Friday, November 15, 2013

Fall Racing Lessons Learned

Getting back into running races after an 8 month break since the Myrtle Beach Marathon was harder than I thought. Surely the fact that I’d been run training and racing triathlons would give me some benefit, and one or two short races would get me back into form before next weekend’s half marathon in Annapolis.

So much for that theory. Turns out that I’d lost my feel for starting out running, as opposed to racing the run as the final portion of a multi-hour event, and this showed – badly – this fall. In summary:

October 13: 8k race in Arlington. Goal was sub-8 pace, finished in 40:31 and averaged 8:08 pace with Mile 4 registering an 8:56. Fail. 

Yes, I realize that my fastest mile and slowest mile were 90 seconds apart. Yes, I realize how bad that is. Yes, I did a marathon with less than 30 seconds between my fastest and slowest mile. Yes, an 8k is less than 20% of a marathon. Yes, yes, yes. A bad race.

November 3: 8k race in downtown DC. Goal was to race better than I had 3 weeks earlier to boost my confidence for the Annapolis Half. Finished 40 seconds *slower* in a 41:12 with mile 4 clocking in at 8:37 – the slowest mile again.

Sure, there was just under a minute of difference between the fastest and slowest mile this time, but I still DIED. And went home considering dropping out of the half entirely.

Instead, I looked for a last-ditch effort to put in a solid race. And found a 10k.

November 10: 10k race at Hains Point in DC. Goal was to “not have a terrible race,” and I told absolutely nobody – not my coach, not my running friends, not even my boyfriend – that I was racing in case it went bad YET AGAIN. Finished in 49:30 to break 50 minutes, which was a goal I’d had in mind since last fall, and paced fairly evenly.

So what was the difference?

The most obvious answer is sharper race form, due to a variety of factors. Such as: experience actually racing something shorter than an hour, having more time to come back from my 3 week break in September, and adjustment to more running mileage this fall.

It’s more than that, though. Much of it was in the approach to the race.

As an endurance junkie (hello, my half marathon PR is actually from the second half of a marathon and I have a problem), I have a tendency to start out runs slow and get faster as I warm up and get into a rhythm. This is fine for long training runs, progression runs, and even tempo runs. But a 5k race? A 10k? If it takes you 20 minutes to get going, you just missed the entire race. Knowing this, I take shorter races out so that they feel hard, but I think I overshot this in the two 8ks I did. After that, I inevitably started slowing down, and then wasted a lot of energy as my form fell apart while I was trying to speed back up. That left me in miserable condition, willing myself to at least jog rather than stop entirely. Witness: the mile 4 splits in both races.

So for the 10k, rather than trying to take the first mile out “hard,” I took it out “strong.” This may just sound like semantics, but it worked in my little brain, so let’s go with it. I think I repeated the phrase “strong and controlled” to myself about 800 times during the race. This got me a solid, but not aggressively speedy, first mile of 7:44. After that, the idea was that rather than flailing to get as fast as I could, I maintained my posture and focused on my form when I started to feel fatigue. Those focus points pulled me back into a good rhythm and steady speed, and netted me two more sub-8 miles (7:49-7:51).

I won’t lie, the last half hurt, but it was manageable when I focused on staying strong and maintaining my form rather than mentally giving up as I just barely crossed over into the 8s for my pace (8:00-8:02-8:03). I think this was the real key – in the 8ks, as I saw myself slow down, I tried to encourage myself by telling myself I could do better…but then quickly spiraled down into thoughts of “You think you can do a 1:45 half marathon? You think you can chase a big time goal in a half ironman? But you can’t even go sub-8 for a short little road race?”

Oddly enough, these thoughts don’t help. Shocking, I know.

I discovered during the 10k that it was much better to acknowledge the slightly slower split, accept it for what it was, and continue to run as strong and fast as I could while staying in control of the race. With that approach, I only slowed down a few seconds, rather than, say, a minute, for the last couple of miles, and crossed the finish line pretty happy about breaking 50 minutes with a fairly even-paced race.

While breaking 50 minutes was nice, the great thing I came away with was a solid mental and physical approach for the half marathon next weekend. I can take out it strong, sure, and probably should given my ability to build into a longer run. But I don’t need to take it out hard, and I don’t need to mentally chastise myself over any mile that comes up over my goal pace, because wasting mental energy like that not only makes the race harder and slower, but it makes it no fun at all.

And who needs that?


  1. I feel like I'm the exact opposite (except generally slower, since I'm a slower runner). I have some pretty respectable 5K and 10K times, and even my half marathon suggests that I should be way faster than 5 hours in a marathon. But I'm not, so oh well.

    I beat myself up after every bad mile last weekend and it was stupid and pointless so don't do that. But go kill it! Good luck.

  2. I absolutely loathe anything shorter than a marathon, but sadly such races are a necessary evil. My pace is usually quite even during a marathon (barring any dead-leg incidents), but in half marathons it's all over the bloody place. 10Ks I'm not sure about - the last one I ran was actually quite consistent, but I run so few road 10Ks these days that it's difficult to tell. I never really feel warmed up until I've run at least 5 miles, preferably more.

    Good luck for your half!


  3. Congrats on the 10K! I do think that it's hard to switch between that long-slow-distance-type running (not that your marathon falls under the "slow" term!) and shorter races.
    One of these days, I'd like to attempt a new PR at the 5K distance, but that involves just way too much suffering!

  4. Yes! I have been finding myself during races beating myself up when a particular mile is off pace but it really does nothing except start the negative thought spiral in my head. In today's race I consciously focused on NOT doing that and I think it helped. You CAN and WILL run fast next weekend.

  5. I have the same endurance-junkie "start out slow and get faster as I warm up" problem, for sure, which is why I totally suck at short distance races (well, also because I'm slow generally.) Good luck at the marathon next weekend!

  6. Yet another reason to love running off the bike--you're already warmed up! Off the bike, I'm usually able to piece together an evenly paced run. During "open" road races or whatever, my MO is usually going out too fast and paying for it later. I'll learn one of these days.

  7. I love the last paragraph of this post; words to live by. I am also an endurance junkie... I have negative split nearly every race I've ever done in my life. My age group swim coach would get ridiculously upset with me because I could not take a race out quick to save my life. The same trend seems to have transferred over to running/triathlons now that I've picked them up as well. Oops... at least I finish strong??