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Combining Consistency and Flow to a Stellar PR:Race Report for the 2009 Staten Island Half Marathon

Posted Oct 13 2009 10:04pm
(I’m sorry for the tardiness of this report, but in the setting of some great marathons this past weekend, I was in no mood to steal the spotlight from those who ran the full distance. Congrats to all those who ran and finished the full 26.2! For those who still care, I humbly submit my report for my half marathon I ran this past weekend…)

Intro - In many ways, I was ill-prepared and hesitant to run this race. I was running in my third half-marathon in less than a month, I had missed out on speedwork for several weeks due to nagging concerns of some right hip flexor pain I suffered in the aftermath of tackling 22 miles in Palisades State Park and oh yeah, I was in the last week of dedicated training for the New York City Marathon in 3 weeks. But since I promised the world I’d run this race for the World Wide Festival of Races, I promised the city I’d finished this race to complete my NYC Half Marathon Grand Prix, and I’d promised myself I’d race this course because frankly it is my favorite out of the five boroughs series, I found myself straggling into the blue starting corral for this race on a sunny and brisk Sunday morning in Staten Island wondering if today was finally going to be the magical day I’d PR and go under 1:25 for this 13.1 mile race.

Mile 1 - I hear the horn and follow the shuffling stampede across the starting line. Because the opening road leading to the first incline was somewhat narrow, I remember two succinct thoughts as I made my way through the crowds. Thought #1 – Accelerate slowly to a comfortable pace. Thought #2 – Don’t get trampled! No sooner had I completed those thoughts that I felt my feet brush the back of someone’s leg. Oops! I turned, apologized and felt someone else brush mine. (Like I said, it was crowded at the start…) I remained in this tight dense package of runners until we made it past the first hard turn into a steep incline towards the midway point of the first mile. Once we crested this opening hill, the road opened up like an empty black canvas. I smiled. Although I am no Michaelangelo by talent or by trade, on this gorgeous fall Sunday morning, I was very eager to paint. (Mile 1 – 6:24; Avg HR 152)

Mile 2 – Clusters of neighbors from surrounding apartments are gathering by the side of the road to watch us run. Volunteer cops occupy all the street corners, directing the sprinkling Sunday morning traffic away from the race course as we make our way eastward from Richmond Terrace to Bay Street. There is a series of rollers here – nothing big, all of them small – yet sufficient enough to create a flux of movement in the flow of runner traffic around me. I remind myself to ignore my neighbors who are all surging forward or falling back but focus instead on my own breathing and running cadence to determine what my own pace should be. Towards the end of this mile, as we make a left onto a small bridge that will take us to the next section of the course, we pass by a convenience store coincidentally named “On The Run”. Although they were situated in the vicinity of a gas station, I wondered aloud whether they could secretly be catering to runners in need for fluids or a gel instead of drivers in need of cigarettes or beer. (Mile 2 – 6:22; Avg HR 166)

Mile 3 – I was surprised, shocked really, to see the results of my last mile pace. Despite the steady diet of rollers in the last portion of the course, I had managed to keep my second mile pace eerily similar to the first. Since my half marathon PR pace (accomplished in Long Branch, NJ back in May) is 6:31 min/mi, I had it in my mind before the start of the race that I would have to maintain 6:30s in order to PR this race. And because I semi-unintentionally told a few friends and teammates last night that I wasn’t coming to Staten Island for the beautiful scenery, I was under a bit of self-imposed pressure to run a good time or at least score for the team. Some quick and easy math made me realize that I had built a 14 second PR cushion for myself at this point. Both my body and my head agreed that it was still too early to tell whether this information would be relevant or useless at the end of the race.
Halfway through this mile, we approach our first water station of this race and I refocus my mental energies back on this race. I grabbed the water from a helpful volunteer, take a sip, and realize that I wasn’t even as thirsty as I thought I would be. I take a second smaller sip, toss the paper cup to the side of the road and took a few quicker paces to regain my stride. Up ahead, I could see a string of runners stretched out for a good half mile in front of me. Aside from tall grass and abandoned warehouses, they wasn’t any surrounding scenery to speak of for this next two miles. For me, this minor inconvenience hardly mattered because I was so heavily focused on myself, my form and my flow at this point. (Mile 3 – 6:23; Avg HR 167)


