A solemn walk

Tomorrow, I’ll be doing the Outer Banks Half Marathon in, well, the Outer Banks, NC, with a group of friends. This will be my second time doing this race and my 17th half marathon overall. (Whew!)

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Most of our gang after the OBX race in 2012

Generally I don’t make a habit of returning to races. I’ve only done so for certain reasons: to revisit the site of my first race or to help support other walkers. There are far too many races out there and new places to explore via their courses to want to repeat any.

But this weekend marks my second trip to the OBX race, and it’s in honor of a friend. About a year ago, I wrote about Lana, how her determination helped her tackle a race course and how she motivated so many people.

When our group gathered in NC in 2012 to do the race together the first time, North Carolina native Lana signed up too, doing the 8K. I spent some time with her on the course (the two routes merged at one point). I remember feeling happy to spot her ahead of me and know that I’d be able to cheer her on — and get energy from her as well.

After Lana died late last year, our group decided to return to the race this fall and participate in her honor. That purpose is definitely worth a repeat trip to a race, in my book. We’ll celebrate Lana and remember her with love.

In the past few weeks, though, our mission has grown. Among those planning to join us were our dear friends J and G. To our heartbreak, G has recently and suddenly been diagnosed with a very serious illness, preventing the couple from joining us while they fight this medical battle.

Like Lana, both J and G are incredible sources of inspiration; two people more full of life and light you would be hard-pressed to find. I walked alongside them for most of the course in 2012, in fact (and have shared other race course with them, too).

So we will fondly remember Lana as we walk those 13.1 miles on Sunday. And now, we will send healing wishes and love to G (and J) with each step along the way, emphasizing our good hopes for them in every footfall and our wishes that they’ll be striding alongside us again soon.

See Jane walk really fast

Jane and me having fun along the Myrtle Beach Diva Half Marathon course in 2014

Jane and me having fun along the Myrtle Beach Diva Half Marathon course in 2014, where she helped me keep a speedy pace

This is my friend Jane (right). Jane is vivacious, engaging, caring and determined. She’s a mom, a wife, a nurse and a dog lover. She is a joy to know and is a great cheerleader to have in your corner.

Jane is also a very fast walker who has completed many marathons and half marathons. I know she’s fast because I have managed to (and, other times, tried and not managed to!) keep up with her on the race course.

She is training for her next race and posted recently on Facebook about some people she encountered along the way.

“Over the last few weeks,” she shared, “I have been taunted by rude remarks from some women…. One said I didn’t look like marathon material…. Another felt I wasn’t ‘skinny enough’ to complete a marathon! Little did they know I completed a lot of them.”

Jane’s reaction: to call for more positivity and kindness rather than the alternative, and I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve been on the scene for many marathons and half marathons, both as a participant and on the sidelines/finish line as a team coach. I’ve seen people of ALL shapes and sizes on race courses and coming across the finish line. (I’ve previously written about my friend Lana, who, yes, was obese but defied judging a book by its cover.) All of that has left me with the knowledge that we do not know someone’s capabilities, their strength, their stamina by simply looking at them.

Why doesn’t Jane look like marathon material to the observer who said so? Because she doesn’t fit a predetermined stereotype about marathoners? Who’s to say what a marathoner should look like? Believe me, they look like any random cross-section of the population.

Many people are surprised to learn that you can walk a marathon instead of run — I’ve mentioned this several times in several posts — and sometimes we walkers find ourselves on the defensive when other racers (read: runners) imply that we don’t belong.

Anyone who trains and prepares is qualified to participate in a race. If you reach that benchmark, more power to you! Why anyone would seek to tear down someone who is working hard to achieve a physical goal is a mystery. I’m not sure why someone would seek to denigrate a stranger based on surface assumptions. Let’s seek to lift each other up and celebrate others’ accomplishments rather than belittle and assume that someone can’t or shouldn’t.

It’s easy to look at someone and think, “How could she possibly run/walk 13.1 miles? She doesn’t look fast/strong/dedicated enough.”

But look deeper.

(And then, for fun — with a warning in advance for some strong language — read this.)

It’s all about timing … or is it?

