Race Report: Spring Thaw

Once I typed the title into WordPress, I noticed the permalink had a distinctive “-2” at the end of it. Sure enough, I have an identically-titled post of the same event from last year. Feel free to read it for the background of the race.

The upshot of the race is this: it’s a 5-mile loop that can be run two (10 miles), three (15 miles), or four (20 miles) times. What’s neat is that you can literally change your mind mid-race: if you’re running the 10 but decide you’re cruising so well you want to keep going, you can! If you’re running the 20 but decide today isn’t your day, you can drop down to 15!

Spring Thaw 2012 was maybe 20 degrees. Maybe.
Spring Thaw 2012 was maybe 20 degrees. Maybe.

Historically, despite the name, this race has been absolutely frigid. Two years ago there was a ton of snow on the ground and the temperature was nowhere near melting. Last year, there wasn’t as much snow, but it was just as cold.

This year! This year was a break, and it actually deserved the words “spring” AND “thaw”! There was still a surprising amount of snow on the ground, and the wind was actually pretty brutal–20mph gusts were the norm–but the sky was crystal clear and the temperatures swung upwards of nearly 50 degrees. Contrast this with the deep freeze we’ve been under since mid-January, and you have a recipe for a lot of very excited runners.

This year: completely clear skies, temperatures well above freezing. A lot of wind, though.
This year: completely clear skies, temperatures well above freezing. A lot of wind, though.

As for the race itself, The Lady and I had some pretty lofty goals. We started our training for the Pittsburgh half not too long ago, and we’re also still keeping up with the run streak (88 days and counting!). We didn’t want to push our mileage too high this early in training, so we both opted for the 10-mile option, thereby seamlessly folding it into our training program as this week’s long run (and only the second long run of our training cycle).

We both wanted to run the 10 miles at our goal half-marathon pace. Hers is a 7:49 min/mi, putting her right around a 1:42 finishing time. Achieving this pace in March’s Just A Short Run would give her qualifying credentials to apply for a seeded position at the Pittsburgh half in May, which would be pretty freakin’ badass.

My goal half-marathon pace is a 7:38 min/mi, which is exactly 1:40. I know it’s still beyond my abilities, but I wanted to see if 10 miles (instead of 13.1) at my goal pace wasn’t insurmountable. However, I knew I needed some help. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Lady and a friend of hers ran this same track and I tagged along. I barely eked out an 8:30 pace, feeling like crap just about the whole time. I knew I was in better shape than that for this race, but knocking a full 10 minutes off was going to be challenging no matter what.

Enter Mark (who I affectionately call “cranberry dude”).

Mark is right in the middle.
Mark is right in the middle. The Lady’s (557) running buddy was 623. All are awesome folks (except for the creeper in the back).

He’s a 3-hours-and-really-no-change marathoner. He was originally on the fence about running the Spring Thaw this year (he, like myself and countless other runners, have a hard time running “easy” when there’s a clock going), but I convinced him to do it as a pacer for me. I told him my goal was a 7:30 pace for 10 miles. He agreed.

Thus set the stage for one hell of a ride.

5-mile loops through North Park.
5-mile loops through North Park.

Mark is highly active in the Pittsburgh running community, and my request for a pacer sparked a deluge of similar requests. As I lined up with him at the starting line, there was a solid handful of other folks with us as well. Amusingly, there was also an “official” 7:30 pace group, but they took off and we lost sight of them after the first mile. Fail.

The Lady was also running with a friend of hers who is similarly matched, and they were gunning for a 7:49 pace. We wished each other luck at the starting line before splitting off in our respective groups. Soon enough, we were on our way! (sans some equipment malfunction***)

The first couple of miles were spectacular. The group of us just talked, enjoyed the beautiful weather, and Mark gave me occasional pointers as we went (he used to be a running coach in his spare time; in particular, he kept reminding me to stick to the tangents of the course, as “those extra steps will come in handy later in the race.” Boy was he spot-on). Most of the “unofficial” pace group were folks training for marathons or ultras; I was the only one for whom a 7:30 half-marathon pace was a reach (one guy’s goal marathon pace was 7:30…I can only dream).

Coming into the race, I knew I could do the first 5 miles at 7:30 without a problem. It was the next 5 I was worried about. As we crossed the starting line for the second loop, I told Mark “this is where my race begins.”

Yeah, it definitely did.

Miles 6-7 felt pretty good, too. Mile 8 was where the pain really started hitting, and hard. Up until then, my breathing was extremely regular and not at all labored. Very quickly, things got hard and I was sucking wind. I knew I could finish, but the question was whether I could keep pushing at this pace. The final two miles have two hills that, in the first lap, were energizing: they’re not big enough to be really challenging, but they’re just hilly enough to be motivating. This time around, though, they were just plain taxing. The second one in particular at the end of mile 9 really knocked me back; I started falling off my pace, slipping into the low 8s.

I knew I could do this, if my brain would just shut up. Mark and some of the other guys were yelling encouragement, which given my days of football from high school, was actually helpful. Mark asked at the top of the hill if I had anything left in the tank; I shook my head no, but after rolling downhill into the final straightaway (a 0.75-mile straightaway), I suddenly felt a rush and started pushing things. I don’t know where the burst came from, but at the very least I wanted to make up the time I’d lost on the hill.

I crossed the finish line at 1:15:22, a solid 7:33 pace and 10th in my [extremely competitive] age group. Check out the video on the official results to see how much pain I was in as I crossed the finish line (apparently at a 5:55 pace!).

The face of pain (Mark is off to the left in blue, continuing on for 20 miles).
The face of pain (Mark is off to the left in blue, continuing on for 20 miles).

I hobbled off to the side, feeling like I was going to lose my breakfast. That was the hardest and longest I’d ever pushed, and I couldn’t have run another step at that pace (I was grateful indeed for sticking to the tangents of the course!). It took a few minutes before my stomach calmed down, and I could revel in my victory.

Rock-solid pacing.
Rock-solid pacing.

The Lady came cruising in at 1:18 flat, nailing her goal pace solidly on its head as well. We congratulated each other and waited for other friends of ours to finish.

Holy shit guys, we ran our goal half-marathon paces for 10 miles straight! I know I couldn’t have done it on my own, and I definitely couldn’t have held the pace for another 3.1 miles, but then again, it’s the very beginning of training; of course I shouldn’t be able to hit my goal just yet! Just a month ago I staggered through these 10 miles at an 8:30 pace; at this race, I knocked a full minute off each mile and felt about as good (maybe even a little better). Who knows what another month (or two!) will bring?

It was an all-around solid race. Great confidence boost, great effort, great people. I can’t thank Mark and his running buddies enough, and I couldn’t be more proud of The Lady for nailing her goal.

Two successful races, one very happy (and very tired) couple.
Two successful races, one very happy (and very tired) couple.

***A scaffold holding up the chutes fell at the very start and hit some runners, one of whom is a dear friend of ours. From what I hear, one runner was even carted off in an ambulance (not life-threatening, but serious enough to warrant an on-the-spot check). I’d love for Elite Runners and Walkers, an organization I’ve come to love in my 5.5 years in Pittsburgh, to reach out to these runners to see if there’s anything they need. The comment on their Facebook page was a good start; a formal post would be even better, and personal contact with the injured runners would be ideal.


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