Monday, October 11, 2021

2021 Crystal Lake Half Marathon: The one that almost broke me.

 I won't mince words about this race. Physically and emotionally it was one of the hardest race I've ever done.

Everytime I sit down to write this post I'm also at a loss for what to say, because the circumstances that drove the emotion behind this race are still very real to me. I'm still dealing with them every day (and yeah I'm gonna be vague about all of that). The truth is, this race was only the beginning of what are turning out to be the most taxing months of my life. Eventually the dust will settle, but I'm still so far from that "finish" that I can't even comprehend how to explain what I was going through emotionally during this race.

But I guess let me try?

I spent all summer thinking I would cruise through that finish line (due to the hard work and training all summer!) with a smile on my face and get a great picture ringing the PR bell, knocking 10 minutes off last year's time.

Spoiler alert: It did not go that way. I did PR...but it was a fight at the end. It was a fight to knock 5 minutes off. Hell. It was a fight to show up for the race. So read on to find out about that.

I'm going to skip my normal full-race-experience recap and just get into it. If you want logistic details, see my CL Aquathon post, because most of that stuff is the same.

Getting to the Start Line

On Saturday morning (September 4th), after a tumultuous night, I somehow managed to get my 2 mile "shakeout" run in. At this point, I realized I had hit probably the lowest of lows in my personal life. I was - to put it mildly - a massive fucking wreck. But after 12 weeks of training hard for this race - the early mornings and speed workouts and long runs and everything - I decided that I couldn't not show up. With everything going on, I felt I deserved to do this one thing for myself.

So I left my house, drove to packet pickup, and then went to my mom's and...did nothing. Which I suppose is exactly what I needed to do before I race. Do nothing, interspersed with lots of crying.

As the night wound down, I got ready for bed and did my pre-race prep. I laid out my outfit, packed my gear check bag, and ran through my plan for the next day. In the end, I knew the accomplishment would be just showing up, but I spent all summer chasing a goal and I couldn't let that go. I knew it would be a struggle - I was coming off more than a week of poor sleep, poor eating, poor mental state...etc etc etc...but I owed it a shot regardless.

Flat Christina, ready for the race.

Coach Megan picked the absolute perfect design for this tank.

I laid down and tried to sleep (I was exhausted), but my alarm still went off at too-early-o'clock the next morning.

I got ready, but I felt physically sick the whole time. I grabbed one of the kids' granola bars to eat before the start and barely choked it down. I got in my pre-race coffee, and packed up my pre workout to drink 30 minutes before the start. I hydrated like I knew I had to, praying I wouldn't have gut issues from stress.

My mom drove me to Main Beach, parked and gave me a kiss and a hug and reassurances that I would do fine. I trusted that she was right.

I love that this race starts at Main Beach, because there's nostalgia all over for me. This is where I went to summer camp as a kid, and even though it's changed it's somehow exactly the same. Here are some pre-race pics, to give you an idea:
Race morning at Main Beach!

Right before my warmup and shakeout run. I know there's sadness in those eyes, and I embraced it. Making it to the start became the goal, and I met it.

Smith's beach chair!

One of the racers was a firefighter who geared up for all 13.1.

Beautiful morning at the beach.

Hanging out before the start, talking with the other Performance Training Runners (I'm all the way on the right!).

FYI: I'm so grateful for this training program and the group of people who came with it. Seeing and training with them every Wednesday was a fun addition to summer, and they made me feel 100% less alone on race day ❤
The Half Marathon Performance Training group! It was a fun 12 weeks getting to the start line! (Left to Right: Bill, Coach Megan, Cori, Me, Sue, Kristi).

Pre race gear check, trying to shove my pack and sweatshirt into a tiny purple bag. I'm a chronic over-packer 😬

I saw these two women SO MANY TIMES out on the course!!

Race Director Trudy Wakeman out by the start!

Walking to the starting line.

I love this race-day atmosphere!

Shout out to Cori (all the way on the left - blue tank, orange shoes), who was subjected to one of my race morning breakdowns and gave me a little pep talk before we went out.


Last year I PR'd this race by 8 minutes, and I hadn't even trained for it. I'd actually run a 10 miler the week before, just to make sure I could run double digits. And after getting that PR I wondered..."what if I had actually trained...?" So when the training program was offered, I signed up right away.

And after 12 weeks of solid training with a coach - which PS was one of the best investments ever - I was off.

I'll let you Where's Waldo? this one.

I really need to work on landing over my foot more consistently...

I was going to put my personal life on hold for 13.1 miles.

I was going to run around a town I love and relive a lifetime of memories as I did.

