By Heather Quinlan
MRG Contributor

Writing can be tricky. Running can be tricky. And writing about running can be even trickier. When MRG asked me about a month ago to write a race recap/reflection once the Detroit Free Press Half Marathon was over, I thought for sure the thoughts and words would just flow from my brain to my fingertips with ease. After all, this is my favorite race. It is in a city I truly care about. This is the race I signed up for back in January of 2011 with nothing but nearly 400 pounds on my body and this blind faith in my heart. This would be my 9th half marathon, 5th time in Detroit. This race means everything to me. It truly started it all.

But now as I sit here, almost five days post-13.1, I am somewhat at a loss for words … because the race didn’t go as I envisioned or hoped it would. And the thoughts I believed I’d share … aren’t there.  actually ran upstairs a bit ago and grabbed my medal to place next to me as I think and write, hoping it would motivate me to think back about what was and not dwell on what wasn’t.

The excitement for the race on Sunday Oct. 18 really began, for me at least, on the Monday before and gradually increased as the week progressed. First, I was excited that it meant a week of tapering! I’d run just a few miles here and there; completed a light workout with my trainer Vanessa, nice-and-easy stuff. That alone made me happy because after all I had given to my training since the end of July, I was beginning to feel worn out, both physically and mentally. I have heard people talk about how loopy they get during the week or so they taper. I have never experienced that, so I just always took their word for it. However this time, I could feel it. As the week progressed, I was feeling antsy and anxious. I like to do visualization exercises of myself running the race and imagining how it will feel. I have come to believe that what we experience in our minds can become our realities. But I found my mind getting overwhelmed. I was thinking about it too much. And even when I was trying not to, it was still on my mind.

What was on my mind then and for the weeks and months preceding the half marathon was my only goal for this race – to finish under three hours. My “chasing under 3” mantra has been etched on my heart and been my companion — stride for stride, during every run and every workout for months. I didn’t set that goal to prove anything to anyone.  Just to myself. It became a part of me. During some training runs, I’d find my pace trending toward that sub 3-hour mark. Other days, not so much. Some days I’d think, “This is going to happen, I just know it.” Other days, I questioned everything and worried about what I had gotten myself into broadcasting to the world … “Hi, world! I have no idea if it’s possible, but I want to finish the Detroit Free Press International Half Marathon in less than three hours! Yep… me! That’s what I want to do!” Chasing a goal you’re uncertain is attainable can be scary. Being vulnerable can too. But my transparency became therapeutic. This was necessary.

Before I knew it, it was Friday and time to make the trip down to Cobo Hall for the expo. This pre-race event definitely has that “kick-off” feel to it as there was an enthusiastic buzz inside and outside of Cobo. There was a slightly new set-up for this year’s expo, directing runners to enter to the left and head all the way to the back first to pick up our race packets. This helped greatly to ease congestion within the expo/vender booths themselves. Feeling the excitement from other runners and volunteers, I wanted to take my time making my way back through toward the exit.  This expo, this race, only happens once a year. I wanted to savor as much of the moment as I could. I ran into a few friends along the way, got to catch up with a few of my favorite vendors like BondiBands (you know you buy/have a lot of headbands when you walk up and they know you by name) and Justin from RUNdetroit (who gave me some of the best pre-race advice ever: don’t do anything crazy, like jump on trampolines, over the next 36 hours). I snapped a few obligatory (but let’s face it, we love them!) bib-holding pics and was then on my way back to the parking garage.

As I was trying to leave the parking garage, I found myself driving toward the roof by mistake. I finally realized the error (I mean, you would have thought the fact that I was driving uphill would have tipped me off, but apparently I had a few other things on my mind) when I turned left and saw the Detroit skyline, a beautiful fall sun setting, and the Ambassador Bridge. Alone on the roof, I parked my car, got out and savored the moment. This detour was no accident.

Heather Quinlan holds her race bib for the Detroit Free Press International Half Marathon, held earlier this month. The bottom photo is of the sunset she caught atop the parking garage.
Heather Quinlan holds her race bib for the Detroit Free Press International Half Marathon, held earlier this month. The bottom photo is of the sunset she caught atop the parking garage.

