Harbor Lights Half Marathon Recap

Two weeks ago, I ran the Harbor Lights half marathon, J&A Racing's most recent addition to their lineup. This race actually started last year, when J&A got rid of their February Virginia is For Lovers 14k and replaced it with the Harbor Lights half marathon (and accompanying Saturday 5k and the "Get Lit" challenge to complete both days). I opted not to run the inaugural race last year since I had just run the Richmond half the week prior, but this year I did the opposite specifically so I could try out this new race.

For me, the main draw of this race was getting to run through Norfolk. Norfolk is the big city in my area, just a stone's throw across the water from my house in Portsmouth. I have run literally hundreds of miles on Ptown's boardwalk while looking at Norfolk across the river, but there aren't a lot of races held there (compared to Virginia Beach, anyway). The only race I'd ever run in Norfolk was an 8k a few years ago.

My goals for this race shifted a lot over the weeks leading up to it. When I first registered last month, my only goal was to stick with my slower friend if I just wasn't feel it that day. A couple weeks later, once the B2B fog lifted and life (and running) did, in fact, go on, I was excited about having another big(ish) race to look forward to. Since it wasn't going to be a PR race I didn't have a specific time goal in mind, but I was hoping to beat my two recent half marathons (2:03 at the Hokie Half in September and 2:01 at B2B) and maybe go sub-2 for the first time this year. I was thinking about training for and running a half marathon PR in January, so I really wanted to establish a baseline.

Then, during a week with 2 speedwork runs, injury struck: I aggravated a hip issue that I've had on and off since January. It really hasn't bothered me in a while (and now I'm wondering if all of that swimming and cycling helped keep it at bay), but as soon as I started trying to push my pace, it flared up again. I spent 10 days leading up to Harbor Lights nursing it with copious strength exercises and yoga and icing and ibuprofen and KT tape. I was supposed to do a 10-mile long run the week before the race, but I only made it through 8.5 miles before I stopped so that I wouldn't completely destroy my hip. I took it easy the week of the race and I did start to feel a lot of improvement, but I knew it wasn't 100% better. The night before the race I tried to mentally prepare myself for my first DNF  - Did Not Finish - and possibly even my first DNS and altered my goal: Finish uninjured, or don't finish at all.

It was raining when I woke up. It was raining on the drive to the race. It was raining while we waited for the race to start. It was raining for the duration of the race and for the post-race party. Not torrential downpour, but steady enough that it was a very wet day. I had hoped to take some pictures along the course but, as I learned at RnR DC, rain and pictures don't mix. The course, or what I could see under the clouds and through the rain, anyway, was beautiful. I was familiar with most of the areas we ran through, although I can't say I've ever taken the route we ran or been to all the different areas at one time. It really was a great tour through Norfolk! There were a lot of turns on the course and a lot of meandering to get from one area of the city to another, which I personally enjoyed. Turns keep it interesting for me!

Mile 1: As soon as I started running, I was cautious but optimistic. I felt what I've been describing as discomfort, but not pain. The fact that I was aware of and noticed my hip tells me something wasn't right (because when my body is working properly, I don't tend to notice any particular part of it while I run), but it didn't feel wrong either, and definitely not painful. I took extra care during the first mile to make sure that I was running a pace that wouldn't bother it, which wasn't hard to do because the first mile is always so congested anyway. After I realized I was going to be okay, suddenly I felt like running and like pushing myself as far as I could go while still staying in uninjured territory. I wasn't even a half mile in when I decided that, as long as my hip held out, I was not going to see a 2 on the front of the time clock that day. My first mile chimed in a 8:59, well under the pace I needed for a sub-2 half, and I was happy to have a little bit of a buffer!

Mile 2: My pace lowered to 8:50 and it was around that time that I finally caught up to the human wall that is the 2-hour pace group. It took me a good quarter to half mile to finally maneuver around them. At that point we had made it out of downtown and to the Hague, a beautiful riverfront neighborhood. I remembered running through it during the other race I did in Norfolk so I was happy that the Harbor Lights course also went through that area.

