I’ve always found that 4 to 5 weeks out from a marathon is the prime time to test out the training with a half-marathon. With Tiffany entered into the NYC Half in mid-March, we made a pact to enter different races so we could fully support each other.
Scrolling through the usual running websites I seem to spend hours and hours on, I came across Rock ‘n’ Roll USA in the nation’s capital the day prior to her race at home. Being close by (does a 4 and a half hour journey count?) and having always had good results in DC (Marine Corps (MCM), The North Face 50K and 50M), it felt like the right race to choose. That and the fact that one of my sponsors, Brooks Running grabbed the tab for me. It was not necessarily as flat as MCM; their appeared to be lots of rollers from my course profile interpretation and one nasty alarming spike indicating some hard work around miles 6 and 7, but hills never hurt anyone and this would be a more than fair test for the Boston marathon.
My PR time for a half has been archiving since 2011 at just under 1:19. This has been mainly in part to not running many of them. If or when I have done so, it has definitely not been at my peak. But with this race in DC, I had somewhat of a chance at least to PR. They say a chance is all that you need. I would need to knock off 6-minute miles for that to happen. That was what I was about to try to subject myself too.
An early start Saturday morning got me out of bed at 5:30. I went straight to the fridge to grab my yogurt and sprinkled on the granola packet I had picked up from the expo. It’s been a really good go to breakfast for me of late. Minimal fat, a good source of protein and my favorite of course, the carbs. My glucose was locked in steady in the mid-100’s. Prep wise, so far, so good.
We left our friends house in Bethesda and ran (yes) for the train. Missing it by seconds put me 16 minutes behind schedule due to the wait for the next metro. Upon arriving at the start area, this time would have been nice to have. I looked at the lines for the you know what and knew that was not happening. It was literally blood test, bag check, anthem and go in the span of 5 minutes.
No time to get anxious or over think about the race, I was already speeding downing Constitution Avenue with 30,000 others (a mix of half and full marathoners as one)! The Monument was to our left and the White House to our right. I glimpsed at both but cared more today about my watch which showed me 5:50. The numbers went straight to my brain and on came the brakes. 6:05 pace for the first few miles were the instructions I had told myself to follow. First half discipline, second half attack was the strategy today.
Mile 1 clocked in at 6:05. The slight climb up by the White House had helped me ease off the pedal. Mile 2 begun with a downhill stretch back towards Constitution. My pace again picked up but this time I chose not to fight it as much remembering a phrase I heard on a Trail Runner podcast loosely remembered as “the trail is giving it to you” meaning if the trail is runnable, don’t hold back. Well, the road was downhill, so I followed suit. As the course wrapped around the side of Lincoln Memorial to cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge for an out and back section, the wind swept across me and it was time to find some cover.
Battling the headwind crossing into Virginia momentarily, I closed a gap on a group of five and tried my best to sit there. When the tallest of them continued, I followed. My mind was already drifting into the future thinking how if this south-west wind stays true, it would benefit me during the latter miles.
Watching the leaders come back towards me gave me a mental lift about the wind situation. Here they were in front after 2 miles with most of them isolated to the conditions and they just got on with business. What choice did they have? They were hardly going to fall back and wait for cover. We turned around at a large roundabout close to the famed cemetery and I impatiently took some places around the outside like a novice track runner working harder in lane 2. I knew this didn’t make sense but my impatience was greater than my discipline. This couldn’t go on if this was to be my day.
Running back towards the Lincoln Memorial was quite the view. A bright pink and orange sky was glowing behind the monuments. The wind at my back was now just an added bonus to this spectacular morning view. My watch clocked off a second consecutive sub-6 but the race clock disagreed blazing 18:15. It meant two things; I was hitting 6:05 pace perfectly and my watch was caressing my ego. From now on, I knew to be wary of my GPS data. A 5:55 mile on my wrist seemed more like a 6 or 6:05 on my feet. Tiffany was unexpectedly waiting for me at the 5k mark. I ran by very content with my pace and the feel of my body.
Heading north along the Potomac River, the road remained flat curving left and right. It was time to focus on pace, on relaxed breathing and cutting the tangents where others in front were not. I knew I had two miles of this before the big successive hill climbs.
I shook off a runner breathing heavily trying to hang on. I didn’t need that kind of distraction. I then joined forces with a guy in yellow called Jeff. He asked what my plan was and I told him honestly anything under 1:19 would be great. He told me this was his only his second half marathon ever, his first a 1:24 and he liked my plan. I liked him and we worked together nicely over the next mile but I couldn’t fathom how you could pick your goal time during the race with someone you’ve just met. Sure enough, as the first hill climb begun, Jeff disappeared behind me. I reminded myself that the hill was no higher in elevation gain than Harlem hill is in Central Park, a hill I know inside out. With that confidence, I did not fear the hill but embrace it instead and in doing so caught and passed a handful of more runners.
A minor rest bite on a plateau before the much steeper but also shorter hill lay ahead swarmed with spectators. I didn’t really know how bad it was going to be which sometimes is better off. I leaned into the hill with the same effort as the opening miles but notably lacking speed.