Mile 4 – After a series of wide straight flats next to shipping yards and anonymous warehouses, the course suddenly turns onto a long but gentle hill leading to a more residential area of town. As I make my way steadily towards the top, I remind myself to shift into a lower gear mentally and withdraw further into myself, wondering if anyone else studying my form right now would classify it as an example of flow or a dying duck waddling his way upstream. I crest the hill, make a left and start my descent down a windy path on a residential street. The street itself is flanked on both sides by ethnic stores which are for the most part closed for Sundays. Volunteers and spectators alike decorate the sidelines as they clap and cheer on us runners passing by. Partly fueled by their boisterous encouragement, partly motivated by thoughts of these festivities serving as a microcosm of what is to come in three weeks, I find my pace increasing ever so slightly. (Mile 4 – 6:21; Avg HR 169)

Mile 5 – It is getting warmer now. What started out as a chilly morning in the low 50s must be hovering around 60 now. I wipe the first drips of perspiration from my brow and ease off the slightly faster pace I had been running. Even with my semi-erronenous quasi-arithmetic capabilities available to me mid-race, I was well aware that I was about 30 seconds ahead of PR pace a quarter of the way into the race. As I continued to run, I continued to process this information. On the one hand, I knew I should be ecstatic that I am extending my cushion and not barely maintaining an adequate pace. On the other hand, I also knew that I have a history of pulling off 6:50s during the harder second half of races especially on courses that includes some late and gnarly hills like this one. I temper my own expectations and make a pact with myself not to calculate paces until I’m done with the giant uphill at Mile 8.
I slow down for the ascent up some small rollers and extend my stride down the back stride as we approach the long out and back portion that marks the halfway portion of the course. This is my favorite section my the race because not only do you get to see the elites battling it out in the front as you approach the midway point but you get to see your friends out on the course with you on your way back. I start to wonder in anticipation who I might know out there today and for a few seconds, almost forget that I’m running at PR pace. (Mile 5 – 6:31; Avg HR 168)


Mile 6 – If I wasn’t so entranced in my surroundings, I would have been slightly perturbed that my pace had dropped to 6:30s for the first time in the race. After a long and gentle descent, I arrive at Father Capodanno Boulevard, highlighted by a mile and a half straightaway ending a hairpin loop, and the best part of the race at for me. Soon after I begin my trek, I see the lead vehicle leading the first overall man on his journey back. It was remarkable to see him run. He had a smooth effortless stride and a very quick turnover. From my vantage point he looked as if he was chasing the lead vehicle. The most amazing thing was the long silence that ensued after he came and went. The second place runner was at least a minute back. Wow! Soon after, the trickling of elites began and gave way to more and more runners. After a few minutes admiring the elites, I checked back into myself and refocused my energy on my own form and breathing. (Mile 6 – 6:16; Avg HR 164)

Mile 7 – Did I just throw down my fastest mile split halfway into this race? Between gazing at all the elites and watching for any faster teammates running ahead of me, I hadn’t noticed that I had inadvertently shortened my stride and quickened my pace. I make the hairpin turn a quarter mile into this segment and begin my trek back. I straightened my stance and forced myself to take deeper breaths in a conscious effort to control my speed. I was well aware that I was more than 40 seconds now ahead of PR and didn’t want to ruin my chances by running the rest of the race at too aggressive a pace. After settling back into a nice groove, I divert my eyes to the opposite side of the boulevard to search for familiar faces coming up towards me. As I watched the parade of runners passing by behind me, I got the sense that not too many of my teammates took the ferry to run this race today; Most probably opted to stay behind to run their last 20 miler of the year before the taper for the NYC marathon. The ones that did run this race however, gave me some applause, some shouts, and other encouraging gestures that made me feel like a mini celeb out on that course. (Mile 7 – 6:31; Avg HR 165)

Mile 8 – We exit the boulevard, take a left and begin the half mile climb up the biggest incline on the course. On the other side, waves of runners were making their way down the incline on the way to where I had just been. Although I had already seen many of my friends who I had expected to see, I couldn’t account for one which concerned me. I ran closer to the divide and searched for a face among the arriving masses. I hadn’t yet found her when I arrived at the end of the incline and was forced to turn right to continue on my way. I wouldn’t find out until after the race that night that my friend suffered a knee injury and dropped out mid-race and had to be carried back to the start by ambulance amidst a stream of tears and concerns. As of today, she is still not sure whether she will be meeting me again on November 1st in Staten Island for the start of the NYC Marathon. This is to be her first ever marathon. I have no words of wisdom for her right now. (Mile 8 – 6:40; Avg HR 168)

