Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Big Cottonwood Half Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 11; 13th Edition 
154.6 miles runs in 2016 races
Race: Big Cottonwood Half Marathon
Place: Salt Lake City, UT
Miles from home: 2797
Weather: 40-50s; dry sunny

I originally scheduled this Revel Big Cottonwood half-marathon race as having a two-fold purpose. First, I wanted to set a new PR in the half-marathon and to do so as a Masters. Second, it was going to be a barometer race for attempting a new PR in the marathon about 6 weeks later.

On my birthday, I ran 40km around a track to celebrate turning 40.  It was a hot day as you can read here.  I crashed post-run, slept in late...and missed the tiny window for registering for the marathon at which I wanted to set a PR. So throw that out the window. Then at the end of July I decided I would be moving to Austin a month later. The majority of August was spent packing and all that was moving-related. I then took a 6 day road trip with my Trump Pinata to make it to Austin. Right before I left, I got a notification that I was off the waitlist for the marathon. There was, however, no way I could get into shape to train the way I wanted to in order to run fast. Long has the day passed in which I just run marathons to collect finishes and medals. When I race 26.2, I am by and large, racing. So no marathon.

Given how tiring moving to Austin was, and then the subsequent unpacking, the chances of a new PR in the half were slim to none. Doesn't mean I still wasn't expecting to do so. I often refuse to let logic or reason cloud my judgment when I get uppity about trying to run fast.

For the first time in a long time, I wasn't working an expo before a race. I cannot tell you how liberating a feeling that was. I might be tired, at elevation, staying with a friend who has cats (which I am allergic to) but I thought not having to expend so much energy the day before a race might just be the boost I needed.

Race morning:

I went to bed at an absolutely unheard of time of 9 p.m. in the hopes of buttressing my potential PR chances. Given I had to be up around 4 a.m. to make it to the bus, that really wasn't even all that early. I slept well, got on one of the glorious luxury buses the Revel company had provided for runners (there were also some regular school buses - I was so happy not to be on one of those) and tried to get in a racing mindset. For some reason the bus driver thought that loud country music should be piped in through the speakers and some other racers felt the need to have their overhead lights on the whole way up the dark canyon. (Some might think it cruel to say that it may have been for last second preening but if you have seen the number of women who cross the finish line in Utah races wearing full faces of makeup, you would know I am in no way exaggerating.)

As we stepped off the buses at 7250 feet above sea level, I felt something I haven't felt in I do not know how long: cold! I could see my breath. Sweet Fancy Moses was I going to get a race day I could race in?! With a temperature that in no way was warmer than 45 degrees, I was in heaven. After a slightly longer than necessary wait in the portapotty line (not the organizer's fault but rather people with no sense of an internal clock and common courtesy) it was off to the start.

Making my way to the front I passed no less than half a dozen runners I either knew or was a social media acquaintance with. It was a pleasant surprise and also a nice little warm addition to my morning. The sky was just beginning to reveal the azure blue which would accompany us the entire day.  But for now we were still in the clutches of nighttime. There was just enough time to line up for a quick and subtle countdown before away we went!

First three miles: 6:09. 6:13, 6:12

The beginning of the race was the everything for me. I wanted to nail a couple of 5:45s to feel good about

race and then cruise into the rest. To say I was a bit disheartened with my first mile of 6:09 would be an understatement. But I know mile markers are not certified and often in races a longer mile here means a shorter mile there. So while I held my pace, and felt like I was running under 6 per mile, I was even more dismayed by the second mile. Was this entire effort going to be over before it began? Was I really that tired and out of shape? When the third mile hit still above what I wanted I began to do a great deal of assessing. I knew these miles were not as downhill as some to come so I just had to hold on.  Perhaps as I woke the body up, reminded it that it could indeed run faster, and take advantage of the downhill, I would get some better times.

To the 10k: 5:39, 5:51, 6:16

That's more like it! In a mile that didn't even feel particularly fast, I was right back in the game. But wanting to make sure this was not the mirage I mentioned before I held my celebration inward. The next mile would reveal if the previous was just an anomaly.  When I went under six minutes per again, I was quite happy. I just needed to keep this downward trend going.

However, right after the 5th mile there was a hairpin of an S-curve that, while still downhill, was banking enough to make one lose momentum. In fact, this entire course, again, while decidedly downhill, had just enough twists and turns in it to actually take away more of the advantage of the down than one would think. Nowhere was it more evident than on this next mile. A product of the turn, I slowed by almost half a minute. Bollocks. This was going to be just one big crapshoot as to what happens the rest of the way. Could I go under 1:20? Could I set a PR?

Interestingly enough, while not official, I ran faster than my official 10k at the 6.2 mile mark. This is a time I also have crushed in two other half marathons as well. My 10k PR, like a lot of my shorter distance PRs, is just asking to be broken as I have aged over the 40-year mark. But I digress.

To mile 10: 6:10, 5:52, 6:07, 6:58

The next few miles began a game of cat and mouse between me and a few runners. It also became a show how even fast(ish) people are unaware, or don't care, about running tangents. As we serpentined (Babou!) our way down the canyon, I would routinely pass and then gap runners who steadfastly stuck to the far outside of each turn. (Incidentally, even running every single tangent possible, my GPS still had me a 13.15 which means these poor people were running far too long. This is not a knock on the race - GPS are not infallible. I am simply saying that they ran further than they needed to.)

