Race Report: Eugene Half

Oh hey there blog, I’ve missed you. Want to chat about a really cool race I ran about a month ago? I remember it decently well. Let’s take a crack at it and just see what happens!

For those of you not familiar with the Eugene Marathon, it takes place in and around Eugene, Oregon, a picturesque college town (not unlike Athens!) that is legendary for its running culture. Hayward Field is the locus of the legend, having been home turf to such notable athletes as Steve Prefontaine and Jordan Hasay. Both the full and the half actually end on the track itself, which is of particular note since 2018 was the last year before the stadium closed for major renovations, including a full replacement of the original track that Pre and others actually ran on. So we were the last ones to share the same surface as the heroes who put the place on the map.

Our own journey began super-early…

Super-early, Thursday morning (April 26): The Lady and I woke up at the butt-crack of dawn to catch a 9am flight to Portland, OR. We were lucky to be able to stay with our friends Keeley and Dave, as Keeley would also be running the half, so we were able to split an Airbnb in Eugene.

But that night we crashed in Portland. In fact, we made a point of rushing over to Portland Running Company for their Thursday group run, attended by none other than Mark Remy! We gabbed the whole 5 miles around town, and joined him and some of the PRC folks for a beer at a nearby brewery (Portland has a few of those).

Friday, April 27: We hit the road for Eugene! It took a couple hours, but the drive was awfully pretty. We checked into our Airbnb, which was adorable and easily one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed in.

(ignore for the moment I’ve stayed in all of about 2-3 Airbnbs)

Saturday, April 28: We kicked off our day by going to an amazing waffle joint for breakfast following our morning shake-out run. After that…

…drum roll…

Infinity War! I mean, can you think of a better way of staying off your feet the day before  a race than going to see a movie? I won’t give away any spoilers. We ended up spending the evening at our Airbnb watching Thor: Ragnarok (as Keeley and Dave had not seen the complete movie).

Sunday, April 29

I haven’t really said anything about the race, or what my goals were. Frankly, I wasn’t sure. I was aware that I’d been making strides (very, very slowly) and improving my times over the past few months, but I still felt like I had no gauge for what I was capable of. Yes, my mileage was piling up, and that was extremely satisfying to see, but I still felt shorthanded when it came to quality workouts like tempo runs; I tended to burn out pretty quickly.

It rolled around my head all morning as we prepared for the race, established the game plan with Dave (who would be the chauffeur and cheering section), and culminated when we got to the field in a kernel of a radically different plan.

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Right outside Hayward field!

I kept thinking about my recent half marathons; Chickamauga and the most recent Albany had been great ego boosts, but the AthHalf just the month before Chickamauga–while still a solid performance–had been bruising. I’d just completed easily my most intense training regimen in years, but I still just couldn’t convince myself that I was ready to set an ambitious goal and run it into the ground. I still had so many question marks about my fitness, particularly my fast-twitch endurance, and my mental toughness over an extended race.

So my thoughts went over to The Lady, who was gearing up for her latest run at a Boston Qualifier, having also crushed a tough training cycle, and the thought struck me:

The half and the full run the first 10 miles together. That never happens. Nor, really, does the opportunity to run our respective [different] races as part of the same event. So I made the decision: forget my race. I don’t care what time I get. My goal is to make sure The Lady reaches mile 10 at a flat-8 pace (a 3:30 finish at that pace, well under the qualifying time for her age group). I’ll worry about the last 3.1 when the time comes.

And I actually relaxed. I mean, I knew an 8-flat for 10 miles would be hard for me; I hadn’t put that kind of consecutive workload together for years. The last time I remembered even doing that pace in a half marathon was March 2015’s Georgia Publix Half. But for once I wasn’t obsessing about my own race, and it felt good.

The feeling only lasted for a minute, though–once the race kicked off, I felt like shit in the first mile or two. But probably because…

7:56, 7:46, 7:54

…I was going a bit too fast 🙂 I tried to rein things in a bit, but I stayed pretty much glued to The Lady, hawking my own watch to keep us on-pace and letting her do her thing. The entire first 10 miles are basically in and around neighborhoods of Eugene, so the views were cozy and beautiful.

And did I mention: the weather! It was overcast (par for the Pacific Northwest), but not rainy! And it was very cool; starting temps were in the mid-40s, which is perfect.

8:07, 8:06, 7:47

I definitely felt better into mile 4 and beyond; despite a warm-up mile before the race, it seems like I still needed a few more miles to really shake off the rust and settle in. The super-flat neighborhood stretches also helped, and my revamped half marathon playlist was keeping me pumped without overdoing it.

