On March 13th I ran the Colchester half marathon, one of my favorite races. I didn’t run the time I was hoping for, but I am so grateful the race happened at all. I got to run that beautiful course on a sunny day with a good friend. And hey, if I’m going to race like a goofball, let’s get all the mistakes out of the way as fast as possible!
Colchester normally takes place the last weekend in February, rain or shine, or more often, snow and ice. It might be the hilliest half marathon in the state. Colchester is cheap, usually around $14-18 dollars. No t-shirt, no medal. But a great post-race lunch and a chance to connect to the local running community. I had assumed it wouldn’t happen at all this year since the Connecticut racing ban wasn’t lifted until March 1st. But when they announced registration opening in mid-February, I signed up almost immediately. This year, no lunch of course, and they knocked the price down to $10. Racing in the time of Covid means you sometimes have to submit an expected finish time so I said 1:48. Pokey was running also and she submitted the same time so we could line up together.
Loyal readers may remember I am not training for a half marathon. I am training for a bunch of 5Ks. When I found out about Colchester, I extended a planned long run from 10 miles to 15. Other than that, I haven’t run more than a couple of 12 milers since early January. Zero long runs at the orchard where I usually train for Colchester. A couple of mid-week rambles around town with some serious elevation. Mostly weekly mileage of around 50 miles per week. In short, completing a half marathon would certainly be no problem. Running a PR was definitely not happening. Colchester has over 900 feet of gain. My previous times at Colchester are 2:04 in 2014; 1:55 in 2016; 1:54 in 2019. Coach Mick noted that my average pace at Colchester 2019 was slower than my average pace at the Chicago full. It seemed to me like a course PR was in the bag and that seemed a reasonable goal. Then I got a little greedy and started eyeing 1:50. High Power Running Mentor #1 later noted that I had no data to support this. That’s true – I didn’t even look at any data. That’s just a nice round number. Coach Mick didn’t think it was crazy as a stretch goal so I decided to go for it. So, 1:50 as the A goal, a course PR as a solid B goal.
I didn’t feel terribly stressed in the lead up to the race. On Saturday morning I had my standard race day breakfast, oatmeal with protein powder, cocoa powder and a banana. I made my protein shake and hippie sandwich for afterwards. Had my coffee. Packed a change of clothes and a couple of alternative shirts in case I changed my mind once I got there. I ran the 3 Miler last week in Hoka Rocket X’s and I decided to try them for this longer race as well. Nothing noteworthy about the drive over. These are the sorts of race preparations I thought might be hard to remember, but actually, they were no big deal.
I arrived at the parking lot right around 8:20 and quickly found Pokey. A quick stop at the port-a-potty and we commenced our warm up. The only thing different from a regular Colchester was that we couldn’t go inside and people were showing up very gradually. The race had wave starts, 50 runners to a wave, two minutes between waves. I didn’t feel wonderful on the warm up. Nothing really bad, just not peppy. It was colder than expected. We had plenty of time to jog for a mile or so, do a few drills and strides, one last stop at the port-a-potty. I decided to stick with my planned outfit: light weight tights, Tracksmith wool long-sleeved shirt, gloves, no hat, Darn Tough socks, of course, plus the Hokas. At least it was warmer than last weekend! I popped a couple of Jet Alerts and shoved two packets of Maurten into my fuel belt.
Pokey and I lined up at the back of our wave. We were in the 1:48 wave, even though our most aggressive goal was 1:50. Part of the new strategy of pandemic racing is that with a staggered start, there’s no worry about getting stuck in the crowd at the beginning, but it can be hard to figure out exactly where to place yourself. Last week, Allegro Fuerte and I were too far back. This time around, Pokey and I should almost certainly have been in a slower wave. Having done it both ways, I would try to line up appropriately, but err on the side of being too conservative. I didn’t take any pictures at the start because the race was really efficient at getting us going. We lined up in pairs, six feet apart in all directions. Once we were in our “corral” it was only a minute or two before we were ready to start and then we were off, almost exactly at 9:04, as planned. For these small races, the staggered starts are so easy to implement and actually improve the starting line experience in a lot of ways. I won’t be surprised if this model sticks around, post-Covid.
I had planned to start at 8:35-8:40 pace, or even 8:45. A 1:50 half is an 8:20 average pace, but it’s often better to start a bit slower and the first three miles of the course are uphill. As the entire wave pulled away from me and Pokey, I said something like “that’s fine, that’s the idea.” I didn’t feel great, but figured it was race nerves. An initial glance at my watch said something like 8:30. Then the first mile split clicked in: 8:06. Hmmmm.
