NOLA Race Recap

There’s a certain irony to doing a goal race in a city known for debauchery and excess.

Traveling to New Orleans after two months of restraint—in food, drink, and budget—was definitely a shock to my system. Especially when traveling with people treating the trip as I would have even as recently as three months ago—one for cramming in as many bars, restaurants, and sites as possibly, with running being secondary to exploring and indulging.

That strategy--work hard, play hard--was one that I’d deluded myself into thinking worked well for me and could be compatible with my running aspirations. In fact, I raced my 5K PR in August after drinking 2/3 of a bottle of wine (over five hours, but still), consumed out of boredom and nerves and fear of failure. It’s a fact I’d been proud of until fairly recently, when my come-to-Jesus race on New Year’s Day confirmed that one night of restraint does not nine months of excess undo, and I’m at the age and the fitness level where every second on the clock, every ounce of hydration, every pound I gain or lose matters. I am fighting for PRs in seconds, not minutes, these days.

Also, what if I had actually hydrated well and gotten sufficient sleep the night before that 5K? Would my 21:48 have been 21:38 or even 21:30 or the sub 21 my coach keeps telling me I’m capable of reaching? I won’t ever know, but I’m 100 percent committed now to stepping outside of my comfort zone and giving everything I can to training over the coming months and years.

And so, while my friends feasted on fried chicken and Po-boys and Sazeracs, I stuck to my pre-race plan of salads, healthy fats, green juices, lean proteins, and gallons of water.

I woke up on race morning feeling well rested, grateful for all those early morning classes that have gotten me used to being up that hour as well as the time difference. It was cooler than projected--mid 40s, at least around 6 a.m.--perfect for racing, though we were more than an hour away from the start time, and the sun was coming up quickly.

Breakfast was a bit of a fiasco, and a reminder to pack as much of my own food and be as self-sufficient as possible for Boston. The front desk at the hotel told us breakfast would open at 5:30 a.m., but the poor woman staffing the food station had not been prepared for us eager runners bombarding her for bagels and English muffins thirty minutes before she normally started breakfast service. She graciously opened a bag of English muffins for us and toasted them upon request. Definitely a departure from my regular gluten free waffles (which are for sure getting packed for Boston), but I figured it wouldn’t affect me much for a half marathon, especially as I had eaten well the previous day. I’d packed Justin’s nut butters, but those were pretty much hardened, congealed globs, so again, note to self: check the expiration dates when packing essential race food. I was able to get coffee and my stomach felt great when leaving the hotel.

The start was a very short walk away--less than half a mile--and the logistics were surprisingly easy for a race of this size. We ran into the friends we traveled with on our way to bag drop, so that put me at ease and gave us time to chat and connect pre-race. Bag drop was a snap, and I decided to ditch my arm warmers and just keep my gloves on, as it was already fairly warm--low to mid 50s at least. I wasn’t sure I would be able to hit a porta potty after leaving the hotel, but I found a blissfully short line behind bag drop and was in and out in three minutes.

I did a short warm-up around the race start and found myself running right into the 10K. I saw Michelle, as I quickly jumped up onto the sidewalk--I almost felt like I was racing in Atlanta, especially when I ran into my good friend Meghan Ann in the park post warm-up. She and I stretched and walked to the start line together. I used to be very much in my own head before race starts and completely anti-social, but I’m finding that once I have my head together around a race and my strategy, talking to people I know is actually comforting and relaxing.

We lined up in Corral 1, and she literally said “I wonder if we’ll see Walid…” and there was Walid. Another comfort, but we probably were even more so to him—he was going for sub 3:15 on a hot day after moving cross country from Atlanta to California just a few weeks ago. We met up with a few other Atlanta runners in the corral, though after the national anthem, I positioned myself a few runners back from them, knowing if I stuck with them I would go out too fast (wise decision: Walid PRed at 3:13 and with the same pace as my half; Meghan Ann ran a 1:36 and had been sick all week).

Mile 1 (7:59)

I remember two things about the first mile: I hit the wrong button on my watch, so I was a few seconds off the entire race, and it was WARM. It’s been a cold Atlanta winter. I have done most of my seven to eight mile runs lately without any fluids. And in my past two competitive half marathons, it’s been in the 30s or 40s, and I drank because I knew I needed to, not because I was thirsty. But I was thirsty and it was hot, though I was still wearing gloves (old lady hands and bad circulation). I hit the mile marker in clock time of 8:06, so I knew I was right on track for my coach’s first mile goal of 8:00 (actual time: 7:59; that 7:xx mattered to me).

Mile 2 (7:49)

Finally, we hit a water stop! It was getting warmer, but I was grateful for the shady streets of St. Charles, though the roads were a bit rutted, and I was terrified of falling. My pace was exactly on target.

Miles 3 and 4 (7:45, 7:45)

I saw Robbie and James cheering, and I should have thrown my gloves to them, but hadn’t thought ahead. I was bummed Robbie didn’t have his “free motivational ass slaps” sign out, but the thought of it made me laugh anyway. These two miles were the hardest, mentally. It was a weird feeling. Holding back, and knowing I needed to save more for later, but not feeling 100% comfortable with the pace either.

