Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Race Recap: Houston Half Marathon

A few weeks before the Houston Half Marathon, a friend posted a long-term weather forecast that looked dire: Temperatures in the mid-70s with near-100% humidity. This is very nearly the worst weather to race in, but my previous experiences with weather-stalking convinced me that this was WAY too early to be concerned. Sure enough, as race day approached, the forecast changed more than once. For a while it looked as if conditions would be nearly perfect, low fifties and lower humidity. Unfortunately this forecast was still too early, and by a few days before the race it was clear that temperatures would be in the high 60s with nearly 100% humidity. I've raced in these conditions before, and never with a good result.

I had chosen to race Houston partly because it's a flat and fast course (Ryan Hall set the US record here), but mostly because I wanted to meet up with online friends I had known for years. We had formed a close-knit group while losing weight on the MyFitnessPal website and now we get together in person whenever we get the chance. This group was where I got the idea for Brolympus, my running alter-ego who populates social media with terrible running advice. We have all seen so much bad decision-making, both by ourselves, and by other runners, that there is a never-ending supply of fodder for Brolympus's memes.

I arrived on Friday for Sunday's race, and shenanigans began almost from the get-go. After a beer-soaked reunion Friday night, we reconvened Saturday for a shake-out run in the form of the Brolympus 5K Marathon:

Are we having fun yet?

Conditions during the shake-out, where the weather was about what had been predicted for the marathon, actually didn't seem too bad. I got a little sweaty but felt like I might be able to go ahead and give my Plan A a shot: Run the whole race at a 7:00 pace and qualify for the New York Marathon with a 1:32.

Revelry was more restrained on Saturday night, and we all headed to bed early enough to get a reasonable amount of sleep before our 4 a.m. wake-up call for the race. I had a bagel and tried some of a friend's beet concentrate as a pre-race supplement. Then we walked to the start in the early-morning darkness:

Beautiful Houston morning...but how will the race go?

Once again, the conditions didn't seem bad. It almost felt a bit chilly, and a light breeze cooled us even more. But race-morning temperatures were in the mid 60s, the humidity was high, and neither figure was expected to decline before the 7 a.m. race start.

At the race start, our whole group got together for a photo before heading out to the race corrals. 

Air-conditioned optimism

Team Brolympus!

The "A" corral, where I'd be lining up, closes at 6:40 a.m., so it was important to get out there early. I was assured there would be porta-potties in the corrals, and this proved true. The lines weren't long either, and I had plenty of time to take care of pre-race business. All signs were pointing to a good race. I made my way to the position marked "7:00/mile" pace, along with several hundred other optimists. Here I am lined up and ready to go:

After 20 minutes or so of nervous waiting, the race got under way right on time. For the first mile I struggled to get up to race pace, my watch stubbornly indicating I was below target. Meanwhile I had to be conscious of the runners around me. Some folks clearly hadn't gotten to the position they wanted at the start, and so were zipping past as they tried to make up time. Others were moving very slowly, at what must have been an 8- or 9- minute pace. Didn't they see the signs in the corral telling them where to line up? By the end of Mile 1 my pace was 7:17, almost where I wanted it.

I tried to pick things up a bit more for Mile 2, and willed myself to a 7:05 pace. Still too slow, but every step was a struggle. The humid air seemed to close in on me, and the pack of sweaty runners around me didn't help keep things cooler. I grabbed two cups of water at the aid station, drank one and dumped the other over my head. This cooled me momentarily, but I was still feeling overheated. My A goal of 7:00 miles was beginning to seem nearly impossible.

For Mile 3 I decided to back off the pace a bit. Maybe all I needed to do was run a couple miles at a 7:20-ish pace, then pick it up again as I got used to the conditions. For a mile or so, it almost seemed like it would be possible. Mile 3: 7:22.

But by Mile 4 I knew this simply wasn't going to be my day. Every step was harder than the last, and more and more runners were passing as my pace slowed. 7:53 was all I could manage.

In Mile 5 I started doing some mental math: Only 8 miles to go! Actually 8 miles seemed like a really long distance. But maybe I could keep my pace below 8:00 for the rest of the race and salvage a shred of decency. I ran a 7:58 for this mile.

Surely Mile 6 would be where I was finally able to pick up the pace again, right? Wrong. 8:15.

But now I was through 10K! Almost halfway done. I figured out that Mile 6.55 was the actual halfway point and tried to focus on that. After the halfway point, 6-plus miles still seemed like an awful long way to run. I had one gel left, and began negotiations with myself as to when I'd get to eat it. Mile 7, 8:22.

Somehow I did managed to go slightly faster for Mile 8, 8:07. But I made up for this in mile 9 with a lethargic 8:46. Ugh.

With 4 miles to go I allowed myself to eat the my second gel. I sped up slightly to 8:27. At this point I wasn't even sure if I'd be able to manage a 1:45 half, an average of 8:00 miles for the race. But at least I was in double-digit mileage, with only 5k to go.

Mile 11 may have been the worst. My feet were aching from my lightweight racing shoes on the concrete pavement. I had no more gels, and I couldn't even run a lousy 8-minute mile. 8:39.

Finally, somewhere in Mile 12, my body seemed to spark a bit with the knowledge that there were only around 2 miles left. My pace improved to 8:17. Only 1.1 miles left!

The race clock at Mile 12 read 1:37 and change when I passed it. If I could run the last 1.1 in less than 8 minutes I might be able to finish under 1:45. How much time did I have, exactly? I tried to remember how long it had taken me to cross the start line after the gun. Was it 20 seconds? 30? I focused on my stride and picking up the pace. My watch was reading 7:20, 7:15, 7:10 pace for the current lap. If I could run under a 7-minute pace for this last 1.1 miles, I just might make it. We were now running on the same course as the marathoners, and I passed the 26 mile marker. Only 0.2 to go!

But then, somehow, the 13 mile marker didn't appear. It should only be 1/10 of a mile past the Mile 26 marker, but it was taking ages to reach it, even as my watch showed me running a 6:58 pace. At that rate, it should only take 42 seconds to get there. This was taking much longer. Finally, after an excruciating 7:57, I finished Mile 13. There was no way I was breaking 1:45 for the race.

I cruised through the finish line at about the same pace, finishing in 1:45:28. Ugh. More than 13 minutes slower than my goal.

As I wandered through the finish area I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. I really couldn't figure it out, other than my body simply not being acclimatized to the heat. The past two weeks have been cold and snowy, so I guess that's all it was. It's little consolation when you run a flat half-marathon and finish slower than you have in five years.

I still believe I have a 1:32 half in me. In the meantime, I was still able to enjoy a great weekend with some awesome friends, many of whom I met in person for the first time on this trip.

Details of my race are below.

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