Two weeks ago, I ran my first distance race in more than 2.5 years. In February 2015, I quit halfway through the Lost Dutchman Marathon because I decided I’d rather be brunching with Adam than running. Later that month, I ran the Montgomery Marathon to make up for DNFing. And then – I didn’t run anything longer than a 10K until this month.
I’ve been hitting the trails with my friend Sarah a bit lately, and a few weeks ago, she got me out for a 7 mile trail run. I had a blast, and it reminded me of how fun it can be to just go out and run for a good long time rather than worrying about pace! So the next weekend, I went out for what I hoped would be an 8 mile run – but turned into a 10 mile run. I decided I was going to run the Louisville Trail Half Marathon to get back in the long distance game, and while those two runs didn’t really qualify me as “trained”, I still hoped I might be able to PR. My current PR was 1:51:30, and while this course was at altitude and was on trails, it was described as a “flat and fast course”. I checked out the map, and the elevation profile did indeed look pretty easy – at least compared to the trial runs I usually do.
Of course, fast forward to me looking it up on my phone again on race morning… and it didn’t look so easy after all. Sure, there was only 415 feet of elevation gain – but pretty much all of that came in the form of a gradual climb from mile 10 to mile 11.5, and then a big hill from mile 11.5 to 12. So, exactly where I’d already be tired because I hadn’t run that far recently! Whoops.
I got to the start feeling reasonably good, but not necessarily on fire and ready to race. I was meeting up with friends beforehand, which made me kind of nervous as I would have preferred to focus and get my head in the game. But it turned out to be pretty much okay! I didn’t have time to do a warmup run before the start, but since I wasn’t trained to truly race a half marathon, that was probably okay.
What was not okay, however, was my decision not to mess with my Garmin during the national anthem. I was trying to be respectful, but I later regretted that decision when the start came upon us very quickly and my Garmin still hadn’t found its satellites! I ended up hanging back a little bit, then finally just going with and starting my watch without GPS as I crossed the line. This was a disaster for two reasons: first, I found myself weaving through the other runners for the first half mile or so, unable to really hit my stride. And second, when my GPS did finally kick in, it was about a third of a mile behind.
I tried to use the lap function of my Garmin when I got to each mile mark, so I would at least know my splits for each mile. Unfortunately, since I normally never do anything with my Garmin other than start and stop (and even that just once each per run – I never pause my watch during a run), I didn’t fully understand how the lap function worked – and I seemed to do it wrong. Some miles, when I pressed the lap button, I’d get a normal-ish split. Whereas at other miles, I’d get something like 10-15 seconds. What did that mean? I was lost.
I turned out not to be the only one, though. Although the race organizers had mile markers at each mile, they didn’t seem to be very accurate in their placement. Even once my Garmin started tracking, and I thought the mile markers would come when I reached 0.68 on my watch… they were always off by a little bit. However, I didn’t notice this until after the race, when talking with my friend Dustin about it. The whole time, I thought it was just my watch being off / me not having used the lap function correctly!
Anyway – when the race started, I wasn’t anywhere near the front of the pack. I’ve gotten a lot faster in the last few years and have learned to start near the front for short distance races, but it never occurred to me that I might want to start closer up for longer races too. Unfortunately, as a result, I found myself trapped for the first half mile and not feeling like I could hit a decent stride. I tried to weave through the crowd, but we were on a narrow sidewalk at the beginning – so I ducked out into the road to try to get some room to move up. I hoped people didn’t think I was trying to cut the course by running on the side!
As I mentioned, my watch took forever to pick up the satellites, so I really had no idea how I was doing until I passed the first mile marker around 7:30. My goal was to run the first few miles by feel and then just try to hang on until the end, and I was hoping to be around 7:45-8:00 pace. This was just a touch fast, but I always tend to go out fast, so I wasn’t worried.
We followed the sidewalks up to the open space right behind downtown Louisville, then turned into the fields to hit the trails. I would describe my pace as “comfortable” for this entire portion – I was running purely by feel, and was aiming to push myself just slightly but not burn out early. The trails we were running on were ones that I had done in a Wednesday night club run once, as well as the Louisville Turkey Trot last November, so even though I didn’t know them well, they at least felt familiar.
We looped around a small pond, which was a bit of a bummer as it meant I couldn’t tell where I was relative to other females in the race. But then it was back the way we came, and I felt good as the field spread out more and more. I much prefer when there’s a wide open space in front of me rather than being right behind another runner (same with driving), and since the trail was sometimes single-track, it was nice to have that space open up.
