Wednesday, June 26, 2013

USA Track & Field Half Marathon Championships

Half Marathon Championships (Duluth, MN)

Wowzers. Still in a bit of disbelief at how well things went this weekend. It was an unforgettable experience.

Some have heard the race recap in person, but those who haven’t, here’s what I’m sure will become a rambling account of the day…

The plan going into the weekend based on recent results and last year’s results, was definitely don’t lead the race, but be in contact with the leaders to give myself a shot to be competitive. Based on my 1:10 at Dam to Dam, and based on the top 12 last year (which is the number of finishers that receive recognition and awards), I was hoping to crack a spot anywhere from 8 to 12. My coach Ron was more confident in my placing, going so far as to claim that looking at the list of entries that he didn’t see more than five women who were running better than I am right now (no pressure there). He told me to plan on running 1:13 on a good day, and 1:15 on a “bad” day, which is completely crazy when you consider that my PR (before this race) which occurred on this very same course at the same time last year was 1:18:10. BUT… despite a normal amount of nerves and doubts, I was for the most part, confident and comfortable with the plans. I was ready to mix it up near the front.

Race day run-down:
3:30am – rise and shine.
4:15am – dropped off at shuttle bus for my 10 minute/1 mile jog.
4:30am – depart for the start.
5:00amish – arrive at the start where it is dark, cold, and misting. There is a tent for elites to chill, but it’s big enough for about 50 people with about 20 chairs, and there are 200+ of us (156 men and 61 women – arguably the largest field in race history). I grab a towel and sit on the ground, trying to save my legs until warm-up time.
5:30amish – head out to warm up, visit the restroom multiple times (mostly nerves), and then strip my pants and jacket off before doing my final drills and strides.
6:25am – I line up one deep from the start line (I’m going for it), and we’re off!

From the gun, Adriana Nelson is gone. She doesn’t even care! She creates a 15 second gap within the first mile and at one point will lead by nearly one full minute. She’s essentially a non-factor in the race (because she leads throughout by a comfortable margin).

Behind her, a pack has formed. It’s difficult to tell exactly how many women are in the lead pack because I’m right on the heels of the leaders, but it feels like 10-20 of us. Des Davilla, Michelle Frey, Stephanie Rothstein-Bruce, Katie McGregor, Ladia Albertson-Junkas, and a few other full-time pros are cruising together comfortably.
Lead pack around mile 3ish...I'm buried on the opposite side of road from where picture was taken.  If you have an eagle eye, you can see one little toe of my salmon-colored New Balance Revlites on the pavement.

I choose to ignore my watch like the last few races, and instead run by feel and based on strategy. The pack rolls through miles 1-5 as a large mass. Then around the 10k mark, there’s a noticeable shift. The pace quickens and I have a split second to decide if I’m going to go with or hang back and wait to make a move later. I decide I’m in this thing to see what I can do, I’m going with the movers. Des Davilla (US Olympian in marathon and Hanson-Brooks Distance Project athlete) is leading the split, Serena Burla (Mizuno-sponsored athlete), Steph Rothstein-Bruce (Davilla's teammate), and myself are part of the pack that’s moving.

Miles 6-9 see our little pack spread a bit. Des is making a move to start reeling in Adriana. Serena is fighting to keep a gap from forming between herself and Des. And I’m sitting on Rena’s hip, refusing to give an inch because I don’t want to find myself in no man’s land running alone. At this point, I have no idea what’s going on behind me.

At what I think is Lemon Drop Hill (an arched bridge) there’s a sign indicating 4.1 miles to go, I climb the hill and pass Rena. She doesn’t respond. This is good. But just as quickly as that happens, on the backside of the hill, Rothstein-Bruce comes cruising by me. NOOOOOO! It’s at this point that I decide I am not running a good 10 mile race. I am finishing this. She starts to roll by me and I pin on to her. She wants to play, I’m feeling confident and like I still have some gas in the tank, so I’m going to play.

What ensues over the next four miles might be the most epic racing moment/memory in my life. Rothstein-Bruce is making move after move to create a gap, but I’m not letting her go. I remember vividly at the 11 mile mark, her GPS beeps indicating 2 miles to go, and she surges hard… I continue to focus on the fact that I have a real shot at the TOP THREE. It motivates me to push on with her.

