I ran the Narragansett Summer Running Festival Half Marathon on Sunday, and thanks to some pretty absurd weather conditions, I left with a cool story to share on this blog.
In the week leading up to Sunday, I was feeling really lousy on the roads, and the New England summer humidity was zapping my energy levels. I had set out on Tuesday for an easy 8 mile run, and I had to stop 6 miles in because of how heavy the air felt. Even a 3-mile shakeout on Thursday felt brutal, and I was beginning to question if my body could hold up for 13.1 miles of hard racing with restricted air flow. I was eventually able to put my doubts aside and get excited for the race, but in the back of my mind, I knew I would be in for a painful morning.
I drove to the race with my parents. My dad, at 53 years old, was racing with me and hoping to run between 1:35-1:38. My own goal of a sub 1:13 from April had by this point had become pretty laughable, and by race week, it had been adjusted to sub 1:18. The three weeks I had to take off in late March and early April really set me back. I don’t think I regained the fitness I had in mid March until about the third week in June, so I had no real time to build off of that speed. On a cool day and flat course, I was probably in 1:15 shape at best, but this course was hilly and shifted between roads and trails. And it was humid. Very humid.
My dad and I had been checking the weather in the week leading up to the race, and although it appeared it wouldn’t be too hot on race morning (75 and cloudy), the humidity looked to be between 90-100%, which is about the scariest thing a runner can see on a forecast. Humidity prevents your body from cooling itself properly, so when you’re expending lots of energy, that’s a bad system to have malfunctioning.
We toed the starting line around 7:15 am for a 7:30 start. Sure enough, the humidity was out in full force. But grey skies at least kept us out of the sun. I looked around, and it was clear there were some legit club runners who showed up to race. I love that about the Massachusetts running scene — the talent here is so deep, and you just never know who’s going to show up on race day.
Among the runners on the starting line was the winner of last year’s race — a 1:11 guy who looked like he was in shape to defend his title. I knew that unless he completely blew up, the rest of us would be racing for (a distant) second place.
The gun went off and we crossed the Stonehill College campus into Easton. The first mile was a mix of flat roads and a rocky trail that went through a farm pasture. Last year’s winner took the lead in the first 100 meters and was in the lead by a good 10 seconds by the first mile split. I crossed the first mile in second place and hit a 5:48 split without feeling the slightest bit of strain. (This is among the most encouraging things I took away from this race, because it showed me what proper running economy combined with a high aerobic threshold can mean for me in the future). Mile 2 continued along the trail and came out onto a main road. My watch told me I ran a 5:58 second mile, but it beeped about 10 seconds after the 2 mile marker, so my actual split was likely around 5:50. I briefly glanced over my shoulder on a turn and saw I had a good 20 seconds on the third place runner.
As we began a steady road climb to begin mile 3, I could feel my body beginning to heat up. It was an odd sensation — I was feeling absolutely no strain in my legs or lungs, but my body’s temperature seemed beyond my control. I continued at a conservative pace, knowing the energy I put forth could potentially work against me. By this point, the leader had distanced himself another 10 seconds ahead of me and was showing no signs of slowing down. I knew my race would be for the number two spot.
Miles 4 through 6 through the backroads of Stoughton were where things started to really hurt. I was already drenched in sweat and my heart rate was picking up. It felt like there was an invisible hand on my body’s thermostat, steadily turning up the heat with every step I took forward. I tried purposefully slowing down to cool off, but that didn’t work. The biggest saving grace on the course was that a few families put out lawn sprinklers near the roads. I also took water at every stop (there were about five or six of them), but drinking it interfered with my breathing, so I mostly poured it on my head.
I hit the 10k split around 37:10, and from a few glances behind me, it looked like I had at least 40 seconds on the third-place runner. Even though I barely felt any strain on my legs, the rest of my body felt awful. I couldn’t believe I still had more than half of the race to run.
Miles 7 and 8 brought us around another backroad loop and onto the main road to head back towards the farm pasture. There was a short, but very steep hill to start mile 7 that I decided to really slow down on so I wouldn’t accumulate any excess body heat on a short section. That strategy worked well, because I clocked off an 83-second quarter mile immediately afterwards on a downhill. But as soon as we hit the next slight uphill, my legs completely locked up. My body was still allowing me to run a reasonable pace on the flat and downhill sections, but it was pretty obvious uphill running would have to be reduced to a jog pace if I wanted to even cross the finish line.
The 9th mile took us on the downhill we had climbed in mile 3, and that at least gave my legs some reprieve. There was no sight of any runners behind me, so I was confident I could hold on to second as long as I didn’t completely blow up. But with the way my body feeling the way it was, just finishing the race seemed like a pretty tall task. (The sun had come out around this time too, adding yet another obstacle to deal with).
When I saw my GPS nearing the 15k mark, I began telling myself I just had to run for another 25 minutes like any other day. By this point, my pace had slowed to about 6:20 per mile, and even that felt like a sprint. But with the conditions, pace had become pretty irrelevant. All I wanted to do was cross the finish line and cool off.
