DFL (dead fricken last) - 3 letters that used to bring me so much shame and a bit of anxiety. Every race I’d hope someone else was behind me. Because what I thought was that finishing last meant you failed. But what I know it really means is that you were brave. You were strong. You showed up AND finished. You likely were alone and had a different race experience than the first person. You had to fight through a lot to get from the start to the finish. Heck, you probably had to fight through a lot just to get to the start too.
I finished DFL of my 8th half marathon on November 7th. I was DFL less than ¼ mile into the race. But I didn’t actually turn around to check. I turned to Mallory about ½ mile in and said “are there also people behind us too?” to which she responded “it doesn’t matter” - spoiler alert - there was no one else behind us when I asked…not even the sag wagon/official race vehicle. But more on that later.
In 2019 when I crossed that same finish line I was not DFL but in the last 5 ish runners. I felt so much shame. For myself, for the race I had just finished, for what my finish time was, for how much training I didn’t do, for how awful everything felt. I crossed that finish line and said “next year is all about redemption. Next year I’m actually going to do better. And I’m actually going to train. Next year I’m going to really prove to myself I can do it.” I remember also being glad I wasn’t DFL in 2019, as if it would have made my finish any less important or my race any less meaningful.
I said “never again” to so many things from my 2019 race, but especially to not training. My training got worse and worse from my first half onward, until 2019 when I ran 6x total in 12 weeks, and used the elliptical like 5x in 12 weeks. 11/10 do not recommend.
The build up to my race on November 7, 2021 truly started on April 7, 2019, when I crossed the 2019 finish line. 2.5 years is a long time. I was 2 weeks out from race day in 2020 when the race got canceled because of COVID. I was CRUSHED. I had actually trained semi-well for 2020. Lot’s of cross training, probably not enough running, but I still trained. I wanted that redemption to prove to myself I could actually do it. But all that I focused on in 2020 was just doing the race and crossing the finish line. Training was just a means to an end, often it was dreadful and I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t really enjoying it, any of it. And so when the 2020 race was canceled, I didn’t feel proud or accomplished for what I had done up until then, I could only focus on not getting to cross that finish line.
And so, I spent 2020 running. A LOT. I kept hoping that 2020 would be my year to defeat all the monsters of Scranton Half past. Instead the 2020 race went virtual for later in the year. So I trained to run a solo and unsupported half. Virtually. And on a chilly October morning that turned into a very warm afternoon, I ran my 7th Scranton half. Alone physically. Not in Scranton. And I was so dang proud of myself for getting myself through those 13.1 miles. It’s hard doing it during a race, but even harder doing it alone. But I never thought about just completely stopping. I remember around mile 11.5/12 I felt just awful and wasn't sure how I was making it back to my car. But I did. There was no finish line. No celebration. But I wasn’t alone that day. I had so many friends virtually cheering me on (and saw a few in person that day too!) Those friends, both in person and virtually, my gang, truly got me through 2020 the year, not just the half marathon.
And when I finished that virtual half in 2020, I reminded myself that anything is truly possible and set my sights on 2021 to hopefully be racing in person again.
I ended 2020 and started 2021 with a bit of an overuse injury from running too much, not cross training and not doing my strength work. But I vowed to make myself physically stronger so I could run the half as strong as I could. But what I didn’t realize was happening as I did the PT for my hips and leg, and even after I was discharged from PT, while my body was getting stronger, so did my mind. I fought through and worked through so much in that time. And I also learned how to truly find joy in my running too.
And so came summer - base building for the half. I ran a lot. I cross trained a lot. I did strength work (but not as much as I should). I worked a lot on what I was saying to myself as a runner and a human.
August brought the start of half training. I was terrified. I wasn’t sure I could do it, and so many people knew about me training for and planning to run the half, which made it even more scary. While I was working toward that finish line, I took the advice of my coach Kelly and set process goals along the way (and then for race day too!) and not just focusing on the outcome goal of the race or a specific time. I celebrated wins along the way. I found joy in my runs, even on days that didn’t seem so grand at the start.
I was proud of every single day I got out to run or bike or walk or do yoga. For every PT appointment I went to strengthen my body. For every training call I made time for. But most proud of those days when the voices in my head were loud and my anxiety high, but I fought through to do what I had to and shared those struggles with my gang of badass friends. They were there cheering on the good days and walking with me through the bad.
After months of training and 2.5 years of anticipation, lots of fears and doubts, MANY pep talks and far too many epsom salt soaks to count…I was ready for race day. The most ready I had ever been to run a half. I paused before race weekend and celebrated all I had done to get to that point and knew I couldn’t have done anything more to prepare.
I was lucky enough to be running the race with Mallory, so I told her my goals in advance and she was going to make sure I did everything I could during the race for those goals.
