8 weeks down, 8 weeks to go.
That's where I'm at in my training for the Cornwall Marathon in April. As I reached the halfway point of my latest training cycle, I took stock of where I was at. In short, I was feeling fit, fast and strong.
Despite increasing my mileage about 5-10% per week from my Chicago training, my recovery has improved dramatically. I'm not as wiped after hard workouts as I once was. I'm not achy, limping around with stiff and sore legs the day after a long run. And I've been running harder, faster and longer than ever before. As for those long runs, they haven't been that hard. It feels weird to say that. But in past years, as I built up my long run distance each and every week, the long run was always really hard - especially the last few kilometres. It was always a challenging struggle to get them done. But now I'm feeling strong right to the finish and often feel like I could keep going. This is a pretty cool feeling, and I attribute it to a few things.
First, I likely still have a lot of base fitness from my Chicago training. That helps big time. Second, as I've increased my mileage during the week, a 30km long run doesn't seem as daunting if I just did 18km a few days earlier. A lot of the challenge of a long run is in your head. 30km? Shit, that's a lot. Don't think that way! Lastly, my commitment to strength and cross training is definitely paying off. Spinning, yoga, core work, strength workouts, volleyball, snowshoeing, skiing - it all matters.
So as I reached the halfway point of my training cycle, I figured it was about time to give myself a test and see where my fitness was truly at. So I signed up for the Hypothermic Half Marathon, a race that is traditionally run in minus 25 degree weather with wicked winds sweeping across the farm field of Ottawa's west end. As race day approached, Ottawa's weather shifted dramatically from the typical deep freeze to mild - seriously mild - temperatures. During the week leading up to the race, I ran in shorts every day. My bare legs usually don't make an appearance until at least April. But I'm not complaining.
As race day approached, I learned that a handful of my buds from my run group (OCRC) had also signed up for the race. As we planned our race kit pickup and carpool to the race we talked about our strategy for race day. I guessed that I'd be running about a 1:25-1:27. This was admittedly a bit conservative for me. My personal best was 1:24:02 and I knew I was in better shape now than I was when I ran that race in October of 2016. But I was still a bit uncertain about the conditions on race day. Would there be ice? Slushy snow? What was the course itself like? There were a lot of unknowns. Both Katie and my buddy Scott had far more confidence in me. "I think you can run a 1:22" Katie assured me. "You have a PB in you" Scott told me. As for my OCRC teammates, Blair agreed that 1:27 was doable and Alex committed to it as well, adding that she'd be stoked with that time as it would be a personal best. Dustin agreed with a bit of apprehension. After all, the guy is coming off a nagging injury and just ran a half a few weeks prior. So there was our plan. 1:27-ish. 4:07/km pace. We could do that. Let's just work together out there.
After a quick 3km warm up to get the blood flowing we were ready to go. We took off a bit quick out of the gate, running just under a 4:00/km for the first few kilometres. We all knew this was faster than we had planned, but we kind of just stuck with it. No one said anything. We just ran.
The course for the half marathon was 4 out and back 5km loops with a final 1.1km loop at the finish. On the way out there was a strong headwind right in our face. It sucked. At the first turnaround we all sighed a breath of relief as now the wind was at our backs. It was a stark difference. Blair, Alex, Dustin and I worked hard as a team and ran in a tight little pack right from the start. We rotated the lead runner to share some of the hard work and drafting. Our 5km split was 19:53, which was about a 3:58/km pace, a good 9 seconds faster than planned. But it felt good. It felt right. And no one said anything. So we just continued on with the strong and steady pace. Our 10k split was 39:45, still right on that 3:58 pace. I can't speak for the others, but I was really grooving this pace. It was quick, but my breathing was smooth, my stride strong and my heart rate controlled.
Around 13km Dustin told us that he had to back off a bit. The pace was a bit too spicy for him. But it turned out to be the right decision for him because....spoiler alert...he ended up with a PB!
So the three of us carried along. A fellow OCRC-er Mathieu Dore had broken away from the lead group a few kilometres earlier and built himself a good 1-2 minute lead and held strong there. The gap between him and us didn't really seem to change from that point on. He was far enough ahead of us that no one considered going after him, but close enough that we could see him.
