Lessons from my 4th Race (1st Half Marathon)

Yesterday, I completed my first half marathon, the Ashland Half Marathon (there’s also a 5K so it’s official the Ashland Half Marathon & 5K). I say first because, by definition, it was, but also because I plan to do at least another (I’m already signed up for the Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half in June – join our team by selecting “newbodies” if you’re doing it!). It was a pretty emotional lead up as I’ve been battling a few different injuries, and had to switch my shoe plan at the very last minute with no real testing of the shoes I was to run in. For anyone who runs in races, you know that you don’t mess with your race plan last minute, and you definitely don’t use something you’ve never used before the race. I had run in these shoes before (Adidas Adipure Gazelle), and liked them, but have had issues with them lately, so I was nervous. They also don’t really have much cushioning at all, so if I had to back off from toe striking, I was putting my knees at risk of injuries from heel striking without any shock absorption.

I’m getting ahead of myself…this is my fourth lessons from a race, so be sure to read the first (actually a series of 3 posts), second and third.

Race day was a beautiful New England Autumn day in historic Ashland, MA.  The Boston Marathon used to start in Ashland, and they built a part (called Marathon Park) complete with plaques to commemorate the fact. This was where the race started and ended.  It had rained at about 5 AM, so the ground was slightly wet (another thing my shoes aren’t great at dealing with).  674 attempted the Half (577 finishers), and another 454 went for the 5K (408 finishers) – all grouped together at the starting line. I was lucky to get a spot about 4 people back from the start, which made for a much better beginning than in any other race I’ve been in where I’ve had to contend with lots of people in front of me that I needed to weave my way through (I don’t like running in a crowd, so I try to break out and find a good slot in the first half mile).

In addition to lots of spectators and race officials, racing legend Bill Rodgers was there.  He won Boston and NYC four times each on his way to winning 22 marathons globally. Pretty cool to see him.

I should just say, having a quality race organizer and race management company makes ALL the difference.  Hats off to the entire organizing team for the Ashland Half and to Race Menu, who managed the registration, course, timing, logistics, etc. I’ve done a few races that have had professional race management companies on the job, and it’s night and day. The courses are the right length, the mile markers are in the right places (almost always – RaceWire and CitySports, I’m looking at you!), and results are posted quickly and correctly. I’ve been in two events that lacked real race management, and they ranged from ok by a bit janky (results posted as a PDF image a few days later) to dangerous (courses wildly off to the tune of 40% extra distance). Race Menu did a great job, as did the race organizers. Kudos and thanks.

Getting to my experience in the race itself, I’ve never run this far before (I should have, but injuries prevented my training from getting that far), so I had a mix of not knowing how I’d do and the idea that every step after 8.99 miles (my previous longest run) was going to be a PR. That actually was a pretty cool motivator as the race went on because I felt accomplishment with each passing stride. It allowed me to relax a little on judging my pace or performance (though I was happy with both).  As for the unknown of whether I could do the distance, I wasn’t really all that worried barring the idea of an injury (which could happen at any point in any run, so I wasn’t more or less concerned here, per se) since I’m generally very confident in my cardio-respiratory abilities.

The course was pretty hilly, and I was concerned about this going into the race since I don’t get much hill training in my running routes (my longer runs are commutes to work, which tend to be across pretty flat terrain). That concern definitely played in my mind more than it should have. I found myself thinking about upcoming hills too much, and in an unhelpful way with thoughts like, “I’m at mile X.X, I think the big hill starts soon!”  Or, “Wait, why am I climbing now? There isn’t supposed to be a hill at this point!”

The main hills were at mile 5.5, 7 (the highest climb), 10.5 (short, but very steep) and 12, with undulating hills in between.  From 7 to 10.5, it was a gradual downhill, so I figured I’d be able to deal with those last two pretty well since I’d sort of be rebuilding for 3.5 miles. Turns out after 7, I realized that the hills were a good thing. I, being a forefoot striker, run them differently than most of the other runners. I also had done a little research on Chi running, and employed that approach to get up the hills to beautiful effect.  I shortened and quickened my stride (pretty dramatically, actually), which lowered my effort considerably. It also used my muscles (and hit my now thoroughly blistered feet) differently, so it was sort of a rest for the main tools I was using in the race. I at least kept my pace while others lagged and burned out.  More importantly, the successful way I was dealing with the hills gave me a ton of confidence to keep going while also not spending my energy.  I actually had more trouble on the downhills because of my blisters, and found myself wishing for them to end or to turn up again.  Crazy, I know, but I was longing for the hills.  This feeling got so strong that I literally didn’t even know I had crested the last hill.

I’m the one under the yellow triangle

The course is downhill from that last peak, so you can build some good speed coming into the finish. I kicked as hard as I could, but I was definitely not able to give it my all due to my blisters, and how I had been compensating for them (which lead to a lot of pain in my left ankle and the middle of the outside edge of my right foot).  Still, I was in full sprint for the last 100 yards, and felt amazing.  I came through the finish, stopped my watch, and realized what I had done.  My goal was to break 1:50. With my injuries, I said to myself that the only thing I really wanted was a sub-2:00 finish, and pushing harder might lead to a DNF.  The slowest pace I could run would be a 9’06” to still break 2 hours.  I had been watching my pace occasionally, and was running sub 8-minute miles for the first half of the race.  As the blisters got worse, I trended back toward 8’10”.

If you’re good with math, you know where this is going. If not, then know that I beat both goals. I finished in 1:46:24 by the chip time, and 1:46:28 by the gun (gotta love a spot near the front of the starting line – see the yellow triangle in the shot of the start above). I placed 113th.  I had a dream time of 1:45 before I got injured, and I’m quite sure I would have nailed that if I was totally fine and in the right shoes. Rather than feeling like I could have done better and missed my real goal, I look at that as knowing that I did what I had dreamt of doing.

As I’ve said many times over, I got a great lesson in the power of the mind here. The first three or four miles were mentally tough as the unknowns were out there (hills, distance, injuries).  As my body got into a groove, and I started to see how I could tackle the hills so well, time and distance stopped mattering so much.  As I broke through to PR territory for longest run ever, I was totally unaware of how long I had been running, and totally unphased by how much more distance I still had to cover.

That felt amazing.

So I ran for nearly two hours, and it felt indistinguishable from running for a tenth of that time.

Where do I go next?  I have a Ragnar Ultramarathon Relay in May, and a half in June. I’m very seriously debating doing the Chicago Marathon in October since I’ll be well on my way with training for Ragnar and the half.  Whether I do it or not, the lessons I unlocked for myself, and the very deep way I unlocked them have really helped me get to a new level of enlightening.my.body. How will you unlock your potential and enlighten.your.body?

About bryan falchuk

bryan falchuk is the founder of newbodi.es, a certified personal trainer, behavior change specialist and the best-selling author of "Do a Day". bryan coaches people on their whole health - the physical, mental and emotional combination of wellness that we need to thrive and change our lives.

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