About two weeks ago, I did my 16th half marathon as a walker. My finish time was my second-best ever, which came as a bit of a surprise, and I soon learned why.

The course was in a beach town (Wildwood, NJ), which is my favorite place for a race course, so it was fast and flat with great scenery.

The temperature was about just right, although there were ferocious winds, with gusts up to about 20 mph. Somehow they seemed to be headwinds the majority of the time, which made it tough going.

I didn’t see a mile marker until mile 3, so I wasn’t sure of my pace in the beginning. But as the race went on, I felt steady and strong, and my RunKeeper app gave me a sense of my timing.

Beautiful day for a race! Headed toward Stone Harbor from North Wildwood.

Beautiful day for a race! Headed toward Stone Harbor (and the halfway-point turnaround) from North Wildwood.

At one point, too, I kept a mental count of how many runners I passed … I stopped after 6. I praise anyone who undertakes the goal of doing a race, no matter their pace, but it does give me a thrill to walk faster than some people run.

Feeling strong in mile 12, on the Wildwood boardwalk (photo by Chris M. Junior)!

Feeling strong in mile 12, on the Wildwood boardwalk!

As I neared the home stretch, I realized (based on the updates my app was announcing) that I might break the 3-hour mark. (My PR is 2:54 and change, which occurred in 2012, and I haven’t managed to break 3 hours since. I’ve come within about 30 seconds of it, to no avail.)

The finish line approached and its clock was under 3 hours — which meant that, even factoring in the small amount of time after the race start that I crossed the finish line, I had indeed broken 3 hours.

Soon thereafter I got a text from the race tracking system with my finish time: 2:57:49.

I was surprised! Sure, I had done my mileage work during training. But I’m up several pounds over my normal weight, I haven’t been working out as regularly otherwise as I’d like, and I haven’t been eating the most balanced, healthy diet lately. Plus, factoring in the wind … again, I was surprised. On top of that, my RunKeeper app tally was about 12.7 miles, which was slightly puzzling. But I did feel really good during the race — I felt like my pace was consistent, as was my stride, and so I thought maybe the pieces had come together.

IMG_2641I was really pleased that I had finally broken the 3-hour mark again.

And then … it was negated.

“Before and during the race, we believed our course measurement of 13.11 miles was correct,” explained an email from the race organizers a few days later. “However, from the information we have since gathered, we realize the published course was in fact short by approximately .15 to .20 of a mile….” Add in some discrepancy with the course turnaround point (which I believe was corrected before I reached it, based on the description), and “this would have resulted in approximately .2 to .3 of a mile less distance on top of the already .15/.20 of a mile shortage.”

So … I didn’t have my second best time ever. And I didn’t break the 3-hour mark again, yet. My minor disappointment faded as I realized a few things about the race:

Happy finisher!

Happy finisher!

  • I felt strong through the race, with a consistent pace and good form
  • I didn’t hit a wall
  • I powered through the crazy wind
  • I finished strong
  • I am proud of myself!

Which tells me that although a brag-worthy finish time is great and all, accomplishing the goal in the first place is just as worthy of crowing about. Keep it in perspective and don’t let numbers get you down.

Happy walking!

Number 15

This morning, I’m embarking on my 15th half marathon as a walker. (Wish me dry weather!)

And for the second time, I’ll be serving as a pacer for walkers in the race. I’m participating in the Delaware & Lehigh Heritage Half Marathon, which unlike most races is particularly welcoming of walkers, even offering awards for the top finishers among walkers, broken down by gender and age divisions.

I’ll be pacing a 3:15 finish, which works out to about a 4.1-mile-per-hour pace. I look forward to helping guide some first-timers to their inaugural finish line!

Wishes for a great race day also go out to those doing the NYC Marathon today, among them good friend and walking coach Lee S.

Happy walking!

A life-changing date

Ten years ago today, I did my first race: On Oct. 30, 2005, I walked a full marathon (26.2 miles), the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

My life has since changed in numerous, wonderful ways. To be honest, it changed even before that date, as I embarked on months of training for the race. Committing to such a goal and working toward it provides motivation and reward at many steps along the way. And I shared so much of that with co-workers who also were training for the event.

Crossing my first finish line was a very emotional experience!

