|Dean, Allen, and me at Charity Chase Half Marathon in Hickory, NC.|
The hot, late Spring weather took a convenient break this morning for this year's Charity Chase Half Marathon in Hickory, NC. 30 minutes before the sunrise start of the race, it was a chilly 54 degrees--perfect running weather. I signed up for this race on a whim in order to get one more fast half marathon in before the summer heat descended upon the Piedmont. I set three different time goals: plan A (a stretch goal), plan B (a realistic but appropriately challenging goal), and plan C (a "do-or-die" goal). Plan A was to break 1 hour, 30 minutes for a half--something I should be able to do, but this hilly course (1,262 feet of gain) was not meant for super-fast times. Plan B was to maintain an average pace of 7 minutes/mile. Plan C was to beat my 6-month-old PR, which should not present a challenge given my level of fitness now VS then. If this were an ultra or a tough full marathon, a plan D of "finishing" would go without saying.
I got in about a mile of warm-up running to shake off the chilly air and to squeeze in some quick bursts at my intended race pace. This helps me get the pace in my head. The legs were turning over well, and race pace appeared fairly effortless during warm-up...good. I met up with fellow DARTers Allen Strickland, Dean King, and Todd Spears before gathering at the starting coral. All three were planning to give a solid-but-conservative effort today. Having run the course before, they were aware of how the notoriously hilly course could kill pace predictions. Where we run--in the North Mecklenberg area--there are a lot of decent local hills that are characteristic of a North Carolina Piedmont metro area. Hickory is nearly an hour West of us, and therefore an hour closer to the mountains, so its rolling hills are more numerous and dramatic. We were in for a workout today.
I wished my fellow DARTers good luck and found a spot near the front row; I was feeling competitive today! Three runners to my right were obviously talking about me in Spanish, and they gestured to my very yellow racing flats. "I like the shoes," one of them said in heavily accented English. "Si, amarillo es muy rapido!" I responded in heavily accented Spanish. We all shared a laugh at that. The race started at a very punctual 6:30 am and we were off. I consciously resisted my habit of letting the adrenaline take me off the starting line at too quick of a pace. I settled in to a steady 6:50 (according to Garmin) pace and watched at least a couple dozen runners lope past me. I ignored them--another discipline I have been working on. The crowd spaced itself out pretty evenly in the space of the first half-mile. I spotted one particular runner in and Under Armor compression shirt who looked to be maintaining my goal pace or a little faster. I decided I would spot him for a while and keep an eye on my watch to make sure his race didn't mess up my race. The first mile had a nice downhill followed by a decent, double terraced uphill. I let my effort determine my pace on the hills, but I still looked at my watch to see what kind of pace I was losing or gaining in case I needed to amend my race strategy in the later miles.
According to my Garmin, the first mile was a 6:36, but I did not pass the first mile marker until 7:10. We all know that GPS watches are far from perfect as far as accuracy goes, but that's a big margin of error after only one mile. This would be a discrepancy I would deal with all morning, and other racers had the same issues, Eventually, the mile markers would more or less even out, but I spent the first few miles largely racing by feel.
Mr. Under Armor stayed 5-10 seconds ahead of me for the first few miles, and my pace readings and manual mile splits were all in the 6:45-7:05 range, so I settled into a groove and kept an eye on him. "Relax," I kept reminding myself silently whenever I found myself trying to make up time on an uphill, or chasing to catch another runner. The downhills would make up for the the uphills, and the other runners would fade back without any help from me. Relax.
The first 4.5 miles looped through downtown Hickory and passed by the local high school and Lenoir-Rhyne College. The sun was up, and the brisk Spring air was starting to breeze by us. After this first loop, we passed the starting line again and repeated the first mile of the course before turning into a more residential side of town, where the back loaded 9 miles of the course awaited. Miles 6 and 7 were a bit of a blur. I maintained a steady pace and kept a constant tail on Mr. Under Armor, and I think there was a sneaky little uphill near mile 7.5. After that lay the longest sustained downhill of the course--over a mile's worth. Much of it was steady, but there were short spots with steep grades that caused the eyes to widen a bit. "Relax," I reminded myself. I needed to save myself for the climbs that inevitably would follow this long descent. I kept my pace in the low 6's on the downhill, feeling I had conserved responsibly while still banking some time. The saved time and energy both were about to come in handy.