7:52, 7:51, 8:06

It was at mile 9 where we encountered The Hill. I don’t know what it’s actually called, but it’s pretty much the only hill of any consequence on the course. Don’t let that fool you, though, as it almost did us: just because it’s the “only hill of consequence” doesn’t mean it’s a weenie. It’s no Negley or Baxter, but we had numerous folks at the Portland Running Company group run mention that this hill derailed their race in previous years.

We plowed up the hill. I had AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blaring so I was pumped. The crowd support, fantastic pretty much everywhere, was phenomenal on this hill, cheering us to the top where there were banners congratulating us on reaching the apex and encouraging us into the relief of the downhill.

It was awesome.

Of course, it was only once we’d climbed the hill and descended the other side that I realized I was definitely starting to hurt. I was also stoked that it hadn’t registered until just then! But I was almost to 10 miles, and I’d kept The Lady at a rock-solid pace (maybe even a bit faster than 8), so I needed to hang on just a bit longer.

At this point, the race exited the neighborhoods and went onto some trails. This changed things somewhat, as the route became much windier, which didn’t do much for my feeling of flagging.

8:02

It ended up being almost mile 10.5 before we reached “the bridge”, the advertised point of the half and full courses splitting. In fact, at some point, The Lady had asked if we’d somehow missed the split–we’d gone well past the 10-mile mark! Was she inadvertently now on the half course, or–horror of horrors–was I inadvertently on the full? Thankfully, no repeat of my 2012 Air Force half marathon (how did I not write a blog post on this?! tl;dr I was having the best race of my life up to that point and then was mistakenly diverted onto the full course for almost a full mile); the split was just farther down the course than either of us had realized.

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This was taken on that very bridge, seconds before the half/full split.

We wished each other good luck as we crossed the bridge. I hadn’t been able to get a good feel for how The Lady was doing, but I also didn’t want to bust her Lizard Mode bubble, so I let her know I was proud of her, regardless of what happened.

She’s a badass, BQ or no.

Me, on the other hand–moments after the split, I stopped and walked for a bit. Partly to give myself a break, but also to take it in: holy SHIT. I’d just thrown down a flat-8 pace for 10 miles! I hadn’t done that in YEARS. AWESOME.

I had no plan for this juncture of the race, but I honestly didn’t care. So I cranked my music and kept plugging away as the trails continued. These trails kind of kicked my ass, to be honest; the weaving and all the minor bumps and dips were making it tough for me to find my own Lizard zone.

Perhaps amazingly, my last 3.1 weren’t all that far off from the previous 10 miles:

8:12, 8:14, 8:18

Managing to kick things up to a 7:04 pace for the last 0.1 (my watch measured 0.2), I finished with an overall of 1:45:43.

Which was, in my fact, exactly my best half time since the March 2015 Georgia Publix Half.

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Eugene finishers! Left to right: Dave, Keeley, The Lady, me

I waited at the finish for Keeley (also doing the half), at which point we met up with Dave (who’d enjoyed some hiking + alone time to vent about putting up with runners) to engage in the subtle art and definite witchcraft of Predicting Where The Lady Would Be So We Could Cheer Her On.

We found a spot around mile 22(ish) that was easy to get to, and set up shop. When The Lady came by, I ran with her for just long enough to ascertain how she was holding up, grab a selfie, and to remember that I’d just raced a half and didn’t have functional legs.

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Would YOU be smiling at mile 22? Like I said: badass.

(I’ll link to The Lady’s race report once it goes up)

After the race we went back to the Airbnb to get cleaned up and, unfortunately, check out. We couldn’t really even stick around to relax. By evening, we were back in Portland, though we did take this opportunity to buy a bunch of ice cream and play several round of Peggle before happily crashing.

Monday, April 30: Another bright-and-early wake-up to catch a flight back to Athens. We said goodbye to our hosts, thanking them both for putting us up (and putting up with us). The flight and drive back, while long, were uneventful.

Final Thoughts

Even now, a month after the race, I still don’t know where my fitness really stands. I still burn out on quality workouts pretty quickly, but I seem to have a strange ability to maintain a sustained pace for a longer-than-expected period of time if my mental game is on-point.

And maybe that’s the real take-away here: my physical fitness is absolutely, definitely, positively coming back. More quality workouts, especially tempo runs, would certainly help things, but the sheer volume (and lack of injuries KNOCK ON WOOD) has done wonders on its own. What’s still missing, what would really get me to the next level, is an improvement in my mental game.

Annnd I’m still kinda stumped on that one. As the summer months close in, and the temperatures and humidity skyrocket, mental toughness will be the name of the game; so in some sense, I can count on a baseline level of development through simply maintaining this volume through the summer. But I’m still hungry for getting on the hunt again: a sub-1:45 half marathon that puts my PR on notice, a 45-minute 10K, or even a pair of sub-7-minute miles strung together.

