This training cycle has been a bit of a whirlwind. Last year at this race, I broke two hours – I was gleeful, finally having cracked the time that for many is the holy grail. But that bar keeps getting raised for each of us. I was ready and eager to break 1:55 at Air Force last year, but a turned ankle on a tempo run the week of the race killed that. I may have been able to race just fine, but with Ragnar around the corner and taht team counting on me, and so many weeks left of marathon training – my real A goal of the fall – I had too much to lose to risk it. Early November, during a 12 miler taper long run, I averaged 8:45 miles – which would have earned me the coveted sub 1:55 had I run 13.1
This year, NF and I decided to be pretty aggressive with our training. We’d been training smart and pretty hard for a couple of years. Last fall, we designed our own training plan for the marathon – a risk given it was our first full, but a necessity given our racing schedule in September (Air Force midway through September, Ragnar the weekend after that). With that race successfully finished, we wanted to give it another shot: design a smart and aggressive training plan for the Pittsburgh half. We’d been doing long tempo runs – the absolute key to speed over distance, no question – and longer mile repeat workouts. So with these ingredients, we added one more thing: race pace miles during long runs.
In late February, only a couple weeks into training for the Pittsburgh half, we ran the Spring Thaw, a local race that runs around a 5-mile lake loop and allows you to choose your distance at any point, adding on our dropping down mid-race. We were scheduled to run 10, and NF – sweetie that he is – agreed to pace me through the first 10 miles, which I hoped to run at half-marathon pace. I was nervous, given that we were so early into training, but with my goal being 8:40-8:50, I thought this would be pretty manageable. In the first mile, I was trying to find the pace and glanced at my watch, which NF sternly corrected. He was amazing – he watch hawked for the both of us (an exhausting endeavor) and just let me find my groove. “We’re going a hair fast, but this little slope coming up will slow us down” or “we slowed up a bit, but we’re about to go downhill a bit” or “perfect.” I’d check my splits when they beeped, and was seeing 8:3x every time, with the exception of miles during which I slowed a bit to get some water at an aid station and suck down a gel (I didn’t carry water for the race. It was cool out and there were aid stations aplenty). When my watch hit 9 miles, I took off and wished him well – he finished up 15 on a rough day – and I cruised hope below 8 minutes, averaging 8:33 overall, 12 seconds per mile faster than goal. What a boost!
For many long runs in the past, I’ve tried kicking the last one or two miles at race pace, but haven’t done anything different than that. Now I knew I could sustain my goal pace for 10 miles, which was extremely promising. We got in a couple solid track workouts, and I nailed my splits, in addition to lengthening tempo runs, including a 7 mile tempo the week of Just a Short Run (JASR), with 5 miles at tempo. A few weeks later, we ran a 13 mile long run with four miles in the middle at goal half-marathon pace. I managed every single one under 8:30e. I was crushing my goal paces, and it was like getting confidence injected directly into my veins.
We’ve run JASR a couple times now, the first time as an 8.1 miler just as a pure long run, last year as crushing PRs for both of us (NF in 1:43:xx and me in just over 1:59, my first sub-2), so I knew it was a great course and a great race. It’s a perfect scenario: it’s a rolling to flat course with only one hill of any consequence – it starts as a 5K ice rink loop (home of the one hill) followed by 5 mile lake loops (run the opposite direction of Spring Thaw). The only problem this year, was it was scheduled for the Saturday before Easter, which was super early. NF headed home to see his family for the holiday, a few other running buddies were also out of town for similar reasons, and here I was, with huge PR dreams, only about halfway through training, and without my sidekick. True, we don’t race together anymore (unless we’re running it for fun, or the occasional time he’s rabbiting me) but we get up to that ass-early alarm, eat breakfast together, get nervous and jittery together, hold each others’ stuff as we sprint to the porto-potties, make sure we have our gels, Garmin, iPods, etc., and exchange a quick pre-race kiss. What was I going to do without my best support system?
I managed to arrange to hitch a ride with super-fast friend Rob and a couple other dudes he was driving. Friday night before the race, I got to the packet pickup without incident (the fact that it was Good Friday helped the traffic situation) and dropped a lot of bank on a new-fangled muscle roller torture device. My IT band had been squawking at me more and more as the week went on. I got some sushi for dinner (carbo-loading during Passover is hard – and yes I know I technically shouldn’t eat rice but I”m not that observant and I had to eat SOMETHING) and popped in “Spirit of the Marathon” for some motivation… and gently and slowly stretched every muscle in my body I could, from head to toe. I eased into my hips, then busted out the foam roller, lay in pigeon pose for like 5 minutes, before using the torture device on my tight left IT and almost crying in agony as it worked out the last vestiges of tightness.
