Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The "Accidental" Half

Not to brag or anything, but I won my first half marathon back in January.

To be totally candid with you, those words are slightly misleading. Technically, the race was cancelled, but I did it anyway, with zero competition, which makes me officially the winner in all age groups and categories. Though it feels kind of good to say I won (thanks, Isla for helping make lemonade out of lemons and pointing out my first-place victory opportunity), I don't know that I would recommend running a solo non-race to anyone else. I set out to do something hard but running a "race" in a foreign place where you have to create your own course, with temperatures 30 degrees higher than you trained in and no water stations, and not a single cheer to be had, turned out to be a bit of a challenge.

In reality, this was my slowest half to date, but I finished! I like to say that I started training by accident. My daughter decided one day (and one day alone) that she was going to take up running and so proceeded to take over the running app on my phone, as teens are prone to do. She adjusted all the settings so that she could train for a 5K, which meant the app would default to short little jaunts every time I tried to start a run. Being that I am an older geezer with technology, I couldn't figure out how to reverse the situation, other than to silently yell "ISLA!" in my head in frustration every time I went for a run. What had my child done with my phone to mess with it so thoroughly? 

After a month of inaudibly swearing her name, I finally scrolled through the app and, on a whim, toggled the button that said I was training for a half. My hope was that it would then naturally default to runs with a little more distance. Lo and behold, it worked! And believe it or not, I quickly discovered that I loved the running schedule it spit out for me: intervals, speed runs, distance runs, recovery runs, all without me having to use a single brain cell to figure out what I was going to do each day. Never had I enjoyed having someone tell me what to do so much. But I make enough decisions in my day-to-day, and adding how far and what type of run I would be doing to my list of things to think (and overthink) about was just too much. Plus, I'd never really done intervals or speed runs and I was learning that I loved the variety. I even found myself usually opting for the "guided" runs, which meant I had the voice of a Nike Running coach jumping in at various points to remind me of my form and breathing. Old Kelsie would hate this. But New-And-Improving-Kelsie appreciated the encouragement, even from the recorded voice of a stranger. My husband was 0% surprised that this running program was striking a chord with me. "What? You loving a schedule and a plan? Shocking," he said, with no attempt to hide his sarcasm.

I began my accidental half marathon training in early October. Two weeks in, I found myself toying with the idea of running an actual half, but I didn't share the idea aloud for quite some time. It had been years since I'd done one, and I was a lot slower now, but the idea of building back up was appealing. I was pouring most of my energy into the physical and mental health of my kids, and I needed something just for me to keep me sane. I was running 5 days a week but most of the runs were shorter distances, and I was feeling good. An idea started percolating, and then determination set in.

Despite having completed 5 or 6 halves, I had never done one alone. I'd avoided solo long runs like the plague. I liked being distracted by social conversations. I'd never challenged myself to actually be present in a half. I would be turning 40 in August of 2024, and I wanted to greet the new decade with strength and tenacity, to remind myself that I could do hard things. After so many years of dismissing or silencing my body, I wanted to practice being as present as possible in it. I wanted to learn my capabilities, test out my mental strength, listen to my body when parts started twinging, focus on the ways my breath could replenish and restore, experience what it felt like when I started running out of fuel and then pay attention to how it felt when I gave it what it needed. 

The last couple years, my Christmas wish has been for a solo weekend away in January. I have built a rhythm where I begin a new year reflecting on the year prior, and then spend some time looking ahead at the year to come. As I continued doing the runs my app spit out before me, I began dreaming about combining a weekend away with a destination half marathon. In so doing, I could kill three important Kelsie birds with one stone: weekend away alone, running, plus ADVENTURE.

I spent way too many hours researching half marathons across the country. Ultimately I boiled my desired race criteria down to a short list: there needed to be sunshine, I wanted a relatively flat course, I wanted it to be held somewhere I would like to visit, and I needed to keep to a strict budget. I landed on the Seaside Half Marathon in Ventura, CA, about 30 minutes outside of Santa Barbara. It felt like such a splurge and yet I had the full support of my husband and a sense of peace about the decision, so I booked – flights, Airbnb, a rental car, the race. I WAS DOING THIS!

