Thursday, October 31, 2013

What to Do When You Don't PR in Every Race Any More

Everyone registers for road races for different reasons. Some aim for a PR. Others want to take in the sights and sounds of a unique course. Some run in memory of a loved one. Some live for the challenge of big hills or extreme temperatures. Others still just run for the hell of it.

This weekend’s Ashland Half & 5K fell into the “just for the hell of it” category. I’d run the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon three weeks before, and “trained” all of three times since that race -- if you count a jog around the neighborhood, a 7.5-mile “long run” and a fartlek half marathon training. I knew this would be the case when I registered, mind you. I ran because a) the starting line is at the official, before-a-marathon-was-26.2-miles starting line for the Boston Marathon and b) it’s a small local race, and I like to support small local races.

My goal for this race was little more than maintaining a steady pace. I had no intention of running a half marathon PR -- the course was hilly (at least for eastern Massachusetts) and, well, I was still three weeks removed from a marathon. (I’m not badass enough to truly race like that. Yet.) But keeping a pace, I thought, I could handle. It would do me good, too, since I tend to hit the wall in long races.

For the most part, I did in fact maintain a 7-minute pace. There were a couple fast ones in there, yes, and a couple slow ones, but I was right around 70 minutes when I crossed the 10-mile mark.

Then I turned up Green Street. I’d examined the elevation map for the race, and I knew there was a notable hill in the second half of the race, but I didn’t remember where, exactly, or how steep. (OK, maybe I hadn’t “examined” so much as “casually glanced at in the car.”) That hill hurt. I slowed to a virtual crawl and gave up all hope of catching the guy in front of me. (I may have been running just for the hell of it, but that doesn’t mean my competitive streak took the day off.)

During miles 11 and 12, my pace dropped to 7:30 per mile. Admittedly, I was frustrated. Then again, I hadn’t seen such hills in several weeks (the Smuttynose course is remarkably flat). So I adjusted my goal; mile 13 needed to come in at 7 minutes, I declared.

I did. The last 1.1 miles came in under 8 minutes. I crossed the line a few seconds shy of 1:33. That’s several minutes off my half marathon PR, so I’m not exactly beaming with pride, but I am pleased with my ability to maintain a consistent pace for 10 miles and then pick it up after a couple tough miles.

Not every race you run needs to end in a PR. Your first race will be a PR, of course, as will the ones that follow; you’re just starting out, after all, and you’re getting acclimated to this whole running thing.

Soon, though, you won’t beat your best time. It usually means one of two things: You’ve had an off day (whether it’s due to adverse conditions, inadequate training, sudden injuries or overactive bowels) or you’ve hit a peak.

Either scenario is easy to overcome. If you had a bad day, examine what exactly went wrong and take a few lessons away. I did it with my worst marathon and, less than a year later, nearly ran my best marathon and beat the time I ran when I was 21. (If you can’t pinpoint a particular problem, talk to a friend.) If you’ve peaked -- if your times at the same distance are consistently within a minute or so -- then it’s time to take your training to the next level with speed work, cross training and a heightened sense of dedication.

In my case, the Ashland Half was an intentional off day. I didn’t train enough, especially since the course had more hills than I bargained for. No big deal. I know what to do next time. More importantly, I know my tired legs can handle 7-minute pace -- my goal for my next marathon -- for at least 10 miles and can get back to it even if the going gets a little tough. That lesson, frankly, is better than a PR to me.