When we left off, I had run enormous PRs at the 10 mile and 10K distances and I was poised to race the Run for the Cows Half Marathon in Redding, CT, hoping for another PR. So how did that play out? I *did* run a PR of 1:51:28, but I had been hoping for under 1:50, potentially a good bit under 1:50.
A PR is a PR and of course I am happy. But I’ve also been mulling about what happened and why I wasn’t faster. Was this a case of mission creep? A harder course than expected? Not enough mileage? Unwillingness to face the race demons? Maybe some of all of that. Racing is always a learning experience and I’m still learning the lessons from this one.
Why did I decide to run this crazy cow race anyway? My friend Rashi couldn’t stop raving about it. Lots of cool swag. A pretty course. A race director with a big personality. A race with a hometown feel but all the amenities. We worked out a kind of swap – I would do Redding if she signed on for Erie. (A home-state half marathon vs. a destination marathon? That’s not close to an even trade and if she has to bail on Erie, no hard feelings.) Redding did look like a good race. Now I had a spring schedule with a smorgasbord of distances, four races in a six week period, plus three weekends out of town. No wonder my house is a mess!
The first three post-marathon races this spring were big PRs, bigger than I expected to be honest, and that boosted my expectations for Redding. The goal of jumping from my old PR of 1:52:44 to 1:50:00 was already ambitious, but the various calculators and some folks in my inner running circles were saying maybe I should even be thinking south of 1:50. Times like 1:45-1:46 may have been batted around.
As race day approached, it looked like we would have high humidity and Coach Mick suggested a more conservative approach. I have been trying to run without fear and starting more aggressively. But the hills on this course are truly insane. How fast should I start? Should I run without looking at my watch? #nowatchme worked well for my two half marathons last fall.
In listening to me yammer on about this, High Power Running Mentor #1 said I was looking for excuses to sandbag this race. Suddenly the hills seemed bigger. The weather felt more problematic. 1:45 felt absurd. We worked through some of that, but I was left with lingering doubts.
We arrived at the race just after 7am, having seen some of the course on the way in. Gorgeous! Through the woods, often along a stream, and yes, very hilly. As promised, there was incredible swag. You get a shirt, but also a hat, a tin cup, some chapstick, a sticker, and a cowbell, plus there was a huge spread of food, including chocolate milk from the cows. I had my usual race day (really every day…) oatmeal at home and a Five Hour Energy Shot once we got parked.
Just before lining up, I got separated from Snarky Girl and Rashi in the porta-potty zone. I would have liked to line up with them but I couldn’t find them and went more to the front. They blew a vuvuzela to start the race and we ran a loop around the fields. I’m sure this makes for good spectating because the cheer squad can see the runners spread out along the farm. For actual running, it’s not brilliant. Running on grass on a rainy morning meant our feet were even wetter than they had been. There’s also a hill (of course) and it felt kind of like half a mile of not being able to establish a pace, but whatever. I glanced at my watch once and it said 7:15. Oops. Way too fast so I slowed a little as we left the farm and headed out to the roads.
My race plan had been to start at 8:20 pace and see how that felt. The first five miles are a very gradual uphill with several small rollers. I knew the quick start on the farm would also mean the first mile was pretty meaningless so I decided to go by effort. Early in the race, I glanced at my watch a few times, but it was clear that pace information was useless. In retrospect, though, I wish I had checked the mile splits consistently. I caught the mile four split by accident: 8:46.
I kind of wish I had either not seen any splits or seen all of them rather than just that one. Knowing how things were going might have helped me adjust my goals more consciously. I would have known earlier that 1:45 was ridiculously out of reach on this course, but maybe held onto the sub 1:50 goal for longer. Live and learn, or I guess, race and learn.
As we got into the rhythm of the race, I started to recognize the people around me. In particular, there were two women who looked to be about my age. I’ve started to check times for age group placements for races. This is still a weird activity to me and one that feels unnatural but I’m doing it nonetheless. After all, I was in the top four of my age group for my last three races. I’m not going to hide it: I LOVE being able to place. This is complete terra incognita for me and I plan to enjoy it. I might even search out some tiny races at some point just to see if I can win stuff. But for Redding – I knew that anything under 1:50 might get me into top three in my age group, or at least top five, and I would love that. So I wondered if I could hang with these women.
I did stick with them for quite a while. They clearly knew each other. One was tall and thin and did not seem to be working all that hard. The other was shorter and muscular and she sometimes fell behind. I never got ahead of tall-and-thin, but I could pass short-and-muscular on the downhills, where I was faster. She always came chugging back and passed me on flats or uphills. I was working hard to stay with these ladies and I started to wonder if I was working too hard. It was only 5-6 miles into the race. My effort was more like “sentence” rather than 1.5-2 sentences. I was keeping up. But I also felt like their presence was starting to mess with my mind. Was I trying too hard to stay with them? Was that a good idea or a terrible one? I really didn’t know. Around the halfway mark, I decided to let them go. Was that a mistake? Maybe sticking with them would have carried me through? No way to know. Race and learn.
Just before the halfway mark, there’s a massive descent. The road switches from paved to dirt and you sort of drop off the face of the earth in terms of running down that hill. In any case, I explicitly avoided getting my time at the halfway mark. I’ve run plenty of half marathons and I can do halfway split x 2 math even when pretty fatigued, but that was information I really did not want. Therefore I was halfway through the race without much of a clue as to how it was going.
This race has lots of funny signs along the way with pictures of cows and they also count down the hills for you, all 15 of them. Right after the big descent, a sign said something like, miles 7-10 are either downhill or flat.
