The Power of Pacing
My race pack for Hackney Half Marathon remained unopened until the day before race day. I hadn’t trained. Well, not in the traditional sense – I’m active every day, so I knew my body would comply and carry me through the majority of it, I just didn’t know how much I’d be paying for that in pain wages. The week before the race, when one of my Youngers, (my group of girls age 17 – 24 who I mentor through Run Dem Crew) said she was a little nervous about running it, I said I’d pace her through. It’s a good thing I did, because what I learned is that pacing leads to possibly the best race day experience ever.
On race day, myself and my Younger, Melanie, lined up at the start line, and another Younger, Amani, decided to join us. Between us, we’d barely trained. This was going to be interesting. By the time the race started at 9am, it was already about 17 degrees. We were in for a hot one.
As we set off, Melanie said she can’t talk and run. She wasn’t lying. So, I could’ve either talked at her, or just let her get on with it. I chose the latter. I ran alongside her and checked in with her every half mile or so; ‘how you feeling?’ I’d ask, she’d give me a thumbs up. We got through the first 10K without stopping, which was a big deal for Mel. When we got to the 6 mile water station, they’d run out of water (Hackney Half Marathon, you had one job!). At this point, the heat was pretty searing. No water was a considerable problem. We pushed through to mile 8 and this is where the wheels started to come off a little bit for Mel.
I could see she was struggling and her motivation was slipping. Thankfully, as Run Dem Crew now totals roughly 17,000 members (slight exaggeration), our runners were popping up all over the place. Another group of our girls ran with us for a bit, we were all smiles, laughs and dancing. One member of our crew ran into a corner shop to buy us water. The people of Hackney were absolute legends, standing outside their houses and literally hosing us down.
Our Run Dem Crew group of cheerers were stationed at mile 10 and 12, so from mile 8, I was telling Mel and Amani, we just had to think about the next two miles and we’d get a great lift in the form of raucous cheering from our crew. By this point, Mel’s hips were really bothering her – we were stopping intermittently to stretch. From about mile 9.5, I could hear our crew cheering up ahead. ‘That sounds like our lot’ I say to Mel. ‘We just have to make it to them’. She was exhausted now and was really battling through. We ran through our cheer crew as they egged us on with raucous cheers, music and confetti cannons. It was like a six second carnival. I could see Mel was visibly lifted, she picked up her pace a little.
The last three miles – always the toughest of a half marathon, I find. The heat was blistering and though my body felt fine and I felt as though I could’ve picked up the pace for that final push, I wasn’t about to leave Mel. I put my arm around her and reminded her she can totally do this. Whatever pain she was in now, she had to push it to the back of her mind, grit her teeth and fight through it for three miles. Reset your body, reset your mind and imagine you’re just leaving your house now and starting your run, forget the 10 miles we just did, the race starts now. She breathed heavy and nodded, a new determination glimmering in her eyes.
It didn’t help that this particular section of the course was winding and hilly. I set us new, smaller goals – get to the top of this hill, or push to that landmark and we can have a walk break. Our cheer crew was coming up again at mile 12, so I knew that would give her another boost. As we approached our cheerers, I ran slightly behind Mel and pointed at her frantically so the crew would know she needed all their energy. They did not disappoint. Their cheers almost deafened us. For those few moments, we were lifted on a wave of unbelievable love and support from the people we know want us to win the most. We could’ve practically floated to the finish off that.
In the last mile, both Mel and Amani were flagging. The finish is so close, yet so far. I was determined for my girls to finish strong. Exhausted, they could barely keep running at this point. ‘Listen,’ I said ‘I’ll tell you this much – as Run Dem Crew, we are not walking over that line, so suck it up and let’s do this damn thing!’ Sometimes the love has to get a little tougher towards the end of a race. That seemed to be all they needed to hear. We were reppin’ the crew and we weren’t gonna let them down.
I could tell it was hurting with every step for both of them now. We’d passed the 13 mile mark ‘Where’s the finish?!’ yelled Mel. I could see it in the distance and as we rounded the corner, with the finish line about 200 meters ahead, I pushed the pace and Mel and Amani hung right in there with me for that sprint finish.
Crossing the line, they’d given all they had and I couldn’t be more proud of my girls. Mel had apologised throughout for being slow. Little did she know, it was probably the best race I’ve had. As a mentor, there is nothing more important to me than my girls knowing I’m there for them. Sometimes, you have to slow down and run at their speed, stick with them and let them know you’re not going anywhere, in races and in life. While Mel may not be able to talk while running yet, I felt she told a whole story through sweat and footsteps on Sunday. Sometimes you have to be there just to listen to the silence. Had I run off ahead, I would’ve missed it.
So I don’t care about the time we did (although Mel got a PB, woo hoo!). I care about the steely determination they both showed, about their refusal to give up, their grit, the way they supported others on the course though they were struggling themselves and what this all means in the broader context of their lives. Those are the miles that matter.