Sunday, June 2, 2013

Iron Horse Half Marathon Race Report

ba-deep, ba-deep! My cellphone's alarm pulled me awake. 5:30 in the morning--I rolled out of bed, stood up, then gradually went up on my toes, until the pain under my left heel flared into a bright, hot-poker stab. I waited, still on my toes, until the pain grumblingly subsided, then took a step. Not too bad. Perhaps not too smart to contemplate running a half marathon today, but not too bad. I had already DNS'd this race once, and I didn't mean to again. The plantar fascitis that had been nagging me, off and on, since February, had already largely demolished any PR hopes--but there are always other challenges to seek. The main thing is just to show up--everything else starts from that.

The Iron Horse Half Marathon in Simsbury, CT is my hometown race. Simsbury keeps changing; every time I look away for a year or two, it's different--and usually posher-looking--than I remember, when I come back. But still, there are the old streets I rode my bike on when I was a kid, and Terry's Plain Rd, which parental concerns and the threat of speeding motorists had once made a moat around my youthful mobility, in the here-and-now closed to traffic, waiting for the feet of runners.

I walked down to the race start. The air was cool in the shadows, but already the sun beat down hotly on the exposed pavement, a summer sun that might have thought to stay away another few days, if only out of consideration. 

When we took the line, the RD adjured the field to step back to make room "for the elite runners, planning to run at sub-5 minute pace". As you can imagine, this created a cavernous gap at the front. Jason Hartmann or Shalane Flanagan did not show up, however, and eventually we filled in to the line.

The siren sounded, and we shot off. A peculiarity of this race is that the 10K starts at 7:30, whereas the 5K and Half start more-or-less together at 7:45, on opposite sides of Iron Horse Boulevard, but heading the same direction. I'm not sure how they come up with this. Summer racing (and June equals summer, or at least it did today), is often as much a race against the heat of the day as it is against one's competitors. I envied the 10K runners their extra 15 minutes of cool, and of long shadows. 

I took stock: the reduced mileage of the last two weeks had certainly reduced my aerobic capacity, but I had been keeping up with strength work and felt fairly solid at the outset. My foot twinged, but soon faded into the background roar of sensation that always accompanies a foot-race, one kinesthetic noise among many. My plan, none-the-less, was to start at an easy 7 minute pace, and simply avoid dying.

The first mile passed, on shady Riverside, 6:40--it felt all right, and even playing the race forward in my head, I didn't feel any incipient disasters. The field was all commingled with the 5K runners--difficult to tell what was going on in my own race. We turned the corner onto Weatogue. The ridge that demarcates the southeastern edge of the Farmington Valley rose up on our right-hand side, casting the road into shade. The heat had yet to make itself a factor.

The 5K turned off, and then almost immediately we started running into the back end of the 10K field. It was difficult to be sure, but I felt I had about a dozen people ahead of me. We raced along Terry's Plain and then down to 315, where a right turn takes you into Tariffville. Here there was no shade; the sun hammered down on us as we turned left, then took Quarry Rd back to Terry's Plain. At the mile 5.5 water stop I dumped a dixie cup over my head, something I would do at every water stop for the rest of the race.

Doubts began to set in around mile 7, which was fairly close to the mile 12 marker. Ugh--5 more miles to get back to this point, and the day getting hotter by the minute. We headed back toward the starting area, the half marathon race completely obscured by the column of finishing 10K runners. At mile 8.5, the half marathon course passes by the start/finish area. A nice crowd had gathered and was making some much-appreciated noise. All the same, this was probably my lowest psychological point--there was no shade on Iron Horse, and the crowd of finished runners made the next 5 miles seem daunting.

I also had serious doubts about whether I was really going to be able to run this in. I always have these at this point of this distance--sometimes they're more well-founded the others. Historically I don't feel very strong at hot-weather running. The dominant variable is not strength or even aerobic capacity, but the ability to regulate your core temperature. I'm fairly big for the speed I run, and my cm^2/cm^3 is not too favorable.

I was acutely aware of this as I branched off from Ironhorse onto the bike path. Heat dissipation, I thought. That's what it comes down to--run slow enough that your core temperature is stable, and you won't have to stop

I decided to make it to mile 10 before making any decisions about walk-breaks, and once I got there I felt strong enough to push off the decision until mile 11. By the time I got to within  2 miles of the finish, stopping would have been rather silly, and I rallied a bit to bring the race home in just barely under 90 minutes. Not bad for a half-gimpy runner on a warm day.

General thoughts about this race:
  • The course is very flat, and fairly well thought out. The time spent on Terry's Plain (which is permanently shaded during the morning, because of the adjacent ridge), was much appreciated.
  • The course support was great. Tons of water stations, tons of clocks, plenty of course monitors, and of course what summer race would be complete without kids with super-soakers??
  • If I had been slightly more competitive today, I might not have liked the way the fields of the different races kept intersecting, as it made it hard to keep track of the runners ahead of you. As it fell out, I didn't much mind. Plenty of pavement for everybody.
  • This race is really expensive for a Half ($70!). post-race noshing options were somewhat slim. No chocolate milk?

Oh, remember how the RD kept reminding us to reserve the space at the front of the pack for sub-5-minute elite runners? Perhaps he wasn't so crazy:

I am honored to have taken part in a race where so many world records were broken so decisively.