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.

13 Responses

  1. Question: In those early miles, were you measuring your pace against the Garmin, other runners, or by instinct/experience?

  2. Oy, this sounds like frustration at it’s worst. Great points about you at being at peak and likely not recovered enough. I hadn’t realized you’d been on this train for about 23 weeks now – kudos to you! Keep the faith, girl, I know it’ll all come together on race day.

  3. I realize I’m not your coach so take this for what its worth but as an observer with a lot of experience in the sport:

    I have to wonder – what is the theory behind running lots and lots and lots of slow miles with very little near M pace? By the looks of it, you push through TONS of miles, many of which are very slow (compared to your goal race pace). And that is fine. I firmly believe miles and recovery are an essential part of training. But I also think there comes a point where the extra miles aren’t helping, and you are best to actually recover. Because no matter how slowly you are going, sometimes you just NEED a day off. (Unless say you have a team of massage therapists, etc on hand). From what I’ve gathered – you seem to always be RIGHT on edge. You were worried about the weather when you posted a forecast that didn’t look bad at all! I also recall you recently actually driving to a race and not running due to weather. If I were your coach that would suggest a fear – or at least a fixation – of not being ready for x and x. And this is consistent with your never taking time off, etc. (Ironically, you mention the inability to back off in a race – even a “B” race -when needed.)

    Don’t get me wrong – you’ve clearly got a ton of focus and drive and have many lots of progress, but I think in some cases its best to really truly listen to your body and back OFF when it needs it. Someone putting down the miles you are should easily be sub 1:30. Perhaps you’d benefit from a bit of reduction in the volume of slow miles and raising a bit of the intensity. (Perhaps 70-80, if not 60-80 with your easy miles being in the 8:30-9 range on the easy days.) The ability to handle lots of miles sometimes works against us, and its often hard to find that “break even” point…but its necessary you do. (I mean, some runners can handle 150 miles a week…but I’d venture to guess few need that much.)

    I also think you need to stop thinking so much about weather and things you can’t control, because that only adds to your general stress level.

    No offense is meant at all here, I’m just noting my observations as a coach and long time (15-20 years as a coach – athlete) in the sport. Of course you have a coach of your own so feel free to disregard my suggestions entirely, but the amount of pressure one puts on themselves can be really and truly detrimental.

    At any rate, good luck with whatever you do and please, don’t think I mean any harm!

    -Coach Tom

    • Hi Tom,

      You’re right. You’re not my coach. 😉

      But you make some good points, some of them valid (in terms of applying to me personally) and some not (in that they may apply to others, but not to me).

      Believe me, I don’t have some sort of weird psychological weather fixation. I just live in a place (NY State) with extreme weather and when I see “rain” that often means pouring rain, not the more desirable “light rain”. (As it turns out, in NJ we got drizzle, light rain, then steady rain).

      BTW, that earlier race I bagged featured a 20+ mph headwind, pouring rain and sub-freezing windchills. It was not conducive to a good MPace time trial/training run.

      I won’t go into your mileage vs. recovery points in detail because there are so many variables, not to mention differences in adaptation, physiology and mental tolerance from runner to runner. But suffice it to say that I respond well to high mileage and high intensity when it is coupled with adequate recovery. Finding that balance has been a matter of trial and error. The week prior to the race was an anomaly, I believe brought on by continuing to push through a bout of freakishly hot weather that I wasn’t acclimated to.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and for the thoughtful post.

  4. There were no truly horrible splits in there, so that’s encouraging. As you say, a good MP workout.

    I agree that being stubborn and running a Garmin-guided pre-determined pace cost you. I’m amazed you knew after 5 steps it wasn’t going to be good. Did you do a warm-up run?

    Anyway, getting started at the right MP in Newport will be important. 7:10 miles looks pretty doable, maybe with a negative split.

    • Ewen, I agree. It wasn’t a disaster. And, yes, I did do a warmup run in a parking lot. I had to slow myself down as I was excited, but the HRs were in line with pace during the warmup, so I had no clue anything was amiss. Funny, right?

      7:10 is also the pace I’ve got in my mind, at least as a conservative starter. But I’ll settle on a pacing plan with Coach Kevin as the big date draws nearer.

  5. So are you and Coach going to adjust anything with the race drawing close to make sure you’re recovered?

    All-in-all, you did what you could. You didn’t drop out, you PR’d, you got in a good MP training run. C’est la vie.

    • Hi Tracy — yeah, we’re going to take things day by day and make adjustments if there’s evidence that I’m not recovering properly. And I’m doing a fairly radical taper — basically no hard workouts 12 days out (save for one short MPace “rehearsal run” a few days pre-race) coupled with a dramatic cutdown in mileage.

  6. Nice race report and you learn a lot in this race.
    You run a PR and i think that you must be happy whit it.
    Some times a race is not what you expect and this was not a marathon race.Your goal is the marathon and when you run a PR than you run a good race and lurn about and forget the rest and go for the marathon.

    One thing about Tom!!!, You train a lot and i think that you can take some more rest!.Rest makes you strong and fast.Dont cat my wrong that i now what you must do, but i think that it makes your a faster marathon woman ;-).

    Julie, you thit a good job and go for the marathon.


  7. Rinus: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

  8. Julie,”i dream when i run the marathon.”

  9. “Slowing down is for pussies!”

    Especially in a half-marathon, which is “only” 13.1 miles.

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