We cruise down the cobblestones of downtown Duluth and my legs feel ready to buckle when I hit low spots, but I push on. We’re coming up on one more bridge, the last uphill, before we’ll wind our way around the convention center to the finish line. I think to myself, I’ve been strong on the uphills. If I’m going to make a move, this may be my shot to do it. So we hang a sharp left (which also helps because I’m running on her left shoulder which gives me the inside of the turn), and charge the hill. I don’t create much, but I create a gap.

                                                         Around mile 10-11ish

With about a mile to go, it’s now gut-check time. I made the move, and now I have to finish. I wind my way through the streets, riding the tangent like it’s my job, and suddenly can see Davilla. We’re only a few turns from the finish (although it feels like an eternity), and still no sign of Rothstein-Bruce coming on from behind. I don’t know if I have 2 steps or 20 on her, so when I round the final corner it is all out effort, everything that’s left was getting poured into that final dash to the tape.

I cross the line…in third place. What just happened?! A race chaperone comes to inform me that top three need to immediately report for media and drug testing and I’m whisked away still in a daze. Holy crap. The rest of the morning is a blur of hugs, tears, and smiles with family and friends as we all revel in what just happened. 

I know this recent rash of incredible break-thoughs in my running may not last long, so I am cherishing each race that ends with a result like this one did. I think the biggest pinch-me moment from the incredible weekend might have been as I made my way to my seat from the award stage and MEB KEFLEZIGHI congratulates ME on a great run… What the…? I wish I could say I played it cool, but there was absolutely no chance of that. I’m so appreciative of this experience.

                                                         Olympian Meb Keflezighi

Oh, and now that I've finally looked at my splits is pretty crazy how perfectly they match up with my perceptions of what happened during the race (the moves, the surges, etc). Splits:
5:30, 5:32, 5:30, 5:28, 5:23, 5:18, 5:29, 5:32, 5:34, 5:25, 5:22, 5:19, 5:14

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

8k Quickie in The Hutch

This past weekend was Water Carnival weekend in my hometown of Hutchinson, MN.  Water Carnival weekend is a summer celebration for the town with carnival rides, parades, and all kinds of community activities.  My folks, who are joggers (that's a soft "j"), had the wild idea to sign up for family division of the Hutchinson Water Carnival 5k/8k road race.  It was Father's Day weekend too and I was going to be visiting my family anyway, so I thought what the heck!  Let's do this!

Turns out my parents ended up with babysitting duties so they, and my nieces, were at the race, but as spectators instead of participants.  So much for the family division competition!

My biggest/littlest fans:  Annika & Juia

The field of competitors was small.  The course was flat and mostly an out-and-back along the river.  The weather was sunny, warm, and HUMID.  Off of the start line, a college guy and I separated from the rest of the field pretty quickly.  We were going out straight into a decent head wind and I couldn't decide if I wanted to use my pace buddy as a wind block or take the lead and see if he would come with.  After a little more than a mile, I opted to take the lead.  Separation occurred relatively slowly, but steadily throughout the rest of the 5-mile route.  I felt okay, but the humidity definitely had an effect on me.  It's tough to sweat and keep cool when the air is thick and damp!

Crossed the line in 26:33 (a PR) with relatively even splits throughout.  My pace buddy was about a minute back.  Side note: I got a kick out of hearing that he was "freaked out" that a girl beat him...freaking people out is always fun.  ;)

Coming into the finish

Monday, June 3, 2013

Dam That Was Fun!

Dam to Dam 20k - Des Moines, IA - "Iowa's Distance Classic"

                                      Doing my best to photo bomb during the race

Wow. I'm still in a bit of disbelief of how things unfolded. Going into the event I was feeling a little under-whelmed. I had a few days of sluggish and lethargic recovery runs (I think humidity was playing a big part in this!). I doubted my endurance to an extent (even though this race is less than half-marathon distance). And I had seen the elite entry list and there were some heavy hitters in the line-up.

All that being said, I cruised down to Des Moines on Friday afternoon for packet pick-up and race prep. This was my first out-of-town race where I didn't have a wing-man/support person with, so it was oddly quiet and even more nerve-wracking trying to kill time the night before the race. Despite that, I settled in and eventually got a little bit of shut-eye.

Race morning: shuttle buses were making trips to the start from downtown (finish area) from 5am to 5:45am. I opted to get up at 4:30am, eat my ritual LUNA breakfast, and then do a 10 minute/1 mile shake out run before hopping on the bus. For shorter races, this ritual (suggested for 2 hours before race start) is something that my coach has implemented and I've come to enjoy as a part of my pre-race routine.

