Standing in the driving rain after the race, barely able to control my shivering, I was completely unable to stop myself from smiling. I’d just broken my half marathon PR without really trying, and I still couldn’t figure out how. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
I signed up for the 2015 Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Half Marathon a veritable eternity ago, when my running priorities were rather different. In the intervening months, after a rough 2014 race season, I had resolved not to “race” any events until I thought I could perform to my own expectations. With that in mind, I had no intention of running this race hard. It was just going to be my long tempo run for the week, so I maintained my normal training schedule. This week, that meant 10 miles with a series of 800m intervals on Thursday, and a hill ride on my bike the day before the race. In fact, I was undecided about actually running until race morning, and I almost bailed on account of the weather. I mention all this not to make my result seem impressive (it’s really not), but rather to provide some insight into my mindset going into the event.
It was cold and raining lightly on race morning. With the start and finish lines nearly four miles apart, there was no perfect way of getting to and from the race. In the interest of frugality (and out of loathing for Uber surge pricing), I drove and parked at Georgetown Law, which was free and reasonably close to both locations.
As I jogged the mile or so to the start, the rain seemed to increase, almost literally dampening my spirits. I’d already gotten hypothermia in a cold, wet race (2010 Tokyo Marathon), and it weighed heavily on my mind. Doing my best to ignore my past and the notion of sunk costs, I resolved that I was already committed, so I found the gear check, stowed my stuff, and went to huddle in the starting corral in search of warmth. Thankfully, I’d timed everything reasonably well, so I didn’t have too long to wait–I got into the crowd just as the national anthem began.
A few minutes later, we were off. The time I’d spent training regularly with Capital Area Runners had drilled into me the rule of “start slow, finish fast,” so I took the first mile easy, clocking 7:22. I actually thought I was going slower, a positive sign of things to come, but running by feel was the order of the day, so I just kept at it.
My second mile came at 7:05, which I attributed to it being net downhill, but then I clocked the third at 6:51, despite going both ways over the Memorial Bridge. Had I gotten caught up in the energy of the event and picked up the pace too soon? I felt great, but I was still a bit nervous. Even (especially?) if this wasn’t a race for me, I didn’t want to blow up, particularly if doing so would have left me stuck in the rain. With that in mind, I decided to dial it back just a bit, and my pace gradually dropped each mile as I made the slight climb up Rock Creek Parkway – 6:56, 7:01, 7:07
And then I hit the hill up to Calvert St. It’s that thing above that looks like a wall. I’ve run worse hills before, but this felt longer, steeper, and nastier than I was prepared for. Even trudging up the road at slower than 9:00 pace, I could feel my heart rate rising steadily. “Just keep running,” I told myself between breaths. “When it levels off, ease back into things.” One of the worst mistakes you can make in racing is accelerating quickly after a difficult section. You’ve already been working hard, so you need to build gradually back to your desired pace.
After the giant hill, the course continues to climb gradually toward Columbia Heights. As I went across the bridge over Rock Creek, I saw a teammate cheering from the side of the road and shouting words of encouragement. Bill was a most welcome sight, although his “Looking strong, Edward!” didn’t ring true with how I felt at the time. That said, when the next mile ticked over, I was surprised to see I’d lost only about 30 seconds. Maybe Bill knew something I didn’t.
The next few miles were largely unremarkable. Aside from two sizable hills about which I’d somehow forgotten, the course was net downhill, and my splits showed it: 7:02, 6:42, 6:38. I was cruising, and I felt fantastic.
It was during this time that my brain kicked into gear. I started doing math, and it dawned on me that, assuming my sums were correct, I was ahead of my then-PR pace. When I hit 10 miles, the clock showed 1:11:12, and I knew my math was right. So long as I didn’t fall apart, I was going to PR at a decidedly-below-racing effort!
This realization left me with a difficult choice. My Type A side kept saying I could push my effort, take a few chances, and see just how much more time I could shave off. My conservative side (yes, I have one!) told me to rein it in and save any heroics for the last mile or so. With nothing to prove, and with zero expectations for the race, I decided to go with the latter.
So on I trucked, down North Capitol, through NoMa, and onto H Street, where I was careful to avoid the streetcar tracks. I kept getting passed by and re-passing another runner, and I kept having to keep the Type A side in check, if only for a little longer. Two more miles ticked off: 6:43, 6:55.
When I hit the 12 mile sign, I opened the throttle a bit and left my competitor behind. The course headed downhill again, and I continued to gain time. When I saw the blue inflatable arch ahead of the finish line, it was time to go for it.
I’m not a particularly fast runner, but I am a strong finisher. With the throttle fully open, I ran the last 1/4 mile in 82 seconds, about 5:30/mile pace. As I ran, I picked off one runner after another, ultimately passing a dozen or more by the time I crossed the line.
Pretty much as soon as I’d finished, I ran into one of my teammates, the always smiling Judy Chen. To my delight, Judy also a had good race, finishing in 1:28:xx. We chatted as we went to get our respective bags from gear check, but then I lost track of her. I hope her trip home was smoother than mine. Metro was such a mess that I ended up jogging another 2+ miles back to my car.
I’m still dumbfounded by the result. When I woke up the following day, I didn’t even feel like I ran a race, let alone set a new PR. If nothing else, it proves (to me, any way) that I’m not lying to myself about how hard I ran. This result was also a huge, much-needed confidence booster. My last three races were crap, and even my irrational exuberance was beginning to suffer. Not any more.
Final time: 1:32:10 (PR by 01:25)