I was going to push my pace as long as my body would let me, and then I would slow down and enjoy the rest of the run.

I had my mantras lined up.
My 2016 Chicago Marathon mantra: You can. You will. You already are.
A text from my coach after my hellish week: Your run fitness is solid.
And a line from Luca for whenever I needed to shut up the voice in my head: Silenzio, Bruno!

I forgot to take a picture until after I had already showered :(

I stuck to Coach Megan's advice and took the first two miles pretty easy. I had plenty before me, I didn't need to impress anyone. I will say though, it's hard to not get caught up in the race atmosphere and burn through those first few miles on pure adrenaline.

I hit Mile 1 in 9:32, going a little fast. I hit Mile 2 in 9:44, my sunglasses steaming from the cold air hitting my hot face, right when the sun was peeking over the houses and blinding me. Convenient...

I did my best to take my mind off of anything that could make it falter. I kept my pace easy by talking to other runners. I thanked volunteers. I talked to spectators and thanked them. From Miles 3 to 4 I followed another runner who I was keeping pace with by staring at his bright red shoes. I congratulated and had a whole conversation with someone running his first half marathon, having worked up to the distance from 10k in the spring. He had a funny shirt that said on the back "Yes I am: ✅ Crazy ✅ In Pain ✅ I paid to do this" - it still wasn't as cool as my shirt, but props to the guy!

Mile 3 rolled in at 9:25 - and Mile 4 matched it with 9:25 again. Mile 3 surprised me because it was mostly on crushed limestone through Lippold Park, so when we emerged I wasn't going to slow my roll. If I did it on trail, I could do it on road, right?

Somewhere around this time I decided to keep my miles sub-10 as long as I could. I was confident I could get to 8 miles without having to drop pace, so on I went.

Mile 5 had us coming back toward the lake, and I clocked in at 9:37. Another good mile, on pace.

Aside: I'm including this next, seemingly random picture because I owe this woman a shout out. When I went for my warm up jog (which ended up being very short, and not at all the 5-10 min it was supposed to be), I had another massive breakdown. I could feel it coming so I ran away from the beach area, and got to a point where I just had to stop and let it all come out. This woman - whose name is Olivia - came over to comfort me and make sure I was alright. (I was decidedly not alright, but she stuck around to make sure I would be okay.) So she gets a shout out for being a good person and comforting a complete stranger.

Now where were we? Ah yes. Mile 6.

I was pretty sure there would be photographs between miles 5 and 6, and that my running group friend Kristi would be volunteering. I was excited for a little boost, and I was feeling awesome coming around the turn back by the lake. I saw Kristi and she cheered so loudly for me ❤ I riled up the spectators (no one was cheering!) by saying "I need you to cheer louder!!" and they did! I made faces at Dana as I ran by her:

Making faces at Dana

Still feeling strong and - as always - happy to be racing.

I ran through Mile 6 in 9:28 and was still feeling good, but this is where the course starts to get a little less exciting, and I admittedly usually feel good through this point. I was keeping a very good pace though, and was consistently passing people so I tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other - at that good pace.

Mile 7 hit in 9:39, and I felt good enough that I thought it was time to move the goalpost. I knew I would run another sub-10 mile with no issues, so I decided to aim for the first 10, sub-10. Doing so would ensure I banked enough time that I could walk during the last 5k if I needed to and (hopefully) hit my PR goal.

Mile 8 (9:32) brought me out of Wedgewood and onto Golf Course Road, which I'm very familiar with. I had to choke back a moment, remembering hopping onto the sidewalk and running with Ant Man on this part of the course last year. It was another reminder that the kids wouldn't be at the finish, which I was really upset about.

But I pushed it down and kept going. I was starting to feel the miles and the pace. When I hit Mile 9 in 9:29 I had another flashback - this was where I started to fall apart during the race last year. I just kept telling myself 'one more mile and you can do what you want' to keep my legs moving at that sub-10 pace.

The further I went, the more I felt it. I was so grateful to finally hit Mile 10 - 9:38 - and I stopped to walk and drink some water. I'd hit my 10 miles in 1:35: 34, which I'm pretty sure is a record for me. And I took that win. Shit was getting hard, and my physical and mental game were both slipping. This is also the part of the course I like the least - it's residential and boring without any real crowd support all I wanted was to get onto the prairie path.

I did my best to work on a .1 walk, .9 run ratio. I told myself I'd done the work, I would PR no matter what (true, even if I wouldn't meet the time goals I wanted), and I just needed to keep moving. 

