Monday, June 8, 2009

Deadwood-Mickelson Half Marathon - Vanquishing my half marathon demons

In July of 2007 I ran the Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon. I had only run one previous half, the 2006 edition of the same race, and my goal for the 2007 race was simply to better my time of 1:33:XX. Coming just two weeks after a tough, hot run at the inaugural Missoula Marathon, I wasn’t expecting much and would have been perfectly happy with a 1:32:XX. Well, as I took off down Spearfish Canyon I started churning out sub-7 minute miles with little effort. At first, my inclination was to hold back and not overdo it but eventually I just decided to go with it and see how long it lasted (this decision was aided by the fact that I had some punk teenager running alongside me and I didn’t want to let him beat me….he finally dropped off the pace at about mile 9). Turns out, I didn’t run a mile over 7:00 until the 10th one (a 7:01) and my slowest mile (12) was a 7:05. Not a bad race, considering my rather modest goal. But the crux of it was, I ran so much faster than I thought I was going to that I didn’t realize how close I was to breaking the 1:30 barrier until it was too late. I was in the final half mile when it finally dawned on me that I was going to be within a hair of breaking 1:30, but by that time it was too late. As I mounted one final surge toward the finish, the clock ticked away and I crossed the line in 1:30:12. It was a PR of better than 3 minutes, but ultimately left me disappointed because of a measly 13 seconds. Getting those 13 seconds immediately became one of the items on my running must-do list.

As it turns out, it would be quite awhile before I confronted my half marathon demons; almost two full years, in fact. Just as life sometimes gets in the way of running, running sometimes gets in the way of running. You see, there’s a reason why I had run only two half marathons but eleven full marathons prior to my next attempt at a sub-1:30. I really have a complex about signing up for a half marathon when there is a full offered. The reason I had run Spearfish Canyon twice was that the event included a 5K and a half, no full. I missed the 2008 race because we were in Montana on vacation that weekend. If not for that, I might still be without a half marathon on my resume. Part of the reason is that, living in South Dakota, I often have to travel to run a marathon and it just doesn’t seem like I’m getting my money’s worth if I just run the half. Another part is that for the last 4 years or so, the majority of my running goals have been marathon-related (and Boston-related, in particular). If nothing else, those 13 stupid seconds gave me a reason to run another half marathon. I just had to decide which half to run.

The logical choice would have been Spearfish Canyon again in July of 2009. It was certainly an attractive option given the scenic, fast course and the fact that I wouldn’t have to forego a full to run it. But, I decided to mix things up a little and force myself out of my half marathon comfort zone. With that in mind, I registered for the Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Half Marathon. The course profile is similar to Spearfish Canyon and the course itself is maybe even more scenic. And, yes, there is a full offered, but I had already run the full last year, so I at least knew what I would be missing. I knew from that experience how fast the half course could be, which made it an attractive option for a PR attempt. Plus, after Boston I really wanted to get this sub-1:30 monkey off my back and June 7th comes before July 25th, so Deadwood it was.

Now, it might not seem like the wisest choice to pick a “trail” race for a PR attempt. But, really, Deadwood is a trail race in name only. “Trail” refers to the Mickelson Trail, a rails to trails project that traverses the Black Hills from north to south for 110 miles. The entire route is a fairly wide, well packed, crushed gravel surface with no grades exceeding 3%. No single track, large rocks, stumps, roots, or hellacious climbs to be found here. The half marathon course covers the second half of the full course, beginning near the Englewood trailhead and traveling north (downhill), ending at the trail terminus in Deadwood.

One byproduct of not running many half marathons is that I don’t really have a freakin clue how to train for one. Both of my previous efforts had basically just been wedged into marathon training and this third attempt would be no different. Well, actually it would be different. Instead of being wedged into marathon training, this half would be wedged into ultramarathon (i.e. 50 miler) training. I’ve known for a couple of years now that once I accomplished the goal of qualifying for and running Boston, I wanted to take a crack at a 50 miler. Well, with Boston in the books, I set my sights on the Lean Horse Half Hundred in August, but still wanted to get this half marathon thing checked off the list. Another case of running getting in the way of running, I guess. To put it simply, my training after Boston and leading up to Deadwood probably (okay, definitely) wasn’t ideal half marathon training what with the mostly slow paced runs, long trail runs (real trail, that is) and back to back long runs that included some walking breaks. I did throw in some marathon pace and half marathon pace miles every once in awhile and made one token attempt at speedwork (4x800) a couple of weeks before the race, but to say I was supremely confident in my ability to hold my goal pace of 6:43 miles (a 1:28:00 half) would be a big fat lie. Thirteen seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, but in the final week leading up to Deadwood, it seemed like a damn eternity.

