The tagline of the Hansons Half-Marathon Method book is “Run your best half marathon,” and that’s exactly what I did yesterday at the Buffalo Creek Half Marathon. Although, I do wonder how much of my great race was a result of training and how much was that it was just a great course and great weather leading to a magical day, because so many people got PRs! Amanda (Crazy Cat Lady Runner)–who had done minimal training and was running the race for fun–got a big PR, as did Steff (Run Steff Run), Kim (This Runner’s Fuel), and Kim’s daughter. Steff said that her friend Carrie and Chelsea (Pittsburgh City Girl), who I saw on the course but not afterward, also got PRs. Plus, Kim, Kim’s daughter, and Carrie all got age group awards. Congrats to all these awesome ladies!
I’ll give a short version for those who don’t want to read this long recap: I had an awesome race, leading to a strong finish with a 2:21:50 finish time (10:50 pace). This was my third year running this race. My time last year was 2:28:11 (11:19 pace), so that’s a 7:01 PR! In 2013, the first year I ran it, which was a redemption run after having an awful first half marathon experience a month before, I finished in 2:37:30 (12:01 pace). So in two years, I have dropped from a pace in the 12:00s to a pace in the 10:00s. When you’re churning out the daily miles it’s hard to see the big picture of how you’re improving, so it makes me feel so good to see my progress over the years at this race. While it was an awesome race, it was a little different than I thought it would be. Races have a way of surprising you no matter what your plan. Here’s how everything went down.
Pre-Race: The Mental Battle
I will be writing a separate post about this, but in the weeks leading to this race, I had decided that this would be my last race for time. I would do races for fun or to finish new distances, but racing a race was not for me. The emotional stress is just too much, I’d decided. In the days leading up to the race, I felt confident but my nerves were still raw with anxiety; I couldn’t even think of the race without crying. Everything changed the day before the race. I had finished work for the day and checked my blog feed. I saw a post from elite runner Tina Muir on how to pace yourself to have a good race so checked it out. Tina advocating a pacing strategy to start slower than your goal pace and ease into it (it’s a great post, so do check it out). That’s the strategy I planned to use, so I was happy to read that. Then, she linked to a half marathon race recap from Abbie, who had been paced by Tina in a recent race. Wow. You have to read that post–the link is in Tina’s post. Abbie describes what it is like to truly race a half marathon, and how Tina’s constant positive words and support helped her go from struggling at the very beginning to strong, to believe in herself and sustain a nearly 5K effort the whole race. As I read the recap and thought how great it would be to be paced by an awesome runner like Tina, I realized that I needed to be my own Tina, that I needed to believe in myself the way that Tina encouraged Abbie to believe in herself. So I thought back through my training. I thought about all the many times I had to push when it hurt, when I was nauseated, when I wanted to walk, when I wanted to quit. If I had done that over and over in training, I could definitely do it during the race. It was like the heavens opened up and angels came out to sing hallelujah. That’s when, for maybe the first time ever before a race, I knew I could do it. I knew I was going to have a good race. I believed in myself. That night, I read back through all the supportive comments you all had left me on this blog, on Daily Mile, and in email. Thank you to everyone who sent positivity my way, because it buoyed my spirits even more, and I went into race day with such a great mindset, which absolutely helped me.
Pre-Race: Race Morning
After I got a solid 8.5 hours of sleep (I, luckily, always manage to sleep like a baby before a big race), I woke, ate my tested breakfast of bagel with peanut butter and jelly, a banana, water, Nuun, and tea and got ready. Amanda was running this race and offered to pick me up. We got to the parking area in about 40 minutes, just as the sun was coming up. It was 40 degrees with a feels like temp of 35, so it was very cold when we picked up our packets. We were early, so we sat in Amanda’s warm car for about an hour and took our time getting our stuff together and using the clean port-o-potties. The race started at 9, so we took a shuttle to the start area at 8. I wore a very warm hoodie at the start that I left in my gear bag right before the start, so I was able to stay pretty warm at the start line. It was a sad moment when I had to take my hoodie off, though! We lined up, and I told Amanda I was going to close my eyes for a minute. I wanted to take a few minutes to breathe deeply and reflect on my training and go over my plan. Well, as soon as I closed my eyes, I smelled the waft of a fart from someone near me…so my deep thoughts moment was a little ruined, ha ha.
