Monday, March 17, 2014

New Bedford Half 2014

As I waited for the train on yet another sub-30 degree March day, I wanted to be someone else. The type of person who, like the group of 20-somethings dressed in neon green socks and headbands standing nearby, ran 5Ks for fun. Instead, I was off to race a half marathon. And unlike a 5K for fun, I knew it was going to hurt.

The weather forecast for the race had been slowly dipping lower, starting with a promising high of 40 early in the week and ending with the real thing...high of 32. And windy. Woof. Dragging my tights out for a race in mid-March was not an enjoyable experience. I had my now-traditional pre race Finagle Bagel and met up with Joy and Briana for our annual pilgrimage to New Bedford. We made it to number pickup, where security was crazy. Guess these are the times we live in. I looked up my number and got REALLY excited for a minute because it started with a 14. 14 is my favorite/lucky number and somehow despite how many races I've run this was only the second time I've had it appear on my bib. So I figured today had to be a good day. I knew I was fit. That wasn't the issue. The problem was that I had run out of my mind to a 3 1/2 minute PR at this race last year off of virtually nonexistent training. So, with multiple 50-60 mile training weeks under me, it was going to be quite a blow to my confidence if I didn't PR. But my pace of 7:15 from 2013 already seemed crazy, even as fit as I was. It definitely didn't feel like a given, and that was what was in my mind heading up to the line.

After finding the "secret" YMCA bathroom with the door that locked from the inside, we warmed up a bit and then headed to the corral. After the singing of the national anthem, it was time to get underway. New Bedford is a HUGE race and as a New England Grand Prix race it draws a lot of fast runners from the various clubs. Also cool was that Kim Smith had jumped in the race last minute (apparently doing a tempo run...which still meant she beat all but 2 of our men's team. Pro runners are amazing.) I came off the line with Briana and Taylor and tried to get into flying V formation..and off we went. Taylor immediately took off, and I decided to just relax into it for a bit. My legs had felt rough all week, so I wasn't sure how things were going to go. I feel like I know the course at New Bedford well, and I pretty much knew even splits were out of the question. Mile 1 is downhill, similar to Boston actually, and I came through at 6:48. The second mile continues in a general downhill direction but I usually slow a bit there. Then comes a mile-long set of rolling hills. I was leapfrogging with Briana and several other people at this point, and interestingly I was actually passing on the uphills!! I honestly am not sure if I've managed that was a strange feeling to actually feel strong heading up a hill. I knew I had slowed a bit with the hills, but I felt strong and in control, and I also knew that coming up next was possibly my favorite 4 mile stretch of any race. My split at mile 4 was a bit slower than expected...I think like 7:20? I can't actually take splits on my current watch so I had to do math. I wasn't feeling amazing, so I had a little moment of panic there for a second...not nearly as bad as last year, but still, the doubts were there. But then I remembered where I was, and how I never run even splits on this course. And I decided to fly.

From miles 4-7.5 you run through essentially a long, gradual downhill, and I knew if I was going to put time in the bank, this was where it would happen. So I started thinking about covering more ground, pushing off, and most importantly, passing people. And next thing I knew, I wad clicking off 6:55-7:00 splits like nothing. If you had ever told me I'd see a sub-7 mile beyond the first crazy mile of a half, I would have laughed in your face. And yet. My biggest concern was actually that I now felt massively underarmor long sleeve was feeling stifling and I was seriously jealous of a girl I saw up ahead of me who tossed her over shirt and gloves to someone on the sidelines.  Around mile 6 I picked up a group of 2 girls in red singlets, girl in orange shorts, and a tall guy. I was seriously excited, because I almost always seem to find myself running alone in a pack! It was so exciting! We ran together for a mile or so, and it was just the stimulus I needed to not back off the pace even as I was getting just the tiniest bit fatigued. Eventually I passed through and was on my own again, but thinking about those 3 girls behind me kept me pushing.

We made the turn onto the ocean, and at first, miraculously, there was a TAILWIND. I was feeling pumped on life at this point, and passing people left and right. I took my Gu and it was just delightful. I saw a camera and I actually smiled at it. I smiled at the spectators. I smiled at myself. Why would I ever want to casually run a 5K when I could do THIS?
Smiling! In a half marathon! Just feeling so, so great.

