On Alchemy, Suffering, and Half Marathon PRs

On Halloween, I ran a half marathon PR at the hilly Ashland Half Marathon.

Before I talk about the race, please indulge me for a brief digression about alchemy, the attempt to turn common elements into gold. Medieval alchemists mixed lead with other materials, pulverized it, heated it, and chilled it. The hope was that there was a secret recipe discernible to the select few, who would then become wealthy and powerful. It never worked out for the natural philosophers of yore. Atoms don’t like to change from one kind to another. It’s just not the way nature works. (Except for radioactivity, but let’s ignore that for now.) It did heavily influence a bunch of modern chemistry, though. Yay for that.

Racing seems a bit like alchemy to me. The idea that you can take a bunch of raw materials—weeks and months of training—and then, with the application of the right amount of suffering, turn it into a shiny result on race day.

So lately, like any good alchemist, I’ve been tinkering with my recipe, looking for the right amount of suffering to add to the mixture. With too little effort, I meet feel good during and after the race, but it won’t have that golden glow in my memory when I think about how I probably could have pushed harder and obtained a faster time. On the other hand, if I push too hard, the first half of the race might seem perfect, but I’ll end up spoiling it by the end. I confess that it’s difficult for me to find that magic point between too hard and too easy, but I’ve been working on it for a while now, and I’m closing in.

Now we return to the race. Most of the half marathons I’ve run have started after more than three hours of swimming and cycling. In fact, I haven’t run a standalone 13.1-miler since New Bedford in 2013, when I finished in 1:42:42. I’ve raced those triathlon-based half marathons by heart rate, doling out my effort evenly so that I could make it to the finish. This has worked well. It feels difficult but doable. It also feels like I could have worked harder. It’s possible that’s true, of course, but probably not as much as I might think. After all, those 13.1 miles at the end of a half-ironman hurt.

Going into the race, I knew I didn’t want to rely on heart rate alone. I’ve been running my recent trail races by feel. My results at each have been very good, even though my heart rate has been much higher than my triathlon efforts: just below my threshold heart rate, which I can sustain for about an hour. I wasn’t going to ignore how hard my heart was working altogether, but I decided that I wanted to try for a PR, meaning my pace would be paramount.

Sir Alex as Wonder Woman, and Kristin as Sir Alex

I heard Sir Alex call out to me during registration. Dressed as Wonder Woman, she was helping people who had decided that today seemed like a good day to run a half or 5K. It was, in fact, a perfect day to race: 40°F (4°C) and sunny with almost no wind. We chitchatted a little bit as she handed out race numbers before I headed out to warm up.

Despite having raced a few times already in October, I was feeling fresh. I had discussed my strategy the day before with Robyn, my running/triathlon/skiing friend. While warming up I talked myself through that strategy. “Relax at the start, expect some hills, hold steady through the first 10K, expect a big hill in the second half, and try for a 7:30-8:00/mile (4:40-5:00/km) pace throughout. This is going to be difficult. Expect it to hurt.”

The race started fast, and I was okay watching about 40 people run away from me. I knew this would happen, and there was no way I would be able to hang with people running almost 2:00/mile faster than me. We headed through downtown Ashland and turned onto the Boston Marathon route, which is mostly flat, until we headed right and entered some hills. There were a core group of runners around me, and after a while I started to figure out their strengths and weaknesses as we passed and re-passed each other. As for me, I’m good on the flats and downhills but not as good on the ups.

The Start

(That’s me wearing bib #1131 in the gray near the middle/right.)

My first few miles were 7:22, 7:51, and 7:29, and I was feeling pretty good. Don’t get me wrong; it was tough. Nevertheless, it felt like an effort I could sustain. I went through 10K in 47 minutes, which might be the fastest I’ve ever done in a race. With almost half of the race done, I would soon find out whether I had put too much effort in already, since I had close to an hour left.

I realized at that point that—unlike previous long races—I didn’t feel mentally burned out. Gone were the thoughts like “How much longer is this going to go on?” and “Running a half-marathon takes forever!” In fact, I wasn’t thinking much of anything. I was concentrating on my form and staying with the people in my group and just turning my legs over. I half-attempted to read the words written on the back of someone’s shirt but only because they were there. I had feelings more than thoughts, and I was feeling capable.

Seven miles in, we looped around onto the Boston Marathon route again, which started a 3-mile downhill/flat section, which was perfect for me. I could hear Maureen laboring to keep up with me. (I learned Maureen’s name from all of the people she knew along the course.) I passed a guy whose headband held his earbuds tight.

The Green Street Monster

We rounded a corner, and the guy next to me quietly blurted out, “Oh . . . fuck.” I’d heard rumors about “The Green Street Monster” before, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so steep. I dug deep and found my “granny gear.” Earbud/headband guy pulled away from me. I concentrated on trying to stay with him, until I switched to trying just to see him. Thankfully, it was a short hill. Steep to be sure, but mercifully short. We went gradually uphill for another mile, until we were less than two miles out.

The payoff for Green Street was sweet but not easy. I pushed myself hard, deciding to give everything I had left. I couldn’t quite catch earbud/headband guy, and Maureen passed me with about a mile left to go, but I didn’t really care; I was racing the clock. My Garmin wasn’t matching the distance markers on the road well, so I couldn’t tell how far was left. Upon arriving at an intersection I recognized, I knew there was only about 800 meters left, and I put the hammer down. I rounded a corner and saw the finish. The clock read “1:39″ and some seconds. Would I be able to go under 1:40?

Yes! I crossed the line in 1:39:50, finishing 46th out of 296 and 10th in my age group. I was elated, having turned my suffering into gold. I walked for a couple of minutes to lower my heart rate gradually, when I ran into Sir Alex. We celebrated my almost-three-minute PR with a hug and some conversation.

Hurrah for suffering!


p.s. — The race time predictor from Runner’s World, estimates that I could run a 3:28:09 marathon. (It’s very precise.) That sounds crazy! It would be a PR by almost 32 minutes. Crazy. It seems worth a try though, no?

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