Posts Tagged ‘Half Marathon Racing’

It seems that every time we toe the line on race day there is at least one lesson out there to learn.

Just because things during race week don’t necessarily go your way – it doesn’t mean that when the gun fires you can’t just set all of that aside and lay down something special.

Sure getting a cold a few days before race day, taking a cross-country trip after losing your wallet the day before and spending time at the Department of Transportation, calling around to credit card companies and tearing apart your home and truck is not an ideal, calm way to prepare for a tough race.

But as I woke up on Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. and shuffled to the bathroom I was determined to try to set all that “stuff” aside and do what we came here to do. Run our race, put in our last “tough” effort of this training cycle and post one final indicator as to our fitness and training for Boston in four weeks.

I could tell that my cold had broken up a bit more overnight, my nose wasn’t as stuffed up as it had been, and my voice was coming back to me. After a great Italian Dinner with my friends Steve and Ally Speirs the night before, I felt fueled up and ready to race.

I took a hot shower to loosen up the muscles, ate my pre-race bagel, chased it down with grape Gatorade and decided on my race gear. The temperature was just a bit above 50 degrees, with a East/Northeast wind gusting between 12-14 mph.

Not picture perfect race conditions, but coupled with an extremely flat course, I felt like the day would be “neutral”. Not helping runners to quick times, but definitely not restricting them either. It was a fair day on a fair course.

Effort would equal results on a day like today I thought.

Time to go to work.

I threw on a fleece top I bought locally the day before that I would drop at the starting line just before the gun fired and made my way to check my dry bag with warm clothes at the race start.

Being my first experience in VA Beach running a Shamrock event I was very impressed with the job J&A Racing did organizing the event. Great bag-check service. Plenty of porta-potties for the 10,000+ half-marathoners and a very organized coral system for the athletes.

King Neptune overlooking the boardwalk in Virginia Beach

There was the usual mess of runners forecasting faster times that they are capable of running during the registration process to get a spot “up-front” – but that happens at virtually all events where previous race times are not a requirement for seeding.

I decided to start about 25-30runners from the front, thinking that I would more than likely run in the top 60 runners at the end of the day +/-. There was a “dual starting chute” on both sides of the divided road on Atlantic Avenue. 30 deep on my side seemed about right.

Just before it was time to get ready to roll my friend Steve shouted to me and gave me the thumbs up. I returned the gesture and thought to myself, man – this really is what it is all about. I had been listening to some Springsteen in the hotel the night before the race, specifically Jungleland from the Born to Run album.

There is a passage that says – “The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be.”

A calmness came over me in the start area and I told myself to just relax, run an even, easy opening mile, sit back and let it all be ….. let the race come to you. Don’t force anything.

The Start: On a countdown from 10, the starters horn blasted and out we went. I had to navigate around a few runners over the opening 400 meters, but quickly I found an even cadence and locked in. My legs felt strong, the air was a bit humid, but racing at sea-level provides some oxygen advantages. I just let the race come to me and ran three very smooth, very even miles:

6:22, 6:24, 6:24.

PR Pace for me in the half-marathon is 6:23 (1:23:55). I was right where I needed to be.

Shore Drive: Just after the start of mile 4 the course turns to the West/Northwest and takes runners up along shore drive. Oddly, moving away from the beach. This was a very lonely stretch of the course where we had caught and passed a dozen runners or so and were now running in a very small group of 2-3 runners.

There is a very slight false-flat through this section – but for the most part a very beautiful and serene part of the race course. The road had a definite camber to it however and I found myself trying to find the “flattest” part of the road to run. After experimenting with the middle of the road and the center of each lane, I settled on the right shoulder. It seemed to be the flattest area.

It would not let me tangent the curves, but it would take pressure off of the lower of my two knees as well as my hips fighting to stay upright. I was willing to sacrifice some added distance for a better footstrike.

I hit the water stop in the middle of this stretch for a quick sip of water. So far my sore throat was not a factor at all, nor was my stuffy nose. All systems were full go.

Splits here were: 6:28, 6:17, 6:22.

Fort Story: We made a right turn to head through the West gate of Fort Story and gradually make the wide arc back towards the finish. The wind from the East was blowing slightly into the face of the runners until the exit of the base at mile 9. I decided to stay as even as possible as we ran through the base – nothing faster, nothing slower – just lock in.

Splits over the next three miles were: 6:21, 6:22, 6:20.

Back on Atlantic: We exited the base back onto Atlantic Avenue and for the first time could see half-marathoners heading towards us coming from the opposite direction, 6 miles behind.

I was able to stay steady through mile 9, but as mile 10 began I was having a hard time keeping my cadence steady. The lack of hills on the course which is a positive in some ways can be a detriment in others. With no changes to your stride length or cadence your legs start to “fall asleep”. I tried to mix up my stride, add a surge every two minutes or so for :15 seconds, but I could feel my pace starting to fall off a bit.

I was still right on PR pace, if I could stay around 6:25 on the way in, I would have a great shot at pulling it out along the boardwalk.

Splits for the next three miles were: 6:21, 6:26, 6:30.

Closing Stretch: As my watch sounded at the mile 12 marker I glanced down and saw a mile above 6:20’s for the first time of the day – I knew it was time to snap out of it and gradually start putting the pedal back down. As we approached the turn off of Atlantic through the loudspeakers that were placed along the curve I heard the familiar drum kick from Max Weinberg and the Fender Stratocaster of the Boss belting out Born to Run.

