With training in full effect and seemingly only one half marathon in the DC area before March, I pretty much had two options -1)Not run a half marathon to check my fitness; 2) Hope that the weatherman up in the sky is nice to us and brings us a glorious January day. Well thankfully, option 2 became a reality. In years past, the Snapple High Cloud Half Marathon was subject to some of the worst weather imaginable for running races - blizzards and ice. So when considering this race as an option, I was thankful to be able to wait till the week of the race to actually sign up. So on Monday, I pushed the magic button on my computer to confirm my registration. Now the important thing to consider with a race like this is that you need to remember your priorities. For me, my priority is training for a marathon, so while I consider this race important from the perspective of gauging my fitness, I did not apply any taper of extra rest to ensure I do well. I was simply training through the race. You have to be disciplined enough to not let short sighted gains (ie extra rest days for fresher legs) take away from long term goals (hitting peak mileage for a marathon). As a result, this was one of two weeks out of the next 3 where I will be peaking my mileage. In fact, at the conclusion of the day, my weekly mileage hit an all time high of 60 miles - which included quite a few challenging workouts, like this one from earlier in the week at the end of the post . So with that said, let's get to the race!
Knowing that I was trying to put in 18-20 total miles on the day, I got to the race site with plenty of time so I could pick up my packet, get settled, and put in a solid 3 mile warm up. This was is run along the historic C&O canal towpath, which runs nearly 200 miles from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown in DC. It is packed dirt, with lots of rocks mostly. Some people were sporting trail shoes, while others racing flats. I used my 3 mile warm up to test out the terrain to get a better idea of the conditions for this race. Regular running shoes are more than adequate, provided you don't have a history of stubbing your toes often on rocks. I was originally going to run the race in my Kinvaras , since that have been working very well on most of my runs up to 13 miles and are the lightest pair I have, but I was a bit concerned about the rocks, since the bottom of the shoe has more grooves. Instead, I went with the Brooks Launch , which are just a touch heavier (but still light), and offer a flatter outsole and are a bit more sturdy than the Kinvaras. I think it was the right choice, as there were some pretty muddy sections and quite a few rock gardens to pass through. So with a nice 3 mile jog and some dynamic stretches , I felt loose and ready to race.
As is typical for races of any distance, my goal is always to go out at a pace that is slightly slower than goal pace. How much slower largely depends on the race distance, but for a half marathon, I try to make these miles a least 10s/mile slower than goal pace. Since my stretch goal was sub-1:30 and my previous PR was 1:31:35, I was targeting between 7:00 - 7:05 for these miles. My legs were pretty heavy from all the training, so I wanted to feel smooth through the turnaround, and only feel like I was truly working for the last 7 or so miles.
After the "Go" word was spoken, hoards of people took off like it was a 5k. I was shocked at how many people were going out as fast as they were! At about .25 miles into the race, I felt in total control as people continued passing and took a look down at my watch to see I was running 6:10/mile pace! I quickly reigned that back into what truly felt like a brisk jog and heard my first beep of the day - 6:55. I knew that was mostly due to starting off a bit fast, so I figured the other two miles would come back to my goal pace. Not too long after this, I starting to bring back a bunch of those speedy starters, who clearly went out too hard. A little tip - if you are huffing and puffing at mile 2 of a half marathon, you probably need to slow down!
With the elevation each way mostly as false flat downhill on the way out (toward DC) and uphill on the way back, I knew my splits might be slightly faster than goal pace, simply accounting for a few sharper quick drops once we pass through the lock areas. Each one seemed to be followed by one or two little drop offs. So Miles 2 and 3 came through in 7:01 and 6:57.
