It had been a long, long time since I had gone "fast" in a half-marathon. I had been unable to touch my PR, set in my very first half-marathon, back in 2003, the Silicon Valley Half Marathon, which I had run with a strained hip abductor. Embarrassing. True, I had been working on my base, and since running was my strength, had been focusing on my limiters--the swim and the bike. But saying goodbye to speed was so hard. Frustrated at losing so much of my strength, I decided to try a new experiment--if running was my strength, maybe it wouldn't be too hard to try and get some speed back? I had decided to test this new hypothesis with speed work. I know. Groundbreaking. After hearing the miraculous wonders of the track over and over, I had decided to give that a try.
After 6 weeks of putting in a weekly track workout, I was excited about the San Dieguito Half Marathon. Delusions of grandeur of a speedy half-marathon danced in my head like sugarplum fairies until I was informed how difficult the course would be--full of hills. Lots and lots of hills. Damn! Okay, so I worked on hills. I would just have to play it by ear. Last weekend, I did a 16-mile long run at base pace and felt great. Maybe for the San Dieguito Half, I could do a 13.1-mile tempo run and up the intensity. Did I just say 13.1 mile tempo run? I must be crazy.
Wednesday before the race, I woke up with aches, chills, and a fever. Great. My first flu of the season. I bumped my race goal for San Dieguito down to a training run. Afterall, this was not an "A" race. Indeed, it really was just a training run for IM-AZ, which is now only 9 weeks away. How did that happen? I rested most of the week to get rid of my nasty cold. Saturday, I went for an "easy" 50 mile bike ride at a very conservative pace. Since when did a 50 mile ride become easy? The virus had taken its toll, and my body let me know on every hill with weakened muscles and respiratory system.
Someone asked what my goal was for Sunday's race. I knew I was at least going to run. Based on my cold, I figured it would probably be a training run. But a voice nagged at the back of my head. Maybe I had rested just enough. Maybe my cold was gone. I was a dark horse for Sunday.
After a fitfull night of sleep, I roused at 5:45 am. Had some oatmeal and a banana. Changed outfits a few times. I knew it would warm up to the 70s (wow!) but had underestimated the cold start (50s). I opted for shorts and a thin, long-sleeved technical tee. Arrived at the start with an hour to spare. I had time to stretch, scope out the scene, go to the bathroom 4x, and thoroughly freeze my ass off. The race was based out of the San Dieguito Park and took you through the heart of Rancho Santa Fe. It's boasted as one of the most beautiful half-marathons ever, and after running it, I have to agree.
Brent & me freezing our asses off before the start.
Two Red Bull cars pulled up. Again! That's two for two weekends! I must have the magic touch. I usually don't do caffeine before a race. I know. Nothing new on race day. But I decided to live dangerously. I sipped half a can and trotted towards the start.
Juicing up by the Red Bull car before the start.
Knowing the first mile of this hilly course was downhill, I seeded myself toward the front. I'm not fast but it wasn't chip-timed, and I was going to be damned if I was going to get caught behind the walkers on the first descent of the course. I knew I had a strong enough base to push it from the start. Plus, have I mentioned how much I love downhills? I absolutely dig them. I was going to use every single one. My strategy has always been to push it on the downhills and recover on the uphills. Sort of backwards but it works for me.
I looked around. It was a small field, only about 1,200 runners, which gave it a cozy, intimate feel. The gun went off, and within 20 seconds I was crossing over the start line. All that needless worry about not being chip-timed went out the window. I weaved in and out of the slower runners in front of me with ease and very quickly settled into a comfortable pace. I felt good. My feet felt light and quick, and my breathing was slow and even. This was going to be fun.
I hit mile 1 and glanced at my watch. 8:00 even. Shit! I was going to have to slow down! Too fast, too fast! The 2nd mile flattened out, and I slowed slightly. Mile 2--8:30. I was smokin'! I worried that I had started way too fast. Afterall, 9:00 min/miles are usually aggressive for me for long runs. But I felt soooo good! Okay, mental check: breathing? Slow. Legs? Quick. Stomach? Silent. All systems go. I decided to hit it hard. Apparently the virus had left the building and was not going to do an encore. Thank God. Alright, then. 13.1-mile tempo run, here we go. I was a little nervous. I had never tried to go all out for a half-marathon in my life. I had always held back, paced myself, saved it for the end. Not this time. Gotta live a little, right? I would go as hard as comfortably possible. If I blew up at mile 10, then I would learn something, right?
The hills began, steeply winding above me like a serpent. Thankfully, the course held no surprises for me because I had previewed the course on my bike earlier that week. Having a mental picture in my head was enormously helpful. I knew this hill was steep but I knew it was followed by a false flat afterwards, where I could recover somewhat. I worked hard, maintaining my rhythm uphill, allowing my breathing to become more rapid and shallow. I focused on reaching the top. Reaching the false flat, I allowed myself to slow and recover. Mile 3--9:00. Not bad, not bad at all. My goal was to average 9:00, and that was a hilly one. I'll take it.
