Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Race strategy: Kendall Mountain Run

On Saturday I'll be doing my first-ever race that ventures above 13,000 feet. It'll also be the first race I've entered that starts above 9,000 feet. In fact, the entirety of the race will be at a higher elevation than I've ever competed.

As if that weren't enough, this half-marathon will also feature the longest sustained climb of any race I've been in. The Kendall Mountain Run starts in Silverton, Colorado, at an elevation of 9,318 feet, then ascends to the summit at 13,066 feet, a total climb of over 3,700 feet! Then it returns back to Silverton for the finish.

The first mile is flat, so that means that all the climbing occurs in just 5.5 miles. The climb is on "jeep roads," which based on the videos on the web site appear to be relatively decent gravel roads. But there's no question they are steep -- the average grade will be over 13 percent. There is simply no way I will be able to run this entire course. The question won't be if I talk walk-breaks, it will be how often. On rougher, steeper trails, close to this elevation, I've been able to sustain paces in the 18-minute-mile range. So in principle I should be faster than that. But although I've hiked/ran up to 11,500 feet, I've never been as high as 13,000 feet, so at that elevation it's possible that I will reach some sort of limit.

We've been staying closer to 6,000 feet in elevation, and here I've found that an 8-minute pace on flat ground isn't easy. On grades of around 8 percent I've managed about a 10-minute pace including walk-breaks. So I'm thinking the best I could do during the sustained climb of Kendall Mountain is probably around a 14-minute pace. More likely is something like a 15-minute pace for the climb. The downhill is steep enough and I'll be sufficiently exhausted from the climb that I probably won't be able to really fly down it. I'm thinking an 8-minute pace is about the best I'll be able to manage, with a 9-minute pace more likely.

So I broke the race down into four segments: the 1-mile start, the climb, the descent, and the 1-mile flat finish. I plugged in a few scenarios, and set up some goals for the race:

The "A Goal" is an aggressive but not overly optimistic plan, and it results in a 2:30 time for a half-marathon. The Optimistic goal is about the best I can reasonably expect to do, if everything goes perfectly and I'm feeling as good as can be hoped for: 2:18. The B and C goals would be a little disappointing but given the challenging terrain and elevation, I'd be happy with either of them.

To hit the A Goal, I should be able to take two walk-breaks every mile, and as long as I maintain a 10- to 11-minute pace while I'm running, I can hit it. For the C goal, I could pretty much walk the entire climb (at maximum speed). For the optimistic goal I'd either need to take fewer walk breaks or actually maintain a somewhat faster pace between the breaks.

All this is really to say that I have no idea what is going to happen. If you take a look at last year's results, you can see that 2:30 is a pretty good time. It is in the top 22 out of 130 or so competitors. Even a 3:00 finish is decidedly middle-of-the-pack. Given that nearly all the participants in this event are from Colorado, this flatlander from North Carolina should be happy with any result under 3:00. But it would be nice to get an age-group placing. To do that I will probably need to be south of 2:30. Last year, third in my age group was 2:24. I'm not sure that's doable, but if I'm feeling okay on race day, I may just give it a shot!

Details of yesterday's workout, my last run on the hills before Kendall, are below:

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