Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Race Report: 2012 US Half Marathon

The US Half Marathon on November 4th, 2012 was my tune up race for the California International Marathon. The US Half has a sister race, formerly known as the "Other" half which is held Easter Sunday and follows the same course from Aquatic Park on the San Francisco waterfront, along the marina and Crissy Field and over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito before returning to Aquatic Park via Fort Mason. Crossing the bridge twice really makes this course spectacular!

Mile 9 of the "other" half, April 8, 2012

I ran the "Other" half last April (my first half marathon), finishing in 1:48:52. I remember feeling great coming off the bridge around mile 9. The endorphins were kicking and I was on top of the world. I had gone out very conservatively, around 9:00 pace, and negative split the race, clicking off 7:30's for the last three miles.

This time around was a different story. Over the past couple of weeks my goals for the race flip flopped more than a politician on the campaign trail. A tune up race ought to provide some insight for the goal race, and a 1:40 in this race would be both a PR and evidence that I might have a 3:30 marathon in me. Of course, my half marathon PR from September was on the flat course along the Embarcadero, not up and over the bridge twice, and shaving 40 seconds per mile off my spring performance was daunting. I was in better shape last spring, after hitting the gym hard over the winter recovering from stress fractures.

So, as if fifteen extra pounds and a daunting goal looming were not enough stress, last week I came down with a head cold of the snot factory variety. I began taking Sudafed and eating Vitamin C like it was leftover Halloween candy. I also began praying, sort of. I asked Tim what I should do and feebly remarked that a PR might not be in the cards. He recounted a stellar performance at Way Too Cool 50K (sub-four hour) he had negotiated through a head cold and told me to lay off the meds, which was NOT what I wanted to hear. Without the decongestant, my head felt like a balloon filled with pudding.

Under Tim's tutelage I also altered my pre-race routine a bit. Instead of carb loading with a big dinner the night before the race, I had a big meal two nights before, and a decent breakfast the day before. I tapered my food intake over the course of Saturday, had ONE beer at lunch (less than usual, even the day before a race, but I needed some alcohol to cut through some of the fog in my head) and a light dinner around 6pm. My race morning routine was unchanged: a bircher meusli smoothie, a Picky Bar and some coffee to get things moving. I was as ready as I was going to get.

Twirly and I got to the Ghirardelli parking garage about a half an hour before race start. Tim recommended I warm up well for about fifteen minutes with 3x15 second strides, which I did back and forth along Aquatic Park. Then ten minutes of walking before lining up and relaxing with some deep breathing and focusing on the task at hand.

The race starts at the foot of Van Ness between Fort Mason and Aquatic Park and runs uphill to Bay street and around Fort Mason to the marina. The line for the porta potties forms smack in the middle of Van Ness, and the line was still significant at 6:57, so with three minutes to go, the race director tacked on another five minutes to the start to avoid the inevitable trampling of those still waiting. This usually irks me, but I was warm and relaxed in the middle of the crowd about ten meters back from the starting line. I wanted to line up near the front to avoid the bottleneck on the bridge. In April I had gotten boxed in repeatedly while trying to maintain my pace in those middle miles. One last snot deposit in the rag I stuffed into my handheld, a couple of crowd-wide cheers for our World Champion San Francisco Giants, and we were off.

As always in a race, I felt great off the line. The incline up Van Ness does a good job of sorting out the runners, and the road and sidewalk are wide enough for everyone to find breathing room. We ran up and around Fort Mason and along the marina in the breaking dawn light, and I did my usual body check. No niggles, my sinuses began to clear, but I was still congested. My snot rockets were more like a shotgun blast at that point. My heart rate was good, less than 160, and my first mile was spot on for a 1:40 finish, 7:37. At this point, I backed off a little, knowing that I needed to save something for the end. The second mile clicked by at 7:42. Things were developing perfectly...

Then the wheels slowly began coming off. In the middle of the third mile amidst a good rhythm, my shoe came untied. That was a first! I always double knot my laces. I have no idea how it happened, but I pulled over and remedied the situation. When I resumed I could see the group I had been keeping pace with, and despite knowing better, I cranked it up to regain my place. That blew my heart rate, which I was unable to get back under control before we hit the first hill. The third mile was 7:52; my goal was still within reach, but I had some hills in my future.