I smiled.

We made an arching turn at 45th street and entered the boardwalk at 37th. With 1/2 mile to go I started to force the issue just a bit.

On the right I caught a glimpse of Ally, Steve, Shannon and Caroline and saw a big smile come across Steve’s face. “Finish this thing off strong”he said, and I knew I must be looking at a PR with a strong kick.

Closing Kick captured by Ally Speirs

Mile 13 was my fastest mile of the day at 6:16.

I kicked over the mat with a final 1/10 at 5:39 pace.

1:23:46 official time. A new PR by :09.

PR’s don’t come around very often, especially in the middle of a tough marathon cycle. I am proud of this one more than most as it finally knocked down my 3M Half-Marathon time from 2010 set on a notoriously fast, downhill course to second best.

My 10K, Half-Marathon and Marathon PR’s have all been set within the last 6 months, all with that 45th birthday creeping closer and closer.

By the looks of things, that marathon PR stands a good chance of being erased and replaced with a shiny new number in Boston. One lesson I am taking with me next month is that in a long race, forcing the issue and pushing the limits early is NOT the way to go.

April 16th we’re going to do just what we did during the Austin Half in February and the Shamrock Half on Sunday.

Stand back and let it all be.

Hard to believe that we have made it to this point.  The race before “THE RACE” as it were.  The Anthem Shamrock Half-Marathon this Sunday in Virginia Beach.

It’s not often that I would travel more than 1,500 miles just to run a half-marathon, but this training cycle for Boston was put together with a lot of thought and planning.

Four weeks before Boston I wanted to run a half-marathon that would simulate my Boston “race weekend” as close as possible to complete the process of dialing in for perhaps the greatest road race in the world.

I wanted to travel, go to a large expo, manage a case of the pre-race jitters, line up in a huge event, stand shoulder to shoulder with talented runners and go blow for blow with them mile after mile.

Even our race shoes for Boston will be taking their maiden voyage on the streets of Virginia Beach.  Getting broken in for race day in Boston.

The Texas Half in January was a great event and a solid test of my training to that point on a windy, winding course in Dallas, TX.

The Livestrong Austin Half-Marathon was an even better test, tackling a hilly monster of a course and coming within :01 seconds/mile of setting a new PR at the distance executing a near-perfect race.

But to say that there was very little “race day pressure” at either event would be an accurate statement.

The race in Dallas was a smaller event, coming off of a high-mileage training week where I did not have huge expectations for a fast race.  Then on race day we received freezing temperatures and winds gusting between 20 and 25 mph off of White Rock Lake – it turned into a tough event, but one where the experience of it was far more important than any personal achievement would dictate.

Start of The Texas Half

 

Any Age Group award is a great achievement, no matter the situation – but I felt at the time that I ran a very “average” race – which was good to get out of the system as we continued to march toward Boston.

The Livestrong event here in Austin was a much larger race, with a much tougher field of athletes, but I enjoyed a lot of the comforts of a hometown race that I will not be able to lean on at Boston.

I cooked my own pre-race dinner.

I slept in my own bed.

I patted our dog on her head as I drove to the race start in my own vehicle, parking less than 1 block from the finish line.

I ran through familiar streets on a race course I had navigated 11 miles of just one year prior at last year’s Austin Marathon.  I was never out of my comfort zone and I raced well, finishing in 1:24:07 and taking 3rd place in my Age Group.

My final mile was the fastest of the day in 6:06.  I ran a near-perfect event.

But the Shamrock Half-Marathon is going to be the closest “simulation” to what I will experience at Boston from the time I arrive until the time I cross the finish line on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk.

I will arrive on Friday, make my way over to the expo and pick up Bib # 5157.

I will seek out a quality dinner on Saturday night that will fuel me well for the next morning’s race, and with thoughts of mile splits and race course twists and turns playing over and over in my head I will try to get a good night’s sleep in a strange bed.

On race morning I will wake early, obsess over the right race gear, make my way to the start area and find my place among 10,000 runners. 

At Boston that number will be more like 25,000.

Although I have looked over the course map, with the exception of the finish to the race which I will cover on my 2-mile shakeout on Saturday morning, I will race down streets and terrain that I have never seen before.

I will navigate water stops and aid stations jostling with other runners for position and in the end, try to negative split the course and run a faster second half than first.

I will thunder to the finish line, hoping for a fast time, one that will be our final indicator as to our capabilities at Boston.

If the weather is “neutral”, neither helping nor hurting our finish time, we will double it, add 12 to 13 minutes and that will be our goal time for Boston.

A time of 1:23:30 places us right at our goal of 2:59:59 for April 16th.

A time of 1:24:30 and we are more than likely on the outside looking in at a 3 hour marathon by a minute or two.

A time of 1:25:30 and well, we will be disappointed to say the least.

The Shamrock Half is a flat course – there is no question about that.  The elevation chart shows a very gradual ascent to the half-way point, less than 20 feet net total and a return South down to the finish line.

Shamrock Half Marathon Course

We will do less climbing in Virginia Beach over the entire half-marathon than we did just going up the hill on S. Congress Avenue on mile 3 in Austin.

