Race Report: Chickamauga Battlefield Half Marathon

Background

So, there’s been an interesting trajectory in the last while that’s probably been evident in some form or another on this blog for the past couple years, but which has really been thrown into relief in 2018:

my half marathons have been getting faster.

  • In 2014, I ran 4 half marathons, 1 over 1:50 (1 was my still-standing half PR).
  • In 2015, I ran 4 half marathons, 2 over 1:50.
  • In 2016, I ran 3 half marathons, 2 over 1:50.
  • In 2017, I ran 3 half marathons, 1 over 1:50.
  • In 2018, I’ve run 4 half marathons, 0 over 1:50.

I even made a graph:

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Y-axis is in minutes. That second data point in mid-ish 2014 is my PR (1:41:07).

This has been particularly exciting in the past year, as I’ve noticed my times trending downward. Coming off an unexpectedly strong performance at AthHalf this past October, I felt something I truly hadn’t felt in awhile:

Confidence.

The AthHalf route was new; its final 5K was a particularly challenging route. Nevertheless, I still set an “event” PR of 1:47–the fastest AthHalf time I’d run in four straight years of the event (and three different routes; hence, “event” PR). Given how challenging the route was, and how happy I was with my performance, I felt like with another 3-4 weeks of training before Chickamauga, I could make a run at the 1:45:08 time I set at the Georgia Publix Half Marathon waaaaay back in March 2015, the fastest half marathon I’d run since moving to Athens. I came close at this past April’s Eugene Half Marathon, but my goal then had simply been to see The Lady to an 8-flat average over the first 10 miles (even that had made me worry at the time, so the fact that I came within 45 seconds overall of that average was extremely impressive).

I took a risk and set for myself what felt like an ambitious goal: set a new best half time for myself since moving to Athens.

At the same time, The Lady and I were discussing another interesting trend. For the past few years, our respective training regimens had diverged as she focused more on chasing a BQ: training for and racing full marathons. Given how my half marathon times ballooned over 2015 and 2016, it’s not like I could have kept up with her anyway, but suffice to say she widened her existing margin of victory with the household half marathon PR, netting a time under 1:40 and all but guaranteeing I wouldn’t be able to keep up with her except for the shortest races (I still hold the 5K and 10K family PRs, but only just).

But in the last year, things shifted. The Lady started pursuing non-marathon training again, and I continued healthy running trends from 2017 and into 2018. Consequently, we realized for Chickamauga: for the first time in years, it was a bit of a toss-up as to who might be able to run a faster time.

So, we did what any friendly but competitive couple would do: we made a contest out of it.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority went with The Lady. I certainly don’t blame them; I did, too! And when I say “vast”, I mean it: easily 90% or more of our friends went with her. There was one person who voted for me “out of pity,” and another because I beat them out in the final stretch of a 5K back in the summer. That was about it.

The half marathon is always a bit scary, especially when you’re not entirely sure what you’re capable of going in; adding a little element of competition can help shift your focus away from the unknown and to something a bit friendlier. Plus, by virtue of the aforementioned training divergence, it’d been a rare treat when The Lady and I could race together: the 10 miles at the Eugene Half was a welcome, but highly unusual, occurrence. So further underscoring the fact that we’d get to run together was really nice.

Race day

This year, we elected to stay in a hotel in Chattanooga. It meant a bit of a drive the morning of, about 30 minutes, but we had a much better list of options for hotels.

In the day or two leading up to race weekend, winds were blowing in a cold front. On race morning, it was cold: 33 degrees (before wind chill), with 10+ mph winds. Historically, race morning has been cold, but not that cold (36-39F) and not windy, so this broke with precedent. Furthermore, the course itself was slightly different at the start due to some construction in the associated state park.

Suffice to say, we bundled up.

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At the starting line (rocking Fleet Feet Racing Team uniforms).

Packet pick-up was a bit chaotic, but otherwise things went as we’ve been accustomed to (having run this event in 2015 and 2017): that is to say, smoothly.

