Going into the Sweetwater Sweetheart ½ Marathon (SS, from now on) I had some doubt, some nerves, an itch to stretch my legs and race. And the course is on the same course as the Sweetwater 50k which I’ll be racing at the end of April. My January mileage was right on target, and my stubbornness to run in the nasty weather and on any terrain has left me feeling more and more confident each week. But one thing to remember about first of the year races: there’s no peak, they need to be considered a training day, and PR’s a likely out of the question.
With 14 consistent weeks of training behind my legs, and on about 50 miles of running since Sunday, I knew that the fatigue would show itself on the hills, but it would give me a good peak into how much I’ve improved and what I can expect during the 50k (terrain). Overall, I came into the race eyeing the course record of 1:48, and with the goal of learning to race on trails, again. Course record or not, the terrain wasn’t going to allow a ½ marathon PR, at least not for me.
Off to the race.
Having only a half-marathon in front of me, that shouldn’t take over 2:30:00 to finish nutrition (gels, water, electrolytes, etc.) isn’t a concern. In fact, there’s no true need for it as long as I’ve properly eaten the night before and the morning of. What this theory transpires into, A healthy veggie burrito, packed with black beans, rice, lettuce, and grilled peppers on a whole grain tortilla with at least two glasses of water, and a serving (2 scoops) of Endurox for dinner, a morning wake-up of 4:30 AM, and a breakfast made up of, three packets of oatmeal, 4 tablespoons of chia seeds, a tablespoon of honey, 12+ oz of black coffee, and 12 oz of water.
After arriving about an hour and a half early (I hate being crunched for time on race day) I picked up my packet, shirt, and race number. Got back into the roomy Subaru Outback and slid into my sleeping back for a thirty minute nap. Of course, after about 15 minutes I was too restless and ready to race for sleep so I just set in the car and did some pre-run visualization. One thing I’ve always found to be sufficiently helpful is too fully engulf my thoughts into the upcoming race. For about 15 minutes I sat motionless in my car, with my my eyes closed, and mentally went through the repetitive motions of running, one foot in front of the other. I placed myself on flat ground, steep ground, and through winding single-track trail. I had run at Sweetwater Creek State Park in December, so I had an idea of what to expect.
Visualization complete, the pre-race ritual of multiple bathroom breaks began. Luckily, the repeat trips didn’t add up, too much. I’ve worked, over the years, on calming myself after I pin my number so as to not let the bathroom become my only warm-up and sometimes I’m successful, and others times, well, enough said. A couple of brief chats with some other runners and I toed the starting line at 8:00 AM, in what would turn out to be a great day of trail racing.
The temperature was a little cooler than forecasted (27° F) and the wind was going to be annoying (11 mph, steady) and gear choice is crucial in races and the last thing I want to be doing is shedding clothes after 4 miles. Of course, with the wind being so high I also don’t want to turn into a headwind, catching the wind-chilled temp of (17° F), in short sleeves and force my body to work overtime while trying to heat me up while I’m racing. End of the race hindsight, perfect choices. Here’s how the gear turned out (from head to toe):
Miles 1 – 4 (Mile splits: 0:06:51; 0:06:45; 0:07:35; 0:07:30): I like to call these the ‘too ambitious runner’ miles. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a race, and we’ve all done it, but within the first miles of the race the times are fast regardless of the terrain, and as soon as inexperienced runners redline they tend to stop or slow to an abrupt stride altering pace. In single-track courses it’s especially important for anyone, including myself, looking to compete for a top spot at the finish to make sure to not get stuck behind the pack of ‘too ambitious runners’ because, unlike road races, there’s not a lot of room to pass. So, I headed out a little faster and made sure to only let about 10 people in front of me during the ¼ mile of road that leads to the trail. Right before Mile was a small uphill and I snuck pass of few runners and put myself in 5th place.
Miles 5 – 6 (Mile splits: 0:09:54; 0:09:12): One of the selling points of this race is an area labeled, ‘power lines’ and it’s literally under the power lines. Original title, I suppose. The elevation gain in these two miles alone is a quick jump from 747 ft. (Above Sea Level, ASL) to 1,134 ft. (ASL). The terrain is very undulating, but although canted significantly up. I managed to put some space in-between myself and 2 of the top 5 runners moving conveniently into 3rd place and I closed the gap on the 2nd place runner. About ½ mile from the top of the climb I caught up with 2nd place runner and courtesy the 50 miles on my legs from the week’s training I could tell I was not at the top of my game so catching number one was going to be tough. The 2nd place guy asked me what kind of time I was shooting for and I just politely replied, “This is just a fast training run for me, so I didn’t really set out a goal.” I asked him and he said, “1:30:00 or under.” I smirked in my head, looked down at my watch, and put some space in between us.
Miles 7 – 10 (Mile splits: 0:07:01; 0:07:46; 0:08:30; 0:07:27): The climb left me fatigued, but courtesy a u-turn I caught site of the guy in first and was about 3 minutes behind. But within my mind is a caution sign that seems to show on a steep downhill and with every uphill is a downhill, and here they were. I have to think I lost about a minute on the downhill to the lead guy and even the third place runner was catching up. As soon as the descent was over and I was headed back to the start line, now the finish line, I dug in deep and tried to make up as much ground as possible and leave any doubt about at least a 2nd place finish by the river.
Miles 11 – 13 & 13.5 (Mile splits: 0:06:25; 0:07:21; 0:06:59; 0:03:46)
By this point I had one focus: make it hurt. Mile 12 was technical and Mile 13 to the finish I was beat and had sufficiently separated myself from the field and just held on by focusing on form.
Overall, I’m impressed with my current fitness, took home 2nd place overall (not bad for the first race of the season) and sweet coffee mug, and my ability to dig deep and back into a race mindset. Seeing the course for the 50k has eased some unknown and I’ll definitely be reintroducing hill repeats back into the training because I have to run this twice plus 2 river crossings and an extra 5 miles.