The PR that almost got away

This was a weird race, a bit unlike any Half-Marathon I've run before. It's taken some time to write it just because I didn't understand what happened during the race. I needed some distance between me and race day to properly write it up.

I have wanted to run this race ever since I moved to New York just over three years ago. It seemed like the perfect little New England race: a quaint run on small streets that wound and twisted through a seaside town with beautiful mansions, the course lined adorable little children waiting for hi-fives and their equally adorable grandparents handing out orange wedges. A slice of runner Americana.

Because I've always missed this race for some reason or another I was determined to train hard for this race and make it spectacular. Every single one of my runs in preparation for this race was below my Half-Marathon PR pace of 8:45, I even squeaked out a 10-miler at an 8:15 pace. I introduced speedwork and increased the distance and frequency of the long runs. I adjusted pretty well to the intense training, so much so that I figured a significant PR would be in cards for race day. I had laid out three goals: (1) set a PR by at least one second (a minimum of 1:53:41), (2) finish in 1:50, (3) finish in 1:45. I figured goal 1 would happen by default of my training, goal 3 was really out there, and goal 2 would take a little work but was otherwise entirely doable.

The alarm went off at 5:30 on Sunday. And so race day begins. I turned it off and shot straight up--if you resist waking up even for a minute you will inevitably fall back asleep.

I was still a bit groggy from the NyQuil that I have to take before a race because otherwise I will not sleep at all. I make my way over to the bathroom, do my business and then go to the kitchen. I make a PB&J. Yum. I know it's not the absolute best pre-race food, but it does the trick for me: gets the calories and carbs in, tastes like kindergarten, and triggers me to go to the bathroom. Yes people I make sure there is nothing left in the trunk before a race--there have been accidents and I will leave it at that.

At 5:45 I wake up wifey and by 6:30 we are out the door and in the rental car.

The snazzy PT Cruiser we rented was still where we parked it the night before--sweet! I am always nervous about street parking in New York ever since the one time my rental car was towed because I didn't see the No Parking sign that was no larger than an index card.

We get on the expressway and it's basically a straight shot on I-95 until exit 22 in Connecticut. The driving is fun because I rarely do it anymore and since there is no one on the roads it is mercifully stress-free. I'm feeling good, wifey is feeling good, and there doesn't seem to be a rain cloud in sight (even though the weather man said to expect rain all day).

At exit 22 we got off, made a right turn and immediately got lost. Damn Google Maps! Good for nothing!

Eventually we gained our bearings and found a parking lot five minutes from the start/finish line. It was the usual pre-race crowds: the super-stars doing warm up laps around the parking lot, the TNT people who always seem to be too happy, the casual runners who rolled out of bed this morning and decided today would be a nice day to run a Half-Marathon, among others.

I picked up my race number from a tent on the beach and then stood in the slowest moving bathroom line. Ever. There were only 20 guys in front of me, but still took 30 minutes to get through the line. Afterward I downed a GU, did some final stretches and went over to the starting line. Meanwhile, wifey was in complete caddie mode. She was pulling out my GU, took my sunglasses out of their case, untangled my headphones. What would I do on race days without her?

The starting line was a disorganized mess of people. No corralling, no pace signs, just a mass of 3,300 people standing on the street. I took a pre-race picture with wifey, gave her big thank you/love you/I'll be back soon kiss, and disappeared into the crowd.

It was about this point I started to realize that something was off. I didn't pay it much attention because I was too distracted by the crowds and the announcer and the course map running through my head and stretching and everything. And then very quickly the announcer gave the mark.

The Race
Mile 1: 8:24
In true sRod form I forgot to set my watch as I crossed the finish line, so this mile was really more like 9:00--which is exactly what I planned. I wanted to go out slow because I knew there were many hills to come and even though it wasn't as hot as it had been the past few days, there was still enough of it to wipe me out by the halfway point.

I ended up dodging a lot of people in this first mile. Funny, because I think this is the smallest Half-Marathon I've ever done and I started near the front of the pack, but there still a bunch of people I had to get around in order to be in the open.

Mile 2: 7:53
As the crowd thinned out I was feeling strong and trying to settle into a nice pace. But at the end of this mile (which included the start of the first hill of the course) I looked at my split and thought: What the hell? Is that a seven? What's that doing there? I better slow down and get back into the pace I wanted.

Mile 3: 8:57
This was a better pace. Especially considering that this mile had a 50 foot climb, 50 foot drop, 50 foot climb combo that I certainly did not appreciate so early on in the race. Well, let's be honest, I wouldn't have appreciated it no matter where it landed in the race.

What I didn't realize about mile three at this point was that we would be repeating it as mile 11. Oh man how I wish I had remembered this later.

Mile 4 & 5: 17:14
Oops, I missed the Mile 4 marker and didn't hit the split button. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever saw a marker for Mile 4. Anywho, both miles average out to 8:37. Not too shabby considering that Mile 5 was all uphill.

