Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Still Running Against The Wind"-- The 2012 Canyonlands Half Marathon

In a training cycle during which my focus had been on two ultramarathons rather than a spring marathon, my tradition since almost the beginning of picking up running, the Canyonlands Half Marathon weekend snuck up on me with little worry or overly nervous energy. My focus had largely been on long, slow trail miles on the weekends, supplemented by shorter weekly trail runs, and a weekly track workout. Though I was up probably a good ten pounds over my best racing weight, I felt calm and confident going into the race, and this was despite a forecast that looked uncannily similar to the 2011 Canyonlands Half Marathon.

Heat, high winds, and dust were expected, but I felt all the tools were in my bag this time around to make the most of the day. I knew the mistakes I'd made the previous year, how to correct them. I'd paid dearly for a "bombs away" first mile the previous year, never recovering and steadily crashing and burning down the canyon and onto the highway. I intended to show some restraint in the first mile, and run with a consistently hard effort rather than attempting to bank time, with just a little bit in reserve to be able to handle the highway in the wind. Our weekly track workouts back in Grand Junction also provided the opportunity to focus on form, and good race technique. I knew that in the wind I would need to regularly check in on my form, making sure the stride was short, and cadence high. Running with a slight forward lean, focusing on the area of pavement immediately in front of me, rather than down the road, would give me a huge mental edge in the wind as well. When I got up in the morning, it was warm and breezy, but just a beautiful morning. Boarding the bus to the start, I felt about as zen as I've ever been at the start of the race. I knew what to do, and the pressure was off.

Getting off the bus at the starting area up the canyon, it was definitely quite warm, and breezy. Sometimes gusty. Ilana, who was feeling quite nauseous, wandered around with me, and we eventually made our way up onto one of the big boulders on the cliffs going up the side of the road near the race start. We eventually saw our friend Kevin on another large boulder, moved over there, and continued to acquire friends onto our perch. It was nice to unwind and joke around. I pulled out my iPod when I heard the Rocky theme playing-something I'd captured on the iPod the year before.

I also walked around and took many shots of people standing, sitting, leaning, or laying on the rocks, waiting it out until it was time to move up the road to the start.

As race time approached, we started thinking about getting moving. Elizabeth and Marty were off the boulder first, and there was a brief collective gasp when Marty took a good spill on his way down, falling, smashing the water bottle in one of his hands to pieces, and bloodying his hands. No major damage done, though, and soon the rest of us were up and on our way to the start, taking care on those dry, slippery rocks with our road shoes. Ilana and I chatted with Ernie and Andy from Grand Junction for a bit, and got ready to get the show on the road. It was definitely the warmest I ever remembered temperatures being at the start of this race. The wind would come and go in short, angry bursts, but there were some calm moments as well. The wheelchair division had its start at 9:50am, and right on schedule at 10am, we were on our way.

The first mile of this course drops in such a way that it's easy to bomb away. I've done it every year to some degree, and have never been able to match that early effort later in the race. Add the stampede of runners coming down the canyon, and it's just easy to go much faster than one has planned. The world of hurt I put myself in during the 2011 race was quite the learning experience; today, it was pretty easy for me to find that hard pace, but stop short of balls-on-the-table 5K PR pace. I resisted the urge to go out like gangbusters, and just let my breathing and stride settle in.

Mile 1: 7:36

As the road flattened out, I was pleased that I'd gotten through without laying myself out on the pavement, stumbling, or any other major blunders. As the race was taking place on St. Patrick's Day this year, there was a lot of green on the course. In this second mile, a couple of young dudes in flowy green tutus ran by hollering "Yay Geology! Yay Geology!" They were sort of kicking my butt here. Ah, to be young and tutu-d. I'm going to have to research this "Yay Geology" phenomenon, because there's a great video from the Imogene Pass Run in which the runner/narrator can be heard exclaiming "Yay Geology" after describing the types of rock formations in the mountains above Ouray.

