Posted by: Sarah | March 29, 2010

c’era una notte con una sola stella, pero era grande, luminosa e bella

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”
– T.S. Eliot

There are rare moments in life, very few and far between when the universe seems to give you a small nod of reassurance to acknowledge that you are moving in the right direction, that all your hard work is paying off, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and even when you may feel lost, you are moving toward that light.

This past weekend was one of those moments.  DC was magic for me.  Going into this weekend, everything just seemed to be out of sorts.  Running was consistently the only thing in my life that seemed to be making any sense.  That shifted this weekend and other pieces started to fall into place.

I found out Friday afternoon that I was accepted to one of my top choice grad school programs (which happens to be in DC).  Saturday morning, I set a 23 minute PR (personal record) at the National Half Marathon, which, for any non runners reading this, is a HUGE PR at that distance (a difference of nearly 2 minutes per mile).  It had to be a dream, surely this couldn’t be happening, I couldn’t be this lucky.  But that was the best park.  It wasn’t luck. I had set my heart 100% on two very specific goals, two passions, that I wanted more than anything else.  I had believed in those passions, other people had believed in me, and it was paying off.

As much as I like to travel in good company, I like to race in good company. My crew this weekend did not disappoint. Elke has been one of my best running buddies since Day 1.  We joined TNT at the same time, ran our first marathon together in San Francisco, mentored together for TNT in 2009, completed the 9+1 program together, and more. Courtney also joined TNT the same season as Elke and I, but has moved quickly over to the Tri world, so I haven’t trained with her much.  My roommate, Michelle, completed the entourage.  She moved in with me in December, but we have very opposite work schedules and rarely even see each other during the week, except when I am waking up for a 6 a.m. run and she is heading out the door for her hour long commute up to Westchester.  While we did not run together, all of us finished within a ten-minute window, Courtney at 1:51, me at 1:53, Elke breaking the 2-hour mark at 1:59 and Michelle just over 2:00 in only her second half marathon.  Better yet – this race was a PR for each of us.

We headed from NYC to DC Friday afternoon for the National Half Marathon, giddy by the fact that spring had finally arrived and we were going to have beautifully warm weather for our race and our weekend of hanging out in the District. Amidst all of the usual pre-race preparations that have now become second nature, checking into our hotel, visiting the expo for race material pick-up, pasta party, and preparing out race day outfits and gear, the much anticipated graduate school acceptance letter arrived, giving me a huge confidence boost for the rest of the weekend. Bouncing off the hotel walls would be an understatement to describe my reaction when I read the email.

I had lofty goals going into this race.  I wanted to break the two-hour mark more than anything.  While everything about my training over the past few months indicated that this would be no problem, the self-doubt, those “I’m not a fast runner” thoughts still lingered and told me that sub-2 was way, way too fast for me. The numbers in my training log may not lie, but my psyche has a very hard time believing those numbers.  Either way, I was determined to leave it all out on the roads of DC that morning.  That I did.

While the forecast had predicted a high of 70, DC was still very chilly at the starting line before the sun had come up.  Major props to this race for having both bag check and bathrooms indoors at the Armory, which at least saved some energy while waiting around indoors rather than shivering out in the cold. Shortly after the gun sounded and we took off, the sky slowly started to turn pink and within the first mile, we were rewarded with a view of the sun rising up behind the Capitol building. It was going to be a beautiful day.

The first two miles were challenging in terms of weaving through the crowds and finding my pace.  Runners were passing each other like crazy, running up and down the sidewalks, around cars.  A quick time check at the first mile told me I was at 9:18, but I knew that I would have no problem picking up that pace once everyone settled into a rhythm.  I don’t run with a Garmin, so my main strategy was to keep my overall pace at around 9:00 miles and try to pick it up if I slowed from that at all.  I have always been a pretty consistent runner in terms of pace, so not using a Garmin isn’t a HUGE disadvantage (although it is definitely on my wish list).  I passed the 4 mile marker at 34 min & change and knew that I was already ahead of where I needed to be.

My confidence went up a little more when I hit the 10k mark at 53ish minutes, which included a pretty decent incline up Connecticut Avenue.  When my watch turned exactly 1 hour at Mile 7, I knew that I was onto something good, that today was my day, that barring anything unexpected, I needed to reevaluate my goal because I was going to come in well under two hours. 1:55? Was that possible?  I was about to find out.

This was the first big race that I have done where I actually haven’t fed off the energy of the spectators.  Not that the crowd support wasn’t great, because it was.  Rather, I put on the iPod right from the beginning, rather than waiting until the halfway point when I usually need music in a race, and quickly fell into the zone. The zone where you tune out everything going on around you and tune in to everything going on within.  I was pushing myself, paying very close attention to how my body felt and whether or not I would be able to sustain my pace. The music was driving me and I was giving it all I got.  The one point at which I did truly appreciate the spectators were around Mile 8 or 9 around Howard University, where there were a few DJs rocking some Michael Jackson and Black Eyed Peas…I think I actually laughed out loud just how into the race they were.

