Tuesday, May 9, 2017

2017 CSD Spartan Half: It Never Gets Any Easier

This past weekend was the third time I've run the Community School of Davidson Spartan Road Race Half Marathon.  However, it's the same course as the Run For Green Half, which I've paced several times, and on which I've done dozens of training runs and course previews.  I know every turn, every tangent, indeed every hill (and there are a lot) on this course.  That said, running it over and over again doesn't make it any easier.
I usually race 13.1s as a tune-up race in the middle of a marathon training cycle, so PRs are often accidental.  However, I chose this as a focus race after my trail marathon in March.  Given the 8-week turnaround, I didn't think I would be 100% for CSD Half, but I figured I'd be fit enough to shoot for a PR, an overall win (something I've not had in 2017 yet...), or both.  I was counting on my familiarity with the course and its closeness to home to give me an edge over most of the field.  Also, I knew that a few of my training buddies would be targeting this race and looking to compete, so there would be incentive to stay on my toes.
My previous PR was 1:25:50, and I knew I could do better, even on a more challenging course, so my plan was to maintain 6:25 pace miles for as long as I could to set myself up to go comforatably under 1:25.  The trick to this course was that the rolling hills trended steadily down until the turnaround just past the halfway point.  It's a course that's set up for positive splits, so I had to bank some time and energy to allow for a late race time hemorrhage, especially going up Patrick Johnson.
All started according to plan on race morning.  We got lucky with a 48* overcast day in early May, so I went into the race with high hopes.  Derek, from the Main Street Milers Frosty Relay Team, was there looking to improve upon his time from the previous year...and perhaps chase me down and make me hurt to stay ahead of him.  The race begain on South Street with the only sustained downhill mile on the course.  I reigned in my effort to a conservative half marathon pace, but the 6:15 mile was still my fastest of the day. (and easiet according the Strava's Grade Adjusted Pace calculator).  I gave a little time back on the uphill section of Avinger in the second mile, as was planned.  I came through the second mile split in 12:50, exactly where I wanted to be.  Three or four leaders were packed together ahead of me, outside of any attackable range.  I could hear Derek and Martin Harrison (another Davidson mainstay) not far behind me.
Three miles in, I was passed by Rob--a runner I didn't know, but would get to know--and I settled into a comfortable fifth place.  It was too early to make any moves on anyone.  I was content to run my own race and let the course bring any leaders back to me if it may.  Soon enough, the first place runner faded hard.  Within the space of a mile, he came all the way back to me.  As I inched around him, he stubbornly tried to surge to keep me at bay, but I could tell he was burning up too much energy to keep it happening.  An uphill in the fifth mile left him trailing and me with a 10 second gap behind Rob.
Outbound on the far greenway near the turnaround, circa mile 6.5.  Photo courtesy of Matt Williams
Back inbound at the same spot, circa mile 7.25.  I still felt good enough to flash the famous Bobby Aswell pose.  Photo courtesy of Matt Williams

The greenway leading off the main, residential thoroughfare and to the course turnaround really allowed me to lock in and make up some ground on Rob and the two leaders.  At each mile marker, I could tell I was building in a little extra cushion.  I had hit the 10k mark in under 40 minutes, which is a great split for the middle of a half marathon.  After I hit the turnaround though, I was hit with a brief, unexpected mental check.  I knew I was a little more than half done and keeping a great pace, but there was still more than 6 miles of hard running left, and Derek was not nearly far enough behind me for my own comfort.  I was able to keep my splits and play to the terrain, surging where I could and dialing in an even effort, but a forboding sense loomed as I ran the inbound River Run rollers.
I caught up to Rob about 8.5 miles in.  We ran together and traded positions for most of River Run after that.  I glanced at my watch to see that we ran 15k in just under an hour (59:59 according to Strava).  Rob confirmed that that was one of many PRs he has hitting on this run.  For myself, I considered it a good day already.  Until this past October, I had never run 15k in under an hour.
Just after that 15k revelation, we came upon what I consider to be a gauntlet of late stage challenges on this course.  There was a sustained uphill that led us to Robert Walker, then a quick left turn directly into the Triple Threat hills, which were not long climbs, but steep enoug to put some junk in the legs.  From there we finally got out of River Run and got one last downhill before the last challenging couple of miles.  We turned right on the greenway and ran for about 1000 meters before climbing the infamous Patrick Johnson hill.
Circa mile 11.5.  I'm feeling the punishment of the rolling hills and about to climb Patrick Johnson wearing a mask of displeasure.  Photo courtesy of Dustin Branham

Rob was beginning to pull away at this point, and he seemed to have the same approach as me: low gear it and shuffle up the damn thing; pace be damned!  Still, even at a shuffle, the climb redlined me, and I was having a hard time recovering my turnover.  At this point, Rob had opened back up to a five second gap, and it might as well have been five minutes.  I could maintain my pace (which was a bit slower than my previous 6:25), but I had no more surges left in me.  When we reached the heart of the 5k racing crowd (who started an hour after us), I lost Rob in a sea of people.  Now it was just me and my PR hunt.
With less than a mile to go, I was fairly sure I had the PR, but as fried as my legs were, nothing was absolute.  I just kept pumping my arms and letting out quite audible grunts and groans as I weaved between 5k'ers and tried to open up my sub-1:25 margin.  After climbing the long grind on Pine, turning left on Lorimer, and gutting out the last half mile, I came around the familiar curve in the road to the last uphill to the finish. I was well under my sub-1:25 goal, but not close enough to sub-1:24 to warrant an all-out sprint.  I crossed the line in fourth place overall at 1:24:16.8 (which I round up to 1:24:17).  I took 93 seconds off my PR and more than two minutes off of my best time on this course.  Derek finished strong in fifth place at 1:26:06, which was 4+ minutes faster than his time on this same course last year, and half a minute from his flat course PR.  Fellow DARTer/MSMer Brian finished with a 1:28, which was faster than his anticipated time as this was a train-through race for him.
The last 50 feet.  I look a lot better than I feel in this photo.  Courtesy of Matt Williams

Everything went right that day. Even not being 100%, I was fit enough to race, and had some of my recent, nagging injuries under control.  The weather, which is usually the biggest variable, was quite optimal.  The competition was such that I nearly always had a rabbit to chase.  And, as I said before, I had detailed knowledge of the course.  Still, even with all of that, I wouldn't say this race was any easier for it.  I may get fitter, become a smarter runner, and run the course faster, but this course will never get any easier.  Derek, who unquestionably had made more relative gains than me over the past year, thought likewise.  "One day," he said to me, "you're going to level out, and I'm going to catch you."
"Yeah, one day," I said, "...but not today."
Me with Derek directly after the race.  4th and 5th place overall, and two strong finishes.  Photo courtesy of Amber Wood

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