Race Report: USAF Half Marathon, 2014 edition

I’ve sat down to start writing this a couple of times; each time, the blinking cursor brought on a torrent of thoughts and feelings from the race, and I’ve stepped away to wait for them to subside.

No such luck, apparently. Decided to bite the bullet and push through ALL THE FEELS to make this entry happen. I suppose, if you really want to get on with your life, the following can basically be summarized as “I’m disappointed,” but in reality it’s a lot more complicated than that. To some extent I’m still figuring it out myself. But anywho.

Friday, September 19


As has become our routine from doing this particular event for four years running, we hit the road pretty early on Friday: The Lady picked up Kim (and drove my sister Colleen, who came in town the previous night!) before 10am. Devin picked me up right about 10, and we embarked for Dayton. He and I talked mostly science; it’s kind of foremost on both our brains right now, and he had an interview lined up with HPA in Stockholm the following weekend, so we were catching up a little on that and the grantsmanship competition we put together a few months ago.

The drive was just over 4 hours. Once at the Nutter Center (heh), we picked up bibs and goodies and still couldn’t manage to keep ourselves from throwing down for a little extra running gear. Otherwise, it was pretty uneventful.

All told, there were 6 of us: The Lady and myself, plus Dan (who drove down from Milwaukee), Devin, Kim, and my sister. My dudes were all running the half marathon; my sister was running the 10K, and the other two ladies were running the full marathon. Needless to say, with half of us starting at 7:30am, the executive decision was made that everyone would wake up at 4:30am to leave for the race by 5:30.

Sleep tight!

Saturday, September 20

Devin sets very lofty goals for himself.
Devin sets very lofty goals for himself.

Slowly, we awoke. 4:30am comes awfully fast.

After a slight miscommunication in driving, we arrived and parked at Wright Patterson with little fanfare. Bringing 3 years’ previous experience really comes in handy, particularly when the morning of the race is always so chaotic. But we got to watch the sun rise, which is always neat.

Unfortunately, the miscommunication cost us about 20 minutes, so once everyone got their bathroom breaks in, it was more or less time to wish the ladies well–the marathon and 10K both started at 7:30 (and, given military precision, right at 7:30!).

The boys and I got a really good vantage spot when the cannon sounded and the marathoners / 10Kers took off–we were pretty much in the bottom left hand corner:

Viciously yoinked from The Lady’s race report.

We managed to catch a glimpse of and wave good luck to The Lady, my sister, Kim, and Danielle! It was pretty awesome.

With another hour to wait, we huddled under the tent while discussing our race strategies. Dan was still in recovery mode from running the Louisville Ironman a few weeks ago; he and I were hoping to stick with the 1:40 pace group, but neither of us were really expecting to hang on the whole time. Devin, by contrast, had completely fallen off training a few months ago due to an aggravated lower back injury, and had only just started exercising a week ago. Much of the discussion centered around a good strategy for him to survive 13.1 miles!

Soon enough, our time came. Devin lined up with the 2:45 pace group (we’d planned he would run the first 6 miles with them and see how he felt before potentially speeding up), and Dan and I went to the pace group practically at the starting line.

That was a little intimidating. But this was my favorite half-marathon, and feeling even remotely like I could actually start right here was an incredible and humbling thought.

I said a quick little prayer, and soon enough, the cannon boomed!

Dan and I stuck like glue with the pace group. We got a little bit separated in the chaos of the first mile, but I always kept the pacer in my vision. We pushed up the first hill–which always freaks me out initially, but then I remember I love hills and this is actually where I get warmed up–and careened through the first aid station, complete with music. I was feeling great, but my mind was spinning and I couldn’t get it to shut up. So I pulled out the trump card fairly early and hit the music right around mile 1.

The first song. Oh man, what a soundtrack. I love jamming to tunes while running.

To my amazement, Dan started pulling away from the group around mile 3. I stuck with the group for a bit, then decided: what the hell, I’m having fun and he’s my buddy. So I slowly reeled him in and stuck by his side for the next few miles. The pace eventually broke a bit and the pacer pulled up alongside us too, but we were still cruising.

7:43, 7:29, 7:36, 7:38, 7:33

We passed the 10K checkpoint with flying colors.


It was around this point that I realized Dan was nowhere to be found. I looked around and took several long over-the-shoulder searches but couldn’t find nary a hint of him and his telltale penguin. Either I was completely missing him, or he’d taken a fullstop break; that’s the only way I could think that he would’ve fallen completely out of sight in such a brief window.

As much as I’d like to blame Dan’s sudden disappearance, it really was just a coincidence; after all, I tend to enjoy running on my own and being absolutely alone. But it was around this point that I realized my legs were suddenly heavy. It came on very quickly. I still had a lot of power behind them, but I could tell it wasn’t going to last much longer.

7:43, 7:32, 8:04

It definitely wasn’t going to last much longer. I slowly unfurled my grip on the pace group and watched them pull ahead, even as I had to continue slowing down.

