There are many reasons why we run. We run to feel good, we run to achieve goals, we run to start or end the day well. Sometimes, rare moments that can’t be put into words as well as feelings, we run to have control over something in our lives. To prove a point even if we don’t know what that is. To think about something as small and primordial as the very next step in front of us. Runners sometimes need to run, because it’s the only thing that makes sense in a world where so many things don’t at all. These are the runs that are the angry or angsty or sad songs on a day we aren’t thinking too hard about them, just merely basking in the feeling. They’re the strangely entertaining scenery whirring by you when you really meant to read on the train. We’ve all had runs like these, that feel like we could run forever as fast as we can, nothing is impossible. Rarely does this run coincide with an actual race. For the Princeton Half Marathon, it did for me. Every single second of this race, there was nothing else I was meant to do but hammer the course to the ground. It was my duty.
I thought it was going to be a horrible race. I hardly slept, hardly ate, and hardly drank water the night before. I even started to feel sick to my stomach a half hour before the start. I woke up just before 5 AM 100% ready to run this race. I was ready at 11 PM as well, in fact. I did the course two weeks before and it was definitely hilly. Definitely not fast, I thought. I didn’t even think a PR was in the cards even if it were flat, or maybe I was in shape for it, but I didn’t think I’d have it on that day.
My plan on the line was to just run. See what I had in me and run with it, whatever that was. Try to keep my effort level in the 6:50-7:05/mile range give or take depending on the elevation. The wind had howled overnight and in the morning, it had hardly stopped. The temperature was around 40 degrees. I could tell just from my warmup that we were about to get blown all over the road, but I wasn’t too concerned. The first couple miles were heading down to the battlefield, and by that point the crowd around me had thinned out considerably. We were on uneven gravel at the start of the third mile, then back onto the road which was so windy, then back onto gravel again. Miles 1-4: 6:34, 6:51, 7:06, 6:54.
In the woods, a girl snuck up on me and passed me. I already knew there was one girl way head of me from the start; I could see her ponytail and pink socks. I forced myself to stay focused and stay right on this other girl, and I did. I passed her back shortly after on an uphill on Alexander, and made sure I stayed strong and dropped her. The Washington Rd. hill was coming, the part everyone was dreading but I knew that once it was over, my favorite part of the race would begin. I tend to feel mentally and physically better during the second half of a half marathon, and I already knew I preferred the second half of the course. So I was actually excited. I kept it controlled up the hill, and absorbed the cheers from the spectators. At the top was the Nassau Street crossing and a sweet downhill into the north side of town. All four corners were lined with people cheering, and crossing that street was was one of my favorite moments from the race. Miles 5-6: 6:54, 7:17 (hill #1).
The next mile was mostly downhill or flat, with a short uphill at the end combined with what was definitely the worst gust of wind of the entire race. I started to really find my stride in this mile though, into the next. The splits sounded fast but didn’t feel fast. Miles 7-8: 6:39, 6:36.
In the next neighborhood there was a left turn on a random street. I knew this because I did the course two weeks before with a queue sheet in my shorts pocket, basically. I was pretty focused on my own race, but I did notice a few runners up ahead running straight, past the turn. I was coming up on a guy I knew, and I heard him ask a woman standing on the corner if this was in fact where to turn. She seemed to reply in the affirmative, and I was confident in my knowledge of the course anyway, so I turned with everyone else around me and didn’t think much else of what was happening there. At another corner up ahead, I heard a bunch of screaming girls and turned to see at least one girl I coached at Girls on the Run on the bed of a pickup truck, cheering for “Coach Meghan.” It made me smile and push on toward hill #2, on Snowden and Herrontown. I knew this hill was going to be tougher than the first because if its location on the course and the fact that it was so long and gradual. I brought a Gu for the first time in a half, and my plan was for it to kick in during the final few miles, so I had half of it before the mile 9 water stop…but I failed to actually grab a cup of water. The cups were plastic, so that was part of the problem. I attempted to grab it about three times, but ultimately ended up with the taste of plain Gu in my mouth until the next water stop. Just before that one, I finished the Gu and actually took water successfully. I also passed a pivotal competitor at that first water station, I’ll add…. Miles 9-11: 6:49, 7:25 (hill #2), 6:44.
Then the race really began. Or maybe it was phase three. One of our longstanding group runners, Patrick, has always given me great running and racing advice, and words of wisdom in general. He uses the expression “take him to the woodshed” frequently, referring to basically dropping the hammer when running with someone and seeing if he comes along. Since we were passing through his neighborhood, and coincidentally the hill where he tends to take people to said woodshed, I thought to myself, to the woodshed! and it gave me some extra energy.
Mile 12 had a big net downhill, and mile 13 had a net uphill but included some downhill too. I remembered my long run when I previewed the course two weeks before, and how I said, “If I feel good at this point in the race, it’s going to be so much fun.” Well, I did. And it was. I ran the twelfth mile in 6:21 still feeling strong. I saw and heard some people I knew and didn’t know calling out to me on the curb. One group told me I was the “first woman.” Then another. I was confused, because I was definitely second. That girl had been ahead of me from the start. I might have even corrected someone using two fingers and a muffled “I think I’m second,” like I couldn’t take credit. I figured they had just come out of their houses and had missed her. Mile 13 ticked off in 6:15 but I wasn’t looking at my watch then, I was just hammering toward the finish line. Paul Robeson Place, where the race started and ended, was packed with spectators, some of them friends, some Girls on the Run girls and their families, and many others I didn’t know. I knew even before I saw the clock that I was going to finish under 90 minutes, and it was the greatest feeling to have accomplished that – my ultimate half marathon goal – right here in my town with all these people who know me here supporting me. Official finish time: 1:29:36.
When I finished, people took pictures and asked me questions. At that point, I thought the other girl must have dropped out, if I really did finish first. It was soon discovered, a few minutes later, that the girl was among the dozen or so people who had continued straight at that important turn on the course. In other words, they didn’t know the course and got
lost, but there was also no race marshal there to direct them. Obviously, none of my races are without complications. You can read about the race’s ultimate decision on the matter here. Summary? I finished first, they gave the other girl the win, they made up a time for her (which is kind of weird, but it is what it is). I did win the Mayor’s Cup, for the fastest finisher among runners from businesses in town (it’s currently being engraved!). The mayor was cool and called me inspiring, which was really nice to hear coming from her! I had work all day after that, but we did get to escape and head over to Triumph for the race sponsors’ party, which included good food, a slideshow from the race, networking, a presentation, and growlers galore. And yes I did “clean up nicely,” but there are no photos to prove it.
The Princeton Half Marathon was the most meaningful experience I have ever had during a race or any run at all. I have never felt so much control over my own emotions and the outcome of an event. Before, I had always thought of good races being a product of x, y, and z: eating right, sleeping right, training right. And they are, but only to an extent. It was this race that taught me the power of the mind and the heart, and what they can do when they work together. This race was a fun game, a 13.1-mile reckless journey in an invincible fast car. A one hour, twenty-nine minute, thirty-six second song that has powerful lyrics but no conceivable words. What were x, y, and z? The chirping calls of “Coach Meghan” from the curbs, the feedback from the streets I’ve grown to know so well, and the feeling that this race was more than a race, it was something I needed to do, as best I could.
Things in life still don’t make sense. There’s still no tangible control. But whenever I get sucked inside to that place where the sad songs actually have words, and the scenery on the train does make you think about the who and what and why, I have this 1:29:36-long moment of my life to remember, and the memory gives me the energy to feel okay.