Our plan at the starting line, more or less, was: start off between the 1:50 and 1:45 pace groups, and kinda take it from there. Admittedly ambiguous, but we were both operating from a position of unknown but ambitious. To that end, we both decided to completely ignore our watches through the entire race, going wholly by feel instead of by time.

We wished each other good luck, and soon enough, we were off!

The first couple of miles I remembered pretty well from previous years, including the janky/rocky “trail” that preceded the actual paved pathways through the state park. We spent those miles trading leads: The Lady would slowly pull ahead, then I’d reel her in and pass her, and so on with the yo-yo style. My surges were mostly due to feeling boxed-in by other runners (the first few miles of a big race are always cramped), but then she would catch up and pass me on downhills (I suck at downhills).

8:02, 7:56

We were keeping in pretty close range of the 1:45 group, which ended up being a bit of a mistake: 1:45 was, for both of us, our reach times, so sticking with them from the very start felt a bit like pushing our luck. Especially since we weren’t checking our watches (mine was entirely under my long sleeves, so I couldn’t just glance at it), having a pace group right in front of us would most likely pull us along.

Which it did: while I obviously couldn’t double-check the time, we were way too close to the 1:45 pace group (maybe 5 seconds behind) by mile 3, so I made a concerted effort to pull up in mile 4.

7:47 (oops), 7:56

This was where, I admit, an unfair advantage kicked in for me: prior knowledge. As I previously stated, we’d attended this event previously in both 2015 and 2017. Both those years I ran the half, so this was my third time running the half. The Lady, on the other hand, ran the full in 2015, and while she had been registered for the half in 2017, ended up DNS due to a head cold. While the full marathon runs the half course twice, 3 years was a pretty long gap to retain any knowledge of the course to the point of integrating it into one’s race strategy.

To be fair, it’s not like I planned ahead, but at mile 5 when the hills began, I suddenly remembered: oh right, the next FOUR MILES are rolling hills. My strength has always been uphills; The Lady, downhills. So I figured, if I could push these next four miles pretty hard, I might be able to build an insurmountable lead before the downhills kicked in.

Conveniently enough, Immigrant Song kicked in right at that point on my playlist. So I went with it.

7:46, 7:37, 8:00, 7:53, 7:41

(that 8:00 was due to a totally unexpected water stop that caught me off guard, so I came to a full stop to fuel)

I left the 1:45 pace group behind on the first hills. The further I went the more the hills came back to me, so I kept pushing in time with the awesome mid-race music on my list (great job, Past Me, setting up that list!). I high-fived The Lady at the weird hairpin loop a little after mile 6, but otherwise just kept pushing as much as I could without feeling like I was in danger of flaming out.

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Pretty sweet shot.

It was a tricky balance: I was truly testing my limits, taking a risk where a very real possibility was utterly blowing up and walking it in. But man it felt good just to be in that position again!

7:58

For those who ignore their watches entirely (this course also didn’t have any clocks along it, so beyond the relative locations of pace groups I truly had no idea what time I was hitting), breathing is the key to semi-accurately assessing one’s performance. Up until now, I used my steady breathing to help quiet my anxiety about the pace I was pushing and convince myself I was doing ok. At this point, though, my breathing definitely changed: I was getting tired, and I felt like I was slowing down.

8:05, 8:05

Which I was. But at least I was consistent 😛

There was one brief moment of panic somewhere around here, where I heard feet and voices gaining on me from behind. I resisted the urge to look behind me (DON’T SHOW WEAKNESS), but was worried I was slowing down so much that the 1:45 group was gaining on me. Very quickly, however–far faster than I would have expected for a 1:45 pace group–I was passed by a group of very fast-looking guys. Not the pace group, but perhaps an early group of marathoners? Or late-starters? Wasn’t sure.

Good story.

8:11

This was that janky/rocky “trail” again, heading back to the starting area. There’s a rough up-down-up dip in the trail that I don’t even remember from the way out, but that’s probably because I wasn’t nearly this tired.

Once I crested the loop around mile 13, I tried to put what I had left into the final stretch–managed an average 6:56 pace.

Chip time: 1:44:33

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I’d definitely ceded some ground to the 1:45 pace group, but The Lady came in behind me barely 1 minute later! She definitely made up some ground on the downhills as expected (she’s really, really good at those).

