I planned to run the Parks Half Marathon for the second straight year. It is a beautiful course which is mostly on the trail of the Montgomery County, MD portion of Rock Creek Park. It's rolling hills through the woods with a few longer hills (which I had totally forgotten about from last year...go figure!). The race finishes in downtown Bethesda, MD to a horde of cheering fans and live music. It's a great race and a great finish!
My younger sister had wanted to run a half marathon as well and I gave her advice in her training for this one. She trained for the past two months and she was ready and psyched! We went to pick up our race packets together on Saturday afternoon and I picked her up bright and early on Sunday morning.
Last year's race I decided to take it easy and not push myself since I had to drive to Raleigh, NC later that night. I kept my Heart Rate in the 160s for most of the race (average HR was 166) and I was able to finish strong with a 2:16:50. I felt I was in better shape - or at least faster - this year with my 25:17 time at the Kentlands 5K two weeks ago. So my plan was to keep to a 10:00/mile pace and hope to finish the race in 2:11 this year.
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate.
Last year's race, the starting temperature was in the high-40s and very little humidity (the high temperature later that day was 64 degrees). Yesterday starting temperatures were in the 70s and humid (high temperatures yesterday were in the mid-90s!). Even though most of the trail is shaded, you can't get away from the humidity.
My race started a bit shaky as well. The Port-a-Potty lines were long, but I needed to go before the race. By the time I got out of the port-a-potty, the race has started, and the wave that I wanted to go out with - which had the 9:45 to 10:15 pace group - had already left. I ended up starting with the last wave of 12:00/mile + pace runners - and everyone else who got caught up in the Port-a-Potty lines!
The first 1.75 miles are on Viers Mill Road - a rather hilly main road in Rockville. I remember the beginning of last year's race cruising down this stretch of the race feeling really comfortable and cool. This year's race was not as comfortable :-( I could already feel the soupiness and stickiness of the air. By the time I entered the Rock Creek Trail, I was already sweating and my HR was already in the low 160s. I knew it was going to be a tough run.
My first few mile splits had me on target with pace, however, my heart rate was getting up there:
Miles 1-2: 19:21; avg HR 152, HR at split 163 (I didn't see the Mile 1 marker...)
Mile 3: 10:01; avg HR 168, HR at split 169
Mile 4: 10:35; avg HR 167, HR at split 171 (this included the first water stop and a longer hill which I decided to walk instead of run)
Mile 5: 10:04; avg HR 177, HR at split 173
I was still on pace with my goal, however, the weather was definitely pushing my heart rate up. To give some perspective, earlier in the week I did a tempo run at a 9:30/mile pace. It was 10-15 degrees cooler that morning and my HR over the 5 miles was a 161 average. At this point over the first 5 miles of the race, I was running about a 10:00/mile pace and my average HR was probably close to 170. My average HR of mile 5 - 177bpm - started to worry me, however, I was going to stick to my plan. I had run my best 5K a few weeks ago without considering my HR and just focusing on pace...and I was determined to try the same strategy here.
During these first five miles, I started to pick out runners that were running at a similar pace as me. Throughout the race I would see many of these people - they would go ahead or fall behind and then re-emerge later in the race. I had kind of found an informal pace group, although none of us really acknowledged each other. I'm sure that if I had started to strike up a conversation with someone in the pack that it would have been fine; however, we were all focused on running (OK, some of the runners were plugged into their MP3 players...) and chit-chat was not in the plans for any of us.
The next few miles were tougher. At water stations, more water was going on my head than in my mouth to help cool me down. My HR started to hit the 180s (max HR for me is around 187). I knew I could push myself at this heart rate, but for how long????
The nice part about these four miles is that they were very familiar to me. I used to run this part of Rock Creek Trail when I lived in Bethesda, MD in 1999 and 2000. I wasn't much of a runner then. I didn't enter races - I just ran for the exercise, for the solitude and to get outside every once in a while. And this was one of my favorite spots to run. Here's my splits over the next four miles:
Mile 6: 10:12; average HR 179, HR at split 183 (included water station)
Miles 7-8: 20:38; average 183, HR at split 186 (I didn't see the Mile 7 marker)
Mile 9: 10:09; average HR 187, HR at split 189
I was still on pace for a 2:12 at this point, which still would have been a PR for me. However, I was totally wiped. I tried thinking of some of the running quotes that I had read in Runner's World the night before - about not quitting, about leaving it all on the course, about pushing your body to do more. I just couldn't find it in me anymore.
In my past half marathons, it was usually my leg muscles hurting which slowed me down in the final miles. My quad or calf would tighten up or my knee would have some pain. However, today my legs could do it...I was just beat (and beet red!)
I started to walk some. Then I found it difficult to start running again once I started walking, but I kept trying to make myself run. The kicker came for me at about 11.5 miles. There was a runner down on the side of the trail with EMT personnel working on him. I recognized him as one of the people who was running at my pace earlier. I immediately thought to myself that if I had pushed myself too hard, that guy could have been me. At that point I was convinced that I just needed to get to the finish line - no more pushing myself past my comfort zone. I thought of my wife and my two boys who were waiting for me at the finish line. I needed to get to them at the finish line - I couldn't be that guy on the side of the trail. Even if it meant walking the rest of the way.
My splits at the end are pretty embarrassing for me to post - lots of walking (I believe miles 11 and 13 were almost ALL walking):
Mile 10: 11:16 (avg HR 187, HR at split 174)
Mile 11: 13:11 (avg HR 177. HR at split 179)
Mile 12: 12:18 (avg HR 182, HR at split 172)
Mile 13: 13:24 (avg HR 172, HR at split 186)
I was able to run the last .1 mile. It's a very uplifting scene - the trail goes into a tunnel for about a quarter of a mile and emerges in downtown Bethesda. (Here's a photo from Edward Johnson showing me emerging from the tunnel) Spectators cheer everyone as they leave the tunnel and you round a corner and see the finish line. I saw Sherry and the kids and my brother-in-law and my nieces cheering me on as I approached the finish line. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch - 2:22:24 - a good 10 minutes over my anticipated time...I was disappointed to say the least.
Here's me trudging to the finish line:
A few minutes later my sister crossed the finish line with much different emotions. I actually did not see her cross - I was re-hydrating and getting out of my sweat-soaked clothes and into the dry shirt, shorts and socks I had sent along in my "checked baggage". However, afterwards she mentioned that she felt so great crossing the finish line. What an accomplishment for her! She had just finished her first Half Marathon! Her first run over 10 miles! I definitely remember that feeling and I'm glad that she was exhilarated after crossing the finish line.
Here's a picture of me and my sister after the race:
It was great to hear her excitement after the race and it helped lift me up a bit after my disappointing time. Even better was seeing the kids playing together and how much fun they were having!
For me, there will be more successful races and better chip times. However, after hearing from my sister and seeing Sherry and the boys, I knew it was better to focus on the positives. I completed a long morning run on a beautiful trail that is close to my home. Despite the hot and humid conditions I finished without injury and with my family there to cheer me on. Really...what can be better than that?