Thursday, October 10, 2013

Race Report: 2013 Rock n Roll San Jose Half Marathon

I ran the 2013 Rock n Roll San Jose Half Marathon as a training race. My coach had scheduled a mock 13.1 workout, where he wanted me to warm up, run an evenly paced 13 miles at slightly slower than half marathon race pace, and then cool down. As there aren't many flat 13 mile options in the foothills, and the Bay Trail is getting boring (most of my long runs occur there), I opted for an organized race. Over the course of 2013, I have used a few races as training runs, and I feel that I continue to improve my approach; dialing back the effort and focusing on specific goals rather than getting drawn into competition and racing those around me.
Normally, at a race large enough to have a pre-race day expo, I try to do a shake out run on the last few miles of the course. It provides me some familiarity during the race, and helps me figure out when to kick, and how hard. Unfortunately, the final miles of the RnRSJ Half follow "The Alameda" into downtown, and Twirly pointed out that there was no bike path and a 5-way intersection to negotiate. So, in order to stick together, we followed the Guadalupe River path past the San Jose airport and back. It's a nice enough path, but I could have done without the stretch next to the airport.
Race morning was considerably cooler than the previous afternoon, which was a blessing. The throngs of participants stretched farther than I could see, and no fewer than 18 corals were set up in the starting area. I had never toed the line at a race this large; an estimated 16,000 runners would take 45 minutes to cross the starting line as wave after wave shuffled through the chute.
 I had been shooting for a 1:50 finish when I signed up, but an aborted tempo run the week before had me questioning my fitness, and Coach Tim had me dialing back this specific workout. We settled on a MAF strategy for the first ten miles, followed by a 5k kick as hard as I wanted. I ended up lining up with some friends a couple corals back, shooting for sub 2:00.

The start
The party atmosphere of a Rock n Roll event was evident from the get-go as the announcer set each wave free to blaring music. We were at the back of our coral and had room to run right away, and settled into a comfortable pace around 9:30/mile. My friends and I chatted about the race (one was running her 7th San Jose RnR event) and navigated the slower runners ahead of us. True to form, the scientists among us discussed the phenomenon of slower runners signing up for the early corals. Was it high hopes of setting a new PR? Maybe the ignorance of newbies thinking they had a 1:30 half marathon in them after they crushed their sub-60 10k? Regardless, it seems that every race with corals has a large contingent of slower runners at the front, who create a sea of obstacles to the steady runners behind.
Rock n Roll events host music along the course, and there were plenty of San Jose residents contributing their own music, from blaring car stereos, to solo heavy metal guitarists and four piece blues bands. Our pace would quicken as we passed each act, and by the 5k mark, we were cruising along at 9:0x pace.
Around the 10k mark, our little group had begun to spread out, and my pace was hanging around 9 minutes. Twirly caught some video of us as we ran back through downtown on our way out towards the Rose Garden:

A nice aspect of this course is that the elites come running back down The Alameda as the mid-packers are headed out. On pace for a 1:02 finish, the leader (Ryan Vail) elicited a wave of whoops and hollers from us slower runners as we crossed paths. I always grimace a little (on the inside) when I think about the elites finishing while I pass the halfway mark. Ryan Hall was supposed to run the race but withdrew before the start, and it would have been cool to watch our American Record Half Marathon holder (59:43) in action, but I had another 6.5 miles to go, and discomfort was creeping in.
The back half of the course runs through some pretty, wooded neighborhoods. The temperature was rising, and I grew anxious about the ten mile mark. I refilled my water bottle and ate a VFuel gel in preparation for the kick. I wondered what kind of pace I could pull out for the final 5k, and had to consciously hold myself back during the tenth mile.
I really enjoyed those first ten miles. The musicians were spread out far enough to really provide a boost of energy as I passed each act. On top of that, there were teams of cheerleaders filling the gaps between bands, and at the aid stations. I have never even been to the Boston Marathon, but the scream tunnel at Wellesley makes a lot more sense to me now. A chorus of screaming girls does trigger some sort of adrenal response!


2k to go, Twirly catches my attention
That said, the final 5k I had tunnel vision. As I passed the ten mile mark, I shifted easily into my tempo cadence and drifted over to the side of the road so that I could pass the crowds. I focused on running tall and smooth, occasionally glancing down at my heart rate. I knew I only had to push for a little over 20 minutes, and they flew by. I passed Twirly at mile 12, and latched onto a guy running in five fingers who apparently had the same plan, as we were evenly paced and passing hundreds of runners.


Having not run the final mile the day before, I was assuming the finish line would be after the turn off The Alameda, but it was a few blocks further. I finished strong, and for the first time in my memory I realized I didn't have to run anymore after I had stopped. Usually I have the carrot of the finish hanging in front of my face for that last mile, but this time I was so focused on my form and tempo that I almost forgot to stop as I hit the crowd at the finishers area.
I regrouped with my colleague, and grabbed up as many recovery items as I could carry (chocolate milk, Gatorade, Powerbars, bananas, etc.). I could see that Twirly was still out on the course, so I got in line for a beer and enjoyed the finish line band. I had covered the final 5k in 23 minutes, only 90 seconds off my 5k PR. I think the strategy of going out so comfortably will be something I incorporate into my ultras. Obviously, a negative split has been touted by many as the easiest way to a PR, but I'm still learning. Putting knowledge to practice is an art I have not yet perfected.

Overall, the event was well organized and fun. The volunteers were effusive with their support, and the musicians really do break up the monotony of a road race. To top it off, I do believe the finisher's medal is my heaviest to date! After the fiasco that was the Rock n Roll Las Vegas marathon in 2011, I was skeptical going in, but happily surprised at the efficiency of the San Jose race. I'd consider doing it again. Maybe San Francisco next time? We'll see.
For the data nerds, the details:

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