Monday, June 25, 2012

Half-Marathon PR, Or, How Not To Run A Race

The first half-marathon I ever ran was the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in 2010. (See all my results here.) I'd just put up a decent showing in a 20k a few months prior (also at that link) and was all set to smoke the half.

Well, nearly everything that could go wrong in a race went wrong.

I lost my colleague I was running the race with, and when the race started I was at the absolute tail end of the pack. So I spent most of the early part of the race running hard, as I worked through the 7,000-strong crowd, instead of starting with the 8 mile-per-minute pace group.

I'd also just bought a pair of the then-brand-new Vibram FiveFinger Bikilas, and decided to use the race as the break-in run for these shoes. Rule no. 1 for racing: never wear new shoes; I knew this. Since the interior of the Bikila was supposed to be barefoot-friendly, I ran the race without socks. This worked fine until about mile 6, when the strap anchor point started abrading my foot, and I was actually bleeding. Luckily, I had a pair of injinji crew socks in my pocket, and I spent a good four or five minutes putting those on. Putting new toe shoes on over socks is never easy on a good day, try it when you're watching the race run past...

And finally I bonked at about mile 12 (aka 20k...). 12+ miles was the farthest I'd ever run at that point, and my body reminded me of it. Spots, dizzyness, a tingling scalp and general miserableness joined me on the run. I'd just gone paleo before that race, and was trying not to resort to carbs during the race. At this point I tried some Gatorade, but it did no good. I walked most of the rest of the course.

I had enough juice left to run down the boardwalk to the finish, and then started walking, and limping. The middle of my left foot hurt, in what I subsequently learned was the metatarsal-cuboid joint, a joint I wasn't aware I possessed until that point.

I found my colleague, and we walked the couple of miles to his apartment, where I'd left my car.

Nevertheless, of the five road and trail half-marathons I've run, that 8:53 pace was my personal record, much like my first 5k race was my PR until this Memorial Day.

Happily I've gotten smarter about running races. I learned to always wear socks, to avoid the chafing that can happen during a race. I learned to go out easy, and to keep the pace for the first couple of miles in line with the pace you expect to finish in, leaving some juice for a strong finish, if possible. I've gotten used to running on only coffee and cream prior to the race. Haven't bonked in a while.

So you'd think I would have been all set to put in a stellar effort on this half, right? Being a more experienced runner and just having set a 5k PR?

Sadly, no.

I bought a pair of Vibram FiveFinger SeeYas a few days prior to the race. Unlike my experience with the Bikilas, I took the SeeYas out for a six-mile and then a three-mile run, sockless. That went so well that I decided to run the half in them, also sockless. I ran the race with a friend, who even pointed out that I was foolish not to put the socks I had brought along on prior to starting the race. I persisted.

Inspired by my recent 5k success, and my nutty friend's gung-ho attitude, I went out hard...

And sure enough, after a few miles the right shoe started to bother my foot. I adjusted the strap, and that helped for a bit, but didn't eliminate the problem. Right around the 6-mile mark, I stopped and put a sock on that foot. Around the 8-mile mark, I stopped and put the other sock on, as I could feel a blister forming under my left heel. Note to self: when you can feel it, it's too late. You've already done the damage, you're now in damage-control mode.

The first sock stop left me with an 8:04 average pace to that point. The next stop put me up to an 8:12 average pace. I was happy to make the second stop, because I was running out of juice. Not bonking, but tired legs. I was happy to stop, and when I started running again, the legs were hurting. I was not happy about the fact that I had five more miles to run.

Fairfield vs. Pain to Paine
As you can see from this chart, comparing this race to the Paine to Pain Half last fall (the only other race I have data for) my pace fell off pretty dramatically after the second sock stop at mile 8.

At mile 10 I hit the big hill climb. I walked up part of the hill prior to the big hill, and started walking at the bottom of the big hill. Happily, I saw a fellow run past barefoot. "Hey Adam!" I called out. Barefoot Adam Gentile slowed down, and I started running, and we chatted for a bit. Thanks to Adam I didn't walk the whole big hill, but trotted along, and after he left I checked the average pace again: 8:36. Well, at this point, I realized, all I had to do was keep running at a reasonable pace and I was going to PR. I took a couple of short walk breaks, but managed to run almost all of the rest of the race, and finished in 1:54:10, for a pace of 8:43, compared to 1:56:33, at 8:53 from Brooklyn, and 1:59:25 at 9:06 from last year's Paine to Pain.

And then I started limping. I had developed a huge blister on the heel of my left foot. No, I don't think this was the new shoes, as I got a similar blister on my right foot a few years ago from running up a steep hill in my KSOs, after I'd been wearing them for at least 8 months. That prior blister was a form and calf-strength issue, and I'm sure this one is the same.

So yeah, I finished. But it wasn't exactly a heroic effort: I definitely feel that my poor planning and head-strong ways cheated me out of a better performance. In fact, one would be justified to wonder if I was subconciously trying to sabotage the race, or repeat the Brooklyn experience point-for-point. I can't help but think that if I'd started out at an 8:30 pace, I could have carried that through the whole race. My legs indicate that I gave it my all: my calves, hamstrings, and quads are all really sore. What seems to happen with Maffetone-style training is that as your fitness improves, muscles that were adequately trained find themselves to be inadequate to the new requirements. That's a good thing, just painful in the short term.

From a training perspective, this race was a big improvement over the Paine to Pain Half I ran last fall. While the chart above makes it tough to compare the numbers, pace yesterday was 23 seconds/mile faster (11 seconds/mile faster than my Brooklyn PR), average HR was 178 yesterday vs. 177 in the fall, the temperature was probably 25F higher, and the course was much hillier. So, on average, it was a big improvement. Thank you Dr. Maffetone.

Also, my problem right foot and leg felt pretty good during and after the race, and I had an exciting new ache during the race. Which is usually a sign of improvement.

But I've still got that first 20k looming over me. That was a similar course to this one, also in Fairfield, but my pace in that race was 8:04, and that with severe IT band pain for most of the race in the problem right leg. Of course it was in the 20Fs that day, and as last weekend's Western States demonstrated, a cold day counts for a lot.

There's always next year.

P.S. Due to a request from a scientist friend, I've posted a picture below of the blister on my heel. If you're squeamish, as I am, don't scroll down too far...

P.P.S. Here's Barefoot Gentile's account of the race. 80F at the start and 87F at the finish? I had no idea... BTW, while I had plenty of self-inflicted stupidity to complain about, it's a great race, and I really enjoyed running it. I highly recommend it, and I'm looking forward to next year's race.

I ran three miles yesterday on that blister, wearing my Lunas. I've not done anything to treat it, and it's coming along nicely.

Here's the data from the chart:

Paine to Pain Fairfield
Mile Pace HR Pace HR
1 8:08 170 7:17 174
2 9:23 181 7:24 181
3 8:54 182 7:38 184
4 9:49 178 7:45 185
5 8:35 179 8:45 184
6 9:02 178 9:18 179
7 9:44 178 8:20 184
8 8:54 179 7:49 180
9 9:49 177 8:31 178
10 8:51 176 10:24 173
11 9:21 174 9:10 178
12 9:41 173 9:13 177
13 8:51 179 10:10 170
0.2 ? ? 8:43 179

Isn't that lovely?  Doesn't hurt much...