So, first things first. The Lady and I were recently in our old stompin’ grounds–fabulous Pittsburgh–for the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. We’d formed a team a few months ago with Kim as our fearless leader, a team named “Sprinkles Are For Winners.”
The relay runs the full marathon course, split up over 5 runners who each cover some distance between roughly 4.5 and 6.7 miles. As The Lady and I had never run the full, there was an entire 13.1 miles we’d never run before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to see the full without actually having to run the whole 26.2 miles. And, y’know, see Pittsburgh and the folks there whom we love dearly 🙂
We managed a coffee date with Ellen!
3/5 of the relay team!
Aidan is a huge fan of pretty much everything. What a cutie.
Post-race celebrations at Waterfront!
The race itself more or less went off without a hitch, albeit with a few wrinkles with respect to the weather. It was a lot more humid than anticipated due to in-and-out rain (which was also unexpected), and this made things a little tricky, but overall it worked out ok.
We stayed with Kim and her husband Scott in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and managed to absolutely pack our schedule with friend-visiting time. We arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday morning at 9am–yes, arrived at 9am; I’ll let you do the math–and spent the rest of the day meeting up with The Lady’s work buddy Lara, some of my former graduate school colleagues, and dinner with Matt and Maria, before heading to Kim’s for the night.
At the expo, we once again ran into Ellen, as well as Kelly and her family. Following the expo was a strategy session with Kim, a delicious pre-race dinner with Kim and Scott, and glorious, wonderful sleep.
The relay itself was pretty awesome. Our first runner, Danielle, was also running the entire full, so once she handed off to our second runner Shay she just kept going. I was the intrepid third runner, stationed around mile 10 of the course. I was excited to run my leg, as it started near where the half and full races diverged, so I’d briefly get to see some familiar sights before stepping off onto a course I’d never run before.
Of course, the elevation of my leg was…interesting.
I went out feeling fairly good, and climbing Birmingham Bridge wasn’t too much of a problem, but there was this offramp that took us onto Forbes…that beat me up pretty good. I was definitely hurting after that.
I didn’t set any landspeed records–8:38 average pace, which for the 10K it essentially was is definitely on the very slow side for me–but I finished intact, handing off to The Lady in Squirrel Hill, right next to Bakery Square.
After The Lady dashed off, I took some time to hang around Bakery Square, get some coffee from the adjacent Coffee Tree Roasters, and generally take things easy before hopping back on one of the convenient relay buses that took me back downtown for the finish.
Soon enough, The Lady handed off to our anchor and fearless leader Kim, and The Lady and I managed to meet up at the finish with [almost!] our whole team.
We hit up Burgatory afterwards for some glorious burgers and spiked shakes before getting cleaned up and hitting the road back to good ol’ Athens.
It was a really fun race weekend. Exhausting for sure–we spent the next week trying desperately to catch up on sleep. But not only did we once again have the privilege of running through the city we’d fallen in love with, but we got to see a large number of the people who made the city so special to begin with. We don’t see them nearly often enough and it was great to catch up doing the very thing that effectively introduced us to each other all those years ago.
As a bonus, the Danimal and Sarah were in town, too! They both ran the half marathon–Sarah’s first ever! They joined us for post-race celebrations at Burgatory, and a wonderful time was had by all.
There’s more to be said–lots more–but I wanted to go ahead and reassure the MASSES WHO READ MY BLOG (lolololol) that I’m still alive, still running, and especially in this case, still having a lot of fun 🙂
I have such a checkered history with the Pittsburgh half marathon. In 2011, The Lady and I registered for it as our 2nd ever half marathon, but a week out from the race, my foot / ankle started hurting for no particular reason (I was having a lot of foot issues back then) and I dropped out to be on the safe side. In 2012, I made it to the starting line healthy after setting a crazy PR the month before of 1:43, and went out the gate so fast that I crashed and burned at Birmingham and finished just over 1:50, much to my chagrin (though to be fair, it got pretty hot). In 2013, I was having an amazing training run leading up to the Pittsburgh half, until my IT band quit about two weeks out. So I sat out yet again.
Not this time, I told myself. Birmingham wasn’t going to get away from me, not this time.
I didn’t go into Race Day feeling overly optimistic. As I mentioned in my previous post, I couldn’t nail down my A-goal of sub-1:40 at Just A Short Run, and I was feeling quite a bit more explosive than I felt this past week. After the monster month that was April, I just wasn’t feeling quite as strong or physically fresh. I felt good, but not amazing. Still: the Burgh 10K was, in a word, incredible: the lack of intense competition made my mind settle to the point where I was having the time of my life, and it felt easy. I wanted to see if, in lieu of a PR, I could recapture that feeling of just zipping along without a care in the world.
