Monday, April 6, 2009

Gorgeous Misery: A Race Report

Thanks to an odd discrepancy between my watch and the official race time, the jury is still out on whether I got a new half-marathon PR yesterday, but - truth be told - that's really besides the point.

It's hard to decide whether to list the excuses first, last or to skip them entirely. Last week's focus was to "front load" the week's mileage in order not to be completely fatigued by Sunday, where I'd be running my final tune-up distance race, 6 short (yet long) weeks before this season's goal race (and next BQ attempt), the Sugarloaf Marathon. Still, I was in the midst of my second consecutive 60+-mile week, something I've never before done in training.

The race is run along a beautiful course, but as every experienced runner knows, "Scenic" is little more than a marketing code word for "tough" when it comes to describing a race course. And while the race had no single spirit-breaking climb, the relentlessness of the course topography - coupled with sustained 20-30 mile-per-hour winds, made finding a rhythm impossible. Here is an elevation map from the course:

As a result of the conditions, I found that there were four different running "zones", resulting in four very different effort levels: uphill/headwind, uphill/no wind, downhill/headwind, downhill/no wind. From my perspective, not one of those zones lasted longer than just a few minutes (except extended headwinds, of course), such that my pace, effort and heart rate seemed to jump all over the place. At points, I was running over 8:00 pace and under 6:00 pace, and not necessarily only where the hills might have dictated such variation.


The race was the first in our running club's 2009 Gran Prix series. I've skipped most of those races over the past couple of years because they don't usually fit my family and/or training schedule, but this one worked out perfectly, and I planned for it well in advance. I had run an unexpected HM PR in February, and know that I'm in better shape now than I was then. Thinking rather shallowly, I decided that the "A" goal for yesterday would be to dial in a sub-7:00/mile pace and try to run 1:31:30; The fallback goal was to run sub-1:33:00. Neither was to be, as my official time was 1:34:10, while my watch had me at 1:34:02. I'll call it a new PR ('cause that's how I roll), but by the thinnest of margins.

I had elevation-paced splits, but never once looked at my pacing chart, since the math for 7:00 pace is easy enough. I ran a 2 -mile warm-up, with 2 fast strides, then ran another 0.4 miles to the start. Pre-race bathroom use and nutrition seemed to work out just fine.
  • Miles 1-3 (6:51/6:48/7:06): I happened to see the 7:00 pacer when we lined up, and chatted briefly with him. I decided to hang near him to see how things felt. I probably took the first two miles too fast (6:51 and 6:48, especially since the second mile was a net uphill), and noticed my HR climb higher than I would have wanted it; still, I mostly felt fine and just sort of rolled with it, with Mile 3 (uphill) in 7:06; I was on pace for a strong PR and feeling hopeful
  • Miles 4-5 (7:11/7:11): Having all but memorized the course description, I did not expect these two miles to be as tough as they turned out be; there was a very long climb up a nicely-graded unpaved road, and I saw one of my colleagues cheering; it's always encouraging to hear one's name during a race; the wind was also beginning to grind me down, yet - amazingly - I ran each mile in 7:11; at this point I also noticed that the Garmin was reading long, and wished that I had set it so that I would have had to hit the lap splits manually, since the watch had me ahead of the mile markers, though the gap would wax and wane throughout (anywhere from 0.05 to almost 0.2 mile off for the total distance); I took a small amount of water and battled through some minor GI discomfort at this point; I also regretted running in the NB 903's, which feel great until they break down, and stepping on rocks along the dirt road created a hot spot on the ball of my left foot which lasted for the rest of the race
  • Miles 6-8 (7:05/6:56/7:27): I collected myself mentally and just focused on running in the moment, focusing on each climb and not thinking about how long I had left to go; Mile 6 was 7:05; Mile 7, 6:56; ironically, according to the pacing chart, I was running the uphill miles faster than the downhill miles; I'll assume the way the wind blew had a lot to do with that, but it might have cost me; while it seemed like I was back in the game at this point, I could feel my hips strain to carry me up each hill; I started to look forward to each hill, though, telling myself that it meant a downhill stretch was soon to follow; this part of the course was also the most beautiful, with panoramic views of a stunning estuary (see photo below); some time around Mile 7, I saw what I thought was a water stop; I gulped my Gu Roctane down, only to realize that the volunteers were handing out gels themselves, and that the water was another half-mile down the road; I feared a major stomach backlash, but it turned out okay and I sucked down two cups of water as quickly as I could at the aid station; Mile 8 cost me some precious time, as I covered it in 7:27 (despite it being a downhill mile); the wind and the water stop may have accounted for some of the time loss, but I think I briefly lost my focus at this point

