A week ago Sunday I was running down the streets of New Orleans with thousands of fellow runners. It was my third time participating in the New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon.
These 13.1 miles took me through downtown, along St. Charles and back, through the French Quarter and toward City Park. I crossed the finish line with a time of 2:04:09, soaked in a mixture of ice cold water, salt, and sweat.
Before offering a play by play of the race, I feel I must first acknowledge the moments leading up to the start line, and the love that supported me along the way.
This photo was taken Friday night at the expo. Stopping by the expo just before it closed on night one, rather than waiting until Saturday, meant we were able to walk through and see everything without the crowd, and take our time being silly.
[More Than] Pre-Race Jitters
Not only did Andrew act as a sounding board for my running banter in the days leading up to the race, he helped fuel my excitement for the race from the moment we arrived in New Orleans. And he offered even more support Saturday night, when I needed it most.
During dinner with friends, I suddenly had a dizzy spell. I’d taken a number of vitamins during the day, had a drink the night before (something I rarely do), and my head was feeling fuzzy from sinus drainage. Granted part of the dizzy spell was triggered by the physical, I recognized the physical was triggering a mental reaction, in the form of anxiety. This is the part of the story I could easily gloss over without any backstory; however, if I did, I feel I would be doing a disservice to myself and anyone who battles any level of anxiety. Anxiety is something people tend to stray away from talking about openly, yet it’s something that is a very real battle that many, including myself, face.
While I have experienced countless moments of sudden panic in my past, when I was much younger and unable to mentally work through my thoughts, I’ve only had one medically diagnosed anxiety attack in my life. It was so severe it landed me in the E.R. I was dizzy, totally separated from myself, and on the verge of blacking out. I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I was sure I was going to die. An EKG showed that it wasn’t a heart attack, but instead, an anxiety attack, and my body’s response to what was referred to at the time as “information overload.” My mind had been through so many rapid fire experiences in a short time, my wires shorted out and my body reacted in a way I wasn’t prepared for. That was eight years ago.
Since then, I’ve become far more in tune with my mind, body and spirit. I made a choice a long time ago to face my anxiety straight on, and I keep it in check via running, prayer, yoga, writing, visualization exercises, talking through things with those closest to me, and quiet time of meditation. Still, this most recent season of my life has been filled with a great deal of bouncing around, and as a result, I’ve robbed myself of the level of quiet meditation that I know very good and well my hypersensitive nervous system needs.
Quitting a job and putting full pressure on myself to figure out a way to make it work. Facing up to all my demons at once. Moving across the state and away from family. Learning how to be in a healthy, positive romantic relationship, after years of back and forth situations and wandering. Executing an entirely different way of being. It’s no secret that all of this combined has been a lot for my brain to process. Knowing what my mind was capable of years before, sending my body into total uncontrollable panic, has helped me learn to identify when something is the slightest bit off. Thankfully I’m at a point in my life where I can realize when I’m not okay and respond accordingly.
I’ve certainly experienced waves of increased anxiousness in the past few months, and especially in the days leading up to our race trip. Finally, Saturday night it stopped me in my tracks for about an hour. When it hit me, I excused myself from the dinner table, zipped up my jacket and went outside to take a walk and get some fresh air. After sitting outside by myself for a bit, crying it out, praying, and working to slow and deepen my breathing, I put some lavender oil on my temples, got in the car with Andrew, and we drove the course. At this point, I admitted to myself I was feeling a bit sad and out of sorts due to not having my running partner by my side this time. It was at this point I also realized, my anxiety is much bigger than pre-race jitters, and I am beyond thankful I have someone in my life who fully appreciates me as an individual who doesn’t just feel—but feels everything.
The more we drove the race course and talked about every mile, the better I felt. After all was said and done Saturday night, I was able to move past feelings of dizzy confusion, and wake up to run a strong race, which I consider a mental victory.
NOLA Race Day Replay
Just before 7 a.m., Andrew dropped me off in the heart of the city. I was wind-blasted from the moment I stepped out of the car. I couldn’t complain. The weather was just as I had hoped. Clear and in the 40s.
Adrenaline kicked in as I swiftly walked to the gathering of race participants in Lafayette Square. I removed my jacket, bundled it up, stuffed it in my bag and dropped my bag off at gear check. The next stop was the porta potty line. At 7:25 a.m. (five minutes before race start) I jogged over to the start to take my place amongst thousands. I crawled through a barrier to make it up to Corral 3. I have learned it’s best to under-predict your time to avoid some of the weaving that occurs on narrow streets in a race with thousands of runners. I took my place just behind two lobsters and beside Elvis (yes, really). I glanced at my phone long enough to see Andrew had texted me a photo of where he would be waiting for me at mile two. I pressed play on my music. And we were off.
PACE PER MILE: The energy at the start line replaced any lingering jitters with focused energy. The cold air urged my legs to do exactly what I told them not to do, and I clocked my first mile at 8:22. Through mile seven, I remained in my goal window of 8:45 – 9:10. I then slowed down slightly to the 9:15 – 9:30 range for the next three. It was here I channeled all the mental strength I had. Realizing I had salt on my face and was slightly dehydrated, I grabbed water and Powerade at every stop. Still, my body was dragging. After mile 10 I made the decision to slow down to the 9:45-10:15 range. I could have kicked it to the point of wearing my body to the ground, but I decided that there was nothing appealing about dragging my limbs. I decided I just wanted to run happy.
