Foggy in Philly: An RnR Half Marathon Race Recap

Gray, soupy skies over Philly

My goal race for the late summer was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on September 17. I’ve done this race two times before; the first time in 2002 and the second time in 2013, so I know very well how fast the course can be. Additionally, Philly is relatively close to us, so it’s an easy trip to make for a great race event. I thought it was reasonable that I could get into, or close to, PR shape and between the fastness of the course and depth of competition, Philly was the place to go after a fast time.

The caveat with this race though is that with it being in mid September on the east coast, you don’t know if you’re going to get nice, cool fall-like weather or hot, humid summer weather. After great training leading up to the race, the weather remained the big question mark in how my day would turn out.

When I ran this race in 2002, the temperature was 75 and the dew point was between 70 and 72. It was pretty miserable. I ran a 1:21 and at the time was pretty pleased because it was my second ever half marathon and it was a PR. When I ran the race in 2013 we had pretty much perfect weather, 50 degrees and the dew point was in the mid 40s and I ran a 1:17 and was less than minute off my current PR, which I was happy about. For any of you not familiar with dew point and how it can affect your race, check out this. In a nutshell, the higher the temperature and the closer the dew point is to that number, the more you feel like you are running in a sauna.

This year, I had conditions very similar to 2002: race time temps were between 73 and 75 degrees and the dew point was between 70 and 72. In my opinion, humidity is noticeable when the dew point gets above 60, but as you get more used to it during a typical east coast summer, dew points in the 60s aren’t too bad. When the dew point gets into the 70s, it is very uncomfortable and it becomes increasingly more difficult to hit target paces and times that you could otherwise run in drier conditions, even when you train in it routinely. All this said, I knew to some certainty, thanks to extended weather forecasts, that it was going to be warm and humid at Philly and the dew points were looking to be in the 70s and uncomfortable.

Given this, there were two key points I had to keep in mind: 1) The weather was not going to be conducive to running a PR, or likely anything close to that and, 2) I had to try and maintain the heat/humidity adaptation I had built up over the very hot and humid summer we had here in central PA. On point #1, I knew I had to throw ideal goal pace and finish time out the window. I figured out a pace that was humidity-adjusted (~10 seconds slower per mile), but wasn’t going to keep myself married to it. I was going to try to run more by effort and be respectful of the cumulative effect humidity can have over the course of a longer race. On point #2, I was going to start overdressing on all my runs starting at two weeks out (side note: I actually started slightly overdressing a week or two before this whenever the morning temps dipped below 60 and/or the dew points were below 60) because it takes 10-14 days to heat acclimate.

Luke Humphrey of Hanson’s Coaching Services has a great write-up on heat acclimatization here, and I followed much of his advice. I wore thick fleece tights, a long sleeve, a thick winter jacket, hat and gloves when the temps were in the 70s and the dew points in the 50s . If it was hotter or more humid, I might just wear a long sleeve over my short sleeve and stick with shorts. I got pretty sweaty doing this, but definitely noticed by the end of the second week that I wasn’t as fazed by all the extra layers and how warm it made me. I am sure my neighbors think I am nuts for running all bundled up like it was the middle of winter. The overdressing worked well with respect to how given temperatures felt. I often found myself needing to put on a sweatshirt when sitting around in temperatures in the 70s and even low 80s.I wasn’t sure how this would hold up with how I’d respond to humidity though. In the past, I have had a lot of trouble trying to work out and race in humid conditions. That has gotten better over the years, but I think I am just one of those people that doesn’t thermoregulate well in humidity.

The city of brotherly.....fog?
The city of brotherly…..fog?

So, race weekend rolled around and I tried not to feel too discouraged by the weather. Rather, I was mentally prepared to go out there and compete and was ready to feel really awful from pushing myself in gross conditions. On Saturday night, the hubs and I left the kids with my mom and drove down to Churchville, which is about 40 minutes outside of Philly. There we stayed with a good high school friend of my husband who was also running the race. It was a very relaxed evening. I was in bed by 9:30pm and asleep quickly after that. I got up bright and early at 4:10am to do a 10 minute shake out run before eating some breakfast and getting on the road to Philly. Our friend was really nice and let me borrow a small cooler bag, which I filled with ice from her ice cube dispenser.  I made a quick stop at Starbucks to get a pre-race coffee, an iced Americano because I wanted to keep myself as cool as possible and hot coffee would like have the opposite effect of what I was going for.

