Friday, March 21, 2014

Race Report: Rock and Roll USA Half-Marathon 2014

Last spring, before Boston, I posted a graph of the ups and downs of training and racing. The training months show some gentle hills and valleys, marking good weeks of workouts that are sometimes followed by bad. But this year, I feel like the training part of the graph looks more like a EKG, quickly plunging from the highest highs to the lowest lows and back again.

A particularly bad workout (like the treadmill tempo disaster) has been followed by an amazing workout, and the cycle repeats. Some days I feel great—I am coming back better than ever!—some days I think I will never run fast again, my hip will break, and I’ll be doomed to become a biker, a particularly cruel twist of fate. It’s a roller coaster of paranoia.

Tempo runs are still the main soul crusher. With the half coming up, how could I honestly expect to run 13.1 miles faster than I run for a 5 mile tempo? But easy long runs were faster, marathon pace runs had gone pretty well, and I had finally made it back on the track with no problems. It seemed my up and down graph was beginning to average out on the side of optimism.

Then a few days before the half, I got a cold. It wasn’t the worst cold ever, but I felt completely drained. I tried my best to overdose on vitamin C and sleep, but the race was fast approaching and the cold was not relenting. It sapped my already shaky confidence.

When I was hurt and dreaming of better, bike-free days, I wasn’t dreaming of just running again—although of course that was part of it—I was dreaming of running again, faster. Unfortunately, patience is not one of my virtues. My preseason goal for the half was to nab a big PR, en route to a bigger PR at Boston. Anything less would be a disappointment. Despite terrible tempos and a cruel cold, I had to try.

Race morning dawned with perfect weather and an inordinate amount of pre-race nose-blowing. The first few miles my legs felt dead, heavy. This was going to be tough. Do I slow down and give up on my pace immediately? Or do I push, and maybe risk dropping out? I’ve never dropped out. It was way too early to think this way. I reminded myself: don’t judge a run by its first (or, in this case, second or third) mile.

Through Rock Creek (miles 4-6) I was feeling a bit better, staying pretty close to 6:10 pace, just trying to relax before the Hill. I had read over my splits from last year, reminding myself that I would slow down drastically in the hilly mile, but not to freak out. I recovered last year; I would do it again. The Hill mile’s split was a bit faster this time, keeping with my higher hopes.

The next few rolling miles tend to be my favorite of the race. The Hill is over, some downhills are certainly welcome, and in the past I’ve used the smaller uphills to catch girls ahead of me. But there was no one in sight this year. The real trouble was people kept saying “Good job ladies” and so I was sure some other girl was on my tail, ready to strike. No lady, these are my miles to strike. I had no idea how close she was, all I could go off was the people cheering for us together, in one breath. At one point, some guys hanging out of their porch seemed to be cheering for this other girl, quickly retracting it as I ran by, “No, not you.” Alright cool, so the girl behind me is hotter—but whatever, this is a race not a runway, and I’m beating her. Still, she would not be dropped.

A few people were telling me my place among women—some said 4th, others said 3rd. (Interestingly, I didn’t hear anyone mention Mystery Hot Girl's place.) I did not trust that I could be 3rd; I had seen some girl blow past me in mile 2 and thought to myself, wow there’s a lot of fast women this year. K was also killing it up ahead. Surely there must be at least one more. I figured some of the counters had simply missed one of these speedsters as they flashed by.

My thoughts of dropping out had faded after the first few miles, but my nose was presenting an issue. By mile 9, it was raw and felt like it was bleeding. I ignored it (Who needs a nose to run? Oh right, breathing), but I was struggling at water stops. I craved Gatorade when they only had water, and my stomach didn’t seem ready to cooperate at the stops when Gatorade was offered. I was out of sync. Finally, I settled for water, but—like a complete amateur—I momentarily forgot how to drink out of paper cups while racing and splashed the water all over my face and up my—already throbbing—nose. I hadn’t raced in 11 months, I had apparently forgotten how.

Despite my belief that I love these miles and was actively trying to shake off Mystery Hot Girl, I was also pouring water all over myself and failing to pick up the pace as I had hoped. I recalculated the split I would need at mile 10 to match my PR, an average of 6:15 pace. I relented that today was not a day I would crush my PR but I hoped at least to be beating it. Instead I hit the split dead on. Crap, I’m flirting with not PR-ing at all. I tried picking it up in miles 11 and 12 but instead they were among the slowest of the day. Finally, I hit the last mile and pushed, not exactly knowing where the finish line was (it moved from last year), and trying desperately to ward off Mystery Hot Girl, who appeared to have dropped as people seemed to cheer for me alone. As I saw the clock, I knew I had a slight PR, but much less than what I had expected.

The redemption of the day came after I crossed the line and was told I finished in 3rd. Apparently one of the women ahead of me was running the full, and—at least for part of it—leading all the marathon men as well. (A Romanian Olympian, she easily won the women’s full and finished 6th overall.) The remaining mystery is that Mystery Hot Girl did not exist. I checked the results later and verified with my Dad, who had followed along online; I was almost a minute ahead of the next girl from the Hill on. I have no idea who those people cheered for, or if it’s perhaps easier to say, “Good job ladies” than “Good job lady.” At least the strategy worked and pushed me in the latter miles. Looking back, I feel a little like I was being chased by my shadow the entire way—a shadow of a past self, perhaps. One I was able to beat by 20 seconds.

Waiting for the awards ceremony.
Third place (and 2nd for K) warrants champagne in the VIP tent.
The old adage is that you can’t be upset with a PR: you have run faster than ever before. Friends and teammates reminded me of this all day long, as I annoyingly grumbled anyway. I was disappointed at last year’s Boston and now I worry I’m in basically the same shape, the same place, and will finish with the same disappointment. But I know—somehow, deep down in my stronger legs and fully functioning hips—that I’m not. This half didn’t prove that to anyone, least of all me. But I suspect last year I peaked too early. This year I plan to peak—cold free—on April 21st.

Dream big,