Race report: Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon (plus, um, thirty days?!)

NOTE: I started writing this two days ago, on Wednesday. Here’s what I had before the end of the day:

—–

Yep. The countdown ticker on the marathon’s website now says 30 days… good gravy. That’s nuts. But it’s true: November 10 is right around the corner!

I feel a little bit of sadness at the fact that today I’ll run my last long (ie 5+ miles) midweek run. Today it’s 8; next week, 5, then 4, then 3, then (ACK) rest. It’s a bit hard to wrap my head around the fact that the taper starts happening after the 20-miler next weekend, but there it is, sooner than I could have fathomed even back in week 2. I’m already starting to get a bit… whimpery? … at the void that will be left in my days after training ends and the race is done. (I have things planned to fill that void, but still, it’s a little weird on its face, right now.)

——

That was before the 8-mile run, which ended up being cool, crisp, but into a damn headwind the entire time, which did not make the hills very much fun. I finally ran down to a park that I’ve only previously biked through, and in the middle of the day I was more or less alone on the trail. I’m used to city running – well, as ‘city’ as my large college town can get, but I’m more used to dodging pedestrians and inhaling vehicle exhaust and hearing the sounds of people moving than not – so it’s nice when I can get a bit of a respite, even if only for a mile or two. This park runs next to a river and has a paved path, but a couple of unpaved dirt trails can move you off to the side to make a couple of loops, or connect you back to civilization if you don’t feel like running the entire trail. I did end up having to bail on the trail about 2 miles in to get back to the main road, and it was on that dirt-side-trail that I had one of the coolest running moments I’d ever had: there was tall grass along the dirt trail, and as I was moving along, all of these teeny tiny little crickets were jumping out in front of me in waves! I felt like Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea. I actually started laughing, because it was such a ridiculous image: me, being preceded by fraidy-crickets.

The headwind made me feel like my ass had been kicked by the end of the run, but yesterday’s run sort of made up for it. Another chilly 5-miler, but I turned it up at the end and finished feeling good and strong. This run reminded me of a lot of things I always forget about fall running: 1) the feeling of cold air in my lungs, which is a startling change from feeling humid air in my lungs, and always hurts for the first few instances; 2) the return of the loogies! I forgot how much fun it is to accumulate snot in your throat when running! And what a fun game it is to try to get it out without covering yourself in it! 3) dangerous acorns! I’ve nearly rolled my ankles on several of them, which really means I need to be more careful, or just run in the road more, but that’s not always a possibility. Wet leaves will come soon, too, I fear. Wheee! 4) This I actually love: it is SO nice to not be soaked through with sweat when finishing any run, because the sweat actually evaporates instead of just sticking to me. It’s an odd thing to be chilly again in the first few miles of a run, but I’ll take it. (Except maybe my hands: I forgot how quickly they freeze up, even in 55-degree weather. Grrrr.)

Anyway, y’all came here for a race report, and that is what I am going to give you, darnit. This was my third half-marathon this year (and, really, ever), and it ended up being “the one where I didn’t PR, but I felt the best and strongest throughout” – I finally got to experience what it’s like to be on cruise control throughout a race! Woohoo! Here goes nothing…

This was, as the title says, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge half in Washington, D.C. Well, technically it starts in Virginia, at Mount Vernon – George Washington’s estate – and runs up the George Washington Parkway across the Potomac thr0ugh a tiny bit of D.C. proper and over the eponymous bridge into Maryland, where it finishes at the being-developed-into-awesomeness National Harbor. So yes, there is water, and there is wind, even when it is not 55 and raining as it was at the start of the race. It wasn’t raining hard, just sprinkling, and it never got too bad throughout the 13.1 miles, though I was definitely soaked by the time I finished – which, of course, was when the rain stopped. 🙂 So it was chilly and wet, but not terrible; it felt pretty good, actually, and was a nice change from the humidity of the last half I did a few weeks ago.

Getting to the race was not an issue because of how extremely well-planned it was; I was staying in a hotel at the finish line, so I just hopped on a bus that took us to the start. We got there with plenty of time, and I immediately sought out a porta-potty, for which there was almost no line, because – again, good planning! – there were a ton of them.

That’s where the first bad thing happened: I unzipped my butt pocket in my shorts for some unknown reason, and my chapstick fell out and mislocated itself.

I am ADDICTED to chapstick. As in, I have a serious physical craving for it. It’s bad; my lips chap easily, so I apply it every, oh, half-hour or so. To go without it for a few hours is not the worst thing ever, but it’s not ideal. But, when I’m doing my long runs, and have to eat gels occasionally, it’s nice to have it to re-apply after I’m done eating or drinking water – especially on a cold and wet day like this one.

