I think the best word to describe my running in 2011 would be surprising. I have had a string of races (and training sessions) that have far exceeded my expectations and belief in what was possible for me as a runner. I have definitely turned a corner this year and I'm not exactly sure why. Interestingly, this all started about the same time as I started this blog, though I have yet to see any scientific studies that prove blogging improves running times. :)
I know that the addition of interval and tempo workouts has probably played an important role. I think, however, that it is probably all of the miles that I logged in 2010 that have made the biggest difference. In 2009, my first "real" year as a runner, I ran just under 600 miles and completed the Marine Corps marathon running three times a week. When I signed up for my second marathon in 2010, I decided I wanted to increase my intensity and transitioned to running five times a week. I totally blew up in marathon two, but it was not because I wasn't prepared. I started about 30 seconds too fast per mile and was dead by halfway. At the time I was devastated, but now I wouldn't trade it for a good (or even average) race. I learned so much about myself and about race strategy, lessons that I wouldn't have learned if things hadn't been so bad. This also led me to sign up for marathon 3 just 8 weeks later, a race (and training cycle) that provided so many other valuable lessons. Since I was worried about my legs and injury, I used a modified FIRST plan and got my first taste of speedwork. I figured that I had enough of a running base that I would be fine replacing my easier runs with cross-training sessions. The race itself went far better than I could have imagined. I started slow, picked up the pace as I went along, spent the whole second half of the race passing people, and ended up with a 15 minute PR. Another valuable lesson about race strategy and bit of redemption. I ended 2010 with just over 1100 miles, almost twice what I ran in 2009.
I went easy the last two weeks of December and then jumped right into my training plan for the National Half. After my marathon success, I decided to follow the FIRST half marathon plan and modified it slightly to include four days of running a week instead of three. I started to go to the track regularly and picked up the pace on my long runs. During this training cycle I have set a number of PRs and shocked myself with the times that I have been able to run. So where does this leave me for Saturday's race? Very confident that I can smash my PR from last year's race, but unsure about how fast I can run and how to approach the race.
On Saturday I will be running only my third half marathon. The first was last year's National Half which I ran after spending the first two weeks of March traveling around Spain. The second was a night race in California last July that I ran while visiting a friend. At last year's National I wasn't sure to expect after my extreme taper (and the fact that I was recovering from a two week cold), started strong and did my best to hold on at the end. For reasons that I still don't really understand (maybe the time and temperature?), I just had no energy for the race in California and I walked significant portion of the second half. So I don't have a lot of half marathon experience to draw on going into this race.
I know that a lot of people rely on McMillan for judging what are reasonable goals and the paces to shoot for in races of various distances. I frequently enter my race times to see what the calculator says, but I don't really trust the predictions for longer distances. I've never matched what my short races predict for distances of ten miles and up and I've assumed that's because I've always been a sprinter (both in swimming and running). Or maybe I just haven't trained enough (or pushed hard enough) to put in an equivalent performance at a longer distance. Based on my last few races, McMillan predicts at least a ten minute PR and shows me times that I have never thought it would be possible for me to run. Do I think I have a sub-2 hour half in me? Yes. Is this the race where it will happen? I'm not sure.
The last thing I want to do is take these predicted times, start out at a pace that I can't sustain for 13.1 miles, and blow up in a horrible, public fashion. So my plan for Saturday is this: start out at a pace that is on the conservative side, force myself to stay in that range for the first few miles, pick up the pace through the middle, and give it everything I've got for the last couple of miles. I've been plotting to meet up with Katie, ever since we discovered that we have similar race strategies, and I'm hoping that she is feeling strong on Saturday and we will be able to execute this plan to perfection.
So I'm not setting a time goal for this race. (Well, that's not totally true, I do want to beat my 2:09 PR, but, barring unusual circumstances, I'm hoping that shouldn't be a problem) There will be plenty of half marathons in the future when I can train (and race) for a specific time. My goal for Saturday is to run a strong, smart race and to end at a significantly faster pace than I started. I'm not sure what this means my average pace will be, but hopefully it will only be a pace I see on my Garmin for a short time in the middle. If I puke at the end, even better. At the very least, I should be approaching puke threshold and I want to leave everything I have out on the course.