“Half” Measures

As a competitive runner, there are two main factors I consider when planning a race: speed and endurance. Which one takes precedence depends on the distance. When I run a 5K race (3.1 miles), I don’t worry if I will finish, only how fast. I set a target pace for the first mile, then go all out for the rest. My 10K strategy is only slightly different – a target pace for the first half of the race, then everything I have left for the second half.

For marathon length (26.2 miles) and beyond, by contrast, my main goal is to cross the finish line upright. I set a target pace slower than even many of my “easy pace” training runs. While starting out too fast in a short race could hurt my finish time, doing so in a marathon could mean I don’t finish at all. “Hitting the wall” around the 20-mile mark is a well-known problem that has caused many a runner to DNF.

Unless you’re a world-class runner like Scott Jurek, who regularly wins 100-mile races, there is a particular race distance that represents the balancing point – where speed and endurance must receive equal consideration. For me, this is the half marathon. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s one of my favorite races (at least when I’m not actually running them).

My times in the half have steadily improved each year, and as I start to crack the top tier of my age group, I am naturally interested in running it fast. However, I need to rest properly beforehand, eat carefully to be properly fueled, and not push the pace too hard during the race. If I slip up on any of these, I won’t run my best. The distance guarantees that. So of all my races, this one needs the most careful planning.

For example, here is how I planned out a few races from last year or this year.

Holiday Hustle 5K, December 2012
Time goal: 19:59 or better

Holiday Hustle Starting Line 2012Lead up: 4:00 p.m. start, so sleep in. Light activity during the day.
Pre-race routine: 1 mile easy warmup, followed by light stretching and a few short sprints.
Fuel: Lunch 2 hours before start. One Gu at start. Skip water stop.
Pace plan: 6:20 first mile, run like hell for the rest.
Result: 19:48. Followed plan, but it would have been difficult not to.

Ann Arbor Marathon, June 2012
Time goal: 3:59:59 or better

Mile 19 - State Street - croppedLead up: Easy week before. Get enough sleep.
Pre-race routine: Get out of bed and to the starting line before the 6:30 a.m. start.
Fuel: Eat CliffBar on way to race. At every water station after mile 4, walk and drink. When sick of tepid water and Gatorade (mile 20) drink it anyway. Eat a Gu every 5 miles or so.
Pace plan: All miles around 9:00. Do NOT run faster than 8:30 pace.
Result: 3:54. Kept to planned pace (mostly). Good thing – it was hot and humid, and I probably wouldn’t have finished otherwise.

Martian Invasion of Races, Half Marathon, April 2013
Time goal: Beat previous half marathon PR of 1:36:59

Martian Finish - croppedLead up: No hard running for 3 days before race day. Carbo-load starting two days before. Get enough sleep.
Pre-race routine: 1 mile easy warmup, followed by light stretching and a few short sprints (but not too fast, just enough to get the heart rate up).
Fuel: Banana and Cliff bar 1 hour before start. Don’t drink much because I will only have to use the porta-potty (again). Get water or Gatorade at every second water stop. Have a Gu at miles 6 and 9, and at mile 11 if needed.
Pace plan: First mile 7:30. Second mile 7:15. Miles 3-10 around 7:05. Try to speed up for final 3.1, or hold pace if unable to. Final mile: push up the short steep climb, then go all out to the finish (downhill).
Result: 1:33:48, and so “on plan” it was scary.

And then there was this morning’s (Sunday) Dexter-Ann Arbor half. While it was by no means a disaster, and even was somewhat of a success, it didn’t go according to plan. I’ll share the lessons learned later, after I figure out what they are.

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