On our third lap I decided to take the pace up a notch. Alex remained right beside me and Blair right behind. Our 15km split was 59:17, with our last 5km loop done in a 3:53 pace. Now we were cooking. I had to tell myself to hold back. Don't kick too soon. Things were feeling good, but my experience has taught me that if I went too hard too soon I would blow up and those last few kilometres would be absolute hell. So we hung in there together.
You'd think that an out and back race would be boring, but it was actually kind of nice. The 5km loops really helped break up the race into small chunks - 2.5 km out and 2.5km back. It also helped seeing so many familiar faces along the course. There were several other OCRC runners racing in the half, including my friend and physiotherapist Jade who was running her second half marathon. We shared high fives every time we passed. I know it helped both of us stay strong out there. And then there was our cheering crew - a few OCRC-ers who came all the way out to Kanata on a Sunday morning in March to cheer us on. You guys rock.
We made the 15km turn and headed back into the wind for our final 5km loop which we ran even faster at a 3:52 pace. Around 18km Blair dropped off a bit and it was just Alex and I. Mathieu had all but sealed the win and Blair was about 30 seconds back at this point. "How are you feeling?" Alex asked me, breaking the silence that had been there for the majority of the race. "Good" I responded between breaths. The pace was catching up to me a bit and my heart rate was climbing slowly as we ramped things up towards the finish. "Let's stay patient" I told her. "We both have our PB's in sight. Let's stay focused here".
We crossed the 20km mark together and headed back out for our final mini loop. As we turned back towards the finish for our final 600m stretch we really kicked it up a notch, running about a 3:40 pace. We pushed each other really hard here. As we entered the final 100m stretch I kicked as hard as I could and yelled "Come on Alex, let's do this!". We ripped up the slight hill towards the finish line, digging as deep as we could.
As I crossed the finish I caught a glimpse of the clock. 1:21:WHAT?
Before I could try to contemplate how I just ran this insane time I looked up from my finish line push to see that the finishing area was super small. Immediately after the finish line were a group of volunteers standing in a Running Room tent with a large rack of medals was right in front of me. Seriously, look how little room there is!
Still running fast I made a quick decision to avoid him by jumping to the left of the tent up onto a hard packed snow bank. Unfortunately the snow bank was not as sturdy as I had hoped and it promptly collapsed as soon as my left foot made contact leaving my lanky 6'3 frame to stumble forward at top speed into the icy, snowy pavement queuing my epic finish line bail that I'll never live down. I landed hard on my knee, then my left hip and finally onto my back where I slid for a few feet through a slushy puddle. "OHHHH's" rained down from the balcony above where a few of our OCRC teammates were spectating. I couldn't care less. It didn't hurt. I was too elated by my time to feel any pain. As I slid across the pavement on my back I threw my hards up in the air in a "I don't give AF" fashion. I decided that the photos provided by Peter (thanks for the photos Pete!) were gif worthy, so....
The aftermath was pretty gnarly. Me knee bled pretty bad, my ass was all scraped up, I ripped my right glove and I now have a massive bruise on my right hip. Oh well.
As I came to a sliding stop on my back in the slush, I looked up to see Alex standing above me, reaching her hand out to help me up."Are you okay?" she asked. I immediately bounced up and gave her a big hug. "We did it!" I shouted.
I finished 2nd overall with a shiny new PB of 1:21:58.
Alex was less than 1 second behind me, finishing 3rd with a HUGE new personal best time of her own of 1:21:59.
Once again, as we'd done at the Richmond Road Race 10K, Alex and I finished within seconds of each other. Our consistency is impressive! After a quick celebration, we quickly turned back to the finish line to greet Blair who came in 4th, also PB'ing with a 1:22:29.
And then there was Dustin who, as I mentioned, played the smart game to a PB of his own finishing in 6th with a 1:23:13.
We were all over the moon with our results. We'd all run smart and worked hard as a team with drafting and pacing to battle that challenging wind. I'm so proud of these awesome folks and thankful to have them as teammates and racing partners. And let's not forget about my pal Jade. Jade is relatively new to running and absolutely hooked. She's been working her ass off these past few months. Despite a nagging injury and some pre-race nerves, Jade drove home an amazing personal best of 1:59:43, coming in under 2 hours in only her second half marathon. Super proud of that girl!
Several other OCRC's came in with PB's making is a hugely successful day all around. Way to go team!
Now it's time for me to focus back on my training. 8 weeks down, 8 weeks to go. I still have a ton of work to put in for Cornwall, but if this race was any indication, I'm on the right track.