Monday, March 18, 2013

A Teamwork Tale

This weekend, for the first time in a year and a half, I laced up my shoes to race a half marathon. As you can probably guess, the long lag time between races of this distance had me a little nervous. If that weren't enough, I STILL have some of the laryngitis/chest cold symptoms from the cold I contracted the week before Disney Princess and I have just been exhausted and not sleeping well for the whole week leading up to the race. Needless to say the sum of these factors was that I spent the week before the race vacillating between being incredibly anxious about the race and figuring that I had enough strikes against me that the pressure was off because I was going to run a time somewhere between unremarkable and disastrous. When I signed up for the race I had 2 goals in mind: don't walk (more on that later) and, hopefully, sneak in under 1:24:59. I honestly wasn't sure that I had either goal in me but I also knew that the only way to find out was to prepare as best I could and give it a go.

Despite my concerns going into the race, I was also really excited for the weekend. As usual, Ellen and I were traveling together but this time we were also joined by a bevy of our Bull City Track Club teammates. I had travelled to Kentucky with Rachel, Jen and Caren and knew that I loved spending time with them; as a bonus our fab store owner Kim was racing as well. It was exciting to be going to a race with such a big team of women and that anticipation balanced out at least a small amount of my anxiety.

In the few days before the race I began implementing pertinent elements of the soon-to-be-patented Ellen and Allie official marathon (and now half marathon) prep program. I guzzled down improbable quantities of electrolyte-laced water, tried to sleep extra, ate A LOT (mostly carbs, taking an exciting break from my regular mass quantities of veggies) and fell asleep nightly with visions of my weekend packing list dancing in my head. 

Saturday morning finally rolled around and after a shakeout run/race-planning session with our Oiselle teammate Allison and some delicious crepes and coffee Ellen and I hit the road for Wilmington. Both the drive and bib pickup were extremely easy and before we knew it it was time to cheer for Kim's husband Jason as he dominated the 5k. Then it was off to dinner and some emergency last-minute St. Patrick's Day accessory procurement, green nail painting and finally, bed. Unlike most pre-race hotel stays I was able to sleep like a log but before I knew it 5 a.m., and race day, rolled around. After a hearty pre-race breakfast of bagel with nutella (thanks Caren!), lots of water and a LUNA Lemon Zest bar, it was time to go see what I had in me for the day.

We started the day with a walk/jog/History of Rap part 4 dance party on the way down to the start. Unfortunately we we having too much fun to work in much of a warm up and I was a bit unsure of how this was going to affect me. Before we knew it the time had come to drop our bags, line up, assess the competition and go!

pre-race (post walk/jog/dance party),
sporting our fab new Oiselle
spike bags and our lucky shamrock
hair clips
Although I was still completely unsure about how race-ready my body was I had decided upon an aggressive race plan: start out at 6:25 pace and try to keep it up as long as possible and run with Jen and Rachel. Jen is a 2:55 marathoner. Rachel is 13 years younger than me and beat the pants off of me at XC Nationals. I am a soon-to-be 40 year old 3:19 marathoner. You can see why this was maybe a hair brained plan. Nonetheless, 6:25 pace suited both of their race plans well also and I was delighted at the prospect of running at least part of the race with teammates. 

A few things about this race before we get into the mile-by-mile recap: the weather was perfect - high 50's, little wind. The course was almost completely flat save for 2 very small bridges and a few rollers in the residential neighborhood. And the race support is AMAZING. The water stops are all manned by alumni clubs of local universities and they compete for the title of "best water stop". They were probably the best organized and most consistently enthusiastic aid stations I have ever run by! I really have nothing bad to say about the race organization and the course. If anyone reading is looking for a fab half or full in the spring, I would absolutely recommend this one.

Okay, back to the running. Once we got underway I was surprised by how good 6:25-ish pace felt. It certainly wasn't as easy as I would liked it to have been but from the get go the pace felt decidedly manageable. We went through mile 1 in 6:23. Early in the second mile we passed the only 2 other women in front of us and the 3 of us merrily picked up the lead women's bike and charged ahead together. Mile 2 was a little quick, in 6:12, but I got a bit worked up about getting over the bridge so I know I rushed a little. We settled down in mile 3, hitting it in 6:25. (That said, this was the mile when my watch began beeping early. It beeped early for the remainder of the race and came in at 13.23 miles. I am sure we didn't run the tangents perfectly but it was interesting that the gap between my garmin's account of the course and the course markers happened mostly in one completely straight mile.)

Mile 4 came up in 6:22, still right on pace and feeling good. Jen, Rachel and I were still running in a nice pack and I was enormously happy to have them there. I took my first Clif Shot gel (espresso, as usual) at mile 4.5. Mile 5, unfortunately, felt really hard and was a 6:18 split. I theorized that the problem was that energy was going to my belly to digest the gel and told myself that I would feel better in the next mile. For whatever reason, mile 6 did feel better. We hit the split in 6:20 and I marveled at the fact that we passed the 10k mark about 30 seconds faster than I had raced a 10k in last fall. This was a huge boost of confidence. We crossed the halfway point feeling good as mile 7 came in at 6:22. 

