After enjoying my first road half marathon last year in Moab I made plans to run another this year with the goal of improving my time by about 90 seconds to run 1:35. Plans to visit family in the fall lined up nicely with the Zeitgeist Half Marathon, so I signed up for what I hoped would be a scenic, beautiful-fall-weather half and penciled some 13.1-oreinted training into my summer/fall plans. The course had some significant hills (1,180 feet of climbing/descending over a loop course with each hill being ~2 miles long on each side with a flatter 3 miles at the end), but I had hope that with a lot of luck and some strong training I could still dip under 1:35.
After my delayed start to summer training due to injury my mileage started to increase beyond what I’ve been able to do since about 2012 and my 5k/XC focused training was starting to lead to some quick workouts and races. I also found two new wonderful running buddies to do long runs with. For the half I loosely followed the Kara Goucher training plan for workouts, but did a double run day about every other week, occasional double workouts or a workout and race most weeks, and long runs up to 16 miles rather than the shorter recommended maximum long run of 11 miles that she included in the plan. I felt strong enough towards the middle of the training plan to add an extra 2-mile repeat onto one workout, and an extra tempo mile onto another. I definitely skimped on the strength training (oops…) but tried to do core 3 times a week.
Perhaps the most important modification that I made was to incorporate hills into the tempo repeats/longer tempo runs. Starting with the Switchblade workout in week 6 I began doing my workouts at a spot where I could warm up on flat road for a couple miles, and then could do my repeats going up a mile or so on a steady climb, and then turn around and practice my turnover and relaxation on the speedy descent. I learned to focus on holding a controlled grind on the uphill, and to then quickly switch to a focused ‘spin’ on the downhill. I could hit my goal average pace (say 7:30/mile) by grinding up at a steady 7:50 pace on the uphill and then pushing my turnover to hit a 7:10 coming back down. On longer tempos I did the initial tempo on the flat or on more gradual rolling hills and then added part of the steeper climb/descent to practice climbing and descending while tired, and to practice hitting the flat again after a big downhill and maintaining the gained momentum. My quads suffered but grew stronger, and the repeated practice at uneven pacing to hit a solid average pace helped me to mentally prepare for the fluctuations in pace and attitude that would hit me out on the hilly race course. 7:15 pace started to seem like a reasonable goal, if I could just maintain my optimism and focus on the hills…
The week before the race I crammed in a final long workout, a longish run, and my other runs into the first 6 days of the week so that MountainMan and I could drive the 12 hours to my hometown without worrying about runs. I felt ok, but developed some severe calf tightness while sitting in the car. I made it through a final short workout and some easy runs the week of the race, but ended each run worried that I’d managed to really injure myself. My left calf was especially bad – the Achilles was tight, my fibularis longs/brevis tendons were tender to the touch and would spasm randomly, and my soleus was sore every time I stretched. If the pain hadn’t shifted to a new spot every day I probably would have been even more worried (real injuries tend to stick to one spot rather than jumping place to place), but even with the somewhat reassuring ‘taper twinge’-like behavior I was concerned. I spent the days leading up to the race icing and gently massaging the muscle and tendons, hoping I wasn’t going to have to step off the course and throw away my chance at a good race thanks to a last-minute injury.
With the apprehension about my calf being able to last the whole 13.1 miles and the self-inflicted pressure to take full advantage of this rare half-marathon racing opportunity I spent the days leading up to the race with a stomach full of butterflies. However, an early birthday celebration with family the evening before helped me to relax and get some solid sleep, and I woke up the morning of the race feeling focused and alert but not overly anxious.
A beautiful drive along frosty streets under the setting moon brought me to the start, where I had some extra time to relax and watch the sun rise after picking up my packet. The weather forecast had called for snow or a cold drizzle earlier in the week, but the sun was quickly burning off the fog and I opted to run in shorts and my singlet with just a pair of gloves to fend off the high-30s/low-40s chill in the first few miles.
I had one little pre-race panic when I was still 20 people back in line with 5 minutes to the start and had to dash behind a nearby shed to attempt a subtle pre-race nervous-pee. I don’t like contributing to urine puddles in inappropriate places, but the 10 guys lined up against the wall when I dashed around the other side on my way to the start at least made me feel less alone in my awkward grass-watering activities. Relieved that I wouldn’t spend all 13.1 miles dealing with internal sloshing I scurried over to the start and squeezed my way up near the front group in the starting corral.
