I won’t lie – after all my training (which, I admit, was far from perfect), my performance at yesterday’s Fleet Half Marathon was a bit disappointing. I clocked in at 1:42:04, making this half one of the slowest I have raced and several minutes off my already lowered goal.

With the race behind me, however, I’ve had the chance to process the full cycle of emotions that my performance induced (which went something along the lines of apathy, relief, frustration, disappointment, anger, apathy, and contentment) and can now reflect upon and appreciate the many highlights of my race experience.

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E and I decided to splurge on a minicab to Fleet (about a 1.5 hour journey from London) to avoid the complicated early morning Sunday train service. During the ride, I saw that it was Race Day for thousands of people across the UK and the US, with the Reading, Fleet and NYC half marathons, as well as the Georgia and LA marathons, all occurring on the same morning. It gave me a heightened sense of community to think about all of those runners getting ready for their respective races, as I made my way to mine.

The air was chilly when we arrived, but the conditions were perfect. (It’s business time…) I was able to wear the same outfit I wore for the NYC marathon – my purple CLAIRE shirt and compression tights, along with my arm sleeves and sunglasses – which got me pumped up and reminded me of the amazing experience I had back in November.

As always, E’s company and support made my race experience infinitely more enjoyable. I can’t say I was super excited to race (I felt more spaced out than anything after the long car ride), but it was good to get back out there after such a long break.

Normally, my half marathon strategy is to run my first mile or two at a relatively conservative pace, increase towards my target half pace and then gradually speed up over the last four miles to average my goal race pace. I am usually very focused on my pacing and hardly pay attention to anyone else.

Although the hills influenced my Garmin splits, you can see that 1:39 was within my reach during the first half after a relatively slow start. However, the second part of my plan (ie. the negative split) definitely didn’t happen. I gradually slowed down or maintained pace instead, causing my 1:39 and subsequently 1:40 goals to slip away. It’s at this stage of a race – when I realize I’m at the cusp and have the power to turn things back around – that the fight within me usually kicks in and helps me dig deep, but the fight didn’t seem to be very interested.

What I was interested in, however, was some guy who had been running beside me from the start. We were literally elbow to elbow for miles, silently racing against each other, almost as if no one else was around. It was quite motivating, having this race within a race with a stranger, since I am usually only competitive with myself! If I went ahead, he would catch up to me, and vice versa. Here we are on the left – strangely, his race number was the same as mine but with a 5 thrown in…

Finally, around mile 9, I started to feel weird not saying anything, and so I asked him, “What time are you aiming for?” He responded, “1:39:59 I guess.” I told him that was exactly what I wanted to do and we exchanged a few friendly words. I checked my watch and pace band. “We’re behind schedule, but we can do it!”

And so my competition with a stranger turned into a joint push to the finish. If I started to lag, he would motion me to catch up, and vice versa. By mile 11, we still hadn’t increased our pace by very much. A man in a red suit flew past us – that was humbling!

Normally, this is the point where I turn inward – repeat mantras, sing songs, completely block out everyone and everything to achieve my goal. Instead, I heard myself say to my racing buddy, “We’re doing great. Just keep on going. We’re almost there.” Something inside of me just wanted to stick with this guy – not that I wasn’t still pushing myself tremendously (believe me, I was), but I felt a greater need to connect externally on this occasion rather than obsessively look at my watch to at least ensure that I sneak in under 1:42.

After crossing the finish line, we shook hands and gave each other a pat on the back, appreciating the experience we had just shared despite knowing absolutely nothing about one another. Running with Tim (I eventually learned his name) was the highlight of my race – it was as if I had a racing partner and that was a nice change, for once, since I never race with anyone. Just another example of why I love to run – as much as it can be a solitary, meditative experience, it also brings people together in so many different ways.

I felt quite good at the finish – I was relieved to be done, and shrugged off my slower time as I gathered my things and waited for E to cross the finish line. Watching him sprint towards the finish was the real highlight of my day. He ran his fastest half marathon yet, coming in at 1:56 – seven minutes faster than his previous best time and his first sub-2:00! I felt incredibly happy and proud of him, and was grateful that he gave me some credit for his success.  I guess I did push him to sign up for this race, and have also shared with him all the running knowledge I have gained over the last two years.

But after an hour or so, as we made our way back to the station, my apathy regarding my own time wore off and the disappointment set in. In retrospect, I wasn’t very surprised – I could identify the reasons behind my slower time, including my recent decreased motivation levels, various pitfalls in my nutrition and training, the congested first mile, and the unexpected undulating course (I’m not sure where I got the idea that this race was flat – kicking myself for skipping so many scheduled hill sessions). As I was running, however, I expected a faster time up until the last miles of the race. Only then did I fully realize that I just didn’t have it in me to push harder.

But surely I can’t expect every race to be a great one, can I?!

I think that’s the problem – I am demanding myself to achieve amazing results relative to my previous times every time I “race” a race. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to improve, as long as you accept that it’s impossible to improve every time – even elite runners have off days!

The truth is though, as E reminded me on the train journey back to London, an amazing and successful race experience isn’t always about achieving a better time, as fulfilling as it may be. You can improve as a runner in ways other than becoming faster, and you can also derive satisfaction from so many aspects of a race other than your finishing time.

And that is what E has taught me in return – how to really appreciate the sport, despite whatever time you may or may not achieve. Just run – and enjoy the entire process.