Running Update: Sachuest Point Half Marathon Recap and the Months Ahead

Second Beach in Middletown, the night before the race.

A bit of a warning: This blog has become like a personal journal so I can keep track of how running has impacted various stages of my life. The details may be a little monotonous, but I promise to continue including information on diet and training.

Finding consistent improvement in running is like trying to complete a years-long puzzle that gets increasingly complicated every few months.

When you first start running, your times drop quickly and dramatically. Your body sheds excess fat, making you lighter on your feet, and your heart and legs become more powerful, allowing you to run harder and longer. You feel fantastic with every stride, and you wonder how all runners don’t improve with such ease.

Eventually, your beginner mileage starts to hold you back. Your times stagnate, and you realize that you need to increase your training to reach the next level. Some runners rush this process and end up with all sorts of nasty injuries — their bones and connective tissue still haven’t caught up to their muscles. But if you’re patient, the next major breakthroughs are quick to follow.

This point is where training gets complicated. To maintain your new-found speed, you have to remain consistent with both volume and intensity. But to get even faster, you have to start focusing on specific skills and energy systems. Doing too much at once, like adding extra speed work on top of higher mileage, is a recipe for burnout or injury. But focusing too much on one type of running will detract from another. Every month becomes a constant balancing act with very little margin for error.

Most runners can never quite get beyond this stage of their progression. They put new pieces into their puzzle only to find that others have disappeared. Only the toughest, smartest, and most patient runners can find ways to keep solving their puzzle time and time again. Ultimately, I hope to fall into the latter category.

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After training for the Philadelphia Marathon last fall and doing a block of speed training in the early winter, I decided to work on my lactate threshold speed and set a target race date of April 9th for the Sachuest Point Half Marathon in Rhode Island. The race was advertised as flat, and after so much racing in bad weather and on hilly courses, I wanted to see what I was capable of on a fast course.

The last time I was really able to focus on lactate threshold training was in early 2016 before the Sarasota Music Half Marathon, and my volume was so low then that I really couldn’t use that training as a precedent for this block. The one tool I could draw from that period, however, was the value of putting in miles slightly faster than my half marathon goal pace, which my body responded incredibly well to.

I spent February putting in the same mileage I used to get ready for the Philadelphia Marathon while starting to sprinkle in some 1-2 mile intervals around 5:30-5:35 pace, which was a bit faster than I expected to run in Rhode Island. New England is an absolutely miserable place to run (and live) in February, so I had to log a lot of miles on top of snow and through slushy side roads. On top of that, my work schedule was busy and erratic, which made finding time for training a real challenge. On a Sunday that month where I had 11 hours of work, I ran for 20 minutes on my lunch break and then another 55 minutes at 10:30pm on the Boston Common, which was the only spot I could think of that would be runnable at that hour. The next morning was a holiday, so the Common was actually packed with people (and tons of Emerson students getting high). I can’t think of a less enjoyable run in my entire life, but that’s kind of the beauty of this sport — your worst experiences often become your most memorable. And they make you enjoy the good days all the more.

I did almost all of my March workouts with my good friend Luke, one of the best road runners in my part of the state who was also preparing for the Sachuest Point Half. To stay sharp, the two of us signed up for the Ireland 5k in New Bedford on March 5th, an awesome pub race promoted by two-time Boston Marathon winner Geoff Smith. Even though I had only done one 5k-specific workout in 2017, I was confident all the top-end speed work I did over the winter would carry me to a 16:15-16:30 time.

We found out the day before the race that New Bedford would only be 10-20°F at  gun time. The race course also started and finished right by the ocean, making the wind chill around 5°. We almost decided to just eat the race fees we paid and run a warmer race the next weekend, but we were only five weeks out from the half marathon, and we really couldn’t afford to mess with our long-term schedule.

Luke took the first quarter of the race out in about 72 seconds, and I tailed him by about three seconds with one other guy, who would fall off the pace around 600 meters later. We had the wind at our backs for the first mile of the race, and I felt absolutely incredible. Luke hit the first mile split in 5:05, and I was right behind him at 5:08. The second mile saw us pass by a few fish packing buildings, which smelled every bit as bad as you’d think, and eventually loop back towards the starting line. I still felt very strong and was able to reel Luke in with a 5:12 second mile. The final mile was directly into the wind, and every step felt like we were standing still. I made about three or four surges to pass Luke, but he matched every one of them and broke away in the final 600 meters. Our times ended up being slower than we’d hoped (16:38 and 16:41) because of the final mile, which was a real bummer. The second mile of the race where we hit a 5:12 split was neutral in terms of wind, and I’m 100% positive we would run the whole 5k at that pace on a non-windy day.

