We jogged away from our hotel, five of us, loping along the sidewalk awkwardly. The sky began to lighten behind us as we broke ranks to flow around other groups of runners headed for the start. Goose bumps rose on my bare arms, but the morning was distinctly warmish. Dan looked down at his watch, “We just hit nine minute pace,” he said, through a smile. Someone called, “Let’s pull it back,” and a laugh traveled through our band of PR-hopefuls.
Not 24 hours ago, I had just met this group of Colorado runners, spearheaded by my friend Dan, as we converged on Phoenix for the Rock ‘n Roll Arizona Half Marathon. We shared a light three mile shakeout run the day before and found the conversation as easy as the pace. I got to know my new weekend comrades as we spoke to one another in the common language of runners, swapping training philosophies, workouts, nutrition secrets, and race tactics.
Runners dressed in various shades of the neon color spectrum emptied into Tempe’s main drag around us. The pace quickened as the start line came into view and drops of adrenaline escaped into our systems. Each man broke off to complete the final touches of their warmups.
We reconvened in the starting corral and exchanged fist bumps, handshakes, and “good lucks.” I replayed our drive along the course through the dark the night before and tried to mentally prepare. I zeroed in on the long hill at mile 10, its drop on the backside, and 180 degree turn back up the way we came. But, it was at least an hour away. I kept my race plans vague, saying only that I hoped to PR (1:19:29 at the time), and would let the race unfold. I signed up merely to join my friends for a warm weekend race in January, knowing that my ultimate goal still lay some weeks away in Boston.
At the gun, I burst forward feeling the morning chill burning off. I followed C.J. who hoped to run 1:17 on the day, and found myself quickly on his shoulder. The pace felt good and I let myself consider holding with him for the race – a hard commitment to make with 13 miles still to cover. C.J. looked down at his wrist and hit the brakes, prompting me to look at my watch: 5:25. Shit. I pulled back on the reigns and came through mile 1 in 5:52. C.J. began to gap me and I resigned to fall back and find a comfortable gear between 6:00 and 6:10 and run like a metronome through at least half way. The course’s long straightaways helped support this plan.
Nearing mile 2, I felt footsteps at my back and expected the runner to go by before realizing that he was content to sit on my shoulder. He was clearly in distress and I wondered if he knew we still had 11 miles to go. I maintained my pace, letting the run come to me, and felt the flow beneath my feet. Eventually, the heavy breather fell off the back and I ran alone once again.
The pace yo-yoed between 6:10 and 6:04 before finally settling in at 6:02. When I came through 10K, I had two runners alongside me, whom I thought about staying with and realized that I simply needed to run my own race. It could have been the dryness, the travel the day before, or simply mileage catching up to me, but I was suddenly aware of the effort and wanted to push no harder.
At mile 7, the course turned right and I peered up ahead at the long, straight incline. The road tilted upward just enough to let you know you were climbing and I began to grind. My thoughts turned solely to reaching mile 10 rather than moving forward with the pace. What happened to the fast, flat course? I thought. I alternated between reading the signs of the chain restaurants crammed into each strip mall and looking ahead toward the runners in front of me, willing them to make a turn to signal the end of this stretch. I recalled my previous half marathon PR race in Providence and how this same 5K (miles 7-10) would make the difference between perseverance (and a PR) and settling. I closed my eyes for a moment, listened to the steady rhythm of my feet on the road, the flow of my breath, and the sun on my face. I reopened, reset, and marshaled on.
When I turned off the incline, I recognized the buildings from our drive the night before and knew that the elevation spike I dreaded at the start was not far off, and quickly questioned the mile markings since I’d be hitting it nearly a mile earlier than anticipated. Still, I felt my legs turnover faster and the breeze of a second wind coming up behind me. I came upon the two runners who had gone by before, smiled at the black-clad Lulu Lemon gang that faux-flashed me, and gave a thumbs up to the football team running sprints up the hill with us.
I made that turn to start climbing when I saw C.J. flying down the hill. I called to him, thinking how far ahead he had gotten, and taking a moment to appreciate his oncoming PR. Smooth and strong, I chanted in my head. I began to imagine the declivity on the far side, only having to come back up, when I suddenly reached a set of gates marking not just the top of the hill but also the turnaround. A surge of adrenaline shot through me and I flew down the hill calling to Steve, Dan, and Shaun who had just begun their climb.
I started picking off runners as though they were standing still and watched as the pace on my watch steadily dropped from 6:00 to 5:47, 5:45, and settling on 5:43. At 12 miles, I started to lose a bit of that gusto but knew that I could push on for just one more mile. I waited for the course map’s promised rollercoaster downhill finish but instead began climbing once again. I turned to my watch and saw I still had .75 to go and decided to cutoff the watch looking from then on. My breath came in short puffs and I became very aware that the sun was fully up and on us now with no clouds to shield us.
The course merged with the five mile "mini marathoners" and I weaved through them, finally able to hear the announcer welcoming everyone to the finish. The balloon arch reached up and I threw in one last kick, crossing the line in 1:18:17. A shiny new PR off a training run.
I reunited with C.J. who also hit his goal and we cheered in Dan and Steve, but somehow missing Shaun. More fist bumps, sweaty hugs, and high-fives as we shared in each other’s new PRs.
We began the slow, aching jog back to our hotel, trying to coax our tired, stiff legs back into action. This time, the 9:00 pace didn’t feel so bad.