Every Second Counts
1 second UNDER 74 minutes. The beauty of racing is that you come face to face with a reality that is hard to appreciate, but most definitely exists in the "real world"; every second counts.
Whether it's vying for that Boston Marathon qualifying time, Olympic trials qualifier, elite qualifier for Calgary Marathon, or just trying to get under some arbitrary whole number of minutes, you make little pace adjustments all race that ultimately result in you coming face to face with a chance to sneak under or slip over some minute barrier. This time, this race, I landed on the right side. But let me rewind a bit. California International Marathon, December 2021. Absolute top lifetime fitness achieved, but after a long season I felt completely drained. I jumped in to Vancouver's First Half Marathon, and ran well but felt rough, ultimately not able to maintain my goal pace. I felt burnt out.
Sun Run 10k 2 months later. I'd salvaged some fitness and put my energy into the shorter distance, and walked away very happy with a big 10k PB. But when I got back home to Calgary something was off. My breathing was labored, heart rate erratic.
I really struggled during my workouts, and in Calgary Marathon in May, I ended up having to stop for 2 walk breaks to catch my breath and let me HR come back down to earth. This scared the heck out of me.
In the months after, I kept my running to easy trails, and went to see cardiac and pulmonary specialists to figure out what was going on. They did find I had developed mild asthma, and using the inhaler once in a while helped, but I would still suffer some occasional bouts where my body was just not having it. Cardiac testing proved to be a bit more dramatic, as my stress test recorded heart rate spikes over 300 beats per minute! Considering I consistently wear HR monitors (watch and chest strap) and never seen any spikes over 200 even, I was dubious. Instant response was to prescribe beta blockers for me and queue follow up appointments with more specialists (I rejected the prescription, and am still waiting for a call back from the specialists, 8 months later - I guess 300 bpm isn't that concerning). As the summer went on my fall racing calendar unfolded. I raced Moose Mountain Marathon in August, feeling good at the lower intensity and finished 2nd. Though originally signed up to race the Canadian 80k National Championships in Vernon, I made the decision to drop down to the 50k and relieve some of the demand on my body. Paced it nice and evenly, finishing feeling good and took 1st and the course record. As the weather got colder, my conditions worsened again. Anytime I'd run intervals at track I'd suffer, tight chest, rapid HR, G.I. meltdowns, and often had to cut my workouts short due to anxiety. Got more blood tests done, but nothing was showing up. Reduced my running mileage further, and added some bike back in. 2023, new year, new goals. After getting my Leadville 100 rejection letter on January 9th, I started to formalize my race year. First up, Mesa Half Marathon in February. This would be my only true focus road race of the year. After that, Boston Marathon in April, and Calgary 50k in May. Both of those will be en route to my 2nd "A" race of the year, and my first 100 miler, Sinister7 in June (wtf am I thinking?!). Then I'll jump in and do the Chicago 5k in October, and Austin Rattler Trail Ultra 50k in November. Yes, quite the season, but it all has a purpose (even if that purpose is just for fun - aka mental health). With that context, I committed to laying down my best possible performance for Mesa, given it to be my only road test of the year. Enlisting strength coach Bre "Bre-evil" Gustafson for me in December, coach/wife Mel started to put together a hard couple of months to get me ready for the speed of the half marathon, combined with the distance of the longer races to come. Though still having a few workouts bomb on the way, into January I was starting to nail more than fail, and confidence was growing.
3:30 am, the Black Eyed Peas " Leeeeeet's get it started" starts jamming on my cell phone alarm.
Queue the preordered adrenaline shot to elp get me up, out bed and ready to poop! Half a bagel and a coffee later, and we are out the door, jogging the 2km pitch black Bass Pro Drive over to the finish line area.
Thanks to the amazing elite coordinator, I was allowed to be Mel's +1 on the VIP bus, which replaced the standard yellow school bus with a plush courtesy van, pimped out with neon lights, refreshments, snacks, and yes, 2 stripper poles.
Over to the start area, we got ushered into a private cross fit gym, complete with foam rollers, stretching bands, and actual bathrooms!
Had about an hour to kill, just sitting around trying not to look like the imposter old dude hanging out with all the Northern Arizona University elites + Molly Seidel. I figured I could always pretend to be Mel's coach, if anyone asked. Men's Half marathon winner Sam Chelanga would later ask me if I was "a masters elite or something", which I took as both a compliment as much as an ageist diss. Better than being asked by a stranger if I was in the Clydesdale division, like last time!
Bit more of a warmup and strides with Mel, and make our way to the start. See all the friends, honor the Star Spangled Banner, and off we go! Let's get it started, Fergie! 💥
Mollie and her entourage go out blazing! This race being a US Olympic Trials qualifier, it brought out a ton of really fast folks from all across the country.