After the race, we immediately put on our sweats and did a 1.5 mile burst at around 5:45 pace to simulate half marathon speed on tired legs. If you’re getting ready for a half marathon, I can’t recommend this workout enough. A 5K at 100% effort feels almost identical to eight or nine miles of half marathon racing. By running hard around on exhausted legs, your body will become extremely efficient at your goal pace.

Luke and I got right back to work a few days later by doing a 3x 2-mile workout on a flat bike path in Mansfield to simulate the half marathon race course. We followed that run with a hilly 13 miler on another freezing Sunday morning.

I wanted to get in one more tuneup race before the half marathon, so I signed up last minute for the Mick Morgan’s 3.3 miler on March 18th. Aside from taking the day before the race completely off, I didn’t really taper the week of the race, which was uncharted territory for me. I try to take any race I enter seriously, and for me, that means running on fresh legs. But in order to maintain my long-term progress, I had to push through this race knowing I wouldn’t be at my fastest.

I won the race by a pretty comfortable margin, but without any tapering, my legs burned the entire way. Knowing I only had a few weeks to go before the half, I still put in around 2.5 miles of half marathon-paced intervals in my sweats right after the race ended.

Luke and I did a few more workouts over the next two weeks, including a fast-close long run and a 20-minute tempo immediately followed by 400 meter intervals. But as I pushed through these workouts, I started to wonder if I had peaked a few weeks earlier. My overall energy levels were becoming very erratic, and every workout seemed to take longer to recover from — classic signs of overtraining. After my final moderate run seven days out from the race, things had gotten so bad that I worried I would be completely shot for the half marathon.

In hindsight, I rushed into hard training a little too quickly after the Philadelphia Marathon, so my body hadn’t had a proper chance to recover since the summer. One of the issues athletes run into on a vegan diet is their heart and lungs developing faster than their muscles and joints. With clean arteries, oxygen flows freely through the blood, allowing you to run at a higher level than the rest of your body is ready for. The only real solution to this problem is time, and with only a few days left before the race, I officially had no time left. For better or for worse, I’d be lining up to race on April 9th.

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Something about the beach has always energized me. When I was living in Sarasota, I’d go to the beach whenever I felt fatigued, injured, or otherwise worn down. And without fail, I’d leave feeling energized and renewed.

The night before the race, I drove down to Second Beach near the race start line with my friend Auston, who was running the 5k at the same event. The clean air must have had a little magic in it that night, because I left feeling like myself again for the first time in a few weeks. The fear that my body was too worn down to race well seemed to dissipate, and I suddenly couldn’t wait to attack the first mile of the race. I ate my gross dinner of plain white rice and plain vegetables with water and had my head on the pillow by 9pm.

Race mornings are always a little surreal for me. I sleep well the entire week of the race, because I know I will be tossing and turning the night before the competition. I usually get up around 4:00am so my legs have enough time to get loose, and I drink Red Bull while listening to music and watching the sun come up.

After about four hours of total sleep, I went for a walk on the main road where the hotel was located. I had driven in traffic on this road dozens of times, and seeing so it so desolate was oddly inspiring. I made my way inside to the hotel lobby to start my normal race routine, but a woman was smoking in a room nearby, so I was forced to find another spot to eat breakfast. The only space I could find was a janitor’s area beneath a stairwell, so I set up my laptop there, cracked open a Red Bull, and began blasting some music. Only through running would I ever find myself listening to The Freeze at 5 in the morning next to a mop bucket in Newport.

We drove over to the race and jogged for about 10 minutes to get loose. The event had the 5k, the 10k, and the half marathon all starting simultaneously, so we weren’t sure who we were really competing against. In total, there were probably 300 runners lining up to race.

Luke and I got off to a quick start in first and second place. The first mile of the race took us through the beach parking lot and onto a flat road that hugged the coastline. We hit the first split in 5:31 with the third place runner was about 25 seconds behind us. My legs felt decent, but I definitely didn’t have the pop I’ve felt in some of my better past races.

