Race Report: Athens Half-Marathon (AthHalf)

I was really excited for this event. For so many of my friends and training buddies, this was The Big One – their A race for the fall, or one of them (many are running Rocket City Marathon in December, and this was a perfectly timed tune-up half). I had heard for months how fun it is, how well run, how well stocked with amazing volunteers and cheering crowds. All of Athens comes out to watch. I knew this course like the back of my hand before ever running it continuously. Two of the hills I only got to run once each in training (the notorious zoo hill, and Riverbend). The rest I had run DOZENS of times. I wasn’t intimidated by the course.

AthHalf elevation-web
Elevation chart from website
AthHalf elevation-strava
Elevation chart from my Strava data

And another advantage: I knew I wasn’t racing this all out. I asked my coach when we were first developing the plan if I could run this as one of my mid-plan races – it fell at the end of week 13, which is very close to race day, and I didn’t want to mess up the taper. I assured him I could run it for fun – pace the 2:00 group maybe, run it easy as a long run, do it as a workout of some kind. Or if he thought it was a bad idea, I would skip it. He gave me the green light, and wrote it into my plan as a marathon pace run in the midst of a 16-mile day.

Another thing going for me: my dad was in town! It was great to know I’d have a cheering section. My dad has watched me race a couple 10Ks and a 10-miler (that was also really a race pace training run), and it always gave me a boost to see him, and I think he gets a kick out of watching me race – I was never a sports person in high school or anything, and he’s a swimmer, so to see his bookworm daughter compete as an athlete is a more recent treat for him.

Pre-race

My dad got into Athens late Friday night and crashed fairly soon after. Shannon and I slept in a bit (mostly just dilly-dallied getting out of bed – first Saturday sleep-in in a while) and I eventually got down to my 5-mile easy run. I was going into AthHalf not at all remotely tapered or rested, but I felt good. I ran 10 recovery-paced miles on Monday (broken into morning/evening runs), 9 miles on Tuesday with 2×3 at 15K pace (treadmill sweat fest), and 10 on Thursday with 10x strides. A lot of my training has hovered around the 50-mile mark, so while my legs weren’t rested, I still felt good going in. I knew it would be a tough workout, but I could handle it.

Packet pickup was short and sweet, and we hung out at the expo just long enough to say hi to some friends and introduce them to my dad, renew our Athens Road Runners membership (with a discount!), and score a couple free shirts (okay, one I paid for forever ago and never picked up). Then we grabbed lunch at Amici a couple blocks away with friends. I took a slight chance and ordered a caprese pizza – fairly minimal cheese, and I ended up having zero issues.

Saturday evening Shannon’s parents joined us for our pre-race dinner: chicken and mashed potatoes with a salad, and my mother-in-law brought brussell sprouts. I indulged in a very small half (maybe quarter) glass of wine and a lot of water. We sort of succeeded getting to bed early, but ended up sleeping fitfully. Having company over a little later than typical for a race night, and having a guest in the house, kind of threw off my going-to-bed-and-relaxing routine. My brain was a little wired, and I had a lot of weird, vaguely race-related dreams. Some things about the course and the hills that were foggy upon waking. Oh well. I got a ton of sleep Friday, and again – the lack of sleep didn’t seem to affect my performance.

We were up at 5 am and I stepped outside to feel the weather – it was already warmer than predicted (60*) and while the air felt cool, I could tell it was very damp out. It would be a muggy race. Not ideal, but it was a workout. I could handle it. As I was standing outside on our porch, I noticed movement in our bushes. Turns out, it was a rabbit! It was one we had tried to catch earlier that had escaped from our neighbor’s rabbit pen (she has a whole slew of animals). We didn’t catch him then, though he did get caught later, but maybe sighting him that morning was a lucky charm. Little stinker.

