Thursday, July 4, 2013

A tale of two races

My goal for the Atlanta Peachtree 10K was to put in a good performance on what would almost certainly be a hot, humid day. Typically I haven't done well in the heat, as evidenced by poor performances in the Rocket City Marathon and the Leprechaun Loop, so I didn't think I could match my 39:18 PR, but I figured I might be able to break 40 minutes.

As it turned out, the weather was a little cooler than usual for this event -- around 70 degrees -- but it was extremely humid. In fact, at 6:15 when I met fellow DARTer Marc Hirschfield at the MARTA stop to the start line, it was raining. The forecast was for intermittent rain all day, so I had bought a cheap umbrella that I planned on ditching at the start line.

After a quick ride to Buckhead, Marc and I found our starting corrals. Here we are under the traditional gigantic American flag near the start:


Then we split up. I had managed to get placed in the "top seeded" corral by virtue of my 18:03 5K PR. I ditched the umbrella and started my warm-up. It was amazing to be warming up and seeing Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezghi going through his strides at the same time.

Then, before I knew it, the race started, and Meb and all the Kenyans dashed off ahead, quickly putting me and the 800 or so other "top seeded" runners in our place!

To run a 40-minute 10K, you need to average a 6:26 pace per mile. But the first three miles of this race were flat or downhill, followed by two tough uphill stretches, so my plan was to run these first three miles at a 6:07 pace, which in theory would put me on track for a 38-minute 10K. Then if need be I could slow down on the hills.

Now, depending on your perspective, my race unfolded one of two ways. I think the easiest way to explain it is just to describe each race separately.

Race 1
In this race, I took off at what felt like a solid 6:07 pace, but when I reached Mile 1, I saw that I had completed it in 6:29 (!). Oh no! Fortunately the downhill second mile allowed me to recover, and I pulled of an amazingly speedy 5:49, so I wasn't too far off my planned pace.

In Mile 3, I tried to maintain my pace on the downhill, but again I struggled, especially at the end of the mile, when we began the tough uphill stretch that we'd finish in Mile 4. The rain had stopped, so instead of getting cooled by the raindrops, we ran in what amounted to a steambath. Mile 3's split was 6:39. No, no, no! I did a quick calculation in my head and figured out that I'd need to run a 6:26 pace for the rest of the race to have any chance of reaching my goal. And Mile 4 and 5 were both uphill.

The hill on Mile 4 was as brutal as it looked on the course elevation profile beforehand. I took a cup of water at the water station and dumped it over my head to try to cool off, and it helped for a while, but soon I found myself gasping for breath and feeling nearly completely spent. Mile 4 split: 6:51. It wasn't looking good.

Mile 5 was even worse. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn't seem to make my body move as quickly as I needed to in order to reach my goal. I needed to be going faster, but I just kept slowing down. My split for the mile was a pathetic 7:37. There was no way I was going to break 40 minutes... it was impossible.

Now, before I get to the end of Race 1, let me bring you up to speed on my performance in Race 2. It'll be up to you to figure out which race I really ran.

Race 2
As the race started, I noticed a big gap ahead of me and took advantage, building up my pace moment by moment. After a third of a mile I noticed I was running roughly a 5:33 pace, so I backed off just a touch. I was breathing heavily but it felt like this pace was sustainable. As I passed the first mile marker I hit my lap button and was very close to my target pace: 6:08 per mile. On the downhill Mile 2, I continued at a similar pace, but things felt easier since I had the aid of the hill. I checked my pace frequently and found that I was pretty much in the zone I needed to be in. My pace as I passed the Mile 2 marker was 6:06. Perfect!

The race continued downhill and I continued to perform well, though I was worried about the hill coming up in Mile 4. It was amazing to be among so many runners at a similar ability level to myself, running so fast -- Boston had been like this in terms of the other runners' abilities, but we were running 7:30s, not 6:07s! I was slowed a bit by the uphill at the end of Mile 3, but still turned in a respectable 6:13 pace for the mile.

For Mile 4 I told myself I could slow down to as much as a 6:45 pace -- this was the biggest hill on the course. I had thought I might be passing some other runners here but everyone seemed to be holding their pace about as well as I was. I noticed my pace getting slower, slower, slower, but then I saw the crest of the hill ahead and tried to give an equal effort as the course leveled off and then went into a brief downhill stretch. I managed to pick it up quite a bit at the end of the mile, finishing in a 6:37 pace. I just might be able to do this.

Mile 5 was in some ways tougher than Mile 4 -- there wasn't the same sustained uphill, but the rolling hills had a net uphill of 85 feet. I tried to remind myself that there were just two miles left, but I slowed a bit anyways, finishing the mile in a 6:43 pace. Still, with a downhill Mile 6 ahead, I might be able to do this.

Race 1
I knew I wasn't going to break 40, but I figured I might as well keep pushing. As I turned the corner from Peachtree onto 10th Street, I saw my wife Greta cheering me on, and I gave it another push, striding as hard as I could as I ran down the hill towards the finish. Mile 6 split: 5:34. Fast, but certainly not fast enough, right?

Race 2
I kept pushing, knowing there was just a mile to go. I waved to Greta as I saw her on the corner of Peachtree and 10th, then strode purposefully down the hill towards the finish line. If I could keep my pace under 6:26 for this mile, I should be able to make it. As I passed the mile marker, my pace was 6:21.

Both Races: The finish
The finish unfolded pretty much the same way in Race 1 and Race 2. The only difference was my attitude. In Race 1, I was resigned to a slow finish, but determined not to give up. In Race 2, I picked up the pace as I always do over the final yards of a race. I looked up and saw the finish line clock, just 50 yards away. It read 39:40. In both races, it read 39:40. I was going to make it. I did make it. My official chip finishing time was 39:46 (accounting for the few seconds it took me to get to the start)! On a warm, exceptionally humid day, I had managed to overcome my usual poor performances in these conditions and put in a very solid 10K on a very tough course. I couldn't believe it!

So what was the difference between Race 1 and Race 2? It was the mile markers. The official mile markers must have been placed inaccurately, so despite the fact that the overall distance of the race was recorded as a reasonably accurate 6.28 miles on my Garmin, there was substantial variance in each mile. Here's the distance I recorded for each mile marker:

1. 1.06
2. 0.96
3. 1.07
4. 1.04
5. 1.12
6. 0.88
Final 0.2 miles: 0.15

So through the Mile 5 marker I had actually run about 5.25 miles! Then the last 1.2 miles was actually 1.03 miles, so I made up all the time I thought I had lost. The actual mental experience I had was Race 1 -- Race 2 is how I would have experienced the race if I had only paid attention to my Garmin-reported pace instead of my actual times for each marked mile.

Crazy race experience, but still neat to run among so many fast runners, through the streets of a big city, and to do well on a very humid day. Here's the photo Greta took of me near the finish line:

You can see the thousands of runners who had yet to finish the race behind me! They would continue running for at least another hour after this!

Below is my Garmin record for the race.

1 comment:

  1. Quite an original report, congratulations for this and the race!