Swim: 0 m/112,725 m
Bike: 0/1,277.9 miles
Run: 13.1/599.2 miles
I’m not quite sure how to start typing this post. Training for – and racing – this half-marathon has been one of the most transformative experiences of my 7 years of running. In the past year I’ve gone from being a top-20-percent runner to a top-2-percent runner, turning in a time today – 1:30:47 – that I would never have dreamed about before this season. Although I really, really wanted to break 1:30, there’s no way I can be disappointed with an 11-minute PR – almost a minute per mile faster than last year’s PR time of 1:41:29 – and an overall pace of 6:55 per mile.
In my last post, I said that I wanted to leave it all on the course, and I believe I did that. Unfortunately, all I had today didn’t seem to be quite enough for that “A” goal. There were times today that my body fooled me, when I thought I was going faster than I actually was. I was working hard, only to be frustrated at each mile when my pace was many seconds off what I would have guessed. This was the first race in which I’ve used the lap function on my watch to keep track of my splits, and I wonder if that immediate feedback backfired by planting seeds of doubt and frustration. On the other hand, perhaps it fueled me to keep up my pace when I might have otherwise slacked off due to the perceived effort.
But almost as soon as I stopped racing my legs tightened up and my stomach was churning – definite signs that I had pushed myself during the race. It was painful to walk the two blocks to my car, but it made me happy to know that I had, in fact, put forth probably as strong an effort as I was capable of.
The setup: It was cold today, probably too cold. I know that runners generally like cold weather, and I think that low- to mid-40s is perfect. But this morning’s start temperature was in the mid-30s, and right now it’s the only factor that I can think of that would have toyed with my sense of effort during the race. At times is was even difficult to breathe – my body would involuntarily start taking shorter, quicker breaths and I would have to slow my pace slightly to recover. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before.
The start: I positioned myself about 20 feet back from the start, next to a guy who said he was planning to run 1:30. We took off (on the cue from Alan Webb, the holder of the U.S. record in the mile) and I was about 12 seconds behind the race clock. I felt very smooth at the beginning, trying to keep up my pace amid the slight congestion of the start while not going out too fast. When I saw 7:12 at the first marker I was a little worried that the start had been too slow, and I stepped it up to goal pace in the 6:50s.
Miles 1-3: 7:12, 6:57, 6:56
Early miles: The first half of the race was relatively uneventful. I passed a lot of people and also got passed by a handful of runners. I took advantage of the flat beginning to feel out my pace and was feeling that I was in good shape to keep up my current effort. I was happy to dip into the 6:40s for Mile 4, but the 7:11 at Mile 5 really threw me off. I had taken a gel during that mile, and also ran wide on the course to high-five a friend whom I was expecting, but I didn’t see why those incidents slowed the mile so much. I did notice that other runners’ Garmins were beeping a good 50 meters ahead of the mile marker, and wonder if it was slightly misplaced. In any case, I knew I needed to hold sub-7s for the bulk of the race, and seeing a mile so far over the 7-minute mark really frustrated me, particularly since it was early in the race and the course was very flat in that section. It really made me refocus on my effort, while at the same time started to introduce concerns about meeting my “A” goal for the race.
Miles 4-6: 6:49, 7:11, 6:52
Middle miles: Miles 7 and 8 are the hilliest on the course as the route snakes through Bryan Park. It’s the part of the course that I dread the most, even though the hills are relatively minor in the scheme of things. I crossed the 10k mat at 43:26 – only 14 seconds slower than my current 10k PR – and was pleased with how things were going at the time. I passed several people through the park as the hills slowed other runners down. I like to think that this is where the hills of my neighborhood pay off on race day. Just before Mile 7 I was surprised to see my brother as he stepped from the side of the course and yelled some encouragement. His words really picked me up and focused me on the hill that I was about to climb. Seeing him was a definite bright spot in a tough area of the course. After that, Mile 9 marked the end of the hills for the rest of the course, and I knew it was time to pick things up if I wanted to meet my goal. So I picked it up, but it didn’t last. . .