Here I also began to lose touch with some runners I had been with since the beginning. I had been in the top 15 or so since the start but I started to fall off the back a little bit. This irked me, and after realizing that if I wanted to run fast, I had to stop thinking and run, I threw down another sub-6 mile. It pleased me greatly even as I could begin to feel the soreness in my quads and a warm spot beginning to form on my right heel. This is the same heel which will blister greatly on many races in which I run downhill. Why just the right heel is beyond me. As such, suffice it to say, I began thinking again. I very much wanted to run another sub-6 mile if for only for my mind. When it was not, it deflated me a bit. I knew this 9th mile was the last one which would contain no uphill or flat. Doing the math I knew I had little to no shot to PR.

As I mentioned above, the weather was perfect. In fact, at times, we even had a slight tailwind. Moreover, as I would see later, we would not even have the sun creep over the mountains and onto our backs until mile 11.5. It was, virtually everything I could want in a race.  I just wasn't going to get it done the way I wanted.

When the last downhill ended, we left the valley and began a small uphill climb to mile 10. I had a weird taste in my mouth and tried to figure out what it was. Then I remembered that by coming down below the pollution level in Salt Lake, we were now smack dab in the middle of the dreaded inversion.  It had never bothered me when I lived here for four years but I could taste it now. When the tenth mile yielded near 7 minutes for the time of running it, my goals were shot. Now I had a disappointing final 3.1 miles to run.  My only goal which remained was to not ruin a good start with a bad finish. But few things suck worse in a race than knowing all of your main goals are gone but you still have to run out the string.

Onward toward the finish. 6:53, 6:44, 6:50, :42

I then just got passed by two women running in tandem and chatting up a storm. Color me impressed. Not long after another woman passed me. I was fairly certain I was out of the top 20 now. Various random goals out of the way, I began calculating what I might run. I was hoping it would still be in the 1:21 range but didn't have much to base that on. I figured 6:30s the rest of the way were within my wheelhouse. But then I ran a 6:53 for the 11th mile. I knew that right after mile 11 there was a short, but blisteringly steep, downhill that I could throw my weight behind to try and salvaged the remaining distance. When I crossed the next mile marker at 6:44, in spite of giving it all I had, I just sorta sighed and called it a day.

The sun was out on a beautiful day and as we ran down the long straightaway to the finish, we could see the arch way in the distance. In fact, well over half of a mile away I could hear the announcer. I heard him announce the women's overall winner, in the time I was hoping to run. Then I heard the 1:20 barrier go by. A man and a woman passed me with less than half of a mile to go. I had no response. My PR barrier passed from the announcer's voice and I still had a third of a mile to go. I kept chugging along.

One of my best friends, Chris (aka Vanilla Bear) and his wife Kathy Jo (aka Mrs. Bear) and their baby Calvin (T-Minus 8 days old and ready to come out) were cheering me on at the finish. I unfortunately did not hear them as I was in the pain cave at this point. Nevertheless, I crossed under the arch for my 94th lifetime half-marathon in a time of 1:22:32.  It was my third fastest half-marathon ever. I finished 27th overall and was lucky enough to take 3rd Masters as well.

As I was running this race and knowing I would not realistically be going for a PR, I spent a little more time evaluating it from an organizer's perspective. I had to think about things which I would improve or change.  Right away that tells me a race is well run.The race provided not only free pictures but had them up on the website 48 hours after the race was done. The swag in the bag was very nice with gloves, a great shirt, a mylar blanket and a beanie to wear if you were cold at the start. There was a timing mat at mile 4.5 and mile 10 which means in theory the runners could set new PRs at those distances if they were certified. I have run a fair amount of these downhill races and have always told the organizers that if they threw a mat down at 5k, 10k, 15k and ten miles they could advertise how their race could provide so many chances to set PRs.

I did not stay around for the finish line festivities but if they were anything like the rest of the race I am sure they were top notch. I was however very proud that one of the athletes that I coach ran a 7 minute personal best in the half, so kudos to Jessica for that! Person after person seemed to be streaming in with a smile on their face and a new R in their pocket. Will downhill running help assist you in running faster?  Of course, but you have to take it.  No one just gives it to you.

I have had very good fortunate in running races that were put together well and most of that stems from having a pretty good idea which races to run. So if it seems as if many I run get top marks, that is why.  It is called having worked in the business in every aspect from runner to course designed to race director and everything in between.  As such, I can definitely see me running more races put on by Revel in the future.  They specialize in this downhill variety so I would highly suggest learning how to run downhill, practice and then celebrate at the end with your buddies with a big fat PR!

As for me, I am back to Austin where I hope the heat and humidity will help make the remainder of my races this year an breeze, even if I don't get the perfect weather I did in Salt Lake City.


Unknown said...

Great recap, Dane. It makes me want to tackle this course. After mastering downhill running, that is. :-)

Taylor said...

Living in the Boise area, this is a race that I've had my eyes on for a couple years. I did Mt Nebo Marathon last year which has a similar profile and I had a great experience. Glad the race went fairly well for you despite missing the PR.