Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my first half-marathon. Somehow I got it in my head that I ran it on 9 December 1991. But I dug out my shirt from that race and it said 8 December.
I remember that race, and the preparation leading up to it, like it was yesterday. I had run my first 10K race in June 1991 and my second two months later. Just before the first 10K race, I had started running with the San Diego Marathon Clinic (SDMC). Through SDMC, which met on Sunday mornings, I met a lot of runners who were experienced at running half-marathons and marathons. They gave me the motivation to go for a half-marathon. After finishing my second 10K, I got an application for the San Diego Half-Marathon, which was the companion race to the San Diego Marathon. I filled out the application and sent in my entry fee. Remember, this was in the days before online registration. From reading books on running, I figured that four months was plenty of time to go from the 10K to half-marathon level. My longest runs up to that point were about 8 miles (13 km), so it was a matter of adding those extra 5 miles/8 km.
Through the SDMC I met Bill, who became a friend, running partner, and coach/mentor. He had run a lot of marathons and just about all of the local races. Bill loved helping new runners train for races. I learned almost everything that I know about long distance running from Bill on those Sunday mornings. When I told Bill that I wanted to train for the SD Half-Marathon, we started running together starting with 8-milers. When I was ready to move up to doing 10-milers (about 16 km), I was convinced that I wouldn't be able to do it. But, thanks to Bill, I made it. After my first 10-miler, he told me, "I thought you said you couldn't run 10 miles." During the last 100-200 meters of our long training runs, Bill had me practice what he called the half-marathon finish. We would go into a full sprint, with him saying, "Are you going to let an old man beat you?" (He was 12 years older than me.) To this day, when I do my final sprint at the end of a long run, Bill's voice is in my head asking if I'm going to let an old man win. Bill and I did my first 12-miler (just under 20 km) together. He had an injury, so we walked a lot of it. I started having doubts about being able to do a half-marathon because of the walking breaks. But the next week Bill led a small group of women on a 12-miler. Most of us in the group were training for our first half-marathon and we got a lot of good advice. I felt like Bill was picking on me with a lot of, "Stop looking at your watch," "You think too much. Stop thinking and just run," "Relax your shoulders, you're breaking form," and "Bring your hands down." Bill didn't give any of the other women corrections. After 12 miles of being singled out for everything under the sun, I asked Bill why he was picking on me and not on the others in our little group. He told me that I was the most talented runner of the bunch and wanted to bring out my best.
Race day dawned cold and overcast. In other words, it was an ideal day for a long race. The race itself couldn't have gone any better. One of the SDMC women who ran with me during the second 12-miler was with me at the start. She took off and started to leave me in the dust. I told her, "Remember what Bill said about starting slowly." She told me that she felt so good and wanted to go out quickly. I ended up passing her at around the halfway point. I made it a point to start slowly for the first two miles (about 3 km) and picked up speed at each mile split. I had a time goal of 2 hours and as I kept going, I knew that I would easily meet it. When I hit the 8-mile marker, I told myself that I needed to imagine myself starting to run around Miramar Lake, which is exactly a 5-mile route, and then I would be finished. Somewhere between the 10 and 11-mile marks, I saw Bill. He was running the full marathon and was running on the opposite side of the road toward me. I told him that I was doing great and gave a thumbs-up. When I saw him the following Sunday at SDMC, he confessed that he was struggling with running the marathon and was tempted to jump in and run to the finish line with me. But he thought that it was better for me to have my "moment of glory" on my own. At the last water point, somewhere between 11 and 12 miles, a woman came up to me and started complaining about the course (too hilly) and the weather (too cold and damp). She said that she would never run this race again. I told her that this was my first half-marathon and I was enjoying every minute of it. Even though I wasn't planning to get a drink at that point, I pulled out at the water table and got a cup of water just to get away from her. I wasn't going to let someone's whining ruin my fantastic experience. The finish was a slight downhill. I got my finisher's medal and felt like I just won an Olympic medal. My time was 1 hour, 50 minutes, and 37 seconds. Needless to say, I was on Cloud Nine driving home.
My first half-marathon medal had a place of honor in a frame on the mantle in our house in San Diego. When I moved to Germany, it came with me.To paraphrase the triathlete Mark Allen, that medal didn't just symbolize that I finished a long race. It's really a symbol of the training and effort that I put in to earn it. Even though I'm now a veteran of 15 half-marathons, my first one will always be special.