Friday, August 16, 2013

Fitness Fridays - Perth Half Marathon 2013

Last Sunday, I ran my second half marathon.

In contrast to my first half (the Bunbury Half Marathon in April this year), this run didn't have 6 months of advance planning or carefully tailored training. Having run 21.1km once, it is, of course, much easier to run it a second time. I've been running steadily since April and it wasn't difficult to focus my training after we returned from our northern Australia holiday in mid-June (8 weeks before race day). I moved my long runs from 14-16km to be a little bit longer, peaking at 19km.

Also in contrast to my first half, this run proved to be more about mental stamina than physical strength. You may remember that in April, I just wanted to finish the distance. I did have a time goal, but it was one I felt confident about hitting (2 hours 6 minutes or a 6 minutes / km pace). I'd been running at that speed consistently in training, and, as noted, my main focus was finishing anyway. The race was a really positive experience and I finished in 2.05.51.

For this race, I wanted to break 2 hours. I didn't mind by how much. I spent the weeks leading up to race day imagining how good I would feel if I finished and saw a time of 1 hour 58 minutes, or even 1 hour 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Unfortunately, I also spent time imaging how bad I would feel if I finished and saw a time of 2 hours 1 minute.

This isn't a great way to prepare for a running event.

I did, to my credit, also set a 'back up' goal (I learnt my lesson when I missed my 12km fun run goal by 50 seconds). The back up goal was to run in anything less than 2.05.51. Also to my credit, the 2 hour time goal was fairly realistic. When I ran 19km in late July, I managed it in 1 hour and 42 minutes. Extending that out, I had the potential to break 2 hours, even if only barely.

Western Australian Marathon Club clubrooms, pre race.

As some of you may have noted on Facebook, I was slightly unwell last week. Not very unwell, not even moderately unwell, but enough to give me a lingering cough and some difficulties breathing clearly. Breathing clearly is rather crucial for running, and I became obsessed with my breathing last week. Like many things, breathing is delightful when you let it happen naturally, but can become difficult very quickly when you are focusing on it.

In addition to my breathing, I developed all sorts of other complaints and concerns. One day my left knee hurt. The next day, it was my right knee. I had shin pain, hip pain and foot pain. I was laughing at myself - clearly these were psychosomatic as much as physical difficulties - but that didn't stop me worrying about being well enough to run, and run at <2 hours at that.

Again, I wouldn't recommend this approach when preparing for a sporting event.

Riverside views, 7am Sunday morning.

On race day, I was, to my relief, able to breathe clearly. I wasn't in pain, I wasn't unwell and I felt reasonably ready to go out and run. It had been raining earlier in the morning, but as the starting time (8am) approached, the rain stopped and sunshine started to emerge.

The half marathon course consisted of an out and back stretch one direction along the Swan River (just under 7km each way), with a finishing ~7km loop the other direction, along the river and across two bridges to loop back around. It's a great course, scenic and flat, and I liked the distance being divided into three distinct sections.

Waiting for the race to start.

This run doubled as the Western Australian state half marathon championships, so the starting area was roughly divided to allow potential winners to be at the front, and the rest of us haphazardly at the back. Being a smaller running event (although still 1100 runners), there were no starting groups. When the gun went off, there was a lag before we started moving and it took a little while to cross the start line and then for the field to thin out.

I was aiming for a pace of 5 minutes 30 seconds per kilometre, with the plan of starting out a little quicker than that, averaging 5 minutes 30 for most of the middle, and inevitably slowing towards the end. I have always tried to honour the 'rule' of keeping a steady pace, or even saving some energy for a faster second half run, but am not very good at it. For this run, with my focus on breaking 2 hours and anxieties over doing so, I wanted to plan a slightly faster start to give me some confidence that I could make the time.

For the first 5km or so, I struggled to get into a comfortable routine with breathing but did manage a steady 5.15-5.20 pace. After that, I sat around the 5.30 mark, although didn't really find a steady routine until the race was half run. I did the first 11km in nearly an hour exactly, so was on track at that point with my time goal.