At that point, I *should* have said to myself, I am 15 seconds faster than goal pace. I am 40 seconds faster than a reasonable first mile pace, particularly considering the hill. A smart racer, and I have sometimes been one, would have slowed down. Instead I thought to myself, wow, this feels bad, it’s going to be a long 12 miles. I did slow down some and the next split was 8:34. I said something to Pokey like “I’m not having a great day. If you want to run ahead, go for it.” She said no, we would stick together.
Pokey is the real heroine of this story. We’ve run bunches of miles together, but it’s been hard to get schedules to match up during the past year. We raced a New Year’s Day 5K together in 2019 and 2020 and it was heart breaking that we couldn’t do that in 2021. But Colchester was a kind of replacement, a chance to run with a good friend on a cold day and find some joy. The very best moments of the day were running next to each other, stride-for-stride. Working hard together, enjoying the shared effort. However, a whole lot more often, she was just in front of me, subtly checking on me, refusing to leave me as I struggled, cheering me on at the end. Without her, this race might have turned into a real horror show. So no, she wouldn’t leave me at mile 2, or mile 6, or mile 10 when I begged her not to let me walk, or the long march of miles 11 through 13. She’s seen me suffer before and I’m afraid she saw me suffer on this day also, but I love her for sticking with me.
Anyway, back to that hill. Around mile 3 it’s finally over and Pokey and I looked at each other and said “One down” because we knew there were more hills coming. Running down the hill felt pretty good. I stopped looking at my watch here and that might have been a mistake. Things were going less badly than I thought. The three downhill miles came in at 8:28, 8:17, and 8:06, which is really fine.
13.1 miles is a long time and a lot of time to think. I wish I could say I was filled with the great joy of being able to race again, but that’s not true. Instead, a lot of anger bubbled up. I’m angry at the Trump administration and its handling of the pandemic. I’m angry at people who were hyper cautious and then took off for Florida to get a break from this rough winter. I’m jealous of them too! I wish we had done that! I’m angry at people who judged me for running outside without a mask and I’m angry at myself for caring. I’m angry at people who claimed to “follow science” but really only did so when it served their own previously-formed desires. I’m angry at myself for sometimes being tempted to do the same. I am beyond angry at how school has been for my kids.
I want to rip this pandemic off of us and start the healing but I don’t think it will be that simple.
I’m angry at myself for lacking compassion for people with opinions different from my own. It turns out, I have a lot of anger to burn off and if running a half marathon too hard helps with that, maybe that’s just the way it goes. Maybe I run hard for awhile until there’s nothing left to burn. Honestly, if we could all do that, run and run and run until some of the anger is gone and the healing can start – that wouldn’t be a terrible way to spend the spring.
Even though I remember those thoughts and more, I am not quite sure when I had them. I do know that at the beginning of mile 6 on the Colchester course, you turn a corner and stare up an insane hill. Strava says the steepest part is a 12.6% gradient. People walk on this hill and there were people walking now. We didn’t walk.
The race director was waiting at the top of the hill with a big stuffed hand at the end of a pole for socially-distanced high fives! The top of the hill was also where the race had its one and only water stop. I grabbed a bottle, chugged a bit, and tossed it in the trash. Grab-and-go aid stations are the new norm, but they work fine.
A couple of pieces of record keeping, things I will want to know later. For fueling I had taken along two Maurten gels. I prefer to race with Maurten rather than Gu because it’s easier on my stomach. I don’t usually have nausea at all, but my stomach was a bit off at Colchester. I did end up taking about half a packet of Maurten around five miles and then another half around ten miles when things started to get really ugly. The stomach stuff was nothing serious and I’m assuming it was just from not being used to running that pace for a sustained amount of time. But there’s no way I would have even tried Gu, so I was happy I had the Maurten. I would choose different shoes next time around, however. Partway through the race, the Rocket Xs started to feel really heavy. Maybe they are better for track work. In 2019 I ran Colchester in Vaporflys and that was terrible. Vaporflys have no traction when it’s slippery and sections of this course can be muddy. Next time around, I will try the Next%’s. Mid-race, I was happy to be experimenting with the Hokas now rather than at a goal race.
With all those dark thoughts out of the way (at least for now), miles 6-9 were the happiest ones of the race for me. We still had a long way to go, but at least we were halfway done. This stretch of the course is really lovely. It’s where my favorite barn is, what I consider the prettiest view from any race course in Connecticut. This is also a nice long descent so you finally get a break. I was still hurting, probably more than I should have been, but Pokey and I found that shared-stride feeling pretty often in here. Colchester should be a gloriously joyous race and I found a little bit of that feeling here at least.