I made both of us small bowls of oatmeal and continued to sip water, but I was mega-hydrated and didn’t want to overdo it. At about 6:20, the three of us piled in the car and drove to Hendershot’s to park and then walk to the starting line, stopping at a porto along the way. We introduced my dad to a couple more friends, and I walked him to Starbucks to get coffee and a pastry. We met up with the in-laws, and Shannon and I briefly escaped to grab a group photo with the Road Runners.

arr pre race

At that point, I needed to get in my warmup, so I sent Shannon back to the parents and squeezed in a little over a mile (all I comfortably had time for before I absolutely wanted to BE in the corral). Post-warmup, I realized I was sweating a lot already. The humidity was very present. The parents of course then wanted pictures, which I rushed along a bit as I was starting to get race stress (and it never fails I’m trying to take my pre-race gel and someone says “let’s get a picture!”) – I wasn’t concerned about the race, but I don’t like feeling rushed getting to a start line, even if it is a workout. I’m neurotic like this. (I’m still waiting for my dad to send said photos from his point-and-shoot – hopefully will update this post when I get them)

We squeezed into our assigned corral (B) with some buddies – George, Tino, Will, and Roshan. George, Will, and Roshan were targeting low 1:40s/sub-1:40. Tino was thinking 1:35-1:38. I looked at the nearby 1:40 pacer and vowed not to get suckered in. A local high school senior sang the national anthem beautifully (and played guitar). Our crew did our ritual fist bumps, and Shannon and I exchanged our pre-race kiss and wishes of good luck. He was going to take it fairly easy since his foot is still recovering and he’s still biking for the most part.

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Before I knew it, we were off!

The race

I started my watch a moment before crossing the mat, and began searching for that magical pace. My marathon pace target was 8:07, though I’ve been doing a lot of lower 8:0X’s and 7:5X’s on my marathon pace tempos and feeling great. We started up a little incline and then swung around Thomas Street and back down a hill. Tino took off like a shot but Will and George were easing in, and I found myself right with them for the first bit. I kept checking my pace and I wasn’t going too fast, despite being so near them. I smiled internally at their wise move of not bolting out of the gate. Good boys!

The course wound onto Prince, which is flat but has a slight incline for a bit as we turned onto Cobb Street just pace the 1 mile mark. While the course has a lot of Athens’ famous hills, it definitely goes on the “better” direction on all of them. Soon enough, Cobb Street dipped down onto King and the pace I felt I was just sort of waffling around in, unsure, started to lock in. It took maybe 2 or 3 miles to really feel comfortable. I never panicked, just felt around until I found it. Or, perhaps, realized that this pace – while a bit faster than planned – really was perfect. The water stops were spaced out at almost perfect 2-mile intervals, and I took a cup at every one, drinking some, then dumping the rest on my head to cool off. The first cup had very little water in it, but the rest were fine. I took double cups at later stations to get more sips and more head cooling. (at one point there was an “unsanctioned” aid station from spectators and I took a cup but then realized it was gummy bears. Bummer)

We had a nice long trip on Milledge, which is almost perfectly flat, and had a good amount of spectators. I was sticking to tangents as best I could, and looking for people to pace off of at various points, but otherwise running my own race, staying focused on my own workout. Cory was targeting 1:45ish or faster as part of a 20-miler (dayum) and he paced with me for a bit but at some point took off.

7:58, 7:58, 8:02, 8:04

After the Five Points water stop – right at mile 4 – I took note of the huge crowds in this bustling section of town. Both running stores are within two blocks of each other right in Five Points, and the turn onto Lumpkin was completely stacked with screaming spectators. I had a HUGE grin on my face and felt my adrenaline spike. I checked my watch as we passed by Fleet Feet. I was suddenly doing half-marathon race pace. I consciously slowed down. I knew the big downhill on Lumpkin was coming, and I was given permission by Coach Mark to take that mile 15-30 seconds faster than race pace (and the subsequent mile with the zoo hill 15-30 sec slower) but I didn’t want to over do it. I brought my pace way back and relaxed on that beautiful Lumpkin downhill, never letting my legs or my pace totally get away from me. I felt really good, really relaxed, and was having so much fun. As we approached the turn into the park, I saw Dianne ahead, slowing down and stopping on the side for a moment to stretch – she had just announced that she was pregnant, and girl was still running this half! I gave her a big smile and a wave and congratulated her again. I rounded the tight downhill turn, and saw friend and fellow Ingress player Chris cheering people on, his dog at his side. I gave him a wave and a smile and kept on trucking. The hill was coming.

I stayed very relaxed, and while I kept note of my pace, I didn’t obsess over it. In fact, I marveled at how little it dropped. The hill is long and annoying and rolling. It’s never over when you think it’s going to be, and even when it’s “over,” you turn onto Gran Ellen, which keeps climbing a bit. But I was fine with it, I was resigned to it, I was still happy. I barely lost pace, and with the previous mile, I really hadn’t lost anything. I took a gel at mile 5, and washed it down at the mile 6 water stop.