|At the start line area|
With Amanda and the port-o-pottie background!
|We got our stripes on! We’re ready!|
1: 10:34 | 2: 10:58 | 3: 10:59
Finally the national anthem was played, the horn sounded, and we were off! Amanda’s plan was to run the first few miles with me. I had told her I’d be starting slow, and she wanted to start slow too and see how she felt from there. My plan for these miles was to run between an 11:00-11:10 pace and ease into my goal 10:50-11:00 goal pace range. I had started training with an 11:00 goal pace but halfway through had switched to a 10:50 goal pace. Unlike training for my spring half marathon, where my goal pace always felt good, running my goal pace in training was never easy, at least after the first 1 or 2 miles. I didn’t know whether that was the effect of cumulative fatigue and it was just harder running that pace on tired legs, or if the pace was just too hard for me. So, I really had no idea how my goal pace would feel and gave myself a 10-second range that I hoped I could stick to on race day. The first mile was fast because it was all downhill. My effort and heart rate were very low, so I wasn’t worried about a faster first split. It was an almost identical first split from last year’s race. After the first mile, we turned into a residential street and ran a few small rolling hills until we turned and got on the trail that we’d be on for the rest of the race. These were basically warm-up miles. I kept the pace slow and easy, making sure I eased up on the little hills, and Amanda and I started chatting like we would do on a typical training run. I took my first gel and salt stick at 30 minutes, and sipped on Nuun in my handheld every 15 minutes, per my plan.
4: 10:54 | 5: 10:42 | 6: 10:42
The trail at this point had gone from the residential area to the woods, and it was beautiful. I love this course so much! There are colorful fall leaves all around, Buffalo Creek right beside the trail, and some rocky areas and even a small waterfall or two on the side of the trail. The trail is soft crushed-limestone and feels flat but is a slight downhill. There were people running near us, but it was never crowded, and you could easily pass people if you needed to. Shortly after mile 4.5, Amanda started picking up the pace. I was feeling really good and wanted to follow her, but I kept to my plan and stayed at my pace. At mile 5 I turned on my music, and it was then the party started! I tend to speed up when I put music on, which is why I didn’t want to start with music, and I could not slow down! I did not follow my plan in miles 5 and 6 and ran a bit faster. I was feeling so good and strong, and the pace was so easy. That is not how I envisioned the race going for me! I had anticipated these middle miles starting to feel tough, but they didn’t. In all my visualizations, I had pictured myself pushing in these miles to keep to my goal pace but had never considered that the pace would feel easy and I’d have to hold myself back. At one point, when the course had cleared out a little around me, I could not help dancing a little as I ran! But as I saw the splits come up, I worried that this faster pace would work against me later on, so I really made myself slow up for the next few miles. I never once looked at my average pace or thought about my finish
time. I did a great job staying in each mile and would just check my lap
pace and make sure I was in my range.
At some point in these miles, I took my second gel and salt stick and thought, Wow, I’m two-thirds of the way done with my gels! The race was going by so fast!
7: 10:58 | 8: 10:57 | 9: 10:55
It was more of the same for these miles. The pace felt easy, and I just kept ticking off the miles one by one. Because I was a little worried about the faster pace for the previous two miles, I made an effort to slow down. I ran a lot of the race with a smile on my face, enjoying the course, having fun, and just feeling great.
