Oftentimes, running is a process. You use different ways to measure progress or success. One of the ways I do that is through races. A good road race or trail race can teach you a lot about where you’re going, what you’re doing right and wrong, and just how far you can push yourself. And it’s not just the race itself, but also the weeks and months of training that come before the big day.
There’s only one problem with that: A lot of things can happen from the beginning of a training cycle to race day.
I’d set a more ambitious goal for this fall, hoping to break the two-hour barrier in the half marathon. My fastest time for 13.1 miles is 2:11, recorded at the halfway point of last year’s Route 66 Marathon in my hometown of Tulsa. I didn’t have a lot of interest in running another full marathon just yet, but I was looking forward to charging hard in that event’s half marathon this fall.
A rough spring and summer meant that I was close to starting from scratch last August. Things were going well, though. I stayed healthy, increased my miles, added some really good strength training and started to see my times come down. After pulling off a 1:32 at the Tulsa Run 15K a month ago, I seemed to be poised to take my half marathon to the next level this past Sunday.
Then I got sick. More than a week of being knocked out of training, right at peak training time. Other obligations consumed training time to the point there was really not much more I could do except stay healthy and run the best I could on race day.
It’s at this point where I realized I needed to reset my goals. That two-hour barrier would have to wait for another day. Was a PR possible? Maybe. But realistically, here’s what I didn’t want to do: Repeat my lackluster performance at last spring’s Oklahoma City Memorial half marathon.
In that one, I came in a little out of shape and posted a nearly identical 2:22 that I’d done the year before. That was fine for a first-time effort, but to do that again a year later was a disappointment. If I did that a third time, or, even worse, came in slower, that would be wholly unacceptable.
This was the ninth annual Route 66 Marathon, and it holds a special place in my heart – it’s where I ran my first marathon. The course is awesome – scenic, hilly and challenging. Just like in the past, the course support was outstanding, and fan support was good. An estimated 11,000 people ran it, showing how the race is growing in popularity.
Route 66 challenges a lot of local runners, and others from nearby cities and towns. I had friends from the Oklahoma City area who said after the race that they weren’t ready for the hills. There are some big ones on 15th Street and 21st Street, and as the course winds its way through the neighborhoods of midtown, a steady diet of smaller, rolling hills that eat you up if you’re not ready.
I knew what was coming, having run it last year. And with the course change at the Tulsa Run (lots of big hills this time), I had a good gauge of how I’d perform when the hill portions came up.
We lucked out on the weather, for the most part. Instead of breezy conditions with temps in the mid-20s like we had last year, we had overcast skies, high humidity and 57 degrees at gun time this year. The humidity was a factor, but overall, really good conditions for a long-distance event.
There must be something in the water in Norman, Okla. October’s winner of the Tulsa Run resides there, and the overall winner of the marathon on Sunday, Jason Cook, is also a Norman resident. He clocked in with a 2:37:16, four minutes faster than the second-place finisher. A truly dominant performance.
Among the women, a hometown gal, Melissa Truitt, took top honors with a time of 3:10:38.
Among the half marathon competitors, Edmond’s Mark Thompson breezed in with a 1:10:34 while the women’s winner, also a Tulsan, clocked in at 1:22:09.
How it went
As I said earlier, I had to reset my expectations. In addition to the illness issues that hit me a few weeks ago, I’ve been hitting the weights a little harder, running fewer miles and putting on a little weight. As of race day, I was about 10 pounds heavier this fall than I was last year.
Obviously, coming in heavy for a race isn’t a good thing. If you want to run fast, you want to come in light.
However, there were benefits to my slight change of physique. I’ve been working hard on my lower body and back. In doing so, I’ve also been doing a good deal of speed and hill work while also concentrating on engaging my glutes more when I run. That means a slight change of gait, but it also means using those big muscles to keep things cranking. It takes some getting used to. However, it definitely does make a difference in terms of speed.
My friend Dan came up from Oklahoma City to run this one, so we did a shakeout run the day before the race. Dan is a strong runner. He’s tall, too. I knew that I wouldn’t be running with him for very long. But it was cool to have him up there to talk a little shop, then compare notes when the race was over.
My biggest struggle is I hadn’t done a double-digit-mileage run in well over a month. Between the Tulsa Run and race day, my longest run was just 5 miles. And now I was going to do 13.1. The prospect of a third straight 2:22 was very real.
So there were a few things I decided to do during the race that I believed would help make up for all the deficiencies I’d be battling along the way.
First, to just go with the flow during the beginning of the race. I often get impatient with slower runners during that first mile and spend the first 10 minutes or so busily picking them off so I can get into a clearer area where I can set my pace. That usually makes for a fast start. Sometimes too fast. So I made a conscious decision not to do that. Instead, I just let the flow of the crowd carry me until things opened up more naturally.
Second, I allowed myself to change my gait on the hills. A good strategy is to conserve energy on the uphills (don’t blast through them unless you’re just a stud) and bomb the downhills when gravity is your friend. I did that, but with a twist – on the downhills, I lengthened my stride and really just tried to relax. A lower cadence (fewer footfalls per minute) means even less energy expended, and my legs were strong enough to take the punishment downhill running brings. On the flats, I shortened my stride, and on the uphills, shortened them even more. It was all about conserving energy and finding places to bank time (on the downhills) where I could also rest a bit.
Lastly, I decided to make sure that my rest stops were utilized to the minimum. Now that doesn’t mean I ran by them. I used them nearly every time, but instead of gulping a whole cup of water, I’d drink a half and dump the rest. Same with Gatorade. I alternated between water and Gatorade, but made sure to sip a half cup and go rather than drink in the whole thing. The result: almost no cramps, and no need for a bathroom stop. I also did not eat anything during the race. I’ve learned that it’s OK to run slightly dehydrated, especially if you’re used to it, which I am. And really, midrace fueling is something you need only for full marathons or ultras. No need to eat during a half.
From mile 4-7, my legs and glutes felt like lead. Part of that was the hilly nature of the middle of the course. Part of that was being heavier and a little more muscly. But my hydration strategy worked, and by the time I hit mile 8, I was good.
My conditioning bit me a bit after mile 10, just before the uphill climb into downtown began. But I had enough in the tank to sprint out the home stretch and cross the finish with a 2:17. Not a PR, but way better than my last half marathon showing. I’m totally good with that.
Dan blasted out a 2:13, despite being challenged by the hills and a wonky knee that announced its presence after mile 10. He’s a tough dude.
So what’s the lesson? It’s good to set goals with your running. But it’s also OK to reset those goals. If you come in stronger than you thought, raise the bar. But if circumstances work against you, you don’t have to give in to failure and disappointment. You just need to be realistic and find a new way to triumph.
As I write this, I can feel soreness in my joints, but also in those muscle groups I’ve been working so hard to strengthen. That tells me a couple of things: It tells me that I’ve learned to better use my body when I run, and it tells me that all that strength training paid off in terms of improving a race time when I had no business expecting anything good.
That’s a small victory, to be sure, especially when my initial goal was so much higher. But it’s also something to build on. I’ve got other races planned, and I know that despite the bumps in the road, what I am doing terms of training hasn’t been in vain.
Totally the opposite. What I’m doing is working.