This morning, my husband and I tackled the Angel Island half-marathon which will now go down as the most challenging race I have ever completed. Like a good law student, I failed to read the rules of the race and to my great dismay at the starting line, I found out headphones were completely prohibited, resulting in a DQ for any offenders. For anyone that’s actually hiked Angel Island, the trek is incredibly technical so in hindsight, the headphone ban wasn’t all too surprising. As someone who’s always raced and trained with 80’s music at full blast, this was a major bummer. But it also meant that for the next 13 miles and 3 hours, I could enjoy the views, make a few observations, and write this post in my head as a distraction.
6 am we wake up groggy but ready – we trained for this. We packed our bags and headed off to the ferry where we stretched and slowly began to wake up. Around us I heard conversations from previous Angel Island half runners. “This one is rough,” “the hardest one I’ve ever done.” Meh – I thought. I’ve already run a half marathon before, it can’t be that bad. We shuffled onto the ferry and grabbed spots on the top deck so we could enjoy the views on the way over. Breathtaking. We both stood in awe as we took in the scene around us. The Golden Gate was just barely peaking out from the fog, sailboats in the distance, and the massively beautiful Angel Island was just ahead. So excited for what was in store for our running future with caution totally to the wind.
We land on the island and make our way over to the starting line, or cones. Given the difficulty, novelty, and smaller amount of racers, the race wasn’t set up like a typical professional course. No starting arch, no mile markers, no intermittent water stands. We gathered around the organizer who read us the rules, warned us about the dangers of the course, but overall ensured us that we were about to enjoy the run of a lifetime.
First Day of 1L
The first 2-3 miles are entirely up hill. Of course. I was aware of the elevation and even trained a bit for it here and there when I could but about half way through the first mile in I realized, I had no idea what I had gotten us into.
The trail starts out uncomfortably narrow, creating an even line of runners ahead and behind. If you wanted to speed up, you had to wait for someone to step aside and let you pass. But you also didn’t want to be that jerk holding up the entire line as well. Several racers behind me dangerously pushed through the crowds, sprinting, bolting up the mountain. Gunners, I thought to myself. As the trail climbs steeper and steeper, our breathing grew heavier, and I started to quickly wonder if I was going to make it the full 13. I look around me at the other racers who looked like they had been training for this their entire life. Some were built like marines, some carried heavy duty running gear. Me, I trained for a couple months and brought along my two tiny water containers.
My husband was off in the distance, nowhere to be seen. That’s okay. He has to run his race and I have to run mine. We’ll see each other at the finish line. Still climbing, still running at a solid 9-10min pace, I’m already feeling like I’m about to collapse. I step aside, let a few others pass, and continue on at the same pace. I look down at my watch feeling like I had to have at least gone 3 or so miles by now given how exhausted I already was. 1.55. I’m not going to make it.
I continue pushing on trying to maintain the same pace I trained at for many races past. You see, at the start of my running career, I developed a toxic mindset that if I ever stopped to walk during a race, I had miserably failed. I couldn’t let go of that as we continued to climb. I had to keep running or ultimately fail. I took my first stumble over some jagged rocks. I hadn’t been paying attention. Close call, I thought, but I have to keep going.
Shortly after, I stumble over a tree branch and take my first heavy fall. Runners in front and behind stop and quickly rush to my aid. I’m fine, I said, quickly standing up, embarrassed, and brushing myself off. Mile 2. It’s time to reevaluate.
Finding A Sustainable Routine
This isn’t sustainable I say to myself, bitterly recalling the same words my advisor would use as I was stubbornly destroying my physical health from lack of food, water, and sleep during my first semester. There’s still 11 miles to go. This isn’t like my previous half marathon, or any race I’ve ever done before. I have to approach this differently, I finally conceded. Whether it’s 13 miles or three years, I have to find a way to sustain.
I slow my pace, let others pass, and keep my head down and my eyes open paying attention to the details in the path so I’m less likely to trip again. The slower pace bugged me, but I was regaining my energy and strength. A pungent smell wafts over my group and we look up ahead for the source. It’s the gunners from mile 1, vomiting over the cliff. Should’ve paced themselves, I thought as I pass by with a cheeky “you got this!”