The race countdown consisted of a cheer-squad style spelling of “Z-E-I-T-G-E-I-S-T” and then a yelled “Go!” as we took off. A small group of men accompanied by a couple women immediately sped ahead through the chilly shade of the starting stretch. I ran along a little ways back alongside another group of lightly dressed men and women and a few misguided souls in full sweat suits. I wanted to start conservatively so worked on staying relaxed in this second group while still holding what felt like a strong pace. After about half a mile we got out of the shaded, tree-lined road leading out of town and onto the sunnier, foothill-surrounded 2-lane road portion of the course. The sweat-suite wearers fell back and I passed one of the quick starting women.
As we headed into the first climb at about 1 mile the two women next to me were still chatting happily while I was doing my best to stay relaxed at what felt like a quick pace. A little bit of doubt entered my mind but I focused on just hanging in behind them and enjoying the diversion provided by their chatter. The two friends eventually cut down the chatter and separated as the hill got steeper, both moving a little further ahead of me.
The first climb wasn’t too bad and the top, at 3 miles, soon arrived. I had glanced at my watch and knew my pace was slower than what I wanted for the average (as expected), so I really focused on my turnover on the 2 mile downhill into mile 5. I felt good, but just couldn’t quite gain on the two women within eyesight ahead of me. I had seen another women go out very fast who I could no longer spot, and could barely make out another women in a blue singlet in 2nd place. I was sitting in 5th and hoped that eventually I could manage to reel in one of the women ahead of me.
My hands had finally warmed up enough to take my orange-and-blue gloves off, but I tucked them into the shoulder of my sports bra so that they flapped lightly as I ran. I hoped the Boise State color scheme would get me some extra cheers as I ran by the primarily BSU-apparel-clad spectators. I spent miles 4 and 5 trying to slurp down a gel while winding through the streets of a small sub-division, chasing the closer women ahead around the turns on the short nearly-flat section. Every time I seemed to gain a little ground we’d go around a turn and they’d both suddenly have jumped back a little further ahead. I focused on just staying smooth and keeping my outlook positive in spite of the frustration.
At some point a man in headphones passed me and ended up a little ways ahead, but on the whole I’d been running pretty much alone since the 2nd mile or so. I was glad to have my GPS watch to be able to glance down at my pace every once in a while, but was mainly running by feel and trying to maintain (or decrease) my distance from the little group up ahead.
There was another mini climb around mile 6, which fortunately didn’t seem too tough. I was happy to be approaching halfway, with the hope that some of the runners ahead would finally start to fall back. As I crested the little hill and began striding down the descent I realized I could see the final BIG hill stretched along the hillsides in front of me. The number of turns in the road as it wound up, and up, and up was a little unnerving! The head-phone man was dancing and humming ahead of me and I found myself wondering if he’d be able to keep up the dance moves on the challenging climb.
We rolled down the little downhill, leveled out, and then began the big, intimidating climb. I reminded myself that I had practiced this, and tried to channel the hilly long runs with my new running buddies. One of them is an AMAZING climber, so I tried to picture her just a little ways ahead, springing up the incline. Thinking of this big climb as just another challenging long-run climb was comforting and helped to keep my breathing steady as the hill steepened. I also started mentally chanting “cow poooop, cow pooop” which helped to express my full feeling about the hill ;P
Just as I approached the crest, with legs getting quite heavy and my focus having narrowed to just the 20 feet or so in front of my feet, I heard my name. I glanced up and was happily surprised to see my parents and their dog standing just off the side of the road! They cheered me up to the top, boosting my spirits and bringing my mind back into race mode as I crested the peak and started down the other side.
Now was my time to really push! The peak of the hill was right around 8.5 miles, so I knew I had less than 5 to go, and 2 of those miles were steeply downhill. My quads were aching, but I forced my legs to turn over and started spinning down the hill, battling the fatigue that was pushing me to heel-strike and flail my arms. As the incline eased slightly I was able to stride out more effectively and realized that I felt *strong*. As my parents drove by my mom leaned out the window and pointed out that I was (finally!) gaining on the group ahead. I had my own doubts about catching them, but her encouragement got me looking forward as I focused on speeding down the sloped road.
Around 10.5 miles I had finally gotten up to just a few feet behind one woman in white and the head-phone man. An aid station appeared as we rounded the corner and I made the sudden decision to skip the water and instead surge like a wild woman to get around the two while they were preoccupied. The plan worked perfectly – I felt a surge of adrenaline as I went around on the outside, watching the pair slow and reach for cups, unable to respond. If my heart rate hadn’t already been pretty maxed out I’m sure it would have been beating extra hard over the next hundred meters as I slightly frantically pushed the pace to get a solid gap and squash any thoughts they had of re-passing me. I had decided to go for it and was now running fueled by a mixture of fear and excitement – there were two miles to go and now I had the extra motivation of being chased!