7:52, 8:18

The course started back downhill for a bit on Milledge, but once we passed a 10K timing station (though I never was able to find a 10K split posted anywhere – would’ve been interesting to see the official split) I knew the really fast parts were over. We crossed under the highway loop and got up to the turn onto Riverbend; that section was a little tougher than I remembered (and I remembered it being tough). I knew I was fine though, and had a lot of time and energy in the bank. The course gets lonely on Riverbend – it’s a big rolling hill past where I work, and there were no spectators to speak of, though the volunteers were great. We got up the big hill and came rocketing down the other side as I consciously tried to slow down. I went for two cups at mile 8 and accidentally got one water and one powerade. Whoops! glad I didn’t dump the latter on my head. I took a sip of it instead, realized my mistake, didn’t want it, pitched it. I burped up a bit of it a half mile later and thought I was in trouble, but my stomach settled. The course kept grinding up to College Station, where it flattened briefly. A couple of the Fleet Feet shirtless fasties were biking around the course and cheering, and I think at this point it was especially valuable – a lot of people were starting to flag on the hills. I knew the worst was yet to come.

7:59, 8:15, 8:00

midrace7 midrace6 midrace5 midrace4

River Road is basically flat as it passes Ramsey and the backside of some fraternities, but it does start to grind up, followed by a sharp left turn up a small but steep and annoying hill onto East Campus. I’ve had a mix of experiences on River Road during various runs, ranging from totally fine and almost fast to feeling like total garbage and resenting the never-ending hill. This experience was fortunately the former. When we were nearly to East Campus, I saw the back of a Fleet Feet singlet and recognized Catherine up ahead, but something seemed off. I saw her stop to a walk, and saw the agony on her usually smiling face as I went by. Not good. I recognized that look from Big Sur when Shannon was so, so sick and bonking in the last 10K. Turns out she had the beginning of a downright nasty head cold. The worst. I felt awful for her and tried to be an encouraging presence as I pressed on.

midrace3 midrace2 midrace1

That turn onto East Campus – oy – but it was over soon enough. The pace was beginning to get a little grindy. I told myself to relax, that I was doing great, that I just needed to get onto Sanford. We turned onto Carlton, which goes uphill for a moment, and then onto DW Brooks/Ag Drive (a turn I forgot about, to be honest) before going into the parking lot by Coverdell and up another small hill. A bunch of runners around me drifted to a walk, and I used those sights as motivation to press onward. I could get through Sanford. I just needed to get there.

8:03, 8:01

Hitting Sanford Drive changed the energy in the air. I knew I wasn’t racing, a kick seemed silly and senseless. But I could barely contain myself. I’ve been known to hard charge finishes, even when I’m pretty gassed, and in this case, I had a lot of pent up energy to go. I kept it controlled as best I could, but it was hard. I came across Ty (who also raced Michelob ULTRA, recall) just before Sanford dipped downhill for a big crossing Cedar, and as I passed him, he yelled out “YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME” (teasingly) and I called out to him that it was time to TURN IT UP. I swear I didn’t mean to start kicking. I swear. I was flying. It was almost effortless.

7:42

The downhill on Sanford carried us to the bridge that goes over the stadium – not to mention the finish line. I looked out over the stadium, and raised my arms to get the crowds on the bridge to pump it up. I was grinning like a fool and having the best time ever.

sanfordbridge2
Don’t ask me about my expression. I have no clue.

sanfordbridge1

I took a few extra deep breaths as we went back uphill for the turn onto Hooper, the quick turn onto East Campus, and the last uphill as it turned onto Baldwin. A few people started to walk – when I passed them, they picked it back up. The fasties cheering were at the top of Baldwin and were screaming for everyone going by. I couldn’t stop smiling. Just get to Lumpkin. Get. to. Lumpkin.

And that beautiful, glorious, marvelous, WONDERFUL Lumpkin downhill… I let my legs just…go. I thought for the 10th time during that race – If I were racing this, if I didn’t have a marathon soon, I’d have sub-1:40 in the bag; but isn’t this nice? Isn’t it nice to go pretty fast and not hurt? – my legs churning beneath me. I eased off the throttle as the course flattened and turned into the Tate Center parking lot for one last little loop: inside the stadium. I spotted all three parents, as well as a few friends who already finished, including Dustin. I grinned once more.