8:27, 8:42, 8:43

I’m not proud, but I bottomed out somewhere around here. I couldn’t keep my head together, and my brain just exploded. Had I overtrained? Had I burned the candle at both ends between a 200-mile August and trying to prepare for my defense? If it’s just mental why can’t I push harder? Why are my legs burning so much? WHY WHY WHYYYYY–


Ugh. So much frustration at this point. I tried to reel my spinning thoughts in a bit and make the finish respectable, despite everything I was feeling at the moment. I took a couple of very deep breaths to steady myself and turned to my mainstay of a finishing song.

The AF finish is always a combination of awesome and terrible–awesome because you scamper down a runway and ultimately under the wings of parked jets, amidst throngs of cheering crowds…and terrible because that hangar just never seems to get any closer. I was giving it everything I felt like I had left, but to complicate things further the wind really picked up–a headwind, of course. But my determination at this point was absolute: I had barely a half mile left and even if I’d sucked the last half of the race I was going to make this part count.

8:36, 1:01 (7:17 pace)


1:45:42 (8:03 average; 262 overall, 212 among men, 37 in AG)

I took a minute to steady myself–a volunteer came over to double check that I didn’t need any immediate medical attention–before I received my medal (thanking the service men and women!), grabbed some food, and picked a spot on the grass to nurse my grub and think about what had just happened.

Colleen found me first–she rocked her race in 1:08:06, her first 10K ever! Dan came in around 1:57; apparently his Ironman recovery had caught up with him in very short order, and he pulled back considerably but finished feeling good. Devin crossed the finish line in 2:27, which is frankly incredible considering he didn’t train at all. He apparently ditched the 2:45 pace group within the first 4 miles because they were going painfully slow, and just spent the rest of the race high-fiving volunteers and spectators, dancing to live music, and generally having a blast.

We soon ran into Kim and Danielle, who didn’t hit the times they wanted but still did awesome, an very soon we saw The Lady cross the finish line in an amazing 3:52! (You can read her race report here)


We took a bit to gather ourselves before we headed out. I’d felt pretty awful immediately upon finishing, but felt quite a bit better a few minutes later…only to start feeling slowly worse again as time went on. So we were all kind of hobbling out to the cars.

Hobble hobble.
Hobble hobble.

We crashed immediately upon arrival at our weekend house. Colleen can nap like nobody’s business, and the rest of us alternated between showering and sprawling out on the floor with our feet up. Eventually I made it upstairs only to collapse on the bed for an hour or two. Rough life.

We eventually sauntered out to the nearby bar and got a couple of massive pizzas to stem the tide of appetites. Later that evening, we all went out to Max & Erma’s and met up with Jamie, one of my high school buddies, who has only recently been stationed at Wright Patterson. It was a lovely way to hang out and catch up with a good friend.

I’d been nursing a headache most of the afternoon and evening, and even a couple double-doses of ibuprofen didn’t really dent it (which is, honestly, surprising). I went to bed that night feeling pretty meh overall, but exhausted enough to sleep well.

Sunday, September 21

duuuuuu NUH.
duuuuuu NUH.

This is why I love making a weekend out of the Air Force Marathon: we run on Saturday, rest up and generally blobify, and then Sunday morning we trek over to the Air & Space Museum for some serious airborne badassery.

It’s not like we’re not familiar with the museum at this point–after all, this was my fourth time going, and Cathryn’s brother is a Captain in the Air Force and so has given them extremely thorough guided tours, in addition to four years of going after the marathon–but it’s still so awesome to see these marvels of engineering on full display, complete with their historical contexts and backgrounds. I always learn something new every year.

Eventually everyone started getting tired and cranky–museum legs after a marathon will do that–so we hit the road around 2pm and arrived back in Pittsburgh without too much fanfare.


It took me awhile to work up the gumption to make this post. It felt a lot like I was going through the full mourning process, except I went through stages 1 and 2 (denial and anger) while I was actively running, and skipped entirely over stage 3 (bargaining) before sitting squarely on stage 4 (depression) from when I crossed the finish line until I forced myself to start writing the words of this entry. As I write, I become more ok with it, but it still stings. Not as sharply as other missed goals, but deeper than any other I can remember.

I’ve tried to figure out what specifically about this missed goal stung (aside from simply being a missed goal). Speaking in absolute terms, a 1:45 half marathon is pretty damn solid, and to be able to say it was 4 minutes slower than my PR is also pretty neat.

But I think it all comes down to this: I poured so much time and energy into this training cycle–far more than any other half, or even full marathon–that anything less than a PR was going to feel like a disappointment. Not to mention the requisite post-race letdown, which is only exacerbated by the increased discrepancy between pre-race mileage and post-race mileage.

