Confessions of a Sandbagging Half Marathoner: A Richmond Race Report

If you run an exciting new half marathon PR, but your name is nowhere to be found in the official race results did that exciting new half marathon PR really happen? Unfortunately, this is not a rhetorical question. It is what happened to me last weekend at the Richmond Half Marathon, my goal race for the fall season. The nice people at Sports Backers, the organization responsible for the timing of the Richmond race assure me that they are hard at work resolving this issue, so I’m optimistic that someday there may be official documentation that my new half marathon PR does actually exist. In the meantime, I will regale you with a little Richmond race report according to my personal recollections and the data on my Garmin.

Photographic evidence that I did in fact run the Richmond Half Marathon, and that I sometimes run with my eyes closed. I thought the word "proof" stamped across the pictures was a nice touch.

Photographic evidence that I did in fact run the Richmond Half Marathon, and that I sometimes run with my eyes closed. I thought the word “proof” stamped across the pictures was a nice touch.

But First, the Back-story…

I settled on a half marathon for my goal race this season for several reasons: Most importantly, I have a serious marathon bad luck streak that needs to be broken. Yes, in case you missed it, my 2012 fall goal race was the New York City Marathon (cancelled), and the A race for spring 2013 was Boston (bombed). I figured I would do major marathons everywhere a favor and take a season off in hopes of eradicating the Ellen-signs-up-for-a-major-marathon-and-bad-things-happen phenomenon once and for all. I sincerely hope it worked, because if all goes according to plan, I’ll be toeing the line in Hopkinton again this April. And speaking of Boston, since getting over the qualifying hump turned out to be a little tougher than I anticipated, I’ve spent the last 3 years training for marathon after marathon as I chased the BQ and finally checked the world’s oldest annual marathon off the bucket list. Needless to say, my body and brain were probably due for break from marathoning. So I set my sights for fall 2013 on blowing the doors off my old 13.1 PR of 1:32:58. I settled on a goal time of 1:29:59 because being able to say “My half marathon PR is 1:29: xx just sounds waaaayyy faster than saying “My half marathon PR is 1:30: xx.” Also, I felt that breaking 90 minutes seemed ambitious, but not unattainable. And thus “1:29:59 or bust!” has been my battle cry for this season’s training.

This is horrible. I mean… What a great challenge!

When we woke up on Saturday morning it was raining. A lot. This was weird because various weather apps on 4 different smart phones assured us that there was ABSOLUTELY ZERO % CHANCE of rain in the area at that moment in time, and yet it was undoubtedly falling from the sky. This threw a major wrench in the warm up plans for the Durham Oiselle Team/ Bull City Track Club contingency. As the intensity of the rain increased we eighty-sixed our warm up/ bag check strategies all together and huddled up in a little coffee shop near the start line with a new goal of staying as dry and warm as possible until time to go. “This is horrible!” exclaimed my (almost) always-optimistic teammate Jen as we watched what was now nothing short of a torrential downpour drench the hoards of garbage bag and plastic poncho clad runners that scurried by outside our coffee shop window. I got a few good LOLs as Jen quickly corrected her negative statement with “I mean… What a great challenge!” At about 15 minutes until gun time we decided that we could no longer postpone the inevitable, so we left the coffee shop and set out for bag check and the most frenzied warm-up jog ever. It was an action-packed little shake-out run that featured exciting guest appearances by @FoodosaurusRex, one of my favorite Oiselle Team tweeters, Kim Chapman Page, who is the coolest boss ever because she recently allowed me to launch (and also participated in!) a wear-your-prom-dress-to-work-revolution, and Nan Lujan who is essentially the esteemed president of the Bull City Running Co. women’s running community. I finally made my way to the corral towards the end of the National Anthem, and even had time to make friends with some people wearing Raleigh/ Durham race shirts before the gun went off.

