February 17, 2009

Half Marathon Result

On race morning the alarm goes off at 5:50am. After a shower I apply some `deep heat’ cream on my calves to help warm up my muscles. Based on the weather forecast for a dry sunny day with temperatures around 5 degrees I decide to wear shorts, a top with back pockets for my gels and a dry-fit short-sleeve T-shirt (my finishers’ shirt from the 2007 Gold Coast Marathon). Then I add some layers to stay warm for now.

At about 6.15am I eat a Powerbar (vanilla flavour) and drink some water. I’ve also made my morning coffee to take in the car as we drive to the race start. Tim and I leave at 6:35am. As always, the drive between Squamish and Vancouver is stunning, especially since we catch the sun rising. Tim is driving. We talk a bit more about our race strategies. I drink my coffee, and some water. I eat another half Powerbar.

We get downtown at 7:30am and find a parking garage quickly. There’s a small line-up for the parking meter, and all the people in line are either runners or spectators. After we get our parking ticket, Tim and I each take a bag with us for our spare clothes which we can hand in at the bag check later. We power-walk to the race headquarters, which is already busy as the race starts in less than an hour.

There are small line-ups for the pick-up of our race chips and numbers. The volunteers are efficient so Tim and I are done quickly. Then we head immediately for the bathroom, knowing that the line-ups can be lengthy. I am in line at 7:55am. There are at least 15 women ahead of me, so I use the time to pin my race number to my shirt and wrap the timing chip around my ankle. I also take off the long pants and re-tie my shoe laces, so that they are nice and snug. I always double-knot my laces to avoid them loosening during the race. As I leave the washrooms at 8:10am the line-up has tripled. I quickly find Tim near the spot where we agreed to wait for each other after our bathroom stops. By now I’m getting anxious to get outside to do our warm-up. There’s only 20 minutes to the race start, and only 15 minutes until I want to be ready in the start area.

There’s another short line-up at the bag check-in area. I had already stripped down to my race outfit while I was standing in line for the washrooms. I double-check that I have everything: race number, race chip, sunglasses and gloves. I had put the four gels in the back pockets of my race top as soon as I put it on this morning – one less thing to forget.

We head outside through the stream of runners. Deep breath. It’s 8:15am. We have exactly 10 minutes to warm up which is fine. Tim and I run away from the start area. We begin with a 7-minute easy jog and finish with four sprints. Now I feel much better: we’ve done everything that we needed to do and are now ready to line up.

As we position ourselves about five rows from a rope that separates the main pack from the front, the race organizer announces that runners with race numbers 1 through 114 are allowed to ahead of the rope. My race number is 53. It’s nice to have a start privilege, so I decide to use the opportunity. Tim and I wish each other good luck and then I position myself at the back of that front pack. Just before the gun goes off, the rope is dropped and the main pack closes in.

While chilly, it is a beautiful day. I know I will be warm very soon. The atmosphere is excited. After a quick countdown, the gun goes off and I start my watch. There we go. As usual, the start is quick. I try to find my pace while a myriad of thoughts run through my head. “Am I running too fast, this pace feels easy, it wouldn’t be too slow would it? Everyone seems to run by me. I have to listen to my coach. He said no faster than 4:15/kilometer in the first half. Then I can speed up. I hope I can speed up by as much as I want to. What a beautiful day. I feel good, but do I feel great. Distance will tell.”

I approach the 1-kilometer mark. I check my watch as I pass it. Darn, I thought I was running easy but my watch says I ran 4:00. Way too fast and I slow down immediately. “I hope this isn’t too slow. I need to find my pace. Don’t worry about all the runners passing me. If you don’t see them again, they are simply faster runners. And if they are not, you will see them again in the final third of the race.” Tim passes me. I ask him what his 1-km split was: 4:12 he responds. That’s great. I let him go. I need to focus on my pace, and avoid being tempted to run with him.

So I settle into the pace as advised by my coach and return to my own thoughts “I think I feel good. Positive thoughts: I feel great, my shoes feel great, I am comfortable. There’s the 1-mile mark.” I pass it in 6:43 – that’s much better. A 4:15/km pace is 6:50/mile pace. I reach the 3-mile mark in 20:39 and try to do the math quickly. “Three times 7 is 21, minus three times 10 seconds. Yup, that’s great.”

The course follows the seawall around Stanley Park. It’s beautiful on this sunny winter day. As I am still running relatively easy, I make sure to take in the beautiful views. I run through a few mantras. “Relax and achieve the max. Right on pace, and feeling great.” My mind repeats these mantras over and over to avoid any question marks or negative thoughts. The next miles takes me 6:52, 6:54 and 7:00 respectively, so I am at the 6-mile point in 41:26. This is about 25 seconds slower than the ideal time but pretty good. I can see Tim a few hundred meters ahead of me. I need to run my own race. I take a gel as I see the water station ahead of me. It’s always nice to wash down the sweet and stick gels with some water.