Within about 50m there is a distinct gap to the lead pack and all the remaining 3200 half marathoners, which I am basically leading. Way too spicy to bridge up now, and I don't belong there. I hear a couple guys to my right. Green guy asks "what are you shooting for, 1:13?" Blue "race team" shirt guy says "yup". Ok, these are my people. Well, these are people that I want to be, and if I shoot for the stars I might land on the moon, or something like that.
Over the next 5 or 6 km, I tuck in nicely behind my new friends. I should note that at this point I have not spoken, nor have I moved ahead to help them, but I love them. They are calling out mile splits, which don't mean anything to me. I tried converting 5:34 into a metric pace, but the brain power caused me to lose focus and open a gap, so I'd have to surge to catch back on. Green guy looks back occasionally, apparently surprised to find me closer to him than his own shadow.
We are averaging 3:28/km or so, but there are no km markers so I can't tell for certain. I feel like we are flying, but my legs feel ok. My mind wanders with the monotony of duress and lack of scenery. There are exactly TWO turns in the first 10.5k, and though I'm struggling to maintain the pace, (or they a speeding up?) I vow to hang with them until the halfway point. Every second I can focus my energy on my BFFs is a second closer to the finish. A second less I will have to deal with my late race demons alone. As we make the left turn around the 11 km mark, I release my mental leash on my pacers, satisfied with my effort thus far and knowing I have secured a sufficient bank of time against my goal.
I need to slow down for a minute to regain my composure, and I do so confidently. The next several kms I see my average pace creep up to 3:29, and eventually 3:30 per km. I am passed several times. It's annoying, but doesn't consume me. Each time I hear footsteps I wonder if it's my old friend Chris Schwartz (see Edmonton blog and Toronto blog), as I passed him a little ways back, but it's not.
Amusingly it's like a carnie parade of fast dudes. One guy with a mullet. One guy that was about 6'8 running with a guy that was about 4'8. One guy in Hawaiian shorts. There may have been a juggler. As the miles tick off I battle the ennui. This course is flat and fast, but with no elevation or turns, the biggest obstacle is your mind. It's like running on a treadmill, except one that might slow down a smidge every time you take your eyes off the LED screen or day dream about that post race beer. Each time I catch myself fade, I force myself to pick up the pace. I focus on my form. Keep the cadence high, land lightly on the front of my shoe, drive my arms to accelerate back to pace, then relax them. Wet my tongue with my Maurten gel. 4 miles to go sign. Ooh I like the sounds of that. That's almost 3 miles, and 3 miles is kinda like 5k. Keep focused and relaxed, and patient. 3 miles to go I can liberate yourself from that Maurten I've been clutching for the last 15 minutes.
I'm now passing an increasing amount of 10k walkers, but there is a lot of room to pass. 3 miles to go. I toss the half empty gel defiantly and begin my grand finale.
Nearly every race I do features the classic double peak pacing tactic, and I've learned to savor and embrace it. Steadily, I begin turning up the heat. I'm starting to reel in a few of the circus freaks* that passed me before. Aw yeah... now it's getting fun. Engine is running hot, for sure, but the crazy captain in the control room is having fun. Finally we turn onto the downhill modified finishing mile, the drag race along Rio Salado Parkway.
Throttle the pace just above, and then below, the point of internal combustion. Repeat.
I have a sinking suspicion that the new course is going to be a little longer than 21.1km, but I don't know how long. My avg pace is back down to 3:29 now, but I have no idea what that means for a half.
I do fear that I will probably be very close to 1:14, and although my target of sub 1:15 is probably safe, I don't want to finish a few seconds over 1:14 and know I could have squeezed out a few seconds.
Last kilometer. Seriously red lining.
800m. 600m. I can see the finishing arch, around the corner. Mullet guy must not have noticed, as he keeps his pace steady. I don't. I can smell the finish and I throw it into high gear. Full on sprint around the final bend and keep it floored right to the line as I watch the clock count from 1:13:40 all the way to 1:13:57, 1:13:58, 1:13:59. Done.
One second. There were dozens of moments on course that I gave up a second or two, only to claw them back. My final mile was 5:26, a full 12 seconds faster than my average for the whole race. One second less could have been easily lost in there.
It may not matter to anyone else. There may or may not be a race standard that requires sub 74 minutes. It might not even be my PB forever, and I know by Monday, when I go back to work, it will be but a fading memory and an arbitrary number. But I do know that I fought for every second and walk away knowing there was nothing more in the tank on this day.
This was my one road test of the year, and I did not squander the opportunity. I am proud, but also grateful for my health, my amazing wife / coach Mel, my kids Kieran & Kailyn, support of the WRTWC crew and Calgary running community, and the luck to have it all come together on race day.
Strava link here.
Full Results here.
Official Time: 1:13:59
Overall Rank: 41/3201
Age Division Rank: 1/177 (2nd Master over 40)
Official blogpost here: http://canadutchracing.blogspot.com/
* After reviewing the race photos, I can confirm there was no juggler, the tall guy and short guy weren't dramatically so either, but there was a guy with a mullet.