Hubs and I then met our friend Alex at 6:30am so I could get my bib from her and then we made our way to the VIP tents. Once there we ran into my friend Frances and the three of us hung out in the soupy air until it was time to do a short warm up. Hubs suggested a 15 minute shake out and not to overdress on this. During the warm up, the thickness of the air was very noticeable. I reminded myself that I’ve worked out in conditions like these multiple times this summer and while not ideal, I still got the job done and I could do it again today. Additionally, I kept in mind that everyone was going to be racing in these conditions. I made it a point to not feel sorry for myself. After my warm up, I pinned on my bibs and threw on my flats. Then I took the cooler bag full of ice cubes and proceeded to put all of them in my race crop top. I went to the line with a very full icy race top.  I figured I had to do all I could to keep my core cool knowing how I typically respond to warm and humid conditions.  Alex and I each dumped a bottle of water on our heads while waiting to start. I also dumped some water all over my uniform. Why not?

When the gun went off, I tried to find an effort that felt like something around 6:00 pace (in ideal weather I was hoping to run around 5:50 pace). I found myself with quite a few women, including Alex, and was hoping we’d have a pack to work with.  The first few miles of the course were slightly different than when I ran it three years ago – we didn’t go as far into center city Philly and where we did go had a lot of turns. Additionally, we were catching the wheel chair racers and their bike escorts in the first 2-3 miles, so there was a lot of congestion and breaking up of our potential pack. From miles 3.5 to about 5 we went up a hill, u-turned, and then came back down a hill before spending the rest of the race going out and back along the Schulkyll River. I felt comfortable through the first mile and then really strong around the 5k. After going up and down the hill though, I was starting to feel kind of flat and off from the weather. I took a GU in hopes that a shot of electrolytes would help. I think it did, but on the whole from here on out the race was a grind.

I had some splits that slowed way more than I would have liked, but thankfully never fully died and was able to pick it up each time I felt myself slowing. It helped that I was reeling in a lot of people during the second half of the race and had a couple of guys to work with along the way as well. I took a second GU around ten because again, it seemed like some extra sugar and electrolytes to replace all I was sweating out would help. And like it did at mile 5, the GU at mile 10 gave me a little extra pep. Racing in high humidity made me feel like I was never running as fast as I could, but at the same time I was limited by this wall around me. It was like my legs felt like they had a lot more in them to run fast, but breathing in all the moisture and my body not sweating efficiently was preventing me from fully exerting myself at top speed. I suppose it was because my body was fully exerting itself trying to run fast while also thermo-regulating in soupy conditions.

I took my splits at each mile mark, I never put too much stock in any of them. I knew I had to just keep chugging along. While I did not feel speedy, I felt strong and I was able to pass a lot of people in the final 5k as well as make up a lot of ground on several of the ladies ahead of me. In the end, I wasn’t too far behind 6th-9th place. I finished in 10th place with a time about 3-4 minutes slower than I had hoped for/knew I was capable of running given my fitness. Many of the women who finished around me were also several minutes off of their best and/or goal time, so the weather affected everyone. I felt pretty wiped out from the effort immediately after crossing the finish line and then the following day my legs felt pretty trashed so it was confirmation that I did push myself as hard as I could on race day.

Husband-coach, me, and Alex B, who had a great race and finished 5th.

While this was not quite the race I had hoped for, I did the best I could on the day given the conditions.  Sometimes there are just things that are out of your control and you have to do what you can with the cards you are dealt. I think there is a lot to be gained from racing in adverse conditions. This race in particular taught me that even if I prepare well for the weather, I am someone whose body does not handle humid conditions all that well. Heat, yes. Humidity, not so much. Perhaps I am just an inefficient sweat-er. In situations like this though, it really forces you to focus on just racing and not worrying about the finish time.

Racing doesn’t always have to be a time trial. I’ve also been racing long enough to know that not every race can be perfect or a PR. I am grateful to be healthy and that I had the opportunity to compete along side some friends and in a city I truly enjoy racing in. Alex finished 5th and I was 10th. Neither of us ran the time we had trained for, but we were happy with finishing in the top 10. Of the three times I’ve run this race, this was my highest finish, I was 18th the other two times.

I am not sure where to go next from here. I am debating putting the speed and fitness I built over the summer towards another half marathon later in the fall or maybe switching gears and returning to the marathon after almost a year long hiatus. After an active rest week I’ll hopefully feel inspired by some potential fall racing options, especially if we finally start getting some fall-like weather around here!

What weather do you dread on race day?

I'm a licensed massage therapist with a background in biochemistry and also a mother of two. After almost two years of focusing on shorter race distances, I am back on the marathon training horse. My next goal race is the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. I write mostly about health and science as they relate to running as well as being part of a running family.

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    1. Thanks. Yeah, I think humidity is the worst condition for me personally. But I had hoped I had outsmarted it a bit with my preparations. Wouldn’t you know it, a week later and we have beautiful fall weather.

