John and Jessie Kelley Half Marathon 2021 Race Report

The John and Jessie Kelley half marathon is a race that I am poised to love, while almost everyone else is ready to hate. It’s got a lot of things I value in a race going for it. The race has a storied history – first run in 1963 as the 10.5 mile Schaefer Race, the exact course and distance have evolved over the years. Famous winners include John Kelley, Amby Burfoot, Nina Kuscik, and Marilyn Bevins. The race starts and finishes at Ocean Beach Park, a beautiful beach with some kiddie rides and a boardwalk. I love beach races! Plus, it’s free! They just ask you to bring a canned good as a donation.

So, what’s not to like? Well, it’s in August, in Connecticut, pretty much guaranteeing hot and humid conditions. To make things more “interesting”, the course is hilly and the worst hill is pretty late in the race. Sections of the course are pretty exposed so it’s a race with a known heat exposure risk. So, a few drawbacks, to be sure. I had signed up to run the John and Jessie Kelley last year, but we all know how most races in 2020 went. I thought I’d try it again this year. Plus, with Berlin on September 26th, there are not a lot of half marathons to choose from as prep races and beggars can’t be choosers. Allegro Fuerte, my favorite racing buddy, also signed up so I was looking forward to it.

As race day got closer, though, I wasn’t really sure how to approach the race. I ran the Blessing two weeks ago and PR’d but my 10 mile PR is a *lot* softer than my half marathon PR. As the weather reports rolled in, the forecast showed conditions pretty much as expected: hot and humid and, of course, the hills were there regardless. I have to confess that I was not excited about all-out racing a half in those conditions, but the whole point of running J & J was to somehow contribute to preparation for Berlin. I asked Coach Mick what he thought and he suggested a marathon effort simulation. That is, run the race at the pace I hope to run the marathon, but adjust for conditions.

Of course that meant I had to make a guess about likely pace at the marathon, always a nervous-making task. My eventual goal is to break 3:30 and if it happens this time around, I am certainly not complaining. On the other hand, my PR is 3:44 and a 14 minute improvement at this stage would be massive. Mentally I’ve been targeting 3:35 and that doesn’t seem crazy, based on how workouts have been going. That’s right around an 8:12 pace, which felt pretty scary. 8:15 (a 3:36 marathon) felt pretty reasonable. Brains are weird. That’s a three seconds per mile difference. I don’t think I’m a good enough runner to zero in on 8:15 instead of 8:12, but whatever. I decided to start with the idea of an 8:15 pace. Coach Mick has a rubric for adjusting for heat and humidity, which yielded about a 17 second adjustment. We were expecting some sun and most of the course is exposed. Plus, the weather folks had issued an air quality alert. I decided to think about a 15-20 second adjustment, and aim for 8:30-8:35. Coach Mick really wanted me to run exactly how I plan to run Berlin so I had to think about that. I decided to take the first mile at 10-15 seconds slower than goal pace and then land at goal pace by the second mile, assuming things were going well. Otherwise, take another mile or two to get there and then just hold until near the end, when I would try to speed up. For J&J, that meant starting at 8:45, then moving to 8:30, maybe close out the last three miles quicker, if possible. None of that accounts for the hills, which I figured I would do by feel. The course has a couple of big ones, but the last three miles are downhill so I thought I could close pretty well if I didn’t go out too fast.

CIRCUS!

Rose’s big circus performance was the night before the race so instead of a quiet evening at home with my usual pre-race meal, it was a joyous late afternoon circus show and a fairly late dinner at the Blackbird Tavern, one of my favorite local restaurants.

How much do I love Rose? I missed the entire women’s Olympic marathon to watch her

Go Molly! What an inspiration!

show and celebrate and didn’t even mind. (I noticed for sure, lol, but didn’t mind). We got home, watched a four minute highlights reel of the marathon, and I got to bed as quickly as possible. Mervus and Rose had thought about coming to the race, but the early morning start was too daunting.

 

 

Saturday morning did indeed arrive quite early, but after the usual oatmeal and coffee, I was on the road. I would have liked to leave a little earlier, but having prioritized sleep, I had a few things to prep before going. As a result, I arrived at the race at 7:15, for an 8am start. Not ideal. The weather was very comfortable for standing around in a sports bra and shorts, low 70s with humidity above 85%. I didn’t even bother pretending I was going to wear my singlet. The line to pick up bibs was quite long – no pre-race packet pick-up this time around. Everything was taking longer and I had less time than usual because of my late arrival. Allegro Fuerte seemed to be in a similar situation. I saw some other friends too. It’s SO good to be back to live racing! We said quick hellos and went about the business of getting ready. After visiting the facilities, I found myself doing my warm-up lunges while standing in the starting corral. Oops. I decided to really ease into it by adding a warm-up mile up front. I have had a few races where I started too quickly and I wanted to nail the conservative start this time out.

Meeting Death Shuffler in person for the first time! [She picked that name!]

The gun went off and we started walking. Yes, walking. This race is capped at 1,000 even in non-Covid times and I can see why. There’s not really room for more people in the starting area. The course had a couple of narrow passages later in the race also, where more runners just wouldn’t be safe. Once we crossed the line, we could start running and I kept it very easy. The crowd thinned out enough to run and I worked my way forward a bit. The first mile clicked off at 8:59, perfect. I thought about shifting gears to turn it up just a notch and the second mile came in at 8:44, excellent. Time to shift to marathon effort. Coach Mick said it at the start it should feel like 2.5-3 sentences pace, not paragraph pace. In other words, you could say a couple of sentences, but not chatter on endlessly the way I love to do with my girlfriends. Mile 3 felt about like that and ended up as 8:35, pretty much right on target.

I ran the next few miles just thinking about control. I had a definite tendency to speed up a bit and then I reeled it in. I often listen to music while racing but I found that I was pretty focused on my own breathing and noticing my own effort level and I didn’t want the distraction. The course in this section was pretty with views of the ocean, nice houses, lots of flowers. I stayed very chill. Des Linden says the first 20 miles of the marathon are just transportation to the final 10K so I thought about that. I was running well within myself and felt really good. Looking back, I could possibly have run this section faster, but I’m happy with my choice to stay controlled. GAP pace on Strava is supposed to take hills into account and doing that, my pace was pretty even in this section, which was definitely the goal. There’s a decent-sized hill at mile 6 where I slowed down, but otherwise nice and steady. I focused on running the mile I was in, each mile a successful checkbox I had completed. No worrying about the next mile until it started. No thinking about the last mile once it was over with.

Obligatory fueling report. I had my usual breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, but added a banana to the oatmeal since I had to eat a couple of hours before start time. I sipped on Nuun during the drive to the race and remembered to take two caffeine pills right before leaving the car. Mid-race fueling was a mix of Maurten and Gu, pretty much what I have left in my stash. Time to order more of both. I had a Maurten at mile 4, a Gu at mile 8, and part of a Gu at mile 11. I don’t generally struggle with fueling, but I like to keep it consistent from race to race just so it’s a habit.

I was more careful about hydration. Starting temperature was about 70-75 degrees, going up to nearly 80 by the time the race was over. Humidity was around 85% and dropping slightly over the course of the race. I might define those conditions as nasty without being dangerous. I decided to carry water in my fuel belt because I had heard rumors that the race sometimes runs out, but water on the course was frequent enough. The best part was that they had plastic cups! I find plastic water cups harder to manage, but that’s what they use in Berlin. The cups at the Blessing were also plastic and I had struggled with them a bit, but I got the hang of it here. By the second half of the race, I was drinking one cup and dumping one on my back so I was completely soaked. I was also incredibly grateful that someone had bags of ice around mile 8. I plopped it into my sports bra where it rattled around, but helped keep my core temperature under control.

Somewhere around mile 7 or 8, I turned on my music. I knew a hill was coming and I wanted to stay focused and positive. I don’t usually talk to people when I am racing, but I heard a conversation behind me that I couldn’t resist. A woman was telling her friend that she wanted to get faster, but had never beat her 10K time of 47 minutes from when she was 17. I asked how old she was now – she’s 33. I seem to be turning into a coach because I couldn’t resist telling her she could definitely beat that 47 minutes. I also kept wanting to correct people’s stride mid-race, which obviously I did not do. I am working on improving my own shuffle-stride so it’s on my mind a lot, but even I know not to be completely obnoxious during a race. Those two things – that conversation and the desire to give advice – are pretty much the only things I retained from most of this race. Otherwise, I was totally focused on monitoring my own effort, which makes for a successful race, but rather a boring race report.

The big climb starts at the end of mile 8 and mile 9 is pretty much up, up, up. I’m not going to lie – this section of the race was kind of miserable. You run on the sidewalk here and it’s not in great shape. The hill is exposed to a good deal of sun. The course goes by a shopping mall with a Stop and Shop, one of the ugliest sections I’ve seen on any course anywhere. The Boilermaker course goes by some used car lots and that’s worse, but this was pretty bad. I did some counting here, which I usually don’t allow myself to indulge in until the race is nearly over, but this part of the race just sucked.

Finally, finally the hill was over and I knew (thought…) it was downhill all the way to the finish! Now things can get fun, if you’ve got anything left in the tank, which I definitely did! The downhill starts with a steep descent, but then flattens out a bit to a more moderate decline. I was really able to kick it into gear here and passed a lot of people. I had been checking splits throughout the race, so I could see that things were going well. We were back at the shore and with a mile to go, turned a corner. I had hoped to see the park (and the finish line) but it was still much too far away. The course flattens out here and I had to start working a lot harder. I started counting again and picking off runners in front of me, one at a time. I passed a young guy who found me after the race for a fist bump! Finally, there was the park and that beautiful finish line. DONE! Final time of 1:52:25, average pace of 8:36. I’m very happy with that. If someone had told me a few years ago that I’d run a 1:52 half on a hot day on a hilly course as a training run, I wouldn’t have believed it. But on this day, it’s one more workout on the way to Berlin.

After the race, I found Allegro Fuerte, Death Shuffler, and other friends who were racing. Post-race treats included clam chowder and seltzer and potato chips, all delicious. We were able to recover a bit and dissect our individual races. Allegro Fuerte wanted to head home, but I wanted to enjoy the beach so I spent an hour or so on the sand and went for a quick dip.

 

Back home, Rose and I got ice cream and enjoyed the traditional celebratory mimosa.

I’m still pondering what this race means for Berlin. I felt great, running adjusted-for-conditions race pace for (most of) a half marathon. Maybe I should have gone a bit faster? Still, the early miles felt easy and controlled, just how I want the early miles of Berlin to feel. I managed the hill at the end and was able to close hard. It reminded me a lot of how I ran Boston in 2019. Taking that as a good sign!

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