Friday, November 7, 2014

Race Report: Raleigh Half Marathon

A 1:20 half marathon is one of those alluring, round number barriers that begs to be broken. (Earlier this year, an interesting study came out about how there’s an uptick in finishers just under barriers like this. A 2:59:59 marathon is so much more enticing than a 3:00:01.) I’ve wanted a sub-1:20 for a while now and breaking it this season would give me elite status at CIM, an added motivation.

After nightmares of Philly were replaced by much better memories of Army, I thought I had a sub-1:20 in the bag. I even thought—on a really great day—I could possibly go sub-1:19. That’s crazy to say, and I didn’t tell anyone that. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself; the primary goal for the Raleigh Half Marathon was sub-1:20. I’d go out at 6:05 pace (1:19:45) and see how I felt at halfway. Maybe—like Army—I could slice some more off in the second half.

On paper, the course seemed fair: a few hills, but doable. It was a bit windy, but cool. I started slightly too fast, but the first couple miles were downhill. In mile 3, I tried to relax and reel in my pace, but then missed the mile marker. By mile 4, I realized I had slowed way too much. Crap.

From the elevation chart, I had told myself (and my teammates) about two major hills: one from mile 4-5 and one from mile 8-9. Worried by the slow splits for miles 3 and 4, I knew I had to snap back to race mode and get through mile 5 strong, despite the hill. I managed to hit mile 5 just a hair too slow, and was comforted when I made up some time on miles 6 and 7. Although I again missed a mile marker, I saw the 10K split was just a few seconds off my Army 10k split (before I picked it up in the second half). At this point, negative splitting didn’t seem so plausible, but my mental calculations told me I was pretty much right on 6:05 pace.

But up ahead loomed mile 8, with the second (and seemingly last) big hill. I figured I’d slow, but at least after that the hills would be over.

I eagerly awaited the end of the 8th mile and the end of the hill, but it seemed to be dragging on forever; we were still going up. Eventually I realized I had missed another mile marker (where were these things?); mile 8 had long ago ended, and yet, the hill had not. At every turn I thought the course would flatten, but it didn’t. I wanted to catch my teammate in front of me just so I could commiserate about these incessant hills.

When I finally did get the splits, it was discouraging: miles 8 and 9 were way too slow. Though mile 10 was better, I didn’t make up any lost time. In these miles—from 8 on—I got angry. I anthropomorphized the course, as if it was some evil entity out to get me. At mile ten—realizing I was in serious jeopardy of missing my sub-1:20—I got even madder. Damn you, Raleigh Course, you think you can take my 1:20? No way. I need it. I need the confidence it will bring me before CIM. I need to prove to myself I am in PR shape. I could not keep letting the hills slow me, I had to make up time. I could not let this course steal my 1:20.

As we turned onto the last section—an out and back from mile 11 to the finish—I was relieved. There wasn’t much more to go, and, best of all, it seemed flat. Then the split for the eleventh mile came. 6:16. I cursed, out loud. The guy next to me didn’t know what to make of it. Sorry, dude: it’s 1:20 or bust. I was still over, still slowing. Falling farther behind, instead of making up time. Like I said, $*!#. 

The problem was I didn’t have much room left to make up time. Like a chase pack that let the leader get too far ahead, I worried I’d run of out space. I had to get going now. I couldn’t let 1:20 slip away, not by one second or ten.  I needed to start dropping seconds, fast.

So I put everything I had into picking it up. I missed the 12th mile marker, but it didn’t faze me, I was just sprinting to the end. Even though we were running straight down the road, it was impossible to see the finish because there was—cruelly—one more hill. Up and over the last hill, I would not relent until I saw those numbers on the clock. As I got closer, they were clearly flashing low 1:19 (Thank God!) and all I had to do was push through the line before they crept any higher. I did, in 1:19:28. (By my dubious post-race analysis, I ran the last 2.1 miles at 5:49 pace.)
Part of the prize for 3rd place: a painting of the race.
A new PR by over two minutes, third place woman, tenth overall (male and female). The PR, combined with prizes (see above) and sweet swag (two (!) t-shirts and local brews in the beer tent), should have taken away my anger at the course, at the hills. Instead, despite everyone’s excitement about how well I’d done, I was oddly slightly disappointed. (Note: this actually isn’t odd for me. I am rarely satisfied, as I’m always looking for more. My family and friends know this and get frustrated accordingly.)

Of course I’m happy I broke 1:20, the big barrier that seems to mean something significant when you get on the other side of it. But somehow I thought it would be easier, that 1:20 was a sure thing and I’d be creeping in on sub-1:19. In reality, I landed smack in the middle of my two goals (1:19:28). But being so far off in the second half and essentially sprinting (or a marathoner’s version of a sprint anyway) the last two miles didn’t feel like a roaring success. It was scary, a jolting reminder that a few bad miles can take everything away from you. There are no guarantees. You have to fight for every PR.

And that’s the real success, the thing I’m most proud of, that I’ll take with me to CIM: that I fought. I was close to not making my goal, and I didn’t give up on myself. I didn’t make an excuse like I have in so many other recent races. When it got tough, I toughened up. I didn’t relent. CIM certainly will not be easy, I’ll need to fight for it. Not like Boston 2013 or Boston 2014, but like Raleigh 2014.

Dream big,