Saturday, February 16, 2013

Love Rox Half Marathon: 13.4 Miles of Chaos

Or 10 miles, depending on who you are. . . but I will get to that later.

I have this recurring dream where I'm running a race and it turns into an obstacle course, and then I somehow get off course. I think I'm winning when the truth is I'm just going the wrong way. The most common obstacle is a staircase, and when I get off course, nobody is around to tell me where to go. That dream came true this morning at the Love Rox half marathon in Richmond.

I registered for this race about three weeks ago, per the advice of my coach. He likes the idea of running a half marathon tune-up race four weeks out from a goal marathon. Love Rox in Richmond was perfectly timed for this, and with a 10:00am start, I could drive down the morning of the race without having to deal with a hotel.

Being the inaugural year, I thought there might be some hiccups. However, Richmond Multisports, the organization that was putting this race on, had a good reputation for organizing triathlons. The race website seemed very professional and it had a fun Valentine's day theme, with elements such as "proposal hot spots" along the course where you could propose to your loved one during the race.

The course description was also very attractive. The website advertised,  "The course is very flat with the exception of some small gradual inclines up to the Lee Bridge and a few short steps down to the Canal Walk before you hit the Capital Trail along Dock." I raised my eyebrows at the "short steps down" part, but I thought I could handle a few steps down during a half marathon. Having run this race, I can honestly say this description is completely inaccurate. In fact, I would characterize it as very hilly and the "few short steps down" were more like 4 major staircases-- two up and two down. (Photo is below).  Sure, a lot of courses say "fast and flat" when they are actually rolling hills, but there is no way you can characterize this course as "very flat" or even "somewhat flat".

Anyway, I went into the race a tad skeptical, but open-minded and optimistic about what the course would bring.

Before the Race
Greg and I left our house at 6:15 and arrived over an hour ahead of the 10:00am start. Greg did not run this race and came just to support me. What a sweetie! I noticed there were only about 10 porta-potties which seemed insufficient for a race of 1,000 runners. I used one right away, before there was any line. I tried to use one again about 25 minutes before the start, but the line was huge and I didn't want to wait out in the cold rain for it.

Patricia, Me, and Jessica pre-race
Greg and I waited in the semi-warm tent for the race to start. There was a huge print out of the course map, in which the start line had been moved. This seemed like a last minute change because it hadn't been communicated via email or on the website. I wondered why they moved it and what that meant for the course distance, but nobody seemed to know.

I found my CAR teammates Jessica and Patricia who were also skeptical about the course and organization. We said we were just going to "go with it" whatever it ended up being, but we weren't expecting greatness from the race course. We did a quick half-mile warmup and then it was time for the race to start.

The race website advertised chip timing, which I interpret to mean a starting mat and a finishing mat. Well, the new start line wasn't actually a start line. They gathered us all onto a grassy area and told us to stand between two cones. It ended up being an extremely wide start, and we'd all eventually end up running on a path after just 0.1 mile on the grass. (Oh yeah, and running on grass is another part of my recurring race dream. I hate doing it.) Below is a photo of this start line, if you can even call it that. The path on the right hand side of the photo is where all these runners merged onto after just 0.1 mile. Yeah, total congestion.

Mile 1
They counted down from five and then the horn honked. I just couldn't believe how ridiculous this start was, but I figured I'd be on a nice race course soon and the "ghetto race" feeling would end.

We started running and maybe about half a mile into it, we ran down a staircase, and then up a staircase. These were not small staircases or "short steps" by any stretch of the imagination. I didn't think this was right because I thought we would just run down a staircase-- not immediately back up another one. We got to the top and I was just running along starting to get into a groove post-staircase when I noticed that the people ahead of me didn't know where to go. The leaders started yelling out "where do we go?". Seriously, nobody knew where the course was. Finally, we realized we had to go back down the staircase, and we never should have gone up it to begin with. So in addition to the four "planned" staircase runs, a lack of direction made us run six staircases, and definitely lengthened the course. By the time I saw mile marker 1, my Garmin read 10:00. (The plan was to go out at a pace of around 7:45-7:50).

Miles 2-3
Everyone seemed so pissed about this. I actually thought that they would declare it a false start, stop the race and have everyone start over. That would have been a good thing, but no, the race continued. At that point, I pretty much new a PR wouldn't be happening, unless I somehow made up that time. I stayed optimistic and continued running.

We ran underneath a railroad track and a bridge, so the Garmin got all wacky. I had thought that even if I didn't get an accurate time due to the course screw up, at least I'd have good Garmin data. Well, not true. My Garmin data for this race was all over the map. And if you include miles with staircases, I ran those probably about 10-15 seconds per mile slower than if there had been no staircase.

It was cold (upper 30's) and raining. We weren't running on asphalt but other surfaces, like the sidewalk that's made out of those little rocks. And concrete. And there were tons of potholes everywhere. Someone posted on the race's Facebook wall afterwards: "The ducking through the flood wall was awkward. The potholes and uneven terrain made injuries a serious concern."  I agree, the course was not safe on many levels. The terrain was just a small part of that.

I stuck with Jessica and Patrica during these miles and we were taking it all in stride. I said "well, at least they have proposal hotspots!" Patricia said, "you guys both better propose to me!" And I said "we should all three get married on this course!" Obviously, the race management was focused on the wrong aspects of organization.

We hit a water station and Patrica couldn't get water. I was holding a bottle, so this didn't affect me, but she literally had to stop and wait for someone to get her water. This happened multiple times throughout the race.  There were not enough volunteers and the ones who were there didn't seem to be paying attention.

I have Garmin splits for this portion, but they are totally inaccurate due to running under a bridge.

Miles 4-5
Up another staircase and we were finally on what seemed to be a typical race course. Here is a photo of the staircase that we ended up running up 3 times, and down 3 times-- Greg took this photo of me running up (in the red shirt).
Yes, this is a serious staircase! You don't want six of these in your half marathon!
I lagged behind Patrica and Jessica on the staircase and didn't catch up to them afterwards. The gap between me and them got wider and wider and I started to get frustrated and lose confidence. Physically, I just felt like I was expending way too much effort to be at mile 5 of a half marathon and mentally I was drained from how horribly the course was designed. As I watched Patricia and Jessica fade away in the distance, I had some interesting self talk:

I think I'm just going to drop out. The time I get won't be an accurate reflection of where I am fitness wise, which is one of the main purposes of a tune-up race. I feel like shit. I don't want to have to run a second loop of this exhausting course. There is no way I will be able to maintain this pace for the rest of the race. This just isn't my day. When I see Greg at mile 7, I'm just going to call it quits. I'll still have legs fresh enough to do a long run tomorrow and salvage some training for this weekend. This course is a joke and it's not worth my effort.

What do I really want out of this race anyway? And that question made me think. Seriously think. All these months working with a sports psychologist, trying to focus on the process and not the outcome. And then the question became a good one-- What can I get out of this race? What will I miss out on if I quit?  

A lot! I'm not running this race with the sole purpose of PRing. I want to prove to myself that I can push hard when things get tough. I want this run to boost my confidence for future races. Even if my time sucks, I want to feel like I put out my best effort. Quitting is not my best effort. I know that I am of similar ability to Jessica and Patricia and there is no reason why they should be so far ahead of me. I can catch them, I know it! I am going to surge now and start putting forth some serious effort. I might crash later on, but I am going to push for it now! I'm going to race this one!

At that point, I put my foot on the gas and started passing people. I sped up quite a bit and the gap between me and Patricia was getting smaller and smaller. At one point, I passed a guy who said to me, "where are you going?" I laughed and then wizzed by. All of a sudden I felt energized. I felt good again! Wow!

I am so proud of myself. I just proved to myself that I can turn a negative attitude into a positive one by focusing on the process (not the race result) and by doing so, make myself feel better physically. It's amazing how much my improved mental state made me feel. I was peppy again and excited to be in a race.

Back to the race, this was an unsafe course. The road was not closed off to cars, so we had to run on a sidewalk. Not an ideal surface for someone with a history of stress fractures. Some people were running on the road anyway, myself included. I kept on passing people and surging ahead until I finally caught up with Patrica. Yay! It was great to be running with her, and I was able to feed off of her positive energy.

Miles 6-7
Aside from my improved mental state, another factor that came into play was that I think I just start to feel better once I hit mile 6 of a half marathon. In Disney, I didn't really feel good until after I got out of the Magic Kingdom, six miles into it. And so, I learned something valuable-- I can expect to not feel all that great the first few miles of a half marathon. It will get better, so I should  hang in there.

Another staircase! And very slippery surface!
There was a very steep downhill, (the same one that ended the Richmond marathon last fall) and I felt like I really had to hold back to prevent myself from falling. It was so steep that it was unsafe, and many of the Richmond marathoners I spoke to afterwards agreed. Not only was this hill steep, but we couldn't run on the road-- we had to use the sidewalk, so it was particularly slippery. No fun.

After mile marker 7, I knew to expect Greg, who was waiting for me with a replacement water bottle. I later learned that he was also helping out as a course Marshall, directing people on where to go. Since they were so light on volunteers and people didn't know where to go, he was actually directing people. One person actually made a rude comment to him, as if he was part of the course management.

Greg also noted that some people were coming down the staircase way before the leaders of the half marathon. He figured out that these folks actually missed the out-and-back because they were mis-directed, so their race was only 10 miles. Not only does this screw up their race, but it screws up the rankings for everyone else. Who knows how many people only ran 10 miles and are competing with people who ran the full course? Really horrible mis-management.

Miles 8-11
This race also had a 10K, which ran one loop of the course, but started at 10:45. This means that Patricia and I got to spend our entire second loop passing slower 10K runners. This might not have been an issue if we weren't forced onto narrow sidewalks and if there wasn't a portion that was an out-and-back, further crowding the course. It was really mentally draining to have to constantly be passing people.

Patricia and I couldn't really run side-by-side because we had to keep passing other people. It just sucked to have to run the entire race on the sidewalk and not get to use the road at all. They really should have closed off the course-- especially if they were creating a situation where half marathoners would be passing 10K runners for the entire second loop.

Even still, we kept each other in check, encouraging each other to stay strong and that we didn't have much farther to go.

Miles 12-Finish
Downhill finish, before the cobblestone
Hills. That's all I have to say here. Oh, and snow. It started to sleet/wet snow during the last two miles which made things even more interesting. But back to the hills. We had already done these monstrous hills on loop one and now we had to conquer them a second time, right at the end of the race. I toughed it out and stayed strong, screaming all the way down the hill because I thought I would fall over.

Even before we ran down the hill that was the same as the Richmond marathon finish, there was another even steeper downhill before that which I was certain I was going to fall on. And of course, all this while passing 10K runners.

At the bottom of the hill, about 30 feet before the finish line, we had the privilege of running over some serious cobblestone. It wasn't a long stretch, just enough to make you slow down considerably during what should be a final kick.

We crossed the finish line (there was no mat) and I was so grateful to be done with that race.

Trying to pass two 10K runners before the finish, cobblestone in background

I met up with Greg, who had a big bouquet of roses for me! I am so happy I actually finished the race because I would have felt guilty if I hadn't.

As was a common theme, Patrica went searching for the post race water and couldn't find it. I think she eventually did, but it wasn't at all obvious. I was freezing cold and so was Greg and the idea of sticking around for post-race festivities did not at all appeal to me.

We were curious about age group awards (not realizing there were people who only ran 10 miles who would be skewing them anyway). We couldn't tell from the results if we won anything but we suspected we didn't. My name actually didn't even appear in the results. I finished a few seconds behind Patricia, and her time was 1:43:xx but there was no record of me. The results aren't online yet, but I will update this blog when they are. My Garmin got 13.34, I think Patricia's was 13.4. Another teammate had 13.5. Sigh.

I actually got a lot out of this race. A lot more than I would have thought given the crappy organization and course.

