On Saturday, October 29, 2016, I ran the Trenton Half Marathon. I registered for this race just a few hours after my first DNF in September during the Philadelphia Rock and Roll Half Marathon. Although I thought – and still think - DNFing was the right decision that day for a number of reasons, a comment someone had made post-race followed me around all these weeks like a mini black cloud:
"Once you DNF, it just gets easier to DNF again."
I'm not a wishy-washy decision maker. One of my strengths is that I tend to do what is right for myself without much caring what others think or if my decision is "popular." I've made some extremely unconventional choices during my life without wavering. All of them were much more integral to my survival, career and fulfillment as a human being than whether or not to drop out of a race. But for some reason, that particular DNF comment triggered more uncertainty in me than I cared to admit. Registering for the Trenton Half the very day of the DNF was a preemptive move to proverbially "get back on the horse" and actively make that black cloud disappear for good.
I felt well-rested after my Iceland vacation and a few weeks of lower-intensity workouts, cross-training and lower mileage. This plan helped me recover from fatigue and my inflamed gastrocnemius. On Tuesday night, I did a modified track workout with my team, nothing too crazy, but just enough to help speedier muscle memory and confidence kick in.
I felt calm the night before the race. I didn't give it much thought. Lesson learned from last half: no fresh veggies at all for the entire day before the race. I ate a huge bowl of pasta with marinara sauce for dinner and drank a glass of Tempranillo. Since the alarm was set for 4am, I tucked in early.
I like to go into races with A, B and C goals, since anything can change on race day; it's best to stay flexible. Before the race, being slightly superstitious, I only revealed my goals to 2 people in my inner circle. They were:
- A. To PR with a 1:3X as my time
- B. To PR, period
- C. To finish the race and avenge my DNF
Pre-race breakfast and logistics
I slept relatively well and woke feeling chipper, calm, and slightly impatient to get running – good signs. I enjoyed my usual pre-race breakfast: a toasted English muffin with orange marmalade, and a small soy latte, then quickly got my stuff together and got on the road for the 45-minute drive. Traumatized by the GI issues I experienced during the Philly Rock and Roll Half Marathon, I took a preemptive Imodium.
Race morning was quite chilly – 37 degrees. I was glad I'd brought layers of thrift store sweats to keep me warm before the start. Underneath it, my race kit du jour consisted of:
- Grey Athleta shorts (with a side pocket for my Salted Caramel Gu gel and a zippered back pocket for my car keys).
- Screaming yellow Athleta singlet with built-in running bra
- Black North Face arm warmers that I've had forever
- $1 throwaway gloves (which I did not throw away)
- Throwaway Dunkin Donuts hat (which I ditched in the first 5 minutes).
- Brooks Launch 3 sneakers
- Features Thin running socks
I also wore a throwaway T-shirt from a previous 10K to keep me warm at the start line. It was a good thing, because the race was 15 minutes late getting going.
I did a .5 mile jog and a few dynamic stretches to warm up, then ate 5 Honey Stingers just before the race.
Instead of the usual gun or horn signaling the start of the race, a troop of Revolutionary War re-enactors sent us off by firing their muskets to commemorate the Battle of Trenton.
Starting out, I felt zippy. The first part of the course was relatively flat and I concentrated on not going out too fast and holding on to my pace. As people passed me, I thought, "I'll catch them later." Splits for first 5 miles were 7:34, 7:24, 7:23, 7:39, and 7:24.
Throughout the race, I focused intently on running the tangents and the shortest distances possible between any 2 given points. Lots of walkers and slower runners clogged the start and mile 6, and I resisted the urge to sprint around them. (Amazingly, according to my Garmin, I ran exactly 13.1 miles, so I succeeded.)
I nursed my Salted Caramel Gu gel between miles 5 and 6. I was not able to take in much water. I skipped the first water stop. The second one was at the top of a hill (not the best placement) and I was only able to swallow 2 sips. I have difficulty drinking while trying to run fast and end up choking – scary. I tried to get more water on the way back and again, succeeded only in downing one sip. So I ended up skipping the rest of the water stops. Luckily, I train in a dehydrated state and the weather was cool, so it was not too much of an issue for me.
We crossed two bridges, including the famous "Trenton Makes, The World Takes" bridge, and so we ran in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The footing on the bridges was iffy –iron grill – so running fast across them was not exactly possible. At around mile 6, we encountered a minor hill just before crossing the bridge back into Jersey, and then we ran a series of twists and turns around the city of Trenton, many of which were on the highway.