The race weekend ended up being more action-packed than it needed to be. First off, both of my kids and my wife got sick. My daughter had a fever and was throwing up a couple days before the race while at the same time my son had a fever and a sore throat, which turned out to be strep throat. The day before the race, my wife was laid out with some kind of stomach bug. I was like the sole survivor of a biological warfare attack. Thankfully, everyone got well enough to participate in the weekend events, and I dodged the bullet completely. On Friday, I volunteered at packet pickup for four hours before high tailing it home to watch/coach my son’s t-ball game (if you’ve never seen a bunch of 5 year olds play t-ball well, you just haven’t lived). On Saturday, it was back to Deadwood for the 5K, which my sister in law ran, and the Kid’s Marathon, which my son ran, and the 1K, which my daughter ran. If you’re not familiar with the kid’s marathon concept, it goes like this. You sign your kid up and print off a mileage tracker sheet. In the months leading up to the race, they have to run, walk, hike, etc. a total of 25 miles and then at the event (or the day before, in this case) they run/walk the final 1.2 miles to finish their “marathon” and get a medal and t-shirt for their efforts. My daughter also got a medal and a frisbee for the 1K and my sister in law ran her first ever sub-30 minute 5K. No medal for her, but she did win her age group.

To make the weekend even more interesting, Mother Nature decided to turn the clock back a couple months and give us April showers in June. The forecast for race day was low-40s and rain, with low temps overnight before the race in the 30s. At least we wouldn’t have to worry about overheating.

Finally, Sunday morning arrived. And it even arrived early. Although the marathon and half marathon both start at 8:00, we (being myself and my wife, who was also running the half – my sister in law would drive down with the kids later to see us finish) had to be up fairly early in order to drive the 30 miles to Deadwood and catch one of the shuttles to the start by 6:30. So, I was up at 4:30 to give myself plenty of time eat breakfast and make sure I had everything. We were out the door by 5:30 and arrived at the rodeo ground parking lot in plenty of time to catch one of the busses. As we left Belle Fourche, it started raining and rained pretty good right up until we got to Deadwood. After that, it didn’t rain again until well after the race was over.

In addition to my wife, there were several other people I knew running the half, almost all of them co-workers. In other words, there was plenty of motivation for me to maintain my office bragging rights. Incidentally, I’m only able to maintain said bragging rights because for some reason the college cross country runners who work as seasonals for us don’t tend to enter local races very often. So, although I know I’m not the fastest one in the office, I am usually the fastest one who races, for whatever that’s worth. In any case, it was good to have some familiar faces to “relax” with as we waited for 8:00 to roll around.

One negative thing about this half marathon is that it is crowded at the start. I mean, it’s good that a local race gets as many runners as Deadwood does (there were over 1,500 registered for the half this year and just under 1,300 finishers), but the half marathon in particular can be pretty damn congested at the beginning because of the relatively narrow trail it’s run on. I mean, as far as trails go it’s pretty wide, but much narrower than a more typical two-lane road….it’s kind of like running on one lane of a two-lane road. I guestimated from previous years’ results that a sub-1:30 finish would put me in the top 30-40, so I lined up fairly close to the front of the masses when the time came. This strategy might cause me to go out a little faster than planned as I got pulled along by the faster runners, but that was a chance I was willing to take, especially in a half marathon as opposed to a full, to avoid the risk of getting caught behind a bunch of slower runners. As it turns out, the strategy worked well and I was able to find running room right away and settle into my pace.

I realize now that I don’t have my splits with me, but I can just generalize now and update this later if I damn well feel like it. I’ll break the race down into approximate quarters, since that’s how it kind of played out for me.

Miles 1-4
The first mile didn’t feel all that great. I had printed out a pace band for a 1:28 finish, which is 6:43 miles. I ran the first mile dead on that pace, but it felt like I was working WAY too hard to maintain that for 12.1 more. I hoped that it was just because I needed to get warmed up and into a rhythm after standing around in 40 degree temps for an hour. At some point during the second mile, I noticed two guys running side by side about 15 yards in front of me. I wasn’t getting any closer to them and they weren’t pulling away. I figured if I was going to run the same pace as them, I may as well just tuck in behind them and let them pull me along, so I sped up and just that. Consequently, my pace sped up to the 6:30 range for the next few miles. Also, I did finally get warmed up and into a rhythm and even though the pace was faster, it didn’t feel as hard as the first mile had.

