One of the things I do to try to get faster is just copy what faster runners do. Faster runners often run a half marathon as a “prep race” about four to six weeks before their goal marathon so I’m trying to do that. Last spring, I ran the Hampton Court Half five weeks before Boston. That turned out to be quite an adventure, but I am not sure what role it served as a prep race. For the Chicago marathon, though, I noticed that one of my favorite races, the Surftown Half, was exactly five weeks before Chicago. Perfect.
I really love this race. It’s in Westerly, Rhode Island, usually the weekend after Labor Day. I love the course with its double lollypop structure. I love the beach-themed medals and t-shirts. I love the feel of beach towns at the tail end of the season in general. That last gasp of summer before fall kicks into high gear. We’ve often made Surftown a family overnight, as we did this year. We went down Saturday afternoon, visited Mystic Seaport, had a nice dinner at the Engine Room (get the hush puppies!) and swam in the hotel pool. It feels so precious to grab this time together while we still can. Aidan is a junior in high school. Last days of summer, indeed, sniff sniff… Enough said. The family time was wonderful. I’ve rarely had a bad race at Surftown and this year was no exception. I ran 1:44:48, a shiny new PR by 57 seconds.
Work has been so busy that I didn’t have a lot of time or mental energy leftover to spend getting nervous about the race. Training has been going pretty well. I tried to take the viewpoint that the race wasn’t a test of fitness but more an experiment to try to discover what I might be able to pull off. I have definitely been running a lot more miles than I did before my previous half PR in June 2018, but I haven’t been doing half-marathon specific training and I only did a mini-taper.
In pre-race discussions with Coach Mick, we settled on a strategy of an evenly-split race, aiming for about 7:50-7:55 pace throughout. I know the course well – it’s almost entirely flat with just a couple of short hills where I might slow down a bit. There’s also a fairly long downhill at the end. Coach Mick definitely did not want me to overthink this one. We’ve talked so much about the mental side of running in the past few months, but I woke up race morning to a text of only one word: #Fearless.
I also talked about the race with HPRM#1. He and I can both produce lots of words, but one thing he said really stuck with me: If the race starts to go badly, keep your nose in it. If you just collapse and jog it in, we don’t get any good data for Chicago. That was a good fit with my approach to the race – it’s an experiment so try to get clean data.
The weather race morning was just as predicted: high 50s at the start rising to high 60s, fairly high humidity, moderate cloud cover that would clear. I woke up around 5am, got dressed and made oatmeal in the hotel microwave. For the first time ever, I remembered to bring my own bowl so I didn’t melt any hotel dishes! I made coffee and woke up Mervus and the kids. Aidan and Rose were pretty sleepy but they were good sports. They got up and dressed without a lot of fuss. We arrived at the race around 6:30am and there was already a lot of traffic! Somehow I was only moderately nervous. Partly I had been busy with work. Partly I know training has been going well and that has given me some confidence. Mostly having my family along provided a huge dose of calm. I felt surrounded by their love and very supported.
I picked up my bib and my shirt and took three Jet Alert pills – part of my new caffeine strategy. Then I found my friends. We had grown to a big group with friends from various online and in person running groups. I ended up warming up with Badass Boomer and Allegro Fuerte. After some strides and pre-race drills, I found North Shore Strider and Pokey. It was already time to line up!
Standing in the corral, I realized I was already pretty warm. Urg. When the announcer said 7 minutes to start time, I decided that was enough for a last minute wardrobe change. I re-pinned my bib, moving it from my singlet to my shorts, and handed off my singlet to Mervus. Yup, second race in a sports bra. I guess it’s a thing now. I also wore my new Next%’s for the first time at a race. Someone in the corral asked if I planned to win in those shoes. I said I would give it my best shot! Very quickly the national anthem was over and we were starting.
For the first couple of miles, I felt fairly ok. I wasn’t too nervous. The pace felt manageable. Pokey ran some next to me and I could see North Shore Strider just ahead. I kept thinking to myself, why is she so close? She should be further away – is she having a bad day? Then I would check and we were running 7:45 pace and I would tell myself to slow down. Repeat that. Again. All down the causeway. At the start of mile 4, I started to have to work. That seems so early in a half marathon, but I had re-read my report from the Iron Horse half and I know that’s how that race felt too. I used to think a half marathon was 9 easy miles followed by 4 hard ones, but it seems it might be the other way around. Now I was already thinking, ok, just get to the mile 5 timing mat. That will get you 5 solid miles on pace. It sends everyone a solid message. Perhaps that is how the experiment goes today.
By mile 5, I could feel myself slowing down. I kept looking at my watch and seeing 8:00 instead of 7:50 or 7:55. I told my legs, c’mon, let’s get moving. To no avail. Maybe we picked up a headwind on the way back down the causeway because it just felt hard. I had been expecting Mervus and the kids around the halfway mark, but they popped up earlier. It turns out they had gone to the playground and had a look at the beach. I was so happy to see them but also sad for me because I thought, oof, I have so much running left to do before I see them again. This is going to take forever.
Mile 6 was definitely the darkest section of the race for me. I saw an 8:20 pace on my watch and thought, well, that’s the pace of a 1:50 marathon. If I run 8:20s the rest of the race, I’ll still be sub 1:50 because I’ve got a couple of 7:50 miles down already. But that is SO far away from what I had been hoping for. I tried focusing on one-more-mile, but it felt sort of like I was drowning.
