"Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still." -Henry David Thoreau
Mid-October in my neck of the woods brings what is perhaps my favorite annual race, The Other Half Marathon. The name comes primarily because it is "the other half marathon" that was recently added by the Moab Half people, five months before the original Canyonlands Half, a race that has been taking place for many more years. While Canyonlands is now a lottery race and stuffed full every year between the half and the five-miler run the same day, The Other Half is a much more intimate and smaller feeling race. While 1500 people is still a fairly large race, the vibe is just different. The whole race takes place well up the canyon on Highway 128, beginning at the Dewey Bridge and ending at Sorrel River Ranch, with the river running behind it, and red cliffs all around. I feel very alive on this course, and love running it. No matter how well my season's been going coming into this race, that alone is enough to give me quite literally a leg up. There was absolutely nothing of serious consequence at stake with this race for me; I would be happy knowing I did my best on this course regardless of my time. With that said, there was a little voice in the back of my head saying "NYC......NYC." Some days it's just not your day, and The Other Half is not at all known as a PR course. Still, I felt very confident about pulling out all the stops with whatever I had for the race.
I started my race weekend by taking the road less traveled, and turning off of I-70 at the exit which takes you through the ghost town of Cisco, eventually leading to a turn for Highway 128. It can take a few minutes longer than driving all the way to the main exit to Moab, but it is a scenic drive and would also give me the opportunity to drive the rolling course. It was a beautiful day, and I took my time enjoying the ride, stopping for photos every now and again.
Rolling into town, I was still well ahead of check-in time at my hotel, so I wandered over to the expo to pick up my packet. I knew that Ilana would be due in town at the expo around five or five-thirty, so I wandered back to the hotel, checked in and brought my stuff inside, and headed back over to the expo. I had a friend not running the race ask me to pick up her packet/shirt; the problem was she'd pitched her packet pickup card. Um, makes it hard for me to get your stuff, I told her-but I said that I would do my best.
When I arrived back at the expo, the race director (who has done an amazing job growing all the Moab races, keeping them organized and high quality) was working the information/help table. I'd jotted down my friend's bib number and explained that that was all I had. She started quizzing me on stats like my friend's birthday (um....she's ten years or so older than me? That's all I've got), her phone number (uh....it's programmed in my cell phone. Maybe.), and other stuff. She joked with me "well, how good of a friend is this, anyway? What's YOUR name?" When I said it, she said "OOOOOH! I didn't recognize you with clothes on! You going to win your age group this year?"
Now, if I'd had a drink in my mouth I would have blown it out at the "didn't recognize you with (regular, street) clothes on" comment. What I was more surprised at is that she knew my name and was implying I had a shot at age grouping. I wound up third in my age group at last year's Winter Sun, and have run all three of their races every year since '07 with the exception of the 2008 Other Half, but I haven't placed or done anything interesting in all those runs. I said something like "ooooh...I don't know," and she got together the race bag and a slip of paper that would let the shirt people know it was okay to give me one. I thanked her for letting me collect my friend's stuff, and as I walked away she said "See you on the podium!" Gulp.
Soon after, I found Ilana, and after she gathered her stuff, we met up our friends Kevin, Nora, and Paul for dinner at Miguel's Baja Grill, which is typically where Ilana and I wind up for dinner before any Moab race. Kevin and Paul were both running, and Kevin's wife Nora was along for cheerleading and enjoying the weekend. It was a great time hanging out, loosening up, eating good food and having a margarita or two.
After dinner, Ilana and I headed back to the hotel for the standard outdoor hot tub soak and race gear selection. I brought my regular training New Balance 1225's, which I've pretty much used for races without regard for whether or not something lighter would help with my time and feeling light on my feet. I did buy a pair of Newtons several months ago, though, after trying them on at the Boston Marathon expo. They felt AMAZING on my feet, and I have been using them in shorter races lately, running race PR's each time. Despite being a bit unsure that it was a good move for a comparatively "bigger" runner, I attached my timing chip to the Newtons and called it a night.
Our day started early when it was determined that we were both wide awake and restless, and soon we were chowing on Ilana's breakfast cookie and drinking coffee. It was a nice bus ride in the dark to the start, and getting out, it definitely felt warmer than it had been in 2007 and 2009 for this race. I worried a bit that it might warm WAY up, but thus far it wasn't terrible. It was actually sort of nice that it was just medium-cold, and not bonechilling to the point of taking your energy while walking around and shivering.
