Smile Politely

The anatomy of a PR half marathon

I had hoped for a personal record, a PR, at the Chicago Half Marathon last weekend, but frankly, I didn’t think I could do it. My previous best was a 1:32:05 back in 2010, and I’d only run a 1:39 this year. So, it’s safe to say, I doubted whether or not I could break 1:30, my goal. Doubt is common for any runner, especially when talking about PR quality runs. You think you might do well, but you could fail. You don’t necessarily know how things will go on race day.

Any number of things could’ve gone wrong. I could’ve caught a cold. I could’ve over-trained, tweaked a muscle, inhaled some deadly mold spore and died. You can’t guess what can happen.

This race had its challenges. I like running near home. It’s easier and more convenient. The Christie Clinic Illinois Half Marathon is as close as it gets. So is the Mahomet Half Marathon, but that race is usually so ridiculously hot and uncomfortable that it doesn’t have PR potential. For the last few weeks, though, the weather has been great for running, and the weather this weekend in Chicago was absolutely ideal. At race start, it was in the mid-50s with expected highs in the low 70s and a slight wind out of the north.

Packet pickup is usually an easy thing. But for a race with over 12,000 participants, it’s more difficult. It was held at Navy Pier, about half a mile from where any bus or taxi might drop you off, so there was a lot of walking to do. Then, there’s the challenge of being in the city itself, wanting to spend time looking at sights, people watching, or eating nice meals, but you’ve got to stick with the plan, which is: sit on your butt and don’t move more than you have to.

After packet pickup, I ate an early dinner. We were done by four o’clock. I had a Caesar salad with chicken (shared with my wife) and mostaccioli with meat sauce (ground beef and pork), and bread. The meat sauce wasn’t overly meaty. There was enough in it to give it flavor, but not so much where I felt like a greased pig afterward. Also, although the portions were ginormous, I didn’t eat it all. I ate enough to feel satisfied and not stuffed.

There’s the temptation to overeat, to carbo-load, but most training programs warn you to eat smaller quantities over a few days than to eat too much the night before a big race. I played it safe.

I’ve never eaten so early the night before an important run. Eating early gave me about 15 hours to digest. Later, I snacked on a small slice of lemon bunt cake (shared), coffee, and a banana. Three hours before the race, I ate half a bagel with peanut butter. An hour before, I had another few bites of a banana.

The quantity of food and when I ate it seemed to work well. I never once felt hungry. During the race, though, I ate about six individual Gu Chomps: three at mile 3 and another three at mile 7.

Getting to the race can also pose a problem. Our hotel was in the Loop. The race was south of the Museum of Science and Industry. I opted for the $12 shuttle bus offered by race organizers. I could have driven or taken Metra, but the shuttle picked up a couple of blocks from the hotel, and I just had to show up with ticket in hand. The downside, if there was one, was the 5:30 a.m. departure time. The shuttle left an hour and a half before the race, which made for a ridiculously early morning (some on the race Facebook page complained about missed shuttles or there not being enough room for everyone).

For a lot of reasons, I didn’t sleep well Saturday night. The excitement of the coming race, the fear of missing the alarm, and the unfortunate placement of a garbage shoot in the walls next to our room meant that a lack of sleep was yet another challenge to overcome. In the end, I got about three hours of sleep. There was a lot of staring at the ceiling, checking the clock, thinking about the race, and tossing and turning.

Since I was kind of cold at the race start, I stayed warm by standing next to generators the race set up for powering the post-race party. I wore “donation clothes” and was able to stay comfortable.

I usually run a mile warm up before a race; I didn’t this time. My plan called for me to run slower the first mile before setting into my goal pace.

The first mile rolled by at a fast 7:05. That’s fairly quick, and, frankly, much faster than I wanted to go. I’d intended to run around a 7:30 mile and gradually ramp it up, but I got caught up in the race. I’d slotted myself in a fast corral, and trying to go slow there turns you into instant street furniture. You become the ire of those running around you. Also, I’d found the 1:30 pace group, and since that was my goal pace, I didn’t want to let them get too far ahead of me. I feared that if I lost contact with them, I wouldn’t be able to reconnect later.

The run itself was fairly standard. The pace group went out too fast, but they dialed it down around the 2.5 mile mark, slowing just enough for me to become a full-fledged member of their pack. The northerly wind forced runners to draft off each other, forming echelons (like professional cyclists do) heading into the wind. At mile 8.5, the race turned back toward the finish line, running with the wind, leaving fewer than five miles to go in the out and back course.

I’ve been asked recently how I know if things are going well in a race. There are lots of points in the race where I take stock.

The 5k and 10k times are easy. They’re race distances I normally run, and I can judge how I’m feeling early. The halfway mark is all mental. I still have half the race to go. Mile 8 is significant because five miles means I have anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes still to run (depending on my pace). I’ve run too many runs where I’ve decided to throw in the towel and finish it as a training run at mile 8. Mile 10 means I’ve only got a 5k to go. At that point, there’s a finite, measurable period you’ve got remaining to the pain and hurt. If you’re feeling good at 10 miles, all you have to do is keep moving forward, maintain the pace. Don’t give up. Suck it up.

In this race, mile 11 was tough because the 1:30 pace leader started inching forward, getting further and further away, pushing the pace just that much faster. Making me chase that much harder. Mile 12 began the countdown, or sorts, making me question whether I could make it or not. Looking at my watch and the distance ticking down, I started to worry. Was I going to fail? If so, by how much would I miss my mark? But it turns out that I’d run my best race ever. I finished in 1:29:36.

PR achieved!

If there are any sort of lessons to be gleaned from this race to those just getting started in running, they are: make a plan, set goals, ask people for help, and stick with them. Find training partners. I had a friend who helped me with the early training runs in July, and my dog pushed me to stay on pace while he dragged me behind. Finally, fight your body’s limits and your mind’s weakness to overcome challenges. Your body doesn’t know what it can do. Only you do.

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