At mile 9, we took a hard right turn into a local park veined with paved greenways. Upon entering the greenway, I stared straight up the daunting hill about which all of the Charity Chase veterans had warned me. Race pace and equal effort went out the window for this hill. I had been keeping a sub-7 pace for just over an hour, so all I could do was "sustain the pain," as our Olympian friend Fam would say. The only good thing about this hill was that everyone else had to run it too. Under Armor and I passed a couple of runners on the climb; the second one used a lot of energy in a vain attempt to hold on to his position. I can't say I agreed with his strategy. A lot of race still lay ahead of us. I also was pleased to see that I was closing on Mr. Under Armor. He looked so much stronger than me just one mile earlier, but he was fading back to me now. This gave me a boost of confidence, and I did not shoot out ahead to close the distance, but I did notice my pace quickening before the climb was through.
The greenway weaved through half a dozen switchbacks--mostly uphill--before spitting us back onto a four lane road. Mile 11 was relatively flat, so I could focus on finding my race pace again, although there was no relaxation at that speed this far into the race. I looked at the overall time on my watch, did some ugly math in my head, tried to account for Garmin-course discrepancies, and reassessed whether plan A was still viable. Not likely. I practically would have to PR a 5K in order to come in under 90 minutes. It was in the realm of possibility, but I was coming to accept plan B as my new goal.
Mile 12 and the first half of mile 13 were just plain cruel. 12 had a sustained uphill that didn't kill you, but it ate up a lot of time. The hill flattened out after the 12th mile marker, but it took a while to make turns for a sub-7 pace after catching my breath. Half a mile later, the course turned right to an 8-block climb. It was not the worst climb of the race, but so close to the end, it certainly was the most demoralizing. Again, I forgot about pace and dug in. I could hear my gasping breath now, but there was no holding back with a scant half-mile to go. By the time I reached the top of the hill, I was 600 meters from the finish. I was zapped. I passed the mile 13 marker (which was early by the reckoning of all) and locked my eyes on the finish arch. It just wouldn't come any closer. According to the data on my watch, I finished strong, with the fastest average pace on my last fractional mile split, but it sure didn't feel like a strong finish. Mr. Under Armor finished close behind me. We tacitly gave each other a congratulatory shout-out as we headed for the refreshments. My final time was 1:31:22, a 6 minute PR, and an average pace of 6:58. Plan B: accomplished. My time was good enough for 2nd place in my age group, and 15th overall out of nearly 500 runners. I'm good with that.
|My creepy little Age Group trophy.|
Allen came in at 1:38:12 and Dean out-sprinted a nearby competitor to a 1:39:59 finish. Todd Spears crossed the line shortly after 1:42. We congratulated each other and commiserated about the difficulty of the course. I could not stick around for the awards ceremony (Allen graciously accepted my creepy little bobble-head trophy on my behalf) because I had do jet back to Davidson to support fellow DARTer Jeff McGonnell in his 24 hour Loopy-For-A-Cause run to promote Batten's disease awareness.
|Allen finishing strong.|
|Dean sprinting through the arch.|
Being as tough as it was, Charity Chase told me a couple things about myself as a road racer. First, as long as I concentrate on my form and remind myself to relax, things tend to play out largely as I plan them. Second, I can maintain a sub-7 pace for 13.1 miles on a very hilly course. It's within reach to maintain the same pace (or close to it) for a marathon on a more forgiving course. This is especially relevant because 26.2 miles at a 7 minute/mile pace would qualify me for Boston. Yes, I finally am going to entertain this goal. Aim high, right?
Shoes: Inov-8 Road-X Lite 155. These are my 10K road racers, but they held up pretty well over 13.1 hilly miles. Despite their super-light weight and low profile, I might consider taking these flats to a road marathon.
Nutrition: Clif Double Express gel (100mg of caffeine) 15 minutes before the race, and then a Powerbar gel at mile 4.5 and mile 9. This is more than I usually eat during a half, but I want to get used to fueling myself early and often at race pace in preparation for upcoming road marathons.
Next on my calendar: It's filling up quickly, so I won't list all of them, but in June alone, I have the Pick Your Poison 5k and the Summit Solstice 4-miler (both in Davidson), and the OSS/CIA 50 mile Night Run in Triangle, Virginia. Tough month!