Shamrock wasn't my original plan for this weekend. I had registered for the NYC Half many months ago as my goal race for this spring. But, (per Murphy's law as executed by the weather gods) as of Thursday morning a snowstorm was forecast for New York City on Saturday evening. Not a huge amount of snow, just 1-3 inches. But possibly enough to disrupt the race, making it either a slushy/icy mess that would hamper my PR goals, or a fun run. I messaged several runner friends in NYC, and they recommended against coming up to run NYC if I had another option.
Which fortunately, I did. When I register for goal races, I like to register for a back-up race - one that is either the same weekend in a different part of the country, or the following weekend. It just seems logical - I invest a lot of time and money and sweat in a training cycle - why not invest a little more money upfront to improve my chances of having good weather on race day. And it's really not that much money if you register for the back-up race early (far cheaper than panicking 7 days out when the weather looks iffy and registering late). I also book hotels for each location, carefully noting the cancellation date.
In this case, I had registered for a) New York, plus DC-NY train tickets and a Wall Street hotel room, and b) Shamrock (drivable from DC, plus a hotel room in the general Virginia Beach vicinity). So, once I made my decision to do Shamrock instead, I cancelled my train tickets (refunded) and my hotel (no charge), and was only out the NYC registration fee. Which was fine - the registration was a sunk cost, and a icy race or a fun run was of little value to me, even if it did feature Times Square.
An added bonus was that I managed to score that most elusive of quarries - a one night hotel stay on the beach right by the Shamrock half marathon start line. This was excellent, because the weather wasn't looking great for Shamrock either - high winds and some rain. But the thing about the Shamrock half is that it can be very windy and one can still run fast. Given the forecasts, I liked my chances at Shamrock a lot better than those at NYC.
Well...that was until I checked the forecasts again around 6 am on Saturday morning, as I prepped for the drive to Virginia Beach. Things had changed. Now New York was showing rain on Saturday night and a clear Sunday morning, while Virginia Beach was under a gale advisory for Saturday night into Sunday afternoon.
Ugh. I considered changing plans again - my New York hotel had availability, and there were still seats on the train. And though I'd eat the cost of the Virginia Beach hotel, that wasn't a crippling amount of money. But in the end (after messaging various friends and a tolerant coach), I decided to stick with Shamrock. I had already switched mental gears to Shamrock, and I also didn't want to deal with the scramble of rebooking my New York accommodations and madly dashing to the train station. Additionally, the forecast might change again, and I liked my chances at Shamrock during a gale much better than those at New York in an snowstorm or with icy roads.
You see, in someways, Shamrock is a magic race. It seems like the worse the weather is there, the better people run (my marathon PR is still from Shamrock, on a ridiculously windy day). I think that's in part because it's a super flat and fast course and in part because many people run their best when they let go of expectations - as we usually do when the weather is awful. Additionally, at Shamrock, if it's really windy in just the right way, the course can work for you. More on that below.
So, I was committed. I left the house just before 8 am, which ensured that the three hour drive to Virginia Beach was in fact a three hour drive, as opposed to the four to five hour (or more) monstrosity it can be. I arrived at the expo just before 11, where I grabbed my bib and then headed over to a nearby Chipotle for race prep. (I don't intend to ever race in a location where there is no Chipotle. Just so we're clear).
The Chipotle was disappointing. It's the first time I've had to coach the server to fill up my bowl - usually the bowls are overflowing with ricey-meaty-guacamole goodness. Not this time. My two bowls (yes, I get two bowls pre-long race - eat 1.5 for lunch plus a bag of chips, and then save the remainder for apres-race) were barely 2/3ds full, despite my pleading. There was only one solution - purchase a third bowl. I debated pretending I was ordering for a friend, but I've never been good at lying, so I didn't bother.
Post Chipotle, I checked into my nice beachfront hotel, where I proceeded to email my partner instructions on how to take care of the cats (including litterbox tips). I also thoughtfully included a picture of the ocean from my window, thus cementing my frontrunner status for partner of the year. (BTW, this was our anniversary weekend).
