Welcome to the latest post from MRG contributor Heather Quinlan, who is sharing her journey of training for four half-marathons this year. Read her introductory post here » 

Obviously, writing about my Traverse City Bayshore Half Marathon experience has weighed heavily on my mind this week. I’ve been pondering it daily, trying to gather just the right words to truly depict what those 13.1 miles were like. It was on my mind so much so that this week I had a dream that instead of submitting a reflection about water and cheer stations, that first hilly mile (oh trust me, I’ll get to that), and my happy pace PR…I wrote about pasta. Nothing but pasta. Bowtie, angel hair, linguine … carbs on carbs on carbs. I woke up in a panic – how could I forget to write about running? Leave it to me to dream about food …

Thankfully, it was just a dream. However, my time spent along the Old Mission Peninsula on that beautiful Saturday morning was not. It was reality, a living dream—and a pretty awesome one at that. But I wouldn’t be doing the total experience justice if I jumped right to the starting line. If there is one thing I know about any huge event, it’s that the anticipation is often a major part of the excitement. After missing last year’s event, I was itching to get back to Traverse City. It had been two years since my last trip there, and when I look back at the girl who finished that course, I began to realize how much has changed since then …

Bayshore 2012.

Bayshore 2012.

The Friday before this year’s race, I picked up my mom and we hit the road headed north. I remember the last time I traveled “up north” for this race: I kept mentally psyching myself out by comparing 13 miles on I-75 to 13 miles along the shore. How that helped me prepare for the race … well, let’s just say it didn’t.

But thankfully this time, that thought never crossed my mind. My mom asked me a few times as we journeyed closer to the TC city limits, “So, are you nervous?” I had to ask myself, “Well, am I?” I think typically, any runner will be nervous before a race, but aside from the norm, I felt pretty calm. Hmmm….. Maybe that should make me nervous.

After checking into our hotel and heading toward the high school for packet pickup, it still hadn’t registered that in less than 10 hours, I’d be lining up at the starting line for my 5th half-marathon. But then I saw the high school, the crowded parking lot, the people – yep, it’s on. As crowded as it was, packet pick-up was a breeze (kudos to all of the volunteers and organizers!). As I was leaving the gym, I had a distinct flashback to my first time at Bayshore. It was a time when I had changed so much physically yet was still a bit clouded mentally. That year, I walked out with my bib and cried because I felt like I didn’t belong, that I was an absolute fool for thinking that this was, in any way, shape or form, for me. In that moment, mentally, I was a mess. However, this year was quite different. With bib in hand, I left just a tad misty-eyed, not because I felt failure and fear, but because I KNEW that I did belong. It felt right. I have never felt more confident in my life that I was exactly where I was meant to be. This was going to be good.

image-6Shortly thereafter, my sister-in-law Kendra, and my niece Kaiya arrived in Traverse City. Kendra was running the half with me and Kaiya is my extra special spirit squad member. We had dinner and returned to our hotel to settle in and get “ready.” Keeping it real, I slept pretty crappy. I woke up a few times hoping I didn’t miss my alarm. I even woke up to get ready before my alarm went off (that’s a first for me in any capacity!). OK, maybe the nerves were truly starting to set in.

My sister-in-law and I got ready and headed toward the high school. As expected, finding a place to park was fun and turned into quite the creative adventure. But before I knew it, we were on the bus. As we were on our way to Bowers Harbor Road, I noticed a beautiful sunrise in the distance as I glanced out of the foggy bus window. The weather was truly perfect. Kendra and I had discussed the night before whether layers would be necessary. However, for me, the temp was just right. Time seemed to fly by as we waited to start – just enough time to “potty” like it’s 1999, snap a few pics, and let the 13.1 miles ahead “sink in.”

Kendra and me before the race.

Kendra and me before the race.

I wish I had a better “mile-by-mile” or “play-by-play” to truly paint the picture of my entire race experience, but I don’t. I think that’s because going into the race, I told myself that I was going to try my best to break it into thirds: run with your heart, then your personality, then your heart. I honestly thought of this numerous times throughout my race. I think it helped me, especially at the beginning.

On the bus, I overheard a few convos about “the hill” during mile one. I hadn’t given it much thought prior to the race, as I guess my thoughts were “It’s going to be what it will be,” but as I continued to overhear talk of it, I started to think, “Hmmm… I wonder how much this hill is going to suck?”

Well…. indeed it did! Was it the end of the world? Not even close, but it sure did present a challenge for my soles right out of the gate. In hindsight, I am glad it was at the start rather than the end. However, in the moment, when you’re already overwhelmed by the thought of having 12.9 more miles to go, there isn’t enough Pitbull or OneRepublic on my iPod to shuffle my mind past a dang hill. But as a wise person once said, “Keep calm and happy pace on!” (OK, maybe I just made that up, but I do have my wise moments!) So that’s what I did.

Knowing that I needed to run the first part of my race with my brain, I did stop to walk a portion of that hill at the start, not because I couldn’t have pushed my way through it, but because I wanted to play it smart. I had over 12 miles left to go. This was not the point in the race to pull a Rocky Balboa. And it turned out to be a smart decision because even with that brief stop to walk, I finished 3.1 miles in 39 minutes and some change – something I was totally not expecting, but floored by. What hill?

