Monday, July 4, 2011

Race Report: Foot Traffic Flat Half

Every race distance deserves respect. Run a 10K hard enough to where you’re ready to puke on the person grabbing your finishing tag at the end, then work at whittling down that time. This is no less a running challenge than the just-finish marathons many people do. Still. Stepping up to a half-marathon after a spring sprinkled with 5Ks, 5-milers and 10Ks definitely gave me a tingle of excitement today. Plus, it’s a pretty big crowd at the Foot Traffic Flat Half, capped at 2,000, with some fasties among 'em.

Conditions were perfect for the early-morning race out on bucolic Sauvie Island: sunny, temperature around 55 and a little breeze from the north as we got going around 6:50 a.m., 15 minutes after the full runners took to the roads. Temps quickly jumped into the 60s – and it hit 70 by noon – so those running the full might have faced some heat issues. Remember, this is Portland, where most before-work runners have been enjoying gray skies and 40s and 50s all through their marathon build. Acclimation is a key factor in faring well in hot weather (or cold, for that matter), and through our cool, soggy spring there was little opportunity for most people to prepare for so much sun. Of course, living the luxurious life of a freelancer, and preferring to do my running in the afternoon or early evening, I had an edge in this regard. Plus, today, well, by the time my half was over the sun was just beginning to really crank.

So: Do you need to hear about how early I had to get out of bed this morning in order to make it onto the island in time for the race? About the fireworks the night before when I was trying to fall asleep at a decent hour? About the warming up, the hitting of the porta-potties, the marveling at the diversity of the gathered and all that other pre-race stuff? I didn’t think so. But, yes, in order not to disappoint I will say a few words about that bit of baggage every hardcore runner carries into a race: expectations.

I’d been running more frequently the last few months, but total volume was down from the glory days of aught-nine – What days! – due to the ankle that rankles. Most runs had been in the 5-8 mile range, with literally nothing over 12. My biggest week was in the low 40s, a pittance compared to the 70+ weeks I regularly hammered in 2009. But the quality had been pretty good, with those shorter races and tons of hills – so I went to the line thinking I had a shot at sub-90, if all went well, even if it might only be 1:29:59. That’s well off my 1:28:51 half-marathon PR, but if I could manage to sneak under an hour and a half on light training and come away with the ankle still connecting the foot and the leg, hey, I was more than ready to take that.

Nothing that happened over the first few miles suggested to me that I’d do better than I had hoped. Per habit I let the race excitement carry me to a couple of quick opening miles, 6:38 and then 6:39, as I glued myself to some people who looked like they might be my speed. Except for one who fell away, they weren’t: They pulled away in Mile 3 as I settled down to a 6:54 split, followed by a 6:56 on Mile 4.

Yep, headed to 90 minutes or thereabouts, I was thinking as we hung a U-turn on a short spur to the course before rejoining the big loop at the south end of the island.

Then, heading northeast across the island in the middle stages of the race, I actually began to wonder if I might not make 90 minutes. I wasn’t dying, but the breeze had picked up and at several points was right in our faces. I tried to shield myself by tucking in behind a tall guy in a red shirt – he had been just in front of me much of the way. Then another guy came and hooked alongside him, so I had the two of them to draft behind. That helped a bit, as did their chatting; it was just running talk, but listening to it helped give my mind a break from the race. Mile 5 (before we hit the wind) was 6:46, then came 6:50, 6:57, 6:55 and, for Mile 9, 6:56. The chatting duo pulled away a few times and I didn’t strain to keep up. They looked stronger than me and though I never explicitly said it to myself, in the back of my mind I believe I was anticipating I would fade. Nothing dramatic, just the gradual leaking away of pace, a second or two each mile, the way it usually happens as longer races ware on. But I wasn’t worried: I just wanted to stay calm, stay comfortable, enjoy the fresh summer morning and let the race unfold. That’s kind of a cool thing you get to do when you aren’t gunning for a PR.

