September 28, 2012

Race Report: Heels and Hills and Him Half Marathon

Despite the fact that New York is known as “the city that never sleeps,” I am usually in bed by 1am there. In Dallas? Well, apparently when out with friends here, I don’t go to bed until 6:30am. Yes, two nights before my half marathon (aka the most important night to get a good night’s rest). Oops.

We spent Saturday going to an incredible Latin brunch at a place my friend JP recommended… and then pretty much going back to bed for the rest of the day. While BF napped, I’m not much of a napper, so I caught up on some reading (Gone Girl, whose first half I found quite boring but second half made me understand why it got such rave reviews) and episodes of The Good Wife. By dinner, I was definitely hungry, and I stuffed myself at Nonna – not just my favorite Italian restaurant in Dallas, but my favorite Italian restaurant anywhere in the country. The pappardelle with lamb bolognese did not disappoint! But since I hadn’t napped like BF, by 10pm, I was practically falling asleep at the table. Bedtime, please!

We hadn’t done packet pickup the day before, thanks to lying around the hotel all day, so we had to get to the race a bit early to make sure we’d be all set before the gun went off. 6am came far too early, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually felt okay. Not in tip-top shape, but also not a wreck – even after finding out that the lounge was out of caffeinated coffee. Running on decaf? I actually felt pretty okay about that.

The drive to the race was surprisingly quick – only about 15 minutes up the highway, and then basically right off the exit – and I was happy when I got there to see that the organizers had done a nice job putting up tons of signs indicating the parking garage (free and with an abundance of spots) as well as signs to lead you on the two minute walk to the starting area. I hadn’t realized until I got there quite how small the race was, but I was actually quite excited – I usually love the hometown-y races much more than the big spectacles. Point in case: we had a bit of trouble figuring out where to go to pick up our packets, but the start area was so small that I didn’t have to stress at all, knowing that it couldn’t be far.

The only downside to the start? The race organizers had specified that if you did packet pickup the day of the race, you wouldn’t get your shirt until the finish. I was psyched about that, since I didn’t plan to check a bag and otherwise wouldn’t have had anywhere to put my shirt. However, when we got our packets, they gave us the whole shebang. The volunteer suggested that perhaps we just tie our shirts around our arms, bandana-style, for the duration of the race. For a 5K, maybe, but for a half marathon? No, thank you! We took the bandit approach and hid our shirt in a clump of bushes on the side of the road, taking our chances that they’d still be there when we finished. I knew no one would actually try to steal the shirts, but I was afraid that a local litter patrol would pick them up as trash or something – the Irving area was so ridiculously clean! BF and I remarked many times how all the Dallas suburbs basically seem like Stepford clones. (And we loved that and are in talks about moving there.)

While we waited for our own race to start, we got to watch the kiddie race – about a dozen elementary school kids who were doing a one mile race. I got so excited watching them all finish! They were so cute, and it made me totally jealous that they had discovered their joy of running early in life. We cheered them on as they crossed the finish line, and the race announcer made a huge deal about each one as they crossed. I love that about small races!

But how small exactly was this race? I had thought it was a few hundred people – until the announcer then called the half marathoners to the start. As it turned out, while there were about 500 people milling around the start area (still a pretty small race), only about 100 were doing the half marathon! I lined up with the 1:50 pace team leader (yeah yeah way too aggressive) and found myself among the first 20 or so people, which made it feel like an even smaller race. This was going to be a quiet one!

The gun went off and so did we – turning right at the next corner and then heading down a tiny hill that led us to a paved running trail, similar to the Katy Trail downtown. I was following right on the heels of the 1:50 pacer, and we clocked the first mile in 8:22 – basically right on track. We reached mile 2 in about the same time (8:13), and I was feeling so good that I barely slowed down at the water stop shortly thereafter. Wow, I was feeling good! An 8:25 pace would be a 1:50 half marathon, and I knew that my PR was around 1:52… was there a chance that I’d break my PR today?