After finishing, we made a beeline for our car and changed out of our racing clothes and into new, dry clothes–the wind was still in the double-digits, and while we weren’t planning to stick around for very long, we didn’t want to freeze before we could grab some food.

In doing so, we were able to catch the print-outs of preliminary half marathon results, and in a very pleasant development, The Lady got 3rd in her age group! Not surprisingly, I was 6th; I would have needed to knock off another 2-3 minutes to get 5th, and almost 10 minutes to crack the top 3. Still a ways to go 😛

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Celebrating at the finish! (and after changing into dry clothes)

Post-race

Before freezing solid, we headed back to the hotel to clean up. We debated hanging around Chattanooga, perhaps checking out the aquarium (which was literally across the street from our hotel), but decided that our legs were pretty beat up from the effort. We settled instead on walking about 0.75 miles to the nearest Starbucks, getting celebratory mochas, and heading home.

The ride home was full of chatter about the race. Honestly I have to keep reminding myself that I technically won our little competition, because the whole thing was such a blast (and because, realistically, it’s only a matter of time before The Lady surpasses me in the half again). We both did so freaking well! 

We discussed how the summer had been such a whirlwind that largely set us back in our running. The first few months of the fall, August and September in particular, had hit the ground running so hard it’d been a massive undertaking to land as much mileage as we had. Despite all of this, we’d managed to build a solid base of consistent weekly mileage in the low-30s. Even though this only occasionally included tempo runs or track workouts, the consistent mileage by itself was both a huge factor and an amazing accomplishment by itself.

Given our collective performance at Chickamauga–at the upper end of both our expectations–we’re now thinking it may be time to bring the professionals back into the mix. We’ve had good experiences with coaches, and with the mileage base we’ve built, the next important steps will be 1) very structured running schedules, and 2) regular quality workouts.

In the meantime, we have some pretty fun races coming up: the Give Thanks 8K on Thanksgiving morning, the Helen Holiday [Trail] Half in mid-December, and an officially-unofficial Beer Mile, also in mid-December.

But after that… we shall see.

Race Report: Just a Short Run

I know this race was a handful of weeks ago, but The Lady and I had a pretty important event (and subsequent weeklong vacation) to attend to.

But more on that later. So, Just A Short Run!

This event has been a favorite of both The Lady’s and myself for the last four years. The event has four distinct distances, providing everyone with something they can run: a 5K, an 8.1-miler, a half marathon, and a 30K. Back in 2011, we both ran the 8.1-miler; every year since then we’ve done the half marathon (with the exception of 2013, which I missed due to the event overlapping with Easter weekend). In fact, longtime readers of my internet blathering can read my post on the 2012 JaSR, in which I set a 1:43:51 half-marathon PR that subsequently stood for two years.

Needless to say, I’ve been hankering to bust that PR. And given how promising this past March was, I was very optimistic I could do it this year.

Since this event was a mere week out from our impending nuptials, The Lady and I dressed for the occasion.

It was extra motivation to hit our goals for the race: The Lady was gunning for a 7:49 min/mi, which would make her eligible to apply for a seeded position at the Pittsburgh half-marathon in early May. I was aiming for a 7:30 pace (1:38ish) as my A-goal, sub-1:40 as my B-goal. Before anyone asks: to be eligible to apply for a seeded position at the Pittsburgh half, I would have to run one with a 6:49 min/mi average. Yeahhh. That’s still a ways off. 10K, absolutely! 😛

We arrived the morning of the race with a friend of ours, Devin (who some may recognize from our Ragnar DC team), who is also training for the Pittsburgh half.

Racers ready to go.
Racers ready to go.

Devin was “only” running the 8.1-miler, so at the starting line he stayed near the back (after we wished him good luck) while we moved to the front.

And lo and behold: a 1:40 pace group! I got pretty excited. The Lady, unfortunately, had to run her race by herself, as she was aiming for a 1:42 and none of our usual running buddies were at the race. We wished each other good luck, and soon enough, the race began.

