I love this crazy race. Salty Running would call it a “Beardy Guy” race because it’s incredibly low budget. Registration was $14 this year with the promise that if you don’t have $14 worth of fun, they will refund your money. No medal. They added a shirt last year for the first time that costs extra and has no sponsors on it because there are no sponsors for the race. There are, however, many hills, a fun race director, a field of serious runners, (did I mention many hills?), and a great post-race meal.
Pokey and Speedy Stork and I cooked up a plan back in November to run Colchester together, our first race as a trio. We’ve had so much fun training together. Lots of long runs, Friday Girlfriend runs, track workouts, stupid weather. I was looking forward to some racing! Though not together because they are both loads faster than I am.
When we were looking at the training cycle in general, Coach Mick and I settled on treating Colchester as a training run rather than racing it all out. Between illness, a lousy 20 mile run, the plantar fasciitis, some kind of weird adductor pain, the last few months have had their share of ups and downs. Enough that when I looked at the proposed pacing plan – 3 miles of warm up and then 10 at goal marathon pace, around 8:30 – I was totally filled with doubt. That sounded incredibly implausible. On the hills of Colchester? Maybe if I killed myself. This is a course that can really make you suffer. Most people talk about it having 3 hills, but there’s a decent one at the beginning and the last 2 miles are uphill as well. If you count those, there’s five, but it’s rolling hills all the way.
I don’t know if other people have races they do over and over again that get invested with layers of meaning, but I certainly do and Colchester is one of those races. I remember being afraid of this course. I remember finally running it and feeling incredibly strong. I remember the first time I ran sub-2 at Colchester, which convinced me sub-2 was within reach anywhere. Certain portions of the course are just etched into my brain. I was looking forward to the race, but I was nervous about the pace. Heh.
The night before the race was the first time I had brain space to devote to thinking about it because: life! as they say. I started texting Coach Mick late in the afternoon and continued sporadically right through Girl Scout World Thinking Day and then more insistently when I got home. 8:30 miles? Really? Where did he think that was coming from? He told me my issue was primarily mental, not physical, that I just wasn’t used to thinking about running that pace for that long because it had been awhile but that I was totally capable of it. He reminded me of some of the training runs I’ve done recently. I think more than anything else, he just let me talk through it. I had a lot of garbage in my brain that had to come out. By the end of the conversation, I felt more comfortable with the idea of just showing up and trying. I could at least test out my new Vapor Flys, give the Maurten drink another trial, and hopefully enjoy some time with Pokey and Speedy Stork.
Race morning routine went completely according to plan. I had Shalane Flanagan’s race-day oatmeal, plus 2 cups of coffee, and the Maurten for the drive. I couldn’t decide what to wear so I packed two jackets and three shirts. Not even kidding. Plus two pairs of shoes in case I freaked out about the Vapor Flys. I arrived at the school where the race is held and had my five hour energy shot. Boom, boom, boom, all following standard plan. I found Pokey, got my bib, went pee, we did our warm-up. More debate about what to wear. It was 35 and overcast with a very light breeze. Shouldn’t be that complicated except we’d been running in weather more like 15-20 degrees for what seems like forever. Plus, this was going to be faster running. Hmmm. I didn’t want to muck around with having to shed a layer and I opted for my lightest weight shirt plus gloves, no hat. That turned out to be the perfect choice.
We lined up together, near the front (Speedy Stork is very speedy), and pop! The gun went off. My two friends took off and I settled in. I felt really good, great in fact! Loads of people passed me, but that’s fine, the first three miles were supposed to be for “easing into it”. I had imagined 9-9:15 pace, maybe even a tad slower on the uphill portion. I could tell right away I was faster than planned and in fact, first mile 8:36. Whoops. What to do now? That’s a whole lot faster than planned, but I really felt fabulous. No foot pain, no adductor pain, legs had plenty of pep. I decided to slow down a little bit. Part of the point of this race was to practice for Boston and I could easily be having this experience there – feeling wonderful, everyone running by me, running faster than planned. The right choice would no doubt be to slow down anyway so I did my best, which was only a little slower.
The three mile mark is the top of that first small hill and also where I was supposed to shift to 8:30s or so. I was already pretty close to that and this still felt incredibly easy. I had run into a friend on the course and said hi. She is also running Boston [of course – she does almost every year] and I was really excited to let her know I am too. I let her run on ahead, sticking to my plan. Miles three through six are pretty consistently downhill so I tried not to go too fast. My plan had been nothing faster than 8:20s and I was right around there. I experimented with leaning forward and backward a bit, trying to find the best posture for not blowing out my quads. I had my Gu at about 30 minutes and we finally hit the first water stop around 4 miles. I am not sure what I was thinking about here. Just zoning out a bit, enjoying the run, checking out people’s outfits, admiring the views. The pace did not seem to be a problem at all. I was completely surprised but of course very happy! I remember thinking around five miles, well, if this all blows up on me now, I’ve at least done five miles at pretty close to 8:30 so, that’s great.