At the top, a switchback to the right put us back on flat road. My legs went to jelly but I had to fight on. My mile split after this was 6:24. It had cut into my time profit as I knew it would but I wasn’t expecting it to be that much. I ran over the 10K mat at 38 minutes and knew it was now time to start the attack plan and push the pace under 6-minute miles. I grabbed a rare cup of Gatorade which was barely filled. Enough to hydrate me and keep the glucose topped up at least.
I was now somewhere north of downtown DC. The houses and small towns were alien to me but just like mile 1, this was no tourist outing. My focus was on seeing the next mile marker and hitting a good split. I was hoping for 5:45’s for the next few miles. The elevation chart seemed to show the most drop off now through mile 11.
But not until after another hill to conquer that I had unaccounted for. I ran past a frat party cooking up a BBQ, chugging beers and screaming at the top of their lungs with the BBQ smoke unfortunately filling my lungs. The hill, noise and smell were left behind me. I clocked the mile at 5:51. It wasn’t enough. I needed more time back than that. The next mile came and went. 5:53, the same scenario dawned on me in my head. I needed to go faster.
With 4 miles left, I imagined it was the middle 4 loop of Central Park. That’s nothing, I said to myself. Every mile was crucial, the focus had to be perfect. I did not want a repeat performance of Martha’s Vineyard now because of some muscle fatigue. Pain is temporary, PR’s are forever, or something like that. I twisted and turned ninety degrees through the backstreets of DC dodging occasional potholes and drains which kept my wits about me.
Eventually a right turn showed me the long straightaway I knew about from studying the map. Directly ahead was the Capitol building albeit a couple of miles at least. The road descended gradually and I focused on squeezing the gap on the women’s leader from Brooks. She had been ahead the whole race and I recognized her from a couple of Chicago Marathons where I’m sure she kicked my ass both times but today I went by somewhat to my own surprise. 10 miles done in just over an hour, my split was perfect at 5:42.
With 5K left, I knew I was on the cusp of a PR time. The long road south dipped through a short tunnel and then back up. I monitored my pace from the lowest point of the tunnel to the top and it didn’t change. I was now in this state of 110% effort every mile trying to trick my brain that this (mile) was the last. That sounds crazy but it works. Aid stations are how I break up ultras and mile markers are how I break up road races.
At the end of the long straight, I gained on a group of three. Turning the left corner was another climb. A woman on the sidewalk shouted “Catch one more if you can” repeatedly in a calm and soothing voice. It was like a mantra to me that was perfect. They were ahead by so much a mile ago, I didn’t have any expectations of getting within striking distance but up that climb I realized I was the runner with the most energy left and went by all three of them in one fell swoop.
One of them though jumped onto my pace. The breathing on my right shoulder would not fade out like usual when you pass someone. Back into the wind I was close to home but this runner was getting a free ride and I didn’t appreciate it. Out of the norm for me, I shouted back at him “Come on, take your turn, work with me” to which he replied “No. I’m doing the marathon. You help me!” Immediately feeling like an idiot I turned to him seeing his red bib and profusely apologized. Considering we had just knocked out a 5:20 mile, this guy was legit and maybe even winning the race and here he was getting abuse from me! At 2 miles to go the clock read 1:06:45. What I thought was almost a certain PR still needed two sub-6 miles. My confidence dimmed slightly but now I had a comrade of sorts. I couldn’t fall apart now in front of the guy running a marathon at the same pace!
I stayed ahead and took the hit of the wind. He sat just off me. We closed in on a handful of solo runners whose pace was no match. A 5:44 mile meant it was all but confirmed as a PR for me now. The cones split the road; half marathoners left, full marathoners right. We gave each other words of encouragement and went our separate ways. From a more than awkward start together, 2 miles later we were basically banded brothers!
Ecstatic with how my race had gone, the new question I asked of myself was “by how much can I PR?” I fought off the next runner to take another place (I had no idea of my overall placing the whole race) and was happy to find out I had a downhill stretch leading me into the finish at RFK Stadium on the east side of town.
The stadium came into sight above the treeline and then did the blue finish line banner tucked away through a tunnel in the car park. The cheers grew and I had this sudden urge to try to duck under 1:18 so I did the thing you’re not supposed to be able to do and put the after burners on and sprinted the 0.1 home.
I climbed two more placings and got the crowd lively during my sprint finale but the 1:17 was not meant for today. It wasn’t meant to be that good. Still, a 1:18:21 gave me a big PR after three years and a smile in the finish chute that would not go away. The result was huge and I knew it. All I could think about was Boston and what this could possibly mean.
To put my PR in perspective I have to look back to the start of Boston training in late December. The winter in New York has been anything but fun to train in with several waves of snowfall that have made being flexible with my training a must, not a choice. And then there was the disappointment of Martha’s Vineyard in February with a slower time than the previous year. But this race changed all of that. It proved to me, my training has been spot on. Fewer miles, more speed and that is all thanks to Jack Daniels and Brian Rosetti of The Run Smart Project.
And now Boston awaits. I could not be more excited for it. I hope I can keep my head this year and run the race I know I am capable of on April 21. I’ve decided to make 2014 a real push for PR’s. I see no reason why I can’t do so at all distances from this half marathon up to 200 miles. Yes, my ‘first’ 200 miler will count as a PR! Challenge me at your peril!