Crossing my first finish line was a very emotional experience!

The goal was daunting, to be sure, but with each longer-distance training walk, I felt stronger, more prepared and more sure that I could do it.

The race day itself remains one of the most emotional and fantastic days of my life, and the memory will never (I hope!) fade.

The Marine Corps Marathon certainly is a great experience for a first-timer — and a walker, at that — because 1) it attracts a huge participant field and you’re never alone on the course, 2) the spectators are plentiful and nearly everywhere, 3) the scenery is pretty impressive (U.S. Capitol … Washington Monument … Smithsonian buildings), and 4) a Marine puts your medal around your neck. How great is that?

Doing this race was life-changing for the obvious reasons — achieving a big fitness goal, learning about what I could accomplish physically, feeling oh-so-proud for doing it.

But that’s not all.

As someone who hated gym class, was never among the first chosen for a team, and finished pretty much last in every meet when I spent one season on the high school track team (javelin, discus and shot-put), I finally found a physical outlet that felt great and at which I could feel a sense of achievement.

I caught the race bug, to be sure. I did a full marathon each of the next two years and then tried my hand (foot?) at half marathons. Before each race, I still felt a few butterflies, but I also felt confident in my abilities. As each finish line came into view and I crossed it, I still felt the same sense of elation and pride. I returned to the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011 to do my fourth full marathon, and on Sunday I’ll be doing my 15th half marathon.

Lots of fun times with race friends!

Lots of fun times with race friends!

Doing races is a great way to visit new places and really see them. There’s nothing like a race course that winds around a city to help you get an overview of somewhere new. Races have taken me to (among other places) Oregon, the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach, new parts of Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, Florida and Dallas. In some cases, I was participating and in some cases I was there as a team coordinator, but in either case the travel was a great bonus.

Becoming a marathoner has altered my career path as well. It led me to seek certification as a group fitness instructor so I could work with others who were inspired and motivated by the idea of training to walk a race. I can’t get enough of the great feelings gained from doing a race; I love to see others experience it too!

But probably the best part of my race “career” is the friendships I’ve formed with fellow walkers. Preparing for and participating in a race is quite the bonding experience — and it’s so much fun to share it with good friends.

So, I want to send thanks and love to Katie, MaryPat, Beth, Pat, Pam, Rebecca, Jane, George, Kim, Annie, MaryAnn, Lee, Mary, Megan, Lana, Robynn, Bim, Jes, Marianne and others with whom I’ve shared this journey. (Katie, MaryPat and Beth get top billing because they, too, were on that course 10 years ago today, even though I didn’t know MaryPat and Beth very well at that point. Pat and Pam were seemingly everywhere along the course to cheer for us, even though we barely knew each other.) I’ll always have a fond place in my heart, too, for Karen, Polly and Craig, the most organized spectator crew ever on that day in 2005.

Thanks and love go, too, to the guy I call my “personal cheerleader-slash-photographer,” Chris. He’s the most patient and willing spectator I know.

micheleAnd special thanks and love to Michele, whose idea to create a walk-a-marathon training plan and program started it all. Look at how much pride and joy you’ve brought to so many, Michele! THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart (and feet).

A great day in Pittsburgh

Hitting the expo!

Hitting the expo!

Actually, make that a great weekend!

On Sunday, I walked my 14th half marathon, at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and Half Marathon. It wasn’t my best finish ever but was far from my worst. I kept a steady pace throughout and finished in 3:05:04. That translates to miles done in the 14-minute range. I would have liked to have come in under 3 hours, but that would have been more likely had I trained a bit longer (and dropped the last few winter pounds first)!

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Post-5K (her, not me!)

The weekend served as a race-buddy reunion with seven friends. Some of them have done this race before, and it made for a good centrally located event for us all.

It’s been a while since I’ve participated in such a large race — the entrant field topped 30,000. There are pros and cons to races no matter their size, but I’d recommend this event for sure. Here’s why:

  • Outstanding signage throughout the weekend — at the expo, throughout downtown Pittsburgh directing racers to their start corrals, along the course (the mile markers were impossible to miss!) and in the finish area, too.

