Monday, November 14, 2022

Towpath Revenge

I've got the fall marathon blues! As in, I did not race a fall marathon or half marathon. But at least this decision was all mine and wasn't forced upon me by injury or illness. So I can still train happy and and healthy for the next marathon in Houston. 

Plan A, B, C and D
After I bailed on Indianapolis due to the forecasted warmth and humidity, I had hoped that Richmond would be a different story. Unfortunately it was even warmer in Richmond than it was in Indianapolis. What are the chances of that happening on two November weekends in a row!

I was also considering running the Outer Banks Marathon on Sunday, which initially looked to be cooler. But as the race approached the temperatures started to rise on that one as well. So, that meant I wouldn't be running a fall marathon, despite months of training. I accepted it and knew it was the smart decision, but it did leave me feeling a little sad. 

To top it all off, I had originally been planning a birthday celebration for Friday the 11th (my actual birthday), but then I moved it to Saturday when I thought I would run Richmond, and then I cancelled it altogether when I thought I would run the Outer Banks. So no birthday gathering with friends, but I did get to see my sister, brother-in-law and nieces! And Greg and I made a cake. 

After scouring every race directory I could find for a Sunday option (Sunday was much cooler than Saturday), I did find a local half marathon on the C&O canal towpath. The towpath is a gravel/dirt trail and not a surface I am comfortable racing on. Too many puddles and rocky areas for me to feel confident going full out. Plus, my Achilles doesn't enjoy when I can't land totally flat-footed. But my desire to pin on a bib and do SOMETHING was overwhelming, so I signed up for it and decided to run it as a workout.

I had run the course twice in the past, both as part of marathons that I did not finish. In 2010, I never intended to finish and hadn't brought enough fuel to finish. The goal was to use it as a training run. In 2012, I had planned on running the marathon at my easy pace, but still dropped out due to anxiety. 

I hadn't run that course in over 10 years and I didn't remember it very well. I remembered that it was decent enough to run on, but not something that I would do at max effort. As for the elevation, I knew it was a net downhill on the way out and a net uphill on the way back.

Half Marathon Workout 
This race was called the "Freedom is Never Free" half marathon, put on by Bishop's Events, which hosts low-key races each weekend in DC, MD and VA. Most of their races are on unpaved surfaces, although there are a few that are paved. I've run several 5Ks and one 10K put on by them and they are always well organized, fun and friendly. During Covid, they continued to hold most of their races because they did not require road closures. 

Running on a rocky surface removed the pressure of trying to hit a certain pace or time goal. I wasn't racing this as an all-out half marathon. I was shooting for marathon pace or maybe a bit slower. I thought somewhere between 1:37-1:39 would be a good range. My primary goal was to have fun, get in a good workout, and experience the race environment. Even though it was a workout, having a timing mat would provide accountability so I wouldn't quit if things got hard. I would also be getting "revenge" on a course that I DNF'ed on twice.

The temperature was a wonderful 45 degrees, which felt so amazing after "Summer's Revenge".  But the cold front unfortunately came with wind, sustained at 14 mph, which would be a headwind during the second half. And that's also the net uphill part. So the way out would be a net downhill tailwind and the way back would be a net uphill headwind. On my race weather scale, this gets a 7. The same as the Hartford Half. By way of comparison, I would have given Indianapolis and Richmond both 2's. I decided to wear lightweight arm sleeves to protect against windburn, which I have gotten in the past from running directly into a high headwind for miles at a time. 

Before the Race
I drank half a serving of the Maurten 160 drink mix during the 2 hours leading up to the race and a Maurten Solid. I decided not to carry a water bottle because I don't need much water for a half marathon if I'm pre-hydrated (and I was) and it's cool weather. I would take water from the water stations. 

The race was only a 25-minute drive from our house. No hotel or flight needed! Greg and I arrived, parked, and I got my bib. 

I warmed up for 1.4 miles which enabled me to get used to the surface. I was wearing the New Balance Fuel Cell Elite, which in retrospect was not the best choice. I probably should have stuck to something with a lower stack height to be closer to the ground. And the "bounce" of the carbon fiber plate is mostly wasted on this surface, at least in my opinion. If I had it to do over again, I would have worn my Nike Odyssey React, which is my typical long run shoe. It's lightweight, responsive, and lower to the ground. 

This was a small race with 87 runners. At the start line, one woman approached me and introduced herself as an Instagram follower! I love meeting Instagram runners in real life. After that, another woman said she recognized me from Instagram as well. She asked me what pace I was aiming for and I told her in the 1:30s and she said she was shooting for a 6:15 pace. I told her she wouldn't be pacing off of me! (She ended up running a time of 1:24 for her FIRST half marathon. Amazing!)

Miles 1-5
I decided to go out conservatively so I could mentally/physically acclimate to the surface. Even though I had warmed up on the trail, I had warmed up slowly. Now it was time to get comfortable pushing a little harder.

Even though this race only had 87 runners, I was leapfrogging with a group of about 3 other runners for the first 4 miles. I would fall way behind whenever we had to leap over a puddle! I have zero ankle mobility and an insanely short stride. Thus, I have no "leap" confidence. I would either stop and then leap, or walk around the narrow muddy edge of the trail to avoid the puddle. I'm also not great at drinking water from cups at aid stations, so I stopped and walked with my water. I took a Maurten gel at 15:00. 

Miles 1-5 consisted of me getting ahead of the pack and then falling behind at a water station or a slippery part of the trail. And then catching back up, passing everyone, and then falling behind again. Even though the first half of the course is net downhill, I didn't really notice it. It feels mostly flat. There were a few short uphill and downhill sections that stole momentum because they were so steep and short, but nothing too intense. 