Here, I happened upon Ben, who had skipped dinner with our group the previous evening, feeling exhausted, and then stopped by our hotel for the outdoor hot tub soak, arriving later than planned due to some pretty severe gastrointestinal distress. This wasn't good to see him here; we can train long runs together if I pick it up a bit, and he slows down a bit, but in a race he shouldn't be caught by the likes of me. I asked him how he felt, and he said he'd been throwing up all night. I couldn't believe he was out there running at all, but it was cool that he'd decided to go ahead and just run since he was here. We ran and chatted for a mile or so, and continued on with our races, with me drifting up ahead first before he eased back and drifted slightly ahead. I was still feeling good, and wasn't looking at my mile splits. I tried to run on feel, and hit a consistent cadence. The first five miles were rattled off at what was a surprisingly consistent pace when I checked the splits later. Learning to feel my pace in track workouts was paying off today. At mile four, there was a dude randomly set up, playing fun, cheesy keyboard music. As natural in the canyon as fish on a bike, and I was digging it.

Mile 2: 7:46
Mile 3: 7:52
Mile 4: 7:43
Mile 5: 7:49

By now, it was really warming up. That wind would whip furiously at times, but other times, it did settle down somewhat, allowing some calm moments of recovery. At one point, when I was climbing a bit, I foreign feeling hit my back....was it....it WAS! A tailwind! It didn't last more than a few seconds, but there was a collective whoop from runners around me as we got a little bit of help. Somewhere in this stretch, I saw Quinn, who was smiling and chugging along. I was entering the beginning of what was my run of steady decline a year ago, and gradual decline other years. The wind was picking up, and I tucked my head, leaned slightly forward, and ran with my gaze on my shadow in front of me, bringing me into this almost hypnotic place of being able to run and focus on my race, tuning out the wind and all others around me. The next several miles went by with moments of fatigue and feeling tired, but with me being able to find my focus and form every time I started faltering a bit, or battling the wind.

Mile 6: 7:49
Mile 7: 7:54

Hey, there's an unofficial "aid station" with guys set up with Pabst Blue Ribbon. They saw my "Almost There" beer singlet and green plaid skirt, and figured I'd be their girl, pointing and waving, and trying to entice me over for a sample. Sorry guys...that's not until later. There was still unfinished business for me to handle on the race course.

Mile 8: 7:52
Mile 9: 7:50

I was still feeling remarkably even-keeled. I knew, though, with zero good runs on the stretch of highway at Canyonlands, even in my PR run, that I had to keep working until I crossed the finish. The wind was picking up, it seemed, and it was getting hotter. I kept the head tucked and soon reached Michelle, another local whom I see sometimes at track, and who has joined in on one of the group long trail runs before. We chatted for a bit, and then I moved on down the road. All of a sudden, a runner to the right of me says "Rim Rock!" I turn, and see "Pink Girl," or Tennille from New Mexico, who led for 20 miles at the Rim Rock Marathon in November before eventually dropping off but fighting her way back into third place overall. I asked her if she'd run Canyonlands before, figuring not, since she'd told me at Rim Rock that she was a pretty new runner. When she said no, I told her "just like Rim Rock in the last stretch of highway...tuck your head, focus, and run!" I continued on ahead, and soon was at the Taiko Dan drummers...always one of the great highlights of the Canyonlands Half Marathon, and other assorted races. I was getting tired but didn't let the wind get into my head. With just 3.1 miles to go, I wanted to do something I'd never done, and run strong on the highway off the canyon. I reached Ilana, and asked how she felt. "Awful" or "terrible" or something along those lines was the reply. Well, shoot. I've been there, and don't wish anyone else to be there.

Mile 10: 8:01

Running under the bridge and up onto the highway, the wind was just brutal. In prior years, I'd seen the occasional runner walking this stretch, but today I'd already seen more in the first half mile on the highway than all previous years combined. Focus was more important than ever now. I found that hypnotic place of looking a few feet ahead to the ground with a slight forward lean, and resisted the urge to look up. I knew I had a long way to go, and looking up was only going to remind me of that, and break my form, which was about as good as it had been all race. Holy crap. I was passing people! Knowing how badly I've blown up here, though, I just kept working, no counting chickens before they'd hatched.