The goal for this section of the race was to start dropping pace down toward goal pace, but I gave myself a lot of flexibility this time, given my big training week. My minimum goal was sub-7 so I was at least easily on pace to beat my previous PR, but my stretch goal pace was 6:49. 1:30 on the dot is 6:51/mile, so 6:49 with the slightly easier early miles would net me out to right where I wanted to be. Given we were still heading slightly downhill and I was feeling pretty amazing, I wasn't surprised to see my paces dropping so quickly. I kept telling myself to hold back though, because I knew I'd have a tough stretch later to deal with, so I didn't want to be fighting any urge to slow down earlier than I wanted to. I just wanted the miles to tick by. And they did just as I continued passing lots more people. My splits followed to the turnaround at 6:51, 6:51, 6:47. I should note at this point that I already knew the course markings were off. The race mile markers were showing up way too soon, so I just kept going by my watch, while making the assumption that we'd make up the extra distance elsewhere on the course. So I wasn't necessarily surprised to hit the turnaround shortly after crossing the 6 mile mark on my watch.
One we made the turn back, my mental game started to change from being conservative to "Go, Go, Go!". Still wanting to not blow my legs out too early, I held ever so slightly back, but the effort was up, because we were now going uphill and I just discovered that we had a tailwind on the way out, as I now had a nice little breeze in the face to contend with. Still clicking away the miles though through Mile 10: 6:44, 6:46, 6:42, 6:45.
Miles 11 - Finish
Those lock areas really started to get annoying around this time, as the effort to go up those little inclines started to add some unwanted strains to my legs. It seemed like the false flatness became a bit more inclined in the last few miles, which I later confirmed when I downloaded my data. At this point, I knew all I'd need to do was hold onto my pace and I was not only guaranteed a PR, but my sub-1:30. This was probably the only dark moment for me, because it was just a matter of being patient enough to let the miles add up to get to the finish. I was locked into my pace and I was just hanging right at goal pace, with Mile 11 coming through in 6:49 and the Mile 12 in 6:52. It was right around this point that I saw the finish line and knew we weren't going to be making up that extra mile. The course was going to be exactly 1 mile short (later confirmed in an email they sent out to all the racers). Regardless, I picked up the pace with the finish line in sight and encouraged the female I spent the last 2 miles with to throw it down for this last bit. We jumped down to 5:51 avg over the last .14 miles I registered and when she crossed the finish line 2 seconds back from me, I heard the announcer say she was 2nd female overall. I gave her a big high five and congratulated her on her race.
My final time was 1:22:45 (6:49 avg), which translates out to a 1:29:34 half marathon. Mission accomplished!
The funny thing was that I mentioned to Jessica on Saturday at our training group that it would take one of those no-taper high mileage miracles for me to achieve my reach goal of breaking 1:30. But in moments like these, you just have to believe it can be done, because if you don't believe it, no one is going to push through the pain of running uphill and into a headwind with 4 miles to go until you get to realize that goal as reality. I told myself this during the race and it is exactly what I needed to keep the gas pedal all the way down. Though the race was a mile short, I still paced it until I could see the finish as if there was another mile to go. I know it isn't an official 13.1, but I dipped under 1:30 with plenty of wiggle room, so I'm taking my sub-1:30!
The race fully acknowledged this in several emails that were sent out after. The thing is, is that this is a race where 100% (yes, 100%!) of the fees go toward the High Cloud Foundation , which does some amazing work by providing humanitarian relief to various countries throughout the world. All of the people working this event were volunteers and I can't really fault them too much, though a quick glance at the cue sheet does specify that the turnaround was to be 100 meters west of Chain Bridge and when we hit the turnaround, I remembered thinking that I should have at least been able to see the bridge. I would think that any race marshal in charge of this would have referenced that same cue sheet when verifying any GPS readings before placing the markers. So while it isn't a huge deal to me personally since this was not an important race, it was a certified course and a qualifier for those trying to race Rock and Roll USA and New York . I am also aware that there are petitions in place to be able to use the pro-rated times, so they may still allow them to be used afterall. I mean, lets be real - if you can run 12.1 miles at a given pace, I'm pretty sure the last mile would have been more of the same.
So that is the end of my race report. I managed to log another 4 miles as a cool down, mostly spent with some PRR friends also doing the race to give me a total of 19 miles on the day. Not too shabby if I do say so myself!