Oddly, the flat course does not play to our strength as a runner.  We have spent the last 6 months running hills, hills and more hills.  We have been preparing for the downhill start of the Boston Marathon from Hopkinton to Newton and then the climb up and over the 4 Newton Hills to the top of Heartbreak Hill – all so that we can come off of mile 21 at Boston and race the final 5 miles to Boyleston Street.

That is what this training period has been about.  Not building static speed for the flats.  But for becoming a strong hill runner – both up and down – so that the climbs and descents become our allies on race day.

It will be interesting to see just how well we handle the flat course in Virginia, and whether our strength and endurance training is enough to hang with some of the speedsters that we will be battling with out East.

Virginia Beach is home to some tremendous runners.  It is a city much like Austin with a strong running community.  This is one of the signature events of the year.  Competition will be fierce.

Just like Boston.

Time to Sham ROCK this thing.

Lookout Va. Beach – we’re not traveling all the way out there to mail this one in.

Sunday morning.  Boom goes the dynamite.

It has been almost a year since last year’s Austin Marathon.  A race that if I try hard enough, I can run the course over and over again in my mind.  Part of it is due to the fact that it was the first local marathon I had ever completed, allowing me to not only drive the course a few times prior to race day, but also allow me to run large sections of it beforehand.

Last Year's Austin Marathon

If you race enough in Austin on some of our downtown courses, you are eventually going to run a majority of the marathon course miles.

The Run for the Water 10-miler, The Congress Avenue Mile, The 3M Half Marathon, The SI Labs Marathon Relay all feature portions of the marathon course – there are only a few areas of the race that go “untouched” by other local events throughout the year.

This year however on the road to Boston I am not running the full marathon, only the 13.1 mile Austin Half Marathon, which means that as runners head North to Exposition and on to the “top half” of the Marathon Course, I will be making a right turn off of Winsted Lane onto Enfield just before Mile 11 and running an area of the city I have never tackled before. 

One of the hilliest and toughest areas to “race” in our city.

I wanted to get a firsthand look at these hills to help me finalize my race plan and start to visualize the opportunities I will have to push pace a bit on Sunday, where I need to run smart and reload and just how much I am going to have to “leave in the tank” for the closing 2+ miles of the race, which are as unforgiving as any I will have ever run at the end of a road race.

If I run a similar strategy to The Texas Half a few weeks ago, I am going to crash and burn in a big, big way on the Austin course.

That is not opinion, that is fact. 

This is going to be the most technical of all of the three half-marathons I will be racing preparing for Boston – giving me a tremendous training opportunity to run smart and stick to my race plan mile after mile no matter what is happening around me.  Exactly the type of race I will need to run if I am going to PR in Boston.

Once again, EXACTLY.  So how does the race set up?

The Start:  Runners will gather on the North Side of the State Capital on Congress Avenue.  Flags flying in the pre-dawn light for a 7:00 a.m. gun time.  Close to 20,000 runners between the marathoners and the half-marathoners, it will be quite the spectacle.  I will need to be lined up with the first 150 runners or so to get out clean and fall into rhythm.

Start of the Austin Marathon & Half Marathon

Miles 1 & 2:  The start will take runners on a slight downhill stretch from 16th street to MLK Boulevard where the crowd will make a 90 degree right turn and then another right turn onto to San Jacinto just two blocks later.  I will want to find a good spot on the righthand side of the road, careful to not get caught against the curb, but close enough to tangent tightly.

Things will start to spread out just a bit on San Jacinto as the road goes 6 lanes wide and the runners crest the hill up to 11th street.

This hill is the final climb on both the marathon and half-marathon courses before making the final turn to the finish line.  It won’t seem like much of a climb over the opening mile – more of a nuisance than anything.  But the second time the runners reach this spot at the end of their respective races, it is amazing how much “higher” it appears to have grown after 12 or 25 miles raced.  It is cruel and somewhat brutal that late in the race.

On 11th street we will reach the 1 mile mark and make a quick left turn onto Guadalupe.  This section will begin a long, steady, descent that lasts virtually the entire 2nd mile.  This is the time when many runners are going to make their first mistake of the day.  They are going to drop pace and try to “bank” some time while they can with long climbs up S. Congress (Miles 3-6) and the stretch from Winsted to Enfield (10-13) to come.

This is the part of the race where I am going to rein it in.  Run smooth, let runners pass me by and just lock in on “effort”.  6:30 effort is going to be the name of the game, that might result in a mile split around 6:20 or 6:15 which will be o.k., but nothing faster.  The smarter I run this part of the course, the better my finishing time is going to be.

:10 seconds slower here may very well gain runners :20 to :30 seconds late in the race.

Miles 3-6:  This is where the initial excitement and downhill start begins to subside and the Austin Course starts to fight back.  After reaching Cesar Chavez the runners will turn left for two blocks and make a right turn onto the Congress Avenue Bridge, immediately after crossing Town Lake (The Colorado River), the course starts to climb up, up, up for the next 2+ miles through the hip South Congress Area, past the Magnolia Cafe where my post-race breakfast will be, and up to Ben White.

Leaders Heading Up South Congress

After a right hand turn onto Ben White the runners will run up the exit ramp and make another right turn onto S. 1st.  With the climbing done, it’s now time to drop the hammer and gain back some of the time lost climbing South Congress.