  1. Very interesting to hear you took Gu twice in such a short race when you are so speedy. I’m prone to fainting and dizziness when I exert myself beyond potential and in hot/humid races (even recently once while training this summer). I am a fainter even without physical exertion–it’s just a vasovagal sensitivity and not cardio or neurological, thankfully.

    Iknow I sweat like a man and it’s very salty as I have streaks down my body and even on my watch. I haven’t yet solved for the best fuel/hydration to prevent these episodes, but hearing your fueling strategy was insightful. I know I could use more electrolytes, but it just seemed unnecessary on runs/races less than 2 hours. It’s hard to get enough without triggering GI distress as well. I would have never thought to take more in a half and I’m no where near as fast as you (1:37 PR). I’m trying generally to eat a more balanced diet and even converted from 20+ year vegetarian to carnivore again. Believe it or not, it has helped. Protein was clearly lacking and I wasn’t effective enough in consuming vegan sources.

    Congrats on a great race and hope you leverage the training for your next challenge.

    1. I normally wouldn’t take two GUs for a 1/2 and I don’t always even take one for that distance. However, there were a few reasons behind taking two. One is that my husband and I are learning that I seem to have a high burn rate, so even with proper fueling the day(s) before and the morning of, I just seem to blow through my energy stores quickly. That is more of an issue with the marathon though. The main reason was to have a more efficient means of getting in some extra electrolytes. This summer I did some runs in really gross hot and humid conditions and found that taking a GU was helpful to somewhat negate all that I lost through sweating. One workout in particular was a 13 mile run w/ 3.5 miles of progression followed by a mile of fartlek. The dew point was 76 (yuck!) when I did this and I could tell that I was likely losing so many electrolytes with how heavy I was sweating. I took a GU halfway through and it kept me feeling good throughout the entire run. Additionally, when talking with my husband-coach the day before the race, we discussed how to best manage my electrolytes in the conditions. They were going to have gatorade at all the aid stations, but we figured that it would be really hard to get a good number of electrolytes in through drinking out of cups. Having a GU would ensure I’d get more in and would be less messy. I really think it helped me in that situation. My plan all along if the weather had been good was to take just one somewhere around mile 8 and that was mostly from the standpoint of the extra calories/carbs. A lot of this stuff (fueling/drinking while racing the longer distances) is definitely individual and it’s something I feel has been a work-in-progress for me the last few years.

      Interestingly, I have had issues w/ vasovagal reactions in the past as well so maybe that has something to do with how I process the energy I take in? I know it was heightened when I ran through my first pregnancy and I carried GUs or sport beans with me to help fight off any fainting episodes. I didn’t have that issue w/ the second pregnancy and seem to have been in the clear with that for the most part since then….it’s just every once in a while I do have a close call with an episode.

      1. FWIW I never had problems with bonking before my pregnancies and had problems intermittently after. Wonder if this is something we should explore in more detail …

  2. I’m not too far away from you in Kentucky so the weather has been pretty similar — soupy. I raced a half that day, too, similar conditions but we ended up with downpours through the second half. Everyone was slower than expected, so at least you can all commiserate when your times are off because of the weather. I hate it, though, when you know you’re more fit and you just can’t show it because of the weather. It just seems easier to explain a slower time because of a hilly course, for example, than for weather. Maybe because it impacts us all differently? I’m with you in that the high dew points seem to hit me hard. I’ve been tucking a little bag of electrolyte tabs into my sports bra and taking those during long runs. Shorter runs I’ll take a couple before the run to try and keep everything balanced.

    Really interesting info on the heat acclimation process. I don’t know that I could do it!

    1. Yeah, I just seem to not process humidity well despite my best efforts to prepare. The heat acclimation stuff (aka overdressing) is not the most enjoyable thing in the world, but it’s helped me in the past. I’ve had a few warmer weather races (a couple of marathons finishing in the 70s) where I did the overdressing thing and I wasn’t bothered much by the warmer-than-ideal temps. However, those were days where it was warm/hot, but not humid. Something about high dew points really cooks my insides I guess. I’m telling myself that all of the training I did this summer in hot and humid weather plus this race will make me feel great when fall weather rolls around and I get a cooler day to race in.

  3. Congrats on a strong race in tough conditions! I’m excited to see what you tackle next. And thank you for sharing your journey- I really enjoy reading your training logs and race reports. I’m always impressed by your workouts and feel like I’m learning from them!

    1. Congrats on your race! I wish I could have stuck with you and your teammate longer. Philly just hasn’t given us great racing weather so far this year. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to race this fall. I want to put the past few months of training towards something else for sure. Hope your NYC training is going well. I might be going out to watch, so will be sure to cheer for you if I do. Thanks for the note!