The best part about running your first half marathon? Finish the race and you automatically set a personal record. Guaranteed. All you have to do is finish. You get the T-shirt, the medal and your personal-best time all in one.
It’s the only time you can be 100 percent sure that when you return to work on Monday and a co-worker asks how your race went, there will be no hesitation.
“I did awesome. I ran my best time ever.”
After that, it doesn’t always work out like that. My first half marathon, the 2008 Scenic City Half Marathon in Chattanooga, took me 1 hour, 45 minutes and 3 seconds to complete. Nine half marathons later, there have been plenty of ups and downs and only a couple of PRs. And the 1:34 finish in 2011, also in Chattanooga, seems more and more out of reach as each race passes.
So to Jessica Whaley, Michael Hicks, Maria Chavarria Ortiz and and all of the other first-timers competing in the third annual Dalton Red Carpet Half Marathon this week, I say enjoy it. You’ve earned it.
Headed into Saturday’s race, these three runners have plenty in common.
Nervous. Excited. Thankful to be running on familiar streets. Grateful for the support provided by the local running community.
“I’m nervous and excited,” Whaley said, “I’m not really worried about my time. I was at first, but now I just want to finish and run as fast as I can without getting injured. I just want to complete the race without walking.”
Race weekend gets under way Friday with registration/packet pickup at 6:30 p.m. and a Health and Fitness Expo sponsored by The Daily Citizen at the trade center from noon to 6 p.m. A concert by Rossville native Lauren Alaina, the runner-up on season 10 of “American Idol,” will follow at 7.
On Saturday, the Red Carpet Half Marathon will begin at 8 a.m. at the intersection of West King Street and Selvidge Street. A 5K race will follow at 8:30 and a 2K Wellness Run/Walk will begin at 11:30. Altogether, more than 1,500 runners are expected to participate.
Whaley, 25, said she’s never really been a runner. Come Saturday, that will all change. She started training for her first half marathon on July 9.
Balancing school and family has been difficult, but training has gone well for the most part.
“You have to get your miles in,” she said. “That makes all the difference. When I first started I was really consistent, but as the miles increased it was harder and harder to get them in. But you have to keep getting your miles in and you have to eat right. I never knew about that.”
Whaley ran a 5K about a year ago after training exactly one time. On a treadmill.
“I worked out and cycled, but running is totally different,” she said. “And I thought running on the road and running on a treadmill was the same.”
She learned it wasn’t.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “But I had a friend ask me about running the half marathon, so I thought I would give it a try.”
Another runner ready for a PR this weekend is Hicks. And he’s making sure to take care of some unfinished business along the way.
Hicks has completed 5K and 10K events and was set to tackle the Dalton Half Marathon last year. But he developed runner’s knee two weeks before the race and wasn’t able to compete. Like Whaley, Hicks said he was nervous and excited.
“I’m ready for the race,” said Hicks, who ran the course during his last 14-mile training run. “I’m not really pushing for any time. I’ve really enjoyed the training and just want to complete the race without getting injured.”
Hicks started running three years ago as part of the Run For God program at his church, Varnell United Methodist. When injury forced to him to take three months off, he read the book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall and experimented with barefoot running, a major theme of the book.
“It was really good,” Hicks said. “I actually ran barefoot for four or five months and got up to three or four miles. But when I tried to go further than that, it was tough on my feet.”
Hicks — who now wears shoes intended to mimic the feel of running barefoot — is not only excited about his race, but the 5K. His daughter Alli, a 10-year-old New Hope Elementary student, is participating in that event.
Hicks also couldn’t say enough about the Dalton running community, mentioning the support of the Carpet Capital Running Club and Run for God.
He’s glad to know that the race will support City of Refuge Dalton and Family Promise of Whitfield County, both which support the area’s needy.
“These are both really tremendous charities,” Hicks said.
Ortiz, 32, was set to wait a while before tackling a 13.1-mile race. Her running friends would have no part of that.
After completing the Silver Bell Sprint, Varnell, Run at the Mill and Bill Gregory 5Ks, her friends had seen enough. And she had taken 14 minutes off her time and decided she was ready.
“I really got a ton of encouragement and support from the Panera group and the (Dalton Area Runners group on Facebook), they are really amazing,” said Ortiz, who started running to lose weight and has since shed 42 pounds. “I was ready to wait until I had been running at least a year, but they kept telling me I could do it. So I figured I would start training.
“Some days are great and some days are not so great. Some days every step … you want no part of it.”
Ortiz was helped by local running veteran Holly Kimsey, who regularly wins area road races.
“She has really helped me train,” Ortiz said. “She’s been my running coach throughout all of this. She’s always been there to encourage me and direct me.”
Like Whaley and Hicks, Ortiz just wants to finish.
“I would love to be under 2 1/2 hours, but I just want to complete it, “she said. “I don’t want to go in trying to hit a time and then flop out at the end,” she said.
Ortiz admits that running on familiar roads was a must.
“I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else to run a half marathon,” she said.
Ortiz has had some ups and downs with training, but thinks she’ll be ready Saturday.
“I did 12 miles and did great, but then last weekend my knee was bothering me during an 8-mile run.”
Despite this being her first half marathon, she is already looking ahead to her next race.
“I’m really hoping to do the Varnell 10-miler,” she said. “So I’m kind of treating this like a training run so I don’t get too excited.”
From one of your fellow runners, here’s a wish of good luck to Jessica, Michael and Maria and everyone else competing Saturday — first-timers or not.
Chris Stephens is a former sports writer for The Daily Citizen who’s currently the graphic designer for Catoosa Life and Dalton Magazine. He will be running his 10th half marathon and third Dalton Red Carpet Half Marathon on Saturday and is NOT expecting a PR.