On February 27, 2016, I ran the Colchester Half Marathon. I ran Colchester two years ago as the first half marathon I did after dramatically stepping up my training. In Connecticut, this is known as one of the most difficult half marathons on offer. It takes place on the last Saturday in February so not only is the weather on race day very hit or miss, but you have to be prepared to train through winter’s crap if you want to do well. Then there’s the matter of those hills. The race website says something like 1100 feet. My Garmin data says only about 700, but either way, that’s a lot of climbing. In exchange for the crazy course and crazy weather, you get: no t-shirt and no medal and no beer, but views of cows and barns, the most out-going race director I’ve ever encountered, a professionally managed race, and lots of tasty food at the post-race carb re-load lunch. Also, a really fast field because this isn’t a race to tackle on a lark.
When I ran Colchester in 2014, I experienced some of the most exhilarating racing I’ve ever had in my life. This race had intimidated me. For a couple of years, I didn’t sign up because I was afraid of the hills and the weather. But in 2014 Fast Friend and Snarky Girl and I committed to running Colchester and we did almost all our long runs out at the orchard with lots of hills. Colchester 2014 was also my first half marathon after joining Innovative Fitness and Wellness and adding strength training to my routine. I remember feeling like I was flying. I wrote in the blog that I passed more people in that race than in all other races I had done up to that point collectively and that might be true. I also got a PR of over two minutes, running it in 2:04:33. I put together a half marathon race play list for Colchester 2014 that I still use so obviously, this was a break through race for me. What would 2016 hold?
I felt good in the week leading up to the race and the weather looked good. In the mid-30s, which is a tad on the cold side, but dry at least with no ice on the roads. Training for Vermont City has been going really well. My new chiropractor seems to have figured out how to eliminate the hip/back issue I have been dealing with. We’d done at least a couple of training runs at the orchards and of course, many hill repeats. Plus, Tough Guy trainer has me doing serious Big Girl Squats, producing hopefully strong legs. I don’t remember where I heard this but a voice in the back of my head kept saying, there’s never a guarantee that you’ll get to the starting line healthy. The weather is always a crap shoot. If things come together and you get a chance, you should go for it.
Coach Cowboy said when we planned out the race schedule that he hoped for sub 2 at Colchester. Instead of responding “Sub 2 on that course? Are you crazy?” somehow I thought, yeah, sub 2 is do-able. I want to note some kind of Level Up Option going on here. I generally have goals for particular races, but I have bigger, longer-term goals too. One of those goals has been to run a sub 2 half marathon on a regular basis. Not just on a flat course with perfect weather and the planets aligning. But to be the kind of runner who can run sub 2 on a tough course or in bad weather or whatever. I don’t want to miss this because suddenly I was pretty confident I could run sub 2 at Colchester on that beast of a course. I’ve run that fast three times before, but once at Middletown, which is at least flatter than Colchester and twice at Surftown, which is pretty much a pancake for races in this area. Feeling confident about sub 2 at Colchester? LEVEL UP, BABY! Ok, my kids play too many video games….
So, how fast should I go? I’m a brainy runner. I do better with an explicit time goal. Tough Guy trainer was saying, you are working hard and doing well and you need to go for it. Coach Cowboy and I set up a three-tiered goal. First, run sub 2. Second, get a PR (that’s 1:57:07). Third, aim for 1:55. 1:55? Gulp. They say you need a goal big enough to scare you and with 1:55, I reached it. That’s fast. On those hills? Yikes, but ok.
The day before the race, I re-read my race report from Colchester 2014. These little write-ups are darn useful! My primary memory of that race is some of the most deeply-rooted joy I have ever felt in my life. Also, I remember a stunning red barn against a field of white snow and running up an icy dirt road, but that was about it. The race report contained lots more details, including the brutal hills in miles 11 and 12. Nice, right? I also re-read my race report from Surftown 2015. I spent probably too much time with the pace calculator. That report reminded me how well checkpoints have been working for me. The Colchester course is more or less a big square so I picked out times to meet at the corners. This turns out to be a great strategy for a hilly course because your splits for particular miles are probably going to vary a lot. Finally, early to bed, with a Tylenol PM to ensure some good sleep.
Race morning dawned clear and cold, as expected, but not too much wind at least. I got ready. Had my oatmeal. Made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat in the car. I even packed a protein shake for after the race. Good grief, who am I? Teacher Runner and I were both racing, but driving separately because she had to take off right afterwards to deal with kid stuff. I met her in the parking lot – she arrived first, of course. Got my bib, used the bathroom – no porta-potties at this race! It’s based at the local high school. Found Fast Friend and said hi to Early Bird. Colchester is a big runner social event! Before too long, it was time to line up.
