Friday, March 21, 2014

March Madness Race Recap: 2 weeks out from IM Cabo

March Madness 1/2 marathon

Most people associate this race with one of three things:
1.) that ridiculous race you have to wake up at 6am for to register since it sells out in 20 minutes
2.) the best tune-up race in Illinois for those running the Boston Marathon
3.) the race with the most unpredictable weather and hills that hurt you until midweek

I associate the race with my soccer-playing days:
1.) working the water stations, hoping a runner would grab my cup but not splash me too much
2.) munching on Munchkins while waiting to get out of the car to work the aid station
3.) and, the best part of all, eating those warm yummy pretzels after our job was finished

Ever since I “retired” from collegiate running, I have run the March Madness ½ marathon. Growing up in a running family, it seemed like the logical thing for me to do. Couple that with the fact that my dad is the president of the group that puts the race on, and it only seems fitting that I would come back year after year to run this crazy race.

This year was a bit different.

With Ryan and my target race, Ironman Los Cabos, exactly two weeks out from the date of March Madness, we had a decision to make. Actually, Ryan had a decision to make. Hands down, the March Madness ½ marathon is one of the top three meaningful races I run every year. The sense of pride that I know my dad and his running buddies feel when I do well at this race tops any other feeling I can get after a race. These people watched me grow up and believed in my ability year after year, injury after injury. The question of whether I would run the race or not never even crossed my mind.

Until about 7:30am on race day.

15 degrees, 20 miles per hour wind. Yeah, that didn’t sound like the most fun “race” to run in Ryan’s mind, and he was beginning to convince me of the same. However, the second I walked into the gym at Cary Grove High School, my dad’s friends began talking to me to see if I was “going for it” again this year, and my mindset changed completely.

I told them all I would be running conservatively: with the key race of the year being only two weeks away, I really needed to be smart. I had messaged back and forth with my running friend Jonathan the night before about how we wanted to run the race. We ran the entire race together in 2013 (not planned at all), so running with him seemed like a good idea, and we discussed running a 1:24 with the given conditions. I knew I was in better shape than my 1:22 time from last year, so a 1:24 would leave me with plenty of room to lessen the fatigue in my legs.

After a very small amount of time warming up with my brother Nic and seeing my friend Megan, we lined up on the starting line. A few minutes later, off we went into the brutal headwind.

Seeing how I was not planning on full-on racing, I did not want to tuck behind other runners. I go back and forth with this feeling, but in that moment, a wind block most definitely would have been nice.

The first few miles of this race are flat, even downhill, so I generally start pretty conservatively. Jonathan and I were running with two other running buddies, Wendy and Mark, and we kept telling each other how we needed to slow down the pace. Despite having a 20mph+ headwind, our three splits were 6:25, 6:17 and 6:08.

And then it happened.

My hands went numb, and I started secretly panicking that I would pass out like I did back on January 1st. I was holding onto a gel, but wanted to fold my hands into a fist inside my glove to try to warm them up. I shoved the gel into my tights and that’s when things got weird.

I did all this while running down hill, so my stride was naturally different. Apparently it was different enough to cause my gel to slither its way down my leg and get trapped behind my right knee. From mile three on, I ran with the nervousness that my gel would explode and just drip all over my leg.  Luckily, it did not break open, but just made me look like I had a giant knot in my calf.

The next three miles, Jonathan and I got into a grove and he did a great job of dictating a consistent pace—6:18, 6:19, 6:17.

Early in the race!

We were lucky to see a lot of our Dick Pond Fast Track friends and many of my dad’s HIllstriders friends throughout these miles and they alerted us that there was still one female ahead of me.

Last year, Jonathan and I passed the lead female right after mile 6, and this year, it appeared as though we would do the same. Ironically enough, the point where we passed her is the part that I like least about this course. This year, the second place female stuck with us for a little bit, but I experienced something I don’t usually: confidence. I knew that even though she was running with us, I was strong enough that I could pull away.

Nice little pack we had going on.

A few moments earlier, I had glanced at my watch at the halfway point. Jonathan and I both realized it at the same time: we were on pace to run faster than the 1:20 high we did in 2013. And the weather was a good 20 degrees colder and at least 10mph higher in windspeed.

