Sunday, August 11, 2013

Salinas Valley 1/2 Marathon Race Review 2013

It has been seven days since I ran the Salinas Half Marathon.  To bring you up to speed, it's the half marathon that I've been going back and forth over for the past couple of months. Should I do it or should I not? All the while I've missed out on saving registration fees, had I made up my mind sooner. I wasn't sure how well it was going to fit into my training schedule. The decision was not easy as it meant having to miss my final long run which was 3 weeks out from my next marathon.  One thing is for sure, I had to be flexible and trust in my training.  Logistically, this was the only 1/2 marathon close enough in both distance and time, to be used as my final tune up. 

My running buddy Liz Byrnes has been talking about this 1/2 marathon for over 3 years now.  Every year, right around August, she brings it up.  She never failed to mentioned the great weather she ran in both years and that it could be a PR setting course (Liz did an impressive 1:54 in 2010.)  However, she also underplayed the "little" hill on mile 6. Deal breaker.  I'm not a fan of hills especially if it's going to be a PR setting course.  I postponed signing up until this year, not exclusively because of the hill, but due to also that I just didn't have the desire to drive to Salinas.  As it turned out, the drive was not bad, and it was the best decision ever.  Moreover, I gained more confidence going into a marathon with this race under my belt.  So here goes the nitty-gritty details about this new half I just ran. I can say that this might be my new favorite half course.

My other running buddy, Linda S. and I left SLO at 5:00 am.  We arrived at Soledad Mission around 6:20 am or thereabouts.  We had plenty of time to pick up our bibs, scout the restrooms, and eat some bagels, bananas, oranges and drink water prior to start.  Where we had to park our car was about two tenth's of a walk.  It was a pretty good warm up.  The weather was in the low 50s with cloud cover.  Can you say perfect?  It is, if you don't mind a little humidity.

Before the start, I planned to do some dynamic warm ups--the same running drills that Coach Nancy has us perform weekly on Wednesday nights at the track. Coach Nancy's running drills are a staple to my starts now and if I don't get to do them, I get all out of sorts.  So I did some high knees, butt kicks, karaoke (no, not the singing kind), pawing, grapevines, strides, arm swings.  I added some lunges, leg swings and leg kicks. I wanted to run a mile of slow running but there wasn't enough time.  It had to do.

At the start, some of the SLDC club members who showed up were my running partner,  Heidi Harrison, Dave Dunbar, Liz Byrnes and soon to be SLDC club member, Linda Stimson. Dave lined up with the 1:40 pace group, Linda with her pacing group while, Liz, Heidi and I stuck around the 1:55 pacing group.  I was tempted to move up with the 1:50 group.  I thought about it, but that was as far as I got. I wanted to do an honest race and I felt that I would only be disappointed if I weren't able to keep up. I knew that if I stuck with the 1:55 group, I could handle the pace, and if I had something leftover in the tank, I could maybe squeak on ahead.

The race promptly started with our National Anthem and some welcoming words from the race director. At 8:05, I hit the start on my Garmin at the same time I stepped onto the timing mat, and we were off.

The course was point to point from Soledad to Gonzales.  The finish was at the local winery called, Pessagno Winery. We ran through vineyards and shaded areas, on asphalt and roads.   It was a bit humid and I felt my tank stuck to me early on the race.  I made the mistake of dunking water on my neck to cool off.  Well my tank top absorbed the water and because it was 88% humid, the tank never dried off.

I ran very close to the pace leader--too close in fact, I almost stepped on his shoes. Sorry buddy. He held the 1:55 pace sign. While he was in front of me and during the first mile, I heard one of the runners ask him, "Are we on pace?"  The leader said, we need to speed up a bit so that we can have some cushion to slow down on the big hill."

