I did it. On Sept. 15, I attempted and completed my first-ever 13.1-mile race -- the Philadelphia Rock ‘n' Roll Half-Marathon. Although I've been running since I was 13, this particular accomplishment meant a lot to me because my ability to run has been hampered for about 15 years by recurring iliotibial (IT) band tendonitis in my right knee.
I wrote a guest blog post for Philly.com last week about the origins of my injury and how I've tried to manage it. In a nutshell, for most of the past 15 years my efforts to combat the inflammation have consisted of rest, ice, protective knee straps, Ibuprofen, not running on consecutive days and generally limiting myself to about 3 miles when I did run. That was all well and good if the only races I ever wanted to run were 5Ks. But over the past couple years, I became determined to push my limits and stop letting my knee hold me back.
So after doing some research, I incorporated two new key elements into my training. The first was a shortened stride, because I read that keeping it more underneath my center of gravity would decrease stress on my knee and help soften stride impact. The second was regularly using a foam roller to loosen up my hamstrings, quads and IT bands.
Armed with these supplemental tactics, I've been gradually increasing my training mileage and race distances since the spring of 2012. I capped off last year's running season in November with an 8.4-mile loop race along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, the first time I had run that far since high school. Then I challenged myself early this running season by taking on a 10-mile race in ADVANCE's hometown, King of Prussia, PA. But all the while, I knew my ultimate goal was to complete a half-marathon -- and that judgment day finally arrived this week.
So how did it go? Well, I can truly say it was the most physically grueling challenge I've ever faced. But not because of my knee, which held up great. The course was beautiful and the weather perfect (about 60 degrees with clear skies). Music bands and cheer squads along the way definitely helped keep me going.
My goal was to not only finish the half-marathon, but run it at 8-minute-mile pace. I actually impressed myself with how consistent a pace I was able to keep -- almost exactly 8 minutes a mile for each of the first 11 miles. At that point, I found myself staring at 2 miles to go and about 30 seconds overall ahead of goal pace. Mentally I felt very good about the position I had put myself in. Physically, I felt like every muscle in my legs was about to seize up. "Just hold on!" I told myself. "You can do it. You don't have to run any faster -- just maintain." Easier said than done, but I willed myself forward.
By the 13-mile mark, I knew I had lost some seconds and it would come down to the wire whether I reached my time goal or not. So I steeled myself to give every last bit of energy I had for the final 0.1 miles, which turned out to be... uphill. My legs felt like lead weights but I forced them to surge ahead and actually started passing other competitors in the straightaway. As the end loomed, I coaxed one last burst of speed out of my spent body and shot through the finish line. Struggling to walk on wobbly legs in the post-race area, I felt overwhelming relief and satisfaction from having passed such a daunting test.
But did I reach my time goal? I wasn't sure -- and actually thought I might have missed it by a few seconds. Later that day, I pulled out my smartphone and went to the race website in search of posted results. To run at exactly 8-minute-mile pace or better, I needed to finish with a time of 1 hour, 44 minutes and 52 seconds. So I inputted my name, took a deep breath and hoped for the best. My time? 1:44:51! Incredibly, over the course of 13.1094 miles, I had beaten my goal by a single, solitary second. It was an amazing cap to what I already felt was a terrific accomplishment.
Who knows if I'll ever run another half-marathon again? But finishing this one, especially considering the challenges I had to overcome to even reach the starting line, has to rank as one of the greatest moments of my life.