Beat The Blerch: my 2014 half-marathon

My older cousin, Alan, moved to Vancouver seven years after I did and he did so to pursue his culinary dreams; he has been in Vancouver for nearly three years. It’s fascinating to see him pick up the sport of running and (pun intended) run with it. Running works well with his schedule and it’s so much easier in Vancouver, in the various neighbourhoods he has lived in and how much closer everything is. A few years ago, he started doing 10K and half-marathon races.

As the milestone age of 40 drew nearer, he wanted to cross off a particular item on his bucket list: to run a marathon. Of course I was happy to join him on this journey and even – dare I say – guide him.


Looking back at the race registration confirmation, back in March, it turns out we had this on our minds for a while. In February/March I was looking up possible marathons in the Pacific Northwest/West coast area in the summer and fall and we had to rule out the truly fabulous ones in California. Then, on March 18, The Oatmeal announced his new book all about running and holding a marathon and given I had learned Alan loves The Oatmeal comics and it’s just in Washington, we knew it was the right race for us. Six days later, we were registering at the moment registration opened and at 9:29, we both got registered for our races and registration closed at 9:30. About five minutes later, I realized that NPY’s cousin’s wedding was the day before the race. Ooops!

Despite registering in March and having the race and training looming over us, we didn’t start training until the end of June.

activity-year-at-a-glanceIt’s a phenomenon that I’m observing each year thus far: my work’s fantastic fitness reimbursement cycle ends at end of June each year so I spend my balance on things like class-cards for barre class or the dance studio for ballet – which means they expire a year later and I’m scrambling to use up my classes before they expire. Every end of June. Plus, the weather is nicest then, the days are long and the barrier to physical activity feels lower.

I have kept myself busy this summer. Throughout March and April, I was running on the treadmill consistently (green). Then there was a completely barren patch in May through the beginning of June when we went away for a week and then packed up our rental apartment and moved into our condo. I extended my ballet class (dark purple) expiry until end of September and you can see when I finished my barre class card (light purle) because I abruptly stopped. Outdoor runs (blue) only started late June and occurred a little less than once a week. And I started hot yoga (pink) and have eight weeks to complete 10 classes! This graphic pretty much captures my summer.

The last year I trained with a group in Vancouver was in 2008, the last year I did those crazy routes. It was so cool to pull off a 20+ km run on the weekend and be able to tell anyone who would listen that we ran to North Vancouver or Richmond. I even squeeze in a run to New West, just barely. I ran farther than the half-marathon distance I registered for five times.

I ate so well on Friday and we head down to the States right after work. With dinner that lingered in the Bellingham area, we didn’t get to our hotel until past midnight. I booked us into the Marriott/Courtyard Seattle Bellevue/Downtown and was pleased all-round with the property, location and that we could swing a super-late check-out of 3:00 p.m. (which ultimately was 3:30 p.m.). We needed that because the late 9 a.m. start for the marathon means you don’t have to wake up stupidly early and drive 30 minutes to Carnation but you don’t finish a four-hour marathon until past 1 p.m.

Another item of preparation that served us so well is that I finally unlocked my phone (using an online site), managed to snag a Roam Mobility SIM for half-price and bought two days of talk+text+data for a reasonable price. The only problem was that Alan’s car cigarette lighter didn’t have a current and my phone battery kept dying (and his S4 battery doesn’t fit my S3)!

We ate so very well again on Saturday marking the huge difference travelling with a foodie chef cousin. We zipped all around the city and hit every traffic obstacle which was mainly in on the I-5 and congestion in the UW area due to the Huskies game: race packet pick-up at Road Runners in pretty Green Lake, truly unique brunch at Sitka & Spruce, post-lunch snack at Dick’s Drive-In Burgers, my first visit to University Village since 2005 (I think), trip to Costco for Alan to buy a Vitamix, early dinner at Cascina Spinasse, and a visit to Walmart where Alan could see how much junk food I get in the States. :P

I got good sleep on Friday once we were in the hotel after midnight and didn’t have to wake up early on Saturday. And we were back to the hotel on Saturday at 8 p.m. so I was so very happy to be in bed by 10 p.m. Not asleep, of course, but unwinding. I meant to re-read The Oatmeal’s comic “The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances” – seemingly appropriate reading – but fell asleep and read it the next morning.

