Just three years ago I wandered into Central Park unsure and nervous for my first race, NYRR’s Grete’s Great Gallup. There were two events that day, a 1.7 mile unscored run followed by a half marathon. It had only been about two months since, on a whim, I’d purposefully run for the first time. I didn’t make it far- just a couple blocks – before my smoker’s lungs howled. I knew I needed to quit smoking, and hoped running would be a cessation tool that’d actually work.
Back then, not unlike elementary school, a mile felt like a major accomplishment. Since I’d successfully worked up to 2 miles, I was pretty confident I’d be able to cover the 1.7 mile distance I’d registered for. Remarkably, the actual running was the least of my worries. Having never been to a road race in any capacity, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To prepare, I’d anxiously pored over NYRR’s website, reviewed photo galleries and even googled inartfully phrased searches such as, “What to expect at my first road race” and “What not to do at a race?”
I arrived early that crisp October morning with three goals for the day, 1) not to embarrass myself, 2) look like I belonged, and 3) finish. Admittedly, I was focused on faking it until I made it to the finish line.
As I awaited my first start, I was greeted by two friendly runners and asked whether I was running the half marathon that morning. I almost burst out laughing. “Nooooooooooo!,” I exclaimed with added emphasis. Initially, I was proud of my internet sleuthing skills, as I figured my efforts to look like a runner who could navigate 13.1 miles had worked. That is until my 1.7 journey began, and I realized that most of the participants seemed to be either elementary or junior high school students, or walkers.
Despite that heaping serving of humble pie, there was something about the race atmosphere I found unmistakably captivating. Whether it was the seemingly professional organization complete with upbeat music blaring at the start, the picture perfect fall weather in Central Park, the joy of crossing the finish, or the belief that I was capable of so much more than completing a 1.7 mile unscored event – I was brimming with excitement, and couldn’t wait to sign up for another.
I was touched with a sense of nostalgia on my short walk Central Park this past Sunday, as I was acutely aware the day’s race would mark the three year anniversary of my first race. What I once thought to be a ridiculously insane distance – 13.1 miles – had become a training staple. And a distance I swore I’d never have the desire to complete – 26.2 miles – well, I was a month away from lining up at the start of my third. Over the course of the intervening years, I’d actually become a runner.
This year I hoped to mark my raceiversary with a half marathon PR. Though any route that encompasses two full loops of Central Park could hardly be considered a PR-friendly course, after the previous week’s Bronx outing I thought it was fully within the realm of possibility. Less certain, however, was whether I could break the sub-1:45 barrier.
With temperatures in the mid-50s, autumn had arrived in Central Park. Listening to the pre-race instructions, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Grete Waitz’s widow Jack take the microphone to address the crowd. Since my first Gallup, I’d come to appreciate the substantial and inspiring contributions to the sport Grete had made, and I found Mr. Waitz’s words laced with spirit.
When it comes to racing, aside from a full marathon, I am not one who has a great grasp of pacing. Further, I found effort descriptors to be too abstract to be helpful. However, midway through the race I had a breakthrough – I finally understood the expression “comfortably uncomfortable.” I was maintaining a generally steady effort, but I could feel consistently pushing myself out of of my comfort zone.
I remember glancing at my watch to check my pace every so often, but, frankly, I didn’t know whether I was on pace or not. I knew my limitations, and for me, trying to do math while on the run was a futile exercise. Besides, running the tangents is nearly impossible at these events, so even if I was able to manage the on-the-go pace computations, they wouldn’t have matched the official time. Further, because the course traversed so many hills, accounting for natural ebbs and flows of the course would only further draw focus away from actually running. Instead of worrying about whether I was on target or not, I decided to devote my attention to remaining comfortably uncomfortable. I figured that if I managed that, the rest would work itself out.
As I passed the 13 mile marker and began the turn onto the 72nd Street transverse the finish line came into sight. I was struck by just how far that .1 mile can seem!
My elapsed time was closing in on 1:45. I’m generally not one to kick at the conclusion of a race, but on this day I was going to give every ounce I had left. My head literally bounced up back and forth- between looking ahead at the nearing finish line and at my wrist. The instant I hit the mat and stopped my watch I wasn’t sure I whether I had made it. I knew it would be close.
With a finishing time of 1:44:57, I may have only had three seconds to spare, but from where I stood, those three seconds felt the same as three minutes. By any definition, it had certainly been a great gallup.
Tradition might hold that on one’s three year anniversary, a leather gift is in order, but for my third raceiversary, a half marathon PR will do just fine.