Eh, probably not. While I maintained a totally respectable pace for miles 3 and 4 (8:34 and 8:27, respectively), I had let the 1:50 half marathon pacer go on ahead, and I didn’t think I’d have so much extra energy as to be able to catch him later in the race. Instead, I settled in to just “run happy” (Dear Brooks – I love your slogan just as much as I love your shoes, because it is exactly the state I want to achieve in both races and training runs) and enjoy the race. From what I could see, this was going to be a nice one – temperatures weren’t too hot (at least compared to normal Texas weather), and the course was flat, paved, and yet completely pretty. We ran through some wooded areas as well as along manicured lawns and man-made lakes – definitely a paradise run!

But what’s that? A sign that we were at the 3 mile mark… despite the fact that my Garmin was showing a distance of 3.6 miles and I thought they had just missed a mile marker on the course. What the heck? I shrugged it off as an incorrectly placed mile sign. Silly signs, screwing the runners up! I was glad that I had my GPS watch to tell me what the correct distance was.

Or… was it? Because shortly after what I thought was the incorrectly labeled 3 mile mark, I found volunteers with the “turnaround here” for the 10K run. I do love doing math computations in my head while I’m running (it helps to pass the time), but it didn’t take much to figure out that if my watch was showing 3.7 miles and the 10K runners were just about to turn around, they were going to run more than 10K. Had I missed something? Were the 10K runners taking a different course that happened to merge with the half marathon course, or maybe was the finish in a different spot than the start? I was very confused.

We wound through some pretty woods and then emerged to run next to a big grassy field. Littering the grass next to the path were tons of motivational signs as well as chalk messages on the pavement. I liked a lot of them – like the one that said “Don’t worry, all the hills were on the old course!” But then there were a ton of uber-religious signs, about how God was cheering us on, and all of that. Though I’m not very religious, I wasn’t offended by them; however, it did serve as a reminder that we were in Bible Belt land!

One thing that I had noticed was that each of the mile markers and inspirational signs were dual purpose – they would have a mile marker on one side and an inspirational phrase on the back, or an inspirational phrase on one side and an arrow telling oncoming runners to turn. On an out and back course, this is nice, because it means that every time someone puts out a mile marker, you get some extra inspiration when you’re going the other way. Two for the price of one!

Unfortunately, it seemed like not a lot of attention had been given to where these signs were placed. For example, around mile 5.5, there were signs (that I presume were meant for runners going the opposite way) that had arrows on them – making me think that perhaps I needed to make a left turn here. But the path went straight ahead, and I had seen one runner already go straight, while the volunteer manning the intersection said nothing. “Do I keep going?” I called out to him, pointing ahead. He waved me on, indicating that this was not a turn. Good thing he was there to guide me!

But as I looped around Sam Houston Trail Park (the lollipop part of the otherwise out-and-back course), I started encountering many runners who were just out for their usual Sunday jog – not doing the race. It was so neat to think that some people actually get to live in this beautiful place and run here all the time – I’m incredibly jealous! However, it also presented a bit of a logistical concern. There weren’t many people immediately in front of me, and without being able to see if they had bibs on their fronts, I couldn’t tell who was in the race and who wasn’t. For now, the path was straight and clear though…

…until I crossed a bridge and came to a left turn where I had seen a few runners that I thought were racing turn off. But there was no sign! Was I wrong, and those were runners just out for their Sunday exercise? Or was I supposed to turn, even though there was no volunteer and no sign? I took a chance and turned, going about a quarter mile with no sign that I was on the right path. Then, I saw a runner with a bib – coming back the other direction! “Oh my gosh, am I going the wrong way??” I exclaimed to him. “No, no, you’re fine – just keep going!” he reassured me. That was definitely not a good place to be missing a sign/volunteer!

When we rejoined the out-and-back part of the course, the path straightened out, and I could now see a little ways ahead of me, so I now caught sight of a woman who was warning the oncoming runners. “There’s no sign – turn left after the bridge!” I picked up the refrain and tried to warn as many runners as I could. However, it seemed like there were a lot more runners at this part of the pack, so I figured they’d probably have an easier time of it, as they could look to the people ahead of them.

