Sometimes runners undertake a lot of preparation for a race. We schedule and implement training plans, watch our nutrition in the weeks leading up to the race, work through race visualizations and mindfulness exercises, and plan pre-race logistics. Sometimes, though, we just pick a race and wing it. That was the case for me with the NCRC half-marathon last Sunday.
Why the NCRC?
I had been looking for a late spring half-marathon to round out my spring racing calendar. I needed a race that was close to home and that occurred in late May or early June. I wanted a half-marathon because I ran my first race at that distance in June 2015 and liked the idea of closing out a year of more intense training with the same distance to compare my progress. I knew some of my neighbors would likely run the race, and it would give me an excuse to try out the trails at Umstead State Park (which I had never done prior to training for this race). Lastly, the race featured a better looking finisher’s medal and t-shirt than the other race I considered (shallow, but true). It sounds well thought out, but I only arrived at the conclusion three weeks before the race.
Race Strategy, or Lack thereof
I was getting in long runs and was still in shape from the marathon but didn’t follow any training plan and mostly ignored my watch during runs. I didn’t do visualizations ahead of the race or any other mindfulness work. I mostly remember that at least one of my children was screaming at any given time during the immediate week preceding the race. That was probably more effective at softening me up for interrogation than preparing for a race.
I had run most of the trail that makes up the course for the first time in the weeks before. It follows the Bridle trail out and back and is hilly (my Garmin said there was about 722 feet of elevation gain). My plan was to stick around the 1:40 pace group, do what I could on the uphill portions and make up some time on the downhill legs. If I could stay close to the pacers and run a smart race, I might have some in the tank at the end to push under 1:40. Or whatever. I don’t know if I actually had that in my head as a goal. I remember thinking “I wanna go fast” and mainly leaving it there.
Of course, with that attention to detail in my race planning how could I go wrong?
Chasing the Pack
The race started on time at 7 a.m. from the top of Old Reedy Creek road. We rushed downhill, with the field spreading out a little as we neared the bottom. I started running with one of my neighbors and we latched on to the 1:40 pace group as we started the ascent up into the park.
What I discovered in training that I love most about the Bridle trail at Umstead is the entrance from the Lake Crabtree side. You leave the asphalt of Old Reedy Creek road and cross over Interstate 40 with all the associated noise and bustle. Once over the bridge, the path turns to gravel, then narrows and changes again to mostly packed dirt. You are on a hill for most of the first mile into the park, so your focus is usually on the exertion of the run. By the time you crest the hill and turn a corner to head deeper into the park you are surrounded by trees and don’t hear anything but the scratch of your shoes on the trail. In a way it reminds me of the illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are, when Max walks towards his bedroom walls and they magically transform into a forest.
The pace group was erratic for the first couple of miles. We had some 7:45 or 8:00 minute miles along with 7:05 and 7:10 ones. I was hoping for something smoother, but decided to let the pacers set the tone for me. They were nice, and talked about their experiences training in Umstead with their high school teams and how they would push faster when the NC State teams came by, to try and mess with them.
This is one of the interesting things about this race and what sets it apart for me. It is extremely local. If you scan the list of finishers you will see they mostly come from the Triangle. More than that, a good portion of the racers use or have at some times used Umstead for training and long runs. You can run the exact course on any given weekend, and likely will see a lot of the same people.
Keep Running Up that Hill
I felt good through about mile six. The neighbor I was running with pushed ahead of the pace group and I only saw him once after that (he finished well ahead of me and won his age group). I lost the pacers going up the hill to the turnaround on the Turnkey trail, but caught back up to them near the bridge over Reedy Creek. I struggled up the switchbacks after the bridge, though, and never really found a second wind. You can see in the read-out of the data from my Garmin at the top of the post where my step count in the third chart drops substantially (green dots = below average). I shuffled up the hills, picking up a little speed going back down but not what I had hoped for.
I hit a wall and felt alone. The day before, I did a color run with my daughter and son. I got to watch them anticipate the start of their first race. I got to see my son take off and never look back. I ran the whole race beside my daughter; she determined when we walked or ran, and I was proud that we mostly ran. I didn’t feel any pressure for a time and didn’t even have on a watch to have a sense of my splits. As I moved slowly up and down the hills of Umstead the next day I couldn’t help but compare the experiences. My legs burned more than I thought, I felt like an idiot for not preparing more for the race or finding my own pace and sticking to it, and I missed running with my kids.
In retrospect it was sweet, but it is a terrible in-race mindfulness exercise. I watched people I had passed miles before whiz by me. I picked up some speed as I rounded the corner for the last downhill out of the park, but it wasn’t enough to help me even sniff breaking 1:40. The dirt turned to gravel, the gravel to concrete, and I passed through the light at the end of the woods back onto the overpass and noise of the interstate. My last consolation was that I didn’t walk up the final hill, crossing the finish line in just under 1 hour and forty two minutes.
I grabbed my water and went back down the hill to catch up with my neighbors and talk about the course and our times.
Disappointed, but I Still Got a Medal
Physically, I felt better after the race than I had when I ran my first half the year before. My time was not as good as the time for the City of Oaks half last fall, though. I don’t think that was because of the course, though. I don’t think I approached my preparation the right way. I should have set more specific race goals and developed a better plan. I should have done more to get myself in the mindset for the race ahead of time. That might not have made much of a difference but I might have felt better about my effort.
Choosing this race did push me to finally try the trails at Umstead. I loved the experience, even if I am late to the party on this one. It is not often you train on the exact route that you race. As a result, I don’t know how much the race experience will stand out from my other training runs. As I get older and there is less room in my brain, it seems to take more for that to happen. Even now, one week later, it’s hard for me to know whether the replay in my head is of the race or a mix of different runs.
I felt disappointed in my performance, which is okay. I didn’t put in the work, so I shouldn’t expect the reward. It’s a good reminder to take nothing for granted.
And I was right about the medal. Both my oldest son and wife commented on how much they liked it, which neither has done before. I half-expected Andrea to pull out her medal from the Disney Princess half just to be sure it was still better.