And those hills seemed bigger this time around. Relatively speaking, the grades are runnable and less than 300 feet of elevation makes them short by comparison to most trail races. I powered up the first, which is short, but insulting, because the course drops you right back to your starting elevation before the second hill actually provides most of the climb to the bridge. As counseled by Tim, I ran right through the aid station at the top with my handheld water bottle, and reassessed my condition. No niggles, heart rate in the mid 160's (a bit high, but I was going for a PR) and my head was still producing plenty of phlegm, but at least I could breathe. Another small climb to the bridge, and then we were trucking north across the bay.

The view from mile ten
 My race plan called for an energy gel at 45 minutes and 75 minutes. Running along the bridge, in the middle of the sixth mile, eating a gel, I realised I was having GI issues again. Normally gels hit my tongue and I feel instantly energized and nourished. Instead, my stomach turned, and I quickly chased the gel with big gulps of water. Feeling it wasn't going to be my day, I tried to enjoy the views along the bridge. The KT tape on my Achilles began flapping around at this point, and it was difficult to keep my spirits up. At least my strategy to avoid the bottleneck had worked. I had plenty of room, and was getting passed more than being impeded.

By the time we had ducked under the Sausalito end of the bridge and conquered the last climb back up to the deck, I knew something was wrong. At mile seven I should have been in my groove, feeling that gel and finding an extra gear for the back half. It wasn't happening. I tried in vain to recall the feeling of flying I had in April coming back across the bridge, with the glorious view of the sunrise over the city. My legs wouldn't turn over, the snot would not abate, and my stomach did not feel ready to accept another gel, but I choked it down, because I knew I needed it. I did manage to click off a couple of sub-8:00 miles coming off the apex of the bridge, but I was working hard for that pace, and once I hit the flatland along the bay, my pace crept slowly towards 9:00/mile, while my effort still felt like 7-something.

Behind the smile, the bonk begins...
I focused on the trees of Fort Mason, knowing that Twirly would be there cheering runners up the final pimple of a hill. My brain considered walking, which resulted in an inner dialogue unfit for public consumption, but I muscled through what was the biggest bonk of my running career. I began observing my body from the outside, trying to assess what was left. The lactic acid burned in my legs, but my breathing was good. I wasn't quite anaerobic, but I just couldn't get my legs to turn over. My rhythm was gone. No mojo. Just heart.

As I approached the grass of Fort Mason I could hear Twirly cheering all the runners along. She has really embraced her inner cheerleader, and I love that she brings so much energy and positivity to spectating.

"Bonk city, I feel like shit" I told her as I slogged up the path.

"Almost there baby, you can make it!"

I was finding some humor in the spectators that would say "you're looking great, keep it up". They could not have been talking to me. I did find some solace after the race when Twirly showed me a video she took of the second place finisher as he passed her. This guy ran a 5:30 pace for the whole race, and his mantra felt like my inner dialogue:

Humbled but happy
I managed to carry a little speed off the last hill into the finishing chute, beating my time from April by 1:15 for a 1:47:36. I got my big-ass finishers medal (it feels like a chunk of the bridge!) and water bottle, some coconut water and muscle milk, and tried to stay in motion while I re-hydrated and stretched. I felt a bit woozy and had to put my hands on my knees a couple times, but by the time Twirly showed up with my gear bag, I was ready to consume my recovery drinks.

This race is really well organized, the course obviously rocks, and the post race festival comes with free Anchor Steam and Peasant Pies (I couldn't stomach the beer, another indication that something was very wrong that morning). They do a great job of announcing every one's names as they cross the finish line, which is cool, and the weather in early November is usually warm and clear. I highly recommend this race to anyone wanting to do a half marathon.

Looking forward is difficult given this cold that won't go away. With just weeks to go until the CIM, I am reassessing my goals for my debut marathon. I know I can finish. I'm fairly certain I can finish in less than four hours. Not so sure about that 3:30. I think 3:45 will be my goal, which would be 8:30/mile. More counselling from Coach Tim over the coming weeks should provide enough confidence in whatever goals I set. I just hope I kick this bug before I end up fatigued and under-trained!

Here are the details, for those who like details:


  1. Sorry to hear of your tribulations, but nice job toughing it out. Those kind of races and training weeks happen, don't let it get to you; which it sounds like you're not. Good luck going forward.

    1. Thanks Bjorn, I appreciate your perspective. Like they say: If you find yourself in Hell, keep going!

      Running the 10K at the Turkey Trot?

  2. Hoping to do the Turkey Trot; we're still finalizing our plans. I am signed up for a Turkey run in Davis the weekend before, looking to see what kind of time I am capable of in the 10k on the flatlands.