How had I managed to find myself in the “fast runners” spot where people weren’t all bunched together? Looking at my watch, I saw that I had done 7 miles in only 61 minutes. That’s a little bit fast for me, but I knew that it was mostly due to the small size of the race. Hooray for that! It was a nice feeling to be near the front, for a change 🙂

Now, though, it was time to put some effort into it. I had done well up to this point, but the last six miles would certainly be harder than the first – particularly since the Texas sun was now coming out and making it kind of uncomfortable. I realized that I could get a “good” time (I was hoping for 1:55 or faster) if I pushed it… but I also realized that even if I slowed it down a bit, I’d still probably finish sub-2 hours, which was my original goal. Furthermore, I knew that I definitely couldn’t push it hard enough to PR (I’d have to do sub-8 minute miles, which just weren’t happening at that point). I wanted to do my best, but I also found it hard to focus and keep with it when I knew that I was destined for a pretty-good-and-I’d-be-very-happy-with-it-but-not-thrilling time no matter what I did.

Because I couldn’t motivate myself by trying to go faster, I focused on just maintaining a steady pace. I knew that in the second half of the race, a “steady pace” would actually be just a bit slower than it had been in the first half (due to fatigue), but I wanted to maintain something that felt comfortable and avoid walk breaks. One thing I have learned from being a pacer is that going steady throughout a race can really help with success. Your body gets into a steady rhythm and it becomes reluctant to give that up – even if you’re tired, it wants to keep going.

In this case, the race was also short enough that I could remind myself that it was almost over. Despite the fact that I really haven’t done that many marathons this year, doing a half marathon felt like such a treat – only two hours of running and I could call it quits! While the sun was out and it was getting tough, I knew that I could push on for just another 5 miles. Piece of cake!

I passed the time calculating out potential finish times for myself as I ticked off each mile. Unfortunately, the mile markers on the return seemed to be just as off as on the outbound leg – leaving me to wonder exactly how long this course would be. On the one hand, the running path had been fairly narrow, so tangents wouldn’t be much of a factor. On the other, I don’t think I’ve ever run a race where my watch has shown the correct distance at the end – in a full marathon, it’s usually off by anywhere from a tenth of a mile to a half mile. Where would this race fall on the spectrum of being a little long? I had no idea.

As I came into the final miles, I knew I didn’t look as strong as I usually do in the later miles of a race. While part of me vainly wanted to have volunteers and spectators honestly telling me how great I looked, part of me was also proud that I was pushing it enough to not look great. When I came to the penultimate turn, taking a hill up from the running path to street level, I definitely let it all hang out! Volunteers encouraged us to push it up the hill, and I was determined to do just that – even though I was gasping for breath to do so. I was too close to the finish to take a walk break now, and I knew that in less than two minutes, it would all be over.

Making the final turn onto the home stretch, I turned my music off and unlocked my smartphone (the quicker to stop my Cardiotrainer app after crossing the finish line). I could see that the finish clock ahead was just a few seconds away from crossing to 1:55 – so I was not going to make that milestone. Still, a few seconds over 1:55 was nothing to sneeze at. That’s probably in my top three fastest times! While I didn’t quite kick it up to a sprint, I pushed it a bit as I crossed the finish line. Hooray!

After I caught my breath and got a cold wet towel (wow, that’s a rarity, but I would put it in the running for best post-race treat ever!), I texted BF to let him know I was done – and was surprised to find that he was already coming into the final mile! His goal time was 2:15, so he had definitely surpassed his expectations as well. What a great day for racing!

Overall, I was disappointed by some of the mistakes with the mile markers, but I had a phenomenal time at this race, and was so glad that I had done it. Next up will be the Wineglass Marathon in upstate New York, and I hope it is every bit as fun as this beautiful day in Dallas!

Race stats:
Distance: 13.1 miles
Time: 1:55:04
Pace: 8:46/mile
Overall place: 35/240
Gender place: 17/163
Age group place: 3/17


2 thoughts on “Race Report: Heels and Hills and Him Half Marathon”

  1. You and BF rocked it Laura! Can’t believe your dual third-place-in- your-age-group finishes…hope you learned you must stick around for those awards ceremonies now! Congrats!

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