So this year, Tommy and I decided to do a half marathon or two in the winter months. The idea behind it was the use the goal of a March half marathon as a good excuse to put in some big endurance work over the winter and build a massive base of volume, and then use the half to judge how we had done with it. It seemed like a good idea until the Polar Vortex decided to rear its ugly mug, which made training a little more difficult. However, I was still able to get in some long endurance runs, some great progressive long runs, and some solid threshold work heading into my race. And training in the cold and winter day in and day out really helped the mental toughness aspect of it!
Originally, the plan was to bust rust at the Re-Fridgee-Eighter 8 mile race in Waterloo two weeks out from Chilly, and then debut at the half in Burlington on March 2. However, the 2014 version of the Waterloo running series bumped the Re-Fridgee-Eighter back a week, making it too close to Chilly to be worth it. In its place we decided to head to Grimsby for the Family Day Half Marathon, and play it by ear.
It was kind of a risk to head to Grimsby, because it meant running two half marathons in a span of 14 days. As a result, I went into Grimsby super cautious and ready to pull the plug if anything didn’t feel right during the race. The idea here was just to get my feet wet at the distance and experience 13.1 miles of hard running in advance of Chilly, while not doing anything to compromise my A race. And if I could get under 1:18…bonus!!
I felt this one went very well. I went in eyes wide open and just hoped to hit the pace. The plan was to go out at Chilly pace for 5k, back off in the middle, and then try to close the last 5k hard. It was a sunny day, but cold (-12) and windy along the lake. I ended up all by my lonesome for 18k, because the top 2 guys went off the front very early, leaving me behind in 3rd. 5k was hit in just a shade under 18:00, feeling very smooth and strong, and I backed it off to 3:42’s from there. I was amazed at how fast the first 5k went by…it just felt like a training run compared to the shorter/faster races I was used to! After 5k however, the race started to drag on a little bit. Going through 8k and then 10k was daunting, as I started thinking that in every other race I had done, I would be finished instead of only halfway there! So mentally it was a little challenging, but my body was feeling well enough to press on.
At about 12k, two things happened: my stomach started to grumble, and my hip flexors were starting to lock up. The first should have been easy to solve…if my gel hadn’t been frozen in the cold! After a couple tries at it, I gave up eating as a lost cause and hoped all my long runs done without nutrition in my naive years would come in handy. As for my hip flexors, I had to make an assessment as to whether or not it was just race-related, which I felt it was. No one said half marathons were easy!
I hit 10 miles in a shade over 59flat, and geared up for the last 5k. Luckily, the 4th place gentleman had been shadowing my for 10km, and his footsteps were imminent at 16k, so I would finally have someone to work with. I just tried to focus on finishing strong over the last 5k while holding him off. I switched into race mode here, which is where I think I truly shine. I held him off until 18k, when he made the pass. I immediately hopped on his shoulder for a respite from the wind, and concentrated on not letting the elastic snap. I kept in contact over the overpass through 20k, and then felt another wind come. I decided to make my move, and easily put distance on my foe. I held strong to the finish, and crossed the line 3rd overall in 1:18:01, thanks to Warren Ringler for the push to the finish…I really needed that!
In the end, I was quite glad to do the full distance. It opened my eyes up wide to the difficulty of the distance, which ended up being invaluable experience for Chilly. I was exposed to the dangers of going out to hard and just trying to hang on for 21km…this distance isn’t like a 10k, where if a rough patch hits, survival mode kicks in! Even rough patches can be bounced back from when the race is this long. With this in mind, Tommy and I decided to plan on trying to run 3:35’s as long as I could at Chilly, and just to assess every 5km to see if the body was responding. And to hope for a nicer day on March 2.
GRIMSBY RESULT: 1:18:01 (3RD PLACE OVERALL)
Well…on March 2 I woke up to temperatures around -20, clouds, and a fresh coating of snow on the roads. Oh joy. The trip to Burlington and my preparations were uneventful, aside from the nerves. Despite the experience I gained in Grimsby, this would be the first time I would be “racing” a half marathon…Grimsby was more of a training day than anything. Right off the gun, I got myself at the back of a large front pack of 20-25 runners. There was a gusty wind that I wanted to protect myself from as long as possible. I stuck there until the first turnaround, where the pace got to quick for me. I pressed on alone at my pace for awhile before settling into a small group of 3 or 4, who I was able to work well with in the wind for the next 7km. I hit 10k in about 35:30, right on about 1:15 pace (which was the goal way back at the start of this). At this point, I was feeling good, and was maintaining a pretty consistent pace right around 3:33’s. I was able to maintain that (with some help) through 12k, when I had another pivotal moment of realization. Just like in Grimsby, I noticed two things at 12k. The first was a need to eat…thankfully my gel was not frozen this time, and I got that down, problem solved. The second thing would pose more difficulty, and would define my race.
I had started to feel the elements wearing me down. I hadn’t noticed the cold and wind all that much through the first half of the race, but at this point, the cold, the wind, and the spray coming off the wet roads were starting to wear on my legs. As long as I could stay in the group, I was able to hold on, but I could only stick in the group until 16k. After going through 10 miles in about 57:30, I was left isolated in the cold, and I switched into survival mode. The legs just started to cramp up, and it just got to be too much without anyone to work with. The last 5k passed slowly and agonizingly, and my paced crept up over 3:40/km as I just tried to get to the line. But I was able to cross in 1:16:24, a new PB by over 90 seconds, and a whole lot of lessons learned.
CHILLY RESULT: 1:16:24 (18TH PLACE OVERALL, 3RD PLACE IN M20-24)
All in all, I think we accomplished what we set out to accomplish this winter. I put some good miles in, got a good base under me, and got my feet wet at a distance that I think I have a real future at. I really enjoyed the half marathon distance, and wouldn’t hesitate to run another one. With some experience, I think I have a rapid improvement curve on the roads, and I’m really looking forward to cutting another two minutes off at my next half marathon! Thanks to Ignition Fitness for the coaching and guidance, Clif Bar for keeping my fueled in training and racing, Hamilton Runner’s Den and Dan Pauls for all the race advice and gear tips, and most importantly my beautiful girlfriend Emma for braving the cold and wind in both Grimsby and Burlington, for cheering me on and giving my your unwavering support during the races (with your awesome sign!) and in all the hours of training and preparation for these races.
Additional thanks go out to Zac and Julia for providing transportation to Grimsby. In your name, here is a poem:
“I ran my first half out in Grimsby
The course was a scenic one by the sea
Thanks to Julia and Zac
We got there and back
And came home with a shiny new PB!”