Fast forward through the cold and wet winter months in the PNW (why on earth would anyone train for a half in these messy weather months?). I had completed my “14 week” training plan over the span of 16 weeks. Looking back, it is crystal clear to me that this "accidental" training was far from coincidental. I had no way of knowing what hardships I would face in December and early January, with a sudden and traumatic medical crisis with my dad. Meanwhile, my three kids were each facing their own challenges and they all seemed to be coming to a head at once. I found myself with time to do little else other than care for my people and then go on a run. Care for my people and go on a run. Over and over on repeat. The number of times I was in a hospital or taking someone to an appointment had reached an all-time high. 

As I stared down the week of my race, it felt like both the absolute worst time to peace out on my life for 5 days, and the absolute best time. I desperately needed a break to process everything I was wading through. Training for a known goal had felt like such a buoy for my sanity during a period of time where there seemed to be endless unknowns. But Jesus knew. And the path had been clearly orchestrated before me.

The day before my flight out, I told my son to think of me that weekend during his basketball game. At that point I should just be finishing up my half marathon. He asked me what time my race started and so I pulled up the website to refresh my memory. I looked at the page three times. Each time the words remained the same: “Seaside Half Marathon Postponed.” 

I couldn’t believe it. Surely I was looking at last year’s race? I checked again. Nope, this page was for 2024. I quickly scanned my inbox, looking for some sort of alert and came away empty. I found a contact phone number and email address and reached out to both. No response. What the heck was going on!? I Googled the race. I couldn’t find any information anywhere. I was supposed to leave in just over 24 hours and I’d paid for everything. An hour later, I received an email reply with a screenshot of another email, one from 3 weeks ago that had never arrived in my inbox. Sure enough, due to situations outside of the race organization’s control, the race had to be postponed. 

Well, this was certainly an unexpected wrench in my plans! Now this trip that I had so been looking forward to felt a tiny bit less justified. I would be spending our family vacation budget on a trip whose set purpose had been eliminated. Feelings of guilt began creeping up around me. Could I mentally justify my trip? Was my need for time away still valuable enough, even without the race? The answer is a resounding YES. I hate that even for a second I would think otherwise. I was disappointed that after all this training, I wouldn’t have a new running shirt to show for it, but I could regroup.

Without a formal race, I was going to have to get a little creative. The Ventura course was supposed to begin in a coastal campground, cut onto the Pacific Coast Highway, and then continue onto a biking trail for a ways before the turn around point. I didn't feel great about jaunting about on the side of the highway without the protection of orange safety cones that a race typically provides, so I turned to Google maps for a new strategy. I mapped out a route in Santa Barbara, and then packed my bags. 

Upon arriving in Ventura, I did what I always do when I visit a new place: I hit up Trader Joe's for some groceries. I mentioned my cancelled race to my cashier, and she was quick to offer me a new route suggestion in Ventura proper. She sounded like she knew what she was talking about, so I gladly accepted the instructions she'd scribbled on the back of my receipt in Sharpie. 

One glorious thing about running a non-race is that you can do it whenever you want to. In regular life, I like to have everything planned out, but I've learned that when I am doing something hard (like, for instance, packing up my campsite, or running a half marathon), "surprising" myself and doing it earlier than expected gives me a strange sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Is it the feeling of being ahead of schedule that I love? Mostly, I think it is just that I didn't waste excess energy in a state of dread, anticipating the hard thing. It's just better when I don't “know” it's coming. But only when I do it to myself. Make sense of that tomfoolery!

I walked a short portion of the Ventura waterfront path the morning after I arrived, taking careful note of the parks with drinking fountains, and testing to make sure they had running water. Oh, to live in California where the drinking fountains can stay on in winter - such luxury! Back home, there was no water to be had in public fountains since October. I brought my own water belt, but it only carried 16 ounces and temperatures were supposed to hit mid-70s, nearly double what I'd trained in. I knew I would need refills. 

Now that I’d scoped out the area, what was stopping me from bumping my race up a day? I knew it would feel good to enjoy 2 full days with it behind me, rather than one. So I decided to go for it the following day.


(To be continued...)

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posted by kelsie