In more practical terms, the game plan was to stick like glue to the 3:20 marathon pace group and hold on for as long as I could. The Lady and her friend Kim were also going by the same plan, so it would be a rare race where I got to run with my better half. That was also a nice motivator.
4am race morning came pretty effing early.
Our apartment served as a staging area for quite a running group. Liz and Carol were from Toledo, OH: the former is a talented triathlete aiming for a BQ, and the latter was running her first-ever full marathon. Danielle, one of The Lady’s regular running buddies, was also going for a BQ. The rest of us–The Lady, our former Ragnar teammate Devin, and myself–were all running the half.
We arrived downtown in plenty of time, getting to the start line by 6 when we needed to be in our corrals by 6:45. We had some time to sit around and relax (read: hit the porta-johns) before wishing each other good luck before heading to our respective starting points. The Lady, after having nailed a qualifying time at Just A Short Run, was a seeded runner, but lined up in Corral A with me (which seemed to be a combination of both seeded and Corral A runners? as in, there didn’t seem to be a difference, other than the word “SEEDED” on some folks’ bibs in the same spot where others had “CORRAL A”).
Yadda yadda thanks for coming, yadda yadda ready set go, AND WE WERE OFF.
The Lady, her running buddy Kim (who we’d met up with in the corral), and I stuck with the 3:20 marathon pace group. The two would split off from each other around mile 10.5, or just before Birmingham Bridge. We figured if we could hang on that long, we’d have a decent shot at 1:40 half. And if not, oh well: we’d still have one another.
The miles started ticking off. Mile 1 actually felt pretty good. Mile 2…eh. Mile 3…oh geez, this is going to end badly.
7:48, 7:42, 7:36
We were only 3 miles in and my quads felt like they were just about to burst into flames. This was bad. This was very, very bad. It was Philly all over again. I was going to crash and burn. I’d have to walk like 5 miles. I’d probably run a 3-hour half marathon. Oh God, it’s going to be even worse than 2012. This is terrible. This is awful. This is–
Then I turned on my music. This was my first song:
I’d been experimenting the past couple of weeks with holding off on my music until I’m already a few miles in. It gives my muscles a chance to warm up without the added adrenaline of my awesome running playlists. Then, when the miles are starting to drag, I can play my ace in the hole to give myself a bit of a boost.
Talk about a boost. My brain clicked off and I settled right in. My quads still felt pretty trashed–it was probably a combination of a rough taper week after the Burgh 10K, a stressful work week, and a fitful night of sleep right before the race–but a mantra bubbled up from the recesses of my brain that I kept repeating to myself, over and over:
You’re fine. It’s just in your head.
I don’t know why, but this calmed me completely. All my doubts flew away. I’d trust my training and do the best I could, regardless of the outcome.
Of course, there was still a lot of ground to cover. We were just crossing over the West End bridge (bridge #3 in 4 miles, for anyone who’s counting).
Once across the bridge, we did a brief out-and-back before starting up along Southside.
7:38, 7:44, 7:37
It was at this point that I was coming to the realization that, if I wanted to make a respectable showing, I’d need to pull up just a hair. My legs were having a hard time of things, and if nothing else, I wanted to crush the bridge that had crushed me two years ago. But in order to do that, I needed to survive through mile 10, and things were already getting a bit dicey.
So I slowly released my hold on the pace group, and also took the opportunity to meet back up with The Lady and Kim. We kept dropping in and out of each other’s immediate line of vision as the crowds ebbed and flowed, so I danced outside the pace group and took a couple looks around.
Only this time, I couldn’t spot either one of them. I took another couple looks. Still couldn’t see them.
I was a little disappointed; I’d kind of liked the idea of running this race side by side with my wife. But having no idea where she was, I opted to press on.
For those still keeping track, it was at this point that I made the realization: even though the 3:20 pace group was continuing to fade into the distance, I was still clicking off splits that would get me in right around my goal time. So apparently my legs had been warning me that I was going too fast. I happily chewed on that thought for a few more miles.
The hills of Southside are pretty rolling: for each uphill, there was a nice downhill. We eventually reached “the flattest mile” of the course, at which point I tossed off my makeshift arm-warmers as I mentally geared up for the home stretch of the race.
My nemesis was coming soon…
…and I was starting to feel it. The hills were getting tougher. But mentally I was happy as a clam and calm as a cucumber. I almost couldn’t believe how settled I was.
Soon enough, the crowds on either side thickened considerably, and the half/full split loomed ahead. And I knew what lay just beyond that turn.