Mile 3: I kept looking at my watch rather incredulously because, even though I felt fine, right on the edge of running strong but controlled, I wasn't sure how long I could keep it up. I still had over 10 miles to go and hadn't even run close to that far in the previous 5 weeks. I was shocked when mile 3 popped up at 8:28 and gave myself permission to slow down at any time, but my body didn't seem to want to.

Mile 4: These miles were fun because they ran through Ghent, another neighborhood I love. I recognized the route as the same one from a charity run for Boston that my local running store (which we also ran by) hosted after the Boston Marathon bombings. During mile 4 we came to a "hill" (or should it be called a "valley"?) - a big dip in the road where there's an underpass. At least we got to go down first, then up. Naturally my pace slowed a bit but I could feel all my normal hill runs coming into play as I passed people on the uphill.

Miles 5-6: During the next few miles my hip still wasn't hurting, but my legs were starting to. I realized I hadn't taken in any fuel yet so I walked a water stop just before mile 6 to take a salt tablet. A kid who was volunteering saw me take it and I'm pretty sure I made his day because as I ran by I heard him say to his friend, "OMG that girl just popped a pill!" I thought about turning around to tell him it was just salt, but I didn't want to burst his bubble.

By that point I had realized that sub-2 was pretty much in the bag, and that if I kept my pace up, I could go sub-1:55 and maybe even beat my Hokie Half time from last year (1:54:50). I decided that as long as my hip cooperated, that was the new goal.

During miles 5 and 6 we made our way over to Old Dominion University, where I first went back to school for engineering. I went there because it was convenient, not because I wanted to, and after a year I transferred back to VT so I could fulfill my engineering dream the way I really wanted to. We ran a big, 1.5-mile square around the edge of campus, past the parking lot where I used to park and the sidewalks where I used to walk and ride my bike to my 8am classes. I don't think I've ever been so happy seeing the ODU logo and realizing that that won't be the one that's on my engineering degree.

Mile 7: We made it out of the ODU campus and then we ran through a nice neighborhood that I never knew existed. Even though it was rainy, there were a lot of spectators out (compared to the rest of the course, at least) so that was a nice boost a little over halfway through. I was still holding an average in the low 8:40s and still feeling okay. My legs were still moving and my hip wasn't hurting!

Miles 8-9: I really don't remember much about miles 8 and 9. I know I walked a water stop at some point and I know we made it back onto the main road for a bit (just long enough to hit another underpass under the train tracks, with another little climb) but then we ducked back into another neighborhood. We mostly ran on a tree-lined street with nothing exciting to see, so I remember just being focused on getting through the next mile when we'd start to head back downtown to the finish. I remember doing a bunch of mental math, telling myself how much time I had left, then looking at my watch to verify, and repeating way more times than was probably necessary. Somehow I clocked 8:32 and 8:29 for miles 8 and 9 so I guess I really wanted out of that section of the course!

Mile 10: We got back out onto the main road before, once again, ducking off and running through a back route. I remember seeing a tent set up a little bit in front of me and thinking, "Oh good an aid station!" and then I saw a guy with a camera and I was all ready to try to smile and attempt to look normal...and when I got closer I realized the tent was set up for the group RWB and that the guy with the camera was probably taking pictures for their organization, not official race photos. My bad. But at least there was an aid station set up in the same spot, so I got some more water and then kept chugging along.

Mile 11: A couple of short turns after that I could see the mile 11 marker around a corner, and realized it was right at the bottom of a bridge we had to climb. Not a steep bridge or a long bridge, but a bridge nonetheless, a bridge that I had forgotten about and found annoying at mile 11 of a half marathon. I didn't have a ton of gas left in the tank to charge up it, but I ran up it steadily and got to the top before I knew it. Then it was smooth sailing to the bottom!

Mile 12: We went through another really nice neighborhood that's adjacent to downtown. I used to go to the YMCA there (where I learned to swim when I first started triathlon!) and there's a Japanese pagoda that we ran by that made me wish it weren't such a nasty day. Some of the streets are cobblestone and we did run across one cobblestone intersection where I was just positive that I was going to slip or get my foot caught in between the stones, but luckily I didn't.