I crossed the three mile mark right around 23:30, which meant I was averaging about a 7:50 pace – so pretty much right where I wanted to be. We circled back on the side of the open space and toward the start, and I got to see all the 5K runners taking off on the same starting route as we did so. Where were the 10K runners though? Turns out, they had gone the other way. The half marathon course was kind of a figure 8 (the first side was a loop but the second side was pure out-and-back), and the 5K runners had started the same way the half marathoners did, but the 10K runners had skipped this half and gone out the other way. I hadn’t paid attention to the course maps up front to realize this… but maybe that was better to keep me entertained during the race figuring out what was happening 🙂
We passed by the start right around 5 miles, which meant that we’d do about 4 miles out the other direction before turning around to come 4 miles back. That seemed pretty doable! However, shortly after crossing the 10K mark we started to climb, and things got real.
I knew there were two hills in the race – and since it was an out-and-back with a hill kind of in the middle, it was basically the same hill approached from two directions. However, as I climbed up it (still running), I realized that this hill was more serious than I had anticipated. I knew the downhill I was now ascending would feel good at mile 12… but I also knew that the uphill to approach this from the other direction at mile 11.5 was going to be really tough.
Also – that course map I posted at the beginning of this race report makes zero sense to me, because there was definitely a decent climb around mile 5.5, but it shows up as barely a blip on the course map. Was my memory of the course that incorrect? I’m not entirely sure…
I cruised down the hill with quite a bit of apprehension. It felt good now, but this was going to suck later on. Furthermore, I knew that it was now a very gradual downhill to the turnaround… which meant a very gradual uphill just when I was at my most tired. Wouldn’t you know that my longest run was 10 miles, and the slight uphill would start right at 10 miles, when I’d already be feeling tired/untrained!
As I approached mile 7, I saw my friend Kelly running back the other direction – hooray! She was doing the 10K, and valiantly tried to get a photo of me running (so sweet!), but didn’t manage to get it in time. Meanwhile, I didn’t want to stop – I was still running 7:45/7:50s per mile, and I wanted to keep my stride as consistent as possible in hopes that the clockwork feeling would stick with my legs even as I knew I would be getting tired at the end of the race.
I knew that these final few miles of the out were downhilll… but I was dismayed to find that they really didn’t feel downhill at all. That just meant the uphill was going to be all the more insidious on the way back! However, the miles to the turnaround went by pretty quickly, and I reached mile 10 in just under 1:20 – so an average of an 8 minute pace.
Throughout the race, I had been doing the math of what would happen to my overall time if my split suddenly tanked. For every mile I did at a 7:45-8:00 pace, that was a minute saved off when I eventually slipped down to 9:00 miles when I got tired. As I got closer to the end, I started calculating my finish time as a range – if I stayed on current pace, I’d finish in 1:44; if I slipped to 9:00/mile, I’d finish in 1:47. I was thrilled with both of those times, which were well under my half marathon PR of 1:51:30!
Unfortunately, the way back from the turnaround was tough. As expected, the trail didn’t look like it went uphill, but I was exhausted. This was now farther than I had run in more than 2.5 years, so that combined with the slight incline really took a toll. I knew I was going to PR, and I knew that as a result, every second counted… but I was too tired to really pour on some speed. Besides, I knew I had the big hill at mile 11.5! I told myself that I just needed to make it up the hill without walking, then I’d start going hard on the other side.
I should note that the course was all public trails that went through various open spaces – so unlike most road races, it wasn’t closed off for racers only. This wasn’t an issue, but it did mean there were bikers and non-race runners along the way. And right here, I was reminded why I love living in Boulder: coming the other direction was Neely Spence Gracey, the professional distance runner who lives in my neighborhood! I met her at our town turkey trot last year and found her to be incredibly sweet; more recently, she’s done interesting interviews with Mighty Goods and Ali’s podcast. I was so excited to see her out on the course (she looked to be doing an easy run with a friend), and I hoped that seeing her would provide me the motivation to step it up!
But… nope. I was still tired, and now I was approaching the big hill at mile 11.5. All I had to do was go uphill for half a mile – that was just one or maybe one and a half songs. I could do this, right? I tried to look at it like a final push in an Orangetheory workout (albeit a long one), but as I started heading up the hill, my motivation vanished… and I took a walk break. Argh! I knew had less than 15 minutes left in the race, and I knew that every second counted, but I lazily convinced myself that a quick walk break would help me in the long run.