Miles 7-9: 6:53, 7:03, 6:47
Late miles: This is where the numbers on my watch started to disagree with the effort I thought I was giving. I honestly thought I was moving faster through these miles. I tried lengthening my stride and was still passing several runners, but when I looked at my watch each mile I was getting more and more discouraged. My effort just wasn’t matching the results. I tried to motivate myself by thinking on the advice and encouragement I had received before the race, and I started to tell myself that what I was doing right now was going to make the difference in the end. This was when it started to get tough. I was pushing and pushing, and my breathing was moving from the “hard effort” level of difficulty into the realm of “scary lung constriction.” It was more frustrating than worrisome, and it made me back off the pace occasionally to regain my steady breathing. I think I was making a lot of noise with my breathing at this point, but there weren’t many runners around me so I don’t think anyone really noticed.
Miles 10-12: 6:57, 6:52, 7:00
The finish: Thankfully the end of this course is mostly downhill. I gave it all the gas I had left, and my breathing was very vocal on every exhale. My vision started to get blurry from effort and I just let go as best I could. The crowds along the finish area (including my wife, daughter and mother-in-law) really helped push me through the finish. When I got close enough to see the finish clock I let out a loud “Arrghhh!” when I saw 1:30:XX (I hadn’t looked at the elapsed time on my watch during the race, only the mile splits). My growing suspicions had finally been confirmed – I had missed my “A” goal of sub-1:30. But it made me really dig deep to make sure I crossed the line before it ticked over to 1:31. And I did, with 1 second to spare! (Remember, I was 12 seconds behind the clock. I crossed at 1:30:59, which gave me my time of 1:30:47.)
Mile 13: 7:12 (for 1.1 miles – 6:32 pace)
After the race: Immediately after I crossed the finish line I was in a daze. It was a fog of exhaustion and disbelief that I had come so close to my “A” goal but fallen just shy. My calves started to tense up and I just leaned against a fence for about five minutes, my thoughts oscillating between disappointment that I had missed my goal by such a small amount and pride that I had just run a 1:30 half-marathon. I was so out-of-it that I didn’t grab a bagel, PowerAde or a slice of pizza – I just picked myself up and walked (very slowly and painfully) to the exit, where I met my family and went home.
As the day wore on and my legs were in a great deal of pain, I grew happier with my effort. Even if I didn’t meet my “A” goal, I ran a strong race, and the lingering soreness that began almost as soon as I stopped running told me that I had given what I had.
The aspect of the day that remains confusing to me is my pacing. Through the season I’ve grown pretty comfortable judging my pace on effort and the feel of my stride. Today my stride and effort were telling me 6:40s but, somehow, all I was seeing on my watch was upper 6:50s and even a couple 7:00s. I don’t know what it means. All I can think is that the cold had an effect on me, and maybe I was off nutrition-wise. I had taken a gel about 30 minutes before the start, and another about 30 minutes in. I don’t think taking another after that would have had any additional benefit. However, other than the gel at Mile 4 and the sip of water to wash it down, I didn’t take in anything for the entire race.
In the end, I have nothing to complain about. Today I was one of the faster racers (even though the winner finished 25 minutes ahead of me). There were several times along the course when I overheard one spectator telling another that we were the front group, that we were “flying,” and even “These are still the fast guys” – linking me to the leading racers. It was a large race and I finished almost 150 people back, but I still had the feeling of being pretty close to the front. There were not many racers around me past Mile 3 (see how few people are near me in the finish shot above), and the ones who were nearby looked very serious. I felt strong as I passed people later in the race. I ran an overall negative split. I met one of my main goals – to finish with an overall sub-7 pace – and came away with a huge PR. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
Stats: 148/6,236 overall finishers; 122/2,416 gender; 18/341 age group (30-34)