This is the story of how I ended up crossing the finish lines at two half marathons in the same week. While this was not an intentional feat, I ended up walking away with two new checkmarks on my 50 States List, a huge half marathon PR and a new understanding of distance racing. Now, I’m excited to share this with all of you!
I had been looking forward to racing the Philadelphia Half Marathon for a couple of months when I got a call from the owner of Charm City Run. The running store I work for won a contest sponsored by Brooks, a running shoe and apparel brand, and as our prize, we had the opportunity to send two representatives to run Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas. I was honored that I was asked to attend and quickly realized that not only was the race in about two and a half weeks, it was the weekend before the Philly Half. After a little bit of research on the race I would soon be running, I learned that the Vegas Half was an evening race on Sunday, making Saturday morning’s Philly Half within the same week.
But, trip to Vegas? Of course I was in! Coincidentally, I had been talking to one of my best friends earlier in the week about how our goal of completing a half marathon in all 50 states was going to be much harder than I originally anticipated. Direct quote: “There are so many random states that are going to be hard to travel to. Like when are we ever going to go to Nevada?” “We’ll have to go to Vegas sometime,” was her reply. Three days later, I got the phone call.
Leading up to Vegas, anyone who knew I was racing two half marathons in one week always asked, “What’s your race plan? Are you going to run easy for one of them?” That was a tough question to answer. For me, part of the fun of running is racing. I love competing and a race means giving my all on that particular day to see what I can do. That doesn’t mean that I always run my fastest time, but I always aim to do my best given the training I’ve put in (or lack there of) and the situation on race day. I had been wanting to PR at the Philly Half for a long time but I figured I might as well go all out at Vegas because regardless of my speed, my legs would be feeling the effects of racing 6 days before when I lined up at Philly. I didn’t have a very specific race plan for Vegas – I just decided to get out there and see what I could do!
Fast forward to race day in Vegas on November 12th. I would describe the experience as overwhelming but fun. The Rock ’n’ Roll race weekend has about 40,000 runners, with more than 20,000 in the half marathon alone. My Charm City Run partner-in-crime was running the 10K and starting from a different point on the Las Vegas strip so I headed off to conquer the half marathon starting line on my own. And wow – I’m pretty sure getting to the start was more stressful than the race itself. With so many people running, the crowds were huge and it was difficult to find bag check, bathrooms and the entrances to the starting corrals. I definitely felt like a lost fish in the sea as I tried to make my way through the swarms of runners. Eventually, I did find everything and made my way to the starting line. Due to the large size of the race, there are three starting waves – 4:30pm, 5:00pm and 5:30pm (did I mention that this is a late afternoon race?) and within each wave, about 12 corrals. You are seeded by your projected finish time. Starting in corral 2 of the first wave meant walking through another few thousand people and then standing shoulder to shoulder in our enclosed area until it was time to start. Corrals close 20 minutes before your start time. I’m usually someone running the bathroom 10 minutes before a race to go one last time and warming up until the last second so having to stand still for that long felt somewhat tortuous. The only perk was the music and crowd energy.
In true Las Vegas fashion, the race started with flames shooting in the area and blaring pump-up music. And suddenly, we were off! I dodged around runners for the first 2 miles, and tried to pick up my speed from my starting 8 minute mile pace. Eventually I settled into 7:30ish pace and finally started to enjoy the experience of running the strip at night. It was a bit odd to run in the dark but the neon signs and rock bands along the way were great company. Bonus – running up and down the strip made for an almost completely flat race. And although the temperature was about 70 degrees, there was very little humidity, making for an interesting experience as my sweat immediately evaporated.
Miles 2 through 8 I really found my groove and my legs found new strength as I started to think about things much bigger than my race. Before the start, we took a moment of silence for the victims of the recent Las Vegas shooting and along the course, Vegas Strong signs were everywhere. Looking at those and the other casinos themed for other international landmarks – Paris, London, New York – I started to think about all the horrible things that our world has experienced this past year. Every day that I can run safely is a gift that I don’t want to take for granted and my thoughts are with the families of victims of horrible crimes who are enduring so much pain right now – a pain much greater than my legs being tired or my breathing becoming labored.
Speaking of starting to get tired, although I felt consistent and was running on pace for a sub 1:40 finish time, once I reached mile 9, things started to take a turn for the worse. I started to feel extremely fatigued and faint and it was hard to motivate my body to maintain it’s speed. By mile 11, I was in extreme discomfort and could no longer control how fast I was moving because all of my mental energy was being channeled towards keeping myself from stopping altogether. I lost feeling in my arms and legs and was having trouble breathing evenly. I had been trying to take sips of water and Gatorade along the way but hadn’t been able to get much down my throat (more of my Gatorade ended up on my tank top than in my mouth). The last mile I mostly ran with my eyes closed as I winced through the pain. I knew that I was on the edge of fainting but wanted to finish so badly. Every .1 of a mile felt more like a full mile as streams of runner passed my now almost 9 minute mile pace slog.
When I did reach that long-awaited finish line, I did drop to the ground but thankfully, didn’t fully pass out. After standing up, I focused on making it through the extremely long finish corral. “Just get to the water, just get to the water,” I repeated in my head as photographers asked, “Do you want a picture with your medal?” I was definitely not in the state for a photo shoot so I slowly trudged through the half mile stretch to grab much needed water bottles and Gatorade.