Teacher Runner and I didn’t have a plan about running this together or not together. We’ve raced together plenty of times, but the Philadelphia Marathon was the only time we stuck together start to finish. I really didn’t know what we would do, but I had my checkpoint times and Coach Cowboy (she’s working with him too now!) had told her “Run your own race.” I said, let me translate for you: Don’t wait for Sarah. Ha ha! She said anything can happen, which is also true. Before we were done joking around at the start, the air horn sounded and off we went!
Now, I had planned on sub 9 miles the whole race, aiming for 8:40-8:50. A 1:55 half is an average of 8:45 minutes per mile. But you sometimes learn a lot about how you’re going to feel in the first mile of a race and I felt good. Even though the race starts uphill. Huh. Ok, let’s see where this goes. Teacher Runner obviously also felt good because she was up and at ‘em. I’ve confronted the choice of whether to try to hang with Teacher Runner or let her go many times in races and training and I expect to be facing that choice a bunch more in the future. I’m usually happier when I go ahead and chase after this speedy gazelle, so I stuck with her. Good lord, first split of 8:19. I hope you know what the hell you’re doing, Teacher Runner. Second split of 8:35 and third on one of those hills at 8:57. That’s about when she ran on ahead of me and this time, I let her go. I thought a 1:55 was within my reach, but nothing much faster than that, and I needed to run my own race as well. My first checkpoint was 5 miles with a time goal of 43:50 and I cruised past the five mile mark more than a minute ahead of schedule.
The course starts at the bottom of the square and goes clockwise so five miles is the upper left-hand corner. Imagining myself running across the top of the square was weirdly helpful, but also, I felt really strong during this race. I ran pretty well at Surftown last fall, but it felt like a lot of work. This was different. It wasn’t quite the unfettered joy of Colchester 2014, but it wasn’t a slog either. This was a quieter, more focused kind of joy. If it wasn’t quite flying, it was still moving pretty damn fast. The downhills at this race are a blast if you aren’t afraid of them and I just focused on keeping my turnover high and not falling down. Soon enough, I came around the corner with that beautiful barn, this time against a grey-greenish field just coming out of winter. This has to be one of the most beautiful scenes in all Connecticut races.
Then down and up some more. Gu at miles 4 and 7 and 10 as usual. Water at the water stations. Through the halfway mark in 56:20. What? My math skills while running are not great, but 56:20 at 6.55 miles is way faster than 1:55. Ok, whatever, biggest hill was yet to come. I walked one tiny stretch on the worst of that hill around mile 8 when the person next to me slowed to a walk. Man, is it hard to keep running when someone does that! But I rallied and ran up the rest of that thing, thinking 1:55 isn’t for walkers, Coach Cowboy said be tough, c’mon, get after it. Suddenly I was on top of the hill, sooner than I expected, and here was mile 9 which I was supposed to reach in 1:19. Time on the watch? Just under 1:18.
Ok, down the right-hand side of the square, things were getting harder. Four miles to go, three miles to go. This is work now, though still not a slog. I was supposed to reach mile 11 at 1:36:30 and I was still ahead of the clock, but by less than a minute now. Suddenly I spotted Teacher Runner! She had taken off her jacket so she looked different. Had she been so close the whole time? I was going to catch up to her! Hooray! Wait, I was passing her. What? That was a surprise. I spent the next mile or so thinking it was her shadow at my shoulder and wondering if she was okay. It turned out she had some stomach issues that slowed her down so she’ll have to wait until another day to show what’s she’s got.
Now the last two miles, rolling hills that look so small on the course map and feel so huge by this point in the race. People on bicycles kept passing me. A race volunteer. Would he notice if I grabbed the bike seat and let him pull me up the hill? Would that work? A couple of down-and-out types out collecting cans on their bikes and cheering on the runners. Or was this just one cyclist who kept passing me over and over again? I had no idea and how could they stick this hill HERE at this point of the race?
I started counting to 100 over and over again for the last mile. After each 100 count, I would glance at my watch. I was .18 further. I was .17 further. Pace sitting steadily around 9:20, yuck. If I could just keep running and counting, this race really would end at some point. It was inevitable. It had to be. Here’s the race director at 13 miles yelling “Only .1 miles to go!” He apparently has no idea how far that is. Then suddenly a woman next to me yells “C’mon, let’s finish together! Let’s finish strong!” and unbelievably my legs start moving faster and the damn hill is over and the damn race is over, thank goodness! I can stop! And look at that clock! 1:55 something! YES! Almost immediately Coach Cowboy calls with a tracker update. Gun time 1:55:39, later updated to chip time 1:55:29! YES! My head is still spinning and I can hardly believe it.
Teacher Runner came in just a minute or two later and she’s ok, just stomach troubles. Fast Friend arrived quickly afterwards despite predicting a much slower finishing time. We celebrated and commiserated at the finish and then headed inside where the culinary students had prepared some truly delicious food, as promised. Two years ago, this was about as big as I could dream in terms of running. Now I’m waiting to see what Middletown and Vermont City have in store.
Fast Friend and Hubby – they left Adorable Baby at home!