Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to run a 51-second PR and still feel like a loser

I almost never write blog posts about races that went poorly. If you read through this blog, you probably get the sense that my racing career consists mostly of winning small races and setting PRs, and I never have a bad race. That's because it's really hard for me to sit down and spend time writing about things I did poorly. Well, here goes.

In reality, the Oxford Half Marathon didn't go that poorly. As mentioned in the title of the post, I ran a 51-second PR. I improved my time to 1:21:10, which is certainly no jog in the park.

However, I spent more than three months training for the race, so I didn't just expect it to go well. I expected it to go really well. I wanted to run under 80 minutes. I wanted to win the race.

Neither of these things happened. One reason I didn't achieve my goals is that I ran the first mile too fast, which is a rookie mistake. To have done three months of hard training and have it compromised by poor decisions over the course of just five minutes is tough to swallow.

Anyway, the race.

Conditions at the start were perfect: sunny and 40°. Conditions in the several hours before the race were decidedly arctic. I could see my breath. There was frozen mist floating through the air. I had not prepared for this, so I shivered for a while.

In this news video you can see me twice, standing on the starting line.

Roger Bannister sounded the air horn and I ran what I felt was a reasonably quick, yet not difficult pace. Many men passed me, but no women. The first mile was gradually uphill, and it didn't feel too bad. Just before the mile mark, Sophie caught up and passed me. I got to the mile marker in 5:44.

I am in the middle, in a green singlet and sunglasses

I assumed that the mile mark was wrong and decided not to worry about it. I got behind Sophie and ran just behind her for the next few miles. She was going about the pace I wanted to go, so I just tucked right in and let her set the pace. We went through the next few miles in 11:54 (6:10), 17:57 (6:03), 24:01 (6:04). My goal pace was 6:06, so this seemed pretty good to me.

This is how it was from mile 1-4

Between mile 4 and 5, a gap opened between Sophie and me. I wasn't sure if she was speeding up or I was slowing down, but I felt I was exerting the right amount of effort.

I missed the 5-mile mark, which I am mad about because I really wanted to know how fast I was going. One thing I didn't like about this race was that the mile signs were attached to fences or posts well off the road, so you really had to be looking for them to see them. I didn't see mile 5.

The sixth mile was a gradual uphill. Even though I didn't feel like it, I got my Gu Chomps out and ate three of them (I dropped the fourth on the ground accidentally).

I got to the 6-mile mark in 36:43. What?! Did I really average 6:20 miles for the past two miles? That would be horrible. I had decided not to start "racing" until mile 8 or 10, but I was determined not to get stuck in a 6:20-pace rut, so I injected some purpose into my running for the next mile.

I got to the 7-mile sign in 42:10, meaning that I was averaging 6:01 pace since the beginning of the race. You have got to be kidding me. Either the 6-mile sign had been late, or I ran a 5:27 mile (not likely). I was pretty sure the 7-mile mark was in the right place, so the good news was that I was apparently running a fast half marathon, and the fact that Sophie was well ahead of me was not my problem.

At this point I was really, really wishing I had just worn the darn Garmin. I didn't wear it because during my previous 10-mile race it beeped well before each mile mark, and beeped earlier and earlier as the race went on, so I didn't want to deal with the discrepancy between an actual mile and a "Garmin mile." However, an "Oxford Half Marathon mile" apparently has a huge standard deviation and sometimes does not exist at all. Not cool.

Running along the towpath

Miles 8-10 were my favorite part, around the towpath along the river. I was running alongside this guy, and I would alternately pass him and he would pass me, based on who was feeling good. I missed mile markers 8 and 9, but I knew where 9 should be, and I got there in 54:57. At this point I didn't know what to believe, but I can believe I had slowed to 6:20 pace (which, it should be noted, is still not that slow).

I was hoping I would get to 10 miles in a good time, because I knew the 11th mile would be difficult: it had a switchback, which always slowed me down when I practiced it, and most of that mile was a long, gradual uphill. I got there in 61:20 for a paltry 4-second PR over my RnR split from August.