Miles 7-10:  The next three miles are quite frankly a blast.  If you were able to navigate the first half of the course to this point and stay within your limits, it’s time to run free and easy and make up some time.  After a little bit of a rolling start to the first downhill stretch along S. 1st street the course just falls away from you.

A nice relaxed downhill grade, steep in some sections that deposit runners at a water stop on the right hand side of the course just past mile 8.

This will be a water-stop I skip actually, as I will start to work my way to the left side of the S. 1st Street Bridge and prepare for the left hand turn back on to Cesar Chavez.  Mile 9 and most of mile 10 will provide a gentle downhill stretch as well, the only exception is where the road begins to climb as the course approaches the entrance to Mopac (Loop 1) in the last 1/4 mile of mile 10.

You better have enjoyed the ride down to this point, because there is nothing but climbing left until the finish.

Miles 11-13:  Here we go.  Legs are starting to feel heavy, 5 kilometers left to race.  Lactic Acid has been slowly accumulating and your quads are starting to feel heavy.  It’s go time and the course is about to get pretty gnarly.

At the start of mile 11 the course heads up a steady incline along Winsted Lane.  There are no breaks, just up.  At Enfield, just before the 11 mile mark the course turns to the right and you start to head towards the Capital and the finish line.  But there is still more than 2 miles to go, and it is up, up, up.

Just before reaching Lamar Boulevard the course will provide one downhill stretch for you to gather yourself and get ready to climb again, it is steep and refreshing, but it is short-lived.  One of the toughest parts of this stretch is the way the course actually “looks”.  As you come thundering down the hill at the midpoint of mile 12 you can see nothing but the mountainous climb that is waiting for you on the other side of the bottom.

Pace is going to slow dramatically here, even fresh legs would struggle up this incline, dropping :30-:45 seconds per mile at this point would be a victory over this stretch of the course.  It will more than likely push us into the 7:oo+ pace area as we fight to the top of 15th street and finally make the right hand turn back on to San Jacinto and retrace our steps to the finish line.

There will be that last, final hill to crest, the same hill we tackled at the end of the first mile of the race before we can then turn for home and let gravity pull us to the finish.

Finish:  Outside of the Denver Half-Marathon I cannot remember a steeper close to a race course.  Once the final right hand turn is made onto 11th Street at the top of the last hill it is time to empty the tank 100%.  A fast city block will pass, followed by a 90 degree left-turn onto Congress Avenue and the finish line and chute will be there in the first 1/4 block. 

Probably the greatest “Finish” to any Austin race held in the city.  It is a well-deserved downhill respite after a long punishing race.

Goals for the Race:  To me this is a tough course to estimate a finish time on without ever having run it before. 

When a runner has previous race results to compare setting a goal-time becomes a function of training, the weather on race day and effort.  It is easy to look back at a previous performance, drop :15-:45 from that finish time and set the bar.  We just won’t have that luxury this time around.

That said, I am looking at 1:27:00 to 1:27:30 as the range which will be considered a “win”.  That would put is in the 6:37/mile range vs. the 6:32 we ran at the Texas Half on January 28th.

Anything faster and I think we are running the risk of blowing up too early and having nothing left for the final 2+ miles of racing.

I expect to be passing a lot of runners on the way in if I can run a smart opening 6 miles.  Again, this is really just a dress rehearsal for Boston, where running  a smart opening 14 miles will be the goal.  It takes a lot of patience to really “nail” a race on a technical course.  We are going to be tested on Sunday, of that I am certain.

At the end of the day, this race is going to be about effort and feel more than sticking to an individual mile split on my watch.  By 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning we’ll find out just how well we are handling this training plan to date and whether or not we may be pushing things a bit too hard. 

One thing for sure.  It is going to be interesting out there.

I did something this morning that I never do before races.

I started to think about who was going to be in the field next weekend running the Livestrong Austin Half-Marathon.

Knowing that many of my local “rivals” would be running the full marathon next Sunday, another, my good friend Brendon Cahoon is passing on both events due to injury – I started to think about where I might “place” if I have a quality performance.

Foolish waste of time.

First of all there is absolutely no accounting for who shows up on race day.  Someone like Michael Budde who can thump me soundly on his worst day and my best is running the marathon, as would Brendon had he been healthy.  Opening up a spot or two at the top of the Male 40-44 food chain in the half-marathon.

But for every Michael and Brendon who will not be toeing the line is another runner from Houston, Copperas Cove or Grapevine who will be showing up at the starting line with no previous Austin race experience capable of laying down a blistering time in the half.

All you can do is put your best out there and let the clock sort out the rest.

So I forced those thoughts to the side and focused on the five key questions that I ask myself before every race:

1.  Are you healthy?

2.  Are you in race shape?

3.  Are you peaking for this as an “A” race?

4.  How bad do you want this one?

5.  Is the weather a factor?

The first four questions are easy ones:

Yes, I am 100% healthy.

Yes I am most definitely in race shape.

No, I am training through this half-marathon as part of my Boston Training – I am not tapering and treating this as an “A” race.

Oddly, I find myself wanting this race pretty badly after a tough weather day our last time out at the Texas Half on Jan. 28th.

The fifth question – the weather – too early to tell.

So after running through all of those thoughts over and over in my mind during my first of two runs on Tuesday, I found myself right back where I started when I left my driveway at 5:15 a.m.

It’s one more week of high-mileage, quality work and then a slightly reduced mileage and intensity week to follow leading up to race day.

I will have a lot of advantages going for me racing the Austin Half as it is a home-town race allowing me to prepare my own pre-race dinner, sleep in my own bed and avoid any travel challenges getting to the starting line.

I am familiar with the course having raced the first 11 miles of the route last year during the Austin Marathon.  The two races share the same course, aid stations and volunteers before the half-marathoners turn right and head for home and the marathoners head North to complete the upper half of the full-marathon course.

I am healthy, strong and confident – all I need to do is stay that way over the next 12 days, get a bit more rest than usual next week and go out there and lay my thing down on Sunday morning.  1:24:30 -1:25:30 will be a great time on the hilly, challenging course which is the Austin Half.

Whether that places us among the top age group finishers or not is really not up to me – nor does it matter.  What matters is us putting together a smart, strong race – not going out too fast and foolishly burning too much energy early – but pacing ourself, running strong and with conviction – then closing like a freight train over the final 2 miles.

If we do that we’ll be happy heading into the Shamrock Half in March – our final tune-up before Boston.

We’ll let the clock sort out the rest.

Dawn, Landry and I made the drive up to our friends house in Frisco, TX on Friday evening. For those of you out there who have had the pleasure of traveling Interstate Highway 35 (that is what the IH stands for if you were ever curious), I’m sure you can imagine the relaxing trip up from Austin to the Dallas area.

We stopped for dinner in Waxahatchie, TX at a Chili’s where amazingly, I was able to get a dish of plain pasta with shrimp and bread – not a perfect pre-race dinner, but definitely passable. I broke one of my pre-race rules and indulged in one short Bud-Light Draft as a 2 1/2 hours on I-35 will do that to a guy.

We wrapped up dinner around 6:15 and made the drive in to Frisco arriving at David, Julie, Austin and Casey’s house right around 7:45 p.m.

I would have a 40 minute drive back down South to White Rock Lake in the morning, so after a couple of hours of catching up on things and getting Landry settled in, it was time to try to get a few hours of sack time.

Race Morning: I woke at 4:50 a.m. to give myself enough time to wake up, have a light breakfast of a bagel and a banana and get my hydrating done prior to leaving for the race at 5:45 a.m.

I like to stop drinking two hours before the starting gun of a half-marathon or marathon so I can make my final porta-pottie stop just before the race and avoid any pit-stops along the way. Any water or gatorade I take in along the course can just be processed and passed as sweat. Missing a time goal is one thing, but missing it due to a quick stop at a porta-pottie is something I am hoping to avoid at least until I’m racing in the M70-74 Age Group.

I pulled into the parking area at Winfrey Point and chatted with a few runners before heading up to the house to pick-up my packet. Being an “out of towner” this was my first race morning packet pick-up, but the volunteers were very well organized and I was in line less than 5 minutes.

As much as I hoped the weather forecast was going to be wrong, of course on this day the Meterologists had it spot on. Temperature of 38, North Winds at 20 mph, wind chill 29.

The temperature was perfect for racing, but with the wind it was anything but.

I knew that I would be cold heading north into the wind over miles 3-9, but hot on the return trip headed south at the end of the race if I ran in tights and a long sleeve shirt.

As much as I wanted to rock the shorts as a few brave souls were doing, I opted for the full ninja attire. If anything maybe the tight clothing would help me cut the wind a bit.

Thoughts of a PR (1:23:55) were gone for Saturday. I decided that I would run by feel, give “uncomfortable effort” and whatever the clock said would have to be good enough. It seemed like a 2+ minute wind or so, :20 seconds a mile, so a time in the 1:25:30 range would be a pretty solid effort.

Sub 1:26:00 became my race goal for the day. If I’ve learned anything over the past few years it’s that the weather on race day is as big a factor as your fitness is. You can’t cheat it, you can only hope to manage it.

Pre-Race: I got back to the car, pinned my bib to my Brooks shorts and threw them on over my tights. An Underarmour Head band, two pairs of my lighter gloves that I could peel off and tuck into my waistband.

I left the rest of my gear in the car and took a light jog up to the starting area.

As per my usual routine I hit the porta-pottie for the final time and went for a light 1-mile warm up. The start/finish area of the Texas Half sits atop Winfrey Point. The start is straight down a 2/10 of a mile hill, which of course means the end of the race will require runners to power up the same incline.

I wanted to run that stretch of the course one time so that I would know what I had to leave in the tank for the end of the race.

After my quick warm-up I ducked into the chute and crept up to the front of the crowd. I expected to run in the top 10-15 runners based on previous results at this event. The path was relatively narrow around the lake area, and the course would not be “closed”, meaning weekend exercisers (walkers, joggers, cyclists, dog walkers etc.) would be sharing the route with us. I wanted to be sure to “get out clean” even if it meant a slightly faster first mile.

The Start: No star-spangled banner which was a little surprising, just a countdown from the local race announcer from 10 and at the sound of the horn we were off.

Almost immediately as I stretched out over the opening 1/4 mile I felt strong. All that time in the car over the previous half-day did not seem to have me tight or sore. My pace was quick and my cadence felt free and easy. It was going to be a good day – if only we didn’t have to fight that wind I thought.