Did a bunch of gentle yoga and foam rolling to get everything mobile, and checked the weather again. The time of arrival for the apocalyptic weather kept getting pushed back. Just a few hours more, and it'd miss my race entirely.
In fact, when I awoke this morning very early (I needed to take my Advair at 4 am to ensure it was fully working for the 7 am race), it was still dry and just moderately breezy. Woo. But around 5:15 am, the front came in, with moderate rain and a strong wind.
This was bad and good. I actually didn't mind the rain - I knew it's be miserable while waiting to start, but 40 degrees and rain is also the absolute BEST my lungs ever function. When I'm on the right asthma drugs, I get to about 90% on a normal day. But give me a dank dreary drizzle, and my breathing is AWESOME. No asthma at all. It's a phenomenal feeling that more than makes up for the chafing and the cold hands and the waterlogged shoes. If' I'm racing, I'll take 40s and light rain over 50s and dry any day.
The wind was also arguably a positive. Though it was very very strong (my Garmin says 15 MPH, but news reports pointed towards 20-25 MPH), it was coming from the North, which was very very good, as long as I paced the race correctly.
The proper execution of this race on a windy day is best explained with a picture:
The course is run clockwise - starting and ending at the bottom right. So...to run this course well, you need to go out very conservatively, finding a pack to use as a windblock. Once you turn off of Atlantic Avenue onto Shore Drive (just before mile 3) you can pick it up as the wind lessens. But start hunting for another pack after you pass mile 5, so you can use them as wind blocks after the right turn into Fort Story. Hang with them until the wind turns into a crosswind, then hold a steady effort until the tailwind takes over, and ride that baby home.
If you follow this strategy, then (within reason) the windier the course is, the faster it is. As long as the wind is from the north. If the wind is from the south, then you should probably start drinking before the race, rather than waiting until after.
The above is what I did, and it worked beautifully. After a two mile warm-up with a few strides and drills (I deliberately UNDERwarmed up to make sure I stayed conservative), I targeted marathon-pace feel for the first three miles - basically a slight exaggeration of my coach's "start slow/finish fast" philosophy. I found a nice crew that was holding that pace, and just followed right behind the tallest and widest member of the pack.
(I chose the widest and tallest person both because they were the biggest windblock, and also because it was near certain they wouldn't ask me to split the work, given my small stature).
[During this part, I focused a lot on running tall and relaxed. I believe that some of the effect from a strong wind is a result of how the runner reacts to it. It's very natural to want to curl up and hunch over so as to present less of a surface to the wind. But, in doing so, it can make one's gait much less efficient and lose you even more time. For myself, I've found that if I avoid the temptation to hunch into the wind, and instead stretch up tall, I actually run much faster.]
Once we turned into the park, I swung wide of the pack and started to gently open my stride. Not a sudden change of pace, but just a gradual build from marathon effort to tempo. Around mile 5, I took half of my gel (Blueberry Pomegranate Rocktane) and finished off my water bottle and tossed it (along with my handwarmers). Then I targeted a pack to tail for the first part of Fort Story.
Only to discover it wasn't necessary. For whatever reason, the wind was no longer as bad there. I think there are some new buildings that blocked it.
There were other humorous obstacles, though. The second half of this race is never far from the beach and its sand, and at one point on the course, a large amount of sand had blown across the road, creating a minor sand dune that had to be traversed. Fortunately the sand wasn't that deep, and this section was only about 20 feet long, but still an unwelcome surprise.
Shortly after mile 7, I felt the full effect of the tailwind. (it says something about a tailwind if you actually feel it while you're running). I had been wearing a longsleeve over my singlet, but was finally warm enough to toss it, so I removed it while running. Not without some difficulty - I was wearing a hat because of the rain, and ended up having to take my hat off so that I could remove and toss the shirt (all while running about 6:30 pace). Luckily, I often do clothing changes during my long runs for just this reason, and so I managed to do it all without losing too much pace.