I still wasn’t looking at my watch and I wasn’t racing very smart either. Coach Mick had said I should aim for sentences effort, especially early in the race. That would mean that I could get out 1-2 sentences in conversation, though I would prefer not to. I even kind of knew the effort was too great here, but it was like I had lost the ability or the will to make the more serious adjustment that was probably needed.
The last monster hill starts at about 8.5 miles. Pokey noted she had forgotten this one, but I certainly had not. With a starting grade of around 13%, this thing is insane. I just focused on not walking. Not even because walking is always a bad idea on a hill like that but because I was remembering the Westfield 10K of 2019 when I walked. Walking once in a race can open the gate to walking again. It’s like your brain decides walking is an acceptable solution and I definitely did not want my brain thinking that. I ran up the hill, pretty slowly, but running.
What goes up must come down and the descent off the mile 9 hill is truly impressive, dropping 189 feet in a mile. That’s steep enough that you have to be a little careful. Fatigue was also starting to set in in a big way. Around 10.5 miles into this race, it was like the air went out of my balloon. I gasped out to Pokey “Don’t let me walk.” She could tell I was pretty desperate and I didn’t care. I knew the end of the race was yet to come and that it was going to be pretty ugly.
Ugly it was. The last two miles of the Colchester course are uphill. Also, straight, so you can see the hill stretch out before you for the full two miles. As an added bonus, I knew we were going to turn into a stiff headwind, which we did. A race started too quickly. Somewhat undertrained for a half marathon. A steady uphill in windy conditions. How very lovely.
My main process goal for this race was to find the racing mindset again. I just couldn’t get into that gear at the First Chance to Race 3 Miler. It was like driving a car and not being able to press the gas pedal. Colchester was sort of the opposite. I slammed the car into high gear more or less from the start and refused to take my foot off the gas despite empirical evidence that I needed to slow down. Mile 10 or so of a half marathon shouldn’t feel good and uphill into the wind should definitely feel bad. Ok, mission accomplished, because I felt fairly wretched. Now what?
I wanted really really badly to walk. To be completely honest, I wanted to stop and cry and just walk it in. Two miles is still pretty far. But I didn’t walk. Instead, I started remembering how to fight. In Deena Kastor’s book, her coach tells her to go out and define herself. That’s what I had to do now: Define myself. Am I the kind of runner who stops and cries and walks with two miles to go? I am not.
I thought about Coach Mick and how he has often said that he knows I can be really tough at the end of a race. Am I his “toughest runner?” I don’t know – he has a lot of amazing people running for him. But on this long hill, I decided to do my best to earn the title of Sekelsky’s toughest runner. Award ceremonies are currently not legal in Connecticut, so who knows if I won or not!
Finally, I thought about Pokey. A couple of years ago I broke down in the middle of mile repeats, and she got me going again. We finished the workout. I owed it to her not to put her in that position again. She sure didn’t need to deal with a crying and defeated friend in the bright sunshine of a cold spring morning on a beautiful race course. By the last mile, she was actively cheering for me – I’m sure she could see how hard I was working. I counted and counted and counted and finally FINALLY those two miles were behind us. A quick right turn into the finish line and it was done. I was so unbelievably happy to be finished! No cozy lasagna and pizza feast this year. Just a bottle of water, some quick pictures, an actual real hug, and we were on our way.
I’ve thought about this race a lot in the past few days. I’m not going to pretend to have no regrets. If I could do it over, I would certainly do it differently. I wouldn’t start so fast. I would adjust when I realized my mistake. I would probably check my watch more often since I begin to suspect my sense of pace is off after such a long time of not racing. I should stop telling myself I raced stupid, since that serves no purpose but that voice is still there. Maybe some part of me just wanted to see if I still knew how to hurt. It turns out I do, which is good news. Coach Mick assures me that starting a race too hot is a very fixable problem. Thank goodness I have another race next weekend so I get to try again really soon. I would tell a friend that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s just a race, and those things are true. I might tell a friend that the ability to move quickly past a race gone wrong is a good skill to have, and that’s also true. I might even tell a friend, we’ll get ‘em next year and that’s for damn sure true. Colchester, I’m gunning for you. Sub-1:50 next year.
When I got home, I flopped on the couch and talked to my parents. Rose wanted to bake a pie for March 14th (Pi Day) so we did. We ordered pizza and toasted my race and Rose’s fabulous school conference. I believe in celebration!
Racing well can be like playing with fire and at this race, I got a little burned. But last week, I couldn’t even figure out how to get the fire started. Now I know it’s there so let’s see if I can remember how to control it.