Unfortunately, the race was about to get a LOT harder for me. We entered the residential neighborhood in Wilmington and our pace started to pick up a bit. Before I knew it we were dropping miles that were much closer to my lactate threshold pace then my half marathon pace and that difference took its toll very quickly. My respiration picked up significantly as we went through miles 8, 9 and 10 in 6:15, 6:13 and 6:15. Rachel decided to make a go of it and scooted off at mile 8. Despite her cold and stomach flu she was running strong and I knew that she was aiming for a sub-1:24 so I was completely okay with letting her go. Jen began to chase her down at about mile 9.  While I truly wish I could have gone with her I also felt at that point that I was absolutely at the edge of my capabilities. (Of course, in retrospect I am beating myself up for not having run faster or tougher, but that is another story.) 

I tried to take a second gel at mile 9 and, for the first time in my racing career I was unable to choke it down. Looking back I realized that I was working incredibly hard but at the time I was just annoyed. I held onto it for a while in hopes that I would be able to nurse it down over time but then realized that all I was managing to do was get poop-colored gel all over my singlet and the back of my leg. With that I chucked it in a trash can and actually stopped for a split second in mile 11 to wipe the gel off my leg so that it didn't look like I had had an, um, accident. In the moment it seemed like a totally reasonable thing to do but as soon as I stopped I realized how silly I was and I just got my hustle right back on. Ridiculous, but funny in retrospect. Maybe the lesson here is that I should stick to vanilla gels later in the race. (I did also consider stopping to find out what the heck was causing pain under my big toe but fortunately I had the good sense not to stop, sit down, take off my shoe and examine what turned out to just be a blister mid-race. Guess I still had a little clarity in the final miles.)

Although I was starting to hurt, a lot, I was able to celebrate the fact that I went through the 10 mile mark in a time that smashed my old 10 mile PR by almost a minute and a half. The boost of excitement that brought was pretty brief though and I quickly returned to swinging between the feeling of "I am exhausted, I want to stop, I can't do this" and hearing Carrie Tollefson yell "Get After It!" in my ear over and over again. Regardless of how much I wanted to walk (which was a LOT) I succumbed to CTolle's signature phrase and just kept gettin' after it. Mile 11 was a pretty abysmal 6:26 and there were a few jogging-ish slow downs in miles 12 and 13 (both 6:22's) but, much to my delight I never walked. Not once. This, my friends, is a first in my half marathon racing history! As my energy flagged and I watched Jen and Rachel race off ahead of me I just kept reminding myself that the best thing I could do was keep running hard because then I would get the pain over with sooner. So on I trudged. Finally in the last mile I started to calculate where I was time-wise. When I realized that I could run the last mile at slower than 7:00 pace and still run a PR I felt enormously relieved and my energy picked up. This obviously didn't translate into a faster split but I sure felt better about myself.

If I didn't have proof, I
wouldn't believe it myself!
Finally, finally I turned the final corner and the finish line came into view. I had stopped looking at my watch at some point during the final mile and I just mustered the best possibly kick I could. The clock was over to the side of the finish line so I couldn't even see it until the moment I crossed the line...when it read 1:23:35. WHAT?!?! A 1 minute 54 second PR?!?! Honestly, even now, I don't know what to say. I was just in absolute shock.  At the beginning of the year I boldly (and foolishly, I thought) had stated that I wanted to run 1:23 for the half. I frankly didn't think it was possible, and I sure as heck didn't think there was any way I was going to do it this early in the year and yet there it was. In big, light up numbers on the race clock. Maybe I will just take the rest of the year off!

Podium sweep!
Rachel (1st), Jen (2nd), me (3rd)
When all the dust settled, Rachel had won (with a PR) with Jen hot on her heels (also in PR-time), both about a minute ahead of me. I am in awe of them that they were able to put a minute on me in those final few miles; as I slowed down they both sped up significantly. We were so giddy to have all PR'd and  swept the podium that the pain of the race disappeared almost immediately into my mental rearview mirror. And I am just indescribably grateful to have been able to run with, and then chase, such amazing, talented women. I knew even when I was out on the course that there was simply NO WAY I would have run the pace I maintained without them and I believe that even more strongly as I reflect on the race. I gathered so much strength from being in our group and I know that I have them to thank for my massive PR.

5 of the 6 speedy BCTC/Oiselle
women...missing 2nd place
finisher Jen!
Shortly after we finished our fantastic teammates came rolling in...first Ellen with Caren right behind her, both also in HUGE PR's. Very shortly thereafter Kim showed up, rounding out our perfect team PR streak. Somewhat improbably our entire group all had stellar days. We spent the next 1 and 1/2 hours celebrating our races with a big old dance party (and free beers, cookies and coca-cola) as we waited for the awards. Then we finally got down to the business of cleaning up, heading to the beach and eating. 

Post-race dance party!
BCTC bull horns...and beer. All the makings
of a good post-race celebration!

At the end of the day we all headed home happy and satisfied. Each and every one of us ran our absolute best, mostly for ourselves but also because we were part of a wonderful group and we all wanted to do our best for the group. Okay, also (as we all admitted) because we didn't want to be the one person who had a cruddy day. Two sides of the same coin as far as I am concerned. As Ellen and I drove home we remarked (multiple times) how motivating it was to spend the weekend with, and race with, such a strong, funny, positive group of women. I know that for many people running is a singular pursuit, but today was a wonderful example of why I love training with, traveling with and especially, when I am lucky enough, racing with a team. Whether we ran in a pack or covered the race distance without having a team member in sight we were still a part of a larger group and that team bond pulled us all along to the finish line just a little bit faster.

1 comment:

  1. Yay! Great race report! I *knew* you had 1:23 in the bag with all your solid training this year :) Congrats on the PR!