Thursday, October 27, 2016

All the Things I Knew: a Baystate Half Marathon race report

A version of this race report is cross-posted on Salty Running

Two seconds: that's all that separates 1:59:59 from 2:00:01. In between, 2:00:00. There's nothing fundamentally different about each of those times. Yet two hours, or any other pleasantly round time goal, seems such an insurmountable barrier.

At least, it did to me. Once upon a time (2008 - I'm not that old), I ran my very first half marathon in 2 hours and 43 minutes. Since then, I'd slowly whittled my time down. Fifteen minutes. Ten minutes. Five. If there was a Zeno's paradox for PRs, this surely was it. And then in May this year, on a misty morning in Pittsburgh, a breakthrough: 2:06.

Could I finally break two hours? I knew I could do it - in theory. My brain knew that other runners with the same 5K and 10K PRs had run sub-2 handily. But did my body understand that too? Did I know it in my bones? In my heart?

Both feet off the ground! I'm telling you - purple is my lucky colour.


The Baystate Half Marathon in Lowell, MA, has a reputation for being fast and relatively flat along a river through the former mill town. Close to a quarter of its 2,000 marathon runners qualify for Boston each year. The October race date generally comes with great weather. And it has good food (chicken noodle soup, frozen yogurt bars), a long-sleeved unisex-ish tech shirt, and fun bling, all for $65 fed back into the local economy.

I say I had no training plan. I mean I had no 'official' training plan, no coach, no Hal Higdon or Pfitzinger or RLRF or Hansons, nothing but my calendar and my own experience and intuition. Nothing, really, but common sense.
I started training in July, after a month and a half of casual running. The bread and butter of my untraining plan, as with any training plan, were one speed ('speed') workout, one tempo-ish run, and one long run. Each week I'd throw in one to three more easy runs, and every 3-4 weeks I'd pencil in a cutback week. Each of those easy runs was 3-5 miles, and if I had time for only two miles, so be it.

Here are the things I knew going in:
I knew from a previous marathon cycle using Hansons that I was physically capable of running six days a week if I wanted to. I did not, eventually, run six days a week any week of this cycle; a typical week was 4-5 days of running with 0 to 1 cross-training session. Honestly, I was in *zero* danger of overtraining.
I knew from experience that it's very, very hard for me to nail solo speed work. So I committed to my local running group once again for Monday night track sessions.
I knew there were things I was not willing to sacrifice. Time with family, for one. That meant few early morning workouts, lots of weekday lunchtime or mid-afternoon runs in the full heat of summer. On weekends, it meant sneaking out the door early for my long run and leaving my husband to deal with toddler separation anxiety till I got back.

And here are the things I knew coming out: 
That I had a new 'Garmin PR' from one of my long runs, and that I could handle a long run without carrying water and drinking only from local water fountains.
That, from my tempo runs, I could handle being a little uncomfortable for five miles.
That fall PRs are forged in the summer heat.

Race day
We stayed overnight at the Radisson in Chelmsford, 3 miles from the start line, and there were shuttles to the start so I didn't have to drag my lovely fan club with me. The start line is next to the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, a big hockey arena and concert venue, and runners were able to huddle in there (and use the bathrooms, in addition to a whole bank of portapotties!) before the race start.

Race weekend weather was 39 (7C) at the start and high 50s (about 15C) at the finish - perfect weather for running. Not so perfect for standing around in a t-shirt, shorts, arm warmers and gloves. I knew I'd have to eat and drink more to make up for what I'd shiver off at the start line. With that in mind I had leftover spaghetti at 5am, a packet of instant oatmeal at 6am, and an energy bar at 7.15am before the race start at 8.

The one thing my body did not know going in was how to race a half marathon, so I consulted some more-experienced Saltines. The consensus, and my eventual race strategy, was to run the first 5 miles easy, up the pace for the next few, and 'just barely hold on for the last 3'.

When you're racing for a PR you don't really have a lot of spare mental bandwidth to take in the sights. I remember the three frigid extra minutes we waited after 8 for the race to start. I remember the scuffed-up bridge crossings on the two-loop course. I remember roadkill on what must have been the busiest main road (don't step on the dead raccoon - that'll really put a dent in your race day). I remember water stops staffed by high school students. I remember fall foliage, and getting glimpses of the river along which we ran. I remember small children giving high-fives. I remember seeing my husband with our son on his shoulders at the end of the first loop: "Go mama!".
Fall foliage from an earlier training run.

Here are my splits, rounded to the second. 

Miles 1-5. Remember overall sub-2 goal pace is 9:10.
9:18. Small rollers, very crowded as we started with the marathoners, lots of crowd support. I stepped in a pothole almost immediately and my ankle wobbled. I heard someone next to me say, "That's what I'm afraid of." Further behind us there was an anguished gasp. "Oh man, everyone is finding the potholes."
9:15. Sign on course: IF TRUMP CAN RUN, SO CAN YOU. A voice behind me bellowed, "HE ISN'T JUST RUNNING, HE'S GOING TO WIN." I ran a little faster.
9:15. I pulled the arm warmers down, covering my Garmin.

