When I put the Horsetooth Half Marathon on my calendar, my good friend and running buddy told me not to expect a PR. She’d done the race before and knew the punishing course. Being overconfident and really bad with things like maps and elevation profiles, I dismissed her doubts. After all, I was in a totally different place than I was when I ran my last half marathon. So what if I set my PR five years ago at sea level? Who cared if Horsetooth was known for being hilly? I was more experienced now, fitter, and faster. My kids were older (e.g. sleeping through the night. Sort of). Based on a few recent races, the online race predictors told me I was capable of 1:43. Being an optimist and a masochist (aka a runner), I based all my training paces on that goal time.
Meanwhile, life made sure my training didn’t go perfectly. First, there was my nagging foot pain. I was mostly able to keep it at bay but it forced me to modify or ditch a workout every now and then. Then there was the flu bug that hit me immediately after I nailed a mixed tempo run (five miles alternating 7:30 pace for the odd miles with 8:00 pace for the evens), just as I was supposed to do a few key workouts right before, including a 14 mile run with the last four at goal pace, which I was depending on as a confidence booster, if nothing else.
Instead of doing my important workouts just before my taper, I was in bed agonizing with a fever, the chills, body aches, a wretched cough, and a wi fi signal too weak to let me watch more than a few episodes of Girls in bed. Instead of getting fitter, I was getting weaker. After four days fully off, I tried a two mile jaunt as my first post-illness workout. It was terrible. It was everything normal people hate about running. Side stitches and shortness of breath were my constant companions. My next few runs were not much better. I had one good track workout once I was feeling up to it. Then I had a bunch of horrible runs. I mean I was struggling to maintain even a 10:00/mile pace. (My easy, just for fun pace is about 9:15-10:00/mile). While I don’t expect every run to feel great, I was getting increasingly anxious as every run felt as lackluster as the one before. Would I ever feel good again? I didn’t want to suffer through 13.1 miles. I wanted to race it and suffer through the final miles.
Meanwhile, I’d paid for and trained for this race. The course was supposed to be gorgeous. I was committed running it no matter how bad I felt. The Thursday before the race, I finally had my first normal run in over a week. I took Friday off, then did an easy 30 minute jog on Saturday and was thrilled that I felt good once again. By that point, I’d had about two weeks since recovering from the flu to readjust my expectations. If I was honest with myself, the flu wasn’t the only reason I might not run 1:43. I reviewed my training log and decided I hadn’t done the workouts to support that time. Instead of nailing my paces and increasing my mileage to the point where my foot would rebel, I trained in a way that was sustainable. Knowing the first 1.8 miles of the course were straight uphill and that the rest of the course was either an ascent or a descent, I resolved simply to go by feel. My goal was to pace it to avoid blowing up before the finish.
The night before the race I stayed in Fort Collins with friends, while Dan stayed back in Boulder with the kids, which was lovely and relaxing (for me, obv). I slept soundly, knowing there was zero threat of either of my kids waking me in the middle of the night, as they had done each and every night for the previous seven consecutive nights. I felt like I was at a bed and breakfast, eating my instant oatmeal and banana without a sleepy little person asking to be fed on race morning. Race morning dawned with perfect, clear sunny weather in the low 40’s, my ideal running temperature.
I started with the 1:45 pacer, knowing I wouldn’t be able to stay with him, but hoping nonetheless. Immediately the road went from a manageable uphill to an OH-MY-GOD-IDON’T-KNOW-IF-I-EVEN-BREATHE-THIS-HARD-AT-THE-FINISH-OF-A-5K-THIS-IS-WAY-TOO-HARD-FOR-THE-FIRST-MILE-OF-ANYTHING. And that was at a just-moving-forward pace.
A power walk may well have been faster than my creeping shuffle. But my legs felt strong and I felt ok even if I was breathing like a choo-choo train. I was passing people and people were passing me and I said to myself don’t worry about them, just race your race. The road tipped up and up and up as the blue water of the Horsetooth Reservoir spread out on our left.