The opening two miles with a slight tail wind came quickly with splits of 6:06 and 6:09. Too fast based on my race plan, but with the wind gusting I knew that the time on my wrist was not going to be an accurate reflection of effort and energy. I felt like it would be smart to post a couple of quick miles out of the chute with the wind in our favor – hopefully offsetting some of the slower miles that were sure to come when we turned to the North.

I decided to only glance at my watch on the beeps at the end of each mile, and try not to fixate too much on any one split. Just stay even effort up through the 10th mile, then try to push to the finish.

The Wind: As we made our first turn to the West at the bottom of the course I felt the wind for the first time blowing into me from the side. I was running in 12th position as best I could tell and there were no runners within 400 meters of me to the front or to the rear.

No drafting.

I was alone. I was also knew I was pretty screwed when we would turn due North.

As we approached the curve of the course to the right we needed to navigate a “S” Turn switch back and then we popped out after coming up a slight hill to the pumping station. It was that left turn, back onto the spillway right at mile 4 where I felt the full brunt of the wind in my face.

It would be blowing directly at the runners until we reached the Dam near Mockingbird at the 8.5 mile mark. I tried to tangent the curves around the lake path as best I could and just lock in on effort. I started ticking off miles in the 6:33 range one after another, realizing that my estimate of :15-:20 seconds per mile that the wind was costing us was pretty spot on.

6:20 effort was producing 6:35 miles.

It was hard not to become discouraged over those middle miles. I knew that all I could do was keep steady, keep fighting and eventually we would turn south and get out of this darn wind.

Miles 3-9 came in at: 6:31, 6:30, 6:33, 6:33, 6:31, 6:33 and 6:27.

Track position hardly changed a bit over this stretch of miles that took approximately 57 1/2 minutes to cover. Almost an hour battling a head wind and I had neither gained on the runners ahead of me nor did I hear any footsteps from behind. I had picked out a runner approximately :20 seconds ahead of me in a white shirt with long blond hair flowing behind him.

I tried to imagine a string running from his waist to my hips. I would allow the string to stretch a bit, but never break. I wanted to keep him right where he was which told me that if he was holding steady, I too was not falling off. I also wanted one last runner to chase over the final mile to bring the race home.

Heading South: Finally we made a turn to the south and immediately I could feel the temperature rise without the gusting wind in my face.

I had removed my gloves and headband at mile 8 to cool myself off a bit. they were now tucked into the rear of my pants and I had no other clothing to shed. I was going to be warm now until mile 12 when we hit the cone turnaround and headed directly back into the wind again for the final mile.

Mile 11 came in at 6:21, followed by a 6:27 12th mile. As much as I wanted to push the pace back down to the 6:15 range, I just didn’t have the juice to do so after expending so much energy running into the headwind. My legs still felt strong, but they lacked the “snap” that I needed to tick them over a bit faster.

As we approached the cone turnaround I had bitten into the lead that the runner ahead of me had. I pulled even with him as the wind began to gust again from the North and I told him he was still looking strong. At that point of the race I honestly was just looking for some kind of distraction to carry me to the 12.5 mile mark when it would be time to make the final push.

We chatted for a few moments and then I edged ahead of him. There was a runner ahead of us that we pulled alongside of and we dropped him behind us. I had lost count of the runners ahead of us, but I believed I was running somewhere around 11th or 12th. I wanted to hold off the two runners I had just passed over the closing stretch and finish out the race as strong as I could.

We made a right turn followed by a long sweep to the left with 2/10 of a mile to go facing a climb of those last 40 feet. I kicked into the last gear that I had and could hear the footsteps behind me dropping away. As I hit the mat the announcer said, “From Austin, TX Joe Marruchella with a time of 1:25:35 ….”

I slowed to a trot and The Texas Half was now in my rear view mirror.

The Texas Half

Post Race: To be honest I had a hard time judging my performance as I made my way through the finishing chute. The time on the clock was a bit disappointing. I thought for sure that I was in sub 1:25:00 shape on Saturday and gave myself an even money shot of running sub 1:24:00 approaching my PR set at last year’s 3M Half-Marathon in Austin.

Certainly I felt like I had given the race my best shot and I never backed down despite less than ideal conditions. That was a definite win.

But there was a part of me that was disappointed that for yet another time when I felt poised to really run a tremendous race, the weather threw me a curveball that would limit my potential at a “strong time”.

I did however run my 2nd fastest half-marathon, taking a full minute off of my time from last October’s Denver Rock N’ Roll Half. Perhaps that PR is still out there at this year’s Austin Half Marathon in February or at the Shamrock Half in Virginia Beach in March.

Awards Ceremony: I made my way down to the car, changed my hat and gloves and slid into my sweats to warm up a bit. I decided to head back up to the house for the awards ceremony as perhaps our time was good enough for an age group award.

The spread at the house was tremendous. Breakfast Tacos, Bagels, Bananas, Gatorade and Cold Beer. On any other day I think I would have taken advantage of the Beer table, but all I really wanted was a hot cup of coffee and a chance to warm up.

As they announced the winners my time of 1:25:35 was good for 10th place overall, 1st place in the Men’s 40-44 Age Group.

