I can run a 1:36 half marathon. Some people would say that this is fast; many people would say that this is slow. But at any rate, I know I can run a 1:36 half because I've run three half marathons this year and my times have been 1:36, 1:36, and 1:37. The half marathon is my favorite distance because it is short enough that I still have a whole productive day left afterwards, it is long enough to feel like a distance challenge, and it is TOO long to run at puke-at-the-end pace. Actually, this is why I almost never run 10ks. I manage puke-at-the-end pace when I run 5ks. A 10k is essentially the same pace, but it is twice as long with twice the pain. Halves are cool.
I'd like to improve upon good ol' 1:36. Early in the year, I targeted the Super Jock N Jill Half Marathon (SJJ) as my attempt to go faster. Specifically, I wanted to run a 1:30. Why 1:30? Mostly because it is a nice round number. Also because it would represent about a 30 second improvement on my per mile pace. SJJ is held on Labor Day each year. I've never done it because I'm usually in Texas for our annual family reunion on Labor Day weekends. The past couple years, I've been running marathons on this weekend. This year, I decided to stay home and run the half.
Too bad that I'm an idiot.
I had known for months that SJJ would be a goal race. In fact, I had also wanted to utilize a full marathon on the following weekend (Skagit Flats) as another target race. Throwing in the White River 50 miler... not a target race of a distance I stink at... one month before my goal races was not smart. And sure enough, I hurt myself at White River. Not only did I need to heal, but this seriously curtailed my training afterwards.
I also happen to be an idiot with a real life outside of running. Real life is funny. Ha-ha funny sometimes; strange funny other times. The Tuesday before SJJ, I had to have a biopsy. A nice big hole punched into my back. Stitched up afterwards, the punch stopped hurting after a day. But the stitches themselves and the associated bruise were no treat. Anytime I bent, twisted, or lifted my legs too high, my skin would stretch and OUCH.
I got used to it after a few days. I learned the do's and don'ts of moving with stitches in my back. As long as I stuck to "Robot Frankenstein" moves, I was ok. After a few days of no activity, I was able to get in several 4-6 mile runs. I did fine. Slow. Lumbering. But fine.
And so I showed up at SJJ undertrained and with a new style of Robot Frankenstein running. No chance for a 1:30. Oh well. But maybe a good chance to put in some miles and talk to people. Besides, one of J-Lo's friends was running the half (this is the friend I ran with at last year's Portland Marathon) and J-Lo had decided to come out and do the 4 mile walk. So I showed up. Domo arrigato, Mr. Roboto. Frankensteino.
SJJ has been around forever. It is a very crowded race. I had heard that the course is flat, and so I didn't bother to do any homework. I knew that much of the course involved a paved bike trail. That's the picture I had in my brain: lots of people on a pancake flat bike trail in rural Western Washington. This was sort of true, and sort of not.
SJJ's start and finish are at the Red Hook Brewery, which is on the edge of Woodinville, Washington. The area is indeed rural. There's a brewery, a bunch of wineries, and a sod farm. The course is a loop on mostly roads (with a little bike trail mixed in), but picture a loop where the outermost portion has been pinched by Aunt Annie of Aunt Annie's Pretzels and twisted several times into one of her famous creations. But without the sugar. And while the race's first and last miles are gently roly poly, the pretzel miles are quite hilly. Thanks, Aunt Annie.
Labor Day in the Seattle area usually comes with nice weather, and this year followed that trend. Blue skies and cool for race morning. Actually, several of my friends complained about the heat and humidity. I was in two shirts and gloves. Heh. In my last half, I raced in a singlet even though it was cold - very out of character. For this race, I just wanted to be comfortable. So I kept the shirts and gloves.
What to do about a race goal? Hmm. My stitches held up for the easy runs, so I decided to try a semi-tempo run during this race: 2 miles of warm up, 6-8 miles at 7:30ish pace, 3-5 miles at an easier pace. Those 7:30 miles would definitely be a bit slow for a true tempo run, but I didn't want to push it too much. Nothing like blowing out stitches in the middle of the country. The math pointed to a 1:40-1:45 finish time. It turns out that this wonderful plan came with a huge "however...". At the time I formed it in my head, I still thought the course would be essentially flat. And I didn't know about the pretzel.
After 182 marathons and ultras, 50ish halves, and I don't know how many shorter races, certain memories stick with me. Most of these are not about my "good" (that is, fast) races. They are specific visuals or sounds (audials?) that were extremely vivid and either stuck out or completely augmented the concurrent race experience. For example, at M25 of the Twin Cities Marathon, the course crests a long, challenging uphill. At the top of this hill, the runner is presented with a wonderful view of the course's final downhill mile to the state capitol building. But the memory that sticks with me is a sound. At the top of this hill is a huge church. On race morning, the church rings its big bell - a deep, Big Ben sounding bell. Bonnggggggggg. Bonnggggggg. The noise of 100s of spectators cheering and this bell made a specific moment in time very special, and I will never forget it... even though my race at Twin Cities wasn't very good. There's a similar hill towards the end of the Mt Desert Island Marathon. I have a memory from the top of this hill too. In this case, it's a visual. MDI is a rural marathon with hellaciously bad weather. There are no bands, no taiko drums, no dude playing a grand piano. But at the top of this hill that year was a dude playing an accordian! It was SO random. Whereas the bell at Twin Cities augmented the experience, the accordian at MDI stuck out. It's just as meaningful, but for totally different reasons.
