There are more similarities between various types of endurance racing than there are differences. Regardless of the sport, in order to get on the podium, you must be willing to sacrifice, you must be able to suffer, and you must utilize your strengths. Even with those pieces in place, winning, or getting on the podium, is no easy task. Often times it requires much more than supreme fitness and planning. Sometimes, the difference is only a mental one. Can you keep your head in the game?
Last week I wrote about a deal I made with my wife to run the Kiawah half marathon with her. I started running in October and fit in 2 runs a week to get my legs used to the rigors of pounding the road. All seemed to be going smoothly until the Tuesday before the race when I seemed to have strained a muscle in my hip. All week leading into the race the outlook for race day looked bleak. My hip hurt, and it wasn’t getting better. The night before the race I went to do some openers and see how my hip was doing. Praying for a miracle, I went for a run and felt absolutely terrible. The hip hurt, my legs felt dead and I wondered if I would even make it to mile 3 in the morning. And just like that, the pressure was off.
Now, I’m not a competitive runner. I haven’t raced in running shoes seriously in 5 years. But, when it sank in that I would be doing a half marathon, the competitive side of me clicked. I began wondering how fast I could do this thing. Could my bike fitness give me a boost? I had to know. And that adds pressure. Racing to 100% of your ability for under 2 hours is no simple matter. It is painful and hardly “enjoyable.” So when things looked poor for how I would feel race day, I knew there was little chance I would have a good showing. The pressure subsided, nerves were gone, and I was totally relaxed and ready for disappointment.
Race day came and I did everything as usual. Some light calories before the race (further out from the start time than usual given how running jostles your stomach). I ate two Trail Nuggets bars and a banana with a glass of water. We walked to the start line, I downed a few GU chomps (which I found to be much more enjoyable than gel!), we chatted a bit, and soon we were off.
With 2,700 people in the half and another 1,100 runners doing the full marathon, things were a bit crowded for the slightly downhill start. A bit of weaving got me into the top 200 where I could run at my pace. The first mile clicked by and I was sub 6:40. That seemed fast but my heart rate was low, and the hip pain was manageable. Hmm. I thought that was odd. Miles two and three went by quickly with the adrenaline rush and runners were thinning, and to my absolute shock, my hip was feeling better!
Then I got serious. After the first mile, I started being very deliberate about running straight lines from corner to corner. Meaning I would look for the next bend or corner in the route we were approaching and run straight to it instead of staying in the center of the road, etc. This had me looking like I was going all over the place as all the other runners were following the gentle curves and bends of the road. At the end of the race though, this strategy saved me a tenth of a mile! Or, 41 seconds. While that might seem like an insignificant number, I’ve lost plenty of races by less time.
Miles four through seven were when I started getting bored. The scenery was indeed lovely, and the weather, while a bit warm (mid 60s and rising fast), was still gorgeous. But being used to a type of racing that requires full concentration at every moment, this felt a tad lacking in stimulation. As a result of my useless pontifications about boredom, my pace began slipping and before I knew it I had done a few miles over 7:10. I slammed down another packet of GU Chomps and got back on pace.
Given my lacking experience in running, I had talked to a few friends about pacing leading into the race and decided to run at a heart rate that was in the middle of my biking threshold. That seemed like a safe plan that should get me at least to mile 11 where I might implode, but at least be close to the finish. I talked things over with running guru Jordan Chang, and he gave me the best advice.
“Half marathons are just painful. It will hurt pretty much the whole time. The first 8 miles should be controlled, but at mile 8 you have to make a decision. Either, you are going to run harder, or run slower. You will not be able to maintain the same pace at the effort you did the first 8 miles.”
He was absolutely right. When mile 8 came, I felt decent and my heart rate was steady. Holding the same pace though was increasing my effort, forcing my heart rate to climb. I worried about burning out if I pushed myself into the upper end of threshold to maintain my pace. My careful considerations ended when a runner came by me. That was it. The competitive switch flipped and I stopped worrying about my effort. “Don’t let him go” I coached myself.
Mile 9 came quickly and I was happy to see my previous mile had been faster. “Ok good, I’m moving in the right direction.” I passed the 9 mile marker and a minute later realized if I could go sub 7 minute miles for the last 4 miles, I would be under 1:30…
Never did I think running a sub 1:30 half marathon on two months of training was possible. I was shooting for more like 1:34. But I was going to try. I opened my stride length, and started pushing. My heart rate climbed into the top of my threshold (just a hair below anaerobic) and I began slowly dropping the racer who I had been pacing off of. Mile eleven came and I was in a controlled crash. Two more miles. It might be sustainable.
There is something surreal about pushing yourself to the absolute limit. When every fiber of your being is screaming for you to stop, to rest, to collapse, but you somehow manage to refuse them. It’s only a skill that comes with training and practice, but one that never seems to get easier. Simply more effective.
There was nothing left in the tank. My breathing was quick and shallow. I felt like I was sprinting but my watch showed the truth. Stopping was coming to mind; every other second.
Mile twelve came and I couldn’t believe it. How could I not be there yet?? My lungs were seared. This felt like a 5k. I was flat out, pushing as hard as I could, but going nowhere. Every tenth of a mile felt like 20 minutes.
In slow motion, I came into the last quarter mile. The finish line music was blaring and I could hear the announcer. I tried to kick the final 400. No chance.
Could I make it to the line? It looked like it was a mile away.
The last 100 meters I died a thousand more deaths, gritting my teeth. I practically fell across the line, finding a nearby table to rest on. Nothing remained. And I was short. 1:31:00.
I was confused, but it didn't matter. I was done, the pain was over. I later figured out my math had been obviously way off (not uncommon while racing). My last 4 miles were below 7, but I needed another 60 seconds and that was simply out of reach.
What an experience though. I finished, and faster than I hoped. Grabbing 5th in my age group on the way, and 52nd of 2742 runners. Kiawah Island Resort put on a very organized and well thought out race. The course was fun and the volunteers were incredible. Exactly what you hope for no matter what kind of race you’re doing.
All in all, it was a fun experiment, getting back into the running shoes was certainly tough at first, but a great change from riding. And I found that with a bit of training and muscle adaptation, the fitness levels are transferable. You just have to be willing to dig deep and suffer.