Reflections on the Capital City Half Marathon by Mark Stone

November 2012. As the Seattle Marathon approaches -- my first attempt at the marathon distance -- I've been thinking a lot about my last race, the 2012 Capital City Half Marathon in Olympia, Washington. And that in turn, leads me to think about my first half marathon, the 2011 Black Diamond Half Marathon in Enumclaw, Washington. A lot to reflect on, and to learn from.

The best thing I can say about the Black Diamond race was that I finished. Granted, that's not a small thing for my first time at that distance. But I suffered. My longest training run prior had been about 11.75 miles, and I now know that I did not train enough. My training routine was also not very sophisticated. I ran about 4 times a week at different distances, with a longer run every Saturday, but I tried to run every run at an aggressive pace. By the time I got to race day I was (a) not acclimated to the distance, and (b) more worn out from training than I realized.

I also ran the race poorly. I was over-excited at the start, and went out too fast. Around mile 4 I realized that I had set myself an unsustainable pace, and I backed way off. I felt okay at the slower pace until mile 8, and then I really started to run out of gas. Miles 8 - 12 were an unpleasant grind, and the last mile just about did me in. The last mile is a loop around Deep Lake in Nolte State Park, and includes to steep uphills as you climb up from the dam to the home stretch.

I had hoped for a finishing time under 2 hours, but I came in at 2 hrs 1 min and 55 seconds. Not far off my expectations, but I was really demoralized by how hard it was.

I came away from Black Diamond with several resolutions:

  • I needed to do some real research on training. I found Hal Higdon to be one of the most useful resources, along with Tim Noakes' The Lore of Running.
  • I needed to focus on speed, and get used to running at a faster pace. From October until February I ignored distance (no runs longer than 8 miles) and focused on getting consistently under 8 minutes a mile, and being able to sustain that for longer and longer distances. By February I could do 5 miles in under 40 minutes, and a 10K in under 50 minutes.
  • I needed to acclimate to longer distances. From February until May I worked on maintaining the speed base I had established, while doing Saturday long runs at longer distances and a slower pace. For the Capital City Half Marathon my longest training run was 14 miles.
  • I needed a support group. Running has a lot of emotional ups and downs, and with a long training program it can be hard to stay motivated on your own. Google+ has been awesome in that regard. I have to give a special shout out to Tracie Rodriguez, Jenny Darrow, Joshua Francisco, and Otto Daly for our regular Hangouts, constructive advice, and many positive comments as we've all journeyed towards our individual running goals.

With better preparation, both physical and mental, Capital City was a very different race. I felt more confident about the distance, more confident about my ability to sustain a sub-9 minute mile.

Its a bigger race than Black Diamond, with over 1200 participants at the half marathon distance. And its a beautiful course. Starting in the shadow of the capital building, you follow the Olympia waterfront for the first few miles before turning inland with some gradual climbing. Around mile 9 there's a short, steep downhill leading immediately to a long, gently uphill (almost 2 miles). From there the rest is flat turning into a gradual downhill mile to the finish line. The crowd was terrific; even in the rain lots of people were out cheering along the whole length of the course.

I made a conscious effort to hold back on my pace, not wanting to repeat my Black Diamond mistakes. Around mile 6, with the initial uphills behind me, I realized that I was feeling pretty energetic and felt I could afford to pick up the pace. The long uphill was a bit challenging, but I had been warned ahead of time, and I took it in stride. As I got to the top another runner pulled up next to me. He looked to be about my age, and he asked casually, "How's it going?" I realized I felt surprisingly good considering I was at roughly mile 11 and had just finished a big climb. "Pretty good," I responded with genuine enthusiasm. He smiled, and glided on ahead of me. About a half mile later I caught up to him. We were in an open stretch between other clumps of runners, the finish line was almost in sight, and it was mostly downhill. I picked up the pace a little, and he matched me. Then he picked up the pace a little more, and I matched him. We kept this up for a few minutes. Then we were on the long, broad, downhill straightaway to the finish line, running side by side. I could have tried to pull ahead of him, but I didn't want to. Beating him to the finish line was pretty meaningless, since neither one of us knew where we started relative to each other in the pack at the beginning. Crossing the finish line first didn't necessarily mean a better chip time. So we kept running, now at a flat out run, shoulder to shoulder. And that's the way we crossed the finish line. I felt exhilirated, and I felt so grateful he had showed up next to me when he did.

I didn't know exactly what my time would be, but I was feeling positive. I knew I had paced myself the way a runner should, and run a negative split; my second half was clearly faster than my first half. Sure enough, I had hit my goal time and then some, shaving more than 5 minutes off my Black Diamond time. And more importantly, I had felt good and well prepared doing it:

So how does all this impact my preparation for the Seattle Marathon? Several things:

  • Honest and thorough training. I've kept up my speed work (backing off the pace some). I've done 6 training runs of 30K or more. And I've run 123 miles over the last 7 Saturdays.
  • Reasonably expectations. Some day I'd like to run a marathon in under 4 hours, but my only goal this time around is to finish. Time doesn't matter. My guess is that my finishing time will be 4 hrs 22 mins, but the actual time is unimportant.
  • Learn by doing. I've concluded that the only way to learn how to run a marathon is to run a marathon. If I can get one under my belt, I can learn from there how to train better.
Running is a journey, and for a lifetime. You must love and embrace the whole journey, otherwise individual achievements along the way do not have full meaning.

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