  • I've proven to myself that I can get over a mental slump in a race
  • I've proven that getting over a mental slump also makes me feel better physically, and speed up when I am already thinking I am at full effort.
  • I can put forth a solid effort and run a strong performance, even when I know a PR is out of the question
  • When things don't go as expected, I can adapt and make adjustments
  • I hit my "sweet spot" at around mile 6 of a half marathon, so I shouldn't worry if I am not "feeling it" before then.
  • It helps to run with someone else. Especially with someone who has a great personality like Patricia, and who can help keep me motivated and positive.
  • When things get tough during a race, I can remind myself what I am capable of physically and do it.
I have no official time, splits that are inaccurate and slower than they would be on a non-staircase course, and definitely no PR. But I ran very strong. Some of my miles clocked in as fast as 7:16 (not under the bridge). Others were closer to 8:00 due to staircases and hills. I was completely inconsistent pace wise, but very consistent effort wise once I made the decision that I was going to try my best.

A very valuable learning experience, and I'm glad I raced this one. Would I do it again next year? Definitely not.


  1. Wow, wow, wow. You obviously made lemonade out of lemons, but really, what a shame.

    Great job on your mental renovations :)

  2. A great time considering the course (I think all races are long, but the staircases take the cake...) and you should feel accomplished!

  3. Thanks Lisa and Ilana. This race was long because we were mis-directed to go up a staircase and then down a road that wasn't part of the actual course! Definitely not the "normal long" that we often see. Lemonade tastes good.

  4. What a disaster! Congrats on making it through with a solid effort and positive effort!

  5. Can't say you can do too much to mentally prepare for a race involving a staircase!

    As the others say, I admire how you managed to change up the self-talk and goals to get a lot to put in your pocket for later-so to speak!

    Like your SPC, I too am a HUGE fan of the process. If we don't have that, then how do we get the outcome?!


  6. Nice work, Elizabeth! I'm so proud of you for going on and finishing the race!! During the Tinker Bell Half Marathon last month, I was coughing so hard in the 3rd mile that I was retching and my eyes were watering (stupid asthma). I thought about quitting, but told myself that if I continued now, I could quit later, but if I quit now, I wouldn't have the option to continue later. I ended up running a very slow half, but I did finish. My sweet spot is also about 6 miles in and I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one. My next half is the NYC Half in March and I'm going to remember this recap if I start to flag. Congratulations on getting through this one and for making such a difficult event into a positive learning experience!!

  7. Great job of pushing through yourself. Sometimes I think this is what we race for; those moments of growth through overcoming.

    I have done hundreds of races and one I can remember vividly is one of the nature you described, where a large number ran probably 10-12 miles for what should have been a 10K. But, we pushed through and finished...Yes!

  8. What a cluster! I'm so sorry you had to deal with that during a RACE. Ridiculous! Like Adrienne said, I'm impressed with how you turned the negative feelings around. I'm not sure I could do that during a race. Keep up the good work. You WILL see the fruits from this eventually :)

  9. Hey Elizabeth! Patricia here, you ran great yesterday, congrats on pushing through the mental blocks and making the experience worthwhile. My official time was 1:43:36, so you were around there, too! Seems like I got 3rd in my age group--would have been nice to know before I left! Thanks for the push in those last miles.

  10. Super job on the mental side of things!

    But, wow, after swearing off new/first-time races several years ago, every now and then, I'm tempted. Thanks for the (unfortunate) reminder that almost all first-time races have kinks to work out.

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  12. Wow.. And the race course description didn't mention stairs? That's wild. Very frustrating with all the hiccups along the way! But, I'm so proud of you for turning it around! Yay! Congrats for that.

  13. I agree, what a great time considering the horrifics of the race! Congratulations!

    I need to steal some of these pics! ;)

  14. Great job working through the mental stuff!! You did good girl!!! Some of the big accomplishments in a race can not be seen in a finishing time but you know in your heart & mind that you did something epic for on this day! Way to go!

  15. Congratulations Elizabeth! I love your recaps because no matter what happens, you are always so positive in them. :-)

  16. Hi Elizabeth. I also ran this race and stumbled across your report. There's no question that there were some major issues with the event, as you've highlighted well. I think that overcoming the adversity at the start of the race and getting over the mental slump are the big takeaways from this race. On the surface it was a bit of a debacle but you came away with some important lessons. Congrats!

  17. I think that getting rid of timing mats and shoe chips are a big positive, not a negative.

  18. Joe, yes I agree-- but only if the timing system actually works. quite a few people did not get timed.