Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Perfect Storm of a Personal Best

Last Sunday I ran the Crawlin' Crab Half Marathon in Hampton, VA. I went into the race with zero expectations -- basically, I was just considering it a training run for my marathon coming up in January.

As I waited in the starting corral, I saw a running buddy and fellow Ragnarian and began to chat with him. We both agreed we were just planning to take it easy in this race -- him, because he had a marathon seven days later, me because I'm just lazy.  Both of us were looking for a 2:15-2:20 finish time.

But a bit more than two hours after that conversation I had finished the race, and had an awesome new PR (Personal Record) in my half marathon race time.  My previous Half Marathon PR had been 2:09:45 (set at the Shamrock Half Marathon in March 2011).  My new PR: 2:01:27 -- a full eight minutes off my previous best!

PRing in a race is always great, for obvious reasons. It means you've done something to make yourself stronger, faster, tougher than you've ever been before.  And although runners may set a PR for themselves in regular runs all the time, it only really counts if it is recorded in a race.

So PRing was great. But PRing by eight minutes? That's more than I thought I was capable of. Seriously. If you had asked me this time last week if I would PR in the race, I would've scoffed.

And coming close to a sub-2 hour half marathon? Not a chance.

I have toyed with setting a sub-2 hour half marathon goal for myself, but it seemed so far out of my reach that I never wanted to make the goal public.

Okay, yeah, I have fear of failure issues.  Cut me some slack.

To run a half marathon in under 2 hours means you have to run at a pace of 9:09 minute/miles.  Just to be clear, I regularly run 10:00 minute miles. A perfectly respectable pace for a 39-year-old woman.  But definitely not fast.

And definitely not close to 9:09. 

But I just ran a race with a 9:15 average. So evidently closer than I thought.

I'm not sure how I PRed and came so close breaking that elusive 2 hour half. It was a "Perfect Storm" combination  that included the following factors:

  1. The course itself. It was mostly flat with no bottle-necking areas. Well organized with lots of support volunteers. And it wasn't too crowded
  2. The weather.  Cloudy, in the upper 50s. A little cold standing around at the start, but awesome once the run started.  Steady drizzle at about mile 10 but honestly that didn't bother me.
  3. The conversation hubby & I had the night before about a 9:09 pace. He suggested seeing how long I could hold that pace and then build from there to eventually reach my sub 2 hour goal.
  4. All the Pilates and Yoga classes I've been doing lately. Okay, maybe I haven't been to that many, but I still feel like they are helping me significantly by improving my core strength.
  5. The cold that had been bugging me for a few days. It wasn't a factor much during the race itself, but it had kept me off the pavement for a few days before. My legs were fresh and not-at-all tired.
  6. An 8:00am start time meant I was able to get a little extra sleep and able to get more calories in my system before starting the race. Pre-race meal: donut, bagel chips, whole banana with peanut butter.  Oh, and a Red Bull chugged 30 minutes prior to start.

I leapt my first hurdle just moments into the race: no bottle-necking at the start. I'm usually in a mid-range corral with all the other somewhat slow people and it can cause a pretty slow first mile. But not this time. There was a gap, I shot through it, and never hit crowds again.

Once I saw that my first mile was a 9:10 pace, I decided I was use this race to test my husband's question about how long I could hold a pace like this. I would run as long as I could at this pace and then I would know how far from a 2 hour half I really was.  Since I had no goal for the race, I figured even if I bonked at mile 6 and had to walk a couple of miles, it was no big deal.  At least I would know how long I could hold around a 9:09.

At mile 3 I was still going strong at that pace. Mile 5, still good. Mile 8 - I was surprised but still keeping around a 9:10ish pace.

At mile 10 I was still running that pace. I realized I was going to PR. Even more, I realized I was actually within the reach of a sub 2:00. I ran harder, but at that point  harder just meant not slowing down, not getting any faster.

At mile 11 I was officially tired of running that pace. But heck, at that point, I only had 2 MILES LEFT. So I kept going, keeping the pace as best I could, although it slipped a couple of seconds per mile.

When I crossed the finish line, my Garmin told me I had run 13.27 miles in 2:01:45 – a 9:10 pace. The official clock said I ran 13.1 miles in 2:01:27 – a 9:15 pace. Although I tried, I wasn’t able to grab that elusive sub-2 hour time.

I ran as hard and as fast as I could that day. By far, it was the most significant effort I've ever put into a half marathon race. In the end, my pace averaged out to 9:15 min/mile. Close to that 9:09, but not quite enough.

But enough to get me to a big ol' honkin' PR. And to make me realize I am closer to what I thought was an unattainable goal than I ever thought possible.

Next time: 9:09.

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