The Part Where I Actually Tell You about the Race…

To run 13.1 miles in 1:29:59, one must maintain an average pace of 6:52 per mile. I’m not gonna lie, the thought of running that many miles at a sub-7 pace scared the shit out of me as I stood on the start line. I had a mostly great training cycle that yielded new PRs in all sorts of shorter distances from the mile to the 10K, and I’d been hitting paces in my Vo2max and Lactate Threshold workouts like a boss. However, I did little to no sustained mileage at half marathon goal pace and running 6:52 for the entire distance seemed pretty daunting. My plan instead was to go out at around 7:00 min pace, maintain it through the 10K, and then think about hauling ass. This way, barring any severe blow up or crisis, I would be set up for a new PR, even if I didn’t hit the stretch goal. This was the plan that I advertised to anyone who asked, anyway. But in my mind, going out 7:00 pace, and more importantly having to speed up after running 7:00 pace for 6.2 miles still seemed intimidating. So I secretly told myself that I could live with it if there were a couple of 7:05 or even 7:10 splits up in the mix, although I resolved that anything slower than 7:15 was absolutely unacceptable. I knew if I could make it to 9 miles feeling good I could bust out 4 miles at my LT pace (6:40 ish) like it was no big deal, so I started conservatively and hoped for the best.

I cruised through mile 1 in precisely 6:52 and congratulated myself for nailing the goal pace right off the bat. I also spotted Allie somewhere in that first mile and waved enthusiastically while I swore to her that this would be the only time today when I would wave. Prior to the race I received stern talking-tos from pretty much every running coach/ mentor/ guru-type-person I know who has ever observed me running race with explicit instructions to curb my spirited spectator interaction habits in lieu increasing my focus on running and executing my race strategy.

Looking fast and fab at mile 1. These are the only pics you'll see of me waving at this race, I swear.

Looking fast and fab at mile 1. These are the only pics you’ll see of me waving at this race, I swear. (Photo Credit: Allie Bigelow)

Somewhere in mile 2, one of my new Raleigh running friends from the start line pulled up to me and struck up a conversation. This caused me some minor feelings of anxiety and moral dilemma because there is absolutely nothing I love more than talking while running, and conversing with friendly random strangers has historically been among the things I enjoy most about racing. (Or perhaps I should say it has been one of the things I enjoy most about participating in races.) The problem was that I had promised all of those same people who got on my case about the waving thing that I would also refrain from chatting my face off during the race so I could just get shit done. My new friend asked what my goal for the day was and I sheepishly told him I was hoping to break 1:30 as a 7:10 mile split flashed up on my watch. I reminded myself that this pace was the absolutely slowest I was allowed to go today, and recited the Team Shittens motto a few times in my head as I dropped my mile 2 BFF with as much subtly as I could muster.

Channeling this little nugget of motivation from Kara at mile 2.

Channeling this little nugget of motivation from Kara at mile 2.

Shortly after clearing the third mile in 7:11 (Yikes!) yet another fellow runner pulled up and asked me if we had gone through mile 3 yet. I told her that we had, and when she asked what my goal was I mumbled something about 1:32 to 1:30 ish, already starting to let go of the dream and feeling strangely annoyed by my popularity on the course thus far. As it turns out, my 2nd new friend of the day, Maria, was also hoping to run something in that ballpark, and she announced that she would just tag along with me for a while since we had compatible goals and I was highly visible in my cheery yellow arm warmers and bright orange compression socks. Again, this made me feel a little anxious, since my primary objective was to stay mentally focused, but I liked Maria’s eye for style and I figured with the way things were going so far I might be needing some company to keep my mind off the suffering later. As it turned out, Maria was a perfectly delightful ball of energy from Richmond who knew the course like the back of her hand. I was very grateful for her mile by mile “what to expect when you are running the Richmond Half Marathon” commentary. And apparently she is kind of a big deal in the local running community because she got all the cheers and side fives as we ran by. I imagined that we were in Durham, and that her fans were my fabulous local running community cheering for me.

At mile 4 the course did this out and back thing where you could see the lead pack coming down the other side of the street. I yelled heartily for Heidi and then Jen as they sped by (Whoops. I temporarily forgot that no yelling was also a critical part of my race strategy), and Maria commented on how strong and speedy my friends looked. I ran 7:04 for mile 4 and 7:08 for mile 5. This was the part where I told myself that I needed to start working a little harder or 1:29:59 most definitely would not be happening. I let Maria go for a little bit, and I guess this helped me find a little more focus because miles 6 and 7 were 7:01 and 6:59 respectively. That’s more like it.

But then we hit the only significant hill on the course to speak of and I ran another 7:09, convincing myself once and for all that today was not my day to break 90 minutes. I figured my pace was crap, so I might as well shift the focus to having as much fun as possible, which meant…you guessed it…time to chat up more random strangers! Conveniently, I spotted the other half the Raleigh couple from way back at the start line. I pulled up to her and struck up the standard “What local races have you done recently?” convo, but she politely announced that she needed to drop back, which may or may not have been a nice way to say “Please leave me alone, I’m trying to run an effing race here.”

