So, this post is super late but it is better late than never.
Along with the larger Anthem Richmond Marathon is the Markel Half-Marathon and the VCU Health 8k. This is a long-standing tradition in Richmond and this year the race is celebrating its 40th year. Of those 40 years, this year was my fourth year running this particular 8k. It’s a nice race; it’s mostly flat and the last half mile or so is completely downhill, so you can let gravity help pull you across the finish line. The course has been the same every year that I’ve run it, which is nice because, not only is it a fun course, but it also gives you a consistent race that you can use to measure your fitness.
In the past, I have always tried to “train” for this race. Not real training, more like, a few weeks before the race I realize there is a race coming up and I start running to get ready for it. For that reason, my times have never really been where I wanted them, and the race always seems much harder than it should. I was excited to race this year because it’s the first time I’ve really put any good miles on my legs leading up to the race. Going into it I definitely felt like I was going to set a PR, but one never knows how things are going to go on race day, so I was trying not to get my hopes up too much. As this race is solidly in November every year it’s usually pretty cold in the morning. Most years I’ve been out there it’s under 30 F ( 0 C) when the race starts. The cold temperatures have been the biggest obstacle in this race each year. I’ve found that if I’m not used to breathing heavily in the cold air it can be very difficult to run well. This year Mother Nature played a cruel joke on us by giving us hope that maybe this year would be different. The Friday morning before the race it was in the mid-40s and it was a lovely afternoon. Sure enough, the next day (the morning of the race) it was around 26 F (-3 C)!
I actually fared much better in the cold air than I thought I would, considering it hadn’t been that cold for the weeks leading up to the race. I don’t know if training helped or if I just got lucky, but my body responded much better than I was expecting. If anything, by the time I was done running I was too hot! I wore the same outfit I typically do: Long track pants, a light hooded-jacket, and running gloves. Shortly after the race started the hood came off, and by half-way, the jacket was unzipped. By the end, I was even thinking of taking off my gloves. There wasn’t a point where I felt like the cold air was really holding me back, and that’s a good thing.
As is typical in my road races of late, mile 4 is the hardest mile. I ran the first three miles pretty quickly. In fact, the first mile I ran too fast! It was my fastest full mile in the race and came in around 8:15. I was definitely feeling it in mile 2 and slowed down to around a 9 minute/mile pace for the next two miles. Strava has my 5k time as 26:21 which is a little over a minute faster than my 5k PR I set in March. According to Strava I actually ran the fourth mile in 8:48, 12 seconds faster than the previous two miles. While this is possible, it certainly did not feel that way. I was hurting a little in the fourth mile. I know I had a goal in mind for this race, and perhaps it was my mind fighting my body in that mile that pushed it to such a quick pace.
The last almost-mile (8k is just under 5 miles) felt pretty good. As previously mentioned, it’s almost all downhill and it’s a pretty steep downhill. Knowing this allows you to tell yourself “Hey, you’re almost there, and the last bit is super easy. Just keep it up and you’ll get there.” And that’s exactly what I did. In past years, I opened up too late and felt like I should have picked up the pace a little earlier. So this year, as soon as we turned that last corner and started the downhill I picked up the pace. I started gradually, but as the hill got steeper I pushed harder.
Now, I always pick an “enemy” when I race. This person is not someone I dislike at all, but instead someone that I deem to be at around the same fitness level as myself. Most of the time I choose my nemesis by the second or third mile, as we’ve had time to settle into our run and I can say confidently that we are about as fast as each other (or maybe that they are a little faster). This person silently helps motivate me to keep pushing when I want to stop. I can’t just let my enemy beat me! But I didn’t have an enemy for most of this race. I started the race with my wife and some friends so we were way back in the pack. This allowed me to pass a lot of people early on. Once I had settled into my pace I was either passing other people or being passed, but I didn’t really have anyone to run with. Somewhere between mile 4 and 4.5, there was a gentleman who pretty easily cruised past me. He was older than me, I’d say in his mid-to-late 50s. In my head, I congratulated him as he passed me, but I was a little jealous. When I made it to the downhill and started running a little faster I noticed that I could still see him. He was a good distance ahead of me, but not so far that it seemed impossible to catch him. So, at that moment he became my race enemy.
The rest of the race was me racing this gentleman. He didn’t know we were racing, but I almost wish he did, because he really pushed me at the end and I’d like him to know how much he helped me. It seemed like we had the same strategy in mind and every time I picked up my pace he seemed to pick up his as well. There was a solid moment near the end where I started doubting that I’d be able to catch him. We were in the last 400 meters and I still wasn’t sure if I could do it. I dug deep and really gave it my all, I really wanted to pass this guy and to get the finishing time that I wanted. With maybe a hundred feet to the finish line, I had finally made up some ground and pushed past him to the finish!! The feeling of success and pride quickly faded and turned into focusing solely on not throwing up in front of the hundreds of people surrounding the finish line. I have only ever made myself throw up from running once and that was in high school when I was training with a college track star after a breakfast I shouldn’t have eaten. Needless to say, I pushed myself a little too hard here and my body was quick to let me know it. I had three people ask if I was ok after I finished. I assured them I was fine, but I think the intermittent gagging told a different story. I tried to play it off and act cool about it all, but I don’t know how convincing I was. Luckily, after about a minute of heaving breathing and panicking my body calmed down and I was able to claim my medal and start to feel good about the race.
I ended up finishing the race in 43:06. There was a small part of me that was curious to see if I could finish in 42 minutes or faster. I didn’t quite get there, but that was a stretch goal. 45 minutes was really my goal and I managed to beat that without too much trouble. I would have been sad if I didn’t beat my previous PR of 52 minutes. Luckily, I finished out the race feeling pretty good about it. It was the first race I’ve run in a long time where I felt pretty confident for most of it and there weren’t many times looking back where I thought I could have pushed harder. I can say that I am 100% satisfied with my race and I am proud of my time.
I was excited when I was looking over my Strava data for that last section of the race. It says that the last half mile was run at a 6:16/mile pace and that the last 400 meters were run at a 5:30/mile pace. For me, that is a super quick pace!! There was a huge part of me that felt exhilarated running at that speed again. There is another part of me that feels a little intimidated by it though. Pushing myself to run at that pace almost made me throw up and I was only able to run that fast because of the downhill. Remembering how that felt makes it feel like that sub-5 minute mile is a little further away than I think is. It blows my mind that anyone can run that fast comfortably! Even so, it does reassure me that my body is capable of such a feat, I just need to condition it better. Now that I don’t have any more races for a few months I can finally dedicate some time to training.
I had a really good time at this race and have discovered that road races can also be fun, you don’t always need mud and things to climb over. I think when I lost my fitness I lost my ability to enjoy just running. This race made me remember that you can have fun with running, but you need to put in the time and work to get to a point where you’re fairly comfortable. Once you get past that first tough part, the activity becomes much, much more enjoyable. Now, I am looking forward to signing up for more road races! I guess we will see what 2018 brings!