The slight downhill was heavenly after all the climbing, and I was enjoying the chance to really push the pace and no longer worry about going too hard and collapsing on a climb. I felt like I was in the last couple miles of a tempo run, starting to strain but buoyed by the proximity of the finish line. I glanced over my shoulder a couple times to see if the woman in white was catching back up, but appeared to be in the clear. For about half a mile I was free to just focus on my turnover and on pushing the pace.
My parents were still stopping every little ways to cheer, and my mom again brought to my attention the fact that I was once again gaining on a pair of runners. This time the woman in blue who I’d barely been able to see until the last mile or so was the target. I was gaining steadily on her and a male runner.
As sometimes happens to me when passing people towards the ends of races I had a moment of doubt – if I passed these two then they would be chasing me too! What if they responded with a surge? What if I couldn’t handle it?? As weird as it may seem I’m sometimes afraid of passing people, because I know it can lead to a battle to the finish, and those battles HURT. However, I swiftly realized that at the pace I was going I did’t really have any choice about passing, so I committed and tried again to pass as aggressively as possible to discourage them from coming along with me. A speed bump helped out at just the right moment, as I was able to push off for an extra boost off the top just as I was passing. Once again I got no response from the runners I was passing, and the extra adrenaline propelled me just a little faster.
Finally I hit the half mile to go point. My legs were burning, and I found myself hoping fervently that the course was not, God forbid, long. I could just see the second place woman ahead of me, but was giving it everything I had and not gaining. With about a quarter mile to go I spotted the last, unexpected hill. With the finish line still not in sight, but down to the left of the course behind a bank and some trees, the volunteer waved us *right* up a short, but steep little incline! A small sign posted on the course stated “no, we’re NOT kidding” and the amusement of seeing it helped counteract the panic of wondering if my quads could handle one more climb.
Fortunately, I did not collapse into a heap on the last hill, and quickly found myself at the top and in view of the finish! As I started my descent the second place woman finished, and after 20 seconds or so of sprinting down the hill I also crossed the line, slightly stunned to see the clock still ticking up in the 1:32’s! I shuffled through the finish, thanking the volunteers, and emerged into the sunny parking lot outside the finish coral to be greeted by my parents, who’d somehow timed all of their cheering perfectly to still arrive for the finish.
I ended up technically getting second, as the first place woman wasn’t really registered, and with a PR of almost 4 minutes. The place had helped motivate me during the race, but the PR was the more significant reward. I’d somehow managed to knock nearly 4 minutes off my time on a fairly brutal course! All the workouts, long runs, and time spent stretching, rolling, and catching up on sleep had really paid off.
A few lessons learned:
- I was stronger than I expected. Course-specific training and increased mileage were *extremely* helpful for this race. If I hadn’t practiced so many steady-but-strong uphills and aggressive downhills I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have caught those women at the end, and just might have actually collapsed on that final short hill!
- My conservative pacing, although a bit frustrating at the start, resulted in a very strong finish. When gradient-adjusted, my second half was a little faster than my first half, and I felt like I had rationed my energy perfectly. I felt strong towards the finish, but was also starting to doubt the ability of my legs to hold on much longer – a perfect place to be right at the end of at half marathon! I will admit that after recovering I started to wonder whether I could have gone out a little quicker and moved up with the 2nd place (technically 1st place) woman, who started out just ahead of me at mile 1 but was 20 seconds ahead at the end. Passing people at the end was fun, but maybe if I’d been alongside her I could have fought for the win! I may have to test a slightly more aggressive 13.1 strategy at some point, but the pacing that I used last weekend worked remarkably well considering how rarely I race this distance.
- Sometimes taper twinges are really just taper twinges. I have no idea why this happens but it seems to be a common phenomenon. Theories?
- A good cheering crew works wonders. I think I still would have closed on those last couple of women at the end, but having a little external pressure and encouragement was amazing! Having a parent/dog cheering section was probably my favorite part about doing a race back in my home town 🙂
All in all it was an amazing day – I was blessed with *glorious* Fall weather, a strong field of runners to chase, a little family cheering squad, and an unexpectedly speedy time. I still have a few final weeks in my racing season and I hope to carry this momentum forward through my final race, and to use if for confidence in my next year of running!