Saturday, October 5, 2013

Overconfidence will do that

When I ran the White Tail Trail Half Marathon last year, it had been my longest foot race of my entire life. Today, I ran it again.  After my successful 50k finish last week, I thought a 21k (13.1 miles) would no longer be much of a challenge.  How wrong this turned out to be…

Staging and finish area at Caesar's Creek State Park 

I had a strong start up the first hill and estimated that about two thirds of the runners were behind me when – after mile one – the paved road ended, and gave way to a narrow single track.  I felt that my position within the field was where I belonged.  The runners around me were moving at a brisk but not uncomfortable pace.  I remembered that last year I had been stuck for a little while behind a group of runners who seemed intimidated by the roots and rocks and had slowed down considerably after entering the dirt trail. Clearly this was not the case today.  I focused on keeping in line, and avoiding a gap to the people ahead of me, so that runners behind me would not be tempted to pass.

Caesar's Creek at the start line

The first 5k went by rather quickly.  I had a brief scare when the runner immediately in front of me tripped over a root and fell straight on his face.  Fortunately he did not seem to be injured, and was back on his feet in no time.  Other than that, everything seemed to go very well.

Tiny water droplets indicate close to 100% humidity before the race start 

It was during the second quartile that I first began to question whether my pace was sustainable.  The field had started to spread out a bit and I eased off a little, letting more and more runners pass by.

Although I must have dropped back by at least 30-40 ranks, I reached the 10k mark after 1 hour and 6 minutes.  That’s a very good time for me on hilly dirt trails, and I still felt in good shape.  I remembered that last year the length of the course had been a little shy of a full half marathon; I did some math in my head and thought that a sub 2:30, perhaps even a sub 2:20 finish was within reach.
Dew on wildflowers
Oh, how wrong I was.  The third quartile of the course was much more challenging than the prior sections.  While so far the hills had been mostly rolling, now the trail alternated between steep ups and downs. In addition, the wet leaves on the ground required extra attention on the descents, costing extra “breaking energy”.  That also meant starting every uphill with minimal forward momentum. Before I knew it, I was walking every ascent.

It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t alone in my struggles.  Several others around me did not seem to fare any better.   Our pace had slowed considerably.  Every now and then, however, small groups of faster runners were passing by.  As I watched them disappear over yet another hill in front of me, I quickly tried to get them out of my mind.

First fall colors of 2013. Today felt more like summer: 80+ degrees and 80%+ humidity

The second to last aid station came and went, and I found myself within five kilometers of the finish.  Although the hills were no longer as steep, I continued to struggle.  I remembered that last year during this section I had passed at least 30 runners, who had kept walking even after they had reached the top of a hill.  And now I found myself walking too.   I tried to figure out what it was.  My legs still felt ok.  But whenever I started to push the pace my heart rate seemed to spike up.  I was simply exhausted.  Perhaps last week’s 50k had taken a toll? Perhaps it was just the unseasonably warm and humid weather? Perhaps I was just running out of fuel?

With two or three kilometers to go I forced down a gel, but it took at least another 10 minutes before at least some energy kicked back in.  I glanced at my GPS and noted the 20.5-kilometer mark pass by.  Last year the race had ended at that distance.  Now there was at least another kilometer to go.  I had not noticed where the routing of the course had changed, but it was unquestionably longer than in 2012.  However, with the finish finally within reach, I started to pick myself up again and was able to pass several runners who had previously left me behind.

Before the race: overconfident
It took me 2:46 minutes to complete the 21.7 kilometer (13.5 mile) course, in 154th place out of 244 finishers.  Last year, my time had been 2:30 for 20.5 kilometers.   The longer distance only explains about seven minutes of the time difference.  (Indeed, comparing the overall results of all runners, the median finishing time this year was a little over seven minutes longer than last year.)

Back at home, I confirmed my suspicion that I simply started out too fast.  Last year it took me more than two minutes longer to complete the first 5k.  But I was then able to maintain a more consistent pace for the remainder of the race.  This year, my pace dropped off significantly as the race progressed.  Overconfidence will do that.

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