The truth is, though, that on track or not, I ruined the first half of the race by being so focused on time and pace. I recognised it at the time, and tried to remind myself to focus on the scenery and how lucky I was to be running. However, I struggled to do so and felt like I was very much "in my head" for the first hour. I was constantly evaluating how my speed was and whether I was going to manage a sub-2 hour time. At one point there were dolphins just offshore from me and I distinctly remember my frustration at being so wound up about time that I was unable to just appreciate the beauty of the run.

Finishing area

Somewhere between kilometres 14 and 16, I got my act together. I realised that it didn't matter. I was doing all I could to get the best time I could, and fretting about it every minute wasn't going to help (indeed, it was probably hindering). I reminded myself of why I run - for the joy of it, the freedom, the mental unwinding - and how just 4 months ago I was delighted to even finish 21km.

Somewhere between kilometres 16 and 18, I realised that I probably wasn't going to make <2 hours, or if I did, it would be very, very close. I think my time was about 1 hour 42 minutes at the 18km mark, and I was starting to fatigue at that point. When I'm tired, 6 minutes / kilometre becomes my fallback speed, and if you do the maths, I had 18 minutes exactly to cover 3.1km. I'm glad I had taken stock of my priorities before then, as I think I could have become demoralised very quickly if I hadn't.

At 19.5 kilometres, I felt like I had no energy left and started to feel a little dizzy. I ate another date (my third; I had the others around 10km and 15km) and reminded myself how close I was to the end.

As I approached the finish line, I was blind to spectators (I didn't even see my parents) and everything other than the goal of finishing. About a minute out, I could hear the loudspeaker saying "we're just approaching the 2 hour mark now".

When I did finish, my watch read 2 hours and 39 seconds and recorded a distance of 21.3km.

Those of you who run will know that chip time is what you take your 'real' running time from. This equates to the time from when you crossed the start line (when your timing chip was activated) to when you crossed the finish line (when your timing chip registered you finishing). It can be distinguished from gun time, which is when the race starts (but you may not be moving yet,  if you're not at the very front) to when you finish.

I usually start my watch when I start running, rather than when I cross the start line, so I was expecting my 'real' chip time to be around 2 hours and 20 - 30 seconds. I thought it might be a little less, but accepted it wasn't likely to be under the 2 hour mark. Thankfully, I was fine with that.

What was my final time? The irony is, I don't even know. If there was ever a lesson for me in time obsession, it is here: this race didn't even do chip times! Whilst we had timing chips, the only times they recorded were gun times - when the starting gun went to when we crossed at the end. My gun time was 2 hours 55 seconds. I will never know what my exact time is.

I feel like I learnt more in this race than 2 hours of running should be able to teach. I really ruined the first half of the race for myself, but am glad I pulled things together to finish strong and, ultimately, happy. Despite my predictions, I am not devastated by a time of 2 hours and 30 seconds-ish, or even the recorded time of 2 hours and 55 seconds. In fact, I'm pleased with the 5 minute reduction from April. I'm not as neurotic as I thought!

I recovered from the race with a stack of raspberry quinoa pikelets, and enjoyed a lazy and entirely content Sunday. For my next half marathon (and there will be a next), I hope to nail physical and mental preparation...and I think I just might.

Have you learnt any life lessons through running or sport? 
And are you like me and prone to making yourself anxious about things that don't really matter?


  1. This is definitely something that I struggle with as well! Whenever I have a time goal, I find it really hard to just enjoy a race even though, in the end, I'm not going to win, so what does it really matter anyway? No need to kill myself over a few minutes.

  2. Great job! The mental aspect of running is just as interesting as the physical. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Way to go, Kari! I really enjoyed reading. I hope to train for a marathon one day when my health is back in order, and I wonder what goes on inside the runners' minds during the race. I have no doubt that I would be consumed with time and doing everything I can to achieve my goal. While this kind of attitude works brilliantly in some situations, it has also left me with a lot of regrets. While you will never know the final time, I'm extremely proud of you and inspired by your perseverance!

    1. Thanks so much Min, that is really kind of you. It sounds like we are quite similar when it comes to focusing on 'little' