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.


  1. Congrats on a great PR! Isn't it amazing what a difference a headwind, even a tiny one, can make? I notice that a lot, and when I'm training, I plan my routes based on heading out into the wind.

  2. Congratulations on a great race Elizabeth! I definitely think you could run a sub-20 5K, I mean you ran a 20:17 in 2017 which was amazing and that's not too far off anyway. Plus a half marathon predicting a faster 5K than your PR is a very good sign. Glad you had a good trip over all and exceeded your expectations!

  3. Congrats on an amazing race! You are so strong and so fit. I have a feeling 2018 is going to be quite the year for you, my friend! Also, just wanted to say that I ALWAYS read your blog, but am terrible about commenting (sorry!). I had to comment today because I have dreams all the time about races turning into obstacle races. How crazy?! It happens all the time. I can't believe you have that same dream (/nightmare). Too funny!

  4. I loved every word of your recap and felt like I was right there with you (it's the only way I'll ever be able to keep up)! Congrats on running such a great race and setting a half PR!

  5. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!! So exciting!!!!! Congrats on the new PR and you definitely have a 6:55 (or better) in you!!

  6. Great race report.....and even better race! Congrats.

  7. Good, thorough report as you always do. Even better that you got your PR...the "Race Gods" were on your side this time...even with the headwinds and the hill late stage. Geez...if I ran my best these days I would be 12-min behind you! But speed is relative to I would be working just as hard as finish way behind. You clearly have not "peaked" in your running pursuits...and I suspect that 6:55 pace half marathon and that sub-20, 5k are looming in the near future. Congrats and stay strong and healthy as you are!

  8. Well, at first I was sorry I missed you, but now I don't feel bad since you're coming to NOLA in a few weeks! I'll just see you then. Congratulations on a big PR - but I bet you beat in in seven weeks!

  9. Amazing amazing time!
    I hear ya about the sub-20 5k. I'd love it. I got to 20:17 last year. It's just a lot of effort though for me to run so fast and put in the consistent training for a race I detest. To be fair though you truly deserve it from your amazing training and races!