March 26, 2011 has been circled on my racing calendar for quite some time now. First, after running it last year with Chris Pate, we both wanted to run it again to improve our times. Second, it would be a good excuse to take both our families to see DC. Third, I bought a calendar that already had that date circled. Fourth, I knew I’d be able to get a PR (personal record) on this tough, but quick, course. I had 2 things almost guaranteeing that:
- I’ve been running tempos every week since the end of December and as a result my “easy” pace had become almost identical to the pace I ran for the entire DC race last year. I knew that if I ran only a little quicker than that, I’d PR easily.
- Chris Pate. Ever since he kicked the crap out of me during his first and my second marathon (great story – read it here), I’ve wanted to beat him. He’s a great friend, and a fast runner, and had become my white whale. When he mentioned something about going sub 1:50 in DC, I said it didn’t matter what he ran, cause I was going to beat him. Unfortunately, he tweaked his knee in training and had to DNS. It’s a shame, because it would have been a classic battle, too. At any rate, the gauntlet had been thrown and the thought of a sub 1:50 kept me motivated in training, even though my goal going into the year was sub 1:55.
Since Chris got hurt and couldn’t go, that took one family out of the trip. We had another family mention maybe going, but since we’re all headed down to Charleston next week-end for the Bridge Run, they decided not to do both trips. As it turned out, nobody went except me. Nothing says “hours of country music and talk radio” quite like an 5 1/2 hour road trip each way, so I set out at lunch on Friday with 610 The Fan blaring about the Duke and UNC Sweet Sixteen games and went off to pursue what would hopefully be a big PR for me, and at the very least my first half marathon finish under 2 hours after 3 previous attempts.
The drive up was fine, and I snapped a couple shots on the way into Washington. I decided to go straight to the Expo and had hoped that I wouldn’t hit much traffic. Yeah, right. It took a bit to get parked and walk in to get my stuff. I saw some pretty good products, sampled some of the sports drinks, and chuckled at the guy giving the speech about the course and telling everyone to please look up around mile 12 so they wouldn’t miss the division of the marathon and half marathon runners. As he said, “With the blinking traffic signs and volunteers yelling at the runners, every year someone will cross the wrong finish line and be amazed at how easy that marathon was!” On the way out I ran into Lou and Harriet, 2 friends I’ve met through the online running community at Running Ahead. They’re both extremely strong runners, and I hope to be like them someday. It was a nice surprise to bump into them in a crowd of a gazillion people.
Pretty uneventful night before the race. By the time I got to the hotel and checked in, it was after 8, so I ordered some room service (a club panini and fries, probably not the best pre-race meal) and ate it while watching some March Madness. I made sure I stayed off my feet and probably went to sleep somewhere around 11:00 pm.
The alarm sounded promptly at 4:41 am and I got up, had some coffee and a Cliff Power bar, and was in the car leaving the hotel shortly before 5:30 am. I don’t mind saying that I was pretty nervous, I guess because the 2 weeks before the race I hadn’t felt any real groove in my runs, and so I wasn’t sure how my body would respond in the race conditions. Traffic wasn’t too bad, and I was parked and done in the bathroom in time to run a couple of warm-up miles at an easy pace with some race pace sprints thrown in. The warm-up didn’t do much to calm my growing concern, and as I made my way into Corral #5 I was in desperate need of a diversion. Cue the weirdest dude I’ve ever met in a race…
As I stood to the side of the corral, one of the members of the 3:45 marathon pace group came and stood beside me, so I struck up a conversation with him about his strategy, how many marathons he’d run, etc. I tried not to be too distracted by the way he was wrapping his foil cape around is waist, but when he handed me his empty Gatorade bottle and asked me to hold it, I asked him what he was doing. Turns out that he does this a lot, and by “this” I mean wraps a foil cape from a previous race around his waist and pees in an empty Gatorade bottle while talking normally to a total stranger about what he’s doing. 2 words came to mind: BI…ZARRE.
Thankfully, crossing paths with Mr. Public Pee took my mind off the impending race long enough to breathe, and then we were off. It was a little crowded for the first mile, but I was surprised how easily I was able to navigate to people and find a nice early rhythm. The first mile was a bit of an uphill and then flat for the second, and I got through them perfectly in 8:37 and 8:22.