First Place Age Group - The Texas Half

The 10th anniversary of The Texas Half put on by Mellew Productions is definitely an “A” event. The planning, organization, course mangement, volunteers, porta-potties, infrastructure and even the race course itself was tremendous. The weather is a variable that any race director would love to control, but simply cannot.

So we move on from the race and back into our preparations for Boston. Two weeks of training lie ahead with 21 mile long runs on each Sunday before we reload and take on The Austin Half Marathon on February 19th. The good news is that I exited the first of three half-marathons 100% healthy and in good spirits.

Time to go back to work.

The last two days have been rest days and after picking up my packet at the expo this afternoon all that stands between me and the starting line here in Denver is Saturday morning’s 2-mile shakeout.

My sister in-law Kim and I are going to take a ride in the morning to run the part of the course that will take us to the highest point of the race at mile 11.5 and then start the descent down to the finish line.

After driving the majority of the course yesterday all I can say is that I think it sets up as a very fair race course.

When you think of racing in Denver, CO most would expect large hills and a lot of topographical challenges.   That does not seem to be the case as the course is much, MUCH flatter than the Decker Challenge half-marathon course back home in Austin.

Now, if you’ve run Decker you are probably saying, “Big deal, everything is flatter than Decker …”

O.K., maybe that is true, but the hills the elevation profile of the Denver half-marathon course shows some areas where climbing is required, but there are also some nice long gradual descents that will allow the runners to pick up time, but not worry about “braking” to slow themselves down, and in turn, stress those quad muscles.

It remains to be seen just how much the altitude affects my ability to hold half-marathon pace on Sunday, but right now, with very cool race temperatures forecasted (38-40 at the start) and very little wind, I think it is shaping up to be a fast day for the runners on Sunday.

I will be running on Saturday morning at 6:55 a.m. locally, the same time as the race start on Sunday to dial-in and “dress rehearse” for race day.  The top of the park tomorrow is going to be the point in the race where I start to click the turnover just a bit faster and really try to let it all hang out over the final 1.5 miles.

After reviewing the course map again this afternoon and replaying the mental pictures I took yesterday I have arrived at my race plan.

Miles 1-3 – Relaxed/Controlled ~6:35

Miles 4-7 – Lock it in ~6:30

Miles 8-11.5 – Hang tough ~6:25

Miles 11.5 – Finish – Let it all hang out ~6:20?

So, we’re going to go for the negative split, hard charging strategy and see just how much we can push it down the stretch.

Regardless of my overall time, finishing this race with my hair on fire is what I am looking for in Denver.  It will be the perfect way to wrap up these last three weeks of racing and move into the final 4 weeks of preparations for New York.

I want to feel the wind in my face and my legs churning as my friend Steve Speirs likes to say, “closing like a freight train”.

If you’re on the side of the road over the final mile, be on the lookout for a bright yellow brooks singlet flashing by – it’s going to be quite a final mile on Sunday.

Sunday morning, 3M Half Marathon – it was the race before “the race”.

Race number 4 in the Austin Distance Challenge.  When it was over, all that would remain would be the Austin Marathon on February 20th, now just three short weeks away.

All week leading up to 3M I found myself constantly taking stock of how my body felt coming back from last weekend’s bout with the stomach flu.  It seemed that with each passing day I was feeling better and better.  More and more like myself.

I had been eating, strength training and hydrating like crazy, trying to get back to my race weight of 138 lbs.

Sunday morning, 136.5.

Still not where I needed to be, but I was feeling strong during my quick 2 mile shake-out on Saturday, so I tried not to let it bother me.  Obviously I still wasn’t “all the way back” from the flu.  But maybe, just maybe I was close enough to really run my race on Sunday.

I knew that I could run strong for 8-10 miles.  I just wasn’t sure how much I would have left in the tank for the final 5 kilometers.  But that is why we race.  If every runner “knew” what their time would be coming through the finisher’s chute, I don’t think very many of us would bother to show up and toe the line.  That is part of the beauty of our sport. 

The unknown.

After a low-key night at home with Dawn and Landry watching SECRETARIAT, (not a bad inspirational movie to watch on the eve of a race), I set the alarm for 4:25 a.m. and tried to get some sleep.

As is usually the case the night before a race, I couldn’t relax.  Couldn’t stop thinking about mile splits, hills, water stops and course management.  I dozed off around Midnight and accepted the 4 ½ hours of sleep as a gift.

After a breakfast of a bagel with peanut butter and a banana, chased by a grape Gatorade, I got dressed in my race gear and left for the start.  The 3M Half-Marathon is the second largest stand alone half-marathon in Texas.  It is a point to point course, so I would be leaving my truck at the start and hooking up with Dawn and Landry at the finish line.  It was just a matter of how long it would take me.

Pre-Race:   The temperature at the gun was announced at 73 degrees.  The rain that was in the forecast never really fell, but the humidity was well over 90% as the runners stood listening to the National Anthem.

Dressed in just shorts and a singlet, I did not do my usual warm-up of ½ mile to shake loose.  I felt very limber and light on my feet.  I just did a quick group of strides, more or less ¼ miles worth and ducked back into my spot in the starting corral.

I chatted with a young man named Brian who was on the cross-country team at the University of Texas when he was in college.  A 2:55 marathoner, Brian was going to be running out ahead of me.  I wondered if we would see each other at the finish.