Hmmm, not what I wanted to hear. Experience has shown me that banking time never works. Soon after hearing this, I made a quick decision to peel away from the group.  I can't leave my execution plan to someone else, well at least not this day. If I wanted to PR, I needed to take matters into my own hands and have no one else to blame but myself had I failed.  I was thankful I heard this revelation when I did.  This brings me to the point: before joining a pace group, it might be worth your while to ask in advance (at the expo, where they introduce themselves usually) what their plan is, i.e., are they going to walk to the aide stations or stop every now and then, slow down on the hills, or speed up, etc.  It's easy to hitch a ride, let pacers do the pacing work and assume they are going to stay on your pace. Before you know it, you may start to feel too tired because the pace is to fast or realized the pace might be too slow and then you start questioning your fitness.  You have to ask questions and take charge of your race. Just my two cents.

I found my own groove to settle where I was comfortable and then the miles started ticking away.  I had my iPod shuffle and my earphones ready in my ear but it was turned off.  My plan was to turn it on only for the latter miles when I know it usually gets harder to push the same pace.  I listened to my steps, my breathing and glanced at my Garmin from time to time to make sure I was on pace.  I kept an even effort and I was pretty proud of myself for doing so.

Mile 1 - 8:33
Mile 2 - 8:22
Mile 3 - 8:26 rollers
Mile 4 - 8:19
Mile 5 - 8:25 rollers
Mile 6 - 8:28 hill
Mile 7 - 9:22 hill
Mile 8 - 9:00 hill
Mile 9 - 8:19
Mile 10 - 8:39 rollers & water bottle refill
Mile 11 - 8:24
Mile 12 - 8:29
Mile 13 - 8:19
Mile 0.10 - 8:08

My first taste of the rollers came at Mile 3. I took a deep breath and chugged along.  I couldn't help but overhear some conversations behind me about a woman and how she said her strength was the downhill.  Another guy exchanged some thoughts about some 1/2 he did and how this other woman passed him and how surprised he was she cooked him.  I was amazed at how they were just warming up and could hold conversations on an uphill.  Meanwhile, there I was, trying my best to stay focus and not lose pace. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't multi-task and share my experiences with anyone at this time.  All I could do was run, breathe and step one foot in front of the other.  That was plenty. It just seemed too much energy to talk while at the same time attempting to PR.

About Mile 5, with more rolling hills, I started to feel that familiar side stitch.  The week before at Wednesday night track, it hit me also in the middle of a 1000 meter repeat.  I get it from time to time, and when it hits, there's nothing I could do but slow down. Luckily, I remembered one blogger who suggested to stomp the opposite feet where the stitch I,s to get rid of the pain.  I did that a couple of times and it worked.  By the time it went away, I was faced with the dreaded big hill that began on mile 6 and ended at mile 8.  I kept calm and chugged along until I was over it.  I knew it was going to slow me down and I thought of keeping the effort even.  It seemed endless, but thankfully, I reached the peak.  My quads were on fire and it was a welcome relief that I reached the top. I reassured myself with  'only five more miles and the race is over.'  The last 5 miles were fairly flat, I am happy to report.

There were aide stations  about every 2.5 miles with water and Gatorade.  I remember Gu gels were passed out in two points and I grabbed one to replace the one I just ate in my pocket.  This was in case I need it in the end.  At mile 10 there was a strawberry aide station and I really wanted to stop and eat it but, there was just no time.  They looked so good. I felt bad for not taking them, I hope the volunteers realize that  I was not trying to be rude.  I love strawberries!  Any other time, I would pull up a chair and eat a flat myself.

There were two other ladies that I remember running with near the end; one seasoned runner with the running skirt and the other 20-something year old,  with a bouncing water flask on her back. I wonder how annoyed that would have made me with that thing bouncing everywhere.  Earlier on the race, we leap frogged.  At miles 11 we were all together.  By mile 12, they both took off.  My pace kept the same, but they both have enough energy to put it in another gear.  Oh how I wished I could do that.  All I could do is stay on pace. But was happy to stay there. I turned on my Ipod and listened to 'Come on Eileen'--how fitting.  I was glad I didn't slow down.  I could still see the ladies in front of me and that was enough for me to stay motivated; they were forever my markers of where I could have been.  I wasn't feeling sorry for myself being left behind. I was glad I was able to pass other runners as well.

