This season, I opted to run the River Run Half-Marathon as a tune-up for the Towpath Marathon, coming up in 4 weeks. I felt running a half near the peak in my training could provide a good indication of my marathon readiness, give me a confirmation (or fear) of my 3:00 target at the Towpath, and allow me to work out any glitches in the race routine. And there were glitches to work out.
As I like to do before any race, I carefully thought out my goal and race strategy. Given my 3:00 goal for the marathon, I consulted various online pace calculators like McMillan and the Daniels VDOT chart, both of which give frankly too conservative of a half-marathon estimate – using 2:59 to provide some buffer, the former predicts a 1:24:52 and the latter a 1:27:04, both of which are below my current half-marathon PR. I thus instead relied on the simpler “marathon time equals twice your half-marathon time plus eleven minutes” rule, and set a goal of 1:24:00.
However, this goal assumes a flat course, similar to the Towpath Marathon. The River Run Half-Marathon is anything but that – as you can see from the hill profile, the course drops 172 feet, with no significant uphill portions and a lot of the downhill concentrated early. A source referenced previously states that you gain 15-20 seconds/mile/100 foot drop (which does assume that drop occurs within the mile). Using this rough figure, I instead set a goal of 1:23:20 – 1:23:30 for the River Run Half-Marathon, and decided that, in order to force going out easy in spite of the downhill, I’d target even splits at around 6:21 each.
Of course, this strategy presumes that one has a timing device. After my standard morning fare of an English muffin and coffee, I tried to get out of the house as quietly as possible, as there was a small stomach bug going around and I didn’t want to awake any of the kids. About 5 minutes from home, it started to rain (conditions were in the low 60′s, with 99% humidity – a bit of a factor in the race), and I thought to myself, “you’ll need to lock the bezel on your Garmin.” At which point I realized that I had forgotten my Garmin. After briefly considering turning around to get it, and pulling in a parking lot to do so, I decided not to risk awakening my eldest son, who’s bedroom is right above our garage. So I settled, unwillingly, on a strategy of running by feel, hoping there would at least be timers at the mile markers.
The River Run Half Marathon takes place in the Rocky River Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks, arguably one of the most scenic settings in the city. Because it is a point-to-point race, transportation is a bit of a challenge, so I opted to park at Rocky River High School a few miles from the finish and take the shuttle, departing at 6:45 (for an 8:00 race start) the 15 miles or so to the starting area. I arrived plenty early and got on the first bus but, in spite of this bus filling quickly, they waited until the official 6:45 departure time to send all shuttles.
The ride provided a preview, in reverse, of the course, and I was struck by the amount of uphill driving, as well as the fact that there were no big timers at the mile markers (there were, at some of them, volunteers with stopwatches). The ride was a bit slow and we arrived just 30 minutes before the start. Fortunately, the porta-potty lines weren’t too long, and I was left with 20 minutes for a brief 1-mile warm-up run, with some strides, plus lunges and some of the myrtl exercises before hopping in the starting area, near the front, with about 5 minutes to go.
As I looked over just before the start, I noticed Mike Boyer, who had beaten me by 4 seconds at the Towpath Ten-Ten 10-Miler back in June, so I thought maybe I’d be able to judge my pace off of him. After a moment of silence for 9-11 and the National Anthem, the starting bell sounded. Since I didn’t have a watch to distract me, I made do with counting the runners ahead of me, and found myself in around 15th place right off the bat, near where I would have expected to be. I tried to stick to a pace that felt like a tempo pace, around 6:20 / mile. I was surprised as we passed the first mile to hear the timer calling out “5:57″ – out a bit quick in this relatively-flat first mile.
Of course, with the downhill starting and no watch to go by, it was tough to slow down. I stayed with a pack around the 13th – 17th position, having been joined by Mike, but started to let them go as we did the only residential portion of the course, a small out-and-back loop. The timer called out 11:57 at the 2nd mile marker, and mile 3 had the steepest hill of all (but very manageable, not the type where you struggle to stay in control). I was in somewhere around 19th, at this point, and the group started to pull away, so I settled in for the long haul, passing mile 3 around 17:55 (another sub-6:00 mile).
It was at mile 4 that I started to discover, with little surprise, that the timers weren’t always accurate – this timer called out 24:30, which implied a 6:35 mile on a still-downhill section, and I know I hadn’t slowed that much. It was a few more miles, winding along Valley Parkway through the southern reaches of the Rocky River Reservation, before I heard another time called out, which I believe was 37:36 at the 6 mile mark, implying a 6:06 average pace – and this seemed accurate. I felt like I was holding a steady pace, and was being passed by roughly one runner every two miles.
A few of the timers were too quiet to hear, but I no longer trusted the results anyway. It was only at mile 10, where they did have an “official” clock operating, which gave my 10 mile time at 1:03:13, a PR by nearly a minute. Doing some quick math, I realized that if I held a 6:30 pace the last 5K, (20:09), I’d hit my goal. The course had largely flattened out by then, and I felt like I was hitting a wall – the Gatorade I took at that aid station didn’t seem to sit well, which is unusual (but I’d only had water up to that point).
A bit before mile 12, the last runner to pass me for the race blew past, and the timer at that point called out 1:16 even. I was encouraged by that, feeling that 7:00 for the last 1.1 miles was achievable so I might even be able to beat 1:23. I picked up the pace a bit and continued to close on the one runner who I had slowly been gaining on since mile 3 (when he needed to stop to fix his shoe). However, this time must have been inaccurate, as I passed mile 13, in sight of the finishing clock, at 1:23 even, and I knew I hadn’t run a 7:00 mile.
I pushed through to a pretty strong finish in 1:23:33, just short of my goal time. After walking around for a bit and eating some Mitchell’s ice cream (the best in Cleveland), I checked in with the timing station and found I had taken 2nd in my age group. The award (which I had to come back 10 minutes later to claim, to make sure no one finished ahead of me on a chip-timed basis) was a pretty cheap wooden medal, hardly worth waiting for to be honest.
So the result was a continuation of the year of the PR by 1:12 at the half-marathon distance, with an asterisk due to the hills, but even without the hills I would certainly have beaten last fall’s Cleveland Fall Classic result by at least 20-30 seconds. I ended up 21st of close to 880 runners, and 2nd of 70 in the age group. Ironically, the first place finisher (ahead by 3 minutes) had taken second behind me at the Towpath 10 mile-race, and the third place finisher was the same at both events – this time by only 5 seconds. I guess I have some rivalries developing, and I question whether my training this summer has been as effective as it could be, given that Mike beat me by 1:40 this time also.
It’s difficult to do a good race post-mortem without having accurate splits. Obviously, lesson one is to put my Garmin in the car the night before the race, like I did with the directions and my shirt with the race bib attached. Lesson two is that the Saucony Kinvara 2′s that I wore for the first time in a race were very comfortable and may, despite my initial doubts, be marathon-worthy. And lesson three is, as always, to go out more conservatively – the fact that I had a net drop in position by 4-5 places from mile three on indicates that I still went out too fast. I don’t need a watch to tell me that.