Miles 1-4:  As I was standing in the starting area I clicked on my iPod and got ready to rock.  I was amazingly calm Sunday morning which surprised me.  After stressing about my fitness and strategy for the race all week long I felt like I was ready.  No sense over-thinking it.  I would lock into a “comfortably hard pace” and hold it as long as I could. 

At the gun I started out quickly looking for open road to start the legs churning.  3M which is a “fast course” with a lot of downhill sections actually starts with climbs over the first two miles.  Due to its reputation as a “fast half-marathon”, I believe a lot of runners get too aggressive early both where they line up and over the opening miles.

It requires a lot of “dodging traffic” over the first mile which can be frustrating.  I just hung to the left and tried to stay even and smooth.

I could tell that my legs showed up and the opening climb up 56 feet felt like I was racing on flat ground.  My Brooks ST4 Racers felt light on my feet and I went with what I knew was a pace much faster than I had planned.  It “felt right” however, so I didn’t discourage myself from the pace.

My first four miles sped by at:  6:16, 6:20, 6:22, and 6:18.

So much for going out with an opening 6 miles in 39:10.  I was feeling it however, shame on me to back down with Dom’s initials on my shoes.  That’s not really what any of this is about.

Miles 5-8:  Mile five was another mile that was more or less fair, slightly downhill, but mile 6 would be the first chance for me to really let my momentum carry me along downhill.  This stretch bottoms out just over Loop 1 or the MOPAC Expressway and leads to the exchange area for the relay portion of the half-marathon.

My friend Nina who I will be racing with at Ragnar Del Sol on team, “Where’s the Damn Van?!” in a month would be waiting for her relay partner at the exchange.  I was hoping to get a chance to see a smiling face and say hello as I was running by.

True to form I saw Nina on the right side of the course and said a quick hello.  The course was flattening out now and we would be doing some climbing shortly.  I told myself to dial back a bit and just lock in to even effort.  Something around 6:30 if I could hold it.  It was far too early to go all-in at this point.

Miles seven and eight felt tough but consistent.  At this point I started to think that I was going to get away with starting out a little bit to fast on the top half of the course.

Splits for miles 5-8 were:  6:10, 6:21, 6:33, and 6:31.

Miles 9-11:  I had finally seemed to find my rhythm and lock in on pace.  I told myself that this was the part of the course, climbing up onto North Loop where the last of the hills would be found.  I just needed to stay in rhythm and keep it together.

It was at this point of the race when runners started to come back to me for the first time.  I wasn’t going any faster than I had been.  But others were starting to feel the hills.  This seemed to energize me. 

I actually thought for a moment during mile 10 how much did I want it today?  A strange thought to have during a race, but I suspect a lot runners think that way at some point.  More than would care to admit it anyway.

I mumbled to myself that I did want to race today.  Hang tough.  Mile 11 will be here before you know it.

Splits for miles 9-11 were:  6:33, 6:35, and 6:31.

Time to go to work.

Miles 12-Finish:  As only a runner can I began to do the math.  I had a legitimate shot at breaking through the 1:24:00 barrier if I could ramp up my pace over the final two miles.  I would need to run something in the :20’s and then something in the teens if I was going to get there I thought.

If we didn’t quite make it we would certainly beat our goal time of 1:25:08 with some panache.

I started to push harder, but not all the way at this point.  There would still be the flattening of the course at the University of Texas football stadium, the climb up the last hill and then the final 1/10 of a mile sprint to the finish.

I had to dial-up the pace, but I needed to leave a little in the tank for my kick.  It was going to be awfully close.  All of a sudden I noticed the back of a runner’s shirt with a Longhorn logo across his shoulders.

Brian.  I gave him a slight nod as I powered past.  His shoulders had fallen and he was struggling to keep it together.  I would be lying if I said that passing him did not buoy my spirits.  I felt my pace quicken.

Mile 12 came in at 6:24 pace and I once again reeled in a handful of runners who had been racing out in front of me for more than 1 hour and 15 minutes.

One mile to go.

I can do anything for one mile.

Honestly this part of the race is a little bit of a blur to me.  I remember hearing a lot of shouts as we approached the final 400 meters.  I started my kick with 2/10 of a mile to go and as I approached the chute I could make out the clock:

1:23:49, 1:23:50, 1:23:51

A final burst and I hit the timing mat at 1:23:55.

The final mile came in at 6:16 pace.  The final 1/10 of a mile in :38 seconds or 5:17 pace.

6:24 pace for the race overall.  Two seconds faster than the 10K pace we were shooting for earlier in the year in October to break through the 40:00 minute 10K mark at the IBM Uptown Classic.

Out of the more than 4,500 half-marathoners on Sunday we came through the chute in 91st place, owner of a new half-marathon PR by 2 minutes and 50 seconds.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this yet.  Does it mean that we are now entering the taper for Austin ready to run a best-ever marathon?  I think it does.

Does it mean that we have a legitimate chance of raising our sights even higher and chasing that mystical sub 3 hour marathon in three weeks?  I’m not so sure.

I can take one thing away from Sunday for certain and that is the fact that our stomach might still not be 100% recovered, but there is nothing wrong with our heart. 

We out-hearted quite a few fine runners on Sunday.

Dom, I miss you more than ever.  Man, you should have seen that last mile today my brother.  You would have loved it.

Joe (on right) Fist Raised