10: 10:57 | 11: 10:44 | 12: 11:04 | 13: 10:41 | .1: 8:55
When I was running mile 9, I knew I would have no problem picking up the pace once I started mile 10. In my training runs, my third and last gel always coincided with mile 10. But during the race, mile 10 started at 1:50 instead of 2:00. That was the first inclination I had that I was running a good time and would likely finish with a good time. I was pacing my gels out at 45 minutes so wasn’t due to take another gel until the timer on my watch hit 2:00, but I also knew that once I started a harder pace, it would be harder for me to take a gel. So I took my last gel and salt stick 10 minutes earlier than I’d planned and started to get to work. That mile was a 10:44 split, and I had no problem pushing for it. Mile 11 was my moment of stupidity in the race. When I checked my watch, I thought I saw a 10:36 pace, and thought Wow, this feels so easy. Great. So I kept chugging at that pace, and when I checked my watch a few minutes later, I saw the pace was actually 11:36! Ack! I had slowed up without even realizing it and/or just misread my watch when I first looked at it. I was a half-mile in at that point so just worked on picking up the pace as best I could without sprinting and wearing myself out. That was my slowest split in the race at 11:04. It was at this point, at about mile 11.5, that I felt the race really started for me. Up to that point, it had felt pretty easy. This was the first point that I really had to dig in and push, but it was exactly like I had pushed in training, so I was familiar with the feeling and knew I could do it. When my watch dinged and I knew that I had only one mile to go, I put the gas on and gave it all I had. I should note that starting at mile 10, I started passing people, but I was really passing people like crazy in that last mile. Most everyone was slowing and struggling, and the majority were taking many walk breaks. I stayed focused, kept my positive inner talk going, and just kept pushing. This was a very hard effort for me, I was wheezing like crazy, but I kept at it. I didn’t look at my watch the whole time. When my music ended and nothing started again, I started fumbling with my MP3 player to find something to play while I crossed the finish line. But then I saw the finish line! It came up so quickly, so I just forgot about the music and did my last final sprint to the finish. At 10:41, my last full mile was my fastest, though only by a single second, and for the last .1 I was able to push to finish at an 8:55 pace. YES!
My throat hurt a lot from all the wheezing in the cold air in that last mile, so it took me a while before I could talk. I met up with Steff, Amanda, and Kim (in that order in the photo below) and we shared stories about our PRs. Then we took the shuttle back to the parking area, and Amanda and I went out for a celebratory breakfast.
I’m bummed that my Garmin came up short. Amanda’s did too. I mentioned that they changed the finish line in the days before the race, but the race director confirmed that the new course measured at 13.1.
As I thought about my race afterward, I was very happy that I felt so good and strong, that I was able to push when I needed to, and that I ended with an average pace that was exactly the pace I trained for. That has never happened before! But then the coulda-shouldas started happening. Overall, this was an easy run for me, with about 1.5 miles of actual racing at the very end. So, while I got a great time and PR, it almost didn’t feel like I really earned it. I know I could have pushed more and finished even faster. When I was running 10:40 paces in the middle miles, should I have stayed there? Should I have worked a little harder in those middle miles instead of taking it easy? But if I’d done that, would I still have been able to push at the end? Or was sticking to my plan the right choice, even though I knew it was an easy effort? Well, of course, this is why this was probably not my last race! Now I’m curious about how much I can push in the middle miles and still push at the end, so I want to try again.
Race Organization and Swag
This race is the main fundraiser for the nonprofit Buffalo Freeport Community Trail Council, and the race organization is top-notch. There is great communication beforehand, lots of port-o-potties at both the parking area and start line, and little wait for the shuttles. The finish line had water, hot apple cider (though it was gone when we went to get some), pizza, bananas, whole-wheat fig bars (which I had though they are probably not vegan), and cookies. The finish line was very congested this year because it had to be fit into a much smaller place than originally planned, but the race organizers did the best job they could with it. The volunteers were very friendly and encouraging, as many of them served as some of the only spectators on the course since there were few areas for people to spectate. I think I read somewhere that the shirt and medal theme is inspired each year by flora and fauna seen on the trail, and this year’s theme was a dragonfly. I love it! It’s my favorite medal of all three years. The shirt this year looks like a women’s-specific shirt, with a bit of a cropped length but a nicer, cottony-feeling fabric than the standard tech shirts given in the past. This is my favorite shirt too.
|This year’s race shirt and medal.|
|Close-up of the medal and shirt.|
While I curse races in the days leading up to them, I always learn something from them. These are my takeaways from this race.