I had a race day first at this point too. Per usual I read and reread all the race instructions before race day. I saw the notice that "roads will be open" but didn't pay much attention. I figured that it meant that we would be in one lane and all cars would be directed into the other lane. That assumption turned out to be wrong, the note meant exactly what it said: cars would be using the street while the race was on.

Halfway through Mile 5 an SUV merged into the pack of runners ahead of me. Two minutes later, a pick-up truck came down the road--through on-coming runners. This is an established race that has been run for 20+ years, why can't they close down the roads? Or at least prevent cars from entering the course while there is still a hearty flow of runners. Sigh. Perhaps I expect too much?

Mile 6: 8:19
Leading up to Mile 6 was rough with all the hills leading up to it. My body was feeling the pain and my heart rate must have been sky high. But the downhills, in addition to giving my legs a much needed break, gave me a psychological second wind that was pushing me (very quickly, apparently) through this mile.

But I knew I had to reign myself in because Mile 7 was another entirely uphill mile.

Mile 7 - 8:56
My entire game plan for this race was built around the Mile 7 marker. This mile marker was the crest of the second, and last, big hill of the race--from what I could gather from the elevation map. I knew that if I made the crest of this hill in good shape that the rest of the race I would be coasting. So I may have slowed down for this mile, but I knew that I would naturally pick up the pace in the last six miles.

Mile 8 - 7:58
And so my theory held true. Here I was cranking out a sub-8:00 mile (granted, gravity helped a lot) but I was doing great, pretty smooth sailing.

Mile 9 - 8:31
By Mile 9 the course had flattened out and the sun was out in full force. I was trying to stay in the shade as much as possible, but I could feel my shorts starting to stick to my legs from all the sweat. I was feeling good, but the little demons that live in my head started to pipe up. They started saying things like "it's too hot, you should take a walking break" and "sheesh, you still have four miles to go, you'll never make it."

I have to really practice at shutting up these demons. What kind of training can I do for that? I guess just a healthy dose of concentration and out-right ignoring them should work, right? But when you're 9 miles into a race that is the hardest thing to do. Especially when your left headphone decides it wants to die (as mine suddenly did) and leave your right headphone to do all the work.

Mile 10 - 8:47
At this point I would like to point out a severe miscalculation in my game plan for this race: according to the elevation map, the Mile 7 marker was the crest the second big hill of the race. Everything afterward appeared to be all downhill or gentle rollers. THIS WAS NOT THE CASE as I soon found out. However, I used a good chunk of energy getting up to Mile 7 expecting the rest of the course to be easy. Mile 10 was not easy.

Right at the start of this mile was a steep uphill over some train tracks, then a dip under I-95, and then a long series of uphills. But I was so close to the end that I thought I could take them. I remembered passing the Mile 10 marker on the way out (just after the Mile 3 marker) and remembering that it was at the crest of a hill. So I figured I just had to make it to this crest and I'd be done with this surprise hills section. And as you can tell from my pace, I was attacking these hills harder than the previous uphill sections of the race.

Mile 11 - 9:22
As expected, the course turned downhill after the Mile 10 marker. As I was going downhill relieved to be over with the hills. I saw a water station on the bridge at the base of the hill...and then I saw the hill behind it. I had come down this hill on the way out and had forgotten that I would have to go up it on the way back. Sweet Jesus. I tried to maintain my momentum from the downhill, grabbed some water at the water station, and charged up the hill.

I went up hard. Even though I had used all my mental strength to get over the series of quick hills in Mile 10, I attacked that hill with everything I had. I slowed down and tried to regulate my pace. I controlled my breathing--big breath in, big breath out. I put my weight on alternating legs for four music counts (an old running trick I had up my sleeve). I tried to shut up the demons screaming in my head.

I got to the top of the hill, but the demons won.

As I reached the crest of the hill all my tricks and strength tapped out and my feet fell. Thump, thump. I couldn't even control them, they changed into a walk before I knew what was happening.

In the back of my head I was panicking because once you start walking you never remain your momentum (Nitmos, sound familiar?). I gave myself a quick little pep talk and tried to run after 10 seconds. I lasted a minute before my feet decided to walk again. I tried everything I could think of to keep going: run slower, breathe right, listen to my music, use the momentum from the downhill at the end of the mile. Nothing worked. I was like a car that would rev but not start.

Mile 12 - 9:26
This mile went on forever, block after block after block. More starting and more stopping. Usually I can channel some deep strength that seems to come from no where during the last two miles of a Half-Marathon--but it wouldn't come. I tried, I looked for my "energy stash" that I had hidden from myself and saved for the home stretch, but I couldn't find it. I had put too much into the previous set of hills and sucked up everything I had left.

And while I didn't notice it at the time, right about now was when I started to feel what was different about this race: I had no attachment to it. Every single other race I've run I have had some attachment to. I lived in Boston when I ran the Boston Half. I lived in Queens when I ran the Queens Half-Marathon. I had visited Philly a dozen times before I ever ran that race. Even New Jersey and Baltimore I drove around the city to scope out the course.