When it finally came time to warm up, I ran up the road, away from the start, and toward an old abandoned service station. I felt very calm and normal. Nothing hurt. When I finally peeked at my Garmin, I was surprised at the pace-it was faster than I thought I was going. This was a good sign to me that it was a day with potential. I had my Jet Blackberry Gu and started getting the game face on.
We moved down to the start area to line up, and noticed right away that there were no women moving all the way to the front, and just a small handful of us clumped right behind the 7:00 pace sign. Where were the sponsored runners? They weren't there. So this was going to be a day for the competitive mid-packers. Another sign to just go for it. The minutes counted down, and the Moab Taiko Dan drummers started pounding away on the drums from the back of a truck at the start. We were counted down, the gun sounded, and off we went.
It felt great to finally get underway. My breathing was excellent, my heart rate felt like it was well in check, and I concentrated on staying very relaxed, something I've been working on lately as part of learning more about POSE running. This isn't a sales pitch, and I frankly am just a novice at applying its principles to my running. It's just something that I have learned really works for me-it keeps my heart rate down, and is making me more efficient. Today, it was allowing me to work hard yet still feel relaxed.
Mile 1: 7:02
First mile was done, and my self-assessment here was that I felt very strong. Could I maintain this all the way through? Who knew-but I was now committed to an all-out effort with no holding back. There were maybe a dozen women tops who were out ahead of me-so maybe I really did have a chance to age group today. I really wanted that, and I really wanted to keep every mile under the pace I needed for the guaranteed entry into next year's New York City marathon.
Mile 2: 7:13
Mile 3: 7:18
I was really settling in now. The first three miles had gone by without extreme pain or struggle. I felt like I was walking that line and in Good Hurt Land. Not at a pace so fast that a hard crash-and-burn was guaranteed, and not in that range of being just a bit slow so that I could "save something for later." Listening to how hard some of the men running around me were breathing, it reminded me to relax and lift lightly, and to go to a "zero gear" with an even smaller stride if I started to feel fatigued, but still keeping my cadence up.
Mile 4: 7:21
Mile 5: 7:24
Mile 6: 7:27
Oops. That mile six was a little slower than what I needed to average to hit 1:37 or faster. I was still feeling good, though, so I didn't let that split get into my head. I was now coming into the last of the downhillish miles, and getting ready for the big rolls and hills to come on the second half of the course.
Mile 7: 7:16
I was back on track and ready for the meat and potatoes of the course. The "Big Hill Mile" was next. I felt a normal amount of fatigue for this point in the race yet still felt in charge of my race. I knew it would be markedly slower than the first seven and that I'd lose some time coming up the hill, but I just relaxed, focused on what was immediately ahead of me, and did not strain or stress the size of the full hill. I went back to that "zero gear" where I was moving with small steps, keeping my cadence up and staying relaxed. While others around me were in a super-heavy-breathing zone, straining, and somewhat on their toes, I was not. I let my heel relax totally and lifted every so lightly, which felt like shuffling but did in fact feel a LOT easier than the way I used to get up on my toes and try to stride big up the hill. While I had slowed a little in the hill, I had slowed less than others and actually passed a runner or two here. It felt SO strange and awkward the first few times I practiced being really relaxed and getting to a point where I was at zero effort on hills, but dang, there's something about it that is working for me now that I am getting more used to it.
Mile 8: 8:08
This was a good split for mile 8, but I knew that it also took away most of the little cushion I had for 1:37. As soon as I was up and over the hill, I increased my turnover but kept the strides short and relaxed. Still in a surprisingly good physical state at this point, but I still had a bit over five miles to go.
Some clouds covered this part of the course. There was a light headwind briefly that concerned me, but it stopped almost as soon as it started. A little bit of moisture spit from the sky-not much, but just enough to feel refreshing and cool. It didn't last for long, but it did feel good.
Mile 9: 7:17
I can't do running math to save my life but again I knew I was right back to walking that 1:37 line. I was becoming more fatigued now but made myself relax every time I started to tighten up. Another good roller was in my path now.
Mile 10: 7:33
Over that 1:37 pace again. Dang. I got a little "mushy" feeling on the hill-that scary sensation of nearing glycogen depletion I felt late in the Eisenhower Marathon in 09, and right before my one hitting of the wall at my fall marathon last year in mile 25. I had no choice but to slow down just a bit to go back to that zero gear again. Amazingly enough, though, this wasn't the beginning of the end, and that feeling went away. I charged into the next mile back at full speed ahead. I heard the drummers, then saw them, and started clapping over my head in time to their drumming.
Mile 11: 7:18
There was one last hill left. I was feeling invigorated to know that the tougher hills were behind me, and that I just had to get over one more before my attempt to pull out all the stops on my finish. I was getting really tired, but there were no wheels about to come off. I felt in control of my race and just fed off of that feeling.
Mile 12: 7:23
I was over that last hill, and heard an aid station worker at the last station yell "It's all downhill from here!" Yes, yes it was. So many people I talk to HATE this last mile. You can see the finish from a long way off. Coming down the hill, you sort of follow a horseshoe kind of pattern, going curving off the highway and following the driveway as it bends toward Sorrel River Ranch. I love it, though. Seeing that finish lights a fire under me, and I break the home stretch up into small chunks in my mind, taking one small bite out of the course at a time. I went up into as high of a gear as I could. All out, prepared to take whatever pain I felt. Turning into the driveway, I passed a guy I'd paced next to for much of the second half of the race. Oh, man. I hurt. I was not going to allow a five second miss on that 1:37, though, as I looked again at my Garmin to see I had under two minutes to do it. I passed another guy and was running like a woman possessed.
Mile 13: 6:41
Making the last turn toward the finish chute, I could see the clock ticking off in the 1:36 minute and knew I was going to do it unless I tripped, fell and broke my legs. Even then I think I could have clawed my way accross the line with the adrenaline I was feeling. I heard the finish line announcer saying my name and pushed on in to make it official.
Last .17 miles Garmin measured: 6:26. Garmin time 1:36:28, official race time 1:36:27. I did it. Sub-1:37, free to bypass the New York City Marathon lottery and go directly to guaranteed entry. Words fail what I felt at this day coming together perfectly on all fronts, or how I felt about a five minute race PR and four minute half PR. It was just a sense of satisfaction and peace.
Kevin and Nora saw me come in, and were the first to say congratulations on my race. Kevin, for his part, ran an incredible race, finishing ninth overall and second in his age group. I came out of the finish chute to talk with them, and turned around to see that Ilana was now coming in at right around 1:40. This was good enough for an age group win for her, and 14th woman overall. Steven, another runner from the running forums, wound up placing 1st in the same group in which Kevin ran, and was sixth overall. It was exciting to see them do so well.
For my part, the run did get me on the podium after all-2nd in my age group out of 199 finishers, and 7th woman overall. Like I said, there were no sponsored women there, but you can only race the people who show up. After several beers in the beer garden with friends, I got to collect my medal. I thanked the race director, and as I started to walk away she said "See, I told you you'd be on the podium." Ha. I think I owe her a thank you for the age group talk at the information booth because it just fueled my thoughts that yes, I certainly did want to wind up placing. We wound up getting a nice shot of our little group after everyone received their medals.
I'm a little stumped, on one hand, how I could come into this race with ZERO indications for a sub-1:37 based on recent race results, but if I look closer at all the little components, they stacked the deck in my favor. I had been up in weight since a little bit after Boston until recently-not a lot, but it sure does help to be at your best weight for racing. I think getting back to that point helped, along with going to shoes that are significantly lighter. My feet feel so light in them, and the design of the Newtons just works for my gait. I feel this "flick, flick, flick" of kicking lightly and with ease in them. I almost did not get these shoes because of the ridiculously high price. They were still ridiculously expensive when I found a discount code for a running retailer, but they have literally been worth their weight in races. The weather was just perfect, too. Ilana and I were a little concerned when it was already 50 at 5 am, thinking the temperature would climb high early. Instead, we got the best of both worlds with it staying relatively unchanged for the pre-race and race itself.
And my training leading up to the race? I wasn't doing speed work. I wasn't doing high mileage. What I did do was a number of QUALITY runs on hills and trails. I practiced that POSE thing as much as I could, and started learning how to run hills and trails without taxing my body as hard as I was before. It made me more efficient, and I would be fresh and ready to go for my next run without ever feeling beat up. I started leaving my Garmin at home, and ran just for the joy of running. I took two full days off before the race, knowing I couldn't help my race with "one last workout," and was just ready to enjoy running through the Canyons in Moab. None of these things guaranteed the kind of race I wound up having, but it was a recipe for a potential great day. On Sunday, the ingredients mixed well, and cooked until done.