I hadn’t originally planned on running Baltimore this year – I was going to focus on kicking ass in Army and calling it a day. Well, after hearing everyone in my training group talking about Baltimore, it’s clear that I am very susceptible to peer pressure. Six days after kicking asphalt at Army, I laced up again for Baltimore. This is the third time I’ve run the Baltimore Half and my sixth half marathon. I still can’t believe that – six. Wow.
Because of the Orioles’ success this year all of the races were moved an hour earlier. I was dreading this (I’ve made peace with 5:00am wakeup calls, but 4:00am?? Come on, now, that’s just obscene…) but it turned out to be a really great turn of events. I set my alarm for 3:45am and 4:00am, but naturally woke up at 1:50am. I laid in bed reading the news on my phone for a few minutes then had to decide – go back to sleep or get up? If I went back to sleep I’d probably be extra groggy when I woke up, but on the other hand it was 2:00am… So I got up around 2:30am, watched a bit of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and got myself together in a rather leisurely fashion. Thank goodness CNN has actual programming on early in the mornings – I really couldn’t do infomercials that morning. I took 15 minutes to foam roll, triple checked that I had everything I needed, and quietly crept out of the house as to not wake my parents.
I left at 4:30am and got down to the stadium and into a parking spot at 5:12am. If you’ve never seen Baltimore at this time of morning, I highly recommend it – it’s surprisingly gorgeous with all the lights lit up and few people moving about. Back on My Feet’s camp didn’t open until 5:30am, so I hung out in my (well heated) car until then. Last time I ran with BOMF I missed their circle up before the race and really wanted to see it this year – so being up so early really did have its benefits. The circle was really inspirational. Being at a marathon in and of itself is inspirational, but knowing what so many of these people have overcome to be there really takes it up another notch.
Afterwards I gathered my things and went over to Charm City Run’s gathering site right by the marathon/relay/5k starting line. Every year they rent out one of the bars right behind Camden Yards as home base for the day – it’s the perfect location to gather everyone together from all of the training groups across the area. They had some traditional runner fare set out for us, but also had a buffet of gels, chomps, and bars to take or try (after the race, of course, if you don’t usually use those offered).
It was really great seeing all of the marathoners excited about their race. For some it was their first, for others their tenth, but the excitement (and anxiety) was almost indiscernible. A bit before 7:00am they all went and took their place in the chute and I staked a claim on prime viewing territory just beyond the starting line with some of my training partners.
Being from Baltimore, one of the great joys of home-town sporting events is hearing the deafening “O!!” when the National Anthem is sung – even more so this year with it resonating off of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I always tear up a bit when I hear the Anthem (yes, I’m one of them), but the O never fails to make me smile.
At 7:00am the gun went off, there was confetti everywhere, and thousands on runners started off on their journey for the day. The 5k started at 7:20am, and then things got real. It was our turn.
We returned to the (warm) bar to begin last minute preparations and decide what to take to the starting corral and on the course with us. This is always the worst part of any race for me – the waiting. For smaller races I’ve started arriving closer and closer to the start time so I don’t have to kill time, which just makes me anxious, but that isn’t really an option on BRF day. I had no real goal for Baltimore, so there was nothing to get anxious about. I just wanted to finish in the upright position under my own power. My legs weren’t 100% recovered from Army, so it would have been foolish to go in with a hard time goal. If I felt good I was going to try to aim for 2:30 (2:20 if I felt amazing), but that wasn’t the point of this – I just wanted to run in a great half marathon and have an awesome day.
The first two miles Melissa, Neenee, and I ran together, holding a comfortable pace as we weaved in and out of the crowd. Unlike past years, Fayette Street wasn’t completely shut down to traffic making it a bit tight. I’m not sure why they made the change this year but I hope they don’t repeat it again. In the first mile you need all the room you can get to spread out.
The course took a slightly different path this year, turning down President and then across Baltimore Street rather than following Fayette up to Johns Hopkins Hospital. I always enjoyed running past Hopkins, but this new route cut about 50′ of elevation out, which I will never complain about. This course is hilly enough – any help we can get saving our energy for the big hills later is good in my book!
In the third mile, as we came down around Patterson Park I lost Melissa and Neenee but fell into a comfortable cruising pace. My achilles was fighting me a bit and I saw no point in pushing it this early in the race – I knew I’d have to call on it later.
One of the best things about Baltimore (and why I’m a sucker for it) is the crowd support. The city really does come out strong on race day. I think that was the biggest let down about Army – there just wasn’t the crowd support that I’m used to. In Baltimore, people in neighborhoods you’d never expect come out in droves to cheer for us, or at least stare and wonder what the hell we’re doing. The course follows basically the same route year after year and its great to see how the different neighborhoods morph over the years, especially the one that was nothing but boarded up houses the first time I ran this in 2009. It certainly hasn’t been revitalized like other parts of the city, but it has changed in the last five years.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Baltimore Half, it’s basically 11 miles of uphill. No joke. True, there are a few downhills, but they’re inverted molehills, not proper downhills. Somewhere around mile 5-ish I caught up with and passed Neenee. Taking advantage of the downhill I Gu-ed knowing I would need the extra fuel later. My mouth was so dry though that it took a good minute to get the entire pack down. At the relay exchange around mile 6 I took my first walk break. Right about this point I also started to question my desire to run a full marathon next year. If I’m feeling like this at mile 6, how am I going to make it another 20?? It’s funny how even a minute or two break can make such a huge difference. After that I pushed up the hills towards Lake Montebello.
