Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Breaking the 4:30 min/km barrier

Finally the day came. It has been a long 10 weeks leading up to the Wally Hayward Half Marathon but it was worth it. Then just over 10 weeks ago, after nearly two months of inactivity, I decided to not go back on the pledge I made to myself to become a runner. Since 20the December 2011 I had been for a solitary 7km jog. It was now the 18th February after yet another 'come back' run. Instead of continuing with my initial plan of improving my 10km time, I decided to do something I had never done before, but realistic and achievable. So I set my mind, heart and body on running a half marathon.

And here I am now, having done two of them and feeling very good. 

The Weekend Before

This weekend though things didn't look so rosy. After running Slow Mag I focussed on sharpening my legs, focussing on short tempo runs, speed sessions and working hills into my running. On Saturday however, as I did my last serious one, 7km with 2km at race pace, a final reminder, I didn't feel good at all. It felt to me like fatigue. I struggled ending the session and cancelled my 30 minute shakedown. While there was nothing remarkable about how much mileage I had done, it peaked at 50km/week and avergaed 40km/week, it was a serious bump compared to what I was doing last year. I was worried that my body had simply had enough.

My wife and son had also picked up something in the air and being surrounded by sneezing snivelling people, it was inevitable that I would be affected. Indeed on Sunday night I felt awful, my nose was runny and I was sneezing constantly. I had anticipated the possibility of getting sick and had got medication from the pharmacy. Thankfully it was just a head cold but I still felt awfully. Things improved on Monday but by the evening I wasn't sure if I would be at the start line on Tuesday.

I was concerned about the weather too. Monday was a scorcher, peaking at about 28 degrees celsius and the forecast was much the same for Tuesday. Fatigue, a head cold and unseasonablly warm temperatures. The signgs were not good.

I was up way before 4 AM on Tuesday morning. I got out of bed at 4:15, had my usual pre-race snack of 100ml yoghurt and a piece of route. I was keeping hydrated with water and sports drink. Just after 5 AM we made out way to the Hoerskool Zwartkop (my mother was running the 10 km and my brother came along to help with carrying stuff and support).

Thankfully parking was not a problem considering the size of the race. I'm glad we didn't leave earlier as we had a full hour before the race once parked. The was a moderate walk to the start. The place was already buzzing, I really love the vibe at races. I did my warm up, gentle jogging and stretching and at 6:15 made sure I got a decent spot.

The crowd was very friendly. People were chatty and relaxed. I usually keep to myself, but I was enjoying the banter, which helped me forget my woes from the last couple of days.

After some announcements and usual protocols, the race started just after 6:30

The best race of my life

 I had a great run at Slow Mag, due to the lack of pressure, and the 'take it as it comes' attitude I had on the day. This was the one I had been working towards and I was nervous. I had made and saved pace bands for 1:35, 1:36, 1:37 and 1:38 times. I had created my own custom pace band by breaking the race into 10, 5 and 5 sections. I had studied the course, sourced information from people who had done it. In short I was obsessed. 

All of that went out the window once the hooter went.

Finding a rhythm: The first five kays

Steady was the order of the day. I wanted to ease into my pace and go conservatively but not as much as Slow Mag. I was targetting 4:45min/km pace for the first 5kms and just to find my rhythm before the hard work between 5km and 10km. The first two kms were comfortable and I felt good, going just below 5:00min/km. I met one of my father's runners from UNISA AC and since he was doing the full marathon I ran a few kms with him to stop me from getting ahead of myself. I went through 5 km in 23:40, 4:43 pace, so far so good.

The slow poisonous climb: 5 to 10 km 

The end aside, this was the part of the race I had identified as critical to me running a good time. It's not until 6km when it becomes obvious that you are climbing. It is a gentle climb but it's a kilometre long. I just put my head down and reminded myself that I had prepared for this in the previous two weeks. Once we crossed the N14 at the 7km mark I had a glance at my watch and realizing I was still maintaining a good pace, I began to feel for the first time that this could be a great day for me. I picked up the pace and worked at reaching 10km in my target time of 47:00. I hit 10km at 46:40, 4:40 pace, and knowing that I had navigated the toughest part of the course for a little while, I set about trying to bank time for 'Hakkin Hill', with a great opportunity to improved on the 1:38:42 I had run at Slow Mag

Time trialling: 10 to 15 km

My aim was to run negative splits and that meant having to really get going. The next 5km were something of a blur, as I ignored the watch and just worked on increasing leg turnover. I was delighted when I hit 15km  in 1:08:31. That split was 21:51 at 4:22 pace and overall now down to 4:34. I was now under PB time and now on course for not just a PB but 1:37 or better.

Run like the wind: 15 to 20 km

By this stage I was stuck in a groove and just thinking 'PB, PB, PB'. The obsessive time checking returned now. It was not just the PB that was weighing in on my mind but trying to figure out how much time I needed to bank for the last kilometre. I ran faster and harder than I have ever run, 4:08, 4:11, 4:04, 4:12, 4:12. I hit 20km in 1:29:18 at 4:28 pace, the last 5 km went by in 20:47 at 4:09 pace, the previous 10 km in 42:38 at 4:16 pace. Both times would easily break my current PBs for those distances. On beginning the 21st km, a new PB was safe and a sub 1:35 was suddenly a possibility.

The sting in the tail: surviving Hakkin Hill

I have gone over the last 1.1 km of this race as obsessively as anything  else but once after hitting Valley Rd with the finish in sight, the sheer enormity of the task that lay ahead hit me. With each stride my pace slowed and slowed. I refused to walk but the clock was ticking perilously close to 1:35. Finally the gate entering the school grounds was visible and I pushed. It was a brutal ending but I made it, unofficially in 1:34:53. It will be touch and go when official times are released but I'm certain I sneaked in under 1:35.

Wally Hayward was a great experience. It was easily one of the best organized races I have been to, everything from getting parking, the start, the many water points and the enthusiasm of the marshals and volunteers made it a very fun event. I hope to make it a fixture in my racing calendar.

Breaking the 4:30min/km barrier 

Breaking 45 minutes for 10km, or put differently 4:30 min/km was a shadow that I was chasing last year and  that's what drove me to almost stop running. I had run 48:00 in November and 45 min was right there. I trained myself into the ground and that last workout in December, I remember just grinding to a halt after yet another high intensity work. The general advice is that a significant portion of running workouts should be easy/recovery, but for me it was the opposite and for a relative beginner it was suicidal.

So when I finished the Wally Hayward Half Marathon as significant as just running a great time, way way faster than what I had initially set as a target, was that I had breached that psychological barrier that was turning into an obsession. I got close with the 45:44 at the Deloitte Pretoria race, but to have done it over 21.1 km fills me with a lot of joy.

So what now? I set myself three goals, that sub 45:00 10km, finish a half marathon well and complete a full marathon (no time target, just finish and finish strong). I have a few 10km races, and a 15km to keep me busy. I'm not going to obsess over the times, I'll just trust my legs. Then from mid June I begin an 18 week journey to that first marathon.

EDIT: official results are out and I missed out on breaking the 4:30 min/km by 5 seconds! Official time was 1:35:01

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