Saturday, March 17, 2012

Race report: Rock and Roll USA Half-Marathon, March 17, 2012

I ran the “Rock and Roll USA Half Marathon” today, finishing in 1:28:57.  And I couldn’t be happier.  The time is not what I had originally hoped to run for a half, but I know that I ran the best race I had in me today, and performed my best.  And that’s satisfying.  Especially after the epic fail that was last week’s 8K.

The Rock and Roll USA Half and Full Marathons have been run in DC for about 5 years now, though this was the first year it has been run by  The course remained the same, but the organization was MUCH improved.  Even though the race now had about 25,000 participants total (as opposed to about 10,000 or so in past years, if I remember correctly), this was without a doubt the best this race has ever been run.  Water stops fully stocked (with paper cups), mile markers, super-efficient bag check, accurate and timely online runner tracking – they did it all, and did it well.  I have no problem paying a higher entry fee in exchange for competence.

Not that there weren’t  a few snafus (none that were the fault of Competitor).  Most notable was the fact that the cab that I had reserved to pick me up at 6:20 am (I wasn’t sure if Metro could handle all the runners) failed to show.  At 6:22, I called the cab company and went on hold.  At 6:25 I decided to start walking to the metro.  At 6:35 (still on hold) , I found another cab.  The driver was napping (I didn’t realize until after I tapped his window), but very eager to give me a ride and pick up a fare.  And so, I got the race start at 6:55, and gave him a solid tip in thanks.

(Yellow cab of DC did finally call me at 7:10 am to tell me my cab was on its way…)

Another issue was the weather.  Mid-March in DC is usually about 35-45 degrees in the morning, which is ideal for a half-marathon.   But we’ve had a variant of a heat wave on the east coast this week.  Starting temps were 55 degrees – if you’re coming off of a summer training block, that feels relatively great.  But that's not at all ideal weather for a race longer than 10K, and it’s a bit tougher still when you’ve been training in 40 degrees or below.  Especially if you’re the crazy chick that wears shorts until it’s 25 degrees or so.

But, as my coach noted, we couldn’t control the weather, and needed to focus on what we could control.  And I knew that I could control my race and my attitude.   And so I did.


The RNR half-marathon course is a hilly course.  And though it’s not a slow course, it’s not a super fast one, and it’s not all that forgiving.  It starts with a gentle uphill climb for the first mile, then is flat or downhill for the next four miles.  And then you start to climb, first slowly (and with some breaks), and then steeper, peaking at mile 7.  Then some rolling hills (net downhill), before a nice drop from miles 9-11.  But then you face another uphill mile – it’s not horrible, but certainly seems awful that late in the course.  Then another downhill mile (if you still have the legs to benefit from it) before the uphill climb to the finish.

It can be fairly fast, but only if you A) don’t go out too fast (especially that first mile), B) do NOT get too aggressive on the hard climb from 4-7, and C) stay focused and resolute during the climb to mile 12.   Super overanalytical course evaluation finis.  But biggest takeaway – do NOT get impatient on this course.
And of course, my patience is my biggest obstacle in my racing.  Instead of staying relaxed, I want to push.  And the closer I get to the finish, the harder I want to push like hell and get the race over with.  I don’t run faster, I just run tenser.  And I rush.  And  in doing so I snatch defeat from the hands of victory, and carelessly toss good races and massive PRs into the trash.

I did that last week.  And I was going to be damned if I did it again.


So, I refocused my efforts on returning to the mental patterns that had me racing well this winter.  I have a habit, whenever I race, of asking myself continually “can you push just a bit harder?  Well, if you can, then do so.  And if you don’t think you can, go for it anyway.”  Prefontaine mythos and all that.   It sounds great, but it gets me into trouble each time.  So, I replaced that dialogue with “can you chill out and relax just a bit more?  Just loosen your arms a bit more;  breathe calmly and deeply.”  As many times as I could during the race, I checked with myself to see if I could relax just a bit more. 


Relaxing was a bit challenging during the first 3 miles.  My legs had felt stiff and dead during my honest-really-truly-taper (which I understand is normal) but continued to feel that way during the first few miles.   I could have let that and the thickness of the air (it was pretty humid) bug me.  But, if nothing else, I was going to run this race calm and patient – reminding myself continually (as EVERYONE passed me) that my coach had told us to treat the first 5K of the race as a warm-up.

We hit a turn-around at 4.5 miles, which was my chance to cheer on my teammates.  I noted that the normal pack of teammates that I run with during workouts were all about a minute ahead of me, and felt a moment’s panic.  But nope, not gonna go there.  This race was all about staying patient and running my own race, and if my own race had me that far behind a third of the way into the race, well that was that.


And after the turnaround, we hit the climb.  From Constitution Avenue all the way up to Adams Morgan, first gently, and then quite steeply.  I’m pretty familiar with the hardest part of this climb from Dupont Circle to Adams Morgan – that’s my neighborhood.  And the climb has a bit of sentimental meaning to me.

When I first started running recreationally about 8 years ago (and I mean VERY recreationally –up to 3 miles at a time, 5 if I had time to sleep on the couch the rest of the day), I struggled and struggled up this hill, with frequent walk breaks.    One day, I finally made it up the hill without walking, and I felt like a real runner.   At the time, I never dreamed I’d eventually be running 13 miles non-stop, INCLUDING THAT HILL.

