Sunday, January 14, 2018

Houston, we have a PR!

If I didn't PR, the alternate title of this blog would have been, "Houston, we have a problem!" But thankfully, no problems were encountered.

I made the decision to run the Houston half marathon about a week after the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. Prior to that, I had been considering running the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona half this weekend, which would have been in close proximity to a conference I'm attending in Las Vegas. But upon further research, I wasn't able to get a hotel in Arizona within walking distance to the start line, and the course didn't seem PR-friendly.

So I decided I would stop off in Houston en route to Las Vegas. The race was sold out, but charity entries were available, and I figured that helping the victims of Hurricane Harvey was a worthy cause, so I signed up for the "run for a reason" program. The program simply required a donation (which was great, since I don't love fundraising) and I was set with a bib. What's better, this would be my 10th anniversary of running the Houston Half. I ran the race in 2008, setting a big, unexpected PR in 1:50:43, and learned that I performed best when I just chill out.

I wasn't looking at Houston as a redemption race, but rather an opportunity to use the fitness I had built up in my Indianapolis training cycle to run a fast half marathon. I knew that I had reached a new level of fitness and I felt that my half PR was soft at 1:33:36.

I took two full weeks off of running after Indianapolis Monumental, and then resumed training. The time off allowed my Achilles Tendonitis to heal and my body to recover from the strain of the marathon. It wasn't long before my coach started prescribing intense workouts, and I continually surpassed my expectations of how fast I would run them. For example, I ran a 3-mile tempo at a pace of 6:44, and then followed it up with a long series of very short intervals, feeling great the whole time. My weekly mileage for the six weeks of training was in the mid 50's, hitting 60 for one of the weeks.

Originally, my time goal was to run this race at a sub-7:00 pace. But as the race approached I started feeling more confident based on my workouts and modified that to a 6:55 pace, which would yield a time exactly 20 minutes faster than my 2008 time. My coach emailed me two days before the race and told me to approach the race with a clear head in terms of goals. He didn't want me to limit myself by trying to hit certain paces on the Garmin and that I should run by feel. Which is exactly what I did. No real race strategy- just run strong, push hard, and let the splits be what they were.

Before the Race
Even though Greg wasn't racing, he lovingly accompanied me to Houston. After all, I'd be away at a conference in Las Vegas for an entire week, so it was good to spend the weekend together first. We flew in on Saturday morning and arrived in plenty of time to do a shakeout run and go to the expo. I really wanted to meet up with fellow blogger Gracie, but I was communicating with her through Instagram messenger, and she was thinking I was going to text her. I had forgotten she'd given me her number. Unfortunately that never happened, but I did see her cheering for me during the race.

I wasn't at all anxious for this race. In fact, I felt like I was mentally more hyped up for the 5K I ran on New Year's Day. I was confident in my ability, so I just had to wait until race morning arrived and run hard. I slept relatively well, and didn't have any anxiety dreams about missing the start of the race, or having the race be an obstacle course, or anything like that. I actually woke up in the middle of the night with a nightmare that seemed totally unrelated to the race.

Race morning arrived and the weather was beautiful. 35 degrees, clear skies, and just a little bit of wind. I decided I would wear shorts, a singlet, and arm warmers. After reading my 2008 race report, in which I got stuck at the back of the corral and had to do a lot of weaving, I decided it would be best to head out for the start earlier than planned. The corral closed at 6:45, so I decided I wanted to be in the corral at 6:30. This meant that I didn't really get to warm up, but I had throw-away clothes that helped me stay warm until I shed them a few minutes before the start.

I said goodbye to Greg at 6:30 and he ran out to mile marker 2. At this point, the corral was fairly empty so I was able to jog around a bit. The Houston Marathon calls them "corrals" but they are more like waves, in that there are only four of them. Even though I was in the first corral, so were over 5,000 other runners. As the corral started to get crowded, I positioned myself towards the front. At 6:50, I shed my throwaway clothes and at 6:58, they called our group to approach the start line. (We were all surprised that they didn't call us up sooner, as the front of the corral was nearly a block away from the start line.)

Miles 1-4
The race started and I decided I would simply run the pace of the runners around me. I knew from my shakeout run the day before that the Garmin wouldn't be reliable for at least the first mile due to all
2 Miles into the race
the tall buildings. The street was about twice as wide as Indianapolis, so crowding wasn't an issue. Plus, I hadn't even really warmed up so I decided to look at mile one as my warm up and used it to get into a rhythm,

My feet had gone numb while waiting to start, and I had the sensation that my shoes were not tied tightly and that they would come undone at any moment. In fact, I looked down at my feet a few times just to be sure. I had to remind myself multiple times that I triple checked the tightness of the knot before the race, and this was all in my head. The shoes were fine.

About a mile into the race, I saw Gracie. And then at mile marker 2, I saw Greg. I was super excited to see him and he was cheerly loudly for me. By this point the crowd had thinned out and I was free to go at my own pace. I had the 3:00/1:30 pace group in my sights and I planned to keep them in my sights as long as possible, although I wasn't going to try and catch up.

I noticed that my splits were faster than expected (as my coach said they might be) but I simply continued on at an effort that felt like half marathon pace.

Mile 1: 7:23
Mile 2: 7:01
Mile 3: 6:53
Mile 4: 6:48

Miles 5-8
I continued to cruise along, feeling great and enjoying the race atmosphere. The course was very well supported, and the volunteers were particularly spirited. I had consumed a full packet of Generation UCAN before the race and didn't plan to take any more fuel. This worked well for me at the Shamrock Half, and I assumed it would again. I carried a water bottle for the first three miles and then ditched it. I've learned that I really don't need to drink much during a half if I hydrate well beforehand.

My official 10K split was 43:29, which put me on track for 1:31:44 (6:59 average pace). And I was still feeling really good. By this point I was thinking that I was going to get my goal of a 6:55 average pace, if not faster. I was continually seeing splits in the low 6:50s and the effort seemed completely maintainable. Nothing much remarkable happened during these miles, other than that I had gotten the feeling back in my feet, I had ditched the water bottle, and was in full-on race mode. I passed a good number of people, and few people passed me. At mile 8, the half marathon turned off from the full, which meant I knew who I was competing against.

Mile 5: 6:51
Mile 6: 6:52
Mile 7: 6:54
Mile 8: 6:55

Miles 9-11
I kept running along my merry way, when I started to notice my Garmin was in the 7's now. I thought that it must be wrong because I hadn't slowed down. The effort and pace was the same as it had been.
And the course was flattish and even downhill so it wasn't like there was a hidden hill. Weird. But I didn't worry too much, I just kept on going.

I felt strong, but this was when the race really started to get challenging. My legs felt good, but despite all my best effort, I couldn't get the Garmin to go back down into the 6's. I had to accept that I was running my hardest, but the Garmin wasn't budging. What I didn't realize until later (when I looked at a course map in relation to my splits) was that I had been unknowingly aided by a tailwind for the first half of the race, and now there was a headwind. It wasn't all that strong, but it was noticeable. My tailwind was gone, and now I had some wind resistance to combat.

A little bit after I passed the 10-mile marker, I realized that I had set a 10-mile PR. I didn't know exactly what it was, but according to my Gamin elapsed time, it was 1:09:46. My official split for the 15K was 1:05:14, which tracked me to a 1:31:45.

If I didn't have a Garmin, I never would have known that I had slowed down. The fact that I saw my slow down motivated me to push even harder, and at this point I knew I was giving my absolute max.

Mile 9: 7:02
Mile 10: 7:03
Mile 11: 7:04

Miles 12-Finish
Mile 13, running into the sun
At this point, it was all about hanging on. I knew that my goal was slipping away, but if I just held on I could still set a decent PR. Mile 12 was uphill. Mile 13 was the most challenging mile of the race, and it wasn't because it was the last mile. The sun glare was practically blinding. I couldn't see what was ahead of me, I couldn't see the other runners, and I had to be careful not to trip on the changing road surface. Apparently there was a 20K timing mat that I was completely unaware that I ran over. You can see the sun glaring on my body in the photo!

The headwind went from being a gentle breeze to a force to be reckoned with, likely due to all the tall buildings. I passed Greg with about half a mile left to go, and I told myself that I only had to push for a little bit more.

Not being able to see the finish line was hard. Usually in a race you can see the finish line and it's very motivating as a target to run to, but this time I just had to have faith that yes, this race would come to an end at some point!

Mile 12: 7:08
Mile 13: 7:16
Last bit: Unknown because of all the tall buildings!

My official time was 1:32:24, which is a PR by one minute, 12 seconds!

After the Race
The finish line area of this race is a well-oiled machine. Shortly after finishing, they route you into the
He's such a great supporter!
convention center, giving you a medal, a finisher's shirt, and post-race food. I was eager to simply get to Greg at the reunion area, but I stopped in the food hall for some hot chocolate. It was exactly what I wanted right at that time.

I met up with Greg and got my medal engraved. In over 12 years of racing, I've never once had my medal engraved, usually because I never wanted to stand around waiting. But there was no line, and it was right in front of me, so I did it!

When Greg asked me how I felt about the race, I said "so-so." I was disappointed that I didn't run my goal time, but the more I thought about it in the following hours, the more pleased and excited I got about it. We walked back to the hotel, showered, and then made our way to the airport where I would fly to Las Vegas and he would fly home. The PR cake will have to wait until next weekend.

Stats, Takeaways, and Thoughts

  • I was the 100th female finisher out of 6,100. The top 30 women all ran 1:15 or faster!
  • I placed 11th in my age group out of 1,007
  • Given how competitive this race is, I'm happy with my placement
  • Between the 15K mark and the finish line, I lost 39 seconds. It felt like a lot at the time, but it's really not all that bad
  • I took a leap of faith and didn't let the Garmin rule my pace. Even though I wasn't aiming for the low 6:50s, I ran them as they came without holding back. Being "bold" with my racing is a new thing for me, and even though it resulted in a slow down at the end, I'm glad I wasn't overly cautious.
  • Looking at the McMillan calculator, this race predicts a 5K time of 19:57! I want a sub-20:00 5K so badly I can taste it. My finish time also predicts a faster 10K, 10-mile, and marathon time than what I have ever attained, so in relative terms, this is my fastest race ever.
  • If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I would come back to Houston 10 years later, I would have thought that I would have slowed down with age. I would never have guessed I would have run a 1:32!
  • I do think I have a 6:55/pace half in me, and I'll have the opportunity to do that at RNR New Orleans in 7 weeks.
While initially I had hoped to run at least a minute faster than I did, I now realize that this race demonstrates a new level of fitness and performance, and I'm thrilled with it.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year, Cold Day 5K

In 2017, there existed a young (well, maybe middle-aged) woman with stars in her eyes, eager to approach the new year with dreams of breaking 20 minutes in the 5K. With hope in her heart and speed in her legs, she eagerly anticipated the first day of 2018 when she would say "goodbye 20:17"-- both the year, and her 5K PR.

She would pace it perfectly. The first mile (uphill) would clock in at precisely 6:37, and from there, she would cruise downhill for the rest of the race at a pace of 6:20. Completely feasible for someone who just ran a 6:44 pace for a 3-mile tempo, and didn't even push that hard to do it. And definitely possible for someone who just ran 5 miles on a track at an average pace of 6:54, feeling like she could have run harder. She was primed for 5K excellence! While it wouldn't be easy, this middle-aged young woman was determined to give the race absolutely everything she had, glide across the finish line in 19:59, and then bake herself a PR cake.

Me and the finisher's blanket!
But then the reality of 2018 sunk in. January 1st arrived, windy and bitterly cold, with near record-breaking low temperatures. Despite these brutally harsh conditions, the young woman refused to back down on her goal of saying goodbye to 20:17 and PRing her 5K. She arrived at the race an hour before the start to pick up her bib and warmup, with her loving husband at her side. Prince Charming actually retrieved bibs for the both of them while the young woman waited in the comfort of the heated car. Once their bibs were affixed to their shirts, it was time to exit the car and warm up.

But suddenly, the young woman looked down and read the name on her bib. This bib did not belong to her! The volunteers had handed Prince Charming the wrong bibs. So the loving husband went back out in the sub-freezing cold and wind to retrieve the correct bibs.

Once everything was in order, it was time to warm up. They ventured out into the 11-degree weather, the young woman wearing an extra jacket over her race attire. They warmed up on the course, which they had scouted out the day before, just to get the lay of the land. After all, when every second counts, it's critical to know where the tangents are and get a sense of the elevation profile. The young woman had been warned by her coach, with whom she had shared the elevation profile, that this wasn't necessarily a PR course. And perhaps she could find another 5K later in the winter that had a flatter profile. But the young woman was still determined to go for it on this New Year's Day, in the cold, wind, and hills.

The 11-degree temperature wasn't so bad when running in the sunlight with the wind at their backs. But the young woman and her husband had a rude awakening during the warm up to discover that the first half mile of the course was shaded, into a headwind, and up a sizable hill.

And finally. . . it was time to start the actual race. Telling herself that she could endure anything for 20 minutes, the young woman approached the start line with all the confidence in the world. Here is her race report:

Mile 1
It wasn't a surprise that the first mile was uphill, into a headwind, with a "feels like" 1 degree temperature in the shade. I intended to run up the hill at a strong effort, but without killing myself completely. I didn't look at my Garmin as I climbed the hill, which was only about 1/3 of a mile long. But it was relatively steep. By the time I reached the top of the hill, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me (literally) and I welcomed the downhill tailwind portion that ensued.

I glanced at the Garmin and up until that point, I had run a pace of 6:55. Not exactly what I wanted, but the mile wasn't over and so if I kept pushing, I could still make up enough time to bring that down. My Garmin beeped but I didn't hear it because the Forerunner 630 is much quieter than the 220 I am used to. And I didn't feel the pulse on my arm because the Garmin was over two layers of clothing. Afterwards, I learned that I ran the first mile in 6:52.