Crossing paths with Bayshore marathon runners.

Crossing paths with Bayshore marathon runners.

Mile 3 turned into 4, 4 into 5, and before I knew it I was getting closer and closer to the halfway mark. My brain, my legs, my pace felt more in sync than Justin Timberlake circa 2000. I was enjoying everything about this experience – the company with my sister-in-law (my own personal pacer), the gorgeous scenery, and the continuous crowd support and cheers. It was during this stretch that the marathoners began to pass us as they were heading north up the peninsula. I tried to spot Michigan Runner Girl’s very own as she was running amongst the marathon pack, however no such luck. But seeing the marathoners pass (I think one of the many added bonuses of this race) was just another wave of inspiration added to my stride. The second portion of my race truly felt like me and my personality – fun, inspired, and confident. I hit the 8.1 mile mark at 1:49, a personal best for me, and was excitedly taken aback. Dang – I’m rockin’ this! My face may not have always shown it, but I was having fun. Yeah, that’s right, having fun running a half marathon! Who knew?

I shared with my sister-in-law the night before that although I totally wasn’t expecting to in this race, my goal this year was to finish a half-marathon under 3 hours. I also mentioned that I wasn’t expecting to PR – improving upon the 3:08:08 I did at The Detroit Free Press International Half last October – during this race either. Perhaps in some way, I was protecting myself from disappointment – telling myself it wouldn’t happen before it even started to happen. Go figure. But I was quickly reminded around that 8-mile mark that I was totally on pace to finish under 3. No way. Me? And that’s when I think the excitement/pressure/unknown started to overcome me. I was noticing myself starting to feel very thirsty. At each water station (again, thank you volunteers!) I took two cups of water and each time it felt like I couldn’t get enough. My right foot was starting to feel a little icky. I began to overanalyze things a bit. And surely enough, I started to slow down. Ah yes, the third part of the race was upon me. I was entering that part where the only muscle that would lead me to the finish line was my heart.

I was so excited to get to the 10-mile mark, partly because I knew at that point only a 5K was left between me and the finish, but also because I was able to see my mom and niece at McKinley and East Shore Road. I was in need of that “boost.”

We exchanged hugs, I apologized for the sweat, and my sister-in-law and I were off to finish 3.1 more miles. The fatigue was truly setting in. Kendra reminded me that I’ve done plenty of 5Ks before and that these last few miles were just another one to conquer. Of course, she was right but my legs kept telling me, “Girl please, this is going to be a fight to the finish…. and the only person you’re fighting with is the girl you leave behind after every step forward, so fight FOR the person you strive to become.”

image-9At mile 11.49, my heart rate monitor watch stopped telling me my distance, pace, and heart rate. Wait a minute, am I alive? Is that sparkle coming off the blue waters of the Bay really the entrance to the gates of Heaven? No, I am way too thirsty right now to be anywhere near the promise land. And now I can’t even track my thirsty pace. Ugh. This last mile and a half will definitely be a challenge.

So at that point, it truly was just me and the road. I had to trust my training, my instincts, and my will power. As we entered mile 12, my sister-in-law challenged me to run the final part of the race without stopping to walk and to leave it all out there, because when you finish anything worthwhile in life, isn’t that what you should do and finish with nothing left to give? Though my brain was saying “Ummm…no way,” my heart said, “Just keep going because your brain is lame right now.” So, I just kept going.

There was a VERY motivating woman at the corner of one of the turns heading towards the campus. Some might have thought she was shouting, but in reality she was supporting with a ton of passion. She had a tone to her voice that said, “Oh, hell no, you keep fighting for this, girl, because you deserve it!” I loved it, and it surely gave me that extra kick in the compression pants to believe that I was strong enough TO finish strong.

Nothing really compares to that last half-mile as you finish Bayshore. The roads, feeling as though they narrow with each step, are lined with complete strangers cheering you on as if they know you personally. You start to feel the energy of the crowd and see the finish line banner in the distance, and you know you’ve made it, you’re here … just savor these final steps.

As I was nearing the entrance to the track, my heart managed to muster up a little extra pep to my step and my pace quickened. It’s kind of bittersweet – you don’t want to rush the moment leading up to that finish, but you want to finish with all you have left. So I did, and even though I thought that surely I wouldn’t better my previous half PR in Detroit last Fall, I PR’d in Traverse City that morning. 3:04:47. A little under 5 minutes away from that sub 3, but a lifetime away from the girl I used to be. I couldn’t even finish my celebratory Moomer’s cookies and cream ice cream after finishing. Either that makes me completely crazy and guilty of ice cream abuse, or a woman who left everything out there for 3 hours and couldn’t even muster up enough energy to put a spoon to her mouth a few times. I remember finishing the Detroit half and feeling like I still had energy left in the tank to go longer. Not this time. But I’m OK with that, and it’s actually taught me a lesson as I move on to the next chapter of my journey. Would I rather move forward comfortably, or move forward with a little discomfort knowing I’m giving all that I have? Regret is far more crippling and scary than running 13.1 miles any day of the week. As cliché as this may sound, there is a true reward in leaving it all out there. You might just discover a new part of you that you never imagined. I think I did just that.

Thank you, Bayshore. Lord willing, I shall see you again next year.

Up next, the Windy City…

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