    Up and over the Rachel Carson Bridge, approaching mile 4

    Up and over the Rachel Carson Bridge, approaching mile 4

  • A race program jam-packed with info and maps
  • A race app that helped dig up needed info in short order
  • Five bridges crossing all three of the city’s rivers
  • A weekend full of activities for anyone and everyone: a 5K (with a special extra medal if you did that race plus the half or full, as one of my friends did), a relay, a Kids Marathon (a little over 1 mile) that had a HUGE number of participants, the half and full, and even a pet walk
  • A really nice race shirt (in fact, it was the first time I wore the event shirt in a race)
  • Good spectator support and fun spectator signs (to be shared in a “part two” of this post)
  • A manageable time limit for walkers
  • An expo and start and finish lines centrally located to many hotels
  • An entrant field of 30,000+, which makes for constant company on the course as a walker. In smaller races, walkers tend to be a bit lonely as the rest of the pack pulls away. In this race, I never felt like a straggler and kept pace with several run-walkers along the way.

    The start line is up ahead ... somewhere!

    The start line is up ahead … somewhere!

All in all, I don’t have any complaints about the event and would recommend it. (Well … I have one complaint, but it’s not the race organizers’ fault. My FitBit seems to be poorly calibrated and said I only did 10.24 miles for the day. What?! Add up 13.1, plus the to-the-start walk and from-the-finish walk, and my total should have been closer to 15. Cheated by technology!)

Happy walking!

What’s your sign?

When you do a half marathon or full marathon, any motivation along the way is welcome. One form of motivation that I always look forward to is the signs held by spectators along the course.

Some are simple: “Go, Joelle!”

Others are inspirational: “You are a rock star!”

Then there are the funny ones — and they are the ones that give me the biggest boost. In fact, I vividly remember a sign I spotted in my very first race, back in 2005. A young woman held it high, and it read: “Hurry up, Rob — the game’s on at 1!”

Here are other memorable ones I’ve seen:

  • Look alive — there’s a funeral home in the next block!
  • Run like there’s a hot guy in front of you and a creepy one behind you
  • Worst parade ever
  • Pain is temporary. Race results are forever!
  • Run like you stole something
  • Run like [insert dreamy celebrity of choice] is waiting at the finish line
  • 13.1 miles — you’re only half crazy!
  • Your feet hurt because you’re kicking butt
  • Run, Forrest, Run!
  • This seemed like a good idea 3 months ago!

And here are two I spotted at a race in Atlantic City a few years ago:

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Share your favorite examples in the comments!

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A joyful feeling

Today I couldn’t wait to get to the fitness class I teach, because one of my class members did her first 5K yesterday, as a walker.

D. attended my walking class over the summer. As I watched her form and speed improve, I posed a question to her: “Have you ever thought about doing some type of race as a walker?”

In a word? No.

But she was intrigued by the idea, and we chatted about it over the weeks that followed. I told her that I thought her speed was well within the parameters of walking a 5K, and that I was confident that she could do it.

As she turned the idea around in her mind, she asked me about the race process, both how to prepare and what to expect. Finally, she decided: Yes, this was a goal she’d like to aim for. Once she made the decision, her enthusiasm grew.

So I sent her a list with links to several local 5Ks. From there she chose one in a neighboring town, scheduled for yesterday. I thought about surprising her at the finish area, but she’d very politely turned down my offer to join her for the race if she wanted me to — I got the sense that she wanted to do this all on her own.

And I’m so proud to say that she did well, with a steady pace and a good finish time. It was written all over her face when she came into class tonight — she was beaming! — and I couldn’t wait to ask her about the experience. She thanked me for all the encouragement, but the truth is, I’m inspired by her experience. I think seeing first-timers complete a race is a bit of a high for me, too!

At the risk of embarrassing her (and saying as much), I shared her accomplishment with the rest of the class. They were quick to offer congratulations and ask her all about it.

And from what I can tell, I think a racer has been born: She definitely wants to do it again. She joked that the 3.1 miles seemed long enough, so the thought of 13.1 (a half marathon) seems crazy. I countered that 8Ks and 10-milers make great next goals, once she has another 5K or three under her belt.