In any event, that Raleigh gal did me a tremendous favor by deflecting my chatting attempts, because that was when I had a major epiphany. I realized that I had made it to mile 9, the mile where I was supposed to drop the hammer. I was sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that 1:29:59 was officially off the table, but I figured I might as well not run the last 4 miles of the race like an utter lazy douche bag, so I reverted back to my original game plan to pick things up. I clocked a 6:57 for the 9th mile split. Sigh. Still above goal pace, but at least it was sub-7. I decided that owed it to myself and all the people who put time into sharing their training expertise with me this training cycle to at least take a shot at running the last 3 miles at goal pace. Furthermore, as I began mile 10 I realized that despite (or perhaps because of) many miles of piddling and lollygagging I was suddenly feeling pretty awesome. I nailed the 6:52 for mile 10 and continued to gain momentum in mile 11 with a 6:46.

Allie was waiting for me at mile 12 holding the sweetest, most thoughtful sign made for me by her son, who is my 8 year old BFF. This little display of support boosted me to a 6:33 split for mile 12. I was feeling pretty unstoppable and not at all like shit at this point, and friends, that is the surest sign that you didn’t run the first 9 miles of your half marathon anywhere near fast enough.

The best sign, held by the best support crew/ best sign-maker's mom.

The best sign, held by the best support crew/ best sign-maker’s mom.

The best sign-maker, my fellow thumbs up photography enthusiasts, and  8 yr old BFF, Zachary Bigelow.

The best sign-maker, my fellow thumbs up photography enthusiast and 8 yr old BFF, Zachary Bigelow.

Now I was on a mission to make up as much time and stay as close to the original goal as possible. I had definitely missed the sub-1:30 boat, but maybe, just maybe I could at least keep it sub-1:31, and update my 13.1 PR to 1:30xx. The final mile was an all-out effort, and under any other circumstances I surely would have blown up in the first 800m. But by the grace of God, the last 1200m or so of the Richmond Half Marathon is a crazy-steep, raging downhill. I still don’t even understand how this happened, but somehow my shell-shocked quads managed to keep me upright and moving forward for an unheard of (at least for me) 5:57 for the final mile! (This may not sound like a big deal to you, but that is by far the fastest mile split my watch has ever seen in a race longer than 1 mile.)

I stopped my Garmin at 1:30:52 and 13.22 miles. Interestingly enough, my average pace for those 13.22 miles was, wait for it… 6:52. Aka, exactly the pace one must average for 13.1 miles in order run 1:29:59. I suppose we may never know for sure what my chip time was, and I am admittedly bummed at the thought of not being able to claim the new half marathon PR that I trained my arse off for on Athlinks, but I am also generally happy with my time, especially given my poor execution of the first 3/4’s of the race. I collected my swag, a lovely finisher’s medal and this totally bitchin’ Anthem Richmond Marathon fleece blanket, and headed out of the chute where my sweet Richmond-dwelling freshman-year-of-college roommate Cortney T. was waiting for me! (So, so fabulous to catch up with that girl!) We hung out and watched all my new half marathon besties, Maria and the cute, nice couple from Raleigh finish and then gave them some hugs and high fives. Somewhere in the midst of all of this we were reunited with Allie, Jen and Heidi. Fast, successful races were had by all at America’s friendliest half marathon!

Fleece blankets make for excellent race swag!

Fleece blankets make for excellent race swag!

My fab former roomie, Cortney T! She's the sweetest and the cutest!

My fab former roomie, Cortney T! She’s the sweetest and the cutest!

Lessons Learned…

My #1 take-away from Richmond is that I am fit enough and strong enough to break 1:30 in the half marathon. Everything about my training leading up to this race indicated that this was true. Sadly, when race day arrived I lacked the confidence to believe it. I ran an overly conservative race (at least for the first 9 miles), and (this part is tough to admit) purposefully distracted myself from the goal because I was afraid I couldn’t do it. I am 100% prepared to get yelled at by a lot of people now that I have confessed this on the internet. It worked out pretty well in the end, but I suspect I would have run a significantly different (and by different I mean slower) time if it hadn’t been for that ridiculous downhill final mile. But the time that I did run indicates that the time I want to run is well within my capabilities, and fortunately my winter/ spring race calendar includes two more half marathons (Charleston, SC in January, and Virginia Beach in March.) I am really excited to see what I can do next with my new found confidence in my ability to hold a sub-7 average pace for 13.1 miles, improved race strategy execution, and maybe a few workouts that include sustained mileage at half marathon goal pace. And yes, I’ll probably also need some duct tape so I can keep my trap shut for the next one.

