You gotta start somewhere.
I kicked off my season this year by signing up for the local Rock N’ Roll DC Half Marathon that follows a similar route to most running races in DC around the monuments, then heads up Rock Creek Park to get in a few hills on the way over to Northeast DC, passing through the ever-popular H Street Corridor, before finishing up in the parking lot at RFK Stadium.
I’ve run through all these parts of DC before and had a pretty good understanding of the course generally, although this would be my first time running this particular race. Actually, despite having completed a number of 70.3 and 140.6 distance triathlons, this would be my first time running a stand-alone half-marathon. So, needless to say, I was a bit interested to see what kind of times I could throw down without having to get in a solid swim and bike warmup. As an Ironman triathlete, opportunities to really open it up and train for fast-paced races are few and far between, so when I get the opportunity, I really enjoy training for these “shorter” distance races.
After our vacation to New Zealand (check out those posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) and the holidays, I finally got down to business training for this race in early January. I then spent the next two months laser focused on squeezing in incredible amounts of track and speed work, which kicks my ass, but I love. Ultimately, exactly one week prior to race-day, I completed my last race-pace run. It did not go well, and had me questioning my fitness, time goals, cumulative training, everything you can imagine. And then on top of that, I somehow managed to tweak my right groin muscle. I feel like I was able to mentally overcome the bad run, at least for the most part, as I could explain it relative to some pacing issues due to a hilly running route that left me gassed for my final intervals, but the tweaked muscle was a mystery to me. It just randomly started bothering me three or four days prior to the race and nothing I could do made it any better. I tried ice, I tried heat, I tried heating the ice cubes…nothing worked. The one saving grace was that it seemed to bother me more when walking than when running, so I figured I’d give it a shot and hope like hell it didn’t bother me during the race.
If all the rain drops were lemon drops and gum drops.
I was in the middle of training for months and then suddenly it was race day, which also managed to be the only day over a two-week period that called for rain…and rain it did…pretty much the entire morning…with temperatures hovering around the mid-40s. I made a last-minute decision to add a water-resistant vest on top of my shorts and t-shirt to try to keep my core warm if the rain continued to fall. This ended up being a solid decision as the rain indeed came down all day, and the vest helped to keep me insulated later in the race as a cold chill started to set in.
I started off in the first corral with a goal time of 1:32:34 (or what equates to a 7:04/mi pace) based on my latest 5k VDOT test. Lacking a bit of confidence as a result of the shaky goal-pace run a week prior, I made the decision to start off a bit conservatively and look to make up any lost time with a surge in the last mile or so of the race.
When the gun went off, I kept a conservative pace and just ran at what felt comfortable and sustainable, as long as it was somewhat close to my goal pace. This resulted in mile splits for the first 5 miles of: 7:14, 7:04, 7:06, 7:12, and 7:18. I felt really happy about these splits given that it meant I was only 34 seconds off my goal time and I felt GREAT! My tweaked leg had continued the trend of only hurting when walking and not affecting my race, and I only had a couple of miles of rolling hills before it was mostly downhill to the finish.
Sure, it has its ups and downs.
I knocked out the next two miles of rolling hills, including one immense hill on Calvert Street off of Rock Creek park, with mile splits of 7:25 and 7:45. I was able to maintain a constant effort pegged generally to my heart rate and let the pace figure itself out. My only goal here was to not expend too much energy while also not digging myself into so much of a hole that I couldn’t make up the time on the subsequent downhill sections.
I did exactly that and this is where I started to feel really good about the race I was having. Finished with the hills with 6.1 mostly downhill miles to go, I only had 1:36 to make up, which I knew shouldn’t be a problem with an even effort to the finish and strong kick at the end.
This is where it starts to go downhill, quite literally.
The last six miles results in a net downhill and I knew that this section of the course would be faster than the first half of the race for me. I just tried to stay within my box here and focus on not trying to gain back too much time all at once. I focused on maintaining an even effort level as the road trended downwards and wanted to really take advantage of the downhill sections. It’s incredible to me how much free speed some people leave on the table in these sections, and I realized how important really exploiting the downhills can be to achieving some solid PRs.
I managed to make it through miles 8-12 pegging every mile somewhere within a 6:40-6:59 pace and cumulatively gained back a full minute of the time I had lost earlier in the course.
The fatal mistake, there’s always one.
With a solid effort through the later half of the course, my watch showed I was only :36 off my goal which I knew would be in reach if I really embraced the suck for the last mile. So just after the Mile 12 marker, I turned it up to a pace I knew I could sustain for the last mile. The last thing I wanted to do here was run myself into the ground and end up walking the last few hundred yards into the finish. With about half a mile to go, I pushed into the hardest pace I could manage and just fought to keep the highest turnover I could to bring it all the way to the finish line. I pulled out a 6:26 final mile, resulting in a gain of another :38 seconds and what I thought was going to be a finish time just under my pre-race goal.
However, I pulled a total rookie move, and didn’t account for the slight extra distance I would inevitably run making my way around turns, crowds, etc, as the course is measured from the absolute shortest possible race distance. It’s a mistake that I should know better than to make. The extra distance in my case was about a tenth of a mile, but was just enough to result in a gun time of 1:33:05, just about 30 seconds over my goal rather than under.
Despite this slight mistake, I had a really great race, and given the weather conditions throughout, feel like I ran about a good of a race as I could have expected. Even more satisfying, is that my data from the race showed that I did maintain a 7:02/mile pace over the course of the race, and so in one sense, I did achieve the goal I had planned. As I consider my conservative start, and the concerns about pacing I had going into the race, I am absolutely thrilled with how the race turned out. Next time I’ll just have to keep in mind the difference between my course time and watch time. But you gotta learn somewhere, right?