When I first signed up for the inaugural LoveRox Half Marathon last November, I had just had my very first DNS as I had to drop out of my fall half-marathon due to injury. After taking much of the late summer and early fall off from running, and then starting back slowly and cautiously, I saw this mid-February event as the perfect comeback race. I knew I wouldn’t be chasing a PR, but I wanted a solid performance and, more importantly, a motivating reason to start a real training cycle through the winter.
However, on New Year’s weekend I came across another race that captured my attention – the ICY-8 trail run – and immediately shifted my running focus to lots of longer, slower miles. My half-marathon suddenly became an afterthought as my training shifted, and I became a bit wrapped up in the world and culture of ultra-running along the way. A road half-marathon just wasn’t on my radar anymore. But my ultra went well and I felt great afterward, and two weeks later I found myself feeling like I wanted to approach this half with purpose.
It turned out to be a good thing that this half-marathon was no longer a goal race for me. As a first-year event, there were a number of kinks as the day unfolded. While my official time of 1:41:38 doesn’t reflect the effort I gave for reasons I’ll explain below, I still felt good about accomplishing my real goal for the day.
I woke up on race morning to huge, fat flakes of snow falling heavily outside. Thankfully the precipitation stopped by the time I arrived downtown, and after my warmup I approached the starting line about 2 minutes before the start time of 10:00. On such a cold day, I tried to time my warm-up to get me to the start just in time to go. But the race was held off several minutes as runners were delayed by huge lines at the port-o-potties.
At last we were off. It was a mass start that quickly funneled into the narrow Belle Island path and Canal Walk, which was fine with me since I lined up close to the front. The start went well for about a mile until I suddenly noticed the lead pack bearing right off of the Canal Walk onto 14th street. Having run the course in advance, I knew that we were supposed to continue on the Canal Walk for a 1.8-mile out-and-back portion before turning on 14th. But since I had run it by myself and it can be a confusing area, I wasn’t confident of the exact course in that spot. Also, at the beginning of the race, the RD had said there were changes in the second mile, so I just followed along with the lead pack.
After about a tenth of a mile it became apparent that something was wrong. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but a murmur spread through the pack and people began stopping and questioning as more runners spilled onto 14th – which happened to be open to traffic and filled with drivers who seemed to be just as confused at the sudden wave of runners that had begun pouring into the street. The front group of runners – who were following the lead cyclist that had gone the wrong way and started the mess – continued on, eventually only running about 11 miles of the course. A few others crossed 14th and picked up the course on the other side. A third group, including myself, retraced our steps down to the Canal Walk to regain the course where we had left it, and were greeted with the growing throng of runners who had been a couple minutes behind us.
Obviously people were very upset at this point. Not only had we lost time in running the extra mileage, but now we were ensconced in a mass of people running at a slower pace than we had been running. It was so early in the race that I was very conscious of weaving and surging at this point – I didn’t want to waste energy when so much of the race was still ahead. I was frustrated but kept a light attitude about it – I’ve been in a similar situation in a first-time race before and, besides, this wasn’t a goal race for me. I did what I could to make my way through the crowd, even though we slowed to a walk at times on the narrow Canal Walk.
I also discovered a phenomenon that I’ll call “pace creep,” where your effort shifts to match that of those around you. Even at a 7:30 pace I felt like I was flying past people, although in reality I was running slower than my goal of around 7:15. Because I was conscious of conserving effort, I ended up running this part slower just because of the perception of relative speed.
It took a couple miles to get past the main crowds and fall into more of a rhythm. The whole race from this point was pass, pass, pass. It was easy to spot the runners who had been misdirected because they were holding faster paces and often were vocally angry about the situation. But I just kept passing. I also found myself talking to other racers a lot, which is something I’ve never done in a road race. Maybe the world of ultras has been rubbing off on me! It started to hit me later in the race when I’d strike up a conversation with someone and, while friendly, they would hardly be able to answer. I was reminded that this was, in fact, a race.
At about mile 4 I approached two young women from the Capital Area Runners club in DC. They were running a strong pace and I couldn’t quite catch them while maintaining my preferred effort level. So I laid back and let them lead the way. One of them dropped off at an aid station but the other was serving as a great pacer and crowd-splitter as we began our second loop and came up on the slower 10k runners who had recently started their race. I followed her for six miles or so, creeping closer very slowly and finally getting within about 6 feet. I felt bad about staying close behind her for so long, but, like I said, she was running at the exact pace I wanted to run and I would have needed to surge to pass her.
I finally reached her at about Mile 10 and apologized for following for so long but told her she was running a great pace. She smiled and was very friendly and we chatted for a minute or two. However I was feeling very strong at this point, and as we approached a long uphill I surged ahead and she did not come with me.
My energy level was high as I climbed to the Lee Bridge, and I turned up the effort. It was fun just blowing past so many people – both 10k runners and people I recognized from the half-marathon. I felt like I had just started running – very fresh and smooth – and I was able to continue easily at this pace and still find another couple gears through the last mile.
I came across the finish at 1:41, but for 13.75 miles (measured afterward on a mapping program, and including the detour during the first mile) my pace ended up being 7:23. That translates to a true half-marathon time (for 13.1 miles) of 1:36, including the far slower pace of the first few miles. My average for the last 6.5 miles was around 7:10, with a closing half-mile in the low 6:30s. My time was even good enough for 3rd place in my age group – the first time I’ve placed in a race of this distance.
In the aftermath of the race, many things have become apparent to me. It’s been about 9 months since I’ve “raced” a road race, and even longer since it’s been something longer than a 10k. I was very rusty with my tactical approach and ended up starting too conservatively. My lack of specific training left me unsure of my capabilities at the distance and I didn’t want to go out too fast. However, I still felt strong at the end and felt no effects from the run later in the day or the next day. I needed to get away from the “start easy” approach that I embraced for my ultra a couple weeks ago. But that’s OK – as I said above, this was not a goal race and I was just dipping my toes into the road-racing water with this race. I ended up treating it as a long tempo, as some Daily Mile friends suggested earlier in the week.
After my injuries last year, it’s actually very reassuring to know that I can knock out a 1:33-1:35 half with no specific training and with moderately hard, but not all-out, effort. And it made me excited to think about road racing again, helping drive my focus toward the Monument Ave. 10k in 8 weeks.