The race

On race day, with a half-hour drive between the hotel and the race start, I set my alarm and woke up at 7 a.m. Alan went downstairs for a hot breakfast while I made oatmeal with hot water from the Keurig.

Briefly before we head out, I wondered if my back bathroom routine was adequate… but we had to go, couldn’t have Alan late and frazzled before his first marathon. I fear we had gotten lost were assuaged when we saw a lot of other cars on the quiet rural roads.

I wanted to bounce around and take photos since there was so much stimulation, so many costumes. But Alan seemed reserved and I respected that. Soon, the marathoners were lined up for their race. Matthew Inman appeared in a green fatsuit, said a few words to those signed up in the formerly first race and set them off on their way.

After the marathoners departed, I got pictures at the photobooth and even lined up to get one with Matthew Inman. If I had planned a little better, maybe I could have gotten a book signed by him. All I have is an unadorned advance copy of the book the race was created to market: The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances (to be published on September 30, 2014).

There were so many costumes all around. When did running with a tutu become practically a common thing? And when a tutu was butt right up against me, I tidied it up and observed that no fancy sewing skills are required. The funny thing is I was wary about doing anything flashy but anything I would have done was understated. For this race, you are “in costume” merely by putting on a paper cone birthday hat or wearing a green at with a red shirt (looking like a Sriracha bottle).

As with so many races, I began it alone and it’s okay. After the summer of training with someone else, it is ultimately a solitary activity. And one of the first thoughts that comes to me with the runners all around me jostling in the starting hundred meters for space that, “It’s just another Sunday run. No big deal. But a little more fun with all these people.”

While birthday cake and Nutella sandwiches were promised on the race course, I had already set my mind to save those for the end of the race, if even then. I certainly wasn’t having any beer provided by some kindly spectators either!

Like a dolt, I dropped my phone three times with it falling out of my running pouch (it was purchased when I had an iPhone 3GS and doesn’t fit a Samsung Galaxy 3 so well). The first time, there were a couple people I interrupted and I feel really badly about that. The next two times, the crowd significantly thinned out and then on, I held it in my hand until I slipped it back in the pouch a more secure way, at the risk of wrecking my earphone cord.

At the marathon race start and again at the half-marathon race start, Matthew Inman said a few words to thank racers for participating and supporting his project. And since the Sunday race was the original, first established race but the Saturday runners of the second race got to go first, his treat for us was to dress up in a green fat suit. He was doing the half-marathon but with the out-and-back route, he was going to see everyone anyhow.

I wasn’t trying to catch up to him and eventually did around mile 5. I announced my presence by greeting a girl dressed in purple and covered in purple balloons, “Hi, Grapes!” as she was overtaking me and took her place next to Matthew. I tried to photobomb a selfie she took of herself and Matthew all while we were running. It’s a run race but that doesn’t mean you really stop to take photos!

I haven’t run on a trail in years because I’m a city slicker and I do urban races. Both times I ran in Pacific Spirit Regional Park, I twisted my ankle the moment I let my concentration on terrain slip. The terrain of Tolt MacDonald Park was barely rugged but there was a rock that I slipped a little on. That’s what I’ll do to be part of the Blerch race, run on a trail. And it all turned out okay.

The day before, on Saturday, I was reading spoilers about the race on Facebook from the first runners. Like how Alan would hear gunfire between miles 15 and 17 from the nearby gun range. And people assessing the elevation climb. One runner said it was difficult, that even the 1% elevation got to her. I calmed myself down recalling that all of my treadmill runs were at 1%. The elevation profile for the half-marathon looked like a jagged but consistently uphill climb to the half-way point and since it was an out-and-back, generally downhill all the way back. Then why did it appear to me that it was all downhill on the way to the halfway point?