Mile 11: 7:45

And then it really hit. The wind was trying hard to win the battle against the runners. I made the mistake of looking up briefly. Uh, duh. As expected, nowhere near the finish, and still a long way to go. I put the head back down and found the happy hypnotic spot on the road again. The wind was kicking my butt a bit.

Mile 12: 8:29

That last mile was rather off from the rest of the run, but it could've been a lot worse in the wind. As we turned down the side street that runs off the highway, I cranked up the turnover and tucked the head. Everyone was struggling, but I managed to slide past a few more runners here. This was nuts...my history at this race has typically involved me dropping off, and people passing in this stretch. I was reaching my "spent" point but still had something left. Making the final left turn toward the finish, AKA "The Longest, Most Unpleasant Finish Chute Ever," as I affectionately refer to it, I resisted the urge to look up the block toward the finish line about five city blocks away. Well, that's until..I looked up. Whoops. Yep. It's still a long ways away, ya dummy. I tucked the head again and increased my turnover.

Mile 13: 8:01

Finally, I was a short distance away from the finish, and allowed myself to look up as I ran past the orange barriers near the finish. I'd gotten a personalized bib with my name, so between the "Go Karah"s and the "Almost There" shouts with people laughing at my shirt, I was really feeling pulled along by the crowd. As I crossed the timing mat just outside the finish, Jeff, who regularly does the finish line call from the scaffolding, called me out as I was about to finish.

(added with permission from Jeff...he was quite the jolly Leprauchaun, and a brave one at that, to be up on the scaffolding in the wind))

This time, instead of shaking my head as I crossed the finish, I charged through with a big smile.
Final .14 miles as registered by Garmin: 1:03:7 (7:24 pace)
Final Garmin time:
1:43:31 (7:53 average pace)

This wasn't anywhere near a course PR, but given that my second- and third-fastest half marathons ever were run on this course in calm, cold conditions, and my best was a magical pixie dust run at The Other Half, I was stoked. These were not ideal conditions, I was not at ideal racing weight, but I prepared to race, and executed about as well as I could have considering all factors. When the official race results came out, I was surprised to see that I'd logged my highest placement ever in age group at this race, finishing 8th out of 359 in age group, 38 out of 1917 women, and 239 out of 3240 overall. My official chip time was 1:43:26, and gun time was 1:43:40. When it came down to it, I'd handled myself ably on the parts of the course that did me in previously, and was able to follow through on my intention to reign in on the first mile, and run a controlled, evenly paced race all the way through.

It was great, again, to be on the course with my friends from the "Running Abomination Of Grand Junction" (thanks Tom Ela for coming up with that answer to the "Running Nation of Flagstaff") and other parts of our region. We celebrated first-time finishes of some, high-placing finishes of others, and in still other cases, the victory of simply finishing with illness in tough conditions. This is the one Moab race where I have yet to score hardware, and this weekend showed me that it's within reach, and a goal to target and train for over the next twelve months. As always, the Moab race crew, volunteers, and race director made it another special day; the conditions made things challenging at their end as well, and I'd be remiss if I didn't comment about how they kept things moving and put out fires (not literally, but just about) right and left to make it a good day for racers.

After some rest and chillax time with friends, I headed back home, but not without stopping with the camera to see Moab off properly. I am looking forward to participating in the inaugural Thelma & Louise Half Marathon in Moab this May, and seeing how the next chapter reads on the roads in Moab.


Ashley and Patrick said...

Way to go! It may not have a been a clock-PR, but it sounds like it was a huge mental-PR. Those deserve to celebrated just as much, if not more. Nice job!

Jeff Recker said...

Hey that was a great day and your pics prove it. You are missing the man in the big green hat though!

TiredMamaRunning said...

Jeff, can I put the pic in there? Because I TOTALLY will....