Miles 11 and 12 were almost all off road. We made our way back through the farm pasture and onto a new part of the Stonehill campus. Having to face a soft, uneven surface at this point in the race was absolutely brutal. The extra spring and bounce you get from the roads is such a saving grace when you’re exhausted, but that was now gone. Despite being in some of the worst pain of my life, I was counting my lucky stars that I had done so much grass and trail running this spring. It was paying off big time as I navigated over the trail rocks.
Halfway through mile 11, I could vaguely hear cheers for the third-place runner behind me. This was the first point in the second half of the race that I could even tell someone was relatively close to me. My body was 100% in survival mode at this point, so I did my best to push the pace with the hope that whoever was gaining on me was in just as much pain as I was.
As we made our way through the race’s 12th mile, it became pretty clear that I was quickly losing ground to the third place runner. The cheers I had heard in the distance just a mile ago were becoming louder, and my pace was slowing consistently. Any time I could must a sliver of energy, I would put in a surge with the hopes that my body could hang onto that pace. But every attempt at faster running meant a huge crash where I could barely move my legs. This sucked.
As we began the race’s 13th mile, I got a clear look over my shoulder to see how much of a lead I had on the third-place runner. To my surprise, there were actually two guys within about 15 seconds of me. I recognized them both from the starting line, and they were both looking pretty strong.
I bit my lip and kept putting in surges whenever my body allowed me to. At 12.6 miles in, I realized the third and fourth place runners had only gained about 5 seconds on me. Mentally, I told myself I only had the equivalent of two more laps around the track to run before I could enjoy what had obviously become the toughest race of my life.
The race’s final .4 miles were on a relatively steep uphill. I decided to open up my legs and not look behind me. My thought was that if the third and fourth place runners could pass me on an uphill after 80 minutes of hard running, they deserved to take the second place spot. At the end of the day, I’m a slow-twitch guy who wants to specialize in the marathon. Despite all the pain I was in, this part of the race played to my strengths.
I don’t think I found any extra energy in that last .4 miles, but I was able to convince my brain to ignore the pain for the two-plus minutes. I cranked my pace up to around 5:20 per mile, crashed for a few seconds, and then pushed harder to hit 5:09 pace to finish the race in second place. The third and fourth place guys finished around 15 and 20 seconds behind me, respectively. I had lost so much fluid that I could feel my equilibrium off in my right ear. I also immediately had to sit down because I literally had no energy left to stand up. Inside, though, I felt incredibly proud (and relieved).
After a few minutes of sitting on the road and arguing with paramedics about why it wasn’t a good idea for me to eat the cheese crackers they wanted to give me, I was able to walk towards the bottom of the hill to cheer my dad on. My dad is the epitome of mental toughness, and I could see on his face that the race had done to him what it did to me. Still, he pushed the final hill and cracked the 1:36 mark, which is absolutely amazing considering the conditions. The time was good enough to win him the 50-59 category and give him 23rd place overall. My dad is still my biggest inspiration as a runner — he’s living proof that you can continue to compete and improve as long as you continue to work out regularly.
My family had a prior commitment we had to get to right after the race, so we unfortunately couldn’t stay and enjoy the festival a bit more. I don’t drink alcohol at all, so I honestly didn’t know what “Narragansett” was until signing up this race. But the company put on a fantastic event, and the crowd of people that showed up was awesome. I may do the 5k or 10k race at next year’s festival if it fits into my training at the time. But one thing’s definitely for sure — I won’t be doing another half in the summer ever again.
Throughout the race, there were multiple cyclists who rode ahead of runners to ensure no one took a wrong turn. Because I ran the race mostly alone, I had one of the cyclists ahead of me for about 9 miles. I felt so bad — he was a great guy who offered words of encouragement throughout the whole race, but I’m such a prick when I’m racing, and I’m pretty sure I only acknowledged him by giving him a few thumbs up. I’m guessing he understood given the rough conditions.
What I Learned, and What’s Next
I spent Sunday afternoon in bed, throwing up any fluids I tried to take down. Fortunately, I was able to bounce back by night.
Other than the obvious takeaway of learning how much humidity slows a long race, this race reiterated to me how important running economy is when you’re hurting. By mile 11 on Sunday, my legs felt like they were barely moving. But because I worked so much on my running economy these past few months, even my “survival” pace was around 6:45 per mile. While I hopefully won’t need to go into survival mode during the much cooler Philadelphia Marathon this fall, it’s good to know that if I continue to develop my stride efficiency, I won’t sabotage my overall pace race if I hit the wall in miles 20-26.2 this November. In a perfect world, I can improve my absolute slowest pace to 6:30 per mile by then.
Aside from that, this race turned out to be a lot different than I anything I’ve ever done or will do. I’m much better on the roads than the trails, so I likely won’t be doing any more hybrid races any time soon, and the hilly course we ran is a stark contrast to the mostly flat Philadelphia Marathon.
I’m going to let my legs heal (it’s Thursday, and I’m still sore) before beginning my prep for Philly. The first portion of that training block will entail a lot of interval work, hill running, and non-running exercises designed to build on my stride efficiency and make me a better overall athlete. I’ll be blogging about this training as it’s happening, so stay tuned!