That’s when Pokey showed up and saved my race. It’s quite possible I’ve run more training miles with Pokey than anyone else in 2019. We will never know that because not only is she not on Strava, she barely ever wears a watch. But, she shows up at 5:45am for track workouts that are so long they make us both dizzy. She runs 10 miles with me on a random Thursday. When I say, today we are running 8 miles with 6 of them at 8-8:15 pace, she says, ok let’s go. And here she was on the Surftown course just when I needed her most. We didn’t exchange a single word – we both like to race with music – but she started running by my side and I felt instantly better. Right, I know how to do this. This is just running next to Pokey. It’s just like running uncomfortably fast around the track. It’s running the out-and-back route with the big hill. It’s the Daniels loop for the millionth time. I felt SO much better that I suddenly remembered – Pokey might be here to save my race, but she really doesn’t wear a watch so she is pacing off me. If I am getting frisky, she’s just along for the ride. I looked at watch and my previous doldrums pace of 8:20 had dropped to 7:30! Running uphill! Whoops! We chilled out a bit and kept on trucking. After that, I barely checked my pace. That information was not helping me and I needed to just run.
For the rest of the race, I found a solid groove. I rotated through a few thoughts. Inspired by Coach Mick, I kept telling myself: Don’t be afraid of it, #Fearless. Just stay after it, one more mile. From HPRM#1: Keep your nose in it. You need this data. Don’t back off. From me: I’m asking you, legs, I’m asking. Because over and over again in workouts I’ve thought – this is not possible. This pace at this distance is not possible. All I can do is ask my legs to do what I want them to do and see what happens. In workouts, they almost always show up. During the race, they were a little more recalcitrant, but I kept asking and my legs kept running. I thought about other things too, mental images I had prepared to race with: About triangle breathing, and Dougal McKenzie, and strong mama tigers. But mostly I thought: #Fearless. Keep your nose in it. I’m asking you, legs, I’m asking.
Even though I know this course really well, I had forgotten a couple of things about it. I know there’s a kind of stealth hill around mile 7, but I forgot that there are some rolling hills after that and some nice downhill stretches. On the second loop, the runners are only divided from traffic by a series of cones so you have to run single file for much of miles 8-13. Normally I am not very good at picking people off. I find it hard to focus on a particular person. I always choose someone to pick off who is either much too fast for me to catch or slow enough that I overtake them really quickly. But put me in a long single file line of runners, and I’m ready to “go fishing” as the Rogue Running people call it. I passed a lot of people during this stretch. One guy said “Great job, set ‘em up, knock ‘em down” – which struck me as hilarious though I’ve no idea how he managed so many words so I just said “Thanks!” Pokey was right behind me and I figured at any time she was going to blow by me. Unless she had decided to really stick with me until the end? In which case I was very grateful!
The scariest hill at Surftown is around mile 10. I don’t think this hill actually eats much of your time, but it gobbles your soul with its location. As you round a corner, you see the hill and it looks absolutely huge because it’s so steep. Then as you start climbing, you realize that so far, you have only seen half of it. After a little plateau, it rises again, almost appearing to head into the sky. Mile 10 is about the worst place for a hill one can imagine in a half marathon. But this year, I was not only expecting the hill – I was looking forward to it. I was SO ready to be done running and I know what goes up, must come down. It’s mostly downhill after you reach the summit.
I hadn’t looked at my watch since I saw that 7:30 pace way back at mile 7 or so. I had a sense that I was probably doing ok in terms of time and there must be a clock around mile 9 which said 1:11:xx. With four miles to go, and a 10:00 pace, that gave me a finish time of about 1:51. That didn’t seem right. Then I realized, I use a 10:00 pace to calculate how long training runs will take because my easy pace is about 9:45, so that’s close enough. But I was running faster here so I started trying to figure it out. A 9:00 minute pace for four miles is 36 minutes. However, I could not add 1:11 to 36 at all. To be honest, I could barely multiply 9×4. Why do I bother trying to do math while racing? Then I realized – I was not running 9:00 minute pace either, but hopefully something much closer to 8 minute pace. That math somehow felt more do-able and even though I couldn’t quite figure it out, I realized that I wasn’t doing that badly and maybe a PR was even still within reach.
Once we got past the hill and to mile 10, I started counting. Up to 100, back down, do it again. I counted so much that I forgot where we were on the course and we when got to mile 11, I was totally surprised because I had forgotten mile 10 entirely. Running is really bad for one’s numerical sense. At mile 12, there’s a right turn, then eventually a left turn, and then a run for the finish. It’s a lot like right on Hereford, left on Boylston actually, and just like in the Boston marathon, when you make the last turn, the finish line looks so incredibly far away. I couldn’t see the clock and I didn’t want to look at my watch so I just ran like hell. I tried to imagine saving Rose from a tiger, an idea that worked at Erie. Strava says I sped up in the last .2 miles so maybe it helped. I vaguely heard a voice I knew in the crowd – I found out later it was Aidan! Then I saw the clock. It read 1:44:xx and I was DAMNED if I was going to let it click over to 1:45 before crossing the line! I shot through the finish! Mervus and Rose were there and quickly Aidan was too and I just hugged them right over the fence, so happy to see them, so happy to be done, so happy about the new PR!
This is the sixth time I’ve run Surftown and I’ve PR’d every time except 2016 when I ran it as a workout instead of a race. It’s the first race I ever seriously trained for (as in, used a training plan – 2011) and I think the second race where I ran sub-2 (2014). Now it’s my first sub-1:45 half, a result I never dreamed was possible when I started running. Maybe one day I will come back and win one of those buses!
2011 2:10:57 age: 42
2012 2:07:00 age: 43
2014 1:59:06 age: 45
2015 1:57:07 age: 46
2016 2:00:00 age: 47
2019 1:44:48 age: 50