When I reach the 10-km mark in 42:55, I repeat the words of my coach in my mind. “If you’re feeling good, slowly wind up the pace.” At the halfway point which follows 550 meter later I quickly check my watch to do the math: 45:12. That means a 90:24 finish if I were to run the second half at exactly the same pace. I definitely want a sub-90 finish and am confident I can achieve that. But I want more than that, I’d like to get close to or even better my 88:13 PB. That seems a stretch, though not impossible. The only way to find out is to try. With permission to wind up my pace, I now can run as I feel and stop looking at my watch. I slowly accelerate and focus. I focus on my breathing being deep and relaxed, on my body feeling challenged but not overly so, on my thoughts being positive and supportive.

Another runner has decided to run with me. He matches my pace stride for stride. I like when people do so running side by side. It’s another mental boost. After a while he asks me what my goal is. “Dunno,” I respond. While partly true, it is the first and shortest answer that comes to my mind. I do not want to break my focus by chatting – this is not the time for small talk, no matter how short. And I’ve learnt the hard way that talking can bring about a stitch that kills the race. Three years ago, I was about halfway in a half marathon. Parts of this course were double-backed, so you could see people ahead and behind you. While I was racing, I also like to encourage others, especially people I know. The effect is two-fold: they get a lift from your encouragement, and it also helps me to express positive comments. I’d shouted encouragements to two people earlier. But when I saw a third friend and shouted at him, I almost stopped dead in my tracks when I suddenly got a sharp and painful stitch. Even focusing on my breathing didn’t allow me to recover from it. I was forced to walk for several hundred meters to let it subside. Needless to say that destroyed my race goal and I learnt a valuable lesson. Use your breath only to breathe when you’re running at race pace.

Today, I am motivated by the man wearing a blue shirt running next to me. But I do not use energy registering anything else such as his face or guessing his age. I am focused on the runners in front of me. Slowly we’re reeling them in. I also see Tim’s white shirt coming a bit closer. I’m determined to catch him as well as a woman who is running a bit behind him. While we’re closing the gap on these two, it’s going very slowly. That must mean that they have picked up their pace as well. Finally with two miles to go I’ve caught the woman – or so I think - and Tim’s only about 50 meters ahead. I’m feeling the strain by now.

While I have checked my watch at a few mile markers I do not press the lap button and I cannot recall any numbers now after the race. I know that at this point I need to focus on not giving in to a desire to slow down. I hope I am not slowing down. But as I turn the corner at the 20-mile mark a short incline hits my legs. The woman and Tim are increasing the gap. Another corner, thankfully this is flat. But another corner reveals another and longer incline. I almost feel crying! I try to run as best as I can but the runners ahead of me are running faster. After I tamed this unexpected incline that feels like Mt Everest at this point in the race, I try to quickly recover my breath and thoughts. “Come on, the finish is close. I can’t see it yet. How close it. Come on you know it is close – pick up the pace.” Now that the road is flat again I accelerate and finally see the finish. The clock still reads 89. I am desperate to finish sub-90 so I sprint the final 150 meters as hard as I can.

Tim finished well ahead of me and I am so excited for him because that means he ran sub-90 for the first time. The first things I do after crossing the finish line is high five and hug him: he’s long deserved to break this – mostly – mental barrier. His official time is 89:06, a PB by more than a minute. It’s a fantastic result.

My official race time is 89:39. While relieved that it is sub-90, I am also a bit annoyed. This is a flatter course than the previous half marathon I ran about 10 months earlier: I ran 86 seconds faster there! Since then I’ve got more solid training under my belt as well as three more 10km races and two marathons. I know all is relative, and I cannot expect to achieve a personal best in each and every race I do but I cannot help but feel disappointed.

There is no doubt I am a Greedy Runner. I want to improve and am willing to work hard. While my coach and Tim are right about reminding me to be thankful for and happy with my result, I will also use that sense of wanting more to harness my motivation for the training for my key goal: the Vancouver Marathon. I love running, regardless of how much I may whinge and whine about a matter of seconds in results. If I am disappointed in subtle differences, then I need to focus on the details in my training. Better hydrating and fuelling my body during and after training sessions. Enough rest. Better mental focus in speed sessions. Better consistency and focus in my weight training. And most of all, Believe and Achieve.

I’m very excited about now getting stuck into the bulk of my marathon training over the next six weeks.

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