Additionally, last year (when I sat out of this race due to recovery from my broken foot) I hopped in at Dupont Circle to run with my friend Katie up the hill and encourage her.  So this year, I mentally borrowed Katie, and imagined her running with me up the hill.  (Thanks for the help, Katie).


At the top of the hill in Adams Morgan, I was a bit into oxygen debt, and the urge to PANIC AND RUN FAST hit.  But, I stopped the mental train in its tracks.  Relaxed, shook out my arms, breathed, continued.

From there I just flowed, continually asking myself NOT if I could give a little more effort, but if I could relax a bit more.  I wanted to push to the finish line, but continually reminded myself that it wasn’t going anywhere.  Just chill out.    And play my weird visualization games.

[said weird visualization games – I reimagine every uphill as an opportunity to take a break, while balloons tied to my shoulders lift me up.  And at the top of each downhill is all sorts of magic pixie dust that eliminates any fatigue or tenseness.  Yes.  These are embarrassing.  But considerably less embarrassing than blowing up, missing a massive PR, and falling on your face in front of your parents and teammates.]

And so, I kept flowing.  Each uphill was a chance to relax, as was each downhill.   I could feel the humidity in the air, but each time I felt my breathing becoming a bit short, I shook out my shoulders, relaxed, and took a deep breath. 

The elevation gain from mile 11 to 12 challenged me mentally, but I once again resisted the urge to panic and attack.  Just chill and relax….and I was passing people up the hill.
And then I could see the finish in the distance.  And wanted to start driving and tensing and chasing the finish line down.  Nope.  Stay patient and relaxed.    Don’t tense up the last hill, just flow and flow and let your natural impatience do the work for you (apparently it did, judging by how fast I kicked while trying to relax as much as I could).

And I crossed, stopped my Garmin, and flipped screens to check the time.  1:28:57 (6:47 pace).  New PR by 40 seconds, in conditions that have historically been both a physical and mental barrier to me (Richmond was ideal for me, at 35 degrees).    And though I felt great crossing the finish line, it hit me about 90 seconds afterwards just how utterly tired and sore I was.  I gave it my best both mentally and physcially, and that was more satisfying than any PR.


Splits were:
Mile 1: 7:01
Mile 2: 6:41
Mile 3: 6:41
Mile 4: 6:46
Mile 5: 6:53
Mile 6: 6:55
Mile 7: 7:11 (Dupont to Adams Morgan climb)
Mile 8: 6:49
Mile 9-10: 13:13 (6:36 pace)
Mile 11: 6:42
Mile 12: 6:54
Mile 13: 6:30
Last .11: 41 (6:06 pace – uphill)


Other notes for future reference:
  • Carried a hand-held water bottle with me until I drained it at mile 8 (tossed it then), which meant that I drank water as often as I needed to, and got more of it in me than I would at a water station.  Did that at Richmond as well, where I also PRed.  10 dollars at the expo in exchange for good hydration on course is a great deal. After mile 8, I hit EVERY water station, including mile 11.
  • Took gels intermittently – snacked on one rocktane through out the first half of the course, and took about half of another one at about mile 9 or 10.  Worked really well.
  • 2 puffs of inhaler an hour before, and another with 30 minutes to go.
  • It was a 20 minute cab ride to the race start, ONCE I GOT A CAB.  And getting there at 6:55 was just about perfect for hitting portapotty, checking bag, chilling out, warming up, and getting to start.
  • Warm-up was about a mile very easy jogging, drills, and then only 3 strides.
  • Corral  1 was a VERY long jog from the Armory and bag check.
  • I did an “experimental taper” – essentially cutting back much more that I usually do pre-race.  On the one hand, I didn’t feel any fresher the morning of the race.  On the other hand, I had a great race and PRed.  So, I think I’ll try it again next race.
  • Temps started at 55, ended at 58, with dewpoint in the low 50s.  Overcast for the first hour or so, and then the sun came out (got a bit of sunburn).  It felt deceptively cool and clammy first, but the longer one ran, the more apparent just how hot it was.
  • Every time I run this race, about 5 minutes after it's done, my feet cramp insanely.  No idea why.  I was walking VERY SLOWLY.
  • I tried to get to mile 15.5 (L'Enfant Plaza) to cheer people on, but took me way too long to get there and I missed everyone.  Next year, I won't try to mix racing the half and cheering the full - just not feasible here. 


  1. Wonderful race, Cris, congratulations! Fantastic to make yourself relax and flow to the finish. Amazing when we use our heads to get the best from our bodies, so powerful.

  2. Congrats! Great review. Love the time splits. One day mine will be like that too. :)

  3. Congratulations on your race! You looked great both times I saw you and I have pictures of you smiling in both places to prove it!!! :)

  4. Congrats! And it was great to see you this morning!

  5. I'm laughing because I just wrote about using you to help me get up the hill. :)

    Congrats. I love watching the progression of your running over the past several months, and can't wait to see where you take it next!

  6. I read your race report yesterday morning before I went out to run. Your patience thing really struck a chord with me and I tried to channel that during my run. You were amazing out there and it's great to hear that all your hard work (both physical and mental) have paid off!

  7. Congrats! You are training and racing so SMART now, and its really starting to show!

  8. Congrats on running a smart and strong race! You looked great every time I saw you. I hope you can take all the positives from this race and carry them into the rest of the season.

  9. CONGRATS on a great race! You totally nailed it (and listened to your body)! It was great to see you at the expo - and looking forward to seeing you on the track again soon! :)