In the weeks and days leading up to Sunday’s Gazelle Girl Half Marathon in Grand Rapids, thoughts of my “race plan” would go a little like this:

This is going to be such a fun time with friends!

I wonder if Katie is going to go all out, really race this one? What about Pam? This is her first race in a long time—will she want to push for a PR, or just enjoy? Erin is also training for another race later this spring…what does this race, then, mean for her?

Do I want to race this one? Nah, I should just enjoy. Right?

OK, we need to talk through whether we’re all sticking together or not…yeah, I think I’m just going to have fun. I’ve got my marathon to focus on…

And then. Then as race day was just about upon us, Pam and I headed out for a final 4-5 miler together. We realized we each were feeling a bit nervous. Nervous-excited, but nervous nonetheless. We got talking about the half marathon and what we each wanted to accomplish, and before I knew it, we’d agreed: we should see what we could do. It could be great for my marathon training, and Pam felt strong and ready to put herself out there. We knew, too, that Katie and Erin had their own time goals. The goal we all shared: have fun—and rock these 13.1 miles.

The four of us drove to GR together early Saturday afternoon, excited to spend time with girlfriends and anxious to see what the Expotique, held at the Downtown Market, was all about. After parking at our hotel—we stayed in the beautiful JW Marriott overlooking the Grand River—we walked about a mile for our race packets, and to find some good food for dinner.

The Expotique

Our first impression of the marketplace: Wow. What a perfect setting for a race expo. We couldn’t wait to explore the main floor, with its plethora of fresh food options. First, though, we headed to the second floor, which housed the expo. There, we browsed the booths and clothing and race fuel for sale. I bought some Gu Brew (they had my favorite flavor, strawberry lemonade) and also some sports beans, which I planned to use during the race. Pam and Erin each bought Another Mother Runner books, and Erin snagged one of their clever tees (“It’s all good. I ran today.”)

Speaking of AMR, I was thrilled to meet in person fellow mother runner and Michigan blogger Bari Fitzpatrick, who is an ambassador for AMR. (My connection with AMR: I work with founders Sarah and Dimity as a contributor to their site). It was like seeing an old friend—Bari and I hugged and fell into a comfortable conversation about the expo, the race, and all things running. It was awesome.

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Bari and me. So fun meeting in real life!

Another highlight: meeting MRG reader AnnaMarie, who introduced herself to me as we made our way toward the race packet pickup. We’d hoped to meet each other in person at last year’s Bayshore Marathon, but it didn’t work out. (Thank you, AnnaMarie for saying hello!)

Of course we had to get a goofy photo taken of all four of us…

It's true, I tend to revert to cheerleading poses...

It’s true, I tend to revert to cheerleading poses…

It was tough to choose dinner with so many great options downstairs in the marketplace, but I settled on Pad Thai from Rak Thai. We also grabbed some bananas for the morning from City Produce to pair with Katie’s Naturally Nutty nut butters.

Breakfast in our hotel room.

Breakfast in our hotel room.

We headed back to the hotel to catch some Zzz’s. I will say that staying in the heart of downtown GR, just a couple of blocks from the start/finish line, was really nice. Erin, who lived in Grand Rapids for awhile and is very familiar with the city, made the suggestion we stay at the JW—and I am so glad she did. While we did get up around 6 a.m. on race day—the half started at 8 a.m.—we didn’t need to head over until about 7:30ish.

The Race

Love the touch of having your name printed on the race bib.

Love the touch of having your name printed on the race bib.

The vibe of this event was great, and everything seemed very well organized. Not long after reaching the start area, we found our pace group—Pam and I decided we’d start with the 8 minute mile group and see how we felt. Within moments of squeezing into the throng of runners, the start gun went off.

While a rainstorm seemed imminent earlier in the morning—some lightning and thunder greeted us in the morning as we ate breakfast—the rain held off and it felt balmy. Temps were in the 50s and I was so glad to have gone with a tank top and running skirt. I wore my Brooks arm warmers, too, which I figured I’d strip down to my wrists if needed.

What I love about this race route is it showcases specific Grand Rapids landmarks and points of interest. Gazelle does a great job of listing these out on their site. For example: “Fun Fact #8” on the list explains that runners will cross the Grand River four times during the race. Running across the bridges was a lot of fun, and really added to the varying scenery on this course.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum, parks, historic neighborhoods and businesses, even the tallest building in GR (the 205-unit River House Condominiums) are all featured on the route.

From the start I was feeling pretty good, and within the first few miles, as we stayed fairly close to the pace group, I fell into a nice groove. Pam and I chatted as we kept the steady pace, but it definitely wasn’t one of our flowing conversations—this is how I knew we were pushing it some to hover around an 8 minute mile.

