My half-marathon was called off, but my run was still on

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Last Sunday, I ran a race in Central Park called the Doing It Anyway Half-Marathon. There were no mile markers, water stations or spectators. No souvenir t-shirts or medals. No volunteers handing out post-race bagels. And there was only one participant — me. In all the years I’ve been running competitively, it was hands down the least remarkable event I’ve ever participated in and one of the most meaningful.

I’ve been a member of New York Road Runners for more than two decades. I’ve completed 193 races, logging 1288.8 miles. Among my favorites are the 10K Mini-Marathon, the world’s original women-only road race; the Retro Run, where participants are encouraged to bust out their tie-dye, sweatbands, and short-shorts, and, of course, the crown jewel, the New York City Marathon.

Over the years, I’ve run in snow, rain, heat, and at midnight on New Year’s Eve. I’ve run on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and with a baby in my belly. I’ve run to raise money for healthy kidneys, lungs, and brains. In 2013, in the first race following the Boston Marathon bombing, I wore a back bib that said “I run for Boston”. Two years later, I wore an equals sign sticker on my shirt during the LGBT Pride Run, which was the day after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage would be legal in all 50 states.

I ran my first NYC Marathon in 1997, followed that with two more, and then hung up my long-distance shoes. I didn’t stop racing. I just wasn’t taking on anything more than a 10K. I thought I might have one more marathon in me, but when my daughter was born putting in all the months of training seemed like too much, so I stayed in a less ambitious zone.

I stayed there for a while, eleven years to be exact. But in 2016, I finally felt ready to take on a bigger challenge. I registered for an all-women’s half-marathon in Central Park, figuring if I could get through the training for that happy and healthy, and the race went well, maybe I’d consider taking on another NYC Marathon.

The race did go well. I did take on another NYC Marathon — and three more after that. Every spring, I looked to the women’s half as my testing ground. If I felt good afterward, I’d shoot for the big one in November.

Early this year, I registered for the women’s half — which was scheduled for April 19th. At the same time, I signed up for the NYRR Virtual Training Program, which provided me with a 10-week plan customized for me and my race. Every Sunday night, an email landed in my inbox spelling out the workouts for the week ahead. I was on my way.

Then coronavirus put a stop to everything.

First, the email came from NYRR saying all races were cancelled through April 13th. I kept training. My half was still on, if barely. Then the email came saying all races were cancelled through May 10th. It’s since been extended to May 31st — and beyond that, who knows.

At first, I was heartbroken. No spring races? No picking up bibs and t-shirts and gathering in corrals? This was my joy, my community. How could this be? I gave myself a little time to be bummed out then decided this horrible virus had taken more than enough from this city, my city, where I was born and raised, and it wasn’t taking this half-marathon, too. Maybe it wouldn’t be the same, but what is right now? I was going to keep training and run the race.

On the morning of the half, I went through my regular pre-race routine. Had some coffee, a little breakfast, and stretched. It was a sunny day, but chilly — in the low 40’s. I got dressed and made a race bib. On it, in red Sharpie, I drew the number 1680 in honor of my favorite quarterback-wide receiver combo of all-time, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Above the number, I wrote the name of the race.

I’m fortunate enough to live across the street from Central Park, so I headed out and took off right away. My course was roughly the same as it would’ve been — two six-mile loops plus one more mile at the end. Normally, I don’t wear headphones when I race, but we’re light years past normal so I allowed myself to listen to a podcast. As I made my way down the west side, past the cherry blossoms and dog walkers, I made sure to keep at least six feet from anyone I passed.

Running in the park is in many ways the same and also vastly different. It doesn’t feel much like an escape anymore. Everyone’s wearing a mask and seems a bit on edge. There are discarded blue latex gloves on the side of the road and a field hospital on the lawn across from Mount Sinai. Despite the strangeness, I’m so deeply grateful that I can get out there at all.

Once I reached the Harlem Hills, the toughest part of the course, a female runner clapped and shouted, “Good job!” Another’s eyes lit up at the sight of my bib and she called out, “Same!” — which I took to mean she was also running her own half. I gave her a smile and a thumbs-up and headed into the second lap with a boost from the kindness and camaraderie.

I’ve run enough races to know I need to hold back during the first half and pick up the pace at the midway point, but not so much that I’ll have nothing in the tank at the end. My podcast ended, so I switched to music. I thought I could find my favorite playlist, “Running Strong”, with a couple of swipes, but it eluded me. I didn’t want to keep messing around with my phone, so I hit shuffle and surrendered, cruising to an eclectic mix of Stevie Wonder, Billy Squires, and Bob Marley before Madonna took me home. My goal was to finish in under two hours, which I did.

I also came in first and set a world record. Not too shabby for a cancelled race.

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