Friday, June 13, 2014

Heartbreak Hill Half Recap: Three Races, Two Days, Six Lessons

Trying new things keeps life exciting. Running is no exception. I've been running close to two decades, but I'd never raced more than once in one weekend. So when Runner's World announced the Heartbreak Hill Half, offering the chance to do a 5K and 10K one day, and a half the next -- and to meet the magazine's staff -- I decided to give it a shot. (The 20-minute drive and the familiar course didn't hurt, either.)

To cut to the chase, I ran pretty well, with the exception of the last three miles of the half (not unexpectedly), and I enjoyed the experience, which was as much a festival as a series of races. I also learned a few things about racing more than once in a weekend.

Take it easy. The 5K came first, as it often does on a race festival weekend. I usually throw caution to the wind in a 5K -- at this point in my life, it's essentially a sprint for me -- but about a mile into this one, I knew I needed to hold back a bit if I wanted to make it to Sunday. I ran 20:06, which is quick for me without pushing it. (I ran my 5K PR when I was 17 and have accepted that I will never come close again.)

Study the course. Thanks to a friend, I knew the second half of the out-and-back 10K course had more hills. That, combined with the need to conserve energy, led me to take the first half of this race easy and push it a bit in the second half. It worked: Despite the hills, I ran negative splits. My 43:15 left me about 90 seconds short of a PR -- I ran my PR in an April race on a course that doesn't include Heartbreak Hill -- but this was still my best race of the weekend.

When in doubt, skip the fuel. I ate a granola bar about an hour or so before the 5K, which started 75 minutes before the 10K. Between races I ate nothing and drank a bottle of water. I saw folks who were running both races eating a bagel in between. My educated guess: They regretted it. Yes, 9.3 miles is a lot, but you shouldn't need to refuel if you run that distance -- and if you do, it shouldn't be a giant lump of carbohydrates, even if it's free. If you do need fuel, opt for a sports drink, gel or banana -- provided you’ve used that type of fuel before and know it doesn’t do funky things to your gastrointestinal system.

Look for shade. It was a good 10 degrees warmer on Sunday, and with more sun, than Saturday. Not a day for PRs. (Unless you're my aforementioned friend, who did it in the half AND the 10K -- and on the opening weekend of a community theater production of Hamlet. Clearly I'm an underachiever.) It was a day, though, to find the shade wherever I could out on the course and drink plenty of water (not to mention dump some on my head). My 1:33:12 half was several minutes off a PR, but, in a race that felt like a war of attrition, I was far from the only one to miss his or her best time.

Take it in stride. An event such as the Heartbreak Hill Half is less about racing and more about running -- pounding the pavement, meeting fellow runners and celebrating the sport we all know and love. You can't expect to excel at all the races of a festival weekend. Focus on one -- you can decide which one at the last minute, or even after you’ve started, as I did -- and use the others as faster-than-usual training runs with water stops and cheering crowds and tables of free food and drink at the end.

Pack extra clothes. You may not necessarily need to change after your first race of the day, but you most certainly will after the second. (I’m not sure, but I believe protocol allows you to wear the race shirt once you’ve collected your medal.) If you think you might change shirts, consider pinning your bib to your shorts (which you’re less likely to change, I imagine) so officials, volunteers and the like can verify that you did, in fact, run.

Complete more than one race in a weekend, and most of your friends and family will (continue to) think you are a little nuts. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s not that difficult or painful -- certainly not in comparison to a marathon -- and the swag, the compliments and the sense of accomplishment make it all worth the effort. If you’re up for the challenge, you’re healthy and you’re willing, I say you give it a shot.