Mile 9 – I was excited to learn that I conquered the big hill mile only 10 seconds above PR pace. In my past experiences with this particular mile, I never went below a 6:48 for this section, so to be done with this giant obstacle still holding on to a 30 second lead over my previous PR is extremely gratifying. I flew down the backside of this hill in ecstasy, knowing now that my PR is well within reach. At the half way mark, I slip myself a Chocolate Expresso GU gel and continue on my way. (Mile 9 – 6:20; Avg HR 165)

Mile 10 – At this point, the bad news was that my legs were mildly fatiguing. The good news was that I had only 4 miles to go and about 50 seconds to play with. Some quick math confirmed that I only needed to maintain a 6:40 min/mi pace for the next 4 miles to get my PR. As I feel my stride becoming heavier and more pronounced with every step and my back leaning more and more forward, I yell at myself, audible to others at times, to correct my posture and maintain optimal running efficiency. We are back at the empty warehouses and grassy fields where we had been before. There is no scenery to speak of here, just the sounds of several thousand pairs of shuffling feet and audible groans from those who had pushed the pace a little too hard in the earlier miles. (Mile 10 – 6:32; Avg HR 164)

Mile 11 – I pass the double-digit mile marker just as a train rolls through the tracks far off to the left. The pace feels a big aggressive to me now so I pull back ever so slightly to temper my speed for the final 5K portion of this race. My legs were sore now, I can feel them, but given that there’s a PR on the line, I push onward at a slower but steadier speed. After battling through the monotony of the flat roads and uninspiring landscape, I finally make a left back over the bridge towards the final section of the course. I pass by “On The Go” again and am somewhat shocked to find that they are still closed. No matter, I am almost done now. The rollers again eat me up and I fight like hell to sustain a manageable pace. PR be damned if I miss it now. (Mile 11 – 6:38; Avg HR 165)

Mile 12 – The spectating crowds become thicker and more boisterous as we approach the final mile. I notice a ferry boat docked in the marina down below and reflect on the beautifully fall weather we are having for this race. I refused to contemplate thoughts of sub-1:25 but upon cresting the final small roller and seeing 1:27:XX flash in fluorescent yellow colors above the last mile marker, I could not help but quietly acknowledge that 1:24 was now not only possible but probable. (Mile 12 – 6:36; Avg HR 171)

Mile 13 and Finish – It was go time! I used the fast descending slope off the last roller to gradually accelerate. As I do, I think about the significance of this day, this race, and this time. I reflect back on the day just a few years back when running sub-1:30 for a half seemed like an impossible dream. I remember conversations I had back then when I told others that in my mind sub-1:25 was the best that any recreational runner could ever hope to achieve in a running career. I remember back to those times and run a little harder. Can it be, can it really be…that I am now finally where I never thought I’d be? Have I finally reached the pinnacle of my dreams? I approach the finish line with three others but hear the loudspeaker announce my bib number and my name as I come over the mats. I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see the clock for myself. 1:24:25. Yes, I indeed had done it! (Mile 13 – 6:12, Last 0.1 – 0:35; Avg HR 176)

Analysis – I’m glad none of my friends and teammates were immediately available to see my actually cross the finish line (all were still running their race…) because I was an utter emotional wreck once I realized what I had done. I had snot out my nose, tears out my eyes and leftover GU out the corners of my mouth. But despite my dilapidated appearance, I was secretly and quietly reveling and enjoying my own appearance because it represented all the blood, sweat and tears I had spent in training over the years to make this dream a reality. Needless to say, I am extremely proud of my performance in this race. Not only did I finish with a stellar PR time, a time which now makes a sub-3 marathon a bit more realistic, but I also ran well with a consistent effort and pace almost throughout the entire race. I also somehow managed to run fast with soreness and pain in several muscle groups of my right leg which proves to me that I am not a flimsy runner but can overcome slight nagging injuries to have a good race. I am hoping that my success in this race will translate well to the full marathon distance. We shall see in less than 3 weeks!

Final Statistics
Finishing Time – 1:24:25 (PR by 0:51)
Average Pace – 6:26 min/mi
Overall Place – 76/3983 (1.9%)
Gender Place – 75/2351 (3.2%)
Division Place – 18/940 (1.9%)
Age Graded – 70.4%
Flyer Men – 1st Place
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