Also, I would highly recommend the Richmond Half Marathon to anyone who is looking for a fast, fun, congenial road race. The course allows you to run fast (if you can convince yourself to stop talking and just let your legs do the running), but the terrain is varied enough to avoid over-use of any particular group of muscles until you get to the last 800 to 1200m, which are a bit of a quad shredder. But don’t sweat it, that crazy downhill finish all but guarantees the fastest finishing mile splits of your life. Additionally, the race is large enough and competitive enough that I was surrounded by people at all times in the 1:35 to 1:30 pace group, but not so large that it ever for one moment felt crowded, stressful, or overwhelming. The course was also well-supported and well-spectated despite rainy weather. So if you live in the upper southeast or the lower mid-Atlantic and/or you are looking for a more low-key alternative to those wild and crazy major marathons next fall, sign up for Richmond! You won’t be disappointed.

Other Exciting Weekend Highlights…

Fantastically fun, highly efficient marathon spectating: After our merry band of half marathoners finished the race, snagged some free pizza, and orchestrated a large-scale clothes changing operation that involved and intricate network of “changing forts” fashioned out of fleece finishers’ blankets, we high-tailed it out to the marathon course in hopes of catching a glimpse of a few of friends who took on the 26.2. And boy, did we time that shit to the tee! In the brief 20 minute existence of our Shittens-themed cheer station at approximately mile 22 we spotted the following marathon super-stars…

  •  Morgan: My pre-school/ high school buddy who crushed his marathon debut, as well as his stretch goal of beating my current marathon PR.
  •  Sarah K.: My darling little Bull City Running Co. co-worker, who ran a sweet new sub-3:30 PR which doubled as a Boston Qualifier! Booyah!
  •  Rich: Bull City Running Co. Marathon Training Program alumni, and creator/ wearer of what was bar-none the most hilarious custom race bib I’ve ever seen. #nosharting

And as if all of this wasn’t enough to constitute the greatest marathon spectating experience ever, we also met a cop who loves Shittens, and this happened… Winning!

EVERYONE loves Shittens! Even cops!

EVERYONE loves Shittens! Even cops!

Watching Bigs race with the big dogs: On Sunday I had the pleasure of cheering Allie to a 2nd place Master’s Women finish at the .US Road Racing National Championships in Alexandria! We celebrated her national championship level success with a trip to IKEA on the way home to NC.

Bigs races her way to age group national championship victory and earns herself a trip to IKEA!

Bigs races her way to age group national championship victory and earns herself a trip to IKEA!

Cheering the Pros to some new world records: While Allie was hard at work out on the race course, I was busy cheering the elite super-fasties to new world record victory. So thrilling and inspiring to watch Molly and Shalene (both of whom we got to meet the day before) KILLING IT down the home stretch! Holy crap, those gals can FLY!

Molly is chasing the world record (spoiler alert: she caught it!), and Shalene is chasing Molly.

Molly is chasing the world record (spoiler alert: she caught it!), and Shalene is chasing Molly.

That time when Shalene Flanagan was sitting in the booth behind us at Bertucci's and we took a stalker-riffic photo. That's me, but my face has bee obscured to protect my identity and to spare you the very unflattering chewing face I'm making underneath that black blob.

That time when Shalene Flanagan was sitting in the booth behind us at dinner and we took a stalker-riffic photo. That’s me, but my face has been obscured to protect my identity and to spare you the very unflattering chewing face I’m making underneath that black blob. (Photo Credit: Allie Bigelow)

Shout out to Jeff Caron, legendary Saucony tech rep to the stars for the casual-cool hotel lobby Molly Huddle introduction, and sorry we interrupted your dinner at Bertucci’s, Shalene.

All things considered, last weekend was pretty much the perfect little Virginia running road trip get-away! It was so much fun to run with, cheer for, and catch up with so many great people! Many thanks and much love to all of you who were a part of it!

Did YOU run a big, exciting goal race this fall? Tell me all about it! I bet you kicked ass and it was awesome!