Miles 6-10. A little over my usual 10K/ tempo pace (8:30).
8:39. We began the second loop of the course. I unearthed my Garmin face from beneath the arm-warmer.
8:28. At this point I began to feel like I was working. Not hard - just pushing the pace.
8:52. "Everything hurts," said a nearby woman to her friend, giving voice to what I was thinking. "It could be worse," her pacer friend responded. "You could be doing the marathon." I passed them.

Miles 11-13.1 'just barely holding on'.
8:42. In theory it was time for BIG ENGINES and 5k pace. After 10 miles, this is all I could do. Still passing people.
9:09. I felt my quads and calves twanging, juuuust on the verge of cramping, and slowed down in order to make it to the finish cramp-free.
0.1 - 0:48:19 (8:04 pace. Did I mention I am not a sprinter?)

Final official time: 1:56:21, net time. Overall, it felt...not easy, but not hard, either. Not hands-on-knees breathless. I knew I'd worked for it and would pay in soreness, but my legs weren't trashed. I'd say this result is probably a good gauge of my current level of fitness. I did not scream. I did not cry. Going in, I was fairly confident I would at least PR, if not go sub-2, and so I was not all that astonished by the result.

There’s a saying, credited to an indigenous Indonesian group, that knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle. You could say my heart knew what I could do before the rest of me did. Is that, in some way, a self-fulfilling prophecy? If you’ve done enough work to build your confidence, can that confidence carry you the rest of the way?
From top left: shivering my a** off at the start; official results; and a drive up to NH after the race for foliage, apples, friends, and fun. 

So, what's next?

Well, for starters, I've come down with a cold. I swear there's something about racing, compared to a mere long run, that shatters your immune system. So I have to get over that. Yuck!
I did a lot of rolling, stretching, and hip/ glute and core strength work this past week. It's almost more important for me to have a recovery plan than a training plan, otherwise I'll either vegetate on the sofa and feel awful because of all the inactivity, or try to do workouts way too soon and feel awful because of all the overactivity (not a risk this time round!).

Over the next few weekends, I'll head out for some longish meanders, and see if I can't get a couple of friends to run with me. I'm kind of excited for proper tights weather...but ask me again in February.

On November 13 I'm running the Cambridge Half strictly as a fun run. If I feel good that day I might see if I can go under 2 hours again, but I'm not going to stress out about it if I don't. New England fall weather is totally unpredictable. It might be raining on race day. There might be sleet. It might be 80 degrees. Who knows?! Several friends are running, and there's beer and pizza at the finish. And that'll round me out for the season.

In the end, does there have to be a 'next'? Why not some downtime, some casual running, and expending my energies on family and work? Running, after all, is supposed to deliver balance - to fit in with the ebb and flow of life. Then: a big hairy audacious goal a year or two away, punctuated by a series of smaller, intermediate steps. There's no shame in casual running, and there's no shame in striving - I know.


  1. First of all, CONGRATS!! Second, I know it's lame to say this *after* the fact, but I knew you were going to kill it. If not at this race, then sometime soon. Third, how did you think blind pacing went for you? Was there a reason you hid your Garmin for the first miles and then uncovered it? Fourth, I *always* get sick after a hard race too. Finally, I can't wait to see you crush your Big Hairy Audacious Goal. :D #teamgluteusmediusFTW

    1. Thanks!!! Hmm, I think blind pacing works only if you've really, really dialed your paces into your legs - if your muscles know what 9:10 or or 8:50 or 8:30 should feel like. In the early miles I never, ever hit my target paces. I'm always either faster or slower, and either way it stresses me out. So blind pacing it is, but only for the early miles! Later on, I want my watch to tell me if I'm on target. I generally know what my paces should feel like, but I want that extra certainty.

      When the kiddo came down with a cold a week before the race, I knew I was going to catch it - it was inevitable. All I could do was get to the start healthy and resign myself to the rest.

      Go #teamgluteusmedius! I've actually been doing my MYRTLs this week! :)

  2. Woohoo! Sub-2:00 has eluded me since I started running halfs eight years ago. Mostly that was the result of me not caring/speed training but three out of the nine I've tried pretty damn hard and it hasn't panned out! I'm hoping it'll happen this fall though. Anyway, you're a star. It's incredible that you've knocked 45 minutes off that first race! And you're right, there doesn't need to be a next yet (or at all!).

    1. I think it'll happen soon! It took me a little while and some dedicated training (+ speedwork). And the right race, with the right weather. But I've got to a point fitness-wise where I feel like I could pull it off again - rather than 'oh that was a lucky fluke'.

  3. Nice job!! And congrats!! This race is definitely on my East Coast list (if I ever make it out there for a race).

    1. Here's the plan - come and do the marathon, go on quaint New England bed & breakfast vacation, eat a lot of pancakes and maple syrup...I hear a lot of folks BQ at Baystate. And then you'll have to come back to my neck of the woods. ;)

  4. Congratulations! What an outstanding performance. I really like your attitude about running not having to always be about training for something - it can just be for fun. :-)

  5. So so happy for you, what a brilliantly executed run!! Great write-up too.

    BIG ENGINES!! That's what the Dude tells me to do in races too!!!