Race Report: 2009 New Jersey Half Marathon

You asked for it, so here it is. The good, the bad and the ugly.

On Sunday I ran the New Jersey Half Marathon in Long Branch, NJ. This was my second go round for this race. Last year, I ran this half a month after a very good marathon. I was rested, but with a couple of tempo runs to my credit, and I obliterated not only my previous half marathon PR, but all of the sub-distance PRs as well. It was a magical race.

Alas, the magic did not last. Or at least, I had not properly set the stage for magic to happen.

Let’s examine what did happen. It’s pretty entertaining, and offers some object lessons in why all races are not created equal and why it’s sometimes very bad to be stubborn.

I’ve separated various individual miles or sets of miles into blocks. These sections of the race help tell the story of what went horribly wrong and why. But the story begins long before the miles shown on this chart. I carried into this race not four glorious weeks of recovery but 14 weeks of hard labor training, as well as 9 weeks of basebuilding before that, which also were nothing to sneeze at.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was fatigued and not in the state required to run anywhere near even my outside goal time of 1:32ish. What’s ironic about this is that my confidence about this race was largely due to a week of stellar workouts in late April (training week 14) — a week of what Kevin calls “happy extravagance” — and which, when combined with the horrible following week (training week 15), served to knock the stuffing out of me and leave me in a semi-constant state of not-quite-recovered.

So here’s how the race unfolded:

Pre-race: After standing on concrete, shivering for a half an hour due to a late race start, they finally start the frigging race. I’m in row 3, behind two women in their underwear (they would come in 1st and 3rd, as well as a 48-year-old woman who would come in 2nd). They are chatting about their goal times (“Oh, we’re trying for around 1:23.”) and I am hanging my head in shame. I vow to run my own race, since I’m obviously going have my ass handed to me by these three. As it turns out, my own race would suck. Theirs would not.

1 (blue box): The horn blows and I take off so as not to get run over. I take five steps and immediately know that I am in trouble. My legs feel stiff and heavy and my calves and ankles are actually hurting. This is exactly how the Steamtown Marathon started out, and fans of this blog will recall that by mile 18 of that race I wished for a quick and merciful death.

My goal pace for this race was somewhere in the neighborhood of 6:52. I did my best, but after just one mile I was falling off pace. Miles 2 and 3 showed a slight decline, but I fought to stay in that range. Then we turned the corner into mile 4. And that was when I felt the headwind.

2 (purple box): Miles 4 through 6 show my personality — made up of equal parts determination and capacity for denial — shining through. I knew I was running into wind and that I was working too hard, but I ignored all consequences. When I got home and looked at the splits and saw that 93% heart rate, I knew that these were the miles in which I screwed myself. Had I simply accepted after mile 1 that I needed to slow down, well, I might have run a more even pace throughout and gotten a better time. But slowing down is for pussies!

3 (green box): The aerobic chickens came home to roost for mile 7. I felt physically ill, not quite barfworthy, but I made sure I had some space around me, let’s put it that way. A keen realization of the consequences of my tragic failure to run reasonably earlier on began to creep into my mind. This was the first point in the race when I considered dropping out.

4 (orange box): My stomach settled a bit toward the end of mile 7 and the general feeling of malaise began to pass. I rallied a bit and managed another faster mile, but then cratered again for mile 9, faced with the one real hill in the race.

5 (plum box): Mile 10 was the nadir (both in terms of course elevation and my mood). I probably spent half of this mile entertaining the idea of quitting. Bear in mind that for the last 50 minutes I’d been battling a headwind, anger, nausea, pain and suicidal despair. It all seemed so pointless. Then we turned another corner and the wind was suddenly behind us.

6 (yellow box): You’d think with a tailwind I’d have been able to speed up. But it was too late for that. I’d used up all my aerobic credits (or so I thought). Note how my heart rate goes up for miles 11 through 13, right along with my pace.

7 (red box): This was my Ron Howard movie moment. Here I’d thought I’d spent everything in miles 1 through 6. But look at my last quarter mile: I ran it at 6:41 pace. The fact that I could pull this out of my hat gave me one of the day’s few glimmers of hope. Expressed simply, “I can’t run fast when I’m tired, but I can sure run hard.” That has to be worth something for a marathoner.