I’ve had to keep reminding myself of two very crucial items:

  1. I’ve already PR’d two half marathons this year alone. Going for the hat trick would’ve been pretty cool, but seriously, I’ve broken my own half marathon personal best twice in the last 6 months. Thrice would just be showing off. Or something.
  2. Um. Dissertation? It’s like I somehow keep forgetting how much time, effort, and energy this actually requires when I’m confused as to why I’m not performing at 100% all the time. The human body is an engineering marvel but there’s no getting around physics–I’m only going to be able to expend so much energy in a certain time frame.

Time and reflection have helped put this race into perspective (particularly after this weekend’s Great Race 10K, which I’ll post about as soon as I can). But I can’t really say I’ll be disappointed when my dissertation is over and I can actually work to get faster again 🙂

MCM Week 9: Bouncing back? Knock on wood?

The past month has been difficult. I’ve felt run down; even on easy runs that are only a couple of miles, I haven’t had any energy and couldn’t find a rhythm. They were struggles the whole way through. The long runs were a particularly nasty variety of grind: I’d have to stop a lot, I was burning through a ton of Gu, and my stomach was being particularly uncooperative. I attributed it to a delayed autonomic response from all the stress in the past couple months (moving twice, proposing a Ph.D. thesis, lots of traveling, and submitting two publications).

I also [finally] made the decision to scale waaaaay back on my paces. I’d keep the distance if at all possible, but I was going to stop caring about the paces I was running (even though I was hitting some pretty awesome tempo paces). This may seem like such a tiny thing, but for me it’s really hard. I’ve improved a ton in the last year, and after peaking at just the right time before the Pittsburgh half in May but then getting sidelined by an IT band injury, I really wanted Air Force in September to be a massive PR. I’ve had to mentally refocus, concentrating on rediscovering the fun in running, as opposed to the constant atmosphere of competition that is often invigorating but lately has been a dead weight.

Take this 18-mile long run, for example. Two weeks ago, I ran 18 miles (The Lady had a slight toe injury that healed quickly, but she had to sit out on this run) and met up with Devin for the last 6.

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.41.22 PM

The first 12 miles were rough. I averaged probably around an 8:40 (minus an emergency stop at mile 6, roughly 10 minutes). Devin’s pace is a lot slower, but by mile 15, even 10:00 was feeling too hard. We both crashed at mile 16; The Lady drove Devin home, and after a 15-minute rest, I finished the last two miles, feeling absolutely terrible and like I was about to fall apart.

That was when I decided it was time to stop being stubborn and listen to what my body was saying. From then on, I wore my Garmin, but ignored it on runs, going entirely by feel. I also stopped listening to music.

The first couple of runs were still really tough. Everything felt awful. My legs were tired all day every day, feeling like I’d just done squats. Every run was a struggle to keep going and get the mileage in. One of our mutual friends (who I affectionately refer to as “Cranberry Dude“) suggested I take a couple days off from running and up my protein intake. This all–thankfully!–coincided with a much-anticipated cutback week in our training.

I dusted off an old recipe and whipped up some protein bars.

Photo Sep 09, 20 53 46
Peanut butter, chocolate chips, and lots and lots of healthy grains. Oh and protein powder for an added stomach-filling punch.

Two weeks later, following our cutback week, The Lady and I ventured out once more for an 18-mile long run. Once again, we were set to meet up with Devin about 2/3 of the way through.

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.41.30 PM

You’ll notice the “Time” at the top is actually about 2.5 minutes slower than the previous long run. But if you compare the “Elapsed Time” field in both, that’s where the biggest difference lies: 3:14:28 vs 3:06:24. This reflects the total amount of time the Garmin was on, disregarding all stop/start buttons. Basically, it’s how long we were really out there on our feet, from the moment we took the first step until we reached the very end (since we usually pause the running time at lights, when we met up with Devin, when we stopped for water, etc). This means we spent only about 18 minutes combined not actively running, as opposed to almost 30 from two weeks previous.

Even though I ran this 18 miles 2.5 minutes slower than two weeks ago, I felt really good for the last 10 miles. Miles 4-9 were a little bit iffy; my legs were tired, and I was feeling the same worn-down sentiment that had become so familiar over the last month. But something clicked around mile 9 and I started settling in. We met up with Devin, and as we kept running, my breathing became more and more comfortable, my legs felt stronger, and I actually felt a runner’s high. I haven’t felt one all month. At the end of the run I was tired–I’d just run 18 miles, yo!–but it was a happy tired. An accomplished tired, rather than a “holy shit thank God that’s over I can’t take another step” tired.

I still have a long way to go. But my easy 7-miler yesterday felt similar: another runner’s high, two in a row where previously I hadn’t felt one in a month. The Lady and I have a 9-mile 5×1600 track workout tomorrow morning, but my plan is to suck down my ego again and add 15-20 seconds per mile on top of where I was at the last track workout.

And when Air Force rolls around, hopefully my body will be ready to push itself again. But if it’s not, then I’ll listen. It has my attention now (took me long enough to actually start paying attention), and I love running too much to risk wrecking myself for MCM. I’ll get back to pushing sub-7 tempo runs soon enough!