Miles 5-7
I stuck behind my two pacers right up until just past the halfway point. The course is almost all downhill, but there is about a mile stretch of gentle uphill around halfway. Along this stretch, my pacers started to slow and I ended up steaming past them, figuring they’d catch back up to me eventually (they did, but much later than I expected). After passing them, the next target in front of me was a lady who had been running about 30 yards ahead of us since the start. I thought she might be the first woman, but wasn’t sure. In any case, the uphill stretch slowed my pace to 7:02 and 7:12 for a couple of miles. The reward for the uphill was a fairly steep downhill pitch immediately afterwards, which allowed me to drop my pace back down to the 6:30s for the next couple of miles.

Miles 7-10
This was definitely the most comfortable stretch of the race for me. We had a nice downhill and I was able to fairly comfortably maintain a 6:43 or faster pace. I eventually caught up to and passed the lady in front of me, but she charged back and went back in front of me. We would repeat this process a few times before the end of the race.

Miles 10-13.1
Okay, just 5K to go and I’m pretty much right on 1:28 pace and way ahead of sub-1:30 pace. At some point I was cruising along, thinking I was going 6:40ish pace only to look down at my Garmin and see a 7:12 in the “avg. lap” window. Crap! So I sped up, passing a guy and that lady again in the process. She passed me again one more time before I finally overtook her for good in the last 2 miles. Somewhere around 1 mile to go, I heard footsteps and heavy breathing behind me (sounds like something out of a horror movie). Turns out, it was the duo I had drafted off for the first half of the race. They had obviously found a second wind and went charging past me. At that point, I didn’t have enough giddyup left to match them, so I watched them pull away. I did manage to muster enough of a kick to ensure that the lady I had been dueling with didn’t pass me again. As I hit the 13 mile mark, I thought I might have a shot at a 1:27:XX so pushed a little harder but it soon became apparent that there was too much course left and not enough clock for that. So, I cruised in, gave a fist pump to my sister and law and kids and finally banked that 13 seconds (plus some).

Final Time: 1:28:17
23rd out of 1,279 overall
3rd out of 73 in my AG
PR of 1:55

After finishing, I immediately shook hands with the dudes who had paced me and then dropped me. I made the comment that I should have just stuck with them the whole way. Turns out they are brothers and both of them were older than me, so it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. I also shook hands with the lady I had dueled with and realized then that I knew who she was from other races, including a trail race last month where we raced side by side for awhile before I pulled ahead. Turns out she was the second female overall. I then tracked down my sister in law and kids and then set about finding my drop bag (I had worn shorts and a sleeveless shirt and was getting pretty damn chilly in the damp, 40 degree air). The bag pickup up was somewhat of a fiasco in that the drop bags didn’t even arrive until about 5 minutes after I finished and then the old dudes who were unloading them weren’t really organizing them very well by bib number. A bunch of cold runners ended up kind of taking over the process to speed things up. Eventually, I got my warm clothes on and went to watch some friends and my wife finish (she wasn’t feeling all that great still, but managed a 2:20 anyway).

About an hour after I finished, they posted the first results and I saw that I had finished 3rd in my AG, so I wandered over to the awards tent and got my wicked cool railroad spike award and a keychain. Then, it was off to the Cheyenne Crossing Café for a greasy burger and even greasier hand cut fries before heading home and enjoying a couple of celebratory brews (for your information, Steve, it was Guinness).

Up next? No rest for the weary. I’ve got another race in 4 days, the Dino Trail Run on Thursday night in Rapid City. It’s the second race of the Black Hills Trail Series. The dude who’s ahead of me in the division standings also ran Deadwood yesterday, so we’ll be on equal footing as far as that goes. Of course, he’s faster than me anyhow, so it probably won’t buy me anything (unless he skips out, that is). After that, the big races are the Missoula Marathon on July 12 and then the Lean Horse Half Hundred on August 22. I’m hoping to jump back into ultra training as soon as possible.

Well, that’s all folks. Thanks for reading!


jen said...

WOW. Congratulations!!

johnmaas said...

Great job on the half marathon PR!
Sounds like you are in great shape and should be ready for Missoula.
Good luck also at Lean Horse.
I will decide in the next month whether or not I will run it.