I was still hitting 7ish splits, although the fatigue was starting to sneak in a little bit....annnd then we turned into the most cruel headwind ever. I pretty much immediately felt my pace go downhill and life got decidedly less fun.  Suddenly everything was really, really hard. I was also running kind of alone again so I didn't have anyone to draft off of. The rest of the race was full of mental and physical ups and downs. The Irish water stop at mile 10 was a joy, but then I just wanted to be done. I finally caught a pack, and then it disintegrated. We turned into town, and my brain couldn't do math any more so I had no idea how much I slowed down. And I just wanted to be DONE. We came to the hill at mile 12, which actually was not as bad as I remembered. Then I almost got taken out by a woman with a giant stroller crossing the course and I just couldn't handle it anymore. We made the turn towards the finish. I looked at my watch, saw 1:32 something, and suddenly the haze I had been in for the last 3 miles lifted, and all I could think was "oh, shit! I've gotta GO!" And I absolutely sprinted down that hill, passing a ton of people in the process. And finally I crossed the finish line in 1:34:05. An almost 1 min PR.

Home stretch. Photo by Krissy Kozlosky.

Now I will be honest: I was a teeny bit disappointed that I couldn't pull out a 1:33:xx. BUT in the end, it didn't matter. Because I finally ran a PR where I put in the work and I truly deserved it. And that feeling - to work hard, to race hard, and to have it all pay off in running faster than you ever have before - is worth everything.

Next stop, Boston...

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Black Cat 20 Mile Race Report

The short story: The best distance race I've ever run. Had a plan, executed better than expected, never let my brain get the better of me. 2:30:32.

The long story:
The week leading up to this race was not one of my better ones this training cycle. I had a phenomenal long run on Sunday, but had been nursing some niggles ever since. Combine that with several commitments during the week and fitting in the miles was definitely feeling like a chore. I actually took the day before the race completely off in an attempt to calm things down. This race was really my first big test of this training cycle; a sort of 'where the hell is my fitness anyway?' type thing.  I would say that training has been going pretty well, but nothing overly spectacular has happened to make be believe that I'm in PR marathon shape. So...that's the leadup to this story.

I woke up on Saturday with absolutely no desire to race. So early, so groggy, so hyperaware of the twinges in my knee and SO unhappy to be dealing with yet another blustery sub-20 degree day. I headed off to Salem with some of the GBTC crew. We arrived early to the race, got our shirts, etc, and had a dance party near the porta potties for a bit before going back to the car to attempt to stay warm. Everyone's phone was giving a different reading of the temps ranging from 3-15 degrees but regardless of what the actual temperature was, the way it felt was pretty obvious: effing cold. We finally managed to drag ourselves away from the warmth of the car, and after one last porta potty stop we were huddled together on the starting line. I never really got nervous before the race because I kept telling myself that I was just going to do a long run. I believe I announced to my teammates before the race that "I have no intention of racing this thing". That, as it turns out, would be a big fat lie.

Without any fanfare the horn blew and we were off for 20 miles. I watched my teammates blow by me immediately and I thought to myself, nope. Relax, relax, relax. I calmed down and watched them go. My plan was to go out feeling relaxed and relatively comfortable, and then reassess. I definitely succeeded in feeling relaxed, and was actually pretty shocked when I went through the first mile at 7:25. Somewhere around mile 2, I realized that I had lost one of my gels...the safety pin holding it to my shirt must have broken or something. As I was frantically feeling myself up trying to figure out where it could have fallen, and meanwhile trying to reassess my fueling plan now that I only had one gel, a magical thing happened. I heard a voice behind me: "Did you lose a gel?" A guy ran up next to me. "I saw that you dropped it a little ways back, but it went so fast I couldn't grab it for you. I have an extra gel, do you want it?" This man became my new favorite person in all of time and space. I happily took the gel, thanked him profusely, and wished him good luck. I didn't catch his name or number, but guy in the black and yellow jacket with the extra espresso Gu - YOU ARE MY HERO.

The next few miles passed uneventfully. I didn't take splits but kept an eye on my watch at each mile marker and was steady on right around 7:25 pace. The course is a double out and back, which was fun because you get to see everyone throughout the race. I yelled for all of my teammates as they passed and then made the turnaround myself. I took some water at this point which had frozen in the you, New England winter. Back towards Salem we went, with some nice downhills scattered throughout this portion of the course. I was still feeling nice and comfy at this 7:25 pace but wasn't yet allowing myself to think about the possibility that I would be able to hold it for the entire race. Around mile 5 I passed my teammate Briana, and we chatted for a second about our plan for the rest of the race. I wished her good luck and moved onward. I could see my friend Joy maybe 300 meters ahead and started to begin thinking, just a little bit, about closing the gap. Not adding any significant effort, not consciously speeding up, but just pulling the line, bit by bit.