But things took a strange turn as we bended south for the last quarter of the race.

With the wind at our backs, I caught back up and then went on ahead of my erstwhile compatriots. I checked myself to make sure I wasn’t being stupid, but all the feedback was thumbs up. I wasn’t killing myself. I was pushing, but I was cruising. Mile 10 was a 6:39. Hitting that marker, feeling good, knowing there was just 5K to go – I was damn near elated. I can keep this up for 5K! I told myself. Ninety minutes was in the bag and I wondered briefly if a PR might be possible. But the calculations proved daunting to do and, anyway, I was simply having too much fun to care. So I maintained the pace. Stepped it up a little, actually, doing a 6:35 on Mile 11, matched by another 6:35 on Mile 12. The island is pancake flat – duh – and the finish area had long been within sight. Now I could smell it. I motored on past the Red Lizard aid station around 12.5 miles, figuring it was too late to make a difference and would just slow me down.

A quick digression on nutrition: Nailed it. Drank water or Nuun at I’d guess four of the seven aid stations. Ate my own Gu just beyond the four-mile mark. Grabbed a Hammer Gel around, hmm, the nine-mile mark? I’d done several half-marathons without much in the way of carbs, and it might be that boosting the intake made a difference today. Hard to say based on one trial, of course, but seemed that way.

Back to the race: Way back around Mile 3 a guy in an orange singlet had gone by me looking very strong. He had come back into view around the 10-mile mark, and provided a nice target during the final stages of the race. I was closing on him, and closing on him, and closing on him. As we turned into the Pumpkin Patch entry, where the race started and finished, I had the margin down to 10 yards or so. Wasn’t able to get him, but he did me a big favor over those last few miles, staying strong and pulling me along.

My Mile 13 split was 6:28, then came some 31 seconds for that dastardly remaining 0.1 mile to the end. By my watch, it all added up to a 1:28:19. Officially, it was 1:28:21, a half-minute PR.

Which sets up kind of an interesting situation for me tomorrow. See, last week, frustrated over months of persistent pain despite my best efforts to take care of it, I made an appointment to see a podiatrist about my ankle (it’s actually my ankle and foot). That appointment is tomorrow morning. I’m thinking a half-marathon PR 24 hours earlier might not be good for my credibility when I describe this injury! Any sane person, any doctor, would have to ask: Are you truly hurt? I don’t want to get into a long discussion of the injury here. I will just say that in 10 years of doing endurance stuff with great fervor I’ve never really been sidelined by anything, so you can be assured I’m pretty good at both taking care of myself and toughing out the owies. But this is a weird one: It doesn’t get much worse when I run – today it was a minor nuisance, and I was able to put it out of my mind almost the entire way – and it doesn’t get much better when I don’t run. But it always at least kind of hurts, and sometimes hurts quite badly. Mainly, I’m seeing the doc because I want to be sure that running – which I can obviously do, though with some discomfort – isn’t risking turning whatever this is into a completely debilitating injury. I’ll try to follow up with a post on how the appointment goes. Meanwhile, wow, the warm glow of a PR. It’s nice.

Official Results:
6:44/mile pace
60/1639 overall
54/571 men
2/56 M45-49

UPDATE: Was the Flat Half course short? There has been much discussion of that possibility in the days since the race. Runners were consistently reporting Garmin readings from a tenth to two-tenths shy of the required 13.1 miles (or 13.1093787, to be precise). My own reading was 12.94. I'll be exploring course measurement issues in a future post, so I won't get into details here. But this message on the Red Lizard board strongly suggests the Garmins were wrong and the course was indeed 13.1.

UPDATE II: Alas, the Flat Half distance dissection was not complete with that previous update. A subsequent and very solid-seeming measuring of the course brings us back to the 12.9X guestimate. The upshot: This was a damn good run on fairly sketchy training, but no PR. If the course had been a true 13.1, I would have come in around 1:29.