Speaking of wardrobe, here's what I wore, from bottom top top:

  • Mizuno Wave Sayonara shoes
  • Smart Wool socks
  • CW-X Insulator compression tights
  • Moving comfort underwear
  • Sports Bra
  • Compression arm sleeves
  • Mizuno mid-weight half zip top
  • Gloves
  • Mittens
  • "Little Hotties" hand warmers between the gloves and mittens
  • Ear warmers
  • Sunglasses
So essentially I only had one mid-weight layer on my core, which I kept most of the way un-zipped. When it's windy, I find that my arms get extraordinarily cold, so that was the reason for the arm sleeves. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't change anything about my outfit. I was obviously very cold running into the headwind in the shade, but for the tailwind sunlight portions, I was comfortable.

Mile 2:
I didn't look at my Garmin much during this race because I needed to pay close attention to icy spots and also running the tangents. But by mile 2 I felt recovered from the torture that was mile 1 and ready to run two very fast miles. And things were going well! I was cruising right along, enjoying the tailwind and the downhills and the sunshine. I put out a strong effort, and ended up running a 6:24 mile. I was pleased with this, and figured I could still PR if I ran another mile at that pace, although sub-20 was probably out.

Mile 3:
The goal here was to maintain my 6:24 pace. I felt like I could keep that effort level up for an entire mile. But the bad news was that the course went uphill again, and the last 0.4 mile was directly into a headwind. I felt like I was running at my absolute max. It felt like I was putting out a sub 6:20 pace. But after awhile I glanced down at my Garmin and saw that I had slowed down significantly. It was crazy that just one week ago I ran a 3-mile tempo at a pace of 6:44 and I wasn't pushing all that hard. And now, a 6:44 pace was the absolute hardest I could run. I logged a 6:41 for that final mile.

The finish
I still had little ways to go before the finish and at this point I knew that my goals were not happening. I still pushed hard to to the finish, but I didn't have my typical spirited kick. I gave up a
Post race: Trying to get my hands un-numb
little bit during that last part but I'm okay with that. My pace for the last 0.18 was 6:57. Uphill. Headwind. Real Feel of like 1 degree.

When I had mapped out the course using "map my run" it gave me a distance of 3.15. So I wasn't surprised that the course was long. Afterwards, Greg and my other friends who had ran the course reported that their Garmins read abnormally long for a 5K. The course was not actually USTAF certified, and it was the "backwards" version of the standard course run in that area, so the cones could have prevented runners from hitting the tangents. But in any event, I don't really care about the course being long because I wasn't going to PR anyway. It just means I got to extend the workout!

Final Thoughts and Takeaways:
I'll admit it was probably too ambitious of me to think that I could PR in these weather conditions and on this course. 12ish degrees with 10-15 mph winds is not a recipe for a first-time sub-20. But I wanted to at least give myself the opportunity because I truly believe my fitness is there. I've run some really strong workouts over the past few week with paces that indicate a sub-20 is within my reach. I just need a good certified course and favorable weather.

The positive:
  • This was a good VO2 Max workout for the upcoming Houston Half marathon
  • It was fun to see my running friends including Cheryl, Cristina, and Rochelle
  • I did push really hard, and I know that I couldn't have run any faster, except for maybe the last 1/4 mile
  • I won first place in my age group and was the 4th overall female finisher
  • Greg ran a 20:18, which is a super cool way to start 2018
  • I tried to be smart with my approach by scouting out the course the day before and having a pacing strategy
The not-so positive:
  • I lost my mental toughness with about 1/4 mile to go, running a 6:57 pace to the finish line
  • I ran much slower than I expected to-- this is one of my slowest 5Ks in the past year
  • My official race time was 21:13 (6:50 pace) even though my Garmin pace was 6:40.
  • I tapered for this race which meant I lost the opportunity to do a long run prior to the Houston half in two weeks
  • The weather is going to be even colder than this for the next 5 days, which means I will have to either train on a treadmill (not fun) or be ridiculously uncomfortable while running (also not fun) 
  • No photos for the blog or Instagram- photos don't happen when it's a "real feel" of 1 degree.
At least the temperature for this race was in the double-digits. We're looking at single-digit temperatures in the mornings for the upcoming week, and if I run outside, I'll have to be very careful about icy patches, with only my headlamp as a light source. So, that's all kind of depressing. I love running and it brings joy to my life. It doesn't exactly bring joy to my life when it's like this.

And so the young woman, feeling mildly defeated by the day's events, proceeded on to the rest of 2018 with-- still with stars in her eyes, and hoping this will be the year of the sub-20 5K. After all, Prince Charming ran a 20:18 on the first day of 2018, so this year was bound to be magical.