Mile 1: 7:44
Mile 2: 7:19
Mile 3: 7:32
Mile 4: 7:27
Mile 5: 7:27

Miles 6-9
I saw Greg during the sixth mile. That was definitely a pick me up. At this point, I was leading the pack of three (including myself) and I felt strong. The pack included one woman and one man. The first place female was WAY ahead of us and there was another female between our group and her. So this other woman and I were females #3 and #4. That's another reason why races are so great to run as workouts - you have other people around you pushing you and motivating you to work hard.

The turnaround was a rude awakening, as I knew it would be. Hello headwind that I didn't feel when you were a tailwind! Only 6.55 miles to go!

I told myself that I definitely should be able to maintain my pace for the second half. I hadn't exerted that much effort on the way out. It would definitely be harder with this headwind, but I could do it.

I saw Greg again at around mile 8, only this time I was 3rd in the pack of three. But I intended to speed up. Being in this leap frog situation for 8 miles reminded me that we all have good patches and rough patches during races. Times when we feel strong when we think we can up the effort, even if it's small. Or times when we feel like we need a little breather and have to back off just a bit. I took another Maurten gel at 55:00. 

Once I got to mile 9, it felt like I was running harder than marathon effort, even though my pace was slower than marathon pace. I guess that's what happens when you are running on a rocky surface uphill into a headwind!

Mile 6: 7:23
Mile 7: 7:32
Mile 8: 7:34
Mile 9: 7:34

Miles 10-Finish
I found myself running side-by-side with the other woman so I decided it was finally time to say something. "We got this!" She replied with "You are making me run faster than I should be going!" I forget how I responded but then eventually she said "I know you are soon going to speed up and go rushing ahead and I won't be able to keep up." I said "We'll see," or something to that extent. 

It was during the 10th mile that I pulled ahead. I didn't know by how much but I decided to increase my effort level substantially. Unfortunately, a harder effort did not equate to a faster pace. I slowed down a little bit. But looking at the elevation and and the wind during the last four miles (that's where most of the uphill part was) it makes sense that it would be much harder to maintain the same pace I had been for the first 9 miles. 

So I pulled ahead and it got really hard. The last 2 miles felt like true race effort. It was such a battle and no matter how much I pushed I felt like I was running in place with that headwind, which had picked up since the race start and was now more like 16-17 mph. The good news is that I cared less about mud puddles and became much more confident on the trail. I didn't slow down as much during those slippery sections on the way back. 

I saw Greg right before turning off the trail and heading for the finish, which was about 30 feet off the trail. My official time was 1:39:35. The other woman finished shortly after me, 9 seconds to be exact. But she started after me, so her chip time was 3 seconds faster than mine. As such, she won the award for 3rd place female, and I won the award for 1st place in my age group. I'm totally fine with that! 

She told me that her goal was sub-1:40 and I helped her get there. She said she didn't think she would have run as fast if I hadn't been there. It was a PR for her and this made me so happy. I love pacing other people and helping them reach their goals. Honestly this was the highlight of the race for me. I was the unofficial sub 1:40 pacer! The guy who was running with us came in a 1:39:03.  He had pulled ahead of both of us somewhere around mile 9.

Mile 10: 7:38
Mile 11: 7:38
Mile 12: 7:46
Mile 13: 7:41
Last 0.18: 6:57 pace

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
Initially I felt very "meh" about how this went. I didn't feel confident in my fitness because I had to run at race effort during the last 2 miles for a pace that was slower than goal marathon pace. It shouldn't have been that hard to run that pace. So I was kind of down about it.  

But after some reflection, I changed my mind. 

This was not a paved surface, I wasn't getting any "help" from my carbon plate, I had to fight a strong headwind, and it was a net uphill during those miles. So yes, the 7:40s felt like half marathon race pace. And I didn't get discouraged while I was running slower than I hoped - which is great practice for when I am running a goal race. 

I actually have to give myself credit for perfect pacing on this one. My splits indicate that I "fell off" when in fact I increased the effort into the headwind and up hill the last few miles. To be so consistent on a surface that I'm not comfortable on is really a big win for me. 

This race wasn't about testing my fitness or seeing what kind of half marathon shape I was in. It was a "celebration" of all my training. The fact that I can go run 13.1 miles on an unfamiliar surface on a windy day and stay strong throughout is a testament to my mental strength. 

I'm glad I did this because it was a nice "change of pace" from my typical weekend long run. It was a great workout and I got to experience the race atmosphere. I helped someone run her first sub 1:40. The alternative would have been my typical neighborhood long run and I think that would have been depressing given how badly I wanted to race. So, this was a great idea and I was happy to get some revenge on the towpath.

Fun fact: I was the first finisher over the age of 40 -- both male and female!

Up Next
My next goal race is a Turkey Trot 5K and then the Houston Marathon! I am thankful that I am healthy and in a good place to resume training. 


  1. Zebra often I think you over-analyze! Your a very competent and accomplished runner...but every race doesn't always go by pace...if you understand that? Certainly not runs on non-paved road surfaces or trails and such. There is no run by pace....just run by feel and faster at times and slower at times and maybe it evens out at goal mile pace. Over think the analysis and what you do for a race of this type and venue. You done well if you top 40 runner both male and accept that as a blessing! But your presence in race field probably does drive some to excel trying to keep up with you!

  2. This sounds like it was a fun race for you and I love that! You've got so much experience under your belt that it's always your race and you get to run it how you want it. What a great place to be!!! Congrats on winning your age group and for a very consistent, inspiring race!