Going up the dreaded mile 7 hill, I always see my former P.E. teacher from 6th grade. And, just as she does every year, she pumped me up to push harder up the hill and Jonathan and I gapped the second place female.

Mile 7 – 6:20.

Miles 8 and 9 tend to be quicker as there is a nice downhill after mile 7, slight uphill and then a long stretch that is straight. Unfortunately, this year, that straight stretch had a lovely 20mph headwind that came with it.

Feeling great running with Jonathan.

Mile 8 – 6:12, mile 9 – 6:09.

Mile 10 is right after the enormous uphill…the same uphill that we ran down where my gel slid down my leg. Everyone dreads this hill, as I was reminded when overhearing conversations in the gym prior to the race start. Jonathan had to yell at me a bit on this one since this hill always breaks me down a bit.  

Mile 10 – 6:21.

At this point, Jonathan had turned around and told me the next girl wasn’t even close, so I made the decision that I’d slow down a bit with the constant thought of Cabo in the back of my head. I told him that he could go for it if he wanted as there was another guy right in front of us that he could easily run it in with. His response? “I was going to tell you the same thing.” So, we decided to keep running together.

As we weaved through the neighborhoods that strung miles 10 and 11 together, it was very obvious we were gaining on the guy in front of us. The next few miles were interesting with the two guys pushing and pulling back and forth.

Mile 11 – 6:14.

Up the last tough incline we went and into the final mile neighborhood we flew. I could feel this potentially becoming a sprint-to-the-finish kind of race between Jonathan and our picked up friend, so kind of liked watching it all unfold.

Mile 12 – 6:12.

I speak softly to Jonathan, “Push yourself, you can beat this guy. We have less than a mile to go” to which he responded, “We already passed mile 12?” Yep, that’s how “in the zone” we were. I start pushing the pace, because quite frankly at this point I’m feeling unbelievable. I felt like I had just started my run, and I honestly wanted to kill the last mile with Jonathan. Out of the neighborhood, onto the main road (Three Oaks) and up onto the bike path, it was obvious Jonathan and our friend were going to be in a sprint finish situation. Since it didn’t affect me one way or another, and I decided my priority was to be safe than sorry, I decided not to go with them. I knew I wouldn’t break 1:22 regardless of the effort I put in, and just did not want to risk anything with being so close to my big race.

Mile 13 – 5:50.

Um. I guess I had a lot left in me if the last mile of the race was my fastest.

Feeling awesome at the finish!

1:17 (5:34 pace) for the final 0.1 of the race.

It was an incredible feeling watching Jonathan edge the guy in front of him out because we had worked hard together to make that happen. He pushed me harder than I would have pushed myself, and told me I did the same for him. I already told him we would be doing this race again together next year as he seriously made the race feel good and easy the entire way through. It was just the confidence I needed going into Cabo.

Ryan snapped this gem. It's hard to talk when your jaw is frozen.

After the race, it was a whirlwind experience. I was talking to my Dick Pond Fast Track friends, the newspaper reporter, my family, my dad’s Hillstriders friends… I truly felt like a “local celebrity” as a former colleague used to say. The way everyone made me feel after the race cannot be duplicated because no race has the special meaning that this race does to me.

 With the overall winner, Eric Wallor.

This race was truly the icing on the cake going into Cabo. Last Sunday, Ryan and I did a bike Time Trial race and I won for the females…something I never would have dreamt possible prior to the past season of biking I’ve had (and most certainly not after that lovely crash last summer). This past Friday, after having two horrible swim workouts in a row, I had a major breakthrough in the pool and hit 100m splits that I never thought possible.

With just over one week until race day, the fitness is there. All I have to do now is stay smart, and focused.

Thank you for the incredible support I’ve received over the past few years, but in particular over this last training cycle. Not being able to train outside, I at times felt stir crazy and questioned why we signed up for another Ironman. After seeing the incredible encouragement, excitement and support from this past weekend, I am even more focused and ready to race.

Ironman Cabo: I’m ready for you!