Reaching My Peak
2016 has been a year of ups and downs for me running wise. I finally conquered the Boston Marathon in April, although it nearly killed me. I ran a couple of awesome trail races on Vancouver Island and in Gatineau Park respectively. I struggled in the heat to a decent finish at the Canada Army Run Half Marathon in September. While I had achieved some good results and checked a few things off my bucket list, I was left with a bit of an empty feeling. A few years back, almost every race was a personal best. It's kind of just how it goes when you start to really get into running. With every race you learn so much, and apply those learnings to training for a next one. You are always getting faster and stronger, and continue to PB...until you eventually hit that wall. In reality, every runner has their peak. There comes a point at which you simply can't get any faster. With a 3:10 marathon in Boston (11 minutes off my personal best) and a 1:29 half marathon in Ottawa (4 minutes off my personal best), I feared that my PB-ing days were behind me. PB-ing is fun. It's hard to describe how awesome it feels to cross that finish line with a new low on the clock. It's an incredible intrinsic reward for all of the hard work you've been putting in.
While I had some self doubts of whether I could PB again in the half or full, I knew that both Boston and the Army Run were both really tough races. Both days were hot, and I don't do well in the heat. After trying to PB (and failing miserably to do so) in the Army Run, I set my sights on one more half marathon before the season was done. With some work travel planned for the end of October to Vancouver, I did a quick search to see if there was an upcoming race. Bingo. The Vancouver Rock N' Roll Half Marathon. I signed up immediately, and then built out my 5 week training schedule to prepare myself.
Chasing a personal best
My previous personal best for a half marathon was a 1:25:45 at the Ottawa Half Marathon in 2015. Based on my performance at the Army Run, I knew there was a few things I had to work on. The first was speed. In order to PB, I would need to run the half at a 4:03 pace, which is pretty quick. So the first thing I did was add in a diverse set of challenging interval training sessions into my 5 week program. The second was pacing. I've been reading a lot about running a negative split race lately - that is, running the second half of your race faster than the first half. The concept here is that you hold back a bit of energy in the first half, and then run the second half faster with that energy that you've saved. Not only does this help you run strong to the finish, but the mental bonus you get by passing others as they struggle in the final few kilometres is unbeatable. Most people flounder in a race because they fly out of the gate and then struggle to hang on at the end. It's the old tortoise versus the hare argument. Over the years, I have never - not once - run a negative split race. I always end up doing the "fade from the front". I was determined to do it in Vancouver. So I made sure that all of my tempo run and long runs leading up to Vancouver were negative splits, just to get my body and mind used to running that way.
The night before race day, I laid out my strategy. I was looking to achieve two things - a negative split and a personal best. My plan was to cross the 10km mark right around 40 minutes, and then crank it up a bit from there to come in right around 1:25. I woke up race morning, grabbed a bagel, and made my way through the dark and rainy streets of Vancouver to the start line. I felt good. For the first time this year, the weather was agreeing with me. It was cool, about 8 degrees, and lightly raining. And then, like a gift from the racing gods, the rain stopped about 15 minutes before the race. I lined up in the first corral, somewhat nervous, but mostly excited. "Run your race" I told myself, knowing that I would be enticed to run fast out of the gate. "Don't start too fast."
The horn went off and my first kilometre was a 3:45. Okay, let's cool things off. I slowed my pace down and settled into a nice 4:05 pace.
Dozens of people passed me for the first few kilometres - I wouldn't let that get to me. I had to put my competitiveness aside and stick to my plan. As we toured through the historic neighbourhood of Gastown, I found myself alone. There was a nice group ahead of me, but their pace was too rich for my blood. So I patiently held back.
After a quick loop through Chinatown, I crossed the 5km mark in just under 20 minutes, slightly ahead of schedule. At kilometre 8 we reached False Creek and started to head west towards English Bay. At this point, I had found myself with a good group of guys - there were about 4 of us, and we were all running consistent 4:02 kilometres.
As we passed Granville Island on the left, we crossed the 10km mark, slightly under my 40 minute goal. Since I was a tad faster than I had expected, I decided to hold back on that 4:02ish pace for a few kilometres to see how I felt. I didn't want to pick things up too early.
Enter the most beautiful section of a race course I have ever run. From kilometre 13 to the finish we were lucky enough to run through the quiet and calm streets in Stanley Park. With towering trees and sneaky hills, this section of the race was really awesome.
By this point I had lost that group I was with. Two guys fell off, and the other two pulled ahead. I stayed steady. By kilometre 14, I decided it was time to fire up the legs a bit. With 8 kilometres to go, I picked up my pace a bit, running a 3:54 kilometre - a bit faster than I wanted, but it felt pretty good, so I did another. And then another. I kept expecting that this pace would catch up to me and the inevitable pain was right around the corner, but it never came. The kilometres were flipping by at this point and I felt strong and fast. After five consistently fast kilometres with paces ranging from 3:54 - 3:57 I only had three kilometres to go. As the course turned back towards the city along the seawall, I caught up to and promptly passed a group of 5 guys, including a few of the guys that had pulled away from my group earlier on. This whole negative split thing was working out pretty well.
As I entered the final three kilometres of the race, I spotted a group of three more guys up ahead. Feeling confident, I decided to go after them. So I picked it up a bit more notching a 3:47 and 3:48 pace in kilometre 19 and 20. As I entered the final kilometre of the race, I passed them and took a quick glance at my watch. I was going to do it. Barring a horrible collapse, a personal best was going to happen for me. Knowing that, I flew in that final stretch. I felt unstoppable. Fast. Weightless. My final kilometre was my fastest of the race, a blazing 3:41. I pushed hard in that final stretch and crossed that finish line with pride, relief, and most of all, complete elation. I did it. 1:24:02. A new personal best. It wasn't even close. I had beat my previous best by 1 minute and 43 seconds. I couldn't believe it.
Not only did I achieve a personal best, but I finished 28th overall out of 5275 runners and 5th in my category. I am so overwhelmingly happy and proud of this result. This is one race I will never forget. As always, I celebrated this incredible race by treating myself to some local beer.