RW Half Recap

It’s been a crazy week. Everyone at Runner’s World has been planning the first RW Half & Festival since long before I claimed a cubicle, and as the event weekend finally approached, excitement—and preparatory workload—reached an Olympic-level frenzy.

I resisted pressure to sign up for the Hat Trick (running a 5K, 10K and half-marathon in two consecutive days) and only signed up for the half-marathon. No big deal, right? After all, the RW Half fell right toward the end of Philly Marathon training, so running 13.1 miles should feel like a quick jaunt through the park in wheelie shoes.

Well, somehow I found a way to make it a big deal.

When I registered for the race, I also registered with Charity Bets to start raising money for the Mighty Milers, a local health organization for kids. You enter a finish-time goal and a pledge-amount goal, and then hustle your loved ones into gambling on whether you can actually do it.

What I didn’t know is that after you click “enter” on your goals, you’re helpless to edit them. You can’t roll back or change your mind or even travel back in time to kill your parents before they start the chain of events that leads to your birth and subsequent Charity Bets registry. THERE IS NO GOING BACK. The physical fitness of hundreds of sad-eyed youths now depends on your ultimate success.

So going into the race I found myself committed to a 1:40 PR with the understanding that countless donors had gambled their fortunes on me improving my only other half-marathon time by a full five minutes.

It sure sounded plausible until I did the actual math. 7:38 per mile. 13.1 7:38’s. 13.1 MILES OF 7:38-MINUTE MILES. Can we all agree that’s a lot of 7:38’s? It was starting to look like a lot of needy tweens might not get their virtual-reality medicine balls, or trampoline hoverboards, or whatever it is modern kids use in gym class these days.

The pressure was crushing. A Rocky IV-level training montage began in earnest, with the help of a rented snow machine and my dog cast in the Dolph Lundgren role. I did speed work. I did hill repeats. I pulled a rock-filled sled across a frozen lake. I actually stretched. But I’ll spare you the full horrors of my Soviet-style training regimen. This recap is supposed to be covering the actual race.

The event took place in Bethlehem, Pa.—about a 20-minute drive from where I live in Allentown. Bethlehem has a kind of odd beauty. There’s the neatly manicured historical section of town, with its quaint Colonial Williamsburg vibe, offset by the south side’s industrial decay and a tangled, rotting husk of metal known as the SteelStacks. It’s a strange place of post-apocalyptic charm, which I find uplifting in these bland, McMansion-ed times.

From what I’ve heard, Billy Joel’s “Allentown” was actually written about the Steel Mill in Bethlehem, where the 5-K and 10-K started, and the half-marathon ended under a flaming steel arch. Check out this photo slideshow to get the area’s full visual effect. Or, you know, just watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and picture all the robots wearing neon compression socks. Presumably all the movie’s ominous parts were filmed at the iconic SteelStacks.

Prior to the half marathon’s start, Runner’s World staff members were issued white technical tees that read “RUNNER’S WORLD EDITOR” in no uncertain terms on the back. Race participants were then urged to find and interact with us to their hearts’ content.

This was terrifying to me for a number of reasons.

First, a disclaimer so I don’t come across as unsociable—in any other situation, I love to be “found and interacted” with. I spent the previous day wearing a staff shirt at the event expo, joyously yukking it up with all kinds of runners and soaking up RW Half praise as if I had cooked up the entire event myself.

But when it comes to racing, I reserve the right to fall into weeping, asthmatic pieces far from the judgment of those who might hold Runner’s World to a higher standard of dignity. Not all of us are skilled enough to manage more than two gerunds at any given time, and when it comes to “running,” “breathing” and “talking,” the latter will always get the short shrift. So when the starting gun went off, I had a flash of terror that casual conversation might be my undoing.

I also felt like a bad-seed EDITOR for wearing headphones, which were strongly discouraged by the official race pamphlet. In my defense, I only activated my motivational playlist of obscene rap jams when absolutely necessary at Mile 11. Yet the shameful cords hung around my neck throughout the entire race, advertising a certain antisocial lawlessness that I’m probably over-thinking.  (Every race demands an official power jam—this time mine was Angel Haze, “Werkin’ Girls.”)