What Worked Well
- So, did the Hansons’ method work? YES, YES, YES! First, the race itself felt much easier than the training runs. Whether that was intended or not, it definitely made the race a very enjoyable and fun experience. Second, I really had no problem pushing at the end when I planned to. It was hard work, but doing it felt exactly like it felt during training, and I was prepared for it. I have never felt this good in a half-marathon, able to keep my goal pace so easily, and be able to push hard at the end like I did.
- This was my 7th half marathon and the only one where I didn’t take walk breaks. In previous races, I either took short walks through the water stations, at each mile or so, or just at the end when I was tired. In all of those times, I never thought walk breaks helped me. Instead, I think they didn’t just slow me down physically but also slowed down my momentum so that it was much harder to get back into my pace. In my training runs, I usually walked at least a few steps to take my salt stick (since I kind of have to push it back in my throat). During the race, I really didn’t want to break my momentum so just slowed down to take my gels and salt sticks. The very last time I took them at mile 10, I did walk about two steps because it was a bit harder to take them, but other than that I ran the whole race. I think not taking walk breaks works much better for me.
- My fueling plan–first gel and salt stick at 30 minutes and the next every 45 minutes, and Nuun every 15 minutes–seems to work really well. This was the first race that I had no problem taking even the last gel. I did take out my gels a few minutes before I was due for them and warm them in my hand so that I could get them down in only two swallows. Also, scheduling my sips of Nuun every 15 minutes really helped me keep my focus and helped break up the race in short, 15-minute segments. The salt sticks definitely kept the nausea at a minimum in the race. My stomach did start to hurt at the very end when I was pushing hard, but it was very minor and I was able to pretty much ignore it.
- My Garmin data screen worked great. I had my main screen set to show time, lap pace, and pace. Showing time helped me just keep focused on when to take my gels and Nuun, so that I was never in the “Oh my God, when will this mile end” mindset. I actually never looked at distance all through the race. As for pace, I went mainly by the lap pace and just worked on keeping on pace for each mile. That way, I never looked at average pace and worried about my overall time. I also used the pace setting to make sure I wasn’t going too fast or slow at any one point. This came in handy in mile 12, when I accidentally slowed up and I needed to get back on pace but didn’t want to wear myself out by running too fast.
- Having a 10-second goal pace range instead of a specific goal pace helped me run more on feel and not have to be a slave to pace. It eliminated the stress of having to stick to an exact pace and didn’t cause me distress if I didn’t hit a pace exactly.
- My race outfit was perfect for the cold temperatures. I wore crops, a lightweight top, a warm tank underneath, and gloves. I was so tempted to wear full-length tights and a warmer top when I saw how cold it was going to be, but I’m happy I stuck to my plan. I was very cold at first–in fact, I could not feel my feet for the first few miles!–but I warmed up and started sweating quickly, so I was happy I hadn’t overdressed. Oh, and if you do not own a Lululemon Scuba Hoodie, get one immediately! It is so warm and cozy that I don’t know how I lived without it for so long. It’s warmer than some of my coats! It’s been perfect for dog walks on these cool mornings, and it kept me warm and comfortable before and after the race.
- Last, but definitely not least, I finally won the mental battle, and I owe a lot of that to the Hansons’ plan. Knowing that I had pushed so hard on all my training runs made me realize that there was no reason I couldn’t do it again on race day. I believed I could do it, and I did it.
What Could Have Been Improved
- Like I mentioned, my big mistake in this race was not paying closer attention to my pace in mile 11 and accidentally slowing down. I should know that so late in the race my body wants to slow down, and I should really have been watching better to make sure I wasn’t slowing.
- I also didn’t have a plan for what to do if everything felt good in the middle miles and I could run at a faster pace. That had never seemed like a possibility, so it wasn’t in my plan. I should include a “if you run better than you think you will” clause in my plans from now on.
To everyone who has followed my training for this race, thanks so much for following my journey and for believing in me at the end. I can’t tell you how how all the positivity and support really helped me!