It’s a solid third-of-a-mile long, and a constant uphill grind. But mental acumen + a two-year grudge match to settle = I got across this bridge. I never stopped running, I never broke stride (though I did keep to the tangents!). As I crested the end of the bridge, I felt…accomplished.
It was strange. I expected to be jumping for joy and exploding out of my skin, but like the rest of the race, I just felt a calm serenity. Like the bridge had actually been secretly rooting for me the whole time. Or something.
Or maybe it was that, unbeknownst to me this whole time, The Lady had been a few steps behind me–she made her appearance as we crested over the uphill, as if materializing from somewhere else entirely. COOL!
Unfortunately, as tough as Birmingham can be, it’s not even the worst part. The downhill is but a brief respite before making a pretty brutal climb to Boulevard of the Allies. The Lady and I were lockstep up this hill, silently encouraging each other to push another mile to what we knew was a net downhill for the rest of the course. This was, by far, our slowest mile of the day.
I gave The Lady a few feet of running room, as Boulevard is a separated two-lane highway, and there were still a good number of runners. Truthfully, I was also trying to catch my breath from the hill we’d just climbed.
But then a curious thing happened. As I tried to make up the distance again, The Lady started surging. I knew we still had a little more than a mile to go, so I thought she was just riding the first downhill. So I kicked up the pace again…and she kicked it up even further.
Holy crap, is she kicking it this far out?
For every bit I pushed harder, she pushed two bits harder. I kept upping the speed, and she kept widening the distance between us. Before I even realized, I was pushing a sub-7 pace…and she was still getting further ahead! I couldn’t believe it when mile 13 ticked off.
It was the fastest mile I’ve ever run in a half marathon. And yet it wasn’t good enough to even shrink the distance between us, much less catch up to her. She was flying!
I crossed the finish line, covering the final 0.1 at a 6:34 pace, finishing in 1:41:07, a new PR by 30 seconds!
I can’t even begin to describe the torrent of emotions from after the race. Although I do know that, for a couple minutes after, I was afraid I’d lose my breakfast.
It was a PR on a day when I felt physically subpar within the first four miles. It was my second half marathon PR in two months, after going two years without any. It was, bar none, my finest mental race to date, after over a year of extremely questionable mental performances. It was a PR on a course that had absolutely obliterated me two years ago. It was a PR on a course through a beautiful city full of wonderful people who The Lady and I will dearly miss when we move in December. It was the best race I could have possibly imagined.
Yeah, I still missed my A-goal of sub-1:40. But on this particular day, I didn’t care. I PR’d against all my initial assessments, against all my feelings at mile 4 and against all my frustrations from two years previous. I had sidelined my worst enemy–my brain–for the duration of my favorite racing distance, and had blown away all expectations as a result.
And got my ass kicked by my wife. Did I mention she was a seeded runner? Yeah, I got beat by a certified badass. It feels pretty awesome, in case you were wondering 🙂
So what’s next? At this point, not really sure. I have a thesis to finish and graduation to worry about first and foremost, and in the distant future, a 4th Air Force half marathon to run. But there’s a lot of time between then and now. For now, I’m going to savor this feeling; this massive boost in confidence is tangible, and I want to remember it for as long as I can. It makes all the difficulties of 2013 seem so distant, but at the same time, so illuminating. I know I’ll have more ups and downs as the time goes on, but I just want to remember: I can still do this. It’s all in my head, after all.
Oh yeah, once we got cleaned up, we went outside our apartment to cheer on the full marathoners. Badasses, every single one. And then we had pancakes and bacon and bagels and french toast and fruit and mimosas and donut holes and YUMMMM.
This spring was a little busier than most: aside from the obvious of marrying my best friend and going on honeymoon, our two usual late spring races–the Burgh 10K and the Pittsburgh Half–were shoved into consecutive weekends due to Easter.
Typically these races are two weeks apart: the Burgh 10K in late April, followed by taper week, followed by the Pittsburgh half. Not this year. So we had a bit of a conundrum: with our 10K PRs moving south of the 7-minute/mile mark, should really be pushing that hard one week out from the Pittsburgh half marathon? At least one of our much more seasoned colleagues (friend and Boston Marathon 2014 runner) definitely didn’t think so:
We struck a compromise: we’d run the beautiful 6.2 miles of rail trail limestone goodness at our goal half-marathon pace (7:37, or 1:40:00) with an easy 1-mile warm-up before and 1 mile cool-down after. It was a strange plan, but I was also excited about it: we could push but not very hard, still aiming for a decent time (around 47 minutes) while also enjoying the course and everyone on it, sans the stress of trying to PR.
