Angelica’s Iron Horse Half Marathon Race Report

I ran a 1:45:45 half marathon — a PR by seven minutes — and I am still smiling. I can hardly believe I did that!

I can’t even remember why I signed up for this race, the Amica Iron Horse Half. I expect the Retiree suggested it because he was pacing the 1:45 group, but I can’t imagine I thought that was a reasonable goal when I registered several months ago. It was a good match from a scheduling standpoint though – about a month after my last half marathon in Redding, CT and just at the beginning of training for the Erie marathon in September. Maybe I signed up because it’s a fairly flat course? I’ve run Iron Horse once before, in 2013. That year was so hot, they sent extra ambulances to the race. I remember the color-coded signs changing from green to yellow to red while we were running and seeing people laid out with IVs at the finish line. I can’t remember very much else except feeling like the course was not all that interesting. For whatever reason, I signed up again this year.

I had been targeting the Redding half as my goal half for the spring, but then that course ended up much hillier than expected. More than that, I just couldn’t get into a good head space for the race, no matter how hard I tried. I really didn’t want to sandbag, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my head on straight and I don’t feel great about how I ran it. That was frustrating, but it did mean I was much hungrier for a big PR going into Iron Horse.

A quick note about PRs. My best half prior to this spring was 1:52:44 at Hartford in October 2016. That was a solid race. I was well trained and I executed it well. The half is also the distance I know the best so unlike some of the other PRs I’ve set this spring, I didn’t regard my half time as soft. At Redding I ran 1:51:28. Better than Hartford for sure, but not the race I felt I was capable of. A look at my trusty race prediction calculators showed times around 1:46-1:47. But the Retiree was pacing 1:45 … Hmm.

Pre-race goal setting

I don’t know why I couldn’t fix my head for the Redding half, but I know I felt like I “took the deal.” When you’re racing pretty hard, your brain is going to start offering you bargains: You don’t want this that bad, this pace is not sustainable, you’ll do better if you slow down now and save something for the end, it’s pretty hot and there’s another race next month you could do instead, etc. At Redding it was: these women are running too fast for you – if you try to stay with them, you’ll blow up. I took the deal, slowed down, and regretted it later. One of my main goals going into Iron Horse was not to take the deal.

My training didn’t change drastically in the month between Redding and Iron Horse. We did do a couple things differently though – in that month, I had two long runs of more than 13 miles, whereas before Redding none of my long runs had been longer than 13. I do think for the half marathon distance, it helps a lot to run a few runs longer than the race so I was glad to get those in. I also did hill sprints on Thursdays instead of longer intervals on the track, but this was really as early-stage marathon training. I like hill sprints but can’t imagine they made much difference in my half marathon time.

I don’t think the training was the most important difference between Redding and Iron Horse. And even though Iron Horse is a much easier course, I don’t think that was it either. The biggest difference was mental. I’ve been reading Deena Kastor’s new book, Let Your Mind Run (affiliate link) and it’s full of inspiration for “thinking your way to victory.” Deena writes about finding the positive in any given day and about the importance of confidence in your own abilities. Somehow in the week leading up to Redding, I let doubt sneak into my mind. I could feel it happening, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I fixed it for Iron Horse though.

Thursday afternoon before the race, I talked to Coach Mick. I told him straight up: I want to run with the 1:45 pace group. But also, that I felt pretty nervous about the idea. We talked about the possibility of things going wrong – if I went out too fast and ended up running 1:53, could I live with that? Yes, I could. Much better to take the risk than to take the deal. I didn’t want to be left wondering again what I might be capable of. I knew what I wanted to do, but Coach Mick helped me believe I could do it. He said the plan was aggressive but doable and assured me he would tell me if he thought otherwise. By the time we were done talking, I felt a lot more confident.

The weather report for race day was pretty favorable. Upper 50s at the start with humidity higher than desirable, around 80%, but dropping, and some cloud cover. Not the most perfect weather, but given that the Retiree and I individually tend to get more than our allotted share of hot races, we expect near apocalyptic conditions whenever we show up on a race course together. This was far from apocalyptic.

The Race

The predicted weather was unchanged race day morning. I had gotten everything ready the night before, including my brand new On Your Mark Coaching singlet that I’d begged my coach to send me for months. It’s funny to remember last fall when I was so out of practice with racing that I wasn’t sure what to do. Now it’s like clockwork again. Get up, make coffee, make oatmeal, gather stuff, take care of potty business, etc.

Race morning was cold. I didn’t want to take my long sleeve shirt off! I took my 5 hour energy shot, went to packet pick-up and found the Retiree, aka the 1:45 pacer. By start time the clouds had cleared and now I was comfortable in my singlet instead of freezing in my long sleeves. I worried a little about this development – no one can blame me for being gun shy when it comes to heat – but the weather report had said it wasn’t getting hotter and I chose to believe it. Positive attitude, all the way.

I had tried to formulate this whole race as taking care of business and even though I was nervous, it also felt like that. I was tired of being a 1:5x half marathoner and ready to be a 1:4x half marathoner. I was convinced I could run sub 1:50 and it was just a question of finding out how low in the 1:40s I could go – I intended to get as low as possible. My confidence level could hardly have been different from Redding.

In terms of watch-watching – something I have thought about and written about – I had originally planned to check mile splits even though I would be with the Retiree and I knew we would be on pace. My theory had been to use this as sort of exposure therapy. I intend to look at my watch during Erie and this was my last major race before Erie because the weather is surely about to get hot. My coach advised against this sort of overthinking, however, and told me to just rely on the pacer. Ultimately I took his advice. While I was with the Retiree, I only peeked once at my watch, and it was to check which mile we were in, not pace.