When I realized that it was gone, I retraced my steps and started looking like the crazy person who’s ogling everyone’s shoes when, in fact, I was just trying to search out any nooks or crannies in the ground into which it could have rolled. (And YES, I would absolutely have picked it back up and used it. It has a cap on it, for crying out loud.) No luck there, so I double-checked my coat pockets. Nope, not there either. So, the best hope I had for finding it again was to assume I’d left it in my hotel room, and would get it after the race.

So that was strike one. Strike  two would come later, about eight miles into the race. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me note a potential strike three that ended up not being one: I violated one of the most sacred rules of running races – and got away with it: common running wisdom dictates that you don’t wear anything new on race day. No new shoes, shirts, shorts, etc. – because you don’t want to find out in the middle of a race that the new shorts you got are too short and are chafing you, or that your new shirt (*ahem* the race shirt for the race you’re in, which I never got why people run races in it, but plenty do, so to each their own) is going to be too loose or too tight and itch you or rub you the wrong way. I knew it was probably going to rain, so I wore a light rain jacket over my running singlet, which I figured I could take off and wrap around my waist if I got hot. (HA!) I also had a visor on, to keep water and sweat out of my eyes, but the jacket had a hood that I could pull over the visor if the rain got to be too bad.

I’ve worn the jacket many times,  but never, ever, ever run in it before. I had no idea how I was going to move in it, how it would feel – would it be too heavy? Too light? Too crinkly? Oh well,  I thought, throwing caution to the wind will at least keep me dry. The jacket does have armpit zippers, so I opened those guys up and hoped for the best as we lined up to start.

There’s another thing I should note about tempting fate: since last weekend was my scheduled 19-mile long run, I got up extra-super-early to run 6 miles on the hotel gym’s treadmills a few hours before the race. As insane as this sounds, I actually think it helped me a lot, because my legs were already warmed up and had the kinks out of them by the time the half started. I’m not suggesting that I do this to myself before EVERY half that I run, but it would do me well to keep in mind that a light 3-mile easy run before my next half might not be a bad thing. But, I did think that maybe it would end up tiring me out by the end of the race; happily, that was not the case, but I was a bit worried about that. Because 19 miles… is a lot. (Profound, no?)

Okay, so back to the start. The course overall, as I’d later learn, was fast, and flat, with a downhill start and only a couple of hills of which to speak. I lined up with the 12:00/mile group, and we took off in good order, rambling down the first 3 miles. I was purposefully going slow and letting people pass me, which I think also ended up helping me at the finish; these first few miles were mostly people sorting themselves out and me telling myself not to get too excited and speed up just because it was downhill and/or flat. But I was feeling good, and the cool weather was helping.

Another thing to note: because the race organizers very intelligently capped the field at 5,000 people, we had plenty of room to spread out; possibly due to the weather, about 3,000 people signed up and a few hundred less than that actually showed up. So, there was plenty of space and no overcrowding, which was nice. Also, there were a ton of water stops that were plenty well-stocked even by the time we slow folks came by, and they were staffed by the most ridiculously cheerful people who must have been freezing standing there in the rain with all that water sloshing around. There were actually really great cheer-ers and spectators throughout, and the end of the course happens in the streets of National Harbor, so you really have a crowd cheering you through that last half-mile.

Anyway, miles 4-6. This was where it started raining a bit harder, and I pulled my hood over my visor, which had the interesting effects of a) completely removing my peripheral vision and b) muffling pretty much any sound that was not the dark swish-swish of my jacket fabric as I ran. This sound was actually relaxing; the lack of vision was a bit unnerving, as I felt alone at times, but hearing the rhythm of me moving I think motivated me to keep it going. It may have also helped my breathing settle, too; it was in these miles that I realized that I was feeling no pain, no worry, and had a lot left in the tank for the second half of the race. But, I had to tell myself: not yet.

I got some water and took some gels at mile 6, and then we started moving slightly uphill out of the parkway area and towards the bridge. It’s funny, around mile 8 when the trees clear and you see the bridge for the first time, you’ve forgotten that it’s there, even though in the back of your mind you know it’s there, and it looks impossibly large and far away. But then you go around a couple of turns, and down a huge hill, and before you know it you’re running up the trail that – poof! – pops you out onto the running path on the westbound side of the bridge, separated from the cars by a mere wall of concrete. Some might have thought that weird, but I thought it was really, really cool. Look down: we’re so high up in the air! And there’s water down there! (Don’t fall in; it’s cold.) Look left: there’s the river stretching north to D.C. It’s too bad I can’t see more since it’s overcast and a bit foggy. Look right: WHOA CARS. AWESOME. Also, National Harbor glinting and beckoning in what seems like an impossible distance but is really only 4ish miles. Don’t look up, because then you can’t see where you’re going.

Oh, I almost forgot about strike two of the race: by mile 8, my shoes were totally soaked through with rain and spilled water-stop water, and my toes were going squish-squish-squish in said shoes. Normally this would have caused me panic because I get blisters at the blink of an eye, and have several that I have to bandage as it is, but for some odd reason – adrenaline, maybe? new synthetic socks, perhaps? – I registered this squishing and then forgot about it as much as I could. I was in no pain, still, so I rolled with it.

