(Apologies in advance)
My favorite race of the year took place this weekend. It's a half marathon (my favorite distance, yay!) here in San Francisco (convenient, yay!) and aside from one short-ish hill at the end, it's mostly flat and downhill (fast, yay!). I've run this race about half a dozen times and I've gotten faster each time, setting a personal record (PR) for the half marathon each time.
I signed up for the race again this year, but was somewhat depressed when I looked at how fast I ran it last year. I had averaged faster than 7 minutes per mile over the 13.1 mile course in 2006. Since my running has essentially stalled, it seemed unlikely that I'd beat the record. However, my training over the last month went pretty smoothly and I slept reasonably well last night, so I got up this morning and knew I'd have at least an outside chance at setting a PR again.
I set out before the neighborhood cafes opened up, so my pre-race caffeine consisted of a Redbull. That's vile vile stuff, and it sent me to the porta-potty line with mere minutes to spare before the race started. However, it's loaded with plenty of caffeine and sugar, so I vibrated my way to the starting line and was ready to roll by race time.
The first few miles of the race were fairly flat. Before the race I had computed how fast I needed to run to set a PR and I stayed just a bit under that pace. I slowed down a bit for a water break halfway through the race, but the next few miles were downhile, so I kept banking a couple seconds each mile. After 8 miles I was 24 seconds ahead of schedule.
At this point I was one mile into the mentally challenging part of the race. Miles 7 though 9.75 are straight along Ocean Beach. This sounds pleasant, but it's long and straight and mentally draining. At Mile 9.75, you turn around and run the same 2.75 miles back in the other direction, so all in all, it's a mind-numbing 5.5 mile out-and-back. Each step that you take in the out direction is a reminder that it's another step you'll have to take on the way back. Meanwhile, you can see all the fast people that have already turned around at the 9.75 mile point and are steaming towards the finish line. It's a long long slog and since the previous miles were scenic and downhill, this flat section almost seems uphill.
My pace dropped a bit in this section and I started taking seconds out of my "bank". Five seconds here, eight seconds there. They were disappearing sooner and faster than I had hoped. At the Mile 11 marker, with 2.1 miles to go, I realized that if I kept up my current pace, I'd miss setting a PR by a few seconds, so I tried to pick up a bit of speed. I still had a few saved-up seconds in my imaginary bank.
At the 12 mile marker, I checked my watch and found that not only had I not picked up the pace, but I was no longer ahead of schedule. My bank account was empty of extra seconds. The last mile was going to be the toughest mile too, because it contained the one hill in the entire race.
"Oh well, Mike!" I said to myself, "You'll miss your PR by about 10 seconds. At least you're prepared to give up." My mind flashed forward to what I'd think about this result laying in bed that night. I decided that I didn't particularly care for it. I'm all for throwing in the towel, but it seemed silly to decide to miss a PR by 10 seconds with just 1.1 miles left to go.
I had been running near the limit of what I can do for 12 miles and I'd have to say that my brain probably wasn't really at it's sharpest. I had almost forgotten the favorite training technique of my running club's coach.
In general, he's not a big fan of having his runners log lots of miles. He prefers that we run "quality" miles (and do crosstraining and eat right blah blah blah). So, for example, on a long run, rather than have us run for 2 hours, he'll ask us to start with 15 minutes of hard running, then do an hour of relaxed running, and then end with 15 minutes of hard running. That way, it's a quality 90 minutes rather than slogging through 120 minutes at even pace. So, most weekends, when I'm doing my long runs, I end the run with 10 or 15 minutes of hard fast running.
"HEY, MIKE!" I said to my brain. I'm LESS than 10 minutes away from the finish line! I'm trained for this! Hill or no hill, tired or not tired, I CAN run harder for the last 7 or 8 minutes. It's that many minutes of pain, but the payoff is another PR, which will make my heart sing for at least the rest of the day. "Be inspired or inspirational, or something un-Mike-ish, Mike!" I said to myself.
So, I picked up the pace and I started passing people again. And then we hit the hill, and I shortened my stride and plowed up it, passing a few folks along the way. At the final turn, with about 150 yards to go, I sprinted with all I had left.
Ta dah! I broke my record from last year by 20 seconds (which is a triumphant 1.5 seconds per mile). Victory is sweet. I reflected happily on this as I limped the 2.5 miles back to where my car was parked (stupid courses that don't end where they start!).
Next year is really gonna suck though.