Not so with Fairfield. This race was through some town that I strolled into that morning that I had never seen before. I didn't know this place, I didn't know these people. The whole race day experience felt like I was put in a small room with a stranger who could only talk about string theory while I could only talk about occult German fetishes. It felt awkward and I was not enjoying it.

Mile 13.1 - 9:37
Here I was, still sputtering. I knew it was the final mile. I knew I was going to finish. I knew that at least my first goal (finish better than 1:53:42) was going to happen. But I couldn't get that glorious surge to the finish line that I've gotten in every other race I've run.

I didn't know what was wrong with me and I was too busy trying to fix the problem to try to figure out what the problem was.

I took my final walking break at the turn before the Mile 13 marker and told myself that there was to be no more walking--the finish line was too close and I was too good of a runner to finish a race in this manner.

I had to force every single step. Every footfall was a conscientious command from brain, down my spinal cord, through every nerve and fiber of my legs. This was not euphoric running. This was labored and punishing.

I didn't look for wifey, I didn't look at my watch, I didn't pay attention to anything except for the mats at the finish line. I yelled as I crossed the finish line because it hurt and I was happy to be at the end.

Post Race
I didn't realize it until a few days later, but I didn't tear up as I reached the finish line. I usually get emotional because racing is a cathartic experience, but not this race. In the exit chute I found a chair and took my timing chip off--they didn't have a chip removal crew like most races do. I waved at wifey, gave her a big smile for the camera. As I sat there taking off my chip, I was just beating myself up. I was upset at how I ran the first ten miles so well and the last three miles so crappily. I was upset that I didn't make 1:50.

I looked at my watch--1:53:29. That didn't matter because I had started my watch late. If added the 30 second delay to that I would be several seconds over my PR. So I just ignored it and waited to get home for the official net time.

I misjudged the course, didn't gauge the hills properly, and--as I've realized in retrospect--did not enjoy the race. Now, if we quickly look back at my last post before the race you will see that I purposely omitted that goal from my goal list. I believe my words were: I do realize that for humility's sake and out of respect for the distance that my attainable goal should be "to enjoy the race," but damn it, I am a cocky 20-something that always has something to prove.

Is it possible to unlearn something you've known for four years? Yes is the apparent answer. I think some deep introspection is needed right now, but truth is that I don't have any. I don't think I've fallen out of love with running--I mean I'm looking forward to today's long run and the upcoming marathon training. But I feel like something needs to/will change.

When I got home I looked up the official time--1:53:41. Yes folks, that is one second off my PR. So I can claim this race as a PR, but it certainly did not feel like one.


chia said...

You deserve every millisecond of that PR. Tough race - you rock man!

Kevin said...

A PR is a PR is a PR. If you think about it, it sounds like that course was much tougher then your previous PR? It means you should be able to rock out a decent PR on a different course

Marcy said...

But think of it this way: Dude you got a PR with hills AND walking so just think how rocking you'll do next time, KWIM? ;D

You did awesome! :-) Races like this make the really good ones you do in the future all that much better ;D

Meg said...

Great job toughing through it, and with the PR! It's interesting to hear your reflections on the race and your attitude towards having fun no matter what vs the PR.

Jess said...

Not every race can be what we expect or want from it. The important thing is that you pushed through even when you were struggling and disliking it, and in the end, you still earned yourself a PR. Not too shabby.

Ted said...

Wow... ok... this is what I think...

1. Nuke those NyQuil. Its not needed. (It makes me very crappy the next morning.) Opt for Lunesta. It works like a charm. Will get you a beauty 8 hr of sleep before the race.
2. Its not uncommon for many of us to think about PR constantly. If I think about PR constantly, good chance that it will ruin my day.
3. Try this experiment. Just start your watch and don't even think or look at it. Just go all out and enjoy every minute of it. Daydream while you run. Think about running on the beach with lovely bunnies going after you. At the end, you will be in for a big surprise.
4. Hat off to you for a terrific run, you are still a winner to our eyes. Great run and keep it up!!!
5. You ROCK !

Nitmos said...

Ah, yes, the "quick" walking breaks. I have vowed to no longer take them. They never end up being quick and usually submarine the rest of the race.

Those sound like some tough hills though. I second what Marcy said, you PR'ed a tougher course. So, bully for you.

I've had a few clunkers as you know. Refocus, turn the page, and get back at it.

Congratulations on the PR even if it wasn't the cathartic finish you were hoping for!

CyclingDivas said...

You've been bloggin how long????? And yet your favorite aunt (I say this because it's true) and only sister are the last to know - for shame!!!! Well, let the heckling begin - we'll see who has the last laugh now....rock on!

The Laminator said...

Hey dude, our next project is to work on motivation techniques...it'll come in handy for the marathon. Just remind me next time we run.

Have fun on your travels, and congrats again on your PR. And no matter how you feel about it...it is still a PR! Remember that!

Laura said...

Marcy said exactly what I want to say: if you can PR, even by ONE second, on a tough course, think how amazingly you'll do on an easy one!

Blyfinn said...

WOW, reading your race report sounds SOOO similar to my most recent half-marathon. I bet we went through about the same emotions. One of those, "man I just wanted to get it over with"