The last time I had toed the starting line of a running race was in early January, 2019. This race was a special race as it was the third time I had run the Tiberias Marathon but it was also the site of my very first marathon. This specific race in 2019 would also be the one where I set a new personal record for the marathon with a 3:29 marathon.
Running my First Live Race Since 2019 – What it Was Like
Embracing the Virtual Marathon Model During This Time
Little did I know that day that it would be the last time I started a race for almost 3 years. In fact, I also did not even think about such a thing as “virtual races” becoming a part of my running calendar yet that is what happened. I was supposed to run the 2020 Jerusalem Marathon but just two weeks before it was to be run, in March, 2020, the race was postponed (for the first time) and my quick trip to Israel ended up being canceled as Israel closed to visitors.
Shortly after that, Greece (where we were) also went into a lockdown and I couldn’t even run more than a couple of miles from our house. So, I began to get creative and decided to run 26.2 miles in our backyard on a 110 foot loop – a loop that I went around 1,300 times. I did this as a fundraiser for masks and other PPE that was needed for medical workers at the start of the Covid pandemic.
After I ran this, many marathons began to cancel their live events and instead offered a “virtual race” option where people could run the distance and upload their results to receive their own medal from the event. I typically run 26.2 mile training runs at least a few times a year so I signed up for some thinking, hey, I’m running the distance anyway, might as well get some interesting hardware while I am at it! I did this for any race that I had had an interest to run in person or that had some interesting medal.
That meant that I picked up the 2020 Marine Corps Marathon medal (filled with actual sand from Iwo Jima, which was really cool, and I was able to give it to a friend who had always wanted to run that marathon to honor his father), the Marine Corps 50K and the 10K so I could get the Marine Corps challenge coin for doing all three in a few weeks. It was such a positive experience with what they provided that I did it again for 2021.
I also signed up for the 2021 Eugene Marathon that was giving medals made from the actual and legendary Hayward Field where so many awesome track and field competitions had taken place. I also signed up for the virtual 2021 Boston Marathon, the first and only Boston Marathon event that was open to anyone to run in (the virtual edition). Lastly, I signed up for the incredible Badwater 267 Elite VR – an insane event with heavy observation where I ran 267 miles in 15 days.
Back to Running a Live Race
While the virtual races were nice to keep getting me out there for long distances and to share some virtual camaraderie on the road during this time, I really could not wait to get back to run an in-person, live race. I signed up for one of my favorite events – the Thessaloniki (Greece) Night Half Marathon. It normally took place in October each year but this year it was postponed one month because of high viral numbers. Well, this weekend was the night it was finally to be run and I couldn’t wait!
It All Felt New!
Honestly, the whole experience felt weird after it being so long. Three years was the longest (by far) that I had gone between races. I went for the packet pickup on Friday and right away experienced the usual around here but for the first time when dealing with a race – having to show ID and virus status paper before entering and then again before picking up my packet. This seems like this is not going away anytime soon, at least for big races in the US. For instance, the Boston Marathon has said they are requiring everyone be fully vaccinated in order to compete next year.
As I prepared to go to the race for the 6:30PM start, I had actually forgotten everything about my pre-race routine! I almost left the house without taking my race bib and when I did get it, I thought, “wait, I have to get some safety pins to put it on!” Fortunately, they included even that in the packet so I was all set.
When I got downtown, I had to walk the almost mile from the finish line to the starting line and it was so awesome to get the race vibes from all the runners in the area as I walked along the waterfront. This was a somewhat race-filled day as it was the first time they ran the marathon the same day as the half-marathon so that morning, the marathon, a 10K, and a 5K took place. At night, there would be another 10K, the half-marathon, and another 5K. Basically, something for everyone and it was actually possible for someone to run the marathon, the 5K, the night 10K, the half-marathon, and the 5K for a total of 51.7 miles in a day. Believe me, I had wanted to do that but was unable to run the morning races so had to settle for the night half.
The funny thing about going into the night half marathon was that, had this been any other year, I likely would have just skipped the race altogether. The reason was that I had not really trained for it at all after dealing with an Achilles injury during the summer and then doing the virtual Boston Marathon back in October and then not really running that much since then. But, this was the first race in almost 3 years so, yeah,I was going to run it no matter what!