Saturday consisted of getting myself ready for the race, getting those carbs in for dinner, and keeping my nerves (that at this point had shown up in full force) at bay. Aside from the end of the Michigan vs. Michigan State game (ugh, don’t remind me), it was a very relaxing day. My Polar was charged, new race playlist created, and my items were laid out. I hopped in bed early but of course couldn’t fall asleep just yet. My mind was racing thinking about what the next day would bring. However, just like I was feeling throughout the week, I was tired of thinking about what the race would be bring and how well I would or wouldn’t do. It was time to run.

My 4 a.m. alarm rang early. Thankfully, I felt rested as I climbed out of bed and began to get ready for 13.1 miles.  Surprisingly, I felt calm … really calm. I think it was because of the fact that it was finally the day to do it. Even once I arrived downtown, parked, and made my way toward the starting area and my corral, I felt at peace. No crazy nerves, no “what in the Hell am I doing?” I felt eager, and as the corrals began to fill in quickly as each moment passed, I could feel the energy and unity from the runners around me. It was time to run. And … it was snowing. Pure Michigan.

At the start line.
At the start line.

At roughly 7:24 am, the 13.1 mile journey I had trained weeks and months for had begun. I didn’t have to think about what it would be like anymore. My feet had crossed the starting line. I was moving. I was alive. I was running.

The stretch from the starting line to the bridge felt great. I tried to remind myself to not let adrenaline and emotions get the best of me and start out too fast. I had worked really hard during my training to start out a bit slower during my long runs so I could have stronger, faster legs down the stretch. That’s a hard thing to remind yourself as the excitement from the crowd and the runners around you make you want to push harder. Before I knew it, I was at the entrance for the Ambassador Bridge … that long and gradual uphill grind that lasts for a nice mile or so. Thankfully, the view makes up for the climb. I tried to play it smart once more. Heather, don’t let your mind tell you that you can’t run when you can. Trust your legs. And I did. Looking back, I am really proud at how strong I ran that bridge. I took two short walk breaks and found myself actually passing quite a few runners. Heather, you are rocking this bridge. I couldn’t believe I was already at the peak and beginning to decent. I felt awesome. I wasn’t paying too much attention to my watch because I felt like if I did, it would start to mess with my mind. I felt good and I was having fun. Let it be, Heather. Enjoy the moment.

Running strong and happy across the bridge. /PHOTO courtesy the Detroit Free Press Marathon.
Running strong and happy across the bridge. /PHOTO courtesy the Detroit Free Press Marathon.

Running through Canada has always been one of my favorite parts of the race. Not only are the Canadians some of the best sign creators, but it’s nice to run along the river and get a breathtaking view of the Detroit skyline, while anticipating the underwater mile and entrance back into the U.S. Still feeling great and in control, I entered the tunnel and began that portion of the race. It was crowded, especially once I arrived at the part of the tunnel where many like to stop and snap a pic with the Canada/U.S sign, but it was manageable. However, as I was nearing the light at the end of the tunnel (literally), I began to feel some odd pains in my left knee and my right foot/heel. Trying to play it smart, I walked the short distance left as we exited the tunnel and once I was back on Jefferson heading west, I resumed running, hoping that the pains would iron themselves out.

But they didn’t. They got progressively worse. It was nothing excruciatingly painful, but enough to throw off my pace and my mind. The mile after exiting the tunnel was a huge mental battle. I started looking at my watch and playing the time game. Unfortunately, when we run through the tunnel it throws off the GPS on our devices, so I was uncertain how accurate the time was on my watch along with my distance until I would come across a mile marker. This was not how it was supposed to be. These were pains I’d never had during my training or long runs on Sundays. And just when I would normally hit a stride and speed my pace up, I was slowing down.

It was at mile 10, a 5K away from the finish line and roughly 35 minutes shy of three hours that I realized … I am not going to finish this half under three hours. Even as I type this, I can feel the emotions I felt at that moment coming over me once again. No matter whether you’ve had this experience as a runner, playing another sport, or relating to any other season of your life, you know that the moment when you come to grips with the reality that you are going to fall short of the goal you’ve worked so hard to achieve … a wave of sadness, disappointment, and hurt comes over you. I could feel myself wanting to cry. I know, life is much bigger than falling short of a 3-hour half marathon, but it’s also OK to feel what you feel and not feel like you’re wrong for doing so.