Hopped on the bus around 5:10am. By the time I made the trip and waited for the disembarking process, it was 6:10am. Just enough time to hit the port-a-potties, do a warm-up with form drills, and get to the line.

The weather was PERFECT. My guess would be that it hovered around 50 degrees at start time with the sun out, but without much heat to the day. It was windy, which wasn't ideal for the first half of the race when you're running out in the middle of no-where on country/county roads, but I've been in worse and I was just thankful that the rain that had been predicted wasn't coming down.

I stacked up in the second row of racers from the start line behind a pack of four hired-gun professionals (full-time runners who flew in from AZ, NM, and other parts of the country for a chance at the prize purse). One of them had raced for Ethopia in past events, and the others were just as accomplished.  Very intimidating. What made matters worse, is that when the gun fired, the four of them took off like missiles! I hate to admit it, but I had a brief though of..."well, looks like I'm racing for top Midwest prize because those ladies are gone!" But I went out strong, no other women came with me and after that initial thought, I began to think all I needed to do was run steady and smart, and hope that one (or more) of the leaders would falter even a little bit.

I never looked at my watch during this race running instead completely by feel (side note: even though it's killing me, I still haven't seen my splits because I haven't had access to my GPS software).

I ran the first 5-6 miles basically alone. There were still no other women around me, and the dudes were stretched out with few and far in between each one.

Around 10k, I spotted the first of the women from the lead pack who had fallen off the pace. At just about the same time, a group of three college dudes came up on me. Fortuitously I had heard them during my warm-up talking about wanting to run 1:10. I recognized them, and immediately decided to go with them for a shot at 1:10. As we packed up, we moved by my female competitor and she had no response.

Just after the 10k is the first of several decent sized hills. As me and my dude pack moved up the first hill, the dudes splintered! So much for that plan!  One surged ahead, and I decided to let him go. I stayed with guy #2, and guy #3 got dropped. From miles 7-9 I started pulling away from guy #2 and saw the second of the lead women who had fallen off pace.

I knew if/when I caught her, I was going to have to either blow by her, or I was going to have to be ready to battle. As I moved up on her, we approached a corner and she glanced back and spotted me. She accelerated slightly, and I opted to get aggressive and go for the blow by and was successful in passing and immediately dropping her.

2 down...2 still out there, about 3 miles to go. My wheels started spinning, mentally and physically. I was feeling good and decided to start letting it rip. Around mile 9 there's a long gradual uphill that leads to the entrance of nice, shaded park/bike path section of the route. I remembered it from the previous year. Aside from the home-stretch which is a gradual uphill, the next couple of miles were going to flatten out and were a great spot to pick up speed. It was at this point in the race last year that I made my move on Erin Moeller: catching her, but not quite having enough juice to finish her off. That was NOT going to happen this year.

Winding my way through the park, I felt strong and like I was gaining speed. I came off of an extended, rounded, blind corner around mile 10 and spotted lead pack female #3. She looked vulnerable as we approached a short, steep uphill climb.  I didn't hesitate on my move this time, I was going for the kill. I moved up on her quickly, passed her, and didn't look back. I was slightly worried that she might be saving some gas for a strong finish, so I tucked my chin, strengthened my resolved, and kicked up my turnover.

I picked off a few dudes along the way those last two miles and eventually made it to Grand Ave: the home stretch. It's a long, straight, gradual grind uphill for about 1/2 mile until the final 1/4 mile where it flattens out.

Coming down the home stretch (thanks to my old college coach, Dick Lee, and his son Brandon for coming out cheering me on!)

As I hammered toward the finish line, I spotted The Big Clock (official race time)...1:09:55, 1:09:56...I had a shot at breaking 1:10?! I gave it the beans and approached the line. I passed the clock 1:09:58...and then saw that there were 5 different mats at the finish line! Which one was the timer in?! NOOOOO! I thought there was a chance I had broken 1:10 and was ecstatic. Turns out I crossed in 1:10:02 (5:38/mile pace) official gun time, but hell, I hunted down three of the four leaders (winner was Ethopian Belainesh Gebre in 1:08:41) and ran the fourth fastest female time in Dam to Dam history. Not too shabby!

                       Women's Champ - Belainesh Gebre...she's real, real fast