People with fun signs, a drum circle, and the sounds of other runners’ ragged breathing made the 1.8 mile ascent pass relatively quickly. I reached the top in 17:04 which was faster than I’d anticipated. We descended, still following the curve of reservoir’s edge. On the one hand it was freeing to go down. But it was stressful too. Was I breathing too hard to fully recover from the burn of the initial ascent? Was my form all messed up? Why did I not practice the messy art of running downhill in training? Was I going to fall on my face? Eventually I settled into a comfortable breathing pattern I termed “light tempo,” focused on keeping my feet light and fast, and relaxed into it. Dan’s business partner’s fiancee, aka) one half of the couple I stayed with the night before approached me at the base of the next significant climb, around the fourth mile. We hung together and chatted for a bit, but then I pulled away and didn’t see him until the finish.
As we descended the second hill, the scenery changed to farmland and it was nothing short of idyllic. A young couple and I took turns passing each other until we finally got into the same groove just before the third and final major hill. Over a couple of miles I gleaned that they were adorable, married to each other, training for the Steamboat Marathon, hoping to run 1:45, and they do their training runs and races together, at the same exact pace. See what I mean, re: adorable? I can’t say I was super jealous however. If Dan had been running with me, we would have had to make childcare arrangements. The Adorables pulled ahead of me on the hill, but I caught up on the downhill. We ran together through about mile 7, at which point I pulled away and didn’t see them again until the finish chute, where they arrived about a minute after I did.
By the time I got to mile 8, I was still focused on keeping my effort in the light tempo zone and my mantra vacillated between Light and Quick, Compact and Efficient, and Nothing Wasted (as in, elbows in, chest up, forward lean, good form). My plan was to maintain the same pace, knowing that soon, light tempo would feel like medium tempo, which would turn into hard tempo, which would inevitably become hard as shit, leading to wishing to puke as long as I stayed consistent. My goal was to feel like vomiting within a half mile of the finish and run out of gas right at the finish line and not a moment before.
Everything didn’t go quite to plan, however. When mile ten came, I was tired, but not miserable, yet I couldn’t make myself dig any deeper. Around mile 6 my right achilles had started to bother me. It got marginally worse as I continued to run and while the discomfort was mild enough to keep running hard, it was achy enough to make me worry that it wouldn’t hold up through 13.1. I’d run hills in training, but nothing like the hills on this course. They were intense, long, and abundant, and though I didn’t mind them too much, my ankle certainly did. So I held back instead of speeding up, telling myself I’d find that extra gear soon, just not right now. My legs were heavy and my breathing was labored, but I’d certainly felt worse in training and in other races. In fact, I’d felt worse during the first 1.8 miles of climbing Monster Mountain. (It’s called that for a reason. See elevation profile, below).
That said, I was at the point in the race where I started using mental games to stay focused. I only let myself think about reeling in the next person. I wondered when I was going to pass Shirtless Loud Music No Earbuds Guy Who Is Probably The Type To Send Dick Pics, who’d passed me on one of the hills. (Sadly, I never did. Pass him, not receive a dick pic.) I allowed myself to think about making it to the eleven mile mark, and then the twelve mile mark. At mile twelve, I was forced myself to move my feet faster. I smiled through the cheering crowds as I got closer and closer to the finish. I grinned upon seeing Dan and the girls, who were spectating at the finish chute. A tiny blonde girl with a perfect ponytail sprinted by me with less than ten meters to go, and it pissed me off enough to find another gear, but not enough to pass her back.
I crossed the line as the clock read exactly 1:49:00, however my real (chip) time was 1:48:40, which translates to an 8:18/mile pace and made me the 14th of 161 women in my age group and 68th of about 700 women.
More importantly, I finished with a huge smile on my face. A huge wave of gratitude overwhelmed me as the volunteers handed me a drink and a medal. If anyone had tried to talk to me in the ten seconds immediately following the finish, I’m pretty sure I would have started sobbing.
While it wasn’t my fastest half marathon, I feel really good about it. I think I paced it well and I did an excellent job of managing my expectations if I do say so myself. Not knowing my achilles would feel 100% fine as I type this a few days later, I think I made a smart choice by holding back a bit. (By holding back, I mean I never wanted to die or puke.) Had I been close to a PR, I think I would have dug a little deeper. Had I not gotten the flu, I might have been stronger and more confident and ran more aggressively, but who knows. Now that I understand how challenging the course is, I think it was a blessing in disguise that I’d gotten the flu and had a couple of weeks to readjust my expectations, rather than having my 1:43 dream shattered within the first mile.
All in all, it was a great race. I would consider doing it again for sure, although I’d train differently and go in knowing it’s not the kind of course where you should expect to PR, as a sage friend once told me.
Splits from my TomTom: