Sunday, January 8, 2012

Race Recap: The Mississippi Blues Half Marathon

I went to Mississippi with a lofty goal: Finish the Mississippi Blues Half Marathon in less than 1:30 and qualify for guaranteed entry to New York.

I wasn't sure I was quite up to the challenge; I've only had a month to ramp up training after recovering from the Richmond Marathon, and I haven't quite been meeting my speed goals during training. That said, my training runs have been faster than what I was doing prior to Richmond, so maybe I'd be able to pull something out. I flew down to Jackson, Mississippi the day before the race with Todd Hartung and Bobby Aswell, who were registered for the full marathon.

I've been following a three-stage taper for this race, and the day before race day, to my mind, is the riskiest bit: A bump-up in distance at race pace. I decided to do three miles, while Todd and Bobby did an easy two mile jog. The first thing I noticed about my final training run is that the roads in Jackson are in terrible shape. The sidewalks are in even worse shape, with huge chunks of missing pavement, six-inch cracks, broken glass, and myriad other hazards. The second thing I noticed was that the hills seemed a little bigger than what I had planned for. The next thing I noticed was that keeping up a 6:52 pace was hard, even for just three miles. Was it wise to do a hard, three mile run the day before the half? Only time would tell. Oh well, the registration fee has been paid, so there was nothing left to do but run the race.

With Todd and Bobby at the packet pick-up
We awoke at 5 for our 7 a.m. start and I had a couple of Clif Bars and drank about a half-liter of water as we all nervously prepared our gear. At 6:30 we headed out the door for the half-mile walk to the starting line. At 52 degrees, the temperature felt comfortable, but we knew it was going to warm up over the course of the race. There was also the possibility of rain. I knew I needed to get near the front of the pack of racers for the start; based on last years results there would probably only be 50 marathoners and half-marathoners running a faster pace than me. After a blues guitarist played a very cool version of the national anthem, we were off!

About a half-mile in, I passed Bobby (a very unusual sensation for me) and knew I wouldn't see him or Todd again for three hours. I passed the first mile marker and hit my "lap" button to record the distance (I don't use auto-lap on races because I want to measure my time for the official race distance, and the Garmin is always a little bit off). 6:50 for the mile, which is right on target. To run a 1:30 half, I would need to average 6:52 per mile.

As I continued to run, I noticed my pace was holding remarkably steady at 6:50 per mile. I started down a short hill and picked up the pace, and the Garmin's pace indicator didn't budge. Finally I realized that I hadn't pressed "lap," I had pressed "stop" at Mile 1. I restarted the timer, but I had no idea how much time I had lost, or how far I had gone. Finally I passed the Mile 2 marker. I carefully pressed "lap" and recorded a 10:50, 1.6-mile lap, at an average pace of 6:47. So I was missing about 0.4 miles, but I had no idea what pace I was running at that time. I decided to assume I had averaged 6:47 for the whole first two miles—what else could I do?

I passed the Mile 3 marker at a 6:40 pace, then the half-marathoners split off from the marathoners. A woman smiled and told me I was in 20th place. I wasn't especially interested in my overall position, but it was neat to see that someone cared this much! All the volunteers at the race were fantastic, extra cheerful, and many of them thanked me for coming. None of this, however, was making the Mile 4 marker arrive any sooner. It was a gray, cloudy, day, and the mist seemed to be descending closer and closer to ground level. We were running along the freeway, then passed under it and back up a ramp along the other side. Definitely not one of the scenic high points of Jackson, Mississippi. And where was that mile marker? Finally it arrived, and I pressed my lap button to reveal a 7:20 split for the mile. What? I had been running a 6:46 pace the whole time, but it didn't matter--what mattered was the actual split for the mile. My watch also said I had run 3.7 miles, so a quick calculation accounting for my earlier error revealed that Mile 4 was probably a tenth or so long.

There was nothing I could do about it, but in the meantime I had lost 30 seconds. Since I hadn't given myself any leeway at all, I would need to make it up over the rest of the race. I decided to try to run 6:45 splits instead of 6:52 splits. For the next mile I ran a 6:41 pace, but Garmin measured the distance at 1.02 miles, so my split turned out to be 6:48.

I ran mile 6, with its 66 feet of climbing, at a 6:46 pace, but Garmin measured it at 1.01, so my split was 6:50. And now I was really starting to labor, barely halfway through the race.