My 2021 Scranton Half Race Goals:
cross the start line and the finish line
have fun and name all the hills
not hold myself back
fuel well and often
hydrate well and often
finish under 4 hours, with my reach goal of a PR with 3:26 and a realistic goal of 3:45 finish
run the entire track, the last .15 to the finish
At the start line I was nervous but excitedly nervous, which I hadn’t felt since my first half. The race started and I noticed there were way less people racing than previous years, but not a big deal. I was there to run my own race, not to worry about anyone else. And off we went. I kept reminding myself to run my own pace and not try to keep up with the crowd, because it would just burn me out super early on.
By ¼ mile there was no one around us. I didn’t know if there were people behind us, but Mallory reminded me it didn’t matter. We started up that first hill and my calves cramped up BAD. But it was ok. We were discussing what to name that first hill and the ambulance that was supposed to be following the last runners passed us and we watched it pass at least 10 other runners ahead of us. I said aloud “are you kidding me?!?! This shit already?!?!”, because this is not the first time during a race the roads have been reopened around me. Then cars started flying up the road next to us, nearly hitting us. I started struggling to breathe and not from running. I could tell the panic and rage were brewing in me and the start of a panic attack was starting. We got to the top of the hill and moved to the sidewalk. I stretched my calves and kept going (on the sidewalk). We got a little further and I stopped and started to cry. I told Mallory I wanted to quit and I just couldn’t do it. She told me she wasn’t letting me quit because she knew how mad I’d be if I did. I told her I wanted to quit but wasn’t going to.
We weren’t even at mile 1 and were forced onto the sidewalks with no one blocking streets for us to cross safely. Just before mile 1 we got to a busy intersection, crossed with the light and still almost got hit. The sidewalks were utterly terrible - think chunks missing and completely uneven. I noticed as we got to mile 1 the official race photographer was gone - so no mile 1 pictures for us. Around mile 1.25 two of the race medics on bikes rode up next to us. Asked us if we both had cell phones and when we responded, they said “ok” and rode off. So at that moment I very much knew that the race was going to be unsupported, even though I was well within the paces needed for the race limit of 4 hours. I was already full of rage and sadness and frustration. And we weren’t even 1.5 miles into the race. We were fully responsible for our own safety, our own street crossings and my personal favorite - knowing every single street and turn of the race, as things were not well marked.
I was not having fun. I was miserable. This was not even remotely ok, but there we were doing it. My hill naming attempts were half hearted, but we still named each hill.
We took a wrong turn just before mile 3 and one of the medics was waiting for us, and he rode alongside us for a bit too. He was not one of the medics from mile 1.25.
Mile 3.5 thankfully some neighborhood volunteers were still out blocking roads/directing traffic and pointed us in the right direction as we headed up one of the worst hills of the course, Electric Street aka “The Dragon”. After turning off that hill, we took another wrong turn (a few streets too soon). 2 medics told us we turned too soon and should’ve gone up a few more streets…nice to know after we had already done it. They sped on ahead and our medic friend from mile 3 was riding alongside us at this point. When we got to mile 4 the 2 medics were waiting for the medic that was with us. We kept going. The 2 medics sped on past us again. Our friend joined us again.
As we approached the Cooper’s Hill, the 3 of us, Mallory, myself and our medic friend, questioned who designed the race course and why they put so many large hills in the race.
After the Cooper’s Hill, mile 5, I thanked our medic friend and asked his name, in case we didn’t get to thank him later. His name is Devon. We told him we’d name a hill for him and explained how we were naming all the hills. He requested a downhill be named for him. So the next downhill became Devon’s Downhill.
Around mile 5 I started to feel a little bit better about the race. Still feeling so many things, but finally enjoying it a little bit. I was laughing a little. And then, in Downtown Scranton, “I wanna dance with somebody” came on my playlist. I danced. I sang. Mallory and I sang at each other. I danced some more. I felt a little joy. And in that moment I was reminded of the entire BALG cheering us on virtually and the NEPA gang waiting for us at mile 7!! After the song finished, as cheesy as it sounds, I felt the whole gang behind me. Every message of support before the race, everyone who said they’d be sending me good race day vibes, everyone who was rooting for me to give my personal best. In that moment I felt all of that and felt everyone with me. And I felt a little bit lighter because of it.
And so we continued on our journey through downtown, our tour of Scranton. Nothing too crazy happened in the next few miles besides AWFUL sidewalks and of course Patti with her epic race signs that truly made me laugh and smile!
We hit mile 7 and I could see the trailhead in front of us. The trailhead where the gang would be!!! The trailhead when we’d finally be safe for the first time in 7.5 miles and be safe from cars!
Seeing the gang there cheering truly hit me hard. The trail is an isolating stretch for the back of the pack. There’s normally a small crowd at the trailhead cheering for the front and mid-pack coming back through, but is gone long before the back of the pack comes back through. You also pass/see some other runners on their way back through but then when you turn around, you’re seeing no one. The gang was so energizing there and so exciting as this is the first race I had a bunch of friends there cheering for me.