I no longer hesitate in bestowing this honor upon the Burgh 10K: it is my favorite 10K. The Great Race is a close second, but in my opinion this race has everything. The course is an out-and-back on a small section of the Great Allegheny Passage, so it’s trail running with well-maintained crushed limestone paths. The first 3.1 miles are mostly a gentle, constant uphill; around 2.5 everyone goes through a tunnel before the turnaround. That turnaround is the hardest part: it’s on a slight downhill, so you lose all your momentum before chugging about a half mile back uphill to the tunnel. But then the rest of the race is downhill to the finish. I’ve PR’d every year I’ve run it (2011 at 48:10, 2012 at 44:19, and 2013 at 43:01), and in 2012 got an AG award to boot. This event is typically very small, with no more than a couple hundred runners, but the runners who do come out are fast. The age groups are always extremely competitive; my AG in 2012 was 3rd, and despite getting a faster time in 2013 I came in 5th that year.
There’s also plenty of free food and beer at the end as well. It’s well-organized, perfectly measured, and has all the amenities of a great event. Which is why I was somewhat disappointed not to be able to really race it this year, but we definitely still wanted to show up; after all, we paid the registration fee!
I’ll cut straight to the chase: we performed admirably in the first half, coming in at exactly 23:30, or a 7:35 pace. The Lady and I were running with a buddy of hers, Danielle, who is also a big marathoner. The three of us were decidedly a strange sight: running abreast of one another, talking about this and that–sometimes completely unrelated to running (I think I made a joke about “I should probably get some laundry done when I get home”)–while still pounding out a pretty damn solid pace. It was a bit surreal, but really, really fun.
Then the second half came. And, uh, whoops: we averaged a 7:17 pace. We worked together to hold ourselves back from really pushing until the last 0.2; it was tough, but the teamwork helped (especially when some other runners passed us, though we passed them right back in the final push). We each blasted through the finish line near a 5:20 pace: I finished in 46:15, followed by Danielle at 46:17, followed by The Lady at 46:18. Yep, all within 3 seconds of each other.
We waited by the finish line for another of The Lady’s friends, Kim, to come across. Afterwards, we all enjoyed the cool-down mile together, and Danielle’s dad even took this awesome photo of us that I doctored up a bit.
And then, surprise of all surprises: I won 2nd in my AG! We postulated that this was because a lot of the “fasties” were resting up for the Pittsburgh marathon, given the strange scheduling with this race being only 7 days out from the marathon. Danielle and The Lady are also in the same AG, and they got 4th and 5th, respectively, with the winner only having a 2-minute edge on them. Had we been racing, they’d both have easily made a run at the 1 and 2 spots (1st in my AG was 41:55; my PR is about 50 seconds slower than that, so I may have been able to take a stab at it. Potentially).
Yeah. Strange race. But oh so, so fun.
So what now? PITTSBURGH HALF MARATHON, THAT’S WHAT.
I am incredibly excited for this race. I’m in Corral A, and The Lady is–drumroll please–a seeded runner! Her Just a Short Run time of 1:42:17 gave her the qualifying time of a 7:49 min/mi pace she needed to apply for a seeded position, and she was accepted a few weeks ago! Our corrals are right next to each other, so hopefully we’ll get to run together. We’re both shooting for the same goal: a sub-1:40 half marathon (or a 7:37 min/mi pace for 13.1 miles).
(to pre-empt anyone: for me to apply for a seeded position, I need to run a half marathon at a 6:49 min/mi pace…ahahahahahaha not anytime soon)
The half marathon this year also has a bit of a personal edge for me. For one, the Pittsburgh half has been a notoriously error-prone race for me over the last few years. I’ve registered for the race 4 years in a row now, but (excluding this year, obviously) I’ve only run it once: in 2012, and it didn’t go particularly well. In 2011, I registered but had nagging foot and ankle problems in the weeks leading up to the race. In 2013, I was again registered and kicking absolute ass in the weeks leading up to the race, but two weeks out suddenly had my left IT band throw in the towel, so I sat out again. And 2012 the race itself beat me up: I went out too fast and imploded on Birmingham Bridge.
Oh yes, Birmingham Bridge.
It’s around 10.5 miles in to the half marathon, so you’re definitely feeling tired. Plus it’s a solid half mile across the entire bridge, at a slight grade. Two years ago, going out too fast + the gradation + the sun beating down on us = complete implosion. So yes: even if I walk the other 12.6 miles of the race, I firmly intend to bolt across this bridge. I’ve had two years to stew over the beatdown it gave me, and it’s high time I exacted my revenge.