All of a sudden, a steep descent appeared before me. My pulse quickened in anticipation. "Alright!" Have I mentioned how much I love downhills? I elongated my stride for a few footfalls, preparing my legs for the descent. I leaned into the decline, allowing gravity to take me forward. I focused on landing on my toes as lightly as possible, picking my feet up as quickly as they landed. My tempo increased as the grade increased. I felt like I was dancing. Controlled falling, isn't that what they say? My lungs felt great, only a slight burn in my quads and hip flexors, as if I was doing lunges. Hmmmm. Strength work? I weaved in and out of runners as I flew by. It felt like cheating. I was just letting the descent do all the work. Mile 4 flew by, and I glanced at my watch in disbelief. 7:15? I wasn't scared anymore. I was letting my legs take the reins and luckily, I had been invited along for the ride.
The road flattened out, and I took in the view. Amazing, ridiculously ostentatious mansions with pristine gardens commanded attention from every corner. I drank in the view, feeling as if I were watching an episode of the Rich and Famous. The pristine San Dieguito Reservoir sparkled to my left. Perched atop the gate of a resident's mansion was a beautiful, snow-white egret, dozing in the warm morning sun. I passed mile 5 unkowningly, deep in the zone, forgetting to look at my watch.
The temperatures were beginning to rise, reaching the upper 60s, very warm for my wimpy San Diego skin after 6 weeks of winter running in low 50s. However, the abundance of shady trees lining the streets of Rancho Santa Fe generously shielded me from the warm spring day. I was sweating and slightly warm but did not feel overheated. I diligently sipped from my Fuel Belt every 15 minutes and did not feel thirsty.
Several people had ominously warned me of the unsually high temperatures forecasted for race day. It was going to be in the 70s! I just have to laugh sometimes at how spoiled we are for living here. Who complains about 70-degree weather? Seriously. After living for several years in Wisconsin and St. Louis, I've vowed to kick myself if I ever slip and complain about the weather. It was another typical day in San Diego--beautiful day, warm, sunny, with a blazing blue cloudless sky. However, after a particularly chilly, wet winter, I reveled in the perfect San Diego weather I sometimes take for granted.
Mile 6 flew by. Already halfway done? This was going by so fast! Apparently, friends were waving and calling my name, as I was informed afterwards, but I do not remember seeing or hearing anything. My legs were zipping along. The rest of me was somewhere else in the universe. It was quite wonderful.
At mile 10, I did a recheck. My legs were quite sore from flying down the dowhills but my lungs felt fine, and I had a lot of energy. I suggested to a friend that the course wasn't long enough, irritating several runners within earshot. Maybe we should do it twice? I realized even if I bombed and ran 10:00 min/miles at this point, I would still PR. I felt both elated and relaxed. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Like a really good book, I felt almost disappointed at the thought of reaching the end.
A few girls flew by me at mile 11. Grrrr. I stayed within my zone and let them go, keeping them within my sights. Wait for it, wait for it....Mile 12 came and went. 1 mile left to go. Okay, I told myself. If you have it, you can go for it. I began to chase down my prey. Slowly, I began to gain. I reached the long, gradual ascent up El Camino Real. I visualized the finish line. This is it. The last hill. There is nothing after this. You can push it. I made an executive decision to burn a little fuel and began the final attack. I reached my first victim, girl in pink shirt. Continuing my hunt, I passed young girl, and for a moment, just for a moment, felt guilty about passing her. We had run almost the same pace the entire way, and she couldn't be more than 12 years old. She was fantastic. I urged her on as I passed, "Almost there. Final stretch." She smiled. Okay, final victim, girl with pigtails. She was my #1 prey. We had been passing each other, shoulder to shoulder, glancing elbows, for the past 6 miles, and I had been extremely irritated when she flew by me at mile 11. I wanted to hunt her down so badly, I was salivating. I picked up the pace, digging into the hill. My legs ached and my lungs burned but it didn't matter. I was gaining, she was fading. I passed her with 1/2 mile to go. Now, I was the hunted, and she was the hunter. I continued accelerating. Gone was the aggression I had felt on the chase. Instead, it had not been replaced with fear. Fear a rabbit experiences when chased by a coyote. Not as fun as chasing but being chased is still good motivation for picking up your legs faster.
I reached the park and turned in to go down the chute. This was it. My running partner accelerated, right on my heels. Where did he come from? I don't think so! That was all I needed. Boom! I took off sprinting, kicking into turbo gear. Where did that come from? Spectators cheered me on as I sprinted down the chute, dropping my pursuer. I flew across the finish line for a glorious PR, shaving 7:00 from my previous best half-marathon time. Sweet, sweet victory. I am still savoring that moment.
Nick, me & Brent with our medals at the finish.
Bethany & me. All done!
This was my best ever half marathon. It felt effortless. The miles flew by, and I was almost sorry to reach the finish. I learned that I am "good" at downhill running. Who knew? In addition, mentally, I enjoy the variation of a rolling course. Plus, since it's considered a challenging course, it was a much-needed boost to my confidence. I think the best PRs are the unintentional ones. Everything clicked for me on this race. I was simply "on". Guess the key to a PR is to get sick mid-week to force a good taper. I love the never-ending flood of self discovery afforded by triathlon.
Total Time: 1:51:05