Looking back at my splits, I clearly felt worse than I was running. My splits say I was back under 8:20 pace after the big downhill, but my head kept saying “When is this going to be over with?” I had promised Coach Mick that I was going to run with joy, but I did not manage that. Unfortunately, I ran with a good deal of frustration instead. The things I often think of to lift my spirits: my daughter Rose, being able to run healthy, uplifting songs on my trusty iPod shuffle – I didn’t remember any of that stuff. Instead my brain was sort of locked on an internal debate. In Coach Mick’s facebook group we had a discussion about running with fear versus running stupid. Do you have to be stupid sometimes to find the place of running without fear? I had proposed that yes, you do. I even wrote “God loves idiots” on the back of my bib along with one of HPRM#1’s favorite slogans: “Do. Work.” I was certainly “Doing Work” but I don’t know that I was doing it effectively because I couldn’t get my brain away from the debate of whether I was running stupid or not. I think I spent a lot of mental energy at this race trying to commit to some strategy or another and failing at it. I wanted to run stupid or run without fear and I don’t think I managed either of those things, but I don’t know why. Race and learn.
I had been hoping to speed up around mile 9 or 10 but before I figured out if that was possible, the course changed. We had been running for miles on a paved two-lane road through a forest. The road wasn’t closed to traffic, but there were barely any cars and the runners were well distributed. I was never alone but it certainly wasn’t crowded. Then there was a sign at the bottom of a hill (of course) that said something like: 10 miles – The Race Starts Here. Ha ha ha, I thought, yeah, the last three miles of a half marathon are always the hardest. But for this course, that was genuinely true. The course left the paved road and shifted to a wide gravel trail. It was narrower than the road had been and we also caught up to the early start folks – the race lets slower runners start the half 45 minutes ahead of time. Suddenly we had twice as many people on a road half as wide and the hills started again.
I was really tired and kind of over the whole thing at this point. I could feel myself slowing down, but since I hadn’t been looking at my watch, I had no idea of how fast I had been going anyway. I decided that I better change my approach. If racing is a battle with your demons, then this is the moment when I said, ok demons, we are all done boxing. I am not doing well with boxing today. This is a fencing match now, so find yourself a freaking blade and let’s go.
I resolved that I wasn’t going to look at the watch anymore at all, but also decided that if I could establish something that felt like a comfortably hard tempo pace, then that had to be good enough. This was another moment of mentally and physically easing my foot off the gas pedal a bit – it is what Sarah Bowen Shea of Another Mother Runner has called “taking the deal.” Tempo effort is not race effort. I took the deal and I don’t feel great about that choice. On the other hand, I did get to a happier place. I decided instead of fretting about pace, I would start counting people I had passed. I would count up for people I passed and down for people who passed me to arrive at a net tally and hope to end up positive.
I got to 30 people before anyone passed me at all. I decided to aim for 50 people passed. Then thought, maybe I can get to 100 people passed? I wish I could report that I found joy, but that would be a lie. I found some grit and that will have to do this time around. Finally we got to the bottom of a never-ending hill, turned around to climb back up and then off the path and back onto the road. I was at over 100 people passed already and my final tally by the end of the race was 130! How many people were even in this race? (Answer: 505 for the half marathon; 450 for the 7 miler).
At the 12 mile marker I thought – ok, let’s sneak a peek at the watch after all. 1:42:xx. Jesus, I’m not even going to manage under 1:50? What the actual hell? Then I thought – wait, a mile to go and 8 minutes. Maybe I can pull out an 8 minute mile and at least be close. FINALLY I picked up the pace, only to be confronted with yet another hill. Oof. Really, Redding Half people? IS THAT NECESSARY? Oh, and another tiny hill and another one again? Sheesh. But this mile is overall a huge net downhill and I finally found some fire at the end. Most of the downhill sections of this mile are sub-7 pace and the last mile of the race was my fastest at 8:07. At the end, you turn around a corner and run through a barn and I spotted Mervus and the kids and gunned it for the finish line, but I could see the clock – 1:51 and change. No sub 1:50. Damn. At least I got a PR.
You get a carnation at the end of this race and the medal and some water. All I really wanted was to find the Incredible Mervus. I handed him all my stuff and just wrapped my arms around him and cried a little and tried to catch my breath. I gasped out “That was so freaking hard.” I just needed to stay like that for a bit and pull myself together. Finally I was ready for him to put my medal on me, to drink some water, and to sit down. Mervus asked me how the conversation with the demons had gone. I said, today we agreed to disagree.
By then Snarky Girl and Rashi were also done. We collected our troops, enjoyed some pizza and chocolate milk, and I presented my flower to Rose. I did a cool down mile around the parking lot and we piled into our cars for brunch at the Early Bird Café. The only shortcoming of the Early Bird was no mimosas, but we made up for that later that night at home.
I’ve been thinking about this race a lot this week. It’s good to experiment. Sometimes you try things and they don’t work out. I managed most of the business of Trying Not To Suck, that is, controlling the controllables, and I feel good about that. My main goal is a fast marathon, not a fast half marathon, and the past few weeks have partly been a break between marathon training cycles. A chance for body and mind and life-schedule to recover. Of course, I still got a PR even if I didn’t meet my goal time.
Mostly I am learning that I want to learn how to race better. Next time around, I would keep better track of how the race was going. I hope I get better at not taking the deal and at racing without fear. I’m not there yet, but more races ahead means more chances to experiment.