Mile 5 (7:41)

I started to feel more comfortable in this mile and began dropping the pace a bit, as had been my race plan. I got over the road conditions and said “you WILL NOT fall today” and let it be. I enjoyed knowing we were heading back into town. I took my first Huma gel at the water stop in this mile.

Mile 6 (7:36)

I felt very confident at this point, and the guys behind me joked that I was so consistent they were going to pace off me the whole way. I don’t think they knew I heard them, so I turned around and said “negative splits, baby--I’m just getting started.” And then they laughed and said ,“Can you please run the marathon today?” I said, “Sorry boys, I’m stopping at 13.1. You’re on your own after that.”

Mile 7 (7:32)

My body was responding well to the increased pace. I was pleased when I hit 6.5 at exactly 7:30 pace--goal race pace, and where my coach had wanted me to be at this point. We were also headed back into town, so that was another mental boost.

Mile 8 (7:32)

I was feeling great and comfortably and consistently dropping paces. We headed back into town on Magazine Street, and I noticed it was starting to get warm.

Mile 9 (7:31)

This was probably my favorite mile of the race. I still felt great, though did start to notice that I was getting stuck around 7:30 pace and just couldn’t move the needle down to 7:20 or 7:25 as was the plan from Miles 8-10. But the crowd support was great, I took my last Huma gel, and my legs were feeling great.  It was also motivating to pass the restaurant where we’d be having our celebratory and anniversary dinner on Monday night.

Mile 10 (7:30)

I still felt good hitting the 5K to go point and ended up blowing by those guys saying they were going to use me as a pacer. But this is when I began to notice that no matter how much I dropped the hammer, I kept stalling out around 7:28-7:30 pace. The watch would. not. budge. I told myself to be patient and consistent--that I still had three miles to make up the time, and I knew I wasn’t at maximum effort yet. Not being able to get 5-10 seconds faster in these later miles is what cost me my goal time, but it was also 65 degrees, and I had only recently been upping my tempo mileage (a three week illness in January set me back), so I just held steady.

Miles 11-12 (7:28, 7:31)

This was the most mentally difficult part of the race for me. More of the same--trying to pick up the pace and just stalling out. One of these miles also had a weird 180 degree turn over railroad tracks and busted up pavement, plus it was getting crazy hot out. I was kind of done, and my legs started to cramp up in Mile 12. But if I hadn’t fought as hard as I did, I would have regretted it, and the race would have had a different outcome. Also, I’m really mad at Mile 12--it’s the only mile of the entire race I didn’t negative split. That’s lack of mental toughness, right there. I should have trusted myself a bit more.

Mile 13 (7:17)

I gutted this one out. I gave up on the watch about 11.5 miles in. I was done doing math and knew I probably wasn’t going to be under 1:40 because I was supposed to be running the last 5K around 7:15 pace, but I just sucked it up and ran my heart out. I felt like I was going to stop short about 800m from the finish, my legs were just that done. The last half mile also seemed never ending because we ran a long straight down a beautiful tree-lined street (thanks for the cheers, Michelle), and then turned. And turned again. I was so ready to see that finish line and was completely out of steam.

Last .1 (or .2, because, tangents: 7:02).

I looked at my watch as I finished: 1:40:29 (and I knew I had to add a few seconds). I put my fist to my head and just started bawling. More frustration. Another goal not met.

I can honestly say it was the most consistent, most perfectly executed, most mentally and physically tough race I have ever raced. And it was a PR of 38 seconds (the other one set last year six weeks out from my BQ and on a day with ideal temps, but Atlanta hills), but I was still extremely disappointed. I had thought sub 1:40 was a slam dunk. But you only control what you can control. I think the heat cost me a little bit of time, as did my mental rut in Mile 12, but I don’t think I had much more in me that day, and definitely not 41 seconds. Three more weeks of training and a colder day? Probably. And I hate being negative about PRs, but I have been chasing sub 1:40 for more than a year, and my coach told me I was in 1:38 shape. But again, I gave it 99.9%. It was a warm day, and I executed the plan to perfection. Just didn’t have those extra seconds. And it wouldn’t have been a PR if I hadn’t gutted it out, especially in Miles 10-12.

So, there it is. Back in shape or at least on my way. It was a great dress rehearsal for Boston in many ways. Travel time, managing a big expo and city walking, trying to find healthy food, making my mental checklist of what nutrition to pack.

My goal there is similar--to be mentally and physically tough, to practice pacing strategy, to negative split, and to enjoy the experience and use it for the next race that really counts. I’m planning on the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll in the fall, and since I have egg on my face about sub 1:40 this time around, I’ll hold off on any goal setting until I get through Boston and more of my training.

The rest of the trip was magical. Both friends (Lauren and Mary Elizabeth) finished their first half and don’t hate me, but are actually ready to run another one. Watching Robbie and James tag team and motivate the crowd reminded me of why I love this sport and community. Paul was close to a PR with 4:45, and ran his best marathon in years--with Publix full to follow in three weeks! Beth also ran a strong race, and all of us celebrated under the stars with what else--rose’ and cocktails and plenty of carbs--under the stars at Bacchanal.

Tim and I enjoyed some much needed time together and a stellar anniversary meal at Compere Lapin.

Now, back to Atlanta and back to the next six weeks and six days of Boston training. And beyond.