After the walk break and the slog to the top, though, it should have been smooth sailing – about a half of mile of downhill and then a flat final 0.6 to the finish. But as I headed downhill, it wasn’t as easy as I expected – and I realized I was just plain worn out. I grabbed some sports drink at the top of the hill (why do races put aid stations at the top of the hill, when you’re ready to get going, rather than at the bottom or midway through, when a walk break would make sense?), and it occurred to me that perhaps my low energy wasn’t just due to lack of training but because I had forgotten to eat any gel / food on the course. Whoops! I’ve been doing shorter races so much I forgot what I need for longer ones.
I made it to the bottom of the hill, and then started ticking off how much was left in the race. My watch had been about 0.2 short from the first mile marker, so I assumed I’d finish around 12.9 or 13, depending on if the course was spot on or a little bit long. However, the mile 13 marker came up right around 12.8 on my watch – and I knew there was no way there was only a tenth of a mile to the finish line. In most full marathons, you can see the finish line from mile 26 (even though it’s two tenths of a mile away), and I knew I had multiple twists and turns and a good chunk of running still to go. Blech! My motivation tanked a little bit further.
Finally, I saw the volunteer ahead directing us to turn left to cross the train tracks and head for the finish. Now I was finally probably a tenth of a mile from the end! I picked up my pace just a little bit, and ended up finishing in 1:49. I had PRed! And PRed on a trail race at altitude, where my old PR was a half marathon road race. I was pretty proud 🙂
I was also very exhausted when I crossed the finish line. My friend Dustin had finished just moments before me, and he immediately came over when he heard them announce my name. But I found myself so out of breath that I had trouble talking for a few minutes, and just kind of nodded at him as he suggested heading over to check out the food tent. I wasn’t really interested in actual food (who have I become?!), but I did grab a chocolate milk to rehydrate, and that was delicious.
When I reached mile 10 in 1:20, I thought I’d finish somewhere between 1:44 and 1:47, assuming I slowed at most to 9:00/mile. While going into the race I would have been thrilled with a 1:49, I was a little disappointed to finish in 1:49 and change when I had been doing so well up until mile 10. And I didn’t think I had slowed down that much (aside from my 15 or so second walk break). However, as Dustin and I talked about the race, I learned that the mile markers had all been off by a bit – which I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t started my Garmin GPS properly. So where I thought I hit mile 10 in 1:20, that was probably before the actual mile 10. Now I see the importance of really getting my watch GPS set ahead of time!
So, what’s next?? This race felt like a bit of a crossroads for me – I need to decide whether to keep training for more half marathons (no interest in going back to full marathons, at least right now), or whether I want to get back to my goal of PRing in the 5K. I felt like I did poorly in my placing for this race (no age group award and not even top ten for women, despite it being a small field), so I’m inclined to say that I’m not as naturally strong at the mid to longer distances than the shorter distances… but then I remind myself that I really didn’t train for this race at all, with only two runs in the last two years longer than a 10K. So maybe this isn’t a good assessment of how I do at middle distance!
Last week, though, I started getting really jealous of a friend’s trip to Greece, and I caught the travel bug – bad. I was checking out flights to Europe (flights to Europe are so cheap right now!), and ended up cross referencing that against lists of races… and I ended up booking a weekend in Madrid, where I’ll be running the EDP Medio Maraton de la Mujer (EDP Women’s Half Marathon). The course profile looks pretty promising (100m of gain in the first 5 miles, then downhill all the way to the finish), and I’m hopeful that the easier course profile plus the fact that it’s on paved roads and at sea level will allow me to go a little faster than I did in Louisville.
The tricky thing is, although I felt great the day after the half marathon, a few days later I did an Orangetheory workout that seemed to mess something up in my right calf. It doesn’t feel like shinsplints, but something in my calf was extremely tight, and it got worse whenever I ran. So, I’ve been staying off it and resting like crazy. I know that I won’t totally lose fitness in two weeks, but I would have liked to spend this time getting a few more 12-14 mile runs in so I’d feel better in those later miles. Instead, I can’t really say I’ll be better trained for this next race – but hopefully it will be fun anyway. This race was a blast, and I’m excited to have a shiny new PR!
Distance: 13.1 miles
Overall place: 34/174
Gender place: 11/95
Age group place: 5/40