Once we got out of that neighborhood and were back downtown, for real, with a mile and a half to go, I started to pick it up a bit. It was raining harder and I was soaked and cold. My legs were hurting, no doubt from running way farther than I had in over a month, but I was almost done. I told myself that if I had been running Shamrock or Wicked, I'd be on the boardwalk at that point and would be able to see the finish line in the distance. That's all it was. Mile 12 clocked in at 8:23 and I had just over a mile left to go.

Mile 13: There were a lot of spectators out at this point which was nice to see and gave me the boost I needed to get to the finish. The end actually has you overshoot the finish, so you run parallel to the finish line, then past it for a half mile or so, then you make a U-turn onto the boardwalk for the last half mile to the finish. I knew that in my head and told myself it really wasn't that much farther, but that U-turn felt like it took forever to get to! Once I finally made it and was in the home stretch, it was really go time. Mile 13 was my fastest of the day at 8:19!
Free race photos - love the J&A perks!
Final .1: I got a burst of energy in my legs (just like at B2B so I got warm fuzzies thinking about that) and was like, move out of my way people, I gotta get to my finish line! My goal at the end was to get to the finish line in the 1:53:XX's.  and the last .1 at 7:31 for a final finish time of 1:53:20. Could I have knocked off another 20 seconds somewhere out along the course? Probably. But at the end of the day I beat all my time goals and, most importantly, I didn't walk away injured. My hip was sore afterward, but I still wasn't really in pain and I wasn't any worse off than I had been all week leading up to the race.

In true Tracy fashion, pausing my watch as I cross the finish line
I'm weirdly happy with and super proud of this race. To be honest, I've spent the better part of this year wondering how in the world I ran the times that I did last fall, and if I'd ever be able to get there again. Harbor Lights was a good 4 minutes slower than my PR, but it was my second fastest half ever. Knowing that I was able to pull that off despite being semi-injured and not even close to PR shape was a huge confidence booster that yeah, maybe my next PR is closer than I thought. Even I was not intending to run a time anywhere close to what I did, I listened to my body and it listened to me and we gave each other exactly what the other asked for. Any race when I can say that is a success!


  1. Great job with the race, lady! Way to push through the injury and the rain, ugh, the rain. Hope you catch that next PR soon!

  2. Awesome job! Especially considering you hadn't run that far in a while. I'm sure next year you'll be able to hit a huge PR!

  3. Congrats speed demon ! I love reading your race recaps because I feel like I could have been running the race right next to you ! Sending you all the virtual high fives :)

  4. love this recap! so glad you ran a good race and didn't injure yourself. you are seriously a badass, in my eyes anyway. i lol'd at 'human wall'. good luck on your PR next year :)

  5. Awesome!!! So glad your hip didn't give you too much trouble on the race- I know all too well how that feels!

  6. It's so frustrating to stare down the barrel of a potential injury, not quite knowing what body's going to show up on race day or how—or if!—you'll get through a run. Proud of you for altering your goals to meet the place you were in and not risking something bad happening.

    Do you, since moving to the mountains, get a weird sense of gratification passing people on uphills during races? I do, and it's weird because it didn't occur to me until recently that even people who live where I live don't run hills if they can avoid them. My Thanksgiving race friend said he hates hills and looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned I run one particular hill (I'll point it out to you when you're here, it really is a bitch of a hill) when I want to go hard. I mean, we have nothing pancake flat, but I guess a lot of people prefer multiple loops on the flatter roads or through the parks? So during my last local race I was passing people uphill left and right and feeling pretty awesome. Not to be a gloaty jerk or anything.

    OH THE U-TURN. My Thanksgiving 8k had that, but we passed the finish line and ran against people running to it on the other side of the street for like a quarter mile? Then turned left and looped around with a final uphill before getting to run toward the finish, finally. It was daunting.

    I'm so glad this race was a good experience for you and left you uninjured. Congrats on the amazing time!

  7. Way to go! Glad you did not injure yourself. I'll be down in VA Beach for Surf and Santa - cant wait!

  8. Congrats on finishing strong even with the hip and the rain!

  9. Congrats on finishing strong even with the hip and the rain!

  10. Look at you and your time with an injury and the rain! You should be super proud!

  11. Ahhh I get so much anxiety (in a good way) when I read your recaps! Amazing job, I feel like you are such a running expert-- being able to pace yourself, still do amazing, and also not let your injury flare up or bother you while you were running.