As for me: I’m feeling decent. On a scale of 1 (f*#% this s%&@!) to 10 (1:30 half marathon!), I’m feeling about a 7.25. April was not the best month in terms of training; it certainly wasn’t bad, as I still logged 141 miles. But for a solid two weeks, training was pretty hard to come by, and re-entry after a week of wedding preparation followed by a week of honeymooning is challenging, to say the least. I was bouncing out of my skin when we ran Just a Short Run, and that wasn’t quite good enough for a 1:40 half, so by straight logic alone I’m not optimistic about my chances of doing it here.
BUT. As I’m sure we’re all aware, setting a PR doesn’t exactly abide by logic. I honestly don’t know what will happen. I don’t feel as strong as I did at the end of March, but I feel good. I feel confident and poised, and possibly more mentally sharp than I was a month ago. The fact that I’ll get to race with The Lady will provide a boost, for sure; it’s rare we get to race together. And while this race has a personal edge, I’ve also learned from my crash and burn two years ago. Given how good I felt at a 7:30 pace during the Burgh 10K, I have no doubt I can cruise at that pace for about 10 miles before I need to check in. The ultimate goal, as always, is to shut my mind off and trust my training.
Wish us all luck! And if you’re in Pittsburgh (and not running the race), swing by the area on Sunday and cheer us on 🙂
I’ve mentioned previously that running a PR for any given race is always a bit of a roll of the dice. Everything has to go right: you’re peaking at the right time, you haven’t overtrained, you’re relaxed with a healthy dose of nerves, you eat right, you sleep right, the weather cooperates…the list goes on and on. When you’re running 300 out of 365 days a year, there is plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong. And it’s inevitable that they do; it just tends to go wrong on not Race Day.
But there’s the occasional breakdown on race day. And the occasional injury that requires one to sacrifice race day for the sake of future race days.
As I’m learning–for the second time with the same bloody race, no less–that is one tough pill to swallow.
March and April of this were easily two of my most phenomenally productive training months. I went from still fighting off the vestiges of last November’s Philly Marathon to my fastest tempo run ever, culminating in a 10K PR.
Right as I was peaking, my IT band decided it’d had enough.
I couldn’t finish this run; my IT band seized. It came on rather suddenly. Only 6 days ago during our 15-mile long run, I’d noticed it felt a little sore afterwards. It nagged a little bit for the Burgh 10K but (obviously) largely behaved itself. But as that week wore on, it only got worse. For this tempo run, I was shooting for 6 miles at a flat 7:00 pace: slower, in fact, than the PR I’d just set! But still the fastest tempo run I’d ever done.
During the run, I actually felt like I was cruising. Like I could push even faster if I wanted to. But the stabbing pain from my knee kept my mind from settling in as it had during the Burgh 10K, kept me from relaxing and enjoying the thrill of pushing my body’s limits. Hills hurt in a very bad way, and starting again after getting caught at a red light elicited very sharp breathing. When it became clear the pain was only getting worse, I called it quits.
That turned out to be a fateful decision: I attempted only two more runs after that, both ending prematurely when the pain got so bad I would risk serious injury if I didn’t stop immediately.
So for the second time in three years, I was sidelined for the Pittsburgh half marathon due to injury. The Lady wrote up an excellent race report, as he had an amazing race, smashing her previous PR that she set only 6 weeks previous. I was honored to be able to cheer her on again, but at the same time I was aching to be in the thick of things.
It is truly an exercise in humility to know you’re there, that everything went right, and you could have set that crazy PR you were aiming for, except something cropped up that you couldn’t control. In a way, it’s easier than missing a PR because of a bad day, like my Philadelphia Marathon, because it was either stay sidelined or risk a much, much longer offseason. There are fewer “what ifs” this way. But the knowledge that I was ready is still a potent, gnawing thought.
Two years ago, when I missed the Pittsburgh half due to a strained ligament in my foot, I was certainly disappointed. But as it was only the second half-marathon I’d ever trained for–and I’d only been in the routine of training for races for about 10 months–it didn’t hit me as hard as it did this time. I’ve been running–and actually considered myself a runner–for nearly three years now. It’s become part of who I am. And when an injury sidelines me, I don’t feel good about it. The same thing would happen whenever I’d suffer a similar injury in baseball; luckily I never had a football injury that kept me from playing in a game.
Being injured sucks. But it keeps one humble and in touch with one’s own limitations. I’m still proud of what I’ve accomplished in this training cycle, coming back from a very discouraging first marathon encased in stress and bad associations. I know I can come back from this too; it will require a similar level of dedication to fixing the problem, and patience with myself as I recuperate.
Reach goal for Air Force in September: sub-1:35! 😀