City of Oaks Half Marathon Race Recap

On race morning, I woke feeling really rested but apprehensive about running. That week, I had gone to western North Carolina for work, and I woke up the morning before the race to 10 inches of snow on the ground. On the long, slow, slippery drive home I thought about the race and what I wanted to do in Raleigh the next day. I really didn't know what to expect from myself, and waffled between two strategies until just before the gun went off. I saw two options:

  1. Ignore my Garmin and run by feel, or;
  2. Go out hard for the PR and risk bonking.
Wore my NYCM race shirt; it was the one-year anniversary of running my first marathon!

Wore my NYCM race shirt; it was the one-year anniversary of running my first marathon!

I was having major second thoughts about how "easy" it "should" be to PR. My PR from Wisconsin was 1:52:something, but I had clocked a 1:51 first half in Kentucky. Sounds like a PR would be no-brainer, right? Well, my happy pace for easy and long runs is still slow, around 9:30. I just couldn't see any way I could manage my original "goal" pace of ~8:00. I knew the weather would be nice and PR-friendly, but I also knew that my training volume was not enough to expect one without a huge fight. In my corral, shivering and waiting for the start, I decided, "This kind of sucks already. Why not just embrace the suckage and go for a PR?" So it was settled. I wanted to go for it.

Part one: Hope

City of Oaks is a smallish race (~5,000 runners) and the beginning was nice and wide, so there was not much shuffling around at the start. I settled into a pace and ran a few miles before checking my Garmin for the first time. I did feel like I was working from the very beginning, but my legs were rolling and it felt comfortable. I didn't dwell much on whether the pace seemed realistic. On race day, I try to silence my tendency to overthink and "just race." I was relaxed and focused on covering the ground in front of me.

  • Mile 1: 8:08
  • Mile 2: 7:55
  • Mile 3: 8:12
  • Mile 4: 8:05

There's a long out-and-back near the beginning, so we slower runners got to see the leaders. I always get a rush seeing the ultra-fast people run by. I don't hate out-and-backs if they include some nice turns, which this did. The route was hilly and there were a few ugly parts, but we spent most of the time running through pretty and historic parts of Raleigh. I can count the times I'd been to Raleigh on one hand ("hackathon," HKonJ, Fiction Kitchen x 2), so it was fun to see more of the city.

I was following my plan to take water at every water stop, and I choked down a gel between miles 4 and 5. 

Part two: Starting to crack

The next part of the course seemed to take hills to another level. I was not able to stay locked into my pace because I was climbing and descending non-stop. I've really liked hilly courses in the past because the downhills can be a chance to catch my breath, but I was starting to feel pace pressure to "make up time" on the downhills. I knew it was way too early for me to be struggling. Internal negotiations had already set in ("Maybe you should start walking through the water stops," that kind of thing.) I didn't give in, only because I am afraid of weakening my mental game in the long run, but it was exhausting to stay strong mentally when I was already feeling weak physically. 

Around this time we had to run right past the finish line for the 10k. On a different day, that might have been motivating but I let out a groan, knowing I still had another 10k to go.

I clung to the hope that I was probably just going through a hilly section that would surely (surely!) give way to a flat part where I could regroup.

  • Mile 5: 8:35
  • Mile 6: 8:17
  • Mile 7: 8:25

Part three: The joggler

Somewhere in mile 7, we started climbing a really nasty hill. It started steep, then appeared to flatten out -- except the course took us around a turn where we saw we had to keep climbing, and climbing, and climbing....

During the climb, I realized the people I had been running near for the past 7-8 miles weren't around me anymore. I noticed that they were now a ways in front of me, and I suddenly became aware that I was getting passed like crazy. Despair began to set in.

And just then someone sailed by me on my left, saying, "These hills are tough, huh?" before leaving me in the dust. This person? Was a joggler. 




  • Mile 8: 8:30
  • Mile 9: 9:17

This was probably the lowest point. Very tired, I was kind of flinging my legs in front of me, trying to hurl myself up the hills. My legs took a beating on the downhills, landing heavy, knees searing with pain. I really wished I had brought some angry music to blast. I thought about how grateful I was to not be running a whole marathon, but that only made me nervous for my actual full marathon in March.

My last hope was a second gel I took around mile 8.5. "Someday," I thought, "Someday this race will end." I kept moving, took deep breaths when I could, and waited for a much-needed sugar/caffeine boost for the last few miles of the race.

Part four: Second wind

Thankfully, the course leveled out a little bit after mile 10. My pride always kicks in toward the end of the race and all the sudden I knew I'd rather keel over than walk. I started doing some math and realized I was on track to PR, and that it might still be possible for me to finish under 1:50. I really, really wanted a 1:4-something half marathon so this gave me a big kick. The gel I took around mile 8.5 seemed to help. I came out of the dark place I was in for a few miles and I had gotten a grip on my suffering. There was a not-nice out-and-back on some kind of long highway, but I was passing people again and searching for the turnaround. 

  • Mile 10: 8:45
  • Mile 11: 8:56
  • Mile 12: 8:32

Part five: The finish

We crested a little hill and I saw the finish (IT WAS BEAUTIFUL). It looked so close, so I started gunning for it. I was passing and passing and running with total tunnel-vision. The finish line was not getting any closer. From far away, I saw 1:50 on the clock, and I thought it *might* still be possible to get there in time because it might have taken me a minute to cross the start line. I felt like I was flying. So when I saw the clock flip to 1:51 before I made it across, I cursed under my breath.

  • Mile 13: 7:45
  • .1: 1:16 (6:45 pace)
  • Finish: 1:50:37 (official)

Yes, it's a PR on a really tough course, but I was pretty bummed at first. I know I still have a lot of work to do. I have lot more thoughts about this, which I'll save for another post!

Also, my last mile is evidence that I did have enough for a kick left, even after my exhaustion in the middle miles. Whenever I think I'm completely spent, I always manage to find just a little bit more when I need it...


City of Oaks put on a great race, and despite the difficult day I was really glad to be out there.

Afterward, I was totally glued to the NYC Marathon stream. I can't say I was jealous of everyone out there, but it was fun to see my favorite parts from the race and get to re-live my first marathon a little.