One of the greatest feelings in all my life was when I completed my first race. The joy and pride have not diminished in nine years. And that’s part of why I’m so thrilled every time I see someone else experience that feeling — the feeling of setting a fitness goal, working toward it for weeks or months or longer, putting your training to use when push comes to shove, and achieving it. Knowing that it’s something you did solely on your own (with cheerleading support from family and friends, of course), through the efforts of your own body/heart/lungs/muscles … it’s a tremendous feeling.

So … congratulations to D., who can count me as cheerleader #1.

Wind-blown … and proud!

Pacer ID

Pacer ID (disregard the Penske truck!).

Half marathon #13 is in the books for me, as is my first bout as a pacer.

It can be challenging to keep a pace different from your usual and sustain it over such a distance, especially when contending with 20 mph winds along the race course. (But at least it wasn’t raining!) The plus is that it gave me the opportunity to talk with some first-time half marathoners along the way, which is always wonderful.

And I’m so very proud of Walk With Joelle client Michele K. Today was her first half marathon as a walker, and she rocked! She finished strong and fast — and earned an award for her efforts!

The race, the Delaware & Lehigh Heritage Half Marathon, featured a walker division and awards for the top finishers among the walkers. Michele K. finished 2nd in her age group, 5th among women and 10th overall! I’ll just have to warn her not to get used to it, that walkers don’t usually earn awards in half and full marathons because so few races recognize us as a category. (Let’s hope that continues to change, and thanks to walking coach Michele Stanten for making it happen in this race!)

Volunteer Louie -- greeting walker Alicia at mile 8 -- was a terrific part of the day, biking along the course and putting in time at mile markers. His spirit was contagious!

Volunteer Louie — greeting walker Alicia at mile 8 — was a terrific part of the day, biking along the course and putting in time at mile markers. His spirit was contagious!

The other great thing about this race was that several of my friends also participated, both as pacers and walkers. It’s fitting because marathoning brought us all together in the first place. Nearly 10 years ago, in my days at Prevention magazine, I was involved in its program to train readers to walk half and full marathons. Some of our readers became intimately involved with the program and were integral to its success — and the success of so many fellow race participants! And along the way we spent a lot of fun times together at races across the country. That grew to doing races “off-duty,” so to speak. And although the magazine’s program ended, the deep friendships did not.

So I’m always especially happy to spend a race weekend with friends — friends who know the time invested in training, who know the frustration when a race doesn’t go as planned, who are inspiring and motivating, and who know the joyous emotion of completing a race, whether your first or 10th or 40th (and cheer for you just as loudly from race to race). Thanks for another great weekend, ladies … even though it was too short and not a complete group reunion! And congratulations to all the walkers today too!

A huge number of miles has been walked by these seven pairs of feet!

Race friends: Countless miles have been walked by these seven pairs of feet over the past nearly 10 years!

Keeping pace

Tomorrow I’ll be doing my 13th half marathon as a walker.

This one will be a little different, though — I’m doing the race as a pacer.

It’s common in half and full marathons to have pacers for the runners. A pacer leads a group of runners to a specified finish time. Say you want to complete a full marathon in 3 hours. You’d align yourself with the 3-hour pace runner, who runs at a speed to fulfill that finish time.

It’s virtually unheard of to have pace groups for walkers. But the race I’m doing tomorrow — the Delaware & Lehigh Heritage Half Marathon Run/Walk — is pulling out all the stops to attract and support walkers. Registration categories asked if you would be running or walking, awards will be given to top walking finishers, and pace groups will be on the course for walkers specifically.

So I’ll be leading the 4-hour-finish time pace group, which translates to about an 18-minute mile. This might seem incredibly slow to some experienced half/full marathon runners and even walkers. But it’s accessible for beginners, and we all have to start somewhere and tackle our first race experience. It will be a bit of a challenge for me to pace myself at that speed — it can be difficult to walk slower than normal, and do so steadily. (My average race pace is between 13- and 14-minute miles.) It’s important to me, though, to help participants meet their goals and have a rewarding experience.

As I posted the other day, a 15-minute mile is just as far as a 7-minute mile. Ditto for an 18-minute mile. Walkers in races train just as much as runners do, and it’s no less an accomplishment to participate as a walker. We all cross the same finish line.

Happy walking!