Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Race recap: The Ellerbe Half Marathon

When my running buddy Chad asked if anyone would like to try the Ellerbe Marathon or Half Marathon this year, I wasn't so sure. My main goal over the last several years in half marathons has been to try to qualify for the New York Marathon. I've failed every time, twice by just a minute. The Ellerbe Marathon is notoriously hilly, and the half option — new for this year — is just as hilly: the full marathon just repeats the half course twice. But when I learned my wife was going to be busy that morning anyways, I figured it was a nice opportunity for a road trip and a race with no pressure. I figured I could treat it like a training run for the flat-and-fast Wrightsville Beach Half four weeks later. I'd just pick a relatively flat section of the course and pick up to goal half-marathon pace for 5 miles or so.

Fast forward to Saturday morning. During the two-hour drive to the start, Chad asked if I've had a look at the elevation profile. I hadn't so I pulled it up on my phone:


As you can see, there's not a lot of flat in the race. The closest approximation to a flat section is the first three miles, which are followed by a long, gradual downhill. If I was going to test my legs at race pace, it was going to have to be at the beginning of the event. Before long, Chad, Dave, and I arrived in Ellerbe, got our packets, and got ready to race:

The race was a small, casual affair, with fewer than 100 runners in each event (there would be just 61 half-marathon finishers). With little fanfare, the race director said "ready, set, go!" and we were off. My half-marathon pace for Wrightsville is 7:00 / mile, so I picked up the pace quickly as we set off. Soon I found myself next to one runner who looked to be a bit older than me, with just one other runner ahead of us. I could see from the older guy's bib that he was running the half. "Do you think he's running the half or the full?" I asked, gesturing towards the runner ahead of us.

"I don't know," the older man said, "I think probably the half."

To me he looked too relaxed to be running a half. My bet was that he was doing the full and that Old Guy and I were leading the half. After a couple miles running side by side, Old Guy took off to catch up with the leader. I could hear him shout "are you running the half" to the runner up ahead, but I didn't hear his response. No big deal, I figured, I wasn't running this race all-out anyways.

I was able to maintain a 7-ish pace through the first five miles and actually felt pretty good at that point. Then I got to the first big hill. I decided that I'd try to keep my pace under 8:00 / mile on the uphills, hoping to finish with an average pace of around 7:30 / mile. Old Guy and Possible Marathoner were still visible ahead of me, but they were now perhaps 200 yards away.

I managed to keep my pace under 8:00 until we hit the turnaround just past Mile 7, where I could see that the runner ahead of me and Old Guy was indeed doing the full marathon. I was in second place! From my recollection of the elevation profile, the course leveled off for a bit here. In reality the course was a series of fairly steep descents and climbs for the next two miles, when we'd begin our last big climb. I held around a 7:30 pace here. Meanwhile, a few runners passed me, including one half-marathoner. So much for second place — but maybe I could hang on for third.

As I plodded up the big final hill in Miles 10 and 11, I could see the younger half-marathoner pass the Old Guy, and occasionally it looked like Old Guy was taking walk-breaks. Maybe I could catch him!

The final two miles of the course backtracked on the road we had started out on. On the way out they had seemed basically flat, but now they felt like they were mostly climbs. Looking back at my Garmin record after the race, Mile 12 was mostly flat, but there was a touch more uphill than downhill in Mile 13. Old Guy took a couple more walk breaks, but then pulled away as the finish approached. I tried to pick up the pace for the last mile, but my legs wouldn't cooperate and I rolled in for a relatively comfortable third place. A race volunteer got a photo of me approaching the finish:

Looking strong-ish!

In the end I did get that sub-7:30 pace, at least according to my Garmin, which showed a 7:28 pace. My official finishing time was 1:39:35, a 7:35 pace. Either way, I was the third finisher in the half marathon, which meant I won an awesome piece of pottery:

I thought this was a beer mug but my wife declared it to be a vase

Not bad for a last-minute decision! I had successfully run a quick 5 miles at half-marathon pace, then finished strong and got some nice hardware. After that the weather heated up considerably, so Chad and Dave had tough work to finish their full marathon. But Dave won his age group and Chad came in second in his group, so we had a great day all around. Fun way to spend a Saturday morning on a challenging course!

The Garmin record of my race is below.

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