COURSE SUPPORT: The course itself was as alive as I had remembered it. Spectators lined the streets, and bands blasted music at each mile. The day prior we took the streetcar down St. Charles, surveying the bulk of the race course, and Andrew mapped out where he would stand to see me during. I spotted him at mile two and yelled his name so he was sure to see me. Somehow he captured this photo despite the steady sea of runners around me.
Again at mile seven, Andrew was at the same cross street, but had made it out to the median to see me on the way back. I reached for his hand and he ran alongside me for several moments. Perfect timing for his support as my legs began to slow and my energy dropped.
TO PR OR NOT PR? It took me the first six miles to decide I wasn’t going to run my personal best. I knew based on the amount of weaving that had already taken place, adding on tenths of a mile here and there, I would have to push it even faster than my goal pace if I wanted to scrape in under two hours. And I wasn’t sure I had it in me. Then I remembered what my mom said about her Boston experience. She remembers people around her being so glued to their watches, they missed the journey. To this day, she still vividly recalls these visuals from the race course. Taking in the scenery didn’t slow her down, it simply made her able to run strong, calm and happy.
Although it was a tough last few miles, at the core, I ran happy. Once I passed mile 10, I knew that in 30 minutes I would be reuniting with Andrew and friends at the finish. During these last three miles, I daydreamed about times spent in New Orleans prior for VooDoo Fest, Jazz Fest, and all the times in between. I daydreamed about the strength it took for me to run my first full marathon last spring.
Andrew was waiting for me about a half mile before the finish and jogged alongside me, offering words of encouragement. We then parted ways and I saved enough energy to sprint it in, reuniting with him on the other side.
POST-FINISH REALITY: Immediately following the race, I bundled up in my foil blanket to shield myself from the wind and trap the warmth in. After walking through the post-race party, Andrew and I wandered over to cheer on friends running the full marathon. At that point, I can honestly say I felt happy with the outcome, happy that I didn’t push myself to the point of falling to pieces, and happy to have another entire day to spend in the crescent city. (And I still feel this way).
Although it might sound weird to say, I’m ultimately glad I didn’t set a personal record or even beat my goal time. If I am going to focus on running faster this year, I want it to be driven by my spirit being sound and my heart being strong. I don’t want it to be a fluke. I want it to be both a mental and physical accomplishment. I want it to be because I’m ready to do so. And if I’m going to be ready, I need to clear a few road blocks first.
Why Rock ‘n’ Roll?
While I certainly value and support small, local and regional races, there’s something about running alongside thousands of individuals with live music motivation at every mile that is hard to beat. The organizational execution of Rock ‘n’ Roll Race Series events is seamless and unmatchable. And not only does Rock ‘n’ Roll deliver successful events, they share this success with others. For this particular event, they partnered with Feed the Children, to help this charity organization raise funds and awareness in support of its mission to end child hunger. Together, during race weekend, several hundred local families were distributed food, toiletry items, haircuts and more at a volunteer-driven event. All of this to say, I’m happy to play a small part in this Rock ‘n’ Roll empire as a participant and member of the Rock ‘n’ Blog team. Whether you are seeking to run your first marathon or half marathon, or you’ve lost count of how many races you’ve completed, Rock ‘n’ Roll Series events are something every runner (of any distance) should experience at least once.
As for New Orleans, coming off of another NOLA running experience has only made me more excited to do this race again next year. Together, the rich culture of the city and the enthusiasm of fellow participants, make this race a personal favorite and one I highly recommend. Sure, there are narrow roads, unexpected potholes, and some navigating and careful footing that must take place along this particular race course. I like to think of this New Orleans route to be a direct reflection of life. There may not be hills, but there are hindrances. Meaning you better keep both eyes open and your heart in the game.
Now that New Orleans has passed, it’s time for me to officially decide on my next Rock ‘n’ Roll events of 2015. As for the present, I am tentatively planning on running the Nashville Half and Savannah Half. Decisions coming soon!
RUN WITH SARAH: Consider this your personal invitation to run with me in 2015! If you’re considering signing up for any 2015 Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon or Half Marathon (U.S. or Canada), simply use code RUNWITHSARAH and save $15 off registration fees. (Save £3 on International Rock ‘n’ Roll Series Marathon and Half Marathons, excluding Mexico).
Beyond the Race
As much as the weekend was about the race, it was equally, if not more, about Andrew and I taking a trip that was entirely ours. It was about hopping on public transportation and exploring the city. It was about feeling at home in a city that is so diverse, so weird, so rough around the edges, and so very “me.” It was about staying with longtime friends, who are, in many ways, living the simple life of togetherness we strive for. It was about identifying road blocks I need to work through in my own head in order to truly be “okay.” It never fails, running has always built me up and taken me to new heights by first breaking me completely open.
Part two of our NOLA weekend explorations coming this week…