Thursday, October 6, 2016

Novant 15k: Locking In

This is the sixth consecutive year I have done Lungstrong 15k, which is the longest streak I have for any perennial race.  This year, the event was renamed to Novant 15k, but the course and event details remained the same.  For at least four years, I've had a long-standing goal to break 60 minutes for a 15k, and since it's not a common distance, Lungstrong/Novant is really the only course on which I've given it a shot.  One of the big pros to Novant is that it is two miles from my house.  However, it's also a course strewn with rolling hills, and some of the more challenging climbs are on the back end.
To be honest, I wasn't even planning to race Novant this year.  I had spent the last 12 weeks training hard for the single-minded purpose of qualifying for New York Marathon with a 1:23 half marathon.  I was tuned up and locked in, ready to give it my best shot, but the unrest in Charlotte during the week of the race and ensuing declaration of State of Emergency caused my focus race to be cancelled.  I was deflated, but I quickly resolved to use all that peak fitness for something, so Novant 15k found its way into my cross-hairs.
When I describe the Novant 15k course to others, I break it up into three 5k sections.  The first 5k, even though it has a fast start, has some notable and steady climbs out of Jetton Park and on Jetton Road itself, giving it what I would call a medium difficulty.  The second 5k, while not flat, is the most tame and easy part of the course, weaving through residential side streets before depositing onto the Western end of Jetton Road.  The final and most difficult third of the race is made up mostly of the long, rolling terrain of Jetton Road and a couple of more steep climbs off the main road in the 7th and 9th miles.  In past races, if I was feeling spent by the 10k mark, I knew that the final 5k would be a downward spiral.
I got lucky with the weather on race day. It was in the mid-50s, which was paradise compared to the long, hot summer of training.  I knew I would be competitive, so I slipped into a place near the front row, behind a dozen or so other local Charlotte runners who I thought were out of my league.  At the start, once the adrenaline set in, I looked at my watch to see that the low-6ish minute paces were popping off way too easily.  I had spent the last months ingraining a 6:20 pace into my head for my target half, so I worked consciously to dial back to that pace.  It felt surprisingly fresh!  
After the field thinned out, and before a small lead group of elites led by pro miler Matt Elliott vanished, I took a count and reckoned I was in 12th place overall, which was better than I expected for as popular a race as this is.  I swiped a couple more places in the climb coming out of Jetton Park and found myself in a relative no-man's land for most of Jetton Road.  New to this year were mid-race timing mats at each certified 5k split point, so I hit lap on my watch--albeit a couple seconds late--after the first 5k to see that I had run the first third in 19:32.  That was pretty good for my goal, but the first two thirds of the race are only good for offsetting the end...
The ever-thinning field of runners ahead of me continued to drift back and I started picking them off very gradually through the neighborhoods at the Western end of the peninsula.  Billy Shue, who had won last year's race, was still ahead of me but he had stopped gaining ground and was still visible.  After five miles, and having passed everyone between me and Billy, I started to go back over the position count in my head.  Billy was fifth, so I was sixth.  Being a Run For Your Life race, the overall awards were five deep, so if I took one more place, I'd be on the overall podium, not just an age group winner.  The thought seemed fleeting, but then Billy started slowly fading back to me.
I passed Billy Shue right around the 10k mark, which I hit at 38:53.  Not only had I run my second 5k faster than the first (19:21), but I had just run my second fastest 10k...ever.  What was more uplifting was that I still felt locked in and relatively fresh, and was holding my own against Billy.
Around mile 6.5, the course took a brief detour off Jetton Road and down a hill on a side street called Mountainview.  Of course, what goes down must come up.  The detour turned right on North Beatties Ford Drive and headed up a short, steep hill to get back to the main thoroughfare of Jetton.  Jetton kept going up for a few dozen meters after that, so the detour had the potential to really take the wind out of one's sails before slogging it back in on the last 2.5+ miles.  It didn't help that one of the volunteers was yelling "you're almost to the finish!"  While outwardly I remained stoic, my inner voice screamed, "No I'm not!  Shut up with that!"
The inbound leg of Jetton was a series of long, rolling hills.  None of them were steep, but the fatigue of the earlier miles and the morning sun shining in my eyes certainly made me work for the pace.  But I was maintaining that pace and logging sub-6:20 miles.  The hill on the detour only marginally bit into my time.  The first three leaders were nowhere to be seen, and the fourth place runner was a dot that was nearly a quarter mile ahead of me, so I focused on keeping fifth place.  With each passing minute, it was becoming more and more likely that I would get my sub-60 goal.
At mile 8.5, I turned off Jetton onto Charlestowne Drive, which was the last sustained downhill of the race.  While turning, I peeked over my shoulder to see Billy not too far behind me.  He was far enough away that he would have to work extremely hard to catch me before we ran out of real estate, but he was still close enough to make me wary.  After the last downhill, the rest of the course was a widely arcing climb followed by a flat finish into the shopping center where the race started.  I was afforded a couple more 90 degree turns where I could sneak a glance back at Billy.  He was still in view, but he wasn't closing enough to threaten my fifth place.  However, my efforts to keep him at bay had pushed me into a possible sub-59 minute finish, so I couldn't let up.  I used the last, flat 400 meters of the course for an extended kick and clocked a 58:31 official finishing time.  Not only had I placed overall and gotten my sub-60, but I had obliterated my previous PR by 2.5 minutes!  It was the best "pound-for-pound" race I had run since the 2015 Charlotte 10-Miler, and maybe even better than that.  The real confidence booster for me is that I felt locked in for the whole race. Considering all of that, I didn't really care about my cancelled half marathon.  I was more than consoled or content with this result; I was elated!
Me after rounding the final corner and seeing the finish line.  Photo courtesy of Brian Neff.

The stride to the finish with 58:30 on the gun clock.   Photo courtesy of Brian Neff.

Here is my Strava data for the race.

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