Winter Warrior 1/2 Marathon

Half Marathon, Full Effort

My first half marathon is behind me. As I sit to write this post a week after crossing the finish line,
I'm slowly realizing the true impact of this race has made on my life. I started running in March, 2014 after a two decade lay off and ran my first 5K the following May. The goal was to complete a sprint-distance triathlon in July, 2014 and I'm happy to report that goal (and much more) has been met. The gains made through triathlon training gave me the guts to re-learn to enjoy running and try something more...enter the idea of a half marathon.
After completing the Autumn Classic Duathlon in October '14 I changed the training plan from multi-sport to endurance running focus. To that point I'd run no further than five or six miles at any one time. The first race I could find was the Winter Warrior scheduled for January 10, 2015, and with fourteen weeks to train, figured it was doable. I rationalized that if one could run a half marathon in January in Rochester, New York, it could be done any other time of the year...enter the Four Seasons Challenge idea...I wouldn't be satisfied with just one - I'd now train for four half marathons in one year despite never having run one, ever.

Over the 14 weeks in this training cycle the weekly milage gradually increased and I (thankfully) remained injury free. Milage continued to grow and shoes were replaced as the Rochester weather steadily crept in. Short days and small temperatures nearly derailed my effort to train outside on more than one occasion. On those cold, rainy, snowy, windy days Joanne would remind me "if the race were held today, you'd have to run it" leaving me no margin of comfort to slip onto a cozy treadmill workout. With her encouragement I've remained running outside in the worst of conditions well into 2015 and have no plans to hibernate in the gym this winter. Instead, I'd run outside at least four times a week over various routes and in all kinds of weather. I wanted to be ready for whatever January could bring...and a Rochester January can indeed bring anything. 

The training plan continued to pay off and within three weeks ran the first of four scheduled 13.1 mile training runs. After that first 13.1 miler I was exhausted but kept training. After the second and third runs of that distance I could appreciate pace and began to realize that competing in a half marathon was as much mental as it was physical. At the end of week thirteen I ran the final half marathon training run that marks the start of a taper week and the reality of the actual race. I knew now that the first 6-8 miles could be run at a good pace (my definition of a good pace), miles 8-10 would push my stamina, and miles 11-13.1 would be all mental toughness. I felt ready.

My view at the starting line
The night before the race was comfortable, pre race anxiety was noticeably absent and I was able to sleep quite well. We arrived at the race base camp, a local indoor hockey complex, surrounded by over 1100 other runners. The winds were pounding the flags to attention and across every inch of the exposed course. The air temperatures held steady around 7 or 8 degrees. And then there's the darkness to deal with. The race planned start was 4pm - that, according to local forecast, will leave us just 55 minutes of daylight. I'll be in the cold, wind and dark very soon. "Will I really be running for the next two hours in this?" I asked myself stepping into the starting area.

And then we were off. The horn sounded and the inaugural Winter Warrior was under way. I could feel myself going out at a faster than training pace - I was actually keeping up with other people. We ran into the wind at every spot on the course, or so it seemed. Despite the cold and the wind the first 3 miles flew by with a pace just shy of my 5K race pace. My wife and at least one of my kids hung out near the starting line and cheered for me on each loop. The cold was finding its way under my hat and running jacket and I couldn't imagine how cold it must have felt to be standing on the sidelines watching the race. Again, into the wind, miles 4,5,6, and 7 passed quickly, "just like training...only faster" I said to myself. That phrase became my mantra for the second half of the race.

Before I realized it, the second half of the race was well in hand. Miles 8-10 usually make me work a little harder in my training runs, but on this day I was just cruising. There was no pain, my legs felt strong. I was well ahead of my planned pace. Even the wind died down - miles 8-10 became an enjoyable winter evening run. Somewhere around mile ten I had pulled my face mask down, leaving it hanging around my neck. Trying to pull it back up and finding it frozen and stuck to my jacket was a good wakeup call for the reality of the temperatures. 

The euphoria of the last few miles became excitement, almost delirium, when I realized there were only three more miles to go. These final miles are the ones that caused me the most pain and tested mental toughness during training runs. But not today. I actually felt myself running faster in anticipation of the finish line waiting on the next loop around campus. 

Voices over the loudspeakers and music from the finish line were getting stronger, louder. I'd past this point on prior loops, catching a quick glimpse of earlier finishers, but the sounds didn't seem as pronounced. Maybe it was all mind games now that it was my turn to finish. And suddenly, it was reality. Suddenly, almost too fast, my first half marathon would be over.

The volunteer directing me towards the finish chute seemed genuinely excited for me. He said "you did it, turn here and you're done!" is all I can remember. Turing into the finish chute, lined with strangers cheering, I had a flash back in memory rather than a focus on the finish line. A bright realization of what I was about to do became the only thought. "This wasn't possible a year ago" I thought followed by the blur of images of those who inspired me, supported me to go from couch to 5K to Triathlon to Half Marathon in ten months; my wife and kids, my track team kids.

And there I was. On a frosty night in January, 2015, completing a half marathon with my name, my name, being called over the loudspeaker. I crossed the finish line in 2:26.02 - fairly pedestrian by most standards - but it is what it is and it is what I could do. A finishers medal was hung around my neck, a nice snowflake shaped thing. And then my wife, who'd been outside for nearly two and a half hours, was there. "I'm so proud of you" she said, with a little tearfulness. We hugged just past the finish line  - holding me up would be a more accurate statement - before moving inside to the post-race party.

After a milestone accomplishment such as this, you might have to set a new goal or ask yourself "whats next?" - I don't. I know what's next. On April 26, I'll run my second half marathon (the second in the Four Seasons Challenge) - the Flower City Challenge. Only this time there'll be a duathlon the day before!

This is what I did...Because I Can.

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