It turned out my mind was playing tricks on me and when I did turn around, it truly was downhill all of the way back. Good thing.

I took a Gu Caramel Macchiato gel at mile 3. Historically, I have not taken gels on half-marathons. But I needed everything I could muster. I thought I would take my second gel at mile 7 and have it kick in halfway through mile 8 but managed to push back taking the second one – Gu Peanut Butter – until mile 8.

At the halfway point, the time on my phone read 10:39. We started at 9:30 with an ad hoc wave start and mine was around the fifth wave. I had to finish the second half in 1:06 to make it a 2:15 half. I had to – for the first time I remember – negatively split.

It was a goal that I toyed with to do a half-marathon without stopping. So I was bargaining with myself to get to halfway without stopping and then see how it went. The three times I had to stop to pick up my phone do not count as stopping.

In my self-assessment, I felt good after 10K. No pains at all. It was just a matter of willpower to continue on at that point. Iggy Azalea’s “Black widow” was my “power song” to get me to mile 8 and through to taking my second gel. Martin Garrix’s “Animals” took me to mile 10. My right hip felt tight and a little tired at mile 11. My right foot felt like a blister was forming, too.

Contrary to previous outings, I wasn’t so desperate to bargain hard with myself. I really wanted to be able to blog that I had run continuously.

I had just re-read The Oatmeal comic about running and thought about it during the race. For Matthew, running is not about vanity and I agree it is true. The cycle of running and overindulgent post-run feeding does not result in a beautiful body. But after a run (and all the cool stuff I was doing this summer), I feel good and confident and the latter makes you look better while the former motivates me to make better eating decisions.

A huge mental difference during this race was that I didn’t bargain with myself. In part, this was thanks to my goal to run without stopping for half and then the whole race. What is there to negotiate about after the halfway point and I hadn’t stopped and felt good? This summer, I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (which I learned about in The Oatmeal’s comic about running) and one thing Murakami can say is that he doesn’t stop running to walk during a marathon. I don’t think I could ever run for four hours straight but two hours is within reach.

I like my music a lot. Just as intended, I pondered on some of the memories associated with the music, but not for the entire length of the song – apparently I don’t have the concentration for that.

My mental fortitude was high but I also reasoned the following: The Blerch is a gremlin-demon that taunts you to give up your resolve to run. The Blerch was actualized on the course, holding out cake at the water stations and seated on the course, inviting you to join it and break from running. Since the Blerch was outside, busy with so many runners, it wasn’t in me to whisper in my ear to take it easy. Well, that’s what I told myself and my mental strength, for once was high to begin with.

Taking two gels at appropriate intervals helped. So did ample sleep both Friday and Saturday night. So does training since late June. And a huge confidence booster was that I had trained marathon distances and run more than my race distance several times.

Once I saw the green finish line arch and the elapsed time on the clock since 9:00 a.m., I pushed it into a run, practically a sprint. My goal had been to come in in under 2:15 and the clock read 2:12 and I was going to make it and negative split! A guy and a girl wearing Team RWB each carrying a large American flag, were ahead of me and started running too. For some odd reason, I wanted to cross the finish line with them, soak up the fanfare and cheers that were directed in our direction. Wouldn’t it have been really cool if I had worn something that screamed Canada alongside them? ;)


Right after the race, I went to Starbucks and got water and tea and talked to NPY on the phone. When I returned, I realized I should have stuck around and immediately queued up for Matthew Inman’s autograph/comic in my copy of his new book. Darn. The queue was so long and I no longer had the time to wait and see Alan finish. I had a small piece of the cake and it was delicious. Then I waited for my cousin to finish his first marathon.

My results
Chip time: 2:12:50
Average time: 2:30:36
Overall: 285 /816
Females: 155/558 (compared to 258 male half-marathoners)
Division: 73/256

On this day..