For the last nine years, I've been chasing a big running goal: the sub-2-hour half-marathon. It's a sizable benchmark for any woman. Just 30 percent of all female runners achieve it, according to aggregated results from 800,000 runners at Marastats.com.
But for a woman whose age starts with a "4"? Only 25 percent can hope to nail the feat. I turned 40 earlier this year and, against all odds, decided to give sub-2 one more try.
Six years ago I came this close, missing it by a mere 30 seconds. In the years that followed, I crashed and burned in attempt after attempt, to the point where I started to think this might be one goal I'd never achieve-especially as I-gasp!-got older. If I couldn't do it at 30, what made me think I could do it once I was "over the hill"? (Related: Should You Ever Give Up On a Fitness Goal?)
So when I laced up my shoes at the Wineglass Half Marathon this year, I was skeptical. Yes, I put in the training through soupy summer months. Yes, I bought Nike's magic Zoom Vaporfly 4% shoes hoping they might give me an edge. (Read my thoughts about Nike's shoes here.) Yes, I chose the race because of the course's reputation-the Wineglass Marathon is ranked 57th fastest of 487 races at FindMyMarathon.com, just behind Chicago Marathon and just ahead of Walt Disney World Marathon, both popular, fast courses I've personally run. But I was still doubtful, conditioned by years of failure.
I told myself just go for it, even though I didn't really think I had it in me. I should at least give myself the chance, I thought.
So I came up with a strategy: go out on sub-2 pace-9:09 per mile-for the first 5 miles, then reassess based on how I felt. I didn't want to crash and burn like I'd done at so many races, going too fast in the early miles and feeling totally spent in the last few miles.
Unlike races of yore, I kept my inner monologue totally positive, looping through a series of self-affirming mantras: I am fit. I am fierce. I am fast. I am strong. I am a warrior.
Mile 5 came and I still felt great. I checked in again at Mile 6, then Mile 7, looking at the splits on my watch in disbelief. I kept my pace dialed into that 9:09 even though I felt like I could fly. My doubt soon morphed into an emotion I've rarely felt mid-race: excitement. By Mile 8, when I saw my family cheering on the side of the road I knew: this was the day. "I'm doing it!" I shouted.
I changed my mantra. Why not today? Today is the day. Today is the day for greatness, I told myself. This is happening today. Right here. Right now.
I repeated these phrases over and over the next few miles as I slowly pushed the pace to run a negative split, going faster over the second half of the course than I did during the first. (P.S. Here's how to run negative splits at your next race.)
I saw my family again a few yards from the finish line and gave them a big thumbs up. Forty-year-old me did something 30-something me could only dream about. I totally shocked myself, clocking 1:58:49, with gas left in the tank.
As I crossed the finish line, I nearly collapsed in a heap of ugly cry. I couldn't breathe. Not because I was spent, but because I was crying so hard. A volunteer rushed to see if I was okay. "These. Are. Happy. Tears," I managed to eke between sobs. The reality of reaching a decade-long goal was overwhelming. I'd imagined that moment so many times, but I'd started to believe it would never come to fruition.
Why? I'm older and heavier, and I have a 1.5-year-old toddler. This was just my second post-baby half marathon. I'm busier; I run fewer days per week and less mileage all around. Conventional wisdom says I should be slower. (Here's how training through my first year of motherhood made me a better runner.)
But crushing the goal that 30-something me could only dream of has made me rethink my notions of fitness as I head into my 40s. Instead of handwringing over my age, I'm celebrating the fact that my years on this earth are what make me a stronger, wiser runner. I'm more patient, realistic and focused, all of which have helped make me faster. Experience beat youth in my quest for sub-2.
It's flipped my perception of fitness that I had as a 20- and 30-something, when how I looked mattered as much as how I felt. (I struggled with fit ideals as a model in my 20s.) Now I recognize that as I age, I don't have to give in to some idea of inevitable decline. I can use the knowledge I've acquired to make up for physical disadvantages. Where I relied solely on speed as a younger runner, I now rely on the power of my mind. After all, positive thinking and a near-perfect race strategy might be the biggest reasons I finally crushed this goal. They're both factors I failed to nail as a younger woman, mired in self-doubt.
Most importantly, I'm realizing that-on many levels-the only physical limits we have are the ones we place on ourselves. No, I probably won't be an 80-year-old throwing down sub-2-hour half marathons. But now I know that I'll be able to throw down in ways I'm probably not even aware of yet. And, hey, my age-graded time-a way of comparing running performances regardless of age and gender-of 1:53:57 is something I couldn't even fathom as a 20-something runner. Masters athletes like Dara Torres-who won three silver medals at the 2008 Olympics as a 41-year-old-continue to challenge aging conventional wisdom. And a growing body of research shows that exercise can actually slow the biological march of time.
If I've learned anything from my amazing feat it's never to count myself out, especially because of some pre-conceived notion of what my age allows me to do. I want to tell my younger self that fitness, like life, is what you make of it. And I'm making every minute count.