Mile 11 came in at 11:02. A definite drop. I walked my .1, then went onwards with the running. My run pace had slowed to about 10:40 and felt like a crawl, so I was definitely done banking any kind of time. It was pure attrition at that point. Just get to the finish.

The last two miles of this race are deceptively windy. I know CL like the back of my hand, and it's maddening knowing just how close you are to the finish as the crow flies or the car drives, but that the course takes you the opposite direction...multiple times.

By the time I got to Mile 12 (11:42) I was so done. I was doner than done. I was the donest. And I still had a mile (and a quarter, the course is long!) to go. And I knew it.

And around that point is when I thought about everything that was going to come with the finish line, and my emotions started to break through. I was tired from everything. My life alone exhausted me. This race was exhausting me. I didn't hit my (albeit, lofty) A goal. I didn't keep pace. I still had a mile left. I was going to cry at the finish and everyone would see. There was no way I wouldn't cry. The kids wouldn't be there. As much as I wanted them there, to hear Ant tell me "Mommy you're all sweaty!" and to have Dre immediately try to hug wasn't going to happen. And I was reaching my breaking point. My life was falling apart, and I was about to too.

Silenzio, Bruno!

So I thanked the volunteers.

Silenzio, Bruno!

And I thought about how a year ago, my left hamstring was really bothering me by this point, and now it wasn't.

Silenzio, Bruno!

I thought about how this course isn't 13.1 miles, and why don't they move the start back .15 miles, or move the finish up .15 miles? It would probably be easier to move the start, right? Hmm, I wonder if I just am not running enough tangents? But surely that wouldn't add .15 miles?

Silenzio, Bruno!

Bottom line, I distracted myself enough. I gave feeble waves to people walking their dogs.

And just as I came up on 13 miles...there was Coach Megan, ready to run me in.

Annnnnd I started crying. While running. Which is such a fantastic thing to do to your lungs when they are already on fire. I knew this could happen (Megan being there, not me crying) but having tangible support for what had become the hardest mental part of the race was overwhelming.

And Megan did exactly what her coaching had done for me all summer: She pushed me to what I thought was impossible. My pace dropped from 10:30 to 8:30. I rolled past mile 13 in 10:09. I told myself "There is only a quarter mile left. You have run a quarter mile a million times. You can run this pace for a quarter mile. Silenzio, Bruno!" Megan queued me into shorter strides up the last (evil) incline. Around the turns. And she peeled off right as the finish line appeared.

In I ran.
Feeling it.

Not the smile I had at Mile 5. This was pure determination.

Do you even run if you don't have a race picture starting or stopping your Garmin?

There it was in front of me. After 2 hours, 10 minutes, and 33 seconds, the PR bell I'd been chasing for a year.

And I rang it. While I cried.

As I cried, my mom, my cousin Jennie, and my Best Runner Friend Lisa joined Megan in gathering around me and comforting me as the moment and all of the emotions went through me. It still brings me to tears because as I have continued to walk through some of the hardest months of my life, what has stood out to me is how supportive the women around me have been, and how grateful I am for that.

I won't lie. I sat there crying for so long that someone actually had to ask me to move so she could ring the bell. I felt bad...but also didn't care. Because sometimes running is about more than running. It is about everything that comes with your life. Sometimes it's about chasing something, and sometimes it's about running from something.

This race turned out to be both.

I owe these finish line pics to Lisa. She had the foresight to step back and take them, knowing that sometimes we need to mark even the hardest of moments. She also drove 90 minutes from Milwaukee to see me finish, after finding out the boys wouldn't be there...because she's the best Best Runner Friend ❤

I can't write a post about this race without giving a massive shout out to Megan for helping me through. Her coaching kept me moving and chasing goals all summer, even if it was just hitting paces for speedwork. I cannot tell you how much of a difference it made having a coach, and it's become a necessity for me in my running "career". The Half Marathon Performance Training program is a gem and a steal, and if you're targeting the CL Half (or any fall half) next year, you should sign up. Smith PT and Running Academy offers run coaching for all levels, and Megan is who you work with. I have nothing but great things to say - if you're questioning it, just do it. You won't regret it.

Megan and I have some ultra fun adventuring planned for 2022, and I know she's just as excited as I am. No matter what (else) comes at me in life, I'm at least relieved to know I don't have to plan out my own training schedule 😉

Finally...I have no shame in saying I've become attached to this race. How can you not become attached to a home town challenge? As long as I can keep my ducks in a row  uhh in the same general vicinity of each other err in the same pond, I will be back for it again next year.

2:10:33 is the time to beat.


(And ps...I'd like to have fewer reasons to cry next year.)