The last few miles were tough.  I was starting to feel drained, the course took a less than scenic route, and I was ready to be done with it. At one point, I glanced down at my watch to see that it was 1:40 and I had not seen the Mile 11 marker.  Worried that I was actually more off on my pace that I thought, I was relieved to pass Mile 12 a few minutes later at 1:44 (chatting with other runners later confirmed that no one had seen the Mile 11 sign. annoying).

Another sense of relief came when the course split – Half Marathoners stay to the right, Full Marathoners stay to the left. With pleasure.  I see that finish line, I am very happy that I am not turning the other direction, 26.2 miles is scary, 13.1 I can handle. (Little voice in the back of my head reminding me that I am signed up for two marathons this year. Quickly pushed that little voice away).  That finish line ahead told me to give everything that I had left.  Sidenote: Why do race directors always seem to make that last little stretch land on a slight incline?  Granted, not as bad as the hill at the end of the Lake Placid Half, but definitely still a small hill up toward the Armory. I pulled out my headphones.  Now I wanted to hear those cheers, those enthusiastic, supportive cheers from spectators and runners who were lined up along the finish corral.  I crossed the finish line and instinctively stopped my watch. I couldn’t believe what I saw. 1:53:05.

I felt tears welling up in my eyes, which has only happened after one other race – my first marathon.  This may have been my 7th half marathon, but it symbolized a drastic shift in my training that has occurred over the past four months since Philly.  Add that to the academic news and I was slightly overwhelmed by emotion – happiness, relief, excitement, disbelief – it was almost more than I could handle.

I had smashed my previous conceptions about what kind of runner I was, what barriers I would be able to break in future races. I had quit my full-time job a year ago after realizing that not only was it making my unhappy on a daily basis, but that it was not the direction that I wanted my career to go, and decided to apply to grad school.  After working at the restaurant for the past year, which I love but knew wasn’t a long-term position, after I had submitted the applications, I started to worry about figuring out a back-up plan if I were to get rejected from all the schools I had applied to.  I had not applied to any back-up schools, I had only applied to the best of the best.  Did I really have any chance to get into these programs?  Would I go abroad again? Search for a new job? In an instant, with that acceptance letter, this all melted away.  I was indeed on the right track. Things are falling into place.

The rest of the weekend was spent with some well-deserved fun around DC, sightseeing with Michelle, drinking champagne at happy hour, catching up with some wonderful Madison friends who now call DC home. Through it all, I couldn’t stop smiling.



  1. What an inspiring story! Great job and PR at the race and I pray you achieve all of your goals!

  2. Sarah, this is the first time I’ve read your blog, but I have to say, I am so inspired by you! You have always been such a shining star ever since I got to know you in high school. I am so proud of what you have accomplished thus far and am taking this inspirational story of your D.C. half marathon to heart as I begin to challenge myself and my body and attempt a triathalon this fall. Sometimes, during the training, I wonder why I am doing it. But then, when race day arrives and you achieve something wonderful, it makes it all worth it. Keep it up Sarah 🙂 You rock!!

  3. Sarah this sounds like such an amazing racing experience. I’m so proud of you! I can’t wait to hear details about this and grad school plans and everything in between. Big hugs!

  4. So inspiring. Congratulations!

  5. Sarah, thanks for sharing your story with us! My eyes welled up reading it 🙂 Congrats on your monster PR!!

  6. I was just about to say how you inspire me – seems I’m not the only one who feels that way 🙂
    Congratulations on all the small and big successes, and especially on your way of looking at life!
    big big hugs from all the way

  7. Awesome job Sarah! It seems like you had such an amazing weekend! First, finding out you got into a great school and then a 23 minute PR! You must be on cloud 9! So happy for you, speedy!

  8. Sarah I am so very proud of you. Your PR is quite an beautiful thing!!!! And congrats on getting into the grad school of your dreams!!! Your going to be a STAR!!!!!

  9. What a monster weekend for you! I’m so proud of you and happy to see everything come together. I hope you use this experience as a stepping stone for San Diego…:)

  10. What an awesome read – so inspiring to hear about all the pieces 🙂

  11. What an amazing race and inspiring race report! Congrats on your awesome PR! Your persistence and dedication really showed out there. Thanks for sharing your awesome story. Way cool!

  12. So inspiring! Way to rock that half marathon & congrats on grad school!

  13. […] lot of coffee and not a lot of sleep, I survived my first year of graduate school at GWU. Life in DC, life as a grad student, learning how to balance school, two jobs, and training has […]

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