Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Long tempo ≠ Elite (Great South Run)

This past weekend I ran at the Great South Run. I was not 100% happy with my performance at the half marathon, so I wanted another chance. I couldn't find a half marathon, so I figured a 10-mile race was close enough. I wrote to the "contact us" link on the Great South Run web site and asked for an elite number. Five days later or so, they wrote back and said I could have one!

Unfortunately, I didn't recover very well from my half marathon, so I was feeling pretty bad in the few days before the race. I couldn't even do two-minute pickups in my regular runs. For the race, I decided to try out my "shoulda, woulda, coulda" plan from the half marathon: I felt I had gone out too fast, and I ran the last few miles significantly slower than the first few, so in this next race I would go out slower and then pick it up.

When I checked in, I got this awesome bracelet. It would soon become clear that the other elite athletes were far more elite than I.


I had a bit of a crisis in the morning. When I woke up, my Garmin watch was frozen at 7:29:44. No matter what button or combination of buttons I held down, I could not get the screen to say anything else. I was afraid that using it as an alarm clock (set for 7:30) had messed it up somehow. This was a significant problem, because I was depending on my watch to know how fast I was running. Big races in the U.S. often have time clocks at the mile markers, but this one didn't (probably because of the multiple-wave start). So without this watch, I would have no idea how fast I was going. Luckily, one of the elite men said "the same thing happened to my friend's watch this morning; I can fix it" and he did. Apparently, the time change (Daylight Savings Time ended) had messed up many people's Garmin watches. It turns out that if you simultaneously hold both left buttons for 15 seconds, it shuts down. Whew!

I warmed up with Sophie, a runner from near Oxford. (You may recall that I placed second in the Witney 10 and in the Oxford Half. Sophie was first in both.) We ran back and forth in the closed-off starting area, because there was a sea of humanity everywhere else. (There were 25,000 runners.) One minute out, one minute back, repeat.

All 28 elite women went to the starting line. It was cold and windy, near the ocean. There were a lot of cameras, and it was apparently on live TV ("on telly"). When Kelly Holmes fired the gun, everyone just took off. I was last by about 10 meters, and according to my watch I was still going 5:35 pace. Seriously, people, you are not all going to run 56 minutes. There was a helicopter getting the view from above. All the spectators I was running past probably thought I was in the wrong race.

Anyway, I started off in last. I soon caught up to the second-to-last woman, around the mile mark. Just before that, I passed the woman at whose house I had stayed the night before. She cheered for me very quietly, just after taking the picture below, and I waved. That was nice. Otherwise, no one in Portsmouth knew me.

About to go from last to second-to-last

The bad thing about passing that runner was that there was a huge gap ahead. We were running through the seaport, past the historic ships (the H.M.S. Victory and others) and around corners, and I couldn't tell which way the course went until I got there. I could only occasionally see some people way ahead. I was trying to keep a tempo effort at the beginning so that I wouldn't go out too hard, and my HR was about 170 for the first few miles.

The water stops at this race, and at the half marathon, gave out bottles of water. The nice thing about this is that it's easy to squirt it into your mouth, much easier than with cups. One bad thing is that it creates a lot of waste. The other bad thing is that you have to take off the cap and pull out the nozzle thingy before you can drink. At the half marathon, they handed out water bottles with the cap off, ready to drink. At this one, the caps were on. My fingers were cold, and I actually couldn't do it. I tossed the intact bottle back toward a volunteer. I tried again at the next water station and managed to take off the cap and drink. Small victories.

I was slowly reeling in the third-to-last runner, and finally caught up at the 5-mile mark, when we were back near the start/finish area. The fourth-to-last runner was not too far ahead, and I recognized her as the one who had said, on the starting line, that she was aiming for 60-62 minutes. That was apparently not going to happen (she ran 63:51). Even though so she was not that far away, it took me two miles to catch her. When I did, right around mile 7, she stayed right next to me. We ran side-by-side for a while, until I finally pulled away a bit.

A few minutes later, I was a little confused because from the way the crowds were cheering, it sounded like she must be right behind me. I was pretty sure that she would be farther back at that point. All became clear when the wheelchair competitor passed me. That was a first! We turned onto the final two-mile straight part along the ocean into a headwind, and I briefly wondered if it would be possible to draft off of a wheelchair competitor, or for him to draft off of me. However, I passed him and then didn't see him again.

The last two miles were not very much fun. It was a long, straight road with a stiff headwind and no spectators. My feet were feeling pretty beat up at this point. I was simultaneously thinking two things: "This pavement is so rough; it's really hurting my feet" and "This pavement is probably totally normal; my feet are the problem." That idea of starting off slower and picking it up totally failed, as it is not possible to make up lots of time when you are running into a headwind. Also, I didn't have anyone to chase. I could barely make out the next runners in the distance (they finished a minute ahead of me). Solo time-trialing does not lead to my best performances.

I crossed the line in 63:12, almost two minutes slower than my 10-mile splits from the Oxford and the RnR half marathons. The officials indicated for me to leave through a gap in the fence, where the rest of the women were standing and sitting. Some of them were collapsed, having run personal bests. I was fine, having essentially done a tempo run. It was anticlimactic, for sure. I watched the finish of the men's race, which was close, but not that exciting.

I went with some women who were cooling down, and made a new friend. She commented that we didn't get a race goody bag. I commented that we didn't get a medal. I asked her if she would like to try to obtain these things with me, since after all we had done the race just like the other 25,000 people. We found the place where they were handing out goody bags to the masses streaming across the finish line, and though we were separated from it by a fence, we got someone to throw us goody bags with size-small shirts over the fence. Success!

Then we wondered where they were handing out medals. Maybe 1 in 20 people was wearing a medal. That seemed really strange: usually, either everyone is wearing a medal, or no one is (if the race doesn't give out medals, or if they haven't gotten to the medal-giving-out location yet). So I asked someone where she got her medal. "It's in the bag." That's brilliant! The volunteer hands out a bag, and it contains your shirt, your medal, and a bunch of free food and promotions. Three in one!

The only thing left to do was to get pictures with famous people. I got this awesome picture with Abel Kirui in the elite tent. Oh, by the way, the elite tent was actually a temporary building, inside a medieval castle, which looked more like a fort or barracks than a castle. Pretty cool.

With Abel Kirui (silver medal in London Olympic marathon)

Then my new friend and I found out that we were allowed to eat in the VIP tent. Sweet! We had delicious shepherd's pie, couscous, hummus and copious desserts. We waited around a while and finally the women's winner, Briton Jo Pavey, came and was interviewed about her race. And we got pictures with her! I was going to leave, but then my friend said I should also get a picture with Kelly Holmes. I didn't know who she was (not being British and all) but I did get a picture, and I looked her up afterwards.

With Jo Pavey (British Olympian)

With Kelly Holmes (won gold in 800m & 1500m in Athens)

After the race, I returned to where I had spent the night and got a lovely massage from my host, who is a massage therapist. If I am ever in Portsmouth again, I will certainly get another one. If you are ever in Portsmouth, you should strongly consider getting a massage. It was awesome. Then I took the train back to Oxford. The end.

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