From then, it was game on. Just staying relaxed and continuing to reel in person after person. Not chasing as much as flowing and letting them come back to me. And a lot of them did, including several women. I was 11th woman, then 10th, then 9th, then 8th, then 7th.
This part of the race was not without comic relief. Around mile 9.5, the course makes a slight left turn back onto Atlantic Avenue. There was a large puddle at that point that the runners around me were dodging. I didn't see any reason to deviate from my "shortest distance to the finish" track, especially since I was already soaked. So I ran directly through the large but shallow puddle. Only to discover it was a large but deep puddle - above my ankles. Whoops. But I managed to a) stay on my feet, b) not lose much speed, and c) not bark out TOO much profanity in front of the group of children cheering.
The last few miles were some of the most fun I've ever raced. I was running hard, but completely under control, with the mile markers passing surprisingly quickly. I thought 1:27:xx was a good goal for today, and so it was wonderful to see the clock ticking down 1:26. And then I was done and hugging friends and collecting my finisher's prize (a towel - how appropriate).
I took manual splits at mile markers, which was made a bit more difficult by the wind. More than half the mile markers were on their sides, and thus hard to see until you were close. It seems like quite few were slightly off as well - my guess is that they were moved some distance by the wind. So... my rough mile splits.
Mile 1: 7:02
Mile 2: 7:10
Mile 3: 7:00 (so averaged 7:04 for first three miles - marathon pace)
Mile 4: 6:45
Mile 5: 6:31
Mile 6: 6:48
Mile 7: 6:32
Mile 8: 6:20
Mile 9: 6:24
Mile 10: 6:20
Mile 11: 8:19 for 1.3 miles - 6:25 pace
Mile 12: 4:26 for .7 miles - 6:20 pace
Mile 13+last bit: 6:58 for 1.11 miles - 6:16 pace
- Warmed up wearing a cheap CVS poncho over a disposable long sleeve T-Shirt over my singlet. Also wore gloves with handwarmers, a running hat for the rain, and carried a water bottle. And bodyglided EVERYTHING. I tossed the poncho right before the start, and the handwarmers+water bottle at around mile 5. The longsleeve shirt was tossed around the halfway point.
- The weather got even worse for the marathoners. The precipitation let up briefly, only to return as sleet. Tough day.
- The drive once again took 4.5 hours to get back to DC, thanks to the misery that is I-95 between Richmond and DC on a Sunday afternoon.
- As it turned out, New York had better weather than Shamrock. Oh the irony. On the other hand, my goal in signing up for New York was to run a fast time - I actually think (never having run it) that New York can be faster than Shamrock if the weather's equal. I wanted a PR today, and I got one. So mission accomplished, and no regrets about my choice.
- Just so everyone can mock me, I carried four gels for this race, though I only intended to eat one. Why? Because then I'd have extras if I dropped one (or two) and could also share if a teammate dropped theirs. Plus my stomach can sometimes get quite iffy during races, and so I like to carry several different flavors to be sure I have something I can tolerate.
- This race was awesome for several reasons, but one of the sweetest was the reassurance I got from it. My coach has us train in groups, and for the last few weeks, the group that's felt like the best fit, pace-wise, has also been finishing far ahead of me at races. Triggering some questioning about whether I shouldn't back off the training - if you're running with people in workouts, but lag behind in races, it's usually a sign of overcooking the training. But today, I managed to finish right in the midst of those I train with. That felt good. Both for the performance itself, and for the confirmation that I haven't been overdoing my workouts.
- Because this was my goal race for the first half of the spring, I tapered for this similar to how I would for a marathon - 3 weeks of reduced volume while preserving the intensity until the last few days. I think it worked.
- They didn't have an awards ceremony - instead mailing out the awards, including overall. Fine with me.
- As always, I got nauseous when I took my Ucan the night before my races, and my sinuses hurt like crazy during the last few days of taper. Same note to self as always - don't worry about this - the nausea will ease by morning. And you're not getting sick, it's just taper. Take Tylenol and you'll be fine.