Approaching mile 4 was a short out-and-back leg, allowing us to see the fastest runners already making their way back and toward Turner Avenue and mile 5. I loved the whoops and hollers of runners encouraging one another. On our way back in, we cheered for those crossing our paths—Pam and I searched for Erin but didn’t see her. Another Traverse City runner, my friend Amy, called out my name, giving me a boost.

I took in fuel—cherry sports beans—about every 5K, a strategy that’s worked well for me in marathons. Around mile 6, as I took a couple more beans, I felt the pace group inch ahead of me. Pam was feeling strong and I saw her stay steady with the group. While a part of me wanted to stick with her, it was a moment of also remembering what we each wanted to accomplish—and they weren’t the exact same things. Pam was shooting for a sub 1:45 while I wanted to run a bit slower and see about maintaining a strong 8:15-8:20 min mile pace. While I would have been happy to feel right about a 8 minute mile pace (or yeah, a sub-8 as Pam was running), it wasn’t where my body wanted to go. Run your own race—a mantra I’ve said in just about every race I’ve ever run. It helps remind me that we all have our own paces and it’s about competing with ourselves.

So an interesting thing happened then, as I watched the pace group go ahead. I did slow down, yes, but I feel more importantly, I settled into my perfect pace. A pace I call perfect because I was just uncomfortable enough. But I wasn’t dying. I could maintain, I realized. But it wasn’t going to be easy.

The next several miles are a blur. The group of runners around me thinned and I fell into step with two to three runners who matched my pace. We didn’t talk with one another; it seemed we all were falling into our zone. This was the middle of the race, the time when you’re more focused, I’ve found. I also did a little assessing—I realized I was so happy to have found this sweet spot, this pace that had me smack dab in the middle of 8 and 8 ½ minute miles. This is where I need to be in the marathon, too…just for a longer time.

“Do you run a lot of races?” a woman asked me as she came up on my left.

“Yeah, a fair amount,” I replied (gasping for air just a little).

“This is hard. I am not used to this …. This is long for me. I am a track runner. 400 meters is my race.”

I tell her she’s doing great, that running this far and at this pace for a sprint runner is nothing short of amazing. I also tell her I’m more of a marathon runner, to which she says, “Oh, so this is a piece of cake then for you.”

I quickly tell her no, not even close. Easy and piece of cake is never what running is, at least not for me. It does get maybe more manageable? But maybe not. So many factors—weather, how you’re feeling race day, how your training has gone—all play a role in how a race will go. We chat for a few more minutes and then she strides ahead.

I can still see the pace group ahead of me, though they’ve turned a bend and all I glimpse is the sign held by one of the pacers, the “8” bobbing side to side. I just kept going, reminding myself to stay steady. I kept my breathing even, too, which I find helps me so much. I reminded myself to look around, to soak up my surroundings. And I said a few words of thanks for the time on the roads, this weekend with friends, and the great running weather (perhaps a tad warmer than I’d like, but overall great).

Nearing miles 10-11, I felt ready to wrap this up, to experience that great feeling of crossing the finish line. The crowd support throughout has been helpful, especially since many people called out runners names having seen them printed on race bibs.

Finally, it was the homestretch. One more bridge to cross, then downtown where I passed by our hotel and turned right to head toward the finish chute. I dug a little deeper for a final kick and crossed the line, hearing my name and Katie and Pam cheering for me. I walked toward them, hugging them and feeling happy about my effort and thrilled to see how well they each had run. Together we wait for Erin to cross and cheer her on as she comes through the chute.

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Happy runners.

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Aleksandra and Pam at the finish. They met earlier this spring while Pam was visiting the Holland area and joined Aleksandra,a Gazelle Sports team member, and her running group for a long run. Pam and Aleksandra found each other during the final miles of the half and ran into the finish together.

After bagels, water and orange slices, we headed to our hotel for the most wonderful hot tub soak, followed by a delicious lunch at Grand Rapids Brewing Company. (The brewing company was one of several businesses that partnered with Gazelle to offer deals to runners this weekend. Nice touch.)

My black bean burger with fries = sooo good. (I also enjoyed a Bloody Mary from their Bloody Mary bar. Yum.)

My black bean burger with fries = sooo good. (I also enjoyed a Bloody Mary from their Bloody Mary bar. Yum.)

We’ve already decided we’d love to come back to this race next year. Well-organized, ultra supportive to women (and area charities), and a terrific course.

Now…ready to rock the marathon! Let me just go get my Yaktrax on for this April snow we’ve gotten…

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A great reminder I found before this race…and one I’m going to go back to leading up to my marathon next month.

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