I knew that miles 3 and 4 were downhill and so I’d planned on running them in the lower 8’s, and when I saw them click off in 7:55 and 7:57, I had 2 thoughts: I was running too fast, and I was running too fast but felt awesome and should try to run a 1:45.
I always wear my Garmin in a race to keep an eye on my pacing, and I also wear my heart rate strap, but I never look at my heart rate during a race because it just messes with my head too much. I say all that because maybe if I had looked at it, I might have made a different decision at this point in the race. Since I didn’t, I kept pushing for a 1:45 and started the uphill section of the race. Miles 5 and 6 are a steady climb of about 90 feet or so, and I covered them in 8:05 and 7:48. I was surprised when I saw that the uphill 6th mile had been my fastest to that point, and I still felt fairly good. Mile 7 was the biggest and steepest uphill of the race (at almost 100 feet of climb) and I ran it in 8:21 (which included a quick walk for a gel and water). I felt quite winded at the top, but kept pushing on, thinking the worst was behind me. Little did I know that my heart rate had already climbed to 193 during that last uphill.
My pre-race strategy was fairly simple. I had decided that I’d check my time at key intervals like mile 5, the halfway point (mile 6.5), and mile 10. Anywhere between 40-42 minutes for each 5 mile section was the goal, and so far I’d been on track. Knowing that the course was more uphill in the first half and downhill in the last half, I had decided that a negative split was very possible, and so my halfway time goal was 55 minutes. I’d hit it in 53:27, and knew that if I did run a negative split, 1:45 was still very possible. Mile 10 would be my next big indicator, especially since miles 8, 9, and 10 were mostly downhill. I had planned to run them close to a 8:00 pace, and when I saw that I’d done them in 8:19, 8:06, and 8:14, I knew something was wrong. Finishing the first 10 miles in 1:21:44 kept me in denial and I did the quick math in my head about how fast I’d need to run that last 5k in order to get in at 1:45.
Without knowing that my heart rate had been averaging in the high 180’s ever since mile 5, I went for it. Mile 11 was downhill then flat: 8:03. And that, my friends, is where the run for 1:45 ended. Mile 12 was uphill, and I had nothing left. I ran it as hard as I could and would walk for a few seconds when I needed to. it took me a few of those breaks to get to the top, and by the time I’d run that mile in 9:15, the 1:50 pace group passed me.
Without dragging this report on longer than necessary, I have to say that this is the moment of the race I am most proud of. When I made the decision early in the race to go hard after 1:45, I truly believed that if I blew up in the last 5k, I’d still at least get a 1:50, and so when the 1:50 pace group passed me and I could feel my body fading like it has in my other half marathons, I really struggled mentally. In past races, this has been my breaking point, and would normally mean a slower mile, followed by another and then another, and so on until the end of the race, be it a half or a full. But not this time. I remember saying to myself, This is why you ran all those tempo runs, why you pushed yourself to the limit week after week. I felt like my goal was gone, and yet I still determined that I was going to push as hard as I could to the end.
I didn’t check my Garmin much after that point, only every now and then to see where I was time wise. I don’t even remember seeing my pace, but I definitely limited my late race fade to that 1 mile, and later I was surprised to see that I’d run mile 13 in 8:24.
The final push of the race involved a small uphill climb followed by a right turn that led to the finishing chute. As I pushed up the hill, I looked down and saw 1:48:something and was filled with mixed emotions realizing that it was very possible that I had pushed myself to the limit and was going to come up just mere seconds short of what I had worked so hard for. Screw it, I thought, and dug deep. As I entered the last 100 yards or so, I was shocked to look down on my watch and still see a 4 instead of a 5, and I sprinted for everything I was worth until I crossed the line and bent over with my hands on my knees and waited for the puke that I could feel in my throat. A few deep breaths later I was still puke free, and I heard a volunteer asking if I was okay. I told her I was just really tired, but I was smiling, because bent over I could see my Garmin and it read…
For the record, I ran 2 PRs during the race. The first 10k of the race was my fastest by about 3 minutes, and my finishing time for the half marathon was a 14 minute improvement over my previous best. Here’s the course: