Richmond Miracles and Calzones: The time I broke the 2-hour half marathon

I was sitting in the lobby of a Hilton Homewood, staring at my calzone, when my running miracle happened.

It was the eve of the Richmond, Virginia half marathon – my break 2-hours goal race. A goal that I had shared with too many people … and on social media.

Here I was, 1300 miles from home, surrounded by the excited chatter of my best running friends, glaring at my pre-race dinner choice and questioning my life decisions.

I had gone to the dark side.

My goal suddenly felt impossible. How am I going to run a half marathon with a 9min average pace? I’d never even run a 10k that fast! Oh, I’m not close to ready. This is terrible.

Six weeks earlier, I had signed up to train with a running coach. I’d followed almost every workout to the exact detail, gleefully logging my miles and paces. I even ordered gold stars from Amazon Prime to reward myself in my running journal. And when I really nailed a workout – I would text it to my coach the moment I got back in my car. The buzz of her affirmation of “AWESOME JOB, ”would be all the motivation I needed to set my 4:45 a.m. alarm the next morning to run. But just a few weeks before this night, I’d gotten an ear and sinus infection and I had missed a week of workouts.

“Yup,” I thought as I swallowed a blob of oily white cheese. “The stupid ear infection was my undoing. If only I hadn’t missed that week – I would be in great shape.”

Earlier that morning, my friends and I had gone on an easy run alongside the James River to peek at the race’s finish line. We took pics in front of a massive gorgeous mural of a regal owl who must certainly be the queen of all owls. We ran across a footbridge that told the story of the fall of Richmond during the Civil War through the use of quotations of both Northern and Southern witnesses. The air was cold and the sky overcast and when we finished our run, it began to rain.

Queen Owl

It rained all day.

It was still raining as we ate our dinner. I had ordered tomato soup to dip my calzone in – which was a weird thing to do since it came with marinara sauce. I’d probably eaten fewer than 5 calzones in my lifetime and at least a thousand pieces of pizza.  But no, I chose to play pre-race dinner roulette with my stomach.

Then through the foggy glass of the lobby’s gas fireplace, I got a glimpse of her. I’d never met her – but I recognized her immediately. I knew she’d be in town for the race – but I didn’t expect to see her until the race after party. Almost choking, I stand and point. My mouth full of my questionable life choice.

My friend Ashley shouts, “HI BECKI!”

It’s my coach, Becki Spellman.

My running miracle.

“I’m Valerie,” I gurgle as she gives me a hug.

“I know who you are!” she laughs. She stands at our table asking everyone how they’re feeling… if they’re excited. She just happens to be staying in our same hotel.

My eyes suddenly feel really large. All I can do is stare. You would’ve thought Michelle Obama had entered the room.

She gives out a few bits of advice … reminds us all to have fun.

I feel tears welling up in my eyes.

And then like that, she’s gone.

And I cry.

My mental sunshine is back. I’m excited for the race.

Becki and me after the race.

The next morning, the rain had vanished. The air was a clean, clear 40 degrees. I wanted to wear tights, long sleeves, and a vest but my roommates talked me down to a compromise of arm warmers, my Oiselle singlet, and tights. They are always right.

I lined up behind the 2-hour pace group with my friends Julie and Heather – two runners and dear friends who I’d been training with during the past year. “Just hold on for as long as you can,” I told myself. “Just go mile by mile.”

And so I did. Miles 1-4 flew by as we ran past antebellum mansions and modern condos. When we hit the 10k crossing, we were in the middle of a park speckled with fall leaves. I check in with myself. Breathing is good. Legs feel good. OK – let’s keep going. I drank water at every water stop but then sprinted to make up time. My pace group was slowly creeping away from me, but my watch showed me on target. “You’re OK, just don’t lose sight of them,” I coached myself.

When I hit mile 8, I slurped down a Honey Stinger Gel and a salt tab. I still hadn’t lost sight of the pace group … hell, this could actually happen.

At mile 10, I felt in shock. I’m still hitting my paces… this could happen.

This could happen … this WILL happen …

At mile 11, I started to feel tired. Real tired. My friend Julie, slowed down to run beside me. “You’re going to do it! I won’t let you slow down!” I muster an appreciative grunt.

