Lessons from Richmond's Half Marathon

Active & Adventurous - Fitness & Competition

Richmond’s Fall Race: Lessons Learned in a Welcoming Setting

November is a great time for a long-distance race. Though heavy-duty training may begin in the summer, most long runs fall in the moderate-temperature mornings of September and October, with the final training runs along lanes dotted with the yellow, orange and crimson of changing leaves. Though many of the leaves have fallen by the race, there are still plenty of golden glows and the temperatures are lingering close to that perfect not-too-hot-not-too-cold mark.

Richmond’s November half marathon provides a variety of scenery and grand gatherings of cheering spectators. This year, over 6,000 made their way over the course.

It was after leaving the nostalgic Richmond Northside neighborhood, soon after mile 8, that my thoughts turned inward.

This was my second half marathon. I've been running races since 2007, so I've learned much about training and about racing. I know my competitive streak and use it to its fullest. At 51 years old, I can hold my own very well.

Though I forced my attention to external distractions all along this year's half marathon route, I can tell you more about my surroundings before that 8-mile mark. The memories of the rest of the race are clouded by increasing pain.

One of the Sports Backers Half Marathon Training Team coaches had run beside me around the 3-mile mark. “Take it easy,” he said, “and don’t push yourself too much yet, but then at the 10-mile mark, ask yourself what you’ve got. I know you’ve got a lot, so that’s the time to start pushing it.” So those were my plans, but the pain that set in around mile 8 were making that end push doubtful.

Rewind One Month

It was one month before the race that I developed chondromalacia patellae, runner’s knee. Yes, I’d been pushing my training, though not above the recommended, but had pushed hill work, taken the long training run along Richmond’s hilly Riverside Drive, and bumped the weekly mileage above 20. I’d had runner’s knee before, but this was significantly worse and time off running wasn’t healing it, so I took my problem to my physician, a family doctor who is also an athlete and trainer. She gave me a brace and a prescription for Voltaren gel, told me to stick with my training schedule but with half of my time on elliptical or other low-impact exercise, and sent me to a physical therapist. The PT gave me exercises and an arch insert.

And I changed my goal. I’d run the previous half in 1:50:42, and felt confident I could achieve 1:48 this year. Based on my training runs, I was well on my way to reaching my goal. After two weeks almost entirely off of training and fears I wouldn’t be able to run the half at all, I decided that crossing the finish line would still be a worthy goal.

The professional guidance helped my knee, and my 8-mile training run the Saturday before the half convinced me that my earlier goal was still within reach—or at least I would be able to finish at a faster time than the 2010 half.

The 8-mile training run posed another problem, though: the arch insert my PT had fashioned for me caused a huge blister on my arch. I had to stop halfway through to totally remove the insert, though the damage had been done. I didn’t let that scare me, though, because moleskin seemed to mask that issue entirely.

The Race

Saturday, November 12, 2011 was dawning as I crossed the Powhite bridge over the James River en route to the 2011 McDonald’s Half Marathon. I felt strong and as prepared as I could be, considering the time off from training for knee issues and that the previous week—taper week though it was—had been packed with commitments to job, family and friends rather than race prep. My knee felt healthy, and I had completed my pre-race checklist.

I started strong, but still cognizant of pacing myself. My socks were bunching up in my feet—odd, but that wouldn’t stop me. My muscles began to feel a little tired around mile 3, but I know that a race is not a feel-good time. The ache was no more than expected. Soon afterwards, I could feel the blister on my arch, despite freshly administered moleskin, but vowed I would run through whatever pain that might bring.

The blister was spreading but the discomfort didn’t get unbearable, and my knee was feeling fine. I could tell I was not at my best on the hills, but I was still good. I wound my way with the throng through Bryan Park, enjoyed the spectators and their signs and cheers along the way.

Soon before mile 9, a new pain struck. My heel hurt. The sensation toggled between a tender bruise on the heel to a cramp beneath my foot, and once to a pop upon landing. I tried shifting my pace and form to accommodate, though nothing would totally alleviate the pain. Mile 10 was coming up, when my coach told me to pump it up. I wasn’t so sure that would be possible. Another coach began running with me, offering encouragement and guidance. I kept going. I began looking for mile marker 11. Two more miles after that, I told myself. I can make it.

A third coach began running with me, pushing up my pace a bit. It felt good to be pushing it, but the pain was still there with every footfall and with every push off of the toes.

Those last two miles were torture. I knew I could go faster. My lungs weren’t stressed at all and my muscles were feeling fine. This is when I could really push myself and achieve my highest goals, but the intensity of my foot pain held me back. I knew I could consider stopping, that if I was running through a stress fracture that I might be doing long-term harm, but I never really seriously entertained that possibility. Not after 13 weeks of training and coming back from runner's knee issues.

About that time, my knee brace came loose. I had to step aside to take it off entirely, adding 20 seconds to my final time.

Despite the pain, I pushed the last quarter mile at a 7:23 pace.

I’ve learned some huge lessons over the past few weeks. Oh, I may have heard these words before, but I had to experience their truth before embracing them for myself. 

  • Reaching a running goal entails two separate and equally important sub-goals—training for your goal and maintaining your health. You can’t reach the finish line if you are injured from pushing too hard, from carelessness, or from not taking care of yourself.
  • As you train, pay attention to details like wearing the right shoes and maintaining a proper running form.
  • There are also proactive exercises that can help you stay injury free—though they may not be as glamorous as hard training miles and the benefit may not be as apparent, they are no less important.

I’m happy that I passed the finish line. I at least ran the half marathon in exactly the same time as last year, achieving 12th place in my age group. I realize this means I could have done much better without the injuries, but I’m grateful for the lessons that I’ve learned. After all, there’s always next year and a new goal, one I’m even better prepared for.  

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