Sunday, June 23, 2013

USA Half Marathon Race Report: More on Pacing

When people asked me which race I was doing yesterday in Duluth, the full or half marathon, competitors and non-competitor alike gave me a look when I told them I was running just the half. It can only be described as a look of reproach. A look that meant, ‘oh, poor you, you must not be tough enough for the whole shebang”. At first I thought I was imagining it, but after a dozen instances, I determined that “the look” was unmistakable. To those that inquired further, I explained that I was running the USA Half Marathon Champs; only then did the look of contempt turn to respect.

One of the things I notice with endurance athletes is that when it comes to racing, longer is often viewed as better. People think that going longer will make you tougher, fitter, more esteemed and an overall better athlete. I challenge this way of thinking. While I certainly am a fan of the longer events, I have done countless Ironmans and marathons (I have yet to delve into the ultra-realm), shorter races offer huge advantages in terms of speed, recovery, longevity, and the ability to learn things that can be applied to the longer races.

Here is an example. I am planning on running the Twin Cities Marathon in October. My first goal is to qualify for the 2016 Marathon Olympic Trials, which will require me to run under 2:43.00. My secondary goal is to break 2:40.

Running a marathon at that pace requires not only endurance, but a certain amount of speed and perfect pacing. Historically, I can run within 2:30-3 minutes of my open half marathon time in a marathon. In order to run sub-2:40, that translates to a 1:16.59 open half marathon. When I started the season, my half marathon PB was 1:18.22, much too slow to run under 2:40.

Three weeks ago, I lowered that time to 1:16.45, and yesterday at the USA Half Marathon Championships, I shaved off another 36 seconds running a 1:16.09 (good enough for 24th overall and 2nd masters), putting me in a much better position to achieve a sub 2:40 time.

You may be wondering how I was able to drop 36 seconds so quickly after setting a PR just three weeks earlier. The answer is in pacing and starting the race with a specific strategy.

I carefully analyzed my mile splits from San Diego and determined that my first 4 miles were too erratic and slow compared to the rest of the race. I knew I needed to run those miles faster and come closer to 36 flat for the first 10k in Duluth. You can see from the table below, at the Half champs I ran the first 5k much quicker than in San Diego. The middle miles were at a similar pacing, but then I brought the last 5k home faster.
Miles RnR San Diego Half Champs
1 5:41 5:45
2 5:56 5:48
3 5:49 5:46
4 6:03 5:52
5 5:46 5:50
6 5:49 5:44
7 5:47 5:54
8 5:46 5:51
9 5:55 5:45
10 5:46 5:47
11 5:50 5:43
12 5:33 5:40
13 5:43 5:38
5k 18:16 17:56
10k 36:30 36:12
10 miles 58:49 58:19
Last 5k 17:56 17:50
Closing out my races strong has been an issue for me both in the half and full marathon. I just couldn’t quite hold my pace all the way to the finish line resulting in a noticeable fade in pace. This can be a goal killer in a marathon where the pace can drop off precipitously (at the LA marathon in March my pace slowed 30 seconds/mile on the last 8k!). In the last two half marathons I made closing out the race fast a top priority, even if meant sacrificing some speed in the middle of the race. As you can see from the table, in both races, my last 5k was the fastest of the race.

This in depth and tedious analysis shows that racing shorter distances, whether for running or triathlon, is an important tool for honing pacing and strategies for longer races. I view shorter races as a dress rehearsal for longer races and extrapolate the lessons learned from the shorter races to the longer ones. Screwing up a race plan in a short race has few repercussions; screw up a race plan in a long race and you are, well, screwed. The more practice you have at executing a race plan, the less likely you are to make mistakes.

I did not touch on the nutritional aspects or maintaining bike watts, as those are their own posts. But, the same lessons do apply. Shorter races are a perfect time to hone your nutrition and figure out what works when your body is under extreme duress and what makes you puke. And, learning how to dial in proper wattage in a short race will be beneficial in executing a good bike ride during a long race.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Rock n' Roll San Diego Race Report

One of the biggest obstacles athletes face is that they want to make improvements right now. I try to gently explain that there are incremental steps that have to be taken in the pursuit of a goal, and bypassing the laws of athletic improvement will result in injury, over-training, and/or disappointment. It is unrealistic, for example, to break 40 minutes in a 10k in a matter of a few months if you are consistently running 43 minutes. A more physiologically reasonable approach is dropping time in smaller chunks. Adaptations have to occur through training and racing, and this process cannot be rushed. But, most athletes are impatient, and they are disillusioned when they don’t reach milestones in a set time period.

When I started exclusively running two years ago, my half marathon PR was 1:19.48. My goal, obviously, was to get faster. And, slowly but surely I did. I ran 1:19.20, 1:19.02, 1:18.28, 1:18.42, 1:18.22, and 1:18.28 between February, 2011 and April, 2013. That is 6 half marathons within a 60 second window! A sub-1:18 performance loomed, but I just could not get there. A combination of the rib injury, course choice and other unmeasurable factors kept me in that very tight range. I knew under the right circumstances, though, I would pop off a race that would get me through that elusive barrier. At times I was frustrated, but evidently my body just wasn’t ready to make the jump to the next level.

Running 37:13 at the Bolder Boulder 10k was the perfect set-up for another assault on the sub-1:18 half marathon 6 days later at Rock n’ Roll San Diego. I calculated, based on that time, I could take the half marathon out in 36:30 for the first 10k. It sounds ambitious to run the first 10k of a half marathon 45 seconds faster than an open 10k, but the Bolder Boulder is a point to point race unlike any other. Most point to point courses are designed with a net downhill to give runners a chance to hit a fast time; the Bolder Boulder course, on the other hand, was created by a sadistic SOB who devised a route with a net uphill. Add to that the altitude, and you have yourself a very tough, slow 10k.

The new Rock n’ Roll San Diego course was built on the premise of using a net downhill course to increase the possibility of attaining a fast time. The first 11 miles of this point to point course were flat to rolling. The last 2 miles were screaming fast with a nice descent to the finish. Indeed, this course was so well planned the male winner ran the third fastest half marathon ever! Mother Nature can make or break any race, and on Sunday she provided extraordinary conditions with cool temperatures, overcast skies, and very light wind.

Despite feeling sluggish during my warm up (I couldn’t even hit 6 minute pace on my strides), when the gun fired, I felt surprisingly light on my feet. I ran through the first mile in a comfortable 5:48 and sure enough, I went through 10k in exactly 36:30. I ran strong over the next few miles and took advantage of the fast ending by running the last 5k in 17:56, my fastest 5k of the race. When I hit the line in 1:16.45, I was thrilled that I finally broke through an elusive barrier. It made the frustration of getting so close so many times go away in instant, and of course, I immediately started calculations on how to get under 1:16.

Pre-race with Bob Babbitt and the rest of the Elvi
I  always feel like the lessons I learn from being an athlete are directly applicable to my role as a coach and adviser. Now that the racing season is underway, there will be times when I get a call from a despondent athlete who missed a goal. I can assure them, through the experience of personal accomplishments coming on the heels of adversity, that they are on the right track and that the improvements will come through consistently working hard, racing smart, believing in themselves, and not giving up.