The last left turn to the finish, where we had about half  a mile to go was pretty amazing.  You could see the line of runners ahead and my eyes tried to search that finish arch.  It was hard to see since the trees almost covered it and it was black and almost hidden in the shadows.  Seeing that arch or any other finish line arch, gives me hope and a smile when I am most tired.  That's usually where I can gauge to push it, if I have anything left to give or just know how soon I will be done. I saw the digital clock with the seconds ticking away at 47, 48, 49. I kicked to beat the 52 minute from turning over.  Afterward,s I realized that I really didn't need to speed up since I had some ~20 seconds cushion at the start. My Garmin matched my official time of 1:52:36, a PR  by 1:27 from SFO Kaiser Permanente 1/2 earlier this year.  On a side note,  I placed 6th place in my age group category.  The fifth place finisher was listed with the exact same finish time as I did. But she edged me by one hundredths of a second.  Oh, and to make myself feel better (sarcasm) I saw her in front of me.  I asked myself, "You're gonna let that knee-band-wearing-lady pass you?" We know what happened next.  I am kicking myself! No more Mr. Nice Guy.  I've come to realize, every second, every step counts and it's not over until it's over.  Can I sound any more cliché than this?

The end was relief, at the same time, honestly, I was a little disappointed. I received my beautiful medal and tried to catch my breath.  I scanned the crowd to see the other two ladies who pulled away from me in the penultimate mile.  I couldn't help but think about what could have been had I had enough in me to fight for it.  At this point, it hadn't sunk in yet that I had PR'd.  I saw the clock but I was so tired that my brain hadn't computed it yet for me.  All I could think about was, I should have had more in me to stay closer to them. I could tell a lie and say, "Yeah I was holding back because I don't want to outrace myself before my big marathon in three weeks--but I couldn't, I did my best.  It was all I had today and they simply had better kicks than I did. I congratulated the ladies and we exchanged some encouraging words. What awesome runners!

The finish chute had a tableful of post race nutrients such as, chocolate milk, packaged apple slices, bagels, orange wedges, boxes of raisins, and cut up bananas. Water was plentiful.  The post race festivities were super fun.  Dave Dunbar and Liz Byrnes ended up as age group winners, taking home a bottle of wine each. Heidi and Linda both did well clearing their best half results this year thus far. 
Heidi and I with our medals.

My SLDC shirt was still in the wash...

Aww, Linda Stimson was taking the picture...

I agree with the Liz and Heidi that this is a PR setting course, sans the significant hill. If you want to PR, better make hill workouts a part of your training. There are other rollers on the course but the weather couldn't be beat.  The endless flow of food is awesome.  I forgot to mention there was a barbeque at the finish.  If I am not mistaken you have the option of adding a few dollars to your registration fee to enjoy the goodies.  I didn't take advantage of it, since after races my stomach needs something else and BBQ aint' it.  But that's just me.  (Today I craved menudo! Yummy!)

After the podium celebration and picture taking, we boarded an air-conditioned bus back to Soledad.  The buses were nice and comfortable , unlike the bouncy yellow school buses that CIM , Napa and Big Sur uses. I'm not complaining, just making a comparison.

If you sign up early like my buddy Liz, you can save more and only pay $65. But if you are wishy-washy, like me, you will end up spending $99 including other fees (okay, hubby probably didn't need to see that)--a little hefty for the half, but well worth it. Knowing this, I will definitely sign up early next year.  Also with the fees, we received a long sleeve tech tee  (burgundy is the color this year)  and a beautiful wine glass. I guess for the 4th year in a row, weather has been perfect. This race draws a lot fast runners, both local and out of town, sub elites and elites.  Daniel Tapia, a Salinas native, is currently representing the US in Moscow for the IAFF World Championships,  won this race in the past two years. (He also won the stormy marathon at CIM this past December).  This year he was understably absent.

It was a great race, with incredible volunteers and very nice venue. The drive from SLO to Salinas took less than 1 1/2 hours. If you are looking for a new half course, I highly recommended this one.

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