I’ll ‘fess up: I kicked a bit. I kicked around Sanford. I looked all around me at that big, empty stadium – I had never been inside it before – and as we came around the opposite side, saw there was a big screen broadcasting video of us in the stadium. I almost laughed when I saw myself on the screen. Up ahead I saw Margeaux in her pink tank and knew I’d finish just behind her.

7:29

sanford4 sanford3 sanford2 sanford1

The clock was comfortably below 1:45 and I smiled all the way through that finish line, throwing up my arms in victory, not realizing that Lindsay was capturing an AWESOME photo of me finishing, looking as happy as I’ve been with a race in so many months.

finish14 finish12 finish10 finish8 finish6 finish4 finish2

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Lindsay took this one – it’s now one of my favorite running photos ever

Final sprint: 7:21 pace

Chip time: 1:44:25 (7:58 avg)

Post-race

roshan george me coach al

After collecting my medal, I quickly looked for parents, finding a ton of friends along the way, hearing about PRs and happy races and seeing so many smiles. I squeezed onto the sidelines of the section going into Sanford and waited for Shannon, watching Christine run in hard, crushing her PR by a LOT, with Shannon just a couple minutes behind. He had a rough race – the humidity possibly, the hills, the lack of run training, higher expectations after a better than expected half a few weeks before. He crossed the finish and immediately disappeared over by the parking deck. As I followed him over there, I saw Dustin and Catherine, with Catherine sitting on the ground, leaning over her knees and trying to breathe. I checked on her, and Dustin and I looked at each other and our frustrated and exhausted partners helplessly. We’ve all been on both sides of that situation. Just a few weeks ago, it was Shannon holding me as I sobbed after Michelob ULTRA 13.1. It’s one of the nice things about being married to a runner, honestly. The other person gets it.

After we pulled ourselves together a bit, I handed over most of my post-race accouterments (hanging onto the water) and started my cooldown. I wasn’t super thrilled having to run UP Lumpkin, but I took it super easy and it was fine. My legs were tired but not completely trashed. They felt a bit trashed after sitting down for a while, but recovered from movement.I got in a two mile cooldown and then headed to Big City Bread, near where our car was parked, for brunch with my dad, Shannon’s parents, and even Tino joined us (and he got a sub-1:35!! beast!!!). We had a great time eating and chatting, though I was starting to get VERY chilled by the end, and was glad I had brought sweats that I had put on before going for food.

Paige caught us for this photo as we were walking back to the car post-brunch.
Paige caught us for this photo as we were walking back to the car post-brunch.

The in-laws headed off to Sunday church, and my dad, Shannon, and I went back to our house, showered up, and napped (or sort of napped) before my dad had to head to the airport.

Analysis

This race was probably the biggest confidence boost of the entire cycle – and really showed me how far I had come. This was faster than my March half, which I raced knowing I wasn’t fit enough for a PR, but felt 1:45 fit (and I couldn’t even break 1:45 that day, even though I tried). This was also more than 3 minutes faster than Michelob ULTRA 13.1, which felt like garbage and I raced with all I had that day on a brutal course without enough water. The next day, my friends who had PR’d and raced hard were SUPER sore; for a couple days really. I evaluated myself carefully – I was sore, but post-hard-workout sore, not I-just-raced-a-half sore. Perfect.

I’ve been grabbing on tight to this feeling as I am now in the taper – confidence with a healthy dollop of nerves and realism. I don’t have my marathon goals lined up yet, nor a race plan, but I’ve been meditating on it a lot, letting the ideas and thoughts flow in and out but not locking into anything. I know Coach Mark and I will have a chat about that at some point very soon. But for now, I’m satisfied with focusing on tapering and looking back at all the training victories and hard workouts beaten and hard lessons learned and taking it one taper day at a time.

I hope to write a post about goals and race plan when the time comes. Perhaps I’ll have a totally-freaking-out post. I’m not sure yet. I did have a meltdown this past Sunday afternoon, but felt better later that day, and even better yesterday and today. It happens. The marathon is a beast, and it’s an overwhelming thing to consider. I know I have a PR in me. But beyond that… well…. watch this space.

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I'm a 30-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

3 thoughts on “Race Report: Athens Half-Marathon (AthHalf)

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