Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My First Win and Realizations About Running In the Front

Like many competitive runners, I’ve convinced myself that at least once I wanted to be able to win a road race outright. To be the first one across the line is the ultimate accomplishment in this whole racing thing, isn’t it? In my mind, if it was ever to happen, it would most likely occur in some short and small local race like a 5k where I might have a really good day and the local speedsters might have stayed away. I never expected it would happen in something like a half marathon, but it did. Yes, for the first time ever (hopefully not the last) I actually won a race. Not just my age group or the overall masters division, but the whole damn race….and it wasn’t a 5k, or even a 10k, it was a half marathon. In many ways, I’m still kind of shocked.

The man in black, heads down around mile 2 of the half marathon.

Here’s how it went down at the Rogue River Half Marathon. I ran this race last year and had a pretty good result, finishing third overall, and running a very satisfying time of 1:17:54 at a time of the year where I had been mostly working on getting in some quality mileage and weekly tempo runs. The course the year before run on the roads along the south side of the Rogue River and was pancake flat on out and back loop with little wind, perfect for running fast times. Also, in 2011, I had some company for the first half of the race with a small pack of guys hanging together at 6:00 per mile pace. After the turn around last year, I took off dropping the guys in the pack and running for home on my own.

This year, everything was a little different. Instead of the flat road course, we ran on the north side of the river mostly on the newly paved bike path that winds along into and through Valley of the Rogues State Park before hopping out onto the roads for the middle four miles of the race. In addition to the somewhat winding nature of the route, we also had a cross country-style stretch (twice as an out and back) across a grassy section of the park. Also, the weather was a bit spottier this year with a chilly breeze from the northwest and patches of sun and rain throughout the day. In fact, it was raining pretty hard on me when I drove to the race, but lucky for us, the sun periodically poked out and it never opened up during the race.

Before the race I spotted last year’s winner Tyler Davis, and commented to my training partner Mercy Ray that there’s today winner. However, in chatting with Tyler and also his father Mike before the race, I learned Tyler wasn’t racing and was recovering from an illness and races from the previous two weekends. Looking around at the rest of the potential “competition” at the start, it was hard to say who might win. As usual there was a good group of quick high schoolers warming up who were probably running the 5k, but I couldn’t be sure. Other than that, nobody I recognized really stood out, so I thought, maybe I could do better than last year’s third place showing. Hmmm, this could be interesting. The one person in the race I knew that could beat me easily was my friend Bob Julian, but on this day he was pacing his friend Scott, so in all likelihood, he wouldn’t be breathing down my neck, or more accurately, someone for me to chase.

From the word go and the first step off the line of the start, I was in the lead. I purposefully went out a little quick since in the past I’ve been too slow of a starter. Plus I wanted to get out ahead of the masses in the first mile where the course is very winding and rolling on the bike path. There were two ladies leading the race on bicycles who surged ahead a good 50-100 meters and pretty much stayed up there for the whole race, which, on one hand was great. Up at the front with them leading the way, there was almost no way to go off course, plus the route was well marked and pretty simple. I thought a few folks might there to run with for the first part of the race as folks settle into their race, but it wasn’t to be. I was alone and was going to stay alone until the finish line.

Heading for home with about a mile and a half to go accompanied by
my trusty pacer and drill instructor Mercy Ray

Well, that is not really true, because I was fortunate to have the company and support of Mercy for the last part of the race. After having raced and won the women’s overall division in the 5k, Mercy ran back to meet me at the 10 mile mark to run in with me for a few miles before going back to run in with her mother Suzanne (who, at age 59 finished as the 2nd female overall in the half marathon). It was great to see Mercy at that time since I was starting to get pretty tired and having been out there for an hour with no one to talk to, I was getting sort of lonely.

That was one of the most unexpected surprises to me, how alone I felt running at the front. Plus, even though I snuck a peak back on some of the tight turns to see where the next runners were, I was still running scared, thinking someone must be coming to catch me. In actuality, I didn’t like leading that way and for that long. I am so accustomed to chasing some body and having someone else to key off, I didn’t really enjoy running up front. Admittedly, it made me nervous and it didn't feel comfortable.

However, one thing that I thought was really neat and I had never experienced before was how supportive the other runners were when I made the turn around and was running back towards the finish. So many folks, up front, in the middle and in the back of the race yelled things like “nice job, way to good, and looking great”. I really was touched and tried to say something back or give then a thumbs up. That was one of the most memorable parts of the race.

Running behind me in second for the entire race was a small group of guys, including John Leuthold, Scott and Bob Julian doing his pacing duties, all a bunch of fellow local masters runners. With about a mile to go in the race, Mercy tried to play head games with me and told me the Bob Julian had made a break from the group and was coming on strong. Aw, crap. She knew that this was probably the one thing that could really scare me at this point. I was tired, but still running well enough, but if Bob was digging deep and close enough he could potentially catch me. But I knew Mercy too, and she’s crafty. I said, “That sure would suck if he caught me. You wouldn’t lie to me would you?” “Oh, of course I wouldn’t” she said, and “he’s breaking away”. “Oh great” I thought, "time to dig in", but I didn’t let myself look back over my shoulder and just kept on plugging away. If he was going to catch me, I was going to make him earn it. Bob was strong than me, but at the very end of longer race coming down to a kick, we might be a good match. Of course, this was all a complete farce and Bob was not breaking away and nobody was closing in to catch me, I had nearly a half a mile lead at that point.