After the out and back the course heads into a little loop around the city, where I began passing a few more people. There's sort of a long, drawn out stretch of empty street and I thought to myself how this part of the race might not be so enjoyable the second time around. Right around mile 8 I passed Joy, the last teammate within my reach. No more red singlets to reel in anymore...I was on my own. I passed mile 9, still sticking with my pace, still feeling peachy, and I literally thought to myself "not bad, Zaferos, not bad at all". So far things were going extremely well, and the thoughts started to creep into my mind: so, maybe, you could try to hold this pace?  I came through the 10 mile at 1:14:30ish, still right on schedule. At this point in the race I had "Hey Baby" as played by the Wisconsin Marching Band in my head, and all I could think of as I went out for the second loop was "ONE MORE TIME". So I did the logical thing and yelled that to the guy who was directing the 20 milers back out onto the course, and he proceeded to repeat it over the microphone. A few moments later, I passed a man who gave me a funny look, and then screamed "WISCONSIN! BADGERS! YEAH!" (I was wearing a Wisconsin hat.) I was so taken aback and excited by this development that I put my arms in the air and screamed. WOOO! There are so few moments in my distance racing life when I have the chance to experience pure joy during a race, and this was certainly one of them.

The pack had thinned out considerably as we headed out for the second loop since we had lost the 10 milers who seemed to make up the majority of the field. I latched on to 2 older men for a bit, but my real focus was a girl maybe 200 meters ahead in a Reach the Beach shirt. That logo was like a target for the next few miles. I eventually caught up to her around mile 12, and the two of us spent the next 2 miles cheering for every single person we saw coming back on the opposite side of the course. I had to giggle a little bit at the fact that here I was, running a race that I never would have imagined, and I had the energy to be cheering for my teammates while cruising along at 7:25 pace at mile 14. I mean, who am I? I passed RtB for a bit between 13 and 14, then she got back in front of me after the turnaround. I paced off of her from 14-15 and finally passed her again around 16. Between the distraction of the cheering and leapfrogging with this girl, those awful middle miles went by incredibly fast. By the time I realized what was happening there were 4 miles to go. I was definitely starting to feel the fatigue at this point, but I was still staying on pace and I started to feel the confidence that my legs would hold for 4 more miles.

Back into the town, I was basically running alone. There were a couple people who I could see vaguely up ahead but they weren't close enough to make contact yet. With 3 miles to go, I finally came to the realization that even if some disaster occurred over the next 25 minutes, I was going to run a whole lot faster than I expected. The miles had seemed to be clicking off pretty quickly until after passing the 18 mile mark. At that point, it started to seem like mile 19 would never come. But it did, and then HOLY SHIT one more mile. This was the longest mile EVER. Probably because, as we came to discover later, it was actually 1.2 miles. But I am not sure I have ever dug down so deep to finish a race hard in my life. I passed this woman who said something to the effect of "Alright Greater Boston, looking strong." And I was looking strong. Looking and feeling and just generally being strong, which was not something I ever expected to feel in the last half mile of a 20 mile race. But here I was: strong. And fighting to the end. There was this girl in a pink shirt that I kept getting closer, and closer, and closer to as the blocks ticked by and by God, I was going to pass her. As we finally approached the last turn leading to the finish line, I found some other gear that I didn't even know existed and pushed by her. And that was it. This was just the best. Ever.

So once upon a time, I thought that my marathon PR was a fluke. And I thought that I never could be that successful at longer distances again, that I was doomed to mediocrity. I think that this race, and the whole performance of it - the mental game, the hunger to fight to hold pace and to pass people, the ability to stay relaxed and execute a race plan - completely proves that wrong. I don't think I've ever been so happy to be wrong in my life. And, no pressure, but I might have to at least consider the possibility of a PR at Boston. If I can relax into it like I did today, when you add in the crowd support and the fact that it's BOSTON, I can't count it out anymore. After all...I still have 7 weeks of training to get even stronger...

And for pure entertainment, here's a list of the songs that I had in my head during the race:
-Let It Go
-Hey Baby (marching band version)
-Answer the Phone by Sugar Ray (...what?)
-Ocean Avenue by Yellowcard (...also...what?)
-Keep Holding On