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HMF Surftown Half Marathon: the race that taught me everything

Yesterday I ran the HMF Surftown Half Marathon. I had run the race several times in the past and always looked forward to the flat, scenic course. In 2014 I ran my PR on these roads and I had always hoped that I could continue the tradition of running fast on this course. This year, however, it would end up being a turning point for me.

I began my running career (I use that term very loosely, as I am truly an amateur runner) as a road runner, back in 2011. I dabbled in a few short cross-country races, but I primarily stuck to the roads as I found them easier and I could run fast (ok, fast for me). Like most new runners, I improved rapidly over the first couple of years and enjoyed a few age group placings. My long-term goal became to run the granddaddy: The Boston Marathon. I ran my first marathon in 2013 and finished in 4:47. I ran another one three months later, taking 44 minutes off my time to finish in 4:13. My BQ was 4:00, so I was fairly confident that I could continue to improve and drop my time down below four hours.

My shorter race times were improving as well, and I started getting more and more age group podiums. My half marathon and marathon times had stabilized, though, hovering around 2:00 and 4:15, respectively. It was frustrating to work so hard and not see any improvement. I’m the type of person that loses interest in something if I don’t have a goal to work towards, and it seemed like getting faster was not a realistic goal. It was then that I decided it was time to up the ante and see if I could do more than the marathon distance.

I ran the Salomon Trail Running Festival 50k in May 2015, and I was hooked. I loved the longer distance, and I was getting better at staying on my feet on the trail. I still couldn’t shake my dream of running Boston, so that summer I kept training for marathons. I had two in mind: the Hartford Marathon in October and the new Fighting Seabees Marathon in April. There was plenty of recovery and retraining time in between, so I registered for both.

Unfortunately, both races played out exactly the same way: running goal pace for the first 13-14 miles and then completely blowing up. I finished Hartford in 4:28 and Seabees in 4:19. I had also decided at the last minute to squeeze another one in between, and ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 4:19. I was clearly a 4:20 marathoner and not a 4:00. In between all of this insanity, I did increasingly tougher and tougher trail marathons and was discovering a deep love for being in the woods. I figured it was time to take the plunge and registered for my first 100k.

I also continued to run half marathons, turning in times ranging from 1:55 to 2:05. You know the definition of insanity, right? Repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Yep, I was doing that with deadly accuracy. Ok, enough was enough.   Time to focus on the 100k and the races that I would need to run as tune-ups for the big tamale. From May to August 2015 I ran all trail races, thoroughly enjoying them all (despite the foul language, cursing of Mother Nature, and a couple of diggers). I began to wonder if I could be happy without running any of the road races that had become my favorites over the years. I can sometimes be a creature of habit, enjoying annual races and trying to beat previous years’ times. But what used to be fun, enjoyable times was now starting to feel like a frustrating job that I hated to go to. It was the beginning of the end.

I decided at the last minute to register for Surftown, thinking it was a shoe-in for a PR. It was a flat, fast, familiar course, and all the leg strength I had gained with all the trail miles was sure to give me enough gas to take at least a few seconds off my previous PR. Well, someone forgot to tell Mother Nature the plan, and she delivered not only the most hot and humid morning of 2016, but also a 20 mph WSW wind that we would get in our faces for at least 4 miles of the course. Undeterred, I forged ahead with my PR goal in mind.

The gun went off and we were running. I was sweating profusely after the first mile. My first thought was, Good lord how on Earth was I ever going to get through 13 miles of this crap? Any good coach will tell you that if you are at mile one and you are already thinking ahead to future miles, you’re screwed. I desperately tried to stay in the moment and stay mentally checked in. I chatted with a few people I knew, trying to stay relaxed and steady. When we made the turn to the southwest, I felt my soul wilt. I was already struggling and now this effing wind. I visibly slowed with each passing minute.

Finally at mile 6 I caught up with my friend Caitlin, whom I was actually surprised to see because she is usually much faster than me. She was also having a very hard time in those conditions, so we commiserated together for a mile or so. We both talked about the hopes we’d had for the race and how we knew the goals we had set for ourselves were getting tossed out the window. It was then that we said the hell with it and decided to just run the rest of the race together and whatever time showed on the clock, well, that would be it.

As we ran/walked the last 7 miles, I began to seriously consider why I still did this. I was miserable, hot, and hungry. I longed for the aid station food served at ultras. I dreamed of being able to walk on the course without feeling like a failure. And as cars whizzed by, I wished for the solitude and peace of the trail. I turned to Caitlin and said, “I’m done with road racing. This doesn’t make me happy anymore.” She responded with, “I’ve always admired you and looked up to you as a runner, and I am SO GLAD to hear you say that!!!”. Turns out she was thinking and feeling the same thing.

So, in two hours and ten minutes, I completed my last road “race”, hand in hand with Caitlin and with a smile on my face. I will continue to participate in races that I’ve come to love, but it will be for the good times only and the clock will be non-existent for me. I’ve already registered for my first 50 miler, and in January I will register for my second 100k. Instead of running the Boston Marathon in 2018, I will (hopefully) run my first 100 miler. Dreams and goals change, and we shouldn’t be afraid to change with them. Just because I can’t run a four hour marathon doesn’t mean that I don’t still have room for improvement in my running “career”. So thank you, Surftown, for helping me to see that. At least I got a cool medal and a great finish line photo  🙂

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