We got to around mile 8, after passing the gang at mile 7.5, and I told Mallory I had to walk. My heart rate felt weird and I felt anxious. What I realized was that I was completely overcome with emotion from the support of the gang, I actually started to cry, and also that for the first time in 8 miles my body knew I was safe. I wasn’t having to look all around at the sidewalk/road to check for safety or for hazards.I was safe on that trail and I could finally just run. And I knew the gang would be waiting at mile 11 for us.
Around mile 9/9.5 my whole body felt awful. And what I realized after the fact was that the caffeine gel I had taken earlier was affecting my body differently because of the anxiety I was already dealing with. So I focused on drinking more tailwind and water, and eating more gummies. When that feeling came over me, I messaged some of my “virtual” BALG friends and just asked for good vibes to me through and that I was struggling. I then put my phone away. When I read the messages later that they sent after that, I cried. Lucky to have so many friends truly rooting for me. And one of the messages, from my friend’s 5-year old, reminded me just how strong I was. I bawled. What I also found out later was that same group of friends were trying to track me the whole race, even though there was no official race tracking. Let’s just say if you ever share your phone location with these friends, they will track you during your race and figure out where you are by comparing it to the race map.
By mile 10 I was still moving, but had lost a lot of my energy and couldn’t handle as much running. So it turned into a lot more walking at this point. And we also had a paramedic van following us on the trail since we were the last runners.
Mallory and I stopped along the way for pictures. There was also dancing. And ridiculous singing from me. And then mile 11! The gang was there waiting for us! Cheering for us. Making sure we had our gatorade and whatever else we needed. Truly so special to have them cheering for us.
By mile 11.5 I am DRAGGING. I start to count fence posts and pavement markers to get my mind distracted from the pain from my blisters and general exhaustion. I counted to a certain # while walking and then would run ½ the amount of that number. And that keeps me going. Counting. Walking. Running. Dancing. Singing. With the paramedic van behind us.
And as we got to mile 12.5, to the little hill that we affectionately call little asshole, I tried to thank Mallory for everything during the race and instead got choked up on my words and couldn’t say anything. And so we ran that last hill (THANK GOD!). The paramedic van behind us moved ahead to further up the road to help us cross safely to the stadium. We were almost there! We talked about the finish line plans while continuing to walk, and I turned on “I wanna dance with somebody”, because I wanted to finish with the whole gang “with me”. And we said the second our feet hit the track, we’d run. In that moment I had never wanted to be more stubborn and not run because I truly didn’t think I could manage to run that track to the finish.
Feet hit the track and off we ran. That first straight felt absurdly long and Mallory reminded me to just get to the curve and then focus on going around the curve. We get to that curve and we’re still running, but it’s feeling harder. But we rounded that corner and I took off for that finish line. Mallory only had half the words out of her mouth when I started sprinting. I sprinted to that finish line with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes with one of the best friends beside me and the gang cheering just beyond the finish line. I crossed that finish line in 4:11 and DFL. And so very proud of myself. I fought through so many things to get to that start line and even more to get to that finish line. That medal may be the one I’m most proud of because I know how hard I worked to get that medal. To get that redemption.
So stinking proud of myself because although so much was stacked against me, I hit every race goal except for my time goals. And I know if the conditions of the race were safer, both with roads closed and not running on the sidewalks, I would have had a very different race. But the goal I was most proud of was that run of the whole track, including the sprint to the finish. Each of the 6 previous in person Scranton Halfs I had run I always had wanted to run the whole track, but always gave up part way around. So on one of the half training calls before the race, Kelly had suggested I make it one of my race goals to run that last .1 strong and sprint, I cried. I never told anyone prior to that night on the call that that was my goal to do that. So to be able to finally do that, after 4+ hours on my feet and 4+ hours of fighting to get there, I was even more amazed and proud of myself for it.
About a week after the race I shared some concerns with the race about the safety. I won’t share exactly what was said, but I will share how I felt after that call. I felt like because I was a slower runner I didn’t deserve to be running that race (or possibly other races too). I felt like my safety wasn’t truly important. I felt that although there are course limits, they mean absolutely nothing. I was made to feel like I don’t deserve to be a runner and should just walk instead. But I belong running races, regardless of my pace. My safety matters. Course limits are supposed to be followed for safety. I am a runner and should never believe that I am not because of my pace or because I run/walk. I still feel a lot of anger about the race and the concerns I brought up. But I’m proud of myself for speaking up and for also advocating not just for myself but for all of the back of the pack runners.
I am so so so so proud of myself for everything I did to train for and run my 8th half marathon.
THIS IS WHAT STRENGTH LOOKS LIKE!