In short, the EDITOR T-shirts were a responsibility I did not take lightly.

As far as the course was concerned, the route was top-shelf. Striking foliage. Dramatic church spires. Historical manors. HILLS. Yes, the half-marathon had hills. All in all, they weren’t too bad, though the brutal climb on Illick’s Mill made me wish I could dig deep and come up with a more inspirational mantra than, “PI-ZZA! PI-ZA! PI-ZA!” You know, something a little more introspective or meditative or appealing to the sympathies of a deity or two. I’m envious of you runners that have deep and fulfilling internal monologues during races. All I can seem to focus on is food, beer, and the conversion of oxygen to carbon dioxide. It’s a badassthmatic runner’s holy trinity.

Hey, look! It's the course route.

I didn’t drink at all the day before the race and went to bed at 10 p.m., but somehow I still felt vaguely hungover all morning. Instead of wearing my fuel utility belt (the one that makes me feel like a dehydration-prone Batman), I opted for a handheld water bottle with a fashionable bandanna tied around it like a hipster scarf.

The bandanna wasn’t added for western flair, nor was it part of some gay water-bottle hanky code. I needed it because when the back of your shirt screams “EDITOR”—and you’ve been billed as a “Snot Rocket Expert” in a web video—you can’t exactly empty the contents of your sinuses at leisure. And as one of those pitiful souls allergic to “nature in general,” a staggering quantity of my body’s fluids demand to be jettisoned.

Ahem. So my water bottle looked pretty cool, and I got to look like one of those power-walking moms who march through the neighborhood pumping hand weights. I’m going to count the many spectators that high-fived me as a sign this look was a success.

My Garmin decided to sleep in, and by Mile 10 I had long since lost sight of the 1:40 pace group, so I had no idea how fast I was running for most of the race. I do know the second half of the course was downhill—a stroke of genius that did not go unappreciated by my increasingly heavy legs.

To cut a long story (or stream-of-consciousness blog entry, as it were) short, I dragged my wheezing carcass across the finish line at 1:40:38—a mere :38 from what I pledged to Charity Bets I would run. My level of triumph was immediately uncertain. Did I do it or not? Would the kids get my share of fitness programming despite those 38 seconds of failure? I decided to assume they would and celebrate the PR, regardless.

And being at the RW Half festival proceeded to feel incredible.

Now, for some other feelings and emotions:

Until recently, being around groups of runners has always made me feel like a 9th-grade transfer student who covers up crippling shyness by acting vaguely aloof and too into an obscure book to care about sitting alone at lunch. The truth is, I’d love to be one of those pack runners who huddle together for warmth in marathon corrals—chatting, joking, mysteriously wearing matching, customized scrunchies.

But for whatever reason, I’ve never feel like I fit in with other runners the way I used to with cyclists. Identity is a weird thing—even after running four marathons, I still don’t feel like a “real” runner. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I only ever run alone, and when I meet new people, they’re always surprised that I run at all, let alone 50 miles a week. I guess I just don’t look like a runner.

But the RW Half Festival had a vibe of inclusivity, and being there—looking out at an expo filled with neon spandex and fuel utility belts—I finally felt like runners were my people. It was just the energy of the event. I felt like I was at a Comic Con for particularly fit nerds—a place where diverse throngs of weirdos buzz with the energy of collective obsession.

I haven’t participated in a ton of organized running events, but I could tell that this one was unique. Thank you to everyone at Runner’s World for a fantastic weekend. Thank you, Runner’s World readers, for being so enthusiastic and fun. Thank you to anyone who read this far for having the persistence and fortitude of an ultramarathoner. Thank you, Charity Bets donors!

And thank you Olympian Shalane Flanagan for being one of the great runners of all time (and standing this close to my sweaty, post-race mug)!