I was pretty focused right from the beginning. It wasn’t so much that the running was hard as that I didn’t have a lot of extra head space for bantering with the others in the group. Like most runners, the Retiree occasionally gets down on himself more than he needs to and I chimed in at those moments to correct the record. Otherwise I was happy to listen to them chatter about past races, the course and future plans.

By about mile 3 or 4, I started to feel like I was working. Some of that might have been adrenaline. No matter how much I told myself I was just checking off a box, taking care of business, etcetera – the fact is, I was still starting this race with the goal of an absolutely massive PR. We started much faster than I have ever started a half before. Often I’ve enjoyed the first five miles or so of a half marathon, or even a few more than that, before the real work starts. This race was more like a few miles of focus followed by a lot of miles of work. One of the number one things I’ve learned from running shorter races with pacers this spring is this: I need to start faster. It’s a strange lesson for a marathoner and I don’t know if it applies to the 26.2 distance, but for the half or anything shorter, it’s clearly paying off.

By mile 4 I was already wondering if I was going to be able to stick with the Retiree for the whole race. Or, to be more accurate, I was wondering exactly how long I could hold on for.

Somewhere around mile 5, he asked how I was doing. I said, I’m working. He said, a little work is not a bad thing. That’s a great comment for a pacer to make. He acknowledged that this was not a walk in the park for me, but also that really everything was fine. It’s supposed to be work. I had not expected it to be as much work so early in the race. After mile 5, I took it mile by mile. Every mile that went by, I just thought, good, that’s another one down. Let’s do one more. Hang on for one more. Hang on to get to the halfway mark. The course was not perfectly flat, as had been promised, but the “hills” were no big deal.

I didn’t join in the pace group chatter; instead, I got this, over and over again, in my head:

Brain: Okay, that’s about it. It’s time to back off. Switch to 8:20s. That will feel so much better. Maybe even 9s, that would feel wonderful.

Angelica: No, I am not taking the deal this time. Stay at 8:00.

Brain: This is harder than you thought it would be. You will blow up if you keep doing this.

Angelica: It’s supposed to be hard. I do NOT want your fucking deal.

Brain: Maybe the Retiree’s pace is too hot. This feels pretty fast.

Angelica: He is not too fast. I am fine right now.

Brain: I dunno, do you want to be walking later?

Angelica: Shut up! No fucking deal!

It was pretty much that, over and over, from about mile 4 until about mile 10. Interrupted only by occasional chatter and remembering to take my GU and grab water. Somewhere around mile 7, I turned on my music, which definitely helped. At mile 9, I barked out “TALK!” and the Retiree chuckled and started rambling. But my effort level had risen from 10K effort to at least 5K effort and even with only 5K left to go, I was pretty sure I was about to lose contact with the pace group. That happened at 10.27 miles, to be exact. It was the second time I looked at my watch during the race.

There was a different voice coming at me now, not my brain, but my legs, which weren’t responding how they had been even as I yelled at them. Okay, time for phase two. The 8:20 idea wasn’t random. An 8:20 pace yields a 1:50 half marathon and my number one goal was to get under 1:50. At this point I knew that even if I ran 3 miles at 8:20, it would only add a minute or so to my time, so still 1:46 and change.

I felt good because I had hung on longer than I thought I could. I slowed to 8:20 pace and tried to keep the pace group in sight.

I am completely satisfied that I didn’t take the deal – I gave what I had to give. Now I had to handle the hot, sunny fields and the hills alone. The fields came first and I could still see the pace group inching ahead of me. But the sun was much less bad than predicted so this segment was really fine. [Side note: I am totally channeling Deena here! My brain was re-framing everything to find the positive angle.]

At mile 11, I started counting. I usually try to put this off until the last mile, but here, I needed it earlier. I know it takes me about a 500 count to run a mile and I figured: I can do anything for a count of 1000. I won’t say this section of the race was easy, but it was differently hard. It was a relief not to have to keep up with the Retiree. I was in charge of pace now and I looked at the watch a few times, to be sure I wasn’t slower than 8:20. The first mile split I saw was 8:06. Not bad at all! Just those 5-6 seconds a mile slower were also making a huge difference in how I felt. The road here had a steep camber so I focused on running on the yellow divider line where it was flatter. I was so focused in my head that a couple of times I almost ran right into the cones dividing the runners from traffic.

For the last two miles, I counted. I thought, this is what I came for. I tried to find God on the road at the end of a long, hard race and maybe I did, just a little. No more pace group. No external voices. Just me, and God, and my music, and that double yellow line, stretching on, hopefully not for forever, but just for a count of 1000. I saw a clock that said 1:32:xx or possibly 1:35:xx and I suppose that must have been at the 12 mile marker. I saw another one at 1:42:xx and I suppose that was the 13 mile marker. My math skills were pretty much zero and I didn’t have a ton of confidence that the mile markers were placed correctly anyway. But when I saw the finishing clock at 1:45:30, that was clear enough. I found a bit of a kick for the last few yards after all and I knew when I was done that I had run 1:45:xx. YES YES YES!

I crossed the line absolutely elated. The Retiree more or less caught me, then got me some water and I sat on a railing for a bit catching my breath. THIS is how it feels to run a really great race!

Once I caught my breath, we went and checked the results for the official time: 1:45:45! 5th in my age group!  I forced out a slow cool down mile and did a little stretching. We had settled on Ana’s Kitchen for our post-race brunch and it was excellent. The only drawback was that they don’t have a liquor license so no post-race mimosa. I took care of that on the way home though and had one on the porch.

I will be smiling about this race for a long time to come. More than any other race this spring, I understand what a 1:45:xx half marathon means about the kind of runner I am becoming. It’s been a long road and a lot of work, with more to come. But the payoff is even sweeter than I imagined it being. Bring on Erie.

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