My First Half in My Last Half

by Stephanie Mumford Brown

Better to show Start than Finish at this stage in life

On April 17, I ran my very first half marathon in the last half of my life. Actually, to be brutally actuarial, I’ll be doing well if the Druthers Helderberg to Hudson Half Marathon is the opening act in the last third of my life.

How was it? Exactly as expected. This is not faint praise.

For both runner and race director, event success relies much more on diligent preparation than impromptu exuberance. In my case, the exuberance did show up for a few minutes around mile 3 when my weeks of training combined with a slightly descending grade to enable that running-wild-and-free I could do this all day feeling.

From a race-management standpoint, there was potential exuberance in the fairgrounds mud produced by a day-before downpour. Think of the Woodstockian bacchanal that might have been! But Race Director Josh Merlis wears a too sober game face on race day to release his inner Merry Prankster. The slop just meant that the event started and finished as a trail race.

Even when things go as expected, there’s still plenty to learn. This newbie with an old soul found out a few things:

You don’t have to practice 13.1 miles to race that distance. The training schedules for first-timers are correct here—pride, adrenaline, and community will keep you going. Ten days before the race I did my longest prep run, just over 11 miles, and I truly felt no worse doing two additional miles on race day.

You’re not going to RUN 13.1 miles. On the steep (if short) hills of Altamont, I could actually walk faster than run, as a longtime speedwalker with 35 ½-inch legs. In my final worn-down miles, though, I was walking even slight uphill grades and only running on flat and descending sections. I was by no means alone, as was evidenced by nearly 100 participants finishing behind me.

What you’re doing isn’t really “racing.” To be competitive in my venerable gender/age division, I’d have to finish at least 30 minutes faster. Cutting my time by 20% would call for a whole other level of training, and I doubt I have the monomania to sustain it, since I avidly do two other summer sports. To be a top finisher overall—sustaining the pace of a casual bicyclist or a working farm tractor for 13.1 miles—not only calls for intensive training, but also inborn physical capabilities that aren’t passed out to just everybody.

So what IS it? At my level, this is a communal endurance experience, not a competition. We chat a bit, we take selfies, we thank the volunteers, we yell “You got this!” at each other. For several miles I let Keri pace me, then we introduced ourselves to each other, learned we were both first-halfers, and traded Gu for Kleenex. After a few miles I passed her because I’m fairly fearless on downhills, and eventually she passed me because she’s 25 years younger. All in all, it’s a satisfying way to spend a morning. And it’s not not fun.

Just because you’re not competitive doesn’t mean you’re not competing. Your rival is your own data. My goal was to finish in less than three hours. My secret goals were, on the one hand, to beat 2:45, and on the other, to avoid DFL. Next year, with the return to the original, almost entirely downhill Helderberg to Hudson route, I’ll aim to beat 2:30.

No, you’re not nuts to be doing this at this age, yet you are. One irony of distance running is that it forces fit people to experience disability. Even if you’re not actually injured, at the end of a race that presses you to the limit of your capabilities, your sore muscles hobble you in ways that provide an all-too-good sense of what limited mobility is like for the aged. This applies whether you’re running 13.1 miles on asphalt at 68 or running 100 miles over mountain ranges at 28, because we all run all-out in competition.

So yeah, I voluntarily caused myself to feel like a centenarian for a few hours after I finished. Arguably this is nuts.

A week later, though, only one body part (my left foot) was still pissed off at me. The rest of me felt like a kid again, running wild and free. And appreciating it even more, knowing what’s inevitably down the road a piece.

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