point, we are re-running miles one and two. The first time around, we were too excited and too log-jammed in the crowd of runners to realize the terrain on these miles is extremely sandy and all uphill. This time, it’s all we notice. We run in silence. Many around us walk in silence. My body is fatigued. My right knee starts throbbing, my left buttock is cramped, I have slight lower-back pain, and even my stomach is cramping a bit. The 2:10 pacer is still in front of me.
Mile 9: I stop for the quickest second to refill my hyrdopouch because coming up is the worst hill of the race, again. It almost forced me to walk the first time, and I’m disheartened to see we have to conquer it again. But in my delirium, I’ve failed to notice that no one is on the hill. When I reach the turn, I see that the race volunteers are herding us to the left instead of the right. And to the left is a long, sloping downhill. My heart soars, my feet grow wings, and I race past the 2:10 pacer. Then I turn to high-five my running buddy but realize she is no longer there. I scan quickly for her bright leggings but don’t see them, and I know from that point on, it’s only me and my willpower getting my body to the finish line.
Mile 10: I have now officially run further than I ever have in my life and all I have left is a 5k. That’s so easy! I’m moving faster and faster and faster and…then I start to hallucinate. Around the next turn appears to be a quarter mile long incline across yet another unevenly plowed and rock-filled field. Everyone already on it is walking. Everyone. This can’t be. But it is. I reach it and begin to lose speed. I’m moving slower and slower and slower and…then I’m walking. No, I can’t walk. Powerwalk. Move those feet. Go, damnit, go! My heart is leaping out of my chest. I’m trying so hard. I’m moving faster than most people, but I’m infuriated at my snail pace.
Mile 11: On the summit, the eleven mile flag flies. I’m gasping for air. I gulp down some water, walk for ten more seconds, and then let gravity do its thing on the downhill. Around the next corner, I’m hit with a faceful of intense wind. The race start time was moved up from 8 am to 7 am because of the heavy wind predictions, and it seems as if it has started. But this part of the course is winding and varied, so the torment doesn’t last long. Soon I’m on another downhill, running perpendicular to the wind instead of straight into it. I find two women who seem to be running at a speed that pushes me to go a little faster than I normally would, and decide that I’m not going to let them get more than six paces ahead of me. They are going to bring me in.
Mile 12: I pass the second-to-last mile marker flag and smile knowing I have only ten minutes left and this will all be over. I can run a mile. A mile is nothing. But we’ve merged with the walkers, the people who are only approaching mile seven, instead of mile thirteen. It’s demotivating. I want to walk too. I could. I’m sure the 2:10 pacer is way behind me now. Or is he? Maybe he’s right behind me. Damn you, Mile 10! It would crush my soul to see the pacer pass me now. I have to keep moving. I focus on the woman in the blue running jacket and the woman in the baseball hat and black shorts, and I bounce around the trail from left to right, dodging walkers to keep up with these unknown motivators. I also curse myself out in my head. I don’t know why, but calling myself all sorts of terrible names when I most desperately need to push myself toward a physical achievement works for me. It doesn’t fail me now.
Mile 13: The finish line. The beautiful, beautiful finish line is one minute away. I dodge more walkers, veer left, find a last spurt of gas in my sneakers, and hear my name and town called out over the loud speaker. I struggle not to cry as I run beneath the banner. I did it. I did it! I can’t believe I did it. I know for many runners a half-marathon is a negligible distance, but several years ago, I struggled to even run a mile at five miles per hour. I don’t think to look at my time, but learn later that I finished the race in 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 51 seconds. I have never run at that speed for more than two miles at once, and I just did it for more than thirteen. I feel incredible.
Post Race Report: The second I stop running, my right knee seizes up. I can’t put any weight on it for over ten minutes and the pain is agonizing. Sheer adrenaline got me around that course. That’s OK, I don’t plan on going anywhere. I watch for my friends to come in, screaming their names as they do. The first six of us are staggered, coming in about every four minutes. We hug, laugh, high-five. We are covered in dust and smiling like fools. We grab beers from the car and then cheer the rest of our friends in as they finish, proud of each one. Tomorrow, we will celebrate with an eight mile hike through some waist-deep water in The Narrows of Zion National Park. Because that’s just how bad-ass we are.