The first half of the bridge is the first major uphill of the race, and maybe I’m “spoiled” (hahaha I say this with quotations because I hate running up large hills) by running in a mountainous city, but I really didn’t think it was that bad. I couldn’t believe how many people I passed just maintaining a steady pace up the hill, and once we got to the apex in the middle of the bridge, it was back to a downhill beat, and I was still passing people. What the hell? Was I moving too early? Oh, whatever. I was feeling so good that I just decided to keep on keepin’ on. We passed the marker for mile 9 and I took the rest of my gels and ordered myself to get water at the next stop, which was just after mile 10. Perfect.

Into Maryland we wended our way – and we immediately crossed over a bridge that went over the bridge we’d just run across, and getting to look back on it was so cool! – and then downhill for a flat two miles before what they call The Rude Awakening. (The finisher’s medal for this race has a giant hand grabbing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which I later learned – after running past it and completely missing it – comes from a sculpture in the water called “The Awakening”, which has a giant hand and the top of a man’s head coming out of the surface of the water. It’s, um, pretty awesome.) This was the hill at the turnover from mile 11 to mile 12, and it was, truth be told, a bitch to have to climb, but really, not bad at all. Not anything like the monster hill at mile 6 of my first half-marathon – this looked like a bunny slope by comparison. So I put my head down and started pumping my arms, and up I went… still passing people. Another thing people do that I get, but still don’t get: why walk up hills? You’re just elongating the torture, and really, it feels so much more awesome to get to the top and be completely out of breath and get rewarded with a downhill. But, to each their own!

We got to the down-part of that hill and I knew that it was the last mile, and so it was time to really kick it in. I’d been moving at a faster pace since mile 9, but it was now or never by this point. And hell, even though it was downhill, I was flying. Even when the course turned onto a patch of gravel for about 500 yards, I was flying (and thinking, please don’t hit a rock and sprain an ankle, you fool). And passing SO MANY PEOPLE. But I didn’t care; I felt so awesome, so in control, so not caring that I had on a swishy-jacket and no chapstick and completely wet toes and legs. It got to the point where I started picking people out ahead of me and targeting them to pass. One guy in a turquoise outfit was particularly hard to catch, but I did it, right around the time that I heard a familiar voice yelling my name just off to the side. I looked, bewildered for who knows what reason, and it was Saint of a Boyfriend! My race-drained brain could only think to get out the words “OhmygodHI Iloveyou!” and then I was around a corner and gone. And still picking people off. (there’s a really great photo from the race where I’ve just gone past this guy and the look on his face is priceless- like, “what is this chick doing?!” Love it!) And rounding corners and oh my gosh so many people and for God’s sake my hands are freezing, where the HELL is the finish line and where the HELL is the beer. I missed the 13-mile marker, so I had no idea where I was in relation to the finish. Still picking people off. I knew long before then that I was not going to PR, but I figured that if I pushed it I could still finish under 2:20.

And then we rounded one last corner and crap there’s the finish line! And there are three women in tutus directly in my way! Which means my finish line photo is a sliver of me behind three women in tutus, but they looked awesome so it was okay. I finished in 2:19:54, which was indeed sub-2:20, and about five minutes off my PR, but I. Did. Not. Care. I had the biggest grin on my face; I wanted to just keep running, and was kind of sad that it was already over. I got my awesome medal, got a banana and a bagel, found Saint, and we got beer – they had lots of good local stuff on tap, so I got a Flying Dog Belgian IPA. Never had anything so delicious in my life. Of course, I was so cold after ceasing to move that I could barely hold my cup, so we walked and talked and took some pictures of me in front of “The Awakening” and then slowly, wetly, coldly made it back to the hotel.

It was there that I learned that my chapstick really was gone, but I got some later, so it was all good. After the hottest shower of the past year, we packed up our stuff and headed off to our first Redskins game, which they lost – man, the Falcons are good this year, damnit – but was still awesome in its own right. I may write about it later, if the spirit moves me. But know this: free hot dogs and hot chocolate, three rows away from the endzone. I was in HEAVEN.

So, would I run this race again? Absolutely, without a doubt, and I can’t wait to get the email asking for early-bird signups, because I am ALL OVER that sheezy. It was such a great experience from top to bottom, and I know I can’t replicate how I felt next year, but it was so, so excellent to feel that good before, during, and after a race – I was in the smallest amount of pain I’ve ever been after a run for the rest of Sunday and even into Monday, and really felt good and sharp by yesterday’s run. It gives me great hope that my 20-miler next weekend- and, of course, the marathon itself in 28 days AAAAHHHHH! – will both be equally as pain-free-ish and awesome.

Okay, gotta get off this mini-runner’s-high and get myself to class so I can teach. Happy fall running this weekend to all!

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