At the start line, anything is possible. There are no bad races. There is no fatigue. There are no road blocks. There is only you and the expanse of uncharted opportunity before you.
You get one, very imperfect chance to find out where your limits are.
There are almost no perfect lead ups to races and this was no different. A couple of weeks before I’d been sick with stomach flu in a way that I can’t remember ever being sick before. Completely incapacitated with it. And I didn’t bounce back, like I normally do. It took more time than I would have liked. And in perfect hindsight, I over-did the water in the morning and I should have planned ahead and used the same gels/fuel that I always use instead of grabbing something from the supermarket at the last minute. But that’s why races are races, and that’s part of what they will teach you that you just can’t learn anywhere else.
This race was different though. I was treating it as one of my threshold sessions in my training plan. So instead of my usual negative split strategy, I was following my threshold sets instead, with a bit of a longer warm up.
So the plan was:
3km @ 5:15 min/km pace
1km @ 5:30 min/km pace (this is a rather unfortunately paced hill on the course so I didn’t want to destroy myself getting up there)
1km @ 5:10 min/km pace
5km @ 4:50 min/km pace
5:00 Recovery at 5:48 min/km pace
3km @ 4:50 min/km pace
4:00 minutes Recovery at 5:48 min/km pace
2km @ 4:50 min/km pace
2:00 minutes Recovery at 5:48 min/km pace
2km @ 4:50 min/km pace
That would end my quality set. But to finish off my plan was
1:00 minute Recovery at 5:48 min/km pace, followed by
2-3km (depending on what was left) @ 4:50 min/km pace
The main thing that concerned me was managing the hills on the Lismore course at those paces. But if you go up, you get to come down.
First up, there was a warm up. Never under-estimate the warm up.
It felt pretty good, and even though I couldn’t feel my hands I was relieved that it wasn’t going to be too warm.
Next step, COFFEE.
It was at this point that I felt like I’d probably had a bit too much water to drink, so I ditched the coffee half way through. BLASPHEMY.
But you can’t beat a start line. This is the third year I’ve run the Lismore half, and it’s a bit special, so dodgy stomach or not, on pace or not, I soaked it all up.
I had a bit of a watch malfunction at the start. I’d set up all my paces as a workout through garmin connect, so I didn’t need to be constantly looking at my watch. And although it seemed to have started, it got stuck on the start screen. So I had to stop and start a few times with the buttons while running until it kicked into gear.
As I was running along, I felt like I was slow. I was on pace, but everyone was ages in front of me. And I started to feel like maybe the watch malfunction was stil going and it was reflecting pace incorrectly. Turns out, I was just behind a whole lot of men, who run reasonably quickly. But after I got to a landmark where I knew how far I’d gone and I could see that the watch wasn’t wrong, I settled in.
First 3km done at 5:10 min/km pace, and it felt comfortable.
Then came the hill. It’s interesting only running something once a year, because you can definitely tell the difference in your fitness. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered it and I was able to run up this year, instead of hiking.
That kilometre was done at 5:27 min/km pace, right on target thanks to the downhill.
Now I knew I had about 1 kilometre before my first and probably hardest effort would be, so I had a gel and tried to settle in.
That kilometre was done in 5:13 min/km pace.
Then came the next 5km. I’d made the mistake of running some of the course a few days before, so I knew what I was in for. Which was kind of good and kind of bad, but at least I wasn’t surprised when the hills came.
5km done in 4:50 min/km pace.
The 5:00 recovery was up a hill. So I knew if I was going to sacrifice pace somewhere, this would be the spot to do it. So isntead of managing 5:48 pace it was more like 6:20. And it’s about this point that I started feeling like my stomach wasn’t happy, but I had another gel anyway.
3km done in 4:51 min/km pace.
Stomach distress had kicked in and I had no choice but to slow down. But that 1 second off pace was still slightly annoying. I knew that in order to manage the next few quality sets I was going to have to go slower in my recovery periods. So this 4:00 recovery was at 6:18 pace.
2km done in 4:54 min/km pace
In a whole heap of discomfort, and just making the best of it. Recovery for 2:00 at 7:07 pace in the hope that I could find something for the last 2km.
2km done in 4:51 min/km pace. Yeah that extra second was annoying.
But it was done, and I was relieved that in less than ideal circumstances, I’d done the best I could do. Did my 1:00 of easy recovery at 7:29 min/km pace while I weighed my options for the last 3km.
I knew I was winning the masters division. And I’d done 18.8km in 1:36:30. So I knew to equal a PB I would need to absolutely blitz those 2.3km, and although lungs and legs felt great, stomach was unwilling to cooperate. So, I just ran at what I could manage comfortably.
2.5km @ 4:59 min/km pace
Second best half marathon effort, I will take that!
And any day you get two medals is a good one.
Making decisions mid-race are hard, and it’s easy to second guess yourself. But there were a few things that really helped me on the day. One was being really clear about what my goals were: and my goals were those 5km, 3km, 2km and 2km sets. One was being pragmatic about what was achievable. Given I’d achieved my main goal for the session, I was ahead of anyone else in the masters by about ten minutes, there was no need to absolutely kill myself in the last few kilometres to probably only equal my PB. All that extra effort would take a whole heap away from my training in the next week and it wouldn’t give me a whole lot of benefit on the day.
What I’ve learned about making decisions in races is: don’t make decisions too early – give yourself a chance to settle in, but don’t be afraid of making a decision either. Some things are just outside of your control, and the sooner you accept that and adapt, the better off you will be.
When you are able to make decisions like that you can learn to believe in yourself a bit more, trust yourself a bit more and learn what you need to know the next time you line up at a start line, anything is possible.