Sooner than I expected, we were at mile 6, the base of one of the bigger hills. This is where some people start walking – I’ve walked here before myself. Not this year though. This year I powered up the hill and thought, oh, well, that’s done! I debated whether I wanted to get a split at the halfway mark. I certainly wasn’t running for a half PR, but a course PR seemed within reach. I was having a little bit of trouble with the math though and I didn’t seem to care that much, so if I did manage to see the split, I also managed to forget it.
Soon enough we were at mile 7 and then, there it was: The Barn. There’s a gorgeous barn on this course. The above picture doesn’t do it justice AT ALL. I ran Colchester in 2014 as the first race I did once I started to train more seriously. I hadn’t understood how much that change in approach was going to pay off until that race. But in Colchester 2014, I ran strong. In my race report, I wrote that I passed more people in that race than in my entire racing career up to that point and that’s probably true. But it was the moment in Colchester 2014 of running by that barn – that was true running transcendence. There was snow on the ground and the red barn against the white snow looked like a Currier and Ives print. I had felt like Kara Goucher with my ponytail streaming out behind me as I barreled down the hill. I told myself, remember this! Remember this moment! This is pure joy! This is a kid on Christmas morning! It’s the best day ever at the beach! It’s power and laughter wrapped up together. Maybe that’s the moment I fell in love with running with my whole heart. Maybe it was my first experience of “flow”. I suspect I will never forget that feeling. So – here was that barn again and if it wasn’t quite as life-changing as 2014, it was still pretty damn fine to run past it, see the horses out front, note that the farmer has added solar panels, and feel like, this is an amazing day to be running.
The rest of the race was much the same. I had had some complicated plan about 8:35 for miles 3-8 and 8:30 for miles 8-13, but now that I was running the hills, the craziness of that was clear. I just tried to keep my effort pretty even, slower uphill, faster downhill, but not crazy in either direction. I got up and over the hill that’s just before mile 9 and thought – oh, this is when a half marathon usually starts to hurt pretty bad, yet I am still doing completely fine. In fact, I felt a little embarrassed when I passed someone and he called out “you’re looking strong!” – I said, “thanks, you too!” but thought, um, I am not working very hard right now. I kept wondering if the crash was coming, but so far, it hadn’t.
Should I speed up? Coach Mick had said to resist the urge to go faster during the last three miles so I decided to stick where I was. Mile 10 is an absolutely massive downhill so I was a tad quicker but kept some control. By the 11.5 mile mark, I was ready to go and Coach Mick had said a speedy last mile was fine. The last mile is only a tiny bit faster in terms of pace, but was a good bit more in terms of effort. It’s a huge hill with over 100 feet of gain. Who decided that was a good idea at the end of a half marathon??? Still – Strava tells me the last 2.3 miles of Colchester are a segment. Strava also tells me that I ran this segment 70 seconds faster in 2019 than in 2016. That’s kind of crazy. That last mile really felt like it would never ever end. It’s straight so you can see the damn hill you have to go up. Finally I was getting close and then Speedy Stork and Pokey and my friend from the course were all there cheering! Finish time 1:54:02 – an almost 90 second course PR! Woot!
This race was about more than a course PR though. I know why I didn’t care about my split time at the half. The idea here was to do some running at around marathon goal pace and that shouldn’t be all that difficult for 10 miles. Of course, there was some adjusting for hills, as is appropriate, but I ended up running the whole race at close to marathon goal pace. And it was EASY. It wasn’t jogging-along-chatting-with-friends easy exactly, but I spent more time telling myself to slow down than telling myself to speed up. My foot felt great. My adductor barely squawked. I loved running in the Vapor Flys, though not on the portions of the course that were muddy dirt road. My feet felt like springs. 24 hours before this race I had thought it completely impossible that I could hold goal marathon pace over that distance. That was just an incorrect interpretation of my ability. It was my brain getting in the way. I am SO glad Coach Mick helped me get out of my own way. This was a great race and a super confidence builder. I think the various issues that have cropped up have kind of masked that the training cycle is going pretty well in lots of ways. Yes, I got sick and my foot has hurt a lot and then my adductor hurt and the weather has been a shit show so a lot of running has been quite uncomfortable in one way or another. But “uncomfortable” is not the same as “not happening”. The training has all been happening. And, it looks like it’s working! So I have to remember that.