Last weekend, I had the privilege of leading the 1:50 pace group at the St. Luke’s Half Marathon – one of our local spring half marathons. It draws a large crowd – I think the field size was close to 4,000 runners this year! I wasn’t supposed to be the one pacing it. The woman who was supposed to be the pacer came down with a cold, and was looking for someone to step in. The only race I get to pace annually at this point is the Garden Spot Half Marathon, which I love. The St. Luke’s Half is one that is always special to me. Formally known as the Lehigh Valley Half Marathon, this race was my first ever road race in 2007. I used to race the course every year until I started running Boston. Normally, I’d sign up anyway just to run it at whatever pace I could manage that day in recovery mode. I stopped doing that a few years back when I came home from Boston with a stress fracture in my femur and couldn’t participate.
So the past few years, I’ve been an enthusiastic spectator for this race. It’s close to my house so I ride my road bike to the course and cheer on my friends. I love spectating the race just as much as I love running it because tons of the local runners from the area participate. It’s like one day in the Lehigh Valley where we all get to be together. It’s really awesome. A big part of this race is the music – there are bands all along the whole course. My dad and brother are in a local band called Forty Grand and their band sets up on MLK Boulevard around mile 3/5ish – they are at the point on the course that’s an out and back so runners get to see them twice. It’s a great spot to cheer.
Back in 2007, I was convinced by my friend, Missy, to sign up. At the time, I knew her as the yoga instructor at my gym and I was excited that I could run five miles on the treadmill. She encouraged me to sign up for the race. I remember telling my husband that I wanted to do it – we both laughed at the prospect of me running any organized race, let alone 13.1 miles. I didn’t consider it for more than a few minutes. I don’t remember what made me do it, but a few weeks later I signed up for the race. I figured I’d train for a few weeks, get bored of running and stop, and then show up at the race unprepared and suffer through it. I had a training plan from the Runner’s World Smart Coach (do they still even have that?) site. I didn’t know what any of the specific runs even meant, so I’d just run the distance on the paper. No speed work, no watch…definitely no Gu or any type of fuel, that’s for sure.
While training for this race, I discovered my love for running and actually stuck to my training plan. When I ran this half marathon for the first time, I did it in 1:53:22. I remember how hard that day was and how I felt crossing the finish line. I’d never been much of an athlete (besides two years of being on the swim team in middle school) and this was by far the most athletic feat I’d ever taken on. I ran the whole thing with a friend of mine, and she had just run her first marathon a few weeks before. As we crossed the finish line, I couldn’t fathom how she ran twice that distance. I literally slept the rest of the day and was sore for days after. Fast forward to now: I haven’t actually raced a half since 2010, so I really don’t know what I could do it in. In Boston I reached the half marathon point in 1:35, and last year I ran a few marathons where I was reaching the half point in 1:30-1:31. I’m not sure what that corresponds to if I were actually racing the distance, but one day (soon) I’d like to find out. Maybe in the fall. I have my eye on a few local ones.
What was so special about being a pacer at this race was that I got to pace the race that got this whole running thing started for me, and I got to lead the pace group that it all started with. I know the other pacers that are involved with this event have been involved for a long time, and they are phenomenal runners. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them led the pace groups the year I ran for the first time. I wish I could say that I ran with a pace group that first time and had a great experience, but lets be real. Back in 2007, I had no idea what a Garmin was, let alone a pacer.
Regardless, as I ran the course on Sunday with that task, it was such a blast. I got to the gym at William Allen High School early because I wanted to find a good parking spot near the finish line. In the gym, I stayed warm as I chatted with other pacers, friends, and runners who were looking to run with a pacer. As it got closer to the start time, the pacers met in a corner of the gym and anyone looking to run with a pacer made their way over. We lined up in order, and began walking to the starting line. Since it’s a pretty large field of runners, it took about a minute until we actually crossed the starting line. I started my watch as soon as we crossed.
My goal was to get across the finish line within 30 seconds of my goal time (1:50), and I finished right on time, in 1:49:45! I started with a large group of runners, and the start is pretty downhill. One thing that’s tough about pacing is since the pace feels comfortable for me, going a few seconds faster seems like no big deal. But a few seconds faster for the group you are pacing could destroy their day – this is their goal pace to achieve a PR. If they followed a training plan, all of their tempo runs, track workouts, and half marathon paced runs were based on running this pace – not faster – and it is really important to consider that at the start of a race. A few seconds too fast could mean a very long, difficult day for some. My goal pace for a perfect 1:50 was 8:24, but to try to bring it in 30 seconds under I was shooting for an 8:22 average. My goal was to go out closer to an 8:30 and then speed up to an 8:20 until the parkway, where I figured we would slow down. The first mile is significantly down hill and ended up being an 8:20, so I was conscious not to go any faster at that point.
Most of the group stuck with me until we reached Lehigh Parkway, where the course tightens up and there are some hills. I lost some runners there – either they went ahead of me and took off, or dropped back. I stayed with a few of them and picked up some new ones. There was a girl wearing a 2015 Boston shirt, so I chatted with her for a little while. It was her first Boston, and it was fun to hear about her experience.
As we came out of the parkway for the final 2.5 miles of the race, I could see the pain on some of the runner’s faces – a pain that I know all too well. I encouraged them to keep running and smiling because we only had 2.5 miles left at this point – and for those that trained for a half marathon, 2.5 miles is nothing! I kept a consistent pace through the finish and picked up a few runners along the way. If I saw someone walking, I encouraged them to run it in with me. Some listened and tagged along. As we hit the track at J Birney Crum Stadium, we had almost a full lap until we reached the finish line. I crossed with Tracy, one of the runners that started with me. She hugged me and was excited to meet her goal. I stopped and waited for a few of the other runners that started with me to cross, and a bunch of people came over and thanked me – I didn’t even know that they were following me! It was so rewarding.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to pace that race again, but I’m grateful for having the opportunity to do it this year. I really missed that course, and I can’t think of a better way to recover from Boston.