The next mile and a half took us back along the coastline and into some residential Middletown neighborhoods. We were holding around 5:40 pace until hitting a pretty sizeable climb that lasted a full half mile. I was taken a bit off guard by the elevation, because the course was advertised as being completely flat. But I figured that as long as I didn’t fall too far off the pace, I could make up the lost seconds on the downhill.

Mile 4 began with the downhill I was hoping for, and I put in a real surge to capitalize on the gravity boost. Where Luke was making his debut at the distance, he decided to stay conservative and not go with me. I spotted him again at a 180° turnaround at the mile 5 marker, and he still looked strong, maintaining a minute or so gap over the third place runner. But that was my last opportunity to see the rest of the runners until the finish line.

The middle portion of the race was nothing but rolling hills which collectively took us higher and higher. Miles 7.5 to 9 saw us climb around 150 feet, and that was an incredibly uncomfortable nine minutes. Through the oxygen debt and adrenaline, I was able to figure out that the course was falsely advertised and that my goal of running between 1:13-1:15 wouldn’t be possible.

Fortunately, the course’s final 5k was almost all downhill. My legs were pretty much gone after the mile-and-a-half climb, but I was still able to open up my stride and gut out a 5:40 mile 10. I had found another gear at this point, but right as we hit the mile 11 marker, I began experiencing some rough abdominal cramps, which is very out of the ordinary for me. The only times I had felt this type of pain in the past were on a post-race tempo run before the Philadelphia Marathon and at the marathon itself around the 25th mile. This race was too short to take any water or gels, but I think the lack of salt from the day before is what caught up to me. I massaged the area and the pain thankfully went away after a few minutes.

As I was gliding down the massive drop over the 12th mile, I decided I would remain conservative until crossing the finish line. Where I had a pretty big gap between me and the rest of the field, I figured it would be stupid to close at max effort, increasing the risk that the cramps would force my body to stop. Plus, the chance to actually enjoy something like this is so rare, so I promised myself that I would take a mental snapshot of the race’s final 10 minutes and remember it fondly when I’m old and unable to run.

With the big downhills, I was able to hold 5:36 pace for the final 2.1 miles. Had I pushed it, I probably could have run about 15-20 seconds faster. But if I cramped up and had to walk in the final stretch, I’d still be kicking myself.

I crossed the finish line first in 1:16:09, which, considering the nearly 500 feet of climbing, I was thrilled with. Luke, who came in second, took a wrong turn on the final mile, which added about two minutes to his race. His official time was 1:20 and change, but he realistically ran a 1:18 effort. With higher mileage, I think the half will end up being his best event down the road. His speed endurance is already better than mine, and he’s only just scratching the surface of his potential.

Pace and elevation profile

Considering only 99 people ran the half, there were quite a few runners who put up solid times on the hilly course. A high mileage guy who ran for the UConn club team came in third around 1:23, and several triathletes finished in top 10 with times in the high 1:20s and low 1:30s. The top two women ran in the mid 1:30s.

The finish made all the miles I gutted out with Luke in the miserable New England winter worthwhile. I left the race, like I have with all others in the past, feeling even hungrier to keep training and trying to climb the running latter.

The Months Ahead

I’m updating this blog a full five weeks after the half marathon, so I’ve already started the next phase of my training. May, June, and July will be focused almost exclusively on building mileage. I’ve officially peaked off of the 55-70-per-week zone, and if I’m capable of reaching a higher level in this sport, I’ll need more aerobic enzymes and a stronger physical structure to do it.

As of today, May 18th, I’ve covered 163 miles this month with a fair amount of climbing. I hit a 72-mile week last week, and I hope that that will be the norm by the end of July. I’ll be racing a few times this summer for fun, but my times are going to be terrible because I’m not doing any speedwork and I’m a lot slower in heat. The next big races will be this fall, where I’ll be doing my now annual circuit of the Walpole Labor Day 10k, the Boston Firefighters 10k, and the Bird Park Trail 4 Miler. After that, all of my focus will be geared towards the 2018 Boston Marathon, which will, without question, be the biggest race of my life.

I hope to update this blog a little more frequently this summer to share some of the recent training techniques I’ve been getting into, so keep checking back!

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