Landing the Interview
I start gaining my sustainable rhythm: Medium pace, stop to rest at the steeper points, slow pace. I’ve embraced this new approach with newfound excitement and motivation that I may actually come off this island in one piece with another half under my belt. All of a sudden, the narrow path opens up and we get our first beautiful view overlooking the Bay. I’ve never seen anything like it before as I approach it with chills. The first 6 miles was all about keeping my head down, learning the course, gaining my rhythm, and staying in line with the pack. I could now pause, take in the view, and remember why I was voluntarily putting myself through this hell in the first place. The path finally opened up. I knew how to tackle the rest now. I just had to keep going.
The Study Group
With the trail flattened out, opened up, and the impressive views to my right, I started to hit the first mental block that plague most distance runners. Boredom. Luckily, I had found a group of runners that were all going at about my pace that I had stuck with since the first mile, the ones that came to my aid when I wiped out. We exchanged occasional words of encouragement. “Keep it up,” “halfway through,” “can’t stop now.” For the next 7 miles, they were my race support system and together we would get through.
I go through these mental blocks of bored, overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted, hopeless, and then, like when something exciting happens in my career, I’d get these short bursts of energy, motivation, and purpose. I’m going to finish this I thought to myself, envisioning the finish line.
The Rule Against Perpetuities
Of course these bursts are few and far between as more hills and curves are thrown our way. I thought I was done with the incline, how am I not at the summit yet? How are we still climbing at mile 8?? I’m growing frustrated, cursing the Angels of Angel Island.
At each major curve, we pass a group of race coordinators who cheer us on, shouting “it’s all down-hill from here,” it never was. “Just think about how well you’ll sleep tonight!” We hated them. They weren’t running this race, they didn’t know how we felt, in fact, they created this nightmare for which we stupidly volunteered. But admittedly, their words of encouragement propelled us. Without mile markers or even GPS, we relied on them to guide us. Seeing them in the distance gave us the inspiration to keep going. They may not be running now, but they’ve ran it before. There’s indeed a finish line at the bottom of this mountain.
The Ride or Die
Near the last 4 or so miles, my group had run off. Some straggled behind, some sped up in hopes of finishing faster. It was just me and pink shoes. Pink shoes would set the pace and I’d follow just behind her. As she grew tired and sore, I would take the lead, inspiring her to keep going. We’d continue this routine of switching off and pacing each other. We’d check in, “do you have enough water?” “How are you feeling?” “We’re almost there.” Together we took on some of the nastiest hills left at the end of the course, stopping to walk for a bit, taking some pictures, and shuffling until we finally reached the summit. We never left each other’s side, yet we didn’t even know each other’s names. We knew we were in this together with only one way off the island. I’ll never forget you pink shoes.
I started to hit the last mental wall of every half-marathoners’ odyssey – defeat. My thigh muscles were numb, hip flexors on fire, feet completely blistered, and my will to finish non-existent, and I still had two miles left. I started channeling my trainer, my coach from the very beginning. “You’ll thank me later” after sometimes testing my own will to live back at the gym. “Survive,” he’d say. “Whatever you do, you have to find a way to survive.” As a professional trainer, he knew exactly what was in store for me at the island and he knew it was his job to get me in the best shape possible to succeed. “I sense you sorta hate me right now,” he’d say cruelly laughing at me mid-sprint. “You’re the worst,” I’d sharply reply, refusing to admit that there was probably some method in his madness. And with that, my two-mile mantra became: “Survive, sustain, survive, sustain, survive, sustain.”
The Family and Friends Back Home
Suddenly, I heard the roars of cheers in the distance signaling the finish line ahead. The cheers inspired a new wave of energy as I took off sprinting down the mountain at mile 12.40. The crowd that surrounded the finish line showered us in “congratulations,” “you did it,” you’re done.” They hadn’t run the same race, but they appreciated the feat and encouraged us from the very beginning – that’s all that mattered.
Needless to say, I finished the race almost dead last. But I finished. And what do you call a law student who graduated last in their class before passing the bar?
I wonder what 2L will be like.