Monday, August 19, 2013

AFC Half Marathon 2013: Pacing the Hills

When you race, you have to adapt to the course. Racing a hilly course requires a different skill set than a flat course. That is why it is imperative to know the terrain upon which you will be racing by studying course profiles carefully and/or viewing the course in person.  Some courses take time to master and it is only through repeatedly racing on such a course that one can truly understand the nuances of the terrain or the environment. The Ironman in Hawaii, for example, is such a course; mastery on that course often comes at the price of flaming out in the first outing. Nothing beats firsthand experience on a given course, but a lot can be done by perusing course maps and elevation profiles and coming up with a cogent plan on how to handle the hills.

The America’s Finest City half marathon in San Diego is a persnickety course. The course has some very steep down hills in the first 4 miles (with some deceptively steep up hills, too), it is flat in the middle, and contains a long, 2.7 mile uphill grind to the finish.
The downhill never makes up for the uphill!
This type of course beckons for a quick first 10k, banking time, if you will; a strategy that is the antithesis of the way I usually like to run a half marathon – a controlled start, building the pace throughout, and finishing fast.

The question on such a course, is this: how fast is too fast in the first 10k? When I first ran this race in 2011 I called upon my proclivity for numbers and I pored over the results from previous years looking at the first 10k vs. the last 11k (even as I write this, I realize how geeky I sound).

Everybody was much faster on the first 10k, of course, but those who had the smallest gap finished highest. When I ran in 2011, I hit the 10k in 36:12 in 8th place. I ended up passing 3 women who were over a minute faster than me at the 10k point. It was a good lesson in choosing an appropriate pace over the fast first half.

This year, having hit some half marathon PR’s, I decided to use this race as a 10k and 10 mile experiment and play around with pacing. I wanted to hit the first 10k hard (goal: 35:30-35:45), hold through 10 miles (goal: 57:30) and see what would happen over the last 5k. These numbers seemed reasonably hard and would give my legs the experience of running a little faster than normal for 10 miles thereby really fatiguing them, and then push through a difficult 5k on tired legs. It seemed like a perfect marathon simulation.

I am not by nature fast off the gun, so I was immediately dropped by those around me. At 800 meters, I gained some ground on a pack of 8, and pushed very hard up a steep incline to grab onto the back of that pack. I ran with this pack through 5k, which we hit in 17:28, much faster than I planned. I backed off and ran about 25 meters behind the pack and went through 10k in 35:24.

I ran through 10 miles in 57:28, still feeling strong. When I hit the hills at mile 10, I was still moving well and managed to catch 2 women and I almost ran down another who finished a mere 5 seconds in front of me. I again finished in 5th place and took the Masters honors in a time of 1:16.42, which crushed my 2011 time of 1:18.29.
The GAP is the grade adjust pace, i.e. the pace if it was flat for that mile. Pretty cool feature on Strava!

Pacing is a topic I have written about quite a bit this year. I have used running as the example, but the principles are the same for cycling. I have generally written about perfect pacing as being steady throughout a race, or even better, negative splitting.

This type of pacing does not always work well for courses that are unbalanced in terms of the terrain. The best way to manage bumpy terrain is to use the downhill sections to your advantage, mete out the efforts on the up hills so as not to burn all of the matches climbing, and settle into a rhythm on the flats.

The key is to find a predetermined running pace or wattage zone and stick to it, no matter how good you feel or what your competition is up to. Going into a race with a well thought out plan that is dictated both by ability and terrain will help ensure that you race to your potential.

Race note: The only way to get to the start line is by bus. Seven minutes before the gun went off everyone was assembled at the start line, anxious and excited. There was some commotion because the last bus was still making its way to the start area. The bus pulled up with 3 minutes to go and a lone racer stepped off the bus to a rousing applause from the crowd and comments such as “We held the race just for you,” “Nice of you to show up,” “Way to plan ahead.” It was quite funny and the guy was obviously embarrassed!