Lake Montebello is the only flat point in the race – halfway just over over halfway through for the HM – and has a huge buffet of gels, bananas, and chips at the far side. Typically I stop at this point and grab a bag of Utz potato chips (mmmm salt….), but I just wanted to keep pushing through this time. I made sure to ham it up a bit for the photographers on the other side of the Lake (even though I still ended up looking like hell in most of the pictures), taking exaggerated strides, hoping I might actually get a picture with one foot off the ground for a change.
After Lake Montebello the course turns up 33rd Street. 33rd Street looks mostly flat but is actually uphill nearly the entire way. This part of the course is like one big block party, so it’s easy to overlook the hills, but they can sneak up on you if you aren’t aware of them. I have finally learned this. The pain in my legs at this point got so bad I actually stopped to take two Advil, which I just happened to throw in my bag on my way out the door. I know they say you shouldn’t take Advil while running, but I also knew I wouldn’t have made it through without it because the pain was getting that bad. I followed it with a way-too-early Gu so I wouldn’t end up with stomach troubles on top of the leg troubles.
Mile 10 was just beyond this, right by the Johns Hopkins University campus. I needed mile 10. I had just run 10 miles last week. After 10 miles, it’s just a 5k. A mostly downhill 5k. The only hurdle remaining is the Howard Street Bridge. The last two times I’ve run Baltimore that bridge has been like a scene from the walking dead. It’s less than two miles from the finish and a number of the marathoners are stating to (or already have) hit the wall while the half marathoners are just running out of steam. The last two times I was substantially farther back in the pack than I was this year, but there were still a number of people falling off their pace on the bridge this year. I can honestly say my training this year paid off – I barely noticed the former-Mt. Everest this time. Don’t get me wrong – it certainly wasn’t a cake walk – but it didn’t feel like Mt. Everest. It felt like just another late-in-the-run hill. I had a ridiculous grin on my face the entire way up.
Just beyond the bridge is another hill – the last one before you turn down Eutaw Street to bring it home. Somewhere along the way I had passed Melissa because she caught up with me on this last hill. We ran together for a bit before I pulled off for one last short walk break. At this point you can see Camden Yards and I threw it into another gear. It’s literally all downhill until you hit the spine. Most of the runners were running on the right side of the cones which were lined up down the middle of the road, but I didn’t see any traffic on the left side or cops/volunteers telling me not to run there, so I made a bee line for the shade on the left side of the road. There was a nice chilly wind, but it wasn’t enough – the shade made a world of difference. My legs were screaming but the finish line was in sight. At this point the runners’ high totally kicked in. At this point, I could have kept going on forever. At this point, I totally knew that I will run the full next year and I will kick its ass.
As I got closer to the stadium, the crows got thicker and thicker and louder and louder. I so needed that. As I hit the spine, which is flat, I focused on the faces and signs in the crowd, pulling on their energy to keep moving as fast as I could. When I got through the other side of Camden Yards and the finish line was just .1 mile away, I gave it everything. My legs already hurt, so there was no point in giving in – they’re going to hurt whether I go fast or slow so I might as well go fast.
After I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at my Garmin.
Holy crap! Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d finish a half marathon in 2:18. I teared up and I jumped around in excitement, then very, very slowly made my way to get my blanket and medal. My legs were seizing up on me and I made my first-ever trip to the medical tent for some ice packs. I hung out there for a few minutes before waddling over, with my ice packs still attached, to the food tent. My day was totally made when I turned the corner and saw a table full of green bananas.
There was a bit of a traffic jam trying to get out of the runners’ section, but I eventually got my dry bag and made it back to the BOMF camp to change. Just as I was about to head to the bathroom, I realized I had to go downstairs. I must’ve had that look on my face because someone at the bottom trying to come up called up, “you forgot about the stairs, too, huh?” 🙂
I fundraise with Back on My Feet because I truly believe in their mission, but I also partly do it for the nice race day bathrooms. No joke. Totally worth it. It’s amazing to have a clean, warm bathroom to clean up and change in – feeling clean and dry makes the rest of the day so much more enjoyable.
After spending some time with BOMF I went back to Charm City Run to trade war stories with the other runners. It seems like almost everyone had a good, if not great, day. The weather was perfect, the course was tough, and we were all in there right mindset for the challenge. The only remaining challenge? Getting my butt up on that bar stool. So much harder than I would have ever expected.
All said and done it was a really great day. I hope to never do the 2:00am thing again, but it was totally worth it. Never would I have thought that I could race, truly race, two long-distance races in one week. Never would I thought that I could run a sub-2:20 half.
I have a couple weeks to heal and get ready for my last challenge of the year, the Philadelphia Half Marathon. But first, I’m looking forward to taking this week off!