Sunday morning marked two important milestones. Our final race of 2012 and exactly 4 weeks away from the starting line of the Chevron Houston Marathon. Coming off of a PR in the 5K distance last weekend at the Lights of Love 5K, I had a solid week of training with good runs both in Philadelphia and after I returned to Austin. But as it pertains to racing during a marathon cycle, you just never really know if your legs are going to show up or not.
Without the benefit of a true “taper period”, you just can’t be sure if you are going to fire out and feel great or if you are going to be flat.
To complicate matters I had a pretty eventful week. A late flight to Philadelphia on Sunday evening to start my new job with Back on My Feet.
Early mornings on Monday and Tuesday, a long flight home Tuesday night and then three days of meetings back to back to back through Friday.
I got my training runs in, but had to flip-flop my run on Wednesday and my off-day on Thursday to an off-day on Wednesday and a run on Thursday. Not ideal with a half-marathon on Sunday, but I literally was woken up in the middle of the night Tuesday at 3:00 a.m. with an excruciatingly painful cramp in my left calf. Full muscle spasm, it looked and felt like I had a baseball in my calf muscle.
I got it to calm down, but it was still tender on Wednesday morning when I woke up for my run an hour and a half later. Better to switch days to be on the safe side, but it did cost me a rest day closer to the half-marathon. The weather forecast for the race in Shiner was 70 degrees, 90% humidity – so again, things weren’t really lining up well for us, but that is the thing about racing. You just never know.
The Drive: My friend Ed signed up to volunteer at the race to take in the first year event, root me on and get a free brewery tour, Shiner beer and barbecue post race. He showed up at the house at 5:15 a.m. and we made the two-hour drive down to Shiner. From the moment we pulled out of the garage it rained.
There was light rain, stinging rain, big old fat rain. It even rained up. Well maybe not that bad, but it poured all the way to Shiner. As we approached town the rain slacked off and it slowed to a light drizzle. Good news would be we wouldn’t be running in the rain, bad news is the humidity did indeed reach 90% with race temperature at 71 degrees. Not exactly PR weather.
Pre-Race: The course was hilly, there was an “unpaved” mile in the middle of the course – essentially a gravel country road and we had the weather to contend with. As I ran my warm-up, I couldn’t help but feel great however. My legs did not feel like we had raced last weekend and my stride was strong.
I thought about goals for the day. 1:24:00 – 1:24:30 would put us in the right ballpark for 3 hours in Houston. Maybe a bit better than that given the conditions. Our Half-Marathon PR stood at 1:23:46 set last March preparing for Boston. The fastest I had ever been. In the back of my mind I thought about going for it. But I knew it was a longshot.
As I pulled back into the start area for my warm-up I decided to keep it simple. To PR I would have to run 6:23 pace. I was going to open with a 6:23, give myself a chance, and just hold on as long as I could. If I had to back off I would. But if I didn’t give myself a chance early, I would not be able to close strong enough once things got hot out there to make it.
The Start: It was a mixed start meaning the 1,000 half-marathoners would line up with the 500 5K runners. Dicey as a half-marathoner as it is very easy to get sucked into starting too fast chasing after someone racing 10 miles less than you are. I took inventory of the guys up front, decided to go out smooth and check my watch repeatedly in that first mile. I would glance at my Garmin every minute or so to make sure I never went below 6:20.
At the horn we jumped out quick, made the first right hand turn and started to climb immediately. The first 7 miles of the course were up, up, up – then after the unpaved mile we would enjoy a net downhill finish. A couple of rollers late, but mostly flatter and faster than the first half of the race.
I settled in among the first dozen runners and held position. It was a little hotter than I had hoped, but all in all the cloud cover was keeping things moderately cool. As long as the sun stayed hidden behind the clouds it might not be too bad out here I thought. At the beep of the opening mile we turned in a perfect 6:22.
At the 1.5 mile mark the half-marathoners would make a right turn, where the 5K runners would continue straight into a cone turnaround. At that point I would know who we were racing and who were irrelevant. At the turn things shuffled a bit and the best I could tell there were 6 runners in front of us in the half-marathon. The rest of the runners continued on into the 5K. I gave a quick glance over my shoulder and did not see anyone in my rear-view mirror within 800 meters. It was going to be a race of 7.
Locking In: The course continued to climb and climb and climb. I stayed conscious of my splits through the next two miles posting 6:21 and 6:17. After 3 miles I am usually locked in and don’t have to worry about my pace – just stay even and the watch will do the same. I hit the water stop, grabbed a quick drink and dug in for another climb.
Mile 4 was another 6:22, mile five 6:21, mile six, 6:25. We were almost through the worst part of the course and were rock-solid to this point. Things were heating up temperature wise, but our pace was holding steady. Just when I started feeling a little bit of confidence grow the sun peaked through the clouds. It felt like the temperature jumped up 10 degrees. Fun times.
The Battle: I reached the gravel surface, banked a left turn and looked ahead to a stretch of road filled with loose stone and rock. Thoughts went back to the off-road section of the Ragnar Florida Keys race last January when I battled through 9+ miles of gravel. This section would last only about a mile, which was comforting, but in my race flats I was feeling every rock underfoot.
Pace dropped over this mile over 6:30 for the first time. All I could do was hold even effort and hope we gained back some time over the downhill sections. Mile 8 came in back on pace more or less at 6:25, then three solid miles at 6:21, 6:23, 6:22. When I reached the 11 mile marker I started to look at my watch and do the math in my head. If I could post two more miles just under 6:30 I had a shot at the PR.
I was very surprised to see myself in this position – better make the most of it I thought. You just never know when you might find yourself in this spot again. Time to go to work.
Mile 12 came in right on target in 6:25. No matter how hard I pushed, I just couldn’t make a dent in the lead the 6th place runner held over me. I would watch him cross a landmark ahead of me and count the seconds until I reached it. He was ahead by :31 seconds at mile 4, :32 seconds at mile 8 and was again :30 seconds ahead at mile 12.
I had more than a 4 1/2 minute lead on the 8th placed runner. I had nobody to race but the clock at this point, but with less than a mile to go I thought I had a good shot. We reached downtown Shiner, made the left-hand turn back toward the finish line where I had run my warm-up. I gradually lengthened my stride and with 1/10 of a mile to go we had worked ourselves up to a full-on sprint.
Finish: The race set up with a hard right turn just short of the finish line coming off of the bridge. I would not see the official clock until I was less than 10 strides from the finish. Finally I heard the crowd start to cheer and I put my arms out to the side to thank them for the push, I caught a glimpse of the finish clock and I could hardly believe what I was seeing. 1:23:25, 1:23:26, 1:23:27.
A final burst and …. 1:23:31. New PR by :15.
Post-Race: I sawEd immediately in the finishing chute and asked him if he saw the same thing on the clock as I did. we shared a brief fist bump and I started to collect my water bottle, race medal and went over to bag check to get out of my wet clothes and into my compression gear.
We hit the Brewery Gift Shop, mingled with other runners and waited for the final results to be posted.
We missed out on 1st Place Masters by one spot, but we were able to take 1st place in our age group and finished 7th place overall out of 1,000 runners registered for the half. 4 weeks out from Houston, it is hard to find anything to complain about right now. I’m nursing a little bit of a bruised right big toe – but that kind of stuff is just part of the deal when it comes to marathon training.
Our final three races of 2012 resulted in PR, PR, PR. 5-miler, 5K, half-marathon. It is safe to say we’ve never been faster.
The question in Houston will not be whether or not we are fast enough, but whether or not we are tough enough mentally.
4 weeks and we’ll find out.