It was at that point when I also realized all the training – the early Sunday mornings at Stony Creek for long runs, the cross training on tired legs, the days I had to muster up as much energy as possible to get in a tempo run in the evenings after work, the evenings that had to wrap up early or when I could not go out with friends because I knew I had to be up early the next morning for a run – was for this very moment. The old Heather would have conceded, “why bother then” and finished the last 3 miles of the race at a much easier pace, probably walking a lot. But I trained harder than that and I’m not the same Heather. I am an athlete. So at that point, knowing a sub-3 was out of the question unless my pains disappeared and I suddenly grew the feet of a Kenyan, I kept running. Aside from a couple minute breaks to walk, I ran. Slower than the pace I was averaging, but I ran. I guess I have just learned to believe that you’re never out of the fight, even if the fight has suddenly been redefined.

With just a little over a mile to go, I came upon my favorite cheer/hydration station of the entire race, the “bourbon & bacon” station where runners can get a shot of bourbon and a slice of bacon if they so choose. Heaven, right? I remember last year during the race, I took a shot of bourbon from them, not knowing who they were, thinking, “Why not?” and kept on trucking toward the finish line after. Little did I know that this station would have way more significance in my life this year, because the people supporting it, supporting us (my “family,” my crew from Detroit Tough and Be Bold Crew) are some of my favorite people, people who have helped me find me this year and helped me find my boldness, my strength. When I turned the corner at Brooklyn onto Michigan Avenue, I saw their smiling faces, heard their cheers, and felt their enthusiasm and excitement to see me. It meant the world to me. Fighting through pain and feelings of defeat, I needed that moment more than anything. As I approached, I saw one of my coaches, Katt, and she was overjoyed to see me. Like any good family member would, she pulled from her coat a bottle of Jim Bean and told me she was saving the last couple of swigs just for me.

A little Jim Beam in the final stretch ...
A little Jim Beam in the final stretch …

After parting from Mr. Bean and those amazing people, I had regained my strength and purpose, and I set off for the last mile of my journey. I still refused to give up, even though my watch showed a time after three hours. Special moments in life come and go so quickly, sometimes before we even realize how special they are or could be. I didn’t want to regret how I finished a race so incredibly special to me and my life just because one goal wasn’t met, and I wanted to soak in as much of that last stretch as I could. As I turned onto Fort Street and saw the finish line not too far ahead, I took my headphones out and decided to take in as many of the sounds as I could while still finishing that last stretch as strong as possible. When I crossed the finish line, I felt joy, relief, and sadness. Joy because it happened; relief because I did it; sadness because it was over. After getting my medal placed around my neck (and this year’s medals were outstanding), grabbing a cover for my body, and taking some chocolate milk and a banana, I felt the wave of emotions from shortly after mile 10 coming back. I saw my best friend Natalie and once we were able to meet up outside of the gated areas, I lost it. And I didn’t care who saw it or what anyone thought. I’m not ashamed to cry or to feel. I wasn’t just releasing emotions from the 13.1 miles that day; I was releasing emotions from months of training and years of “life.” And thank God for best friends, because she just hugged me and let me cry.

It has taken me some time to really reflect on why I fell short of my goal that morning and what lessons I should take from it. The night before the race when I was texting my trainer Vanessa, who also ran the half (her first!) and ran an amazing race, we were talking about how nervous we were and she said “it’s because we care.” And that has really stuck with me this week after the race. During this chapter of my life – finding a new gym at Detroit Tough, finding amazing coaches there who are now like family to me, finding my strength and progress with my health and fitness, finding the tenacity to run more and walk less, finding a boldness about life that I have never experienced before – I have come alive. I care. I love. I am. If I had never been bold enough to make this goal of finishing under 3 hours in the first place, I would have never found the courage to care and pursue more for my life. I would have robbed myself of an opportunity. It was while I was “chasing under 3” all these months leading up to the race that I found me. And I can’t replace that, nor would I trade it for a sub 3 hour finish. This race might not have turned out how I had envisioned it would, but it turns out it was everything I didn’t know I needed and more. I am proud of my 3:11:05 finish, a little over 13 minutes faster than last year’s time, and especially the way in which I ran the last three miles. Those were, without a doubt, my boldest miles of the race because they were a test of months of training, mental toughness, and my character when nobody was looking. You can’t be bold in life if you’ve only had good things happen to you. My strength is bold, my heart is full, and “I will look back on this and smile because it was life and I decided to live it.”

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