I’ve come a long way in the past 12-18 months; the progress is tangible. If nothing else, Eugene was an indicator that, if I can get my mental game in order, there’s a lot more progress to be had.

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Oh Pacific Northwest, you so purty.

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Moving back to the starting line

I’m currently sitting in the enormous Oregon Conference Center in Portland, OR for the weeklong PyCon 2016 (where I’ll be speaking later this afternoon, w00t!). However, I wanted to take the brief reprieve–there’s a career fair going on in the main exhibit hall right now, which I arguably don’t need to worry about for at least the next 6 years–to discuss something completely unrelated to Python or science in general (ok, maybe it’s grounded entirely in science, just not in the sort of research I do).

The thought that’s been slowly crystallizing in my mind for the past several months (yes, months) is this idea of “starting over” with running. It’s a tough idea to fully wrap one’s mind around; we certainly remember when we first started running, and we often look fondly at what we once thought of as “long” runs or “fast” runs compared to what we do now. But it never occurs to us–at least, it never occurred to me–that at some point before realities of aging set in, we may essentially have to start from scratch.

Start over. As in, among other things:

  • 3-mile easy-pace runs aren’t hard, but they’re not easy either.
  • Tempo pace feels hard after the first mile.
  • Hitting double-digit mileage in one run is really long.
  • Every single run feels at least a little bit grind-y.
  • (corollary to the previous point:) I have no idea what this “runner’s high” thing is you keep mentioning.

There are plenty of other little points, and I’m sure everyone could name a few from their own experiences (e.g. coming back from an injury), but the real kicker I want to emphasize in all this: these are things new runners don’t think about. They don’t have the experience or the context to remember previous easy runs that were truly easy, or tempo runs that got hard once you were a few miles into the tempo pace, or that it was the 20-milers that were lengthy (10 miles was a cutback run).

Maybe it’s just me and my superhumanly-overactive frontal cortex that runs every little thought into the ground before beating it ad nauseum, but it’s tough to shake the feeling of “this is where I should be in my running” when I don’t perform to my internal expectations.

It was about this time a year ago when I first started seeing a physical therapist in Athens about my nagging metatarsalgia in my left foot. The problem never really improved until months later when I invested in some custom orthotics. Even now, though, it can still be problematic depending on how tired I am and, ultimately, how hard my foot slams into the ground while I’m running.

This injury has resulted not only in a slew of secondary injuries from “compensating” while running (Achilles’ tendonitis, IT band warnings, foot pain)–DON’T DO IT, KIDS; DON’T ALTER YOUR RUNNING FORM–but it’s necessitated a huge pullback in the total mileage I’ve logged. I barely crossed 1000 miles last year after logging nearly 1600 the previous year, and right now I’m on track to do about the same as last year. Only in the last several weeks have I managed a sustained training regimen in the 20+ weekly mileage range.

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Finally putting in some consistent mileage again.

The thought bouncing around my head for months but which I’ve only just started fully elucidating is this: I’m essentially starting over.

My paces and average mileage hearken back to an era nearly half a decade ago, when I was just getting into running and had no frame of reference for any of these concepts. In some sense, particularly given the context of this post so far, that certainly made the process easier: nothing against which to compare myself. Just pure reckless abandon.

But as The Lady has pointed out numerous times, it doesn’t necessarily have to function as a weight, a reminder of what you once were, and how far you’ve fallen. Instead, it can serve as foundational experience, a guide for how to do things the right way. How many times have we said that if we could do it all again, we’d do it differently?

Of course, this comes with the caveat that we first have to accept that we’re starting from scratch. That’s the part that’s been months in the making for me. All this time, I’ve been implicitly assuming it would take only a short time (weeks? days? who knows) to work out the kinks and get back into fighting form.

If only any part of life were that simple!

No, this is a much more sustained effort; I took months off from running. Yes, I increased my cross-training, throwing down hours upon miles upon hours upon miles on the stationary bike and, weather permitting, my beastly Raleigh Talus, Sybil. But you can’t leave something for months at a time and just jump back in without skipping a beat.

So here I am. I’m not fully healed yet–metatarsalgia requires constant vigilance, and I have to keep up with my PT exercises to hold tendonitis at bay–but the last several weeks have demonstrated more promise than the months before that. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that those same past several weeks have overlapped with the time where the idea that I really was starting over began to consciously take hold.

Hi. I’m Shannon, and I’m a newbie runner looking to build my mileage and crush my PRs.

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