Around Mile 9, we scaled a cruelly placed, killer hill into Cadwalader Park. Many runners walked, and who could blame them? The ascent was just brutal on legs that were just beginning to tire out. The descent was not much better on trashed hammies and quads. But as I ran back down, I saw the sea of runners who were just beginning their climb, and that gave me some energy – to realize that the hardest part of the race, for me, was over.
I was not a slave to my Garmin during this race. I mostly ran by feel, with an occasional glance at the watch to keep me honest. As I looked at my Garmin post hills, I saw some 8:00s. Without doing the math or looking at my time, my heart rate, etc. I figured I might have to let go of my dream of achieving my A and B goals. Still, I stayed calm and focused on running consistently and getting back to my breath.
My splits for the remaining miles were: 7:32, 7:36, 7:43, 7:54 (hill!), 7:37, 7:46, 7:37, 7:45 and 7:14 for the .1 mile.
After descending the hill, the course was mostly flat, on a lonely highway headed back to Arm and Hammer stadium. Runners were thinned out; there were no "packs" to speak of. There were also no spectators. At this point, I was getting tired and was losing my concentration. It took a lot of self talk to keep myself on track.
"You can do anything for 20 minutes."
"Just 3 more miles."
"It's all flat from here."
"How bad do you want it?"
Finally, we ascended a ramp and I could see the stadium. I felt like I was pushing so hard. I was breathing so heavily I could hear myself even on top of my music, yet my split for the last mile was a sluggish 7:45 and my 150 heart rate was by no means maxed out, especially considering it ranged from 156-168 during the hot and hilly Mayor's Cup. But that's the mental part of running for you. I felt like I was giving it my all, and the data shows I still had more oxygen in the tank.
This race featured a unique finish. You entered the stadium at 1st base, then ran around the bases toward home plate and the finish. As you traveled from 3rd to home, a video of your finish appeared on the Jumbotron. The MC announced every single person who crossed the finish – a nice touch. (I didn't notice any of this, of course, until after I crossed the line and cheered other runners on.)
As I rounded 3rd base, the clock loomed at the finish, clicking away from 1:39:XX. Realizing my A goal was in reach, I bolted. I crossed the line and stopped my Garmin: 1:39:34 – a PR and I had achieved my A goal!
I finished 7th female overall and 1st in my 50-54 age group. I'm shocked by the overall placing, because longer distances like the half and full are not "my" races.
Negative splits (in which the second half of the race is run faster than the first half) are usually touted as best racing practices. But not for this half marathon, with its mid-course hills and bridges. In retrospect, I'm glad I sped through those earlier miles, because that killer hill would have fatigued me whether I ran them conservatively or quickly.
If you're open to the lessons, every race has at least one, usually more. For me, this race taught me to be more confident in my decisions (like my DNF). I also learned I need to pay more attention to training my mind, because while I felt like I was giving 90-95%, the data suggest I could have pushed a bit harder.
Trenton Half Marathon race review
Bib pick up was fast and easy
Best runner-to-porta-potty ratio ever. Super clean, too.
Gear check was fast and efficient
Clever start (musket fire) and finish (baseball diamond lap)
Great energy and camaraderie during race
Friendly, abundant volunteers
- No signage to help runners get from the parking lots to the start line in the dark.
- Two races – the 10K and the half – went off at once. The corral was not well organized or policed, and resulted in faster runners having to pass the slower runners who should not have been at the front of the line.
- Clogged course: Slower 10K and 5K runners plus walkers clogged the course around mile 6, and you had to zig around and between them. I lost an estimated :30 just dodging slower runners and walkers. Lanes would have been helpful.
- Water stops placed at odd locations, like at the top of a hill when you were panting too hard to properly hydrate without choking.
- Dismal expo with only a few vendors
- "Meh" swag bang for the buck. Especially when compared to the Global Energy 10K- a shorter, cheaper race. While the long-sleeved shirt is relatively attractive, it is way too big on me. The arms are too long and when I wore the shirt on a recovery run the next day, it was so long it covered my butt and looked like a nightgown. I had to knot it. (I don't understand why they can't throw in a few XSs.) Nice, ostentatious medal.
- Even though I PRed, I would not call this a PR-friendly course, with all of its twists, turns, odd hills and bridges.
- Making runners who just raced 13.1 miles walk to the top of the stadium bleachers to receive post-race banana is just plain cruel ;)