The crazy thing is that I had to keep reminding myself before the start to no run like a first-timer. A first-timer in a race like this will often tear out of the gate due to the adrenaline of their first race – but that quick burst comes at a cost as they burn through their initial energy and then they end up losing on a lot of their potential later on. I kept saying “go out slow, go out slow, go out slow.” My previous race times had put me in Block 1 so I lined up near the back of that block so as not to race out.
My goal was to just try to stay near 8 minute miles which would have resulted in 1:45 for the half-marathon. I thought that was somewhat doable but had not run over 8 miles in over a month so wasn’t sure. The countdown started and the crowd of 900 runners (down from the usual 3,000+) chanted in unison along with the announcer. We reached “0!” and off we went!
It never fails, people line up near the front with the intention of running 12 minute miles – right from the start. This is not only frustrating to runners who are trying to run twice that fast but also dangerous and really clogs the start. However, I was kind of happy for the slower start so I would start slow and not run out like a brand new runner!
I was going by feel for the first couple of minutes and the pace felt easy so I just chugged along – but it wasn’t until about the first .5 mile point that I looked down and saw I was running at a 7:10 minute pace. Oops! Waaaay too fast! I tried to slow down but the adrenaline was flowing now and the excitement of running my first race in almost 3 years was just taking over. So, I thought I would just go with it and then deal with the crash and burn later.
I started to feel that crash part around mile 6 and figured if I could at least keep 9 minute miles, I would be only a bit over 1:45 for the race. But, that feeling passed and I was able to keep going.
I kind of couldn’t believe it – I attribute it to the adrenaline of the first race in so long (and just kept wishing I had really trained for this race to see what could have happened) – I was maintaining sub 7:30 miles for most of the race! There were not that many people out and those that were mostly had masks and were bundled up due to the cooler temperatures. The aid stations were well stocked with both volunteers (THANK YOU!) and supplies.
The last stretch of this race is about 1.2 miles along the waterfront. I had run most of the race by myself and at this point, it was just me and like 2 other runners and barely any spectators for this last stretch. Normally, I would have dug deep for a big kick but I was just so surprised at the unlikely pace I had been keeping I thought it was better to not push things and pull a muscle – or worse. So, I just cruised in with a race time that was just 2 minutes of my best time in the half-marathon (and, strangely enough, within 10 seconds of my last two half-marathon times – both of which I was much better prepared for).
My finish time was 1 hour, 38 minutes, and 39 seconds. This equated to a pace of 7 minutes and 32 seconds per mile – about 30 seconds per mile faster than I had hoped to run. I definitely think this is mostly due to the excitement and adrenaline of this first race after so long and also a surprise that apparently I have maintained better fitness during the last couple of years than I thought!
Speaking of surprise times, this weekend, the world record in the half-marathon was set in Lisbon by Jacob Kiplimo with just one second over the previous record – a time of 57 minutes and 31 seconds for a staggering pace of 4 minutes and 23 seconds per mile!
What Was Different With This Race Due to Covid?
As I mentioned, you needed to have a paper showing your virus status and ID to pick up your race bib but not to actually run the race (so, theoretically, someone without the proper papers could have run under someone else’s bib). Masks were not required at any time prior, during, after the race. Some runners wore masks before the race started.
All the volunteers had masks on and used gloves. The water being given out was closed 1/2 liter bottles of water. Yes, there was quite a bit of waste but organizers must have thought this to be the most sanitary way to provide fluids. There were several stations on this course, which was a double loop. They also had bottles of Powerade available at two stations.
Also as I said, there were far fewer spectators than years past but this could have been due to the race taking place one month later (which is normally before the clocks are turned back and that means it is light for the first part of the race with better temperatures) as well as being that there were 6 race distances throughout this day. Also, all stores were closed when they are normally open. So, I think we could attribute the lower number to a multitude of factors that are just somewhat tangentially related to Covid (postponements, closed stores, etc).
If you actually make it all the way down here, thanks for reading along! This post is mostly for me to be able to chronicle what it was like to run my first live race after almost 3 years so thanks for coming along for the ride! To most people, it may not seem that special but for someone who has run over 100 races in the last 15 years, it is very strange to go 20% of that time without running a single live race!
It was a great event and I am looking forward to running some more live races as they reboot. I am not sure when my first live marathon will be but hope it will be before too long – and I just hope that adrenaline of being my first live marathon in over 3 years helps me as much as it did in this half marathon! 🙂