The data behind the drama. (Click to enlarge.)

The data behind the drama. (Click to enlarge.)

I still managed to set a new PR of 24 seconds, along with new PRs for 5 miles, 10K and 15K.

What’s the big lesson in all of this? Well, there are several:

  • If you’re going to race during marathon training, then you’ve got to lower your expectations. This is especially true if you are racing at the peak of marathon training. (Duh.)
  • If a race isn’t going well, then for god’s sake just accept it and adjust your plan as soon as possible. Hoping won’t make it so.
  • Pay attention to signs of pre-race fatigue. They were all there, but they were subtle. Or maybe I just didn’t want to see them.
  • Running a half marathon as a MPace run isn’t the worst thing in the world. I got a great workout and, once I recogized what went wrong, it was not a huge blow to my confidence.

Finally, something interesting. I had a whole host of nagging physical issues going into this race: quad problems in my right leg, the lingering groin issue from all the way back to January, some left foot pain. All of that went away after the race. Sometimes I think a good, hard race can knock everything back into place.

Spring Race Training: Week 15

09spr-training-15The report is a bit late this week on account of my being in mourning over my loss in New Jersey. I’ll post a race report, along with some insights, this evening. But to summarize, the funk has lifted, with reason and logic prevailing at last.

Last week consisted of a “mini taper” for the half, with just one hard workout rather than two. This probably would have been fine if we hadn’t had a freak heatwave Saturday of the previous week through Wednesday of last week.

My legs were totally trashed on Monday from Sunday’s hot, hilly 20 miler in Central Park. I wasn’t much better on Tuesday, during which I experienced what felt like a pre-flu state: nausea, exhaustion and feeling feverish. I didn’t have a fever (although I do wonder if I had a bit of sun poisoning from Sunday), so I went out and attempted a hard run in high heat and full sun.

In retrospect, this was a stupid thing to do. I probably should have cut the run short when it was clear that doing mile intervals in such conditions wasn’t going to be productive. I wish I weren’t so stubborn, as this is a quality that truly is a double edged sword. When it works for you, it’s a great help. But it can also result in foolhardy moves that sabotage larger goals.

Anyway, suffice it to say that Tuesday’s run is probably what screwed the pooch for Sunday. I never really recovered from it, although my recovery runs were slow enough to fake me out and think that I had. But there were clues I could have heeded if I’d looked hard enough:

  • I was still completely exhausted on Wednesday. Normally, I’d expect some residual tiredness after a hard run on Tuesday, but this was flat out, kicked in the ass exhaustion of the highest order. A lingering problem with my right quads also was intensifying.
  • I was starving all day on Thursday, meaning I’d eat something and an hour later I had to eat again. I think I spent more time in the kitchen than in my home office. I was even doing teleconferences in the kitchen, standing at the fridge eating with the phone on mute.
  • I needed a two hour nap on Friday afternoon. This is very unusual. I might need a nap on Sunday after a very hard long run or a race, but rarely during the week.
  • Saturday morning my resting HR was still elevated by about 20%.

The kicker was Sunday’s race, of course. I knew from the moment the horn blew that I was going to have a bad race and be very unhappy for the next 90+ minutes of my life. More on that later.

Unfortunately, Kevin’s computer died during the lead-up to this race, so he was unable to look at my training logs (which include HR information, reports of sleep quality, etc.). While he had my blog reports on how things were going, they didn’t tell the whole story. With the full view, he says he would have told me to scale back expectations (but still run the race). As it stands, we’re making adjustments going forward to help ensure that I’m recovered to do the remaining key workouts, the biggest of which is on Sunday: a 22 miler with the last 12 at MPace.

So there you have it. Despite the race disappointment (which I now have some perspective on), I still feel really good about the training I’ve done and confident about my fitness. The recent track work in particular has gone very well. I’m not as worried about Sunday’s big MPace run as I thought I’d be. Ironically, I have to credit the race experience on Sunday for some of that relaxation of expectations. I’ve been banging away, doing 100 mile weeks for several months now. What matters most is the overall quality of my training, not whether I hit exact paces in one particular workout — there are just too many variables that can throw that off.

It’s bizarre to look at my training plan and see so few weeks left. Next week is my last real training week. Then it’s three full taper weeks, including three (three!) days off in there.