The mist was getting thicker now -- so thick that it condensed on my glasses. It was becoming more and more difficult to see, and finally I had to just remove the glasses. In the best of circumstances, without my glasses I can see about three or four feet in front of me, but despite my impairment I could definitely see better without them. I could see the worst potholes on the road, so I wasn't in danger of tripping, but I couldn't see far enough ahead to know what type of terrain was coming up: Downhill, uphill, or flat, it just wasn't possible to tell. After a while this takes a bit of a psychological toll. If you know the hill you're on ends in a half a block, it's easier to motivate yourself to push to the top. Running blind, I simply had to try to stay as close to a 6:45 pace as I could. Mile 7 was even hillier than Mile 6, but thankfully it had some downhill stretches, and finally a Garmin error fell in my favor. My watch measured the mile at 0.96, and I completed it in 6:37 despite my 6:55 pace.

But with each passing mile, it became more difficult to keep up the pace. My feet felt every bump in the road, and the strain reverberated up my legs. At one point I had to ask a volunteer which direction the route went, despite the fact that it was clearly marked with cones; I just couldn't see them through the fog. The route went straight ahead. Splits for Miles 8, 9, and 10: 7:06, 7:00, and 7:22.

The low point of the race was probably Mile 11. I realized I almost certainly wasn't going to make my 1:30 New York Qualifying time. I decided to take a break and just run at a 7:30 pace. A runner passed me, smiled, and said "that was the last big hill!"

That inspired me and I decided to try to keep up with him for a while. It didn't last long, and soon a pack of 7 or 8 runners passed me. My split for Mile 11 ended up at 7:20.

Finally at Mile 12 I seemed to get an extra bit of wind. I picked up the pace again, and was able to bring it down to 6:55. Maybe this race wouldn't be a complete disaster. Just over a mile to go.

In the final mile I started to pick up more steam. I wasn't running at 5K pace or anything, but I felt good enough to get back into the 6:40s. I passed our hotel, about .6 from the finish, and the whole staff was outside cheering me on. Oh, maybe they were cheering for those other 2,000 runners, too, but it felt like they were cheering just for me. I told them to warm up the shower for me.

The final stretch, brutally, was yet another hill climb, but I managed to keep up the pace, striding across the finish line as the official clock read 1:31:07. Surely that meant my chip time was under 1:31, right? Not quite -- officially I finished in 1:31 flat, still a PR, but not quite what I was hoping for. My average pace: 6:57, 5 seconds slower than what I needed. My pace for the last 1.1 miles: 6:44.

I really had given it all I could. I don't think there's any way I could have gone faster on that day. I don't think the bump-up day affected me much, but I don't think it gave me an extra boost. Maybe I would have felt better on race day if I had just taken it easy the day before, but I don't think I could have run a 1:30 on that course in those conditions. Maybe on a cooler, overcast day with a smoother surface to run on I might have done it, but not there and then. Garmin recorded a cumulative 426 feet of climbing. That's not an especially hilly half marathon, but it's far from flat. Maybe some time later this season I'll try another half-marathon on a flatter, smoother course and see if I can break 1:30.

In the meantime I headed back to the hotel for a shower. When I entered the lobby I got a rousing ovation from the desk staff. I think I may have been the first racer to return to the hotel! I went up to the room and got my camera for the obligatory post-race self-portrait:

Yes, I realize I don't look great. But at least I'm done!
I showered and walked back to the finish to watch Bobby and Todd cross the line. Here's Bobby approaching the finish:

And here's Todd:

Both Bobby and Todd agreed that this race was tougher than it had looked on paper. But we all tottered back to the start line for a group photo:

The woman who took this picture even let me wear her medal since I'd left mine in the room
We even got to take a picture holding the awesome giant-guitar race logos:

I'm not really leasing out my bald spot!

If you zoom in on this picture you can get a sense of how rough the pavement was on pretty much the entire course:

It was like someone had taken rough gravel and just epoxied it together, then added lots of potholes for good measure. After 13.1 miles, you really start to feel it in your legs. I can only imagine how the marathoners felt!

So given the difficulties, I'm pleased with the result. I may not have gotten a guaranteed entry to New York, but I PRd on a tough course, and saved myself hundreds of dollars in airfare, hotel, and race fees in New York. Not a bad deal, all in all.

If you're interested, my [partial] Garmin plot of the race is below.

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