The pace group was small; not surprising, given the race itself is only a couple thousand people, plus 1:40 is pretty quick (honestly I wasn’t expecting any pace groups under 1:50; I kind of assumed you were on your own at that point!). The group, however, was very fluid: runners would pull up, drop off, and speed away as the miles ticked off. I focused on sticking with the pacer the whole time.

7:36, 7:20, 7:34

We finished the first 5K in 23:23, which is actually a 1:38 half marathon. We were going way too fast. The pacer apologized and reined things in a bit more. This I appreciated: apparently the pacers got a stern talking-to after the Spring Thaw, which saw quite a few of them finishing way ahead of their scheduled times. We even passed Kevin Smith (race director) along the way, and he emphasized “plus or minus 10 seconds!” as we went by.

The group also asked about my shirt, and both laughed and congratulated me on the impending wedding. As the race went on, folks who had started behind and caught up to the group (re: aforementioned fluidity of the pace group) informed me they’d seen my “runaway bride” behind me. In some cases, I simply heard some people laugh out loud as I passed them and they read the bib on the back of my shirt (they were running the 30K and had been passed by both of us).

7:41, 7:38, 7:34, 7:42

I was still feeling pretty good, but there was an ache in my legs that I didn’t like. I’d had an amazing week of training, but this wasn’t a good sign. I was starting to feel some fatigue creep in at the same mileage marker as the Spring Thaw, and yet I was worried: 1) I wasn’t running quite as fast, and 2) I had an additional 3.1 miles to go on top of what I did at Spring Thaw. I focused on staying in a rhythm and shutting up my brain.

The main course of this race (or at least, the last 10 miles of the total 13.1) is the same 5-mile loop as the Spring Thaw, just in the reverse direction. The course is rolling, so if you don’t like hills at all you won’t enjoy this course. The hills aren’t impossible, but you can’t ignore them entirely.

7:36, 7:45, 7:40

Yeah, I was definitely hurting. At this point the pacer and I were pretty much the only ones left in the group, the others having taken off or dropped back. He and I chatted a little bit, and I mentioned I was aiming for my first half marathon PR in two years (and in four attempts, including this one). He told me that at this point in the race, I could do 8:30s and still beat my previous time.

In retrospect, I kinda wish he hadn’t said that. Check out my next two miles:

7:49, 8:19

I was hurting, but mentally I was hurting even more. At Spring Thaw I had people around me constantly urging me on (I channeled Mark’s presence and made sure I stuck with the tangents of the course); here, I was given a mental “out.” The hills beat me up and I let them. I tried to give my all in the last couple of miles, but my kick was pretty weak:

7:49, 7:25 (last 0.1)

Nevertheless, the pacer was absolutely right: I PR’d the shit out of this race.

Definitely still fist-pump worthy.
Definitely still fist-pump worthy.

My official chip time was 1:41:36, a PR by over two full minutes. I finally set a new half marathon PR!

The Lady came in a mere 40 seconds behind me, nailing her goal time on its head and making her eligible to apply for a seeded position.

Runaway bride and groom!
Runaway bride and groom!

One other small tidbit. This race is Elite Runners’ flagship event each year, and therefore its biggest. To say the field is deep is an understatement: we’ve only just started winning age group awards in the last couple years, and it’s always by the skin of our teeth. The running scene here in Pittsburgh is competitive, but frankly we love it because it really sets the bar high and pushes us to work harder.

And yet, The Lady won 2nd in her age group, and I won 1st! We couldn’t believe it. We didn’t even realize it until we’d left and checked the results from home. We still haven’t picked up our awards yet, but rest assured, we certainly will!

This race was awesome. Yes, I was disappointed that I missed both my A-goal and my B-goal, but I still PR’ed by over two minutes and set a PR for the first time in two years. This distance has been particularly frustrating over the last two years due to numerous setbacks: I imploded at the Pittsburgh half in 2012, was accidentally diverted onto the marathon course at Air Force later that same year, missed both the JaSR and the Pittsburgh half in 2013, and wasn’t in prime running condition for Air Force 2013. Needless to say, I was pretty excited with this; I’ll get to my sub-1:40 soon enough!

Pretty badass medal!
Pretty badass medal!