My corral, number 17, was jam packed with excited and anxious runners including myself and best buddy Nicole. We checked and re-checked our RunKeeper apps and music playlists. We counted the number of horn blasts and wished Andrew good luck on his first marathon as he took off down the street. We knew he couldn't hear us but hoped the good vibes helped anyway. I scanned the now-empty porta potties and wondered if I should go just one more time. But suddenly we were standing at the start line and the horn blast was for us.
And off we went. I love to read the clever signs being held aloft by spectators in races, and got my first chuckle just as we crossed the start. There was a person in a banana suit with a sign that read, "You are NOT almost done."
Nicole and I had agreed to run our own races. This was her first half-marathon, and her goal was to finish strong. My primary goal was to beat last year's finish time of 2:43. My "holy smokes" goal was a 2:30 finish, which I felt was both ambitious and unlikely.
And then suddenly, around mile 2, there she was. The 2:30 pace leader. Cute and fit in her skirt and tank top, she held a stick with a lavender sign on top reading 2:30. Pace leaders are counted upon to finish exactly on pace, and are a guide for other runners on the course. She pranced past, and I immediately quickened my steps. "Do your thing!" Nicole told me, and we separated so I could keep the pace leader in my sights.
But slowly, the pace leader began to move ahead of me. Around mile 4, she seemed despairingly far in front, and I had a decision to make. It was still pretty early in the race - if I was going to finish around 2:30 I needed to catch up. But if 2:30 was just too fast, I could be suffering in a few miles, having used up all my energy too soon.
"What the heck did you run 17 miles in training for?" I told myself. "Try to catch her, and if you bomb, at least you'll know you tried!"
So I ran harder. When she stopped at a water station, I cruised through it, gaining ground and confidence. Then by mile 6, I was in front of her. Now I felt like it was a race between me and Miss Tank Top with the 2:30 sign. If I stayed just ahead of her, I'd make my "holy smokes" goal.
My thoughts ping-ponged between Miss Tank Top (was she right behind me? How close?) and Nicole. I fretted over Nicole like a mother hen - was she having fun? Was she running well? Was she too hot in her long-sleeves?
And then, around mile 8, Miss Tank Top appeared beside me. Mile 9, she was ahead. Mile 10, I couldn't see her anymore. I just couldn't keep up.
I tried not to feel defeated, but it was hard to watch her go. And harder still to run on tired legs. Mile 11, my focus shifted to just finishing. At mile 12.5 I started walking. I knew I wanted to run to the finish line, but was having a hard time communicating that to my weary legs.
And then suddenly, I heard a familiar scream behind me. A happy scream. A Nicole scream. "I found you! I can't believe I found you!" she yelled. "C'mon, let's do this!" And then she literally pushed me. And I started running.
Nicole was clearly having the time of her life, and my spirits lifted. My new goal came into clear focus - I wanted to finish beside her. She shouted encouragement as I willed myself forward to keep up with her, and we approached the finish with her victoriously fist-pumping the air. I wish I had a bigger picture of this, perhaps poster-sized, but this thumbnail proof gives you an idea of her enthusiasm.
We crossed the finish side-by-side at 2:31:30, much closer to that 2:30 mark than I thought I'd be. We got our medals and snapped this photo.
Miss Tank Top may have crossed the line before me, but I got to cross with Nicole, and I couldn't have asked for a better finish. Together.