Saturday, July 29, 2017

Race Report: Liberty Mile, July 28, 2017

I ran the Liberty Mile in Pittsburgh, PA, finishing in a time of 5:33.86 by my watch (the official results say 5:34 chip time/5:35 gun time - which is consistent).

One sentence in, you're probably wondering some variant of "why did she go all the way to Pittsburgh to run a mile race?  Isn't she in the middle of marathon training?  In DC/Northern Virginia?"

You're not the only one wondering that.  Brian thought I was nuts.  (aside: I am.)  But this trip also made some convoluted/runner-logic sense.


I first heard about this race several months ago, when my one-step-up-from-imaginary-friend/RWOL forumite Sam mentioned he was running it.  I checked it out.  Hmm....a road mile.  I love road miles - they're one of my favorite races.  And this one had a separate masters heat with solid prize money.  The prize money was obviously a draw, but so was the separate masters heat - in many races I find myself staring at the women near me, trying to guess how old they are.  Not this time - every woman lined up would be a direct competitor.

The downsides, of course, was the distance between DC and Pittsburgh (just under 250 miles one way).  And the race also fell several weeks into my marathon training cycle.  While the race was on a Friday night, and some people might be able to get away with racing a mile on Friday night and a Sunday morning progressive long run, I'm not one of them.  Racing this mile basically meant a missed week of marathon training.

Oh well.  I had mentally placed the Liberty Mile in the "some other year" file, but ran it past my coach anyway.  And (somewhat to my surprise), he actually really liked the idea.  To him, the missed week of marathon training wasn't a negative but a plus - a good opportunity to take a break.  And this week was a good time to pull back a bit and have some fun - the real meat of my marathon training cycle starts next week.


So that was that.  Logistics were going to be a challenge, though.  I looked at flight and train schedules for Pittsburgh, and concluded that neither was a good choice.  More money than I cared to pay for something that wasn't a goal race, and the arrival/departure timing options were lousy also.  So I was driving.

Pittsburgh was also just close enough that it was hard to justify a hotel.  I would have booked a hotel if this had been a morning race, but for an evening race doing Pittsburgh as a day trip was doable, and the most efficient option from both a price and "spending time away from home" perspective.

So, I went to my back-up: Golds Gym.  I checked out the map, and confirmed that there was a Golds Gym right around the corner from the packet pick-up/runner's festival area (which was itself a block or two from the finish and start lines).  Excellent.  I picked up a free "travel pass" from my home Golds.  When arriving in Pittsburgh, I'd present this, sign some forms, and be a member of the Pittsburgh Golds Gym for the evening - meaning I could store my stuff in a locker while I raced, and shower there after.


The one thing that I couldn't plan ahead of time was the weather.  Which I wasn't that worried about.  I won't melt if I run in the rain, or blow away in the wind.  And heat/humidity aren't the factors in mile races that they are for longer distances.

But, as luck would have it, the evening of the Liberty Mile was also the evening that a "summer nor'easter" was to blow through, complete with lightning.  Ugh.  Lightning is one of the very rare situations where I won't run outside (the others are substantial ice and wind that is blowing trees over).  I really didn't want to drive 4 hours to find out the race was cancelled.

I debated, and decided to head up anyway.  Since the race was so short, they'd likely shuffle schedules or combine heats rather than cancel altogether - a mile race with heats has a bit more flexibility in timing than a single long distance race.  If the race was cancelled, I'd just head back home and do a 16 miler on Sunday after all.


The drive up to Pittsburgh had some challenging aspects.  I left home at 10:00 am (so as to miss heavy traffic).  Unfortunately, this was about the time the first of the heavy rain squalls moved into the DC area.    Just crossing the American Legion Bridge into Maryland was a miserable experience, and I-270 north wasn't much better.  Slogging through stop-and-go traffic in a downpour that was overwhelming my windshield wipers, that Sunday 16 miler was sounding better and better.  I decided that if things hadn't improved by the time I hit Frederick, MD, I was turning around.

But fortunately. somewhere north of Urbana, MD (just south of Frederick) the rain and the traffic eased.  And from there, it was a relatively easy and scenic drive.  I've never driven to Pittsburgh before, so it was a bit touristy.  I got to drive under a mountain, and that was really cool.

About 4 hours and 45 minutes after leaving DC, having refueled my car for the return voyage, I parked my car at the garage next to Golds, and then parked myself at Golds.  I hung out there or in the nearby Market Square, eating my pre-race meal, reading my kindle, and stretching, until it was time to warm up for the race.  It was overcast, but so far only breezy and light on-and-off rain, not the predicted apocalypse.