By the time I collected my gear check bag and called my parents, I had collected myself a little bit. My official finishing time was 1:42:21. Not what I wanted with my previous PR at 1:39:39 but I was happy just to finish. If I had zonked during a race a couple of years ago, it would have totally broken me. I would have nose-dived into a week-long depression where everything seemed horrible because I didn’t run my best race. This time around I immediately looked to the future and tried to take a positive spin on it. “It’s all about how you bounce back, right?” I texted to my friends asking about the race. The race was still an amazing, unique experience, the time was my second fastest half marathon finish ever and now I had to do what I could to collect myself to race the Philadelphia Half Marathon in 6 days.
“You don’t fuel during half marathons?” my co-worker Deirdre asked me at the race after-party that night. “No, but I think I may need to start taking some electrolytes while I race,” I replied. “Lizzy, I think you’re going to need a little more than that!” This conversation was a definite turning point for me. Although I work for a running store, know all about the benefits of fueling and help other runners figure out their race day nutrition needs, I have never once taken any food or supplements during a race, besides sips of whatever is provided along the way. Tuesday morning after Vegas, I purchased a few Huma gel packets and hoped for the best as I practiced taking them on my runs during the few days I had between races.
I spent the 5 days between Vegas and Philly doing everything I could to help myself recover and allow my body to feel it’s best. I skipped my usual Tuesday morning track workout and focused on short, easy-paced runs. The gels I was testing seemed to go down with no problem, although I did feel a little funny fueling during 3-5 mile runs.
Before I knew it, it was the morning of November 18th and time to race Philly! I met up with a few of my best friends and former Marist teammates and we headed downtown for the 7:30am start. Once again – I was preparing to try my best at the race but I honestly had no idea what to expect. As long as I finished and didn’t feel as horrible as I did in Vegas, I was going to consider it a win for the day. I was just happy to be sporting a Marist alumni singlet and toeing the starting line with a few of my favorite people. If you had asked me what I was thinking before I race, I couldn’t have told you because my mind was pretty much void of all expectations – good or bad. Unlike Vegas, we hopped into our corral only about 2 minutes before gun went off for the first wave and tried to keep warm until the last second in sweats with a temperate in the high 30s.
My first mile split was 7:23. Definitely quicker than my first few miles in Vegas and right on pace for a PR. Although, at this point I wasn’t convinced I could maintain it. I told myself it was OK to slow down and just do what I could – I was trying to give myself a free pass given the recent race experience in Vegas. The joke was on me though – my ending average pace would be 7:24, and although there was some variation here and there, I pretty much maintained this speed the entire race. The biggest difference? This time I was prepared to fuel. I tucked a Huma gel in my shorts zipper pocket (strawberry lemonade flavor for those curious) and slowly sucked it down around mile 7.5 – timed purposefully so I could wash it down at the water station just after mile 8. I took a cup of water at each station along the course and slowed my pace enough that I could take actual gulps of liquid.
There was also great points of motivation along the way – going back and forth with my teammate Kelley for the majority of the race, running through a vegan-themed cheering zone and seeing another teammate and my Dad and sister on the sidelines. The course was also fantastic! A few rolling hills added some variation but the relatively flat route made for an enjoyable race.
At the halfway point, I knew that I was still on pace for a PR but again, tried not to get too excited because after Vegas, I knew that anything could happen in those last few miles. By mile 10, I calculated that I could slow to 9 minute mile pace and still PR. And by mile 12, I was actually smiling as I ran the last hill, thinking to myself, “OK Lizzy, you are definitely about to PR, now it’s just a question of by how much.” I don’t even think I can explain what I was feeling as I crossed that finish line. I was overwhelmed with a swell of pride and happiness. According to my watch, I had run just under 1:37, a PR by more than 2 minutes and 40 seconds. I was beaming as I accepted my medal and much appreciated space blanket from the race volunteers.
My sister was actually alarmed at how happy I was after the race and my teammates seemed a little too surprised that I was still upright after the finish line. I give most of the credit for my sustained energy to the strawberry lemonade Huma (did I mention that it also has a nice little boost of caffeine?). I’m proud of myself for the PR, but even more so, I am happy with myself for getting to the point where I can be proud of myself after a race and enjoy every small accomplishment. It’s taken me a while to get to a place where I fully appreciate running a good race. I honestly never imagined that I could turn around after my poor race experience in Vegas and run such a huge PR (my official time was 1:36:58). Now, I’m so glad that I zonked there so I could have some sense talked into me (thanks, Deirdre!) and have my last minute fueling plan in place for Philly. I know that without Vegas, I wouldn’t have had the same end result in Philly so I am extremely thankful, in more ways than one, that I got the opportunity to travel to the Rock ‘n’ Roll race. I’m also so appreciative that I have amazing lifelong friends from running who are just as game to meet up and run a half marathon.
To sum things up, running 2 half marathons in 1 week was quite the journey. Those 7 days taught me the importance of maintaining a positive attitude after a poor race, allowing myself to celebrate accomplishments and fueling during distance races. Vegas and Philly were definitely contrasting experiences but I am so thankful to both races for allowing me to grow a lot as a runner in a short period of time and enjoy two exciting adventures with friends. Why can’t I do this every week? 🙂
Have you ever run back to back races or completed a race challenge during a weekend? What did you learn? Share your own stories in the comments below!