Coming in to the finish I pushed hard up the final hill and ran strong though the line. The crowd was, of course, very small with just under 100 runners in the half marathon and about 75 in the 5k, but they gave me a nice cheer and applause. And I think I finished with a smile on my face, at the very least I was smiling inside, knowing I had accomplished another of my running goals, and in a half marathon no less. Who would have ever predicted that!

As for the stats, my finishing time was 1:19:00, almost 3 minutes ahead of 2nd place with my first and last miles the fastest of the day at 5:55 and most of the miles in the middle run at a very consistent 6:03 to 6:07 mile pace.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Keeping it Honest – The Benefits of Good Training Partners

I’ve recently been reflecting on the value of having training partners. As my running has progressed over the last five or six years from running just to get in shape and try a marathon upward to competing on the track and the roads, I’ve gone from doing all my running alone to having someone to run with nearly every day. Do I have a preference between going solo or running with other people? Well, yes and no. I don’t mind running alone, bopping along to the beat from my headphones, and sometimes look forward to the time alone lost in my own thoughts or mindlessness. But when it comes time for a workout, it is pretty hard to beat the help, camaraderie, and satisfaction of having others to share the work and the pain and the reward of getting through a long and hard session of mile repeats or intervals on the track

Scheduling runs and workouts with others also has the important side effect of keeping one accountable. If other people are willing to drag their butts out of bed for a cold early morning run or a hard workout on the track on a wet and windy day, you really don’t have a good excuse to bail on them or the plans. And almost always, that is a good thing. Many a day have I thanked my training partners for the run or workout, knowing that without them being there and my obligation to them, I probably would have done something easier that day or cut the workout short. On those grumbling mornings where it would have been nice to just sleep in a little later or put it off until later that day or even tomorrow, I am always glad I showed up once we’ve started the run.

When I lived in Washington DC I did all of my runs by myself and in many ways at that time in my life, that was probably for the best. I wasn’t training to race that hard just yet and I was usually burning off a lot of work stress on those solo runs. So, in hind sight, I might not have been a good training partner anyway. Upon moving to Portland I fell into a great group of folks I met through the Team Red Lizard running club with a subset of that group, essentially forming our own training clique with Louis LeBlanc, Bill Mattis, David Embree and Albert Lam. That was the perfect thing for me. I was ramping up my training and desire to compete, I had nearly limitless flexibility for running and training, and I was running with a small group of guys that were roughly my same age and ability and had an equal passion for the sport and training hard. Amongst the Portland training group I usually found myself as a willing workhorse who was happy to let others plan the workouts. On occasion I gladly served as the pace setter or domestique for key marathon workouts of others in the group. We all benefitted from working together and we all got stronger.

Moving to Ashland presented me with a new challenge of moving in the midst of a hard training period and finding new folks to run with. As first I was on my own, with the exception of the weekly group runs from the local running store. Eventually I reconnected with Holly Hight, a Portland acquaintance and past Hood to Coast teammate, and had someone to run with who was close in ability and interested in training hard. Through word of mouth (thanks to Holly) and other introductions in the small running community in Ashland, I met additional folks to run with, namely Bree Ray, Mercy Ray, Maggie Donovan, Jenn Shelton and Bob Julian. Interestingly, until starting to run some with Bob Julian late in the fall of last year in preparation for Club XC, my Ashland training partners have all been female. This was not by design, but more by accident, in that I simply haven’t found other guys, outside of Bob, who are running these kinds of speeds and interested in training this way. Recently I’ve met a few more guys who are interested in joining the fray, pending recovery from injury and the variances of work schedules and family commitments. In comparison to my place in the training group in Portland, in Ashland I have found myself in the position of planning the workouts and more or less running at the front with the ladies pushing me from behind. Of course, when I get to run with Bob it is a different story and I’m working my ass off to hang off his shoulder. Now if I could only recruit a domestique of my own….

One of the challenges of a being a training group is finding your place and having the right mix ability-wise. Being in the middle is probably the best place to be, since you always have someone better than you to chase and there is someone behind you pushing you as well. But even if you are always running in front, you are working to stay on pace and pull others along, as long as you are working hard enough. Being too far off the back or running with folks who are simply much better than you is probably the least desirable place to be in a group and one in which you are likely to push yourself too hard to soon to stick with your faster compatriots. Thankfully, I have not yet been in such a position.

Sadly, I’ll probably be moving again soon and will have to leave my current training partners behind and look for a new set of running buddies. Fortunately, for me, that is part of the fun of this whole competitive running adventure, meeting new people, hanging on to earlier friendships, running in new places, and finding new training challenges. Where ever that next places is, hopefully it has a nice track and nearby trails and I can find some willing fools who also like to repeatedly run really fast circles on a track or down the road.