I stuck that strange tangent in this report simply to restate: The pretzel. I will never forget the experience of running the pretzel for the first time. When I run this race again, the pretzel will merely be an aspect of a strange course. No big deal. But this first time, I didn't know about the pretzel until I was IN the pretzel. It was disorienting. It was interesting. And it was very very strange. Now what the hell is going on here? Heh.
Let's briefly talk about the first 6 miles of the race. I started way back in the pack so that I'd go out slowly. This sounds nice in theory, but in practice this is a tactic that can backfire horribly. One not only needs to be disciplined enough to 'go slow', but one also has to resist the temptation to zigzag around the big pack of people. The zigzagging, with its sprint, side-to-side, slow down repetition can really come back to bite later on. I was good. Early on, I was passed by a very pregnant lady. She was probably 7+ months in, judging from the size of the buddha belly. However, she was in very good shape - very skinny everywhere except for that belly. She went flying by me at a 8:00/mile pace or faster. And I never saw her again. She was racing for two!
By M2, the crowd had thinned down and I was able to find a faster pace and pass people without all the zigzagging. I felt good and I was very pleased with myself. The first few miles hadn't been as flat as I was expecting, but they weren't too challenging. I had started slowly, I had picked it up where I wanted to, and I was running well. I was able to mask the nagging sensation in my back. Felt weird, but it didn't hurt. Much. Somewhere in the early miles, the course jumped from the road onto a bike trail section. This part matched what my brain pictured for this race.
And then everything changed at M6 when we got to the pretzel. The middle of the course runs through a satellite campus for the University of Washington. Whoever designed this part of the course was either very clever or very drunk. Or maybe it was Escher. Anyway, at M6, suddenly all the fast leader runners popped out from another road and were headed back towards me. No problem; nothing really out of the ordinary. This quickly changed. We started passing the walkers who had started an hour before us. No problem. Except I also saw other walkers headed off on a slightly different road at the same time. Huh. Then, out of nowhere, here came some more runners on an even different road. This didn't appear to be the same group of leaders nor a group that would be near them.
The course turned a corner onto a monster uphill that dumped into the campus. This was the course designer's masterpiece. To the left of me were runners coming at me. These were definitely faster folks because I knew some of them... runners who are ALWAYS in front of me. To the right of me were more runners coming at me. These seemed to be slower runners, perhaps? And if so, this meant that I had run down that part of the course already? Yes. My part of the course looped back around and headed down a hill. Suddenly there were runners above me. And then up the backside of the hill and I was on the part of the course where my faster friends had passed me earlier. Going down the hill that I had already run up, I got a panoramic view of the pretzel. In all its glory on a warm blue skies morning, I saw runners heading in five different directions at one time. It was like some kind of highway cloverleaf.
The pretzel lasted for more than 3 miles, from M6 to a bit before M10. I didn't know that the pretzel was coming, and similarly, I didn't really know that I was leaving the pretzel behind as I passed M9. Had I known, I might have stopped at the cloverleaf to soak it all in. Ok, probably not.
The rest of the course was flat-ish bike path all the way back to the brewery. Mostly flat except for some path bridges. It seemed we needed to take several turns onto these bridges during the race, and each turn involved a short (20 feet?) steep up to get to the bridge. 20 feet certainly does not qualify as a hill... but these definitely acted as pace disruptors.
Anyway, on and around. I was passing walkers throughout much of the last section. Also, the trail was open to everyone and by 10a, lots of families had come out to do a nice holiday bike ride. They didn't seem to enjoy the race so much. Ooops. I passed lots of these folks. And I got passed by lots of faster runners too. While I did not slow my pace to the 'easy run' that I had planned, I definitely slowed some. Most of the people that I had been running with did not slow.
Up, around, and back to Red Hook. The last .1 of the 13.1 is an uphill into Red Hook's parking lot. And then I was done. 1:41. Nothing like the 1:30 I wanted to run, but exactly in the 1:40-1:45 range that I planned. My back kind of hurt. Not badly, but maybe I hadn't picked the most appropriate activity six days after having a hole punched into my back.
J-Lo had finished her 4 miler and we waited for her friend. She finished somewhere around 1:58. I wish I could say that we sampled some great post-race Red Hook ale, but the race didn't offer this. Plenty of food and jamba juice... but no beer at the brewery race. Hmmm.
Next up: yesterday's Skagit Flats Marathon. Originally, it was going to be my first followup attempt since Eugene at "beat 3:30". That changed. Two goal races in two weeks, both derfed. Oh well. I considered not running Skagit, or switching to the half. Ultimately I did the full and all things considered, I did ok. More on that Real Soon Now.
My friend Coconut Boy says I'm not getting these reports out fast enough. So perhaps Real Sooner Now. Gotta keep the Coconuts happy.