Good news – no pain the next day during the race!
I woke up at 5 a.m. and heated up the breakfast quinoa I had prepared (seriously, Passover, you’re crimping my oatmeal-lovin’-carbo-loading style) – cooked in apple juice and seasoned with cinnamon and ground cloves, with chopped walnuts and apple mixed in. I was nervous. I was jittery. It felt like a 5K was imminent – a deathly hard effort, but one where a good jolt of nerves revs the engine. But a half? This was a bit much.
Rob picked me up promptly at 6:45, and we swung by and got his buddies and lots of times to wander the race site. I got in the ladies room line immediately since it was huge, and chatted with a couple of runners (and saw a Oiselle team ambassador also in line!). After some hemming and hawing, I took my pre-race Gu, sucked down water from a throwaway bottle, and headed to the start line. The 30K start was a few minutes prior (since they have to tack on about a half mile to the 5K + three 5-mile loops) and with them, Rob. I chatted with one of his buddies before going to step in front of the 2 hour pace group… and found a 1:55 pace group! The stress immediately dissipated “I didn’t know this pace group existed!” I said excitedly to the leader. With markedly less enthusiasm, he replied, “Well, we exist.” I tried to make small talk to a girl standing near him, but she didn’t seem interested, so I just tried to get in the zone. A few minutes later, we were off!
Well, as soon as we crossed the timing mat, it was clear the pacer was going too slow. Not in an easing-into-it way either. So, the relaxing effect of his presence having already taken hold, I just took off and did my own thing. I knew the hill was in the first mile, so I just relaxed and tried to ignore pace, trying to find a groove. I kept it just under nine, especially when the double-dip hill ended with a sharp right turn into a screaming downhill. I was fine easing into my pace, knowing I had plenty of time to speed up later.
It was a beautiful morning, though it started chilly. It was the very end of March, and spring had been taking its good old freaking time arriving. It was low-to-mid-30s at the start, and I was shivering my my thin long sleeve with vest over (pockets – yay!), capri tights, cap-and-earband combo, and gloves. In fact, my fingers were numb and cold for the first 5K, my body trying so hard to warm itself. But the sun was shining and it eventually got to the low 50s, and the cool air made it a lot easier to try to push it, so I was not going to complain.
I was quickly sliding into 8:30s – faster than goal – and even a couple 8:20s, but felt relaxed and good, and was getting passed by a ton of people, which I tried to let go of. I came through 5K a little faster than expected: I think 26:3x or so. I was trying not to watch-hawk much, checking splits but ignoring my overall time except at the loops just to see how I was doing overall, especially since Garmin distance is always slightly off actual distance. I felt myself slowing a bit and took in a gel at a water station about four miles in (I again didn’t carry water, which limited when I could take a gel, and I had to really pay attention to when they were coming up if I was chasing a gel with water) and my stride smoothed out again.
Eventually I found a few sort of pacer buddies. I traded the lead with this one couple a few times, me pulling ahead on uphills, then coming even and pulling ahead on downhills (I’ve gotten better at charging hills in recent months, it seems) and a couple other folks who stayed within my sight line. The multi-loop nature of the course really helps break the race into manageable chunks, and helped me take it one loop at a time. I checked my overall distance and time when we finished the first lake loop, knowing that Kevin Smith (store owner and race director) usually mis-measures the mile markers, so my mile beeps are WAY off, but the overall distance is spot on. I came into the 8.1 mark at 8.2 on my watch, a good thing to keep in mind later in the race. My pace was still faster than goal, but I was feeling fantastic.
On the back half of the last loop, I was starting to feel fatigue creep in, as well as some chattering, doubting demons, perhaps more of the latter than the former, in actuality. The back half is more rolling uphill than down, but still totally doable, but I knew I was feeling those miles, and that I was getting nervous about when to kick, if I was going to make my goal, and any other doubts creeping in. I came up alongside a woman running a perfect pace, right in the low 8:40s. I looked over to her and asked, “half or 30K?” She was running the 30K, and I confirmed for her I was running the half. “Sorry to pace hog,” I said, “but you’re running my perfect pace right now.” “Well, then,” she said, “let’s bring you on home.”
