Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Race Report: RnR USA half

This past weekend was the Rock-n-Roll USA half marathon. As in past years, I took it as the last hard workout before the marathon. With a warmup (four miles to the start) and cooldown (three miles afterwards), it gave me 20 miles for the day and acted as a glorified marathon pace run. Since it was a race, with all the added adrenaline and competition, I expected to be able to go a bit faster than marathon pace, but since I had only eased up on running ever so slightly in the few days before, it wasn’t as fast as an all-out half marathon effort would be.

But, of course, I still had high expectations. There are always goals to be reached for, and motivations to get there. I have a side goal of running a 1:22 half because that would get me free entry into Rock-n-Roll events. A 1:22 seemed ridiculous (6:15 pace, a.k.a. the pace I ran for the 8k, but 2.5 times farther.) I decided starting in the 6:30s for the first few miles and then trying to hit 6:20s for the last few miles would be nice and reasonable, and average out to a decent pace in the mid-6:20s. Then I decided I’d shoot for a 1:23 (and maybe end up with a 1:22:59, would that count for free entry?) Except a 1:23 is a 6:20 pace for every mile, not just for the last few miles as my realistic plan had. Didn’t matter, 1:23 or bust.

There are a multitude of emotions you go through in a race, but mostly it’s back and forth between:
1.) “This. Is. Awesome.” This is how you feel running across the Verrazano Bridge while Frank Sinatra sings “New York, New York” at the start of the NYC marathon. This is running through the wall of sound that is Wellesley College in the Boston Marathon. (Male or female, I don’t care, that thing gives you chills.) This is when your legs can’t move and you’re hunched over trying not to puke but you just ran a PR and so you don’t care if your legs don’t move for the rest of your life.

2.) “I.Am.Never.Doing.This.Again.” This is mile 15 of NYC, when the dark solitude of the Queensboro Bridge sets in and it just will not stop going up. This is the Newton hills, when you know Heartbreak still looms. This is the feeling that comes somewhere between the first few miles and the finish, when you are cursing yourself and thinking “why the @$%# did I do this to myself? I hate this. I want to stop right now, lay down in the middle of the road, and never run again.”

A gorgeous DC morning.
Most of the time, especially in marathons, there’s a little bit of both. Some unfortunate races have more of the latter, and there’s no telling why (I was ready to give up racing in the middle of last week’s 8k.) But hopefully the moments of pure running elation sandwich those rough patches. The beginning of the RnR USA half was definitely the former. It was a gorgeous day, the course was beautiful, the bands were rocking. I was loving it. And I was running way too fast.

At first, I thought, “Well that’s okay, I’m just going to have an awesome day and a huge PR!” Even when the 5k split came, and was way too fast, I paid it no mind. Then the steady uphill from mile 4.5 to 7 came. I tried to maintain an even effort, knowing that I was slowing down, and I didn’t freak out over the pace. Even when the 10k split came. For some reason, a little after that split, I got it in my head that although I had run the first 5k in sub 20 minutes, I had run the 10k in 48 minutes. This would mean for the second 5k I slowed to a 9 minute pace. This was not reality. But somehow, I confused myself and thought it was. I remember worrying that my Dad (who was following my splits at home) would see that and get worried that I had drastically slowed down. I remember thinking I’ll just have to explain to him about the hills. I’ll be okay, I’ll make up for this time on the downhills, I thought.

This is a prime example of how mid-race mind games can be good or bad. For one thing (the good thing), I didn’t freak out when my splits slowed. I remained calm, knew it wasn’t the end of the world, and kept going with my race strategy. Even though I was under the impression I had slowed from a 6:20 mile pace to a 9:00 mile pace, which is really not okay to do in a race and certainly won’t be fixed by a few downhills. The bad thing, is of course, that I had pulled the whole thing out of thin air and was completely not within reality.

Feeling good.
The good news is, by mile 8, the race completely turned around. I figured out/half remembered that I had actually run the 10k in just over 40 minutes and came out of my weird trance. I also saw my sister who came out to spectate, and a woman told me I was in 10th place. (To the people who diligently count places: thank you!! You have no idea how much that helps and how motivating it is.) 10th place!? I thought she was out of her mind. But there were two women right in front of me and now they were on my radar. I figured even if the spectator miscounted, one of these women must be near 10th place and all of a sudden all I wanted was a top ten finish.

I passed #9 right away and #8 by mile 9. I was in 8th place with no women in sight. I just tried to maintain my position. Somehow I find it incredibly difficult to concentrate both on time and competition, and so my diligence to my timing slipped away. I started just focusing on how far off I was from my 6:20 goal. I realized I was a minute slower and just tried to maintain that, and not slow down anymore.

With about one mile to go, I saw another woman in front of me. I knew she must be slowing down so I set my sights on her. Slowly but surely, I reeled her in, feeling alright for the end of a race. (Although I didn’t realize it, I was actually slowing down too, as mile 12 was my third slowest mile. Apparently it is also uphill, although not as bad as the others. I find it strange I didn’t notice it, or the fact that I slowed. I really was all about catching this woman.)

Finishing strong.
With about 400 meters to go, I was right on her tail. I was scared to pass her because I had a feeling she would just pick it up and kick right by me. I don’t have much skill sprinting and figured I’d lose that battle. Coming around the final turn, a man told us we were 6th and 7th place (not 8th!) and I almost let her go. I almost convinced myself I had nothing left and couldn’t pass her. But then I realized what the hell, I need to try, and I sprinted my mind out and flew on by, finishing in 6th place, in a new PR of 1:24:17 (realizing I probably should have started sprinting earlier and not doubt myself.)

My initial reaction was proud of my place in the field (of 10,700 women) but pissed with my time. It was a PR of over 3 minutes, but not what I wanted. After more time to process it, I’m not so disappointed. Realistically, I thought somewhere in the 6:20s would be good and I managed a 6:26 pace. In the last few weeks, my confidence has been waning, with fears of the hills of Charlottesville and some subpar workouts on nights of little sleep. Going into this race, I wasn’t sure I’d come away happy with it at all, and a PR and a top ten finish have to be a confidence booster. The hard workouts are over. Now it’s taper time!

Rusty also ran the half, got a big PR, and still came away a little disappointed. I take the blame for that, since I also encouraged him to have high hopes and set big goals. But I have to say I think it’s better to set big goals and come away with a little disappointment, longing for more. One of my favorite quotes is from Theodore Roosevelt: It’s better to dare mighty things and fail, then to live in a gray twilight where there is neither victory nor defeat.

Dream big,


  1. Runner Teal,

    Thank you very much for taking us along with you inside your head through that race. A very interesting read. The back and forth of the brain -- the roller coaster of emotions -- goes on in other tough events too, of course (and not just athletics). Keeping calm and focused on your objective is a key to success, but it's often so hard to do.

    Nacote Jack

  2. I am not a full marathoner nor have run all the high profile races like you have runnerteal, but after Saturday I can certainly related to the mix of emotions you describe!! haha I definitely wanted to crawl into a ball in the middle of the road. I also had similar thoughts after the ~6 mile hill as my target pace group passed me and went out of sight - "I'll catch em on the downhill".....definitely never saw them again. Next time...?