It’s somewhere around this point that I began to have an almost out-of-body experience. It’s like my body decided that no matter what my brain might say –I wasn’t going to slow down. I was watching myself run.

At mile 12, the course shifted to a screaming downhill … I was on track for a 1:59 finish. It’s going to happen. You’re going to do it. Just don’t fall down.

And that’s when I RAN. I caught up to the 2-hour pace group, and then I passed them.

I ran my fastest mile of the race and finished in 1:58:35. And when I stopped my watch, I cried again.

You’ve got to put in the physical training to hit hard goals. But you’ve also got to conquer your mental barriers. I won’t always have “running miracles” to drag me out of a pre-race depression. I love the Oiselle mantra of “Head up – Wings out” and I’ve been wearing it on hats and shirts and saying it for years.

But I never lived it until this race.

Race Review: J&J Race and Trail Running Reunion from Tejas Trails at Camp Eagle

It was dark the first time I drove down the 8 miles of rocks and gravel that connects civilization to Camp Eagle.

Almost a year later, I’m back. This time with my husband and plenty of south Texas sunshine to light our way.

It’s not a bird camp. We’re here for the J&J Race and Trail Running Reunion, an excellent excuse to meet up with birds from across the Lone Star State (and Kansas too) to run, cheer and catch up.

I’m here to cheer. I trip on “ghost holes” while walking across carpet. Trail running is not in my biology. But I love to be a fan and I love watching these women do incredible things.

When we finally pulled off the gravel and up to our cabin, I haven’t walked more than a few feet until I hear my name, “VALERIEEEE!” It’s Megan, an honorary Lone Star Bird from Kansas City and she is a bundle of excited energy and chatter. She jokes about how she’s “crazy” and chides herself for signing up for this race.

She’s nervous. But she’s glowing. Like a kid about to go off to college for the first time.

And for good reason. Megan is just hours away from beginning her first 100k (62 miles) trail race.

Soon the sun sets and that deep rural darkness blankets Camp Eagle. It’s a moonless night. But there are plenty of stars.

It’s 8 p.m. and the 100k runners are lining up near a green and yellow inflated arch. Their bodies are silhouettes behind the bouncing balls of light that will be their only source of vision until sunrise.

Megan is one of those 23 orbs. She’s hopping on the balls of her feet. She has a manic smile.

“I’m really excited – I’m ready to get going,” she says. Her voice lowers. “I’ve got a long, long run ahead of me. I’ll try to finish before dinner tomorrow.”

Megan isn’t the only bird running a race, but she is the only bird attempting the 100k.

The next morning, at 6 a.m., the 50k racers are gathering at the arch. Megan has been running for 10 hours.

Lone Star Bird Aracely is getting ready for her first 50k. She’s got the same manic grin as Megan and she’s doing side lunges while her family gives her a pep talk.

“I’m scared,” Aracely says. “I’m scared of the dark.”

“Don’t worry – the sun will be up soon,” someone says.

“True,” she says.

Another voice chimes in, “Don’t worry! You’ll be missing the dark when that hot sun comes up!”

Their laughter is interrupted. The race is about to start.

Over the next few hours. Many more Lone Star Birds line up for the 25k and 10k races.

And they fly.

Katlyn Phillips sails into a first-place female victory in the 10k.

Aracely is 4th female overall, and first in her age group.

But every runner knows not every race is going to go as planned.

After 16 hours and 4 minutes, Megan is pulled off the 100k course. Dehydration and stomach upset resulted in missing the cutoff for the final loop by 8 minutes. But she’s run an astounding 40 miles – on the toughest trail course in Texas, in the dark.

That evening – Austin leader Melissa and DFW leader Ashley present Megan and Aracely with symbolic “Fellow Flowers.”

Megan’s is blue. With proud emotion, Melissa reads the meaning behind Megan’s flower.

“I believe in me and my potential. And I’m going to succeed because I’m brave enough to think I can.”

Megan limps over to take her flower, wiping away tears. Despite her sore legs and her still-not-settled stomach – she smiles. Her tears evaporate into an expression of defiance.

“I’ll be back next year,” she says. “I’m coming back and I’m finishing this race!”