Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Race Recap: The Unite Rutgers Half Marathon

Brace yourselves. This is an entry about running.

Yeah, I’m still doing it on a fairly regular and serious basis. A co-worker asked me yesterday if I just drank beer now which was simultaneously flattering and concerning. I've actually been training for the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington (May 24th) since February, but have spared everyone the (boring) details of speed workouts and long runs. To sum it up as briefly as possible: Things are going frighteningly well. Workouts, sleep, overall health: A+ for all three. Ok, maybe B+ for sleep, but that’s as good as it gets for me. I’m choosing not to over-analyze that and just keep on keeping on as they say.

Sunday was my first chance to see how all the miles and tough efforts translated to a race setting. My best bud/training partner Josh and I signed up for the Unite Rutgers Half Marathon for a couple of reasons:

1. It’s 6 weeks out from the marathon which leaves maximum time for recovery and to               work on any weak spots.
2. It’s a fairly big race (6,000) with a top three finishers historically somewhere in                         the 1:10-1:12 range.                             
3. The course has a lot of turns, but looks flat.
4.  It’s free (if you have run 1:11 or faster)
5.  Finisher’s medal that has a spinny-thing in the middle. 

The original goal was to run together, PR and possibly go 1-2. But the best laid plans...well, you know the rest. Josh got sick the week of the race and couldn't run although he did still drive me to New Brunswick and provide invaluable moral and logistical support before, during and after the race. I adjusted my goals accordingly. I ran my half-marathon PR (1:11:19) under perfect conditions in the 2012 NYC Half Marathon. I had one of the best runners I know pacing me. The weather was ideal and the course was fast. Not to mention I was in really good shape. The stars will probably never align like that again. That’s not defeatist. It’s realistic. I’m cool with that PR. Regardless, a much smaller race that would likely be a solo effort was not exactly the best setting to even attempt breaking it.
On the starting line. Photo Credit: Josh Lerch

Based on workouts, I toed the line hoping to run somewhere in the 1:12s and finish in the top 3. The night before the race I came up with a simple race plan.

1. Go out at 5:30 pace – no faster. Don’t freak out         about 5:35. If 5:25s feel possible in the latter                 half of the race, go with it.
2. Run perfect tangents. The course has many             turns, some of them very sharp.
3. Do what it takes not to end up no-man’s land.

As soon as the race started, I took the lead which would have been a mistake if I weren't right on pace. By the end of the first mile, I was in a pack with three guys. This lasted until mile three when one of the guys picked up the pace and another fell off. Going with the guy in first would have been a suicide mission. I thought about it briefly, picking up the pace to 5:20 for mile 3. Then, I made a decision that goal number one trumps goal number three and there I was in no man’s land. The next six miles were near perfect. In fact, miles 1-9 were right on pace ranging from 5:28-5:34 with the exception of the 5:20. I was 34:00 at 10k and 36:02 at the halfway point. The course was not nearly as flat as I expected. There were no major hills, just several small climbs that added up. I was running perfect tangents with my GPS watch beeping at each mile marker. The course was a bit unorthodox. It was mostly within the Rutgers campus and utilized service roads and even a greenway. There were three spots where you had to turn around at a cone. I also found it odd there was not a single clock on the course.

Thumbs up still at mile 6
After passing mile 9 in 5:28 I was pretty confident my average pace wouldn't drop too dramatically over the last four miles and 1:12:xx was in the bag. I was feeling tired and lonely, but I was mentally still in the game. My watched clicked over to mile 10 before I saw the mile marker, but I figured I’d see it soon. Another minute went by before I got to the official marker. Had I really just run a 6:42 mile? While Garmins are certainly not 100% accurate, I was certain I hadn't and things would sort themselves out. At this point, I could see the guy in third was closing the gap on me. I must not have been thinking straight because my reaction was one of relief. I figured when he caught me I could just stay with him. We hit mile 11 (still way off) and he was right on my shoulder. We stayed stride for stride for the next 1.75 miles, our pace at a steady 5:40 with both a new headwind and exhaustion contribute to the slowdown.

With just over a quarter mile to go (on my watch – I was still hoping the course would even out), I made a move and pulled away by two strides. It was all I had left and in my head, I knew if he came back, I’d be a sitting duck. I couldn't see the finish line, but imagined it was right around the next turn. I made the turn and was staring up at a hill. The finish line was at least 400 yards away. I had gambled and lost. I held on to 5:30 pace for the next quarter mile even as I got passed and fell to third place. I crossed the line in 1:13:55 well short of any primary, secondary or even tertiary goals I had set for myself.

1, 2 & 3 
I hate when runners complain a course is long or short. When I ran the Runners World Half Marathon in October, I didn't get a perfect 13.1 on my watch either, but it was within what I would call the normal range. In fact, I don’t think I've ever run a race of any distance that measures perfectly on the GPS. That’s a given. But .20-.25 is pretty significant. In the 24 hours after the race it was hard not to think about it. I needed some sort of validation. I emailed the race director who confirmed that Rutgers campus security made them change the course just one hour before the race. They had to move mile 10 at 7:05am. She said it had been hastily re-marked and re-measured, but obviously not re-certified.

Despite how it might sound, I really enjoyed this race. It was well-organized and well-attended. The parking situation was convenient. There were ample porta-potties. The water stations were well-staffed and evenly-placed. The t-shirts were dri-fit and decent quality. And get this: The awards were early! The trophies were big enough to pour a beer in which is also a plus. The long course appears to have been because of circumstances outside the race director’s control and they responded to my inquiry almost immediately. In a time where road races have been turned into big-corporate money makers where runners pay absurd amounts of money to literally be a faceless number, it’s nice to run a race with 6,000 runners that has all the amenities of a big event but still feels like the people in charge are approachable.

The time on the clock may not have said what I had hoped, but I can walk away from this one feeling like I’m still on track. On to Burlington!

1 comment:

  1. Great story telling jay. Felt as if I was there. I laughed I cried I cramped. Question. Because I felt as if I were there does that mean I really did run a 530? Good. That's what I thought too