Friday, January 31, 2020

Race Report: Houston Half 2020

In December of 2018, I crested a new peak of my running career: I set a slew of new PRs and finally found my way back after having a baby. Surely it’d continue; the longer away from pregnancy, the better I’d get. Right?

Wrong. Instead, 2019 found me tumbling down the side of that mountain. I thought the spring was a slump, but then I slipped farther down in the fall. I wondered about iron levels, burnout, general stress. I tried new things: stepping away from the marathon, getting a coach, treating myself to massages and sports psychology sessions. I kept hoping things would change, something would click. But as I started training for the Trials, I realized I was in possibly the worst shape of the last six years.

Back in the fall, I signed up the Houston half marathon as a fun tune up for the Trials with a big field of other qualifiers. After last season's goal half went poorly, a part of me thought Houston (which is flat and fast) might be my chance for a PR. But then I continued to stagnate.

A week before the half, Coach Latter had me do ten miles at marathon effort on a flat course. Yes, the Trials course in Atlanta is a roller coaster but I needed a confidence boost more than anything. I’d been trying to go into workouts with the mentality of just giving my best on the day, whatever that meant, because. really what else can we do? Armed with that attitude, I started relaxed, despite being more than a little doubtful of my ability to hit the splits Coach suggested.

But then… I felt great. It was like God had simply lifted the weight that I’d been dragging around for the last year. I ran fast without killing myself doing it. My average pace tied my best ever for this kind of workout. (Though I’ve gone farther at that pace, it was later in the season.) It was the best workout I’d done in over a year. Is it possible that instead of being in the worst shape of recent memory, I'm actually in… one of the best??

I didn’t know what that would mean for Houston: which version of me will show up? The Teal of the last year? Or this new, effortless one? I knew I had to adopt the same attitude as I had before the workout: not put too much pressure on myself, give what I could and see what happened. I called it my attitude of curiosity. My loose goal was to go out around 6 flat for 5 miles, see how I felt and go from there. If this new Teal showed up, I’d try to knock it down to 5:55 for the next five miles. Then assess again at ten and give whatever I had left.

This attitude made me unusually calm. The humidity that choked Houston the day before lifted, so the only weather concern was the wind. I told myself wind didn’t matter, there was no pressure on me to hit a certain time anyway.

In the first mile or two, I found myself side-by-side with another woman, clicking off just under 6:00 miles. We realized we both planned on 6-flat, so worked together for the next few miles. (I didn’t want to jinx myself by confessing hope that I’d pick it up at some point.) I kept missing mile markers (in the whole race, I only saw half of them), but the splits I saw showed we were ahead of pace. My running partner said mile 3 was 5:52. I felt good, relaxed and effortless, but tried not get ahead of myself and to back off to 6 flat until we hit 5 miles.

One of my Oiselle teammates, Shari, caught us a little before 5 miles. She confessed also missing mile markers (it wasn't just me!), but clearly felt good. I debated going with her but felt loyalty to my 6-flat friend. Plus, we hadn’t made it to 5 yet.

Fortunately I actually saw the 5 mile marker and knew it was time to go. I told the girl with me that I was going to go for it (“But you might see me later!” if my plan backfired. Yikes, would it?? No, I felt good.) I figured I could catch Shari and work with her. In the meantime, I was in no-woman’s land, but no matter. I was having a great race, I was back! Maybe I can even PR!? I even broke out in a smile a few times.

I hit the 10K and tried to remember my 10K split from my half marathon PR. In my optimistic state, it took a long moment to realize my split was slower, but I convinced myself I felt better. In that race I had gone out a little faster and slowed in the middle. Today I started slow, held myself back, and now could go for it. A negative split: this is the smart way to do it!

I kept focusing on reeling in Shari. Catch her before you see Dr. Lesko, so she can see us running together! I didn’t. But I still felt good, even as I kept missing mile markers. My PR pace is 5:54 and miles 6-8 averaged that pace. By my math, it seemed I was knocking on PR territory.

After mile 8, we looped around a block and started heading north. Somewhere in that loop, Shari seemed suddenly out of reach. I caught others but, as the wind started gusting in our faces, I ran on alone, not wanting to tuck in and slow down. I figured I was still running well if I was passing people, but missed another mile marker. I didn’t comprehend how far off my PR pace I was until I saw the total time at mile 10. (Miles 9 and 10 averaged 6:02.) I reminded myself that mile 10 was another place to assess and dig deeper. Surely I could still break 1:18! But mile 11 woke me up to the reality a bit more: 6:05. Yipes. What is happening?

Mile 12 finally turned us out of the wind (a 5:56 mile, though I don’t remember seeing that split) and I tried again to find another gear and really dig. There’s more there! The effort wasn’t getting me anywhere though, and I briefly felt like that old, frustrated, weighed-down Teal. Back in the city in the final mile, the wind knocked me sideways and the sun blinded me so I couldn’t quite see the finish or the time on the clock. I finished in 1:18:15.

At first I was only a little bummed; that time was much better than I expected only two weeks ago! But then I realized I ran a nearly identical time last March and was disappointed then. Mostly I just couldn’t figure out what had happened: I felt so good for so much of it! It wasn’t until writing this I realized my early miles weren’t as fast as I assumed and how much the wind in the final miles slowed me. Immediately after the race I fretted like an older person looking back on her life, “Where did all the time go?”

But there wasn’t much opportunity to mull the ephemeral nature of time: I had to get back on the course to cheer on the marathoners. It was the last day to qualify for the Trials and some friends and I knew people going for it. We cheered at mile 24.5 and I witnessed both old GRC and new Oiselle teammates qualifying. I also got to cheer on my friend to her first marathon finish and her sister to a new PR. We spent the rest of the day celebrating and the whole weekend reminded me of how much I love this running community, a welcome distraction from my own finish.

Later I realized that even though the time didn’t end up being what I felt capable of midrace, the disappointment also represented hope. If the last year has been a slow tumble down a mountain, then maybe last fall I hit the bottom. And now I’m climbing out. I’ve already crawled back to where I was last spring, which wasn’t so far from the top. I just need to keep climbing a little more.

Dream big,