  • Miles 9-11 (7:04/7:11/7:10): At this point, I knew that the "A" goal was out of reach (and the "B" goal almost surely also out the window), since, despite the fact that worst hills were now past, the course and the conditions were not conducive to making up time; I just wanted to hold on and PR, preferably going sub-1:34:00; we went into a neighborhood, which turned out to be an out and back stretch via a large cul-de-sac; I saw the leader cruising along as he came out of the neighborhood, with no one near him; I saw a couple of my running club teammates in the top 10-12 runners, and yelled what passed for a cheer; I was passed by a red-haired guy wearing only a Speedo and an iPod; the neighborhood set up a belly dancing station, a welcome injection of levity for me; I jokingly ran side-step for a few seconds in order to take an extra leering glance, though I'll freely admit that I was more interested in the Accelerade offered about 200 yards past the dancers; coming around the cul-de-sac, I started to see "the masses" (I was in the first 100 of about 1300 finishers), and saw many people I knew; it was great to have the slower runners cheer me on as I had done moments earlier to the faster runners ahead of me; once I saw the 11-mile marker, I knew that sub-1:34:00 was going to be very close, subject to whether the course and conditions would let me find another gear in order to kick it in
  • Miles 12-13.1 [7:06/7:09 + 6:36 pace for last 0.1+ per Garmin]: I consciously increased my effort level, but I could not negotiate the final hills and wind to get under 7:00 pace; I tried to key off the runners near me, in particular a couple of guys who looked smooth and strong (I passed one but couldn't stay with the other), and one woman whose headphones were blasting some hard rock which I could hear, if not identify; what seemed like the steepest hill of the race hit at around Mile 12.5, which I essentially power-walked, noticing that I did not lose any ground to the guy in front of me who appeared to be running; I crested the hill and tried to kick it in for the final 0.3 or so miles, only to be running straight into as fierce a wind as I'd felt all day; I managed to pass maybe 6 people in the final quarter-mile, and I looked at my watch thinking that 1:33:xx was in reach; it wasn't, and I finished feeling pretty numb, no bliss but no real sadness

So, I will take solace in the fact that I ran essentially the identical time as I did in February on a much tougher course, in much tougher conditions, with much higher mileage leading up to the race. As so often happens in this sport, there's no way to predict or control the weather, and most goals are merely arbitrary projections based on feelings and speculation of what might happen. Yes, there is some science based on assessing training and race paces, but I truly believe that if I ran at yesterday's effort on a flatter course on a calmer day, sub-7:00 pace would have been almost certain. However, what might have been does not get us where we want to be, so I must now focus on smart training, finding the balance between pushing myself hard while avoiding the breaking point.

Interestingly, I was pretty sore yesterday (race-day), especially my calves, but feel better today. I'm going to take it relatively easy this week, running a total of 50-55 miles, taking the next few days as they come, but hopefully running one tempo-style workout on Thursday and perhaps a 20+-miler on Sunday.

With 6 weeks to go, things may go kind of like this:

  • This week - 50-55 miles, 20+-miler
  • 5 weeks to go -65 miles
  • 4 weeks - 65-70 miles (if my body feels up to it), 22+-miler
  • 3 weeks -60-65 miles
  • 2 weeks - Taper Week #1, 45+/- miles
  • 1 week - Taper Week #2, 20 or so miles, plus race



Girl In Motion said...

Sounds like a great job in rough, windy conditions on a sucky course to me. :-) And considering you're in the thick of marathon training...well done!

About the Garmin, if it's on auto-lap and you realize it's beeping too early or late, manually press the lap button when you pass the next marker. That reinitializes the start point for future laps.

screaminzab said...

Great job, Ron. As I said on RWOL, the goal here is 3:20 for 26.2. Don't let a terrible weather day muck up what has been an outstanding training session. Listen to your body and make sure you recover some this week and gear up for the home stretch.

Joe said...

Great race report! Without these RRs, it's easy to just look at times and just say, "same time, no progress." But as we all know, running a similar time on a much tougher course is a tremendous accomplishment! Sounds like you're on pace for that BQ next month!

Da Weekend Warrior said...

Tell me about the wind!! It must have been windy all over the nation... it was bad everywhere. It looks like the course was full of rollers (I hate those). Great time, even if it wasnt what you expected. We are our worst critic, and until we win the Olympic Gold, we will never satisfy ourselves!! Great race!!