Running along the scenic towpath

At this point, Sophie had disappeared into the distance. I could still see her until about 7 miles, but now she was gone. Fortunately, there was still room for me to achieve my goal of a PR, because I had purposely run slowly in the last 5k of the RnR half. The half marathon is basically 10 miles plus a 5k, so if I ran 20 minutes for the final 5k, I would run 1:21:20 for the race and beat my 1:22 PR. I basically did exactly that.

The last few miles were not very much fun. I ran around the switchback, up the long hill (6:40 for that mile) and then through the roundabouts in the last few miles of the race. I was mad at myself for running too fast in the first few miles, because that mistake was clearly affecting me now. Finally we approached the stadium.

Seeing 1:21:06 on the clock; finally finishing the race

I was happy to see 1:21 still on the clock as I approached. That's not that bad. I crossed the line and it was over.

Just after I finished, I met up with someone I knew from a local running group. He was happy I had finished second lady. On the starting line, he said he wanted to run 1:25; he had run 1:19. I wish I had exceeded my goal by six minutes!

As I walked out of the stadium, several people congratulated me for being the first lady. I temporarily entertained the notion that Sophie might have dropped out, but it seemed unlikely (she didn't).

I got my race T-shirt from the volunteers. As I have mentioned, in the UK, T-shirts are for finishers, not entrants. The nice thing about this is that the faster you run, the more likely you are to get the size you desire. I got a small. They were all men's cut, though. Apparently women's-cut race shirts do not exist in the UK yet.

Then there was a crowd of people standing around these machines. You type in your race number, and it tells you your time and place!

The cool device to see your race time

And if you touch your name on the screen, it prints out a receipt with this information. Very cool. This is a great benefit of chip timing, and it eliminates the huge crowds of people around the results taped to the wall. This is mostly because there are no results taped to the wall. We should do this in the U.S.

Well, actually the big crowds in the U.S. around the results on the wall are replaced by big crowds in the U.K. around the magic machine. But at least it's instantly available! No waiting for the timer man to get a full page of results, print them out, and tape them up! And you can take it home! More dead trees for everyone!

I ran 1:21:10 and I have a receipt to prove it

Then I was thrilled to see that Sir Roger Bannister was still around! I thought he might have gone home after finishing his duties starting the race, but no, he and his wife were still there. I ran to the baggage claim, got my bag, fished my camera out, and went back to where he had been. He hadn't gone far; luckily for me, he is a little slower now than in 1954. He said he was looking for the women's winner, but since he couldn't find her, he was happy to talk to me. He asked me a series of questions that seemed prepared -- what was your time? are you happy with it? what do you do? what are you doing in Oxford? how many miles a week do you run? -- which seems to me a brilliant method for dealing with frequently talking to people who want to meet him. And he let me take a picture with him!

With Sir Roger Bannister!

Then I cooled down a bit and went to the awards. I was surprised to learn how close behind me 3rd and 4th places were. If I hadn't run a PR, I would have been 4th. The 3rd lady could almost certainly see me for much of the race.

The long and short of it

The prize was the most money I've ever won in a race: £200 (about $323)! Unfortunately, it was in the form of a gift certificate to a local running store, to buy Brooks products. Well, I'm sure I'll find some good things to buy there, and I'll just tuck them in the closet to wear far in the future when I am no longer a New Balance athlete. I also got a very comfy Brooks sweatshirt. Don't worry; I only wear it indoors where no one can see me.

I briefly entertained the notion of finding another half marathon in two or three weeks, and then wearing the Garmin and sticking religiously to 6:10 pace for the first 8 miles. However, I've decided to move on. It's cross country season. I'm going to break out the spikes and see what happens on the muddy fields. See you out there.

Update: I did find myself a 10-mile race (the Great South Run), and stuck to 6:10 pace for the first few miles. The result was a 63:12 10-mile, almost two minutes slower than my 10-mile split from this half marathon. I started at 6:10 pace and slowed down from there. So in retrospect, I am pretty happy about my performance at the Oxford half marathon, and I'm not that mad about my 5:44 first mile. If you're going to slow down, you might as well slow down from a faster pace than from a slower pace.

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