My heat was scheduled to start at 7:25, but I started to warm up at 6 pm.  This is very early, even for me.  My reasoning was that there was a solid chance the start times of the heats would be changed with little notice to work around the weather.  To that point, the race had specified that runners should be in the starting area 30 minutes before their scheduled race.  I inferred from that statement that the start times might be moved up by as much as 30 minutes with little notice, and so I planned my warm-up as if I was racing at 6:55.    If the race did start at the normal time, I could just extend my warm-up.  The nice thing about being in marathon training was that adding an extra mile or two to my warm-up wouldn't affect my mile race at all.

My warm-up was the same old mile warm-up.  Jog some miles easy, then run 2 segments of 30 to 90 seconds very hard.  Since I never feel good in the first interval of a workout, I try to get that out of the way before the race.  Then drills.  Plus some strides right before the race starts.

My heat did end up starting at the normal time, so I just repeated part of my warm-up again with about 20 minutes to go - jogging another half mile plus another 90 seconds HARD.  Then more drills and strides, and I lined up.


As I expected, I didn't recognize any of the other women on the start line, and thus had no idea how this would play out.  Since I was going for prize money, I needed to start very close to the line.  However, this was a mixed masters heat, and so there were men who were not prize money contenders who nevertheless would be faster than me.   In this situation, I always start in one "corner" or the other, so that I don't block others.

A group of women, all presumably going for the money, were grouped on the righthand edge of the line.  After thinking for a moment, I took the left hand corner.  This was for two reasons - one, I could see that about 50 meters ahead, the course narrowed from the right.  Someone starting on the far right could get blocked in there.  Second, I wanted to be able to run the first 5 or 10 seconds of my race ignorant of what the other women were doing, so I could set my own rhythm.

I could see the argument for starting on the right - the course does a U turn to the right at the half-way point.  But I decided the cost of the extra 5 feet I was adding to my race was balanced out by the benefits of starting on the left.

The course, from the USATF website.


With 10 minutes to go, we were called to the line.  About 2 minutes before the gun, the rain started to fall, again.  At least it wasn't heavy.  (and as it turns out, it apparently faded away during my race, since it wasn't raining much when I finished)

Then the gun went off.  I took a few quick strides to get off the line and out of the way of others, and then established my rhythm.  I wanted to come through the first 400 controlled before gently building.  After feeling my rhythm, I looked for the other women .  There were at least seven women, and likely more, in front of me.  As always, I briefly fought the urge to panic, reminding myself that leading a mile race in the first 200m was rarely a guarantee of success.  A mile can be a very very long race.  I'd stick with my plan to stay controlled through 400 before building.

Sure enough, by the time I hit 400m (this race has markers and clocks at the 400, 800, and 1200 marks) many of the women were starting to come back to me.  I did glance at the 400m clock as I ran by it and noted "1:18."  A bit fast, but it felt fine (I think in retrospect we may have had a tailwind).  If nothing else, I was glad I hadn't gone out faster.

Over the next 200-300m, I began to reel in the other women.  I tried to be patient, reminding myself that we still had a long way to go.  There was one woman in a black sports bra who kept pulling further ahead - she had been about 4 seconds ahead at the 400m, and her lead was growing.

There was really no debate about trying to catch her at that pace.  Either she was simply much faster than me, or she was going to blow up big time.  Regardless of which held true, my best strategy was continuing my own steady build.

This race has a series of three right turns in short succession at the halfway point.    Things got a bit dicey here as people interacted trying to hold "the rail."  Puddles and torn up pavement didn't help either.  I lost some pace here, but so did everyone else.  By this point, I had passed quite a few women, and was in fourth.  As we exited the turn and headed to the finish line (about 600 m in the distance), I picked up the pace yet again, and pulled past one and then the other.

There was now just black sports bra woman ahead of me, but she was way too far to catch.  I wasn't going to win female masters, but second was mine with a strong finish.   I reached for an additional gear, but it wasn't there - I had that weird "I could go longer at this same pace but no faster" feeling.  Oh well - my fastest was all I could give.

As I approached the last 200m of the race, I started to stiffen.  There was a pack of men just ahead of me, so I distracted myself with them.  They were slowing, and so I chased down as many as I could before the finish.   I found that, as I did so, my gait became more fluid.  Basically, I locked up when I was worrying about holding off the runners behind me, but loosened up when chasing those ahead.  So that's a note for the future - focus on what's ahead of you, not what's behind.

I crossed the line in second, satisfied.  It wasn't the masters win I had hoped for, but I had run a solid race - the first woman was simply faster.  I did note that I was nowhere near as trashed as I had been after my last two mile races this year.  I had to place my hands on my knees and catch my breath, but no wobbling over to a curb to sit down.  I think that echoes the same thing I noted during the race - I don't have the same speed in my legs that I did earlier this year (most likely due to marathon mileage), and so I couldn't hit quite the same intensity.