We exchanged a few words here and there – about the course, the nice weather, what we were training for, how we were feeling, what our pace was.” My watch beeped 12 miles – well ahead of the badly placed 12 mile marker – and she said, “Don’t let me hold you back. You look strong.” I waited a bit closer to the marker, then just before I took off, thanked her for the company and pacing and wished her a great last loop.
I glanced at my overall time in that moment. 1:55 was possible even if I crawled the last .1. Let’s see just what I can do, I thought, and felt my stride lengthen and my upper body relax into the pace. It ticked down faster and faster. Just below 8 minutes. 7:50s. 7:40s. A guy I’d been chasing back and forth in the last few miles – one of my unofficial pacers – picked it up when he felt me on his tail. I can’t recall now if I passed him in the end, though I think I may have. I saw the finish line through the trees, and knew I just had to keep relaxing til I got to the tennis courts. I kicked it up a notch, then, and mentally pulled that 13 mile marker closer and closer to me. My arms churned. My legs were on fire. My lungs gasped. I beeped the last mile a bit before the marker – 7:23 pace. I felt like I was dying. I saw Shirtless Dude – a Pittsburgh running legend (yes, I know he has a name, but a lot of us just call him Shirtless Dude) cheering people in. He pointed right at me and shouted some encouragement. I managed one smile and looked at the glow, seeing the first digits: 1:52.xx. Holy shit. All mental capacity disappeared. I felt like I was running through a swamp. I didn’t grin in victory. Didn’t lift my arms like I usually did. Just leapt across the line as I was mindlessly punching “STOP” on my Garmin.
I stumbled through the finisher chute to grab my medal (pretty legit this year!) and wandered to the food line, knowing Rob would be finishing the 30K any minute (I joked with him that my goal was to beat him. “I’m even giving you a 10 minute headstart,” I said, “because I”m generous”). I grabbed a water bottle, banana,.a bagel, and was about to reach for delightfully salty pretzels when I remembered with a groan. Passover. I pawned the bagel on Rob when he finished, and settled for salty chips instead of pretzels, devouring the banana and sucking down the water.
Rob’s buddies rolled in and we wandered around waiting for results to be posted and nibbling on food before we packed it in. I was texting everyone like crazy about my PR, posted officially as 1:52.03. Exactly seven minutes faster than my previous PR on the same course the year before.
One thought that dominated my brain after the euphoria wore off in the following few days: Now what? Well, my reach goal is now to break 1:50 – which would require improving my pace by 9 secs/mile. Doable, but hard, and Pittsburgh is likely to be a much warmer day, and is a much less forgiving course. B goal will be to PR, even just by seconds. Otherwise, I’d like to make a respectable mid-1:50s showing and have fun. But the latter part is kind of always the goal.
Last weekend, we did a 10 mile progression run at the end of a cutback/easy week (all easy runs, lower mileage overall). We were in different states (I was in Ohio doing wedding stuff, NF was in Knoxville doing research stuff), so we just reported back to each other on how it went: 4 miles easy, 3 miles at half-marathon goal pace + 15 seconds, 3 miles at HM. I woke up to 65* temps (not hot by any stretch but it had been 30* just days before and it was like a suckerpunch of acclimation) and winds gusting to 25 mph. And the wind was only at my back during the warm up. I stared at my watch the whole time. I overdressed (did NOT need long sleeve – actually went in just a sports bra a few miles in, which I loathe doing). I went too fast on the easy part. My HM + 15 segments were perfect, but for some reason after that, I just started breaking down. I quit so many times during those last 3 miles, I hardly count the splits as legitimate. I was totally gassed the rest of the day and had zero appetite.
And yet, this week, I had an amazing 7 mile tempo run, and this morning had a 14 miler on a glorious sunny morning, and I crushed my last 3 miles at HM pace, just as planned.
Anything can happen on race day. We have two more weeks of hard training to go before our one week taper. I’m listening to my body, while trying to ignore the demons. I’m getting good mantras and power words going (which I may write about later).
So, Pittsburgh half, my 3rd PGH half and my 7th attempt at the distance – what will you bring to the table? And will I be able to dig deep enough to overcome?