Despite the fact that last year’s Unite Half Marathon was kind of a dud because of some course flooding that ended up shortening the race to just 9.55 miles, I’m a big fan of the Unite Half Marathon. It’s right in our backyard in Central Jersey—the start is just ten minutes from our house—and it does a nice little tour of three of the four campuses of Rutgers New Brunswick, which just so happens to be where I went to college. On top of that, since my wife and I have run the race all three years that they’ve had it, I’m drawn to keep doing it so we can say we’ve been a part of it since the beginning.
If you had asked me a couple of months ago what time I was looking at running for this race, you would have gotten a crazy response of around 1:27:00. At the time, I was focused on trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon in early June at the San Diego Rock’n'Roll Marathon so this race was going to basically serve as a tempo run for me. It was going to be a mid-training check-in to see where I was at. A 1:27 half marathon represented exactly where I needed to be to have a shot at a Boston qualification. Unfortunately, since then, I ran (no pun intended) into a few minor setbacks. I lost close to a week of training with some plantar fasciitis-like symptoms in my foot. Then right after that, I lost almost two weeks to some weird knee pain. After both of those, I knew that qualifying for Boston in June was going to be out and I decided to not even run the San Diego Rock’n'Roll Marathon at all. Luckily, I hadn’t signed up yet and it wasn’t a big deal. I knew this would also take its toll on my half marathon time for Rutgers as well, but I was okay with that. I figured I’d drop my hopes down and just shoot for the low 1:30s instead.
In the two weeks leading up to the race, I was having some soreness in both my calves the day after every run, even easy four-milers, and, eventually, I think this led to some more pain in the arches of my feet. I took the five days before the race off completely and prepped myself mentally for the fact that the race may not go so well for me.
On the morning of the race, I was feeling pretty good physically. My wife and I parked near the finish-line and walked the roughly one-mile distance to the starting line on Busch Campus. We hit the porta-potties and I did my warm-up routine while waiting in line, leaving us with just enough time before the race to make our way into the corral without having to wait long for the race to start. My wife seeded herself right behind the eight minute/mile pacer and I moved up to right behind the seven minute/mile pacer. A couple months ago, I was looking to run this race just under a 6:40 minute/mile, but I knew that I didn’t stand a chance at making it the whole way at a sub-seven minute pace anymore.
I kept with the seven-minute pacer for the first half the race, but I knew right from the start that I wasn’t going to be able to hang for the whole thing. It wasn’t my day and I didn’t expect it to be. However, knowing that I’m now an experienced and strong enough runner that 13.1 miles isn’t too much of a big deal and, even if I start out a little too fast early on, I can push through later in the race, I figured I’d hang out with the seven-minute group for a while. At about six miles, as the group was coming through a water station, I felt like it was a good time to back it off just a little. I slowed myself down just a little, but not too much that the group disappeared out of my sights. For the next three or so miles, they weren’t too far ahead of me which left me feeling like I wasn’t losing too much time and kept me motivated.
By miles nine and ten, I was really starting to get tired, but again, being a more experienced runner than I was for my first half marathon, just a mere two years ago (it was actually this same race!), I wasn’t that worried. I knew I could still stay pretty strong through the rest of it. These two miles, I spent running with a guy that I happened to strike up a conversation with. He was shooting for a time just a little slower than what I was looking for, but we had a good conversation going so I stuck with him for a little while. Unfortunately, during this time, I watched the seven-minute mile group get further and further away from me.
As we passed the eleventh mile marker, I knew I had to pick it back up a bit if I wanted to PR. I thanked my new friend for the conversation and encouragement and started to push a little more. I couldn’t pick it up too much though as I started to get that “if I run any faster I’m going to puke” feeling that happens sometimes in races.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the course was a little different this year, but the one change that really mattered was the finish line. In previous years, the finish line was just after a sharp left turn. This year, it was right on College Avenue and the last almost half mile was a straight shot to finish line. It was much nicer and didn’t interfere with that final push. Definitely a good decision by the race organizers.
Once the clock was in sight, I knew I was good and would be coming home with a new PR. It wasn’t much, but a PR is a PR and I was psyched. I crossed at 1:32:25 (chip time, gun/clock time was 1:32:33) and was pretty damn happy about it. My sixteen month standing PR was finally beaten, by just 40 seconds.
Now, my wife, let’s take a minute and talk about this craziness. She also got a PR, but a much more insane one. Coming into the race, her best half marathon time was 2:02:15 from her very first half marathon ever. She knew she was going to do better and was focusing on just getting under two hours, despite me telling her that, with the way she’d been running lately, under 1:50 should be doable. Well, I’m really happy to be able to say that I was right and she absolutely demolished her previous PR. She came in at an amazing 1:47:43!! She knocked fifteen minutes off! Wow!