After the race, I hung out to watch Sam run the under-40 heat, and then the two elite heats.  I've never had the chance to watch the conclusion of a mile race of this caliber before, and it was amazing to witness from 20 feet away just how ridiculously fast Ben Blankenship and Emily Lipari can kick.

Then (after confirming my check for $300 would be mailed to me), I headed to Golds to shower and change, and texted Brian that I was heading home.  I left Pittsburgh at 8:30 pm - a bit later than planned because I stayed to watch the elite heats, but it was worth it.

The drive home was...a drive.  I had packed an overnight bag to give me the option of staying at a hotel if I started nodding off during the drive, but I was fine.  I'm usually buzzed for hours after an evening race, and this one was no different.

The drive itself was a bit tough - the further I was from Pittsburgh the worse the weather got, with wind gusts that rocked my car and puddles of water that yanked at my steering wheel.  All punctuated by urgent chirps from my cell phone informing me that yet another flash flood warning was in effect.  But I just eased up on the speed, telling myself I was in no rush.  I had streaming NPR on satellite radio, so a longer drive was just more time to catch up on world events (or soak in my wannabe east coast elitism, depending on perspective).

Interestingly, I also noted that the quality of the drivers decreased dramatically the closer I got to DC.  On the Pennsylvania turnpike and into western Maryland, there was a vibe of "we're all in this together."  Nearly everyone one was driving reasonably for the conditions - staying right except for passing; slowing down when the rain was at its worst.

Not so in DC.  Once I hit 270, the idiocy increased, and by the time I hit the beltway, it was epic.  Every accident I drove past was in the last 30-40 minutes of a drive that took a bit over 4 hours.  Had the drive been like that in Pennsylvania, I would exited and crashed at a hotel for the night.

But finally, I was home, arriving around 12:45 am.  Long day.  But a fun one, and I'm happy I did it.

Returning to the opening notes of this race report - some may say that spending nearly 10 hours of driving to race for about 5 and a half minutes is insanity.   I left my house at 10 am and returned at 12:45 am - so this race adventure took 14:45 hours.

Riposte: I have friends (doubtless the same ones who think I'm insane for driving this far for a mile), who run races in the middle of the wilderness that are 100km or more in length, and can take more than 20 hours to complete. My adventure took less time, and I undoubtedly feel better now and will recover quicker from my mile race than you feel or recover after your ultra marathon.  And I got to stay in civilization and listen to a lot of NPR to boot.

So there.

Other notes:

  • This is a really well run race.  I've raced road miles before, but never one that was a major event, complete with finish festival, media coverage, elite field.  I definitely want to run it again.
  • This race had signs and clocks at the 400m, 800m, and 1200m points, and also signs for 200m and 100m to go.  In a road mile race, when it's hard to judge where you are, that stuff is really helpful.
  • Official conditions for my race were 73 degrees and rain.  As I noted above, I think it only rained for the first minute or so of my race before drying out.  There were gusts of wind from all sides, but I think we were sheltered enough that it didn't make too much difference.  The wet pavement and the bunching up at the half-way point turn were the biggest obstacles to a fast time.
  • I'm both happy and disappointed with the time itself. I honestly had no idea what I was going to run - I have that 5:25 from earlier in the year, but that was with fresher legs, and was in clear, dry weather.  I would have liked to have broken 5:30 again, but it's not the end of the world that I didn't.  I had fun, and I've clearly retained much of my speed from this spring as I head into the heaviest part of the marathon cycle, so that's good.
  • Broke out my Adidas Takumi Sen Boosts for this - best short distance race shoe ever.  I don't know what I'm going to do when this pair wears out.  (they only come in mens, and finding them in size 5.5 is just about impossible - I had to order this current pair from Japan.)
  • I've tried to figure out for some time exactly what I love so much about road miles.  I think that it's the closest I ever come, from an adrenaline/emotional perspective, to my old days jumping horses at speed.    The tension at the start line tastes very much like what I felt when I trotted in the gate and heard "the beep" clearing me to start my round.  And the mile race itself is very much like a jump off - there's no time to question - you just react.  There's just so much more adrenaline in the mile, and (as a recovering adrenaline junkie) it's awesome to get a hit of that.


  1. I...for one...don't think you're crazy, sounds like hella fun! Congrats on 2nd place and a great race! - Scott

  2. Running Warehouse will have your shoes Aug 21, as I discovered when looking them up since you speak so highly of them! Also...yikes. That's expensive for a short-distance shoe!

  3. Whoa! What a journey. I really love the fact that you did this for a number of reasons. You didn't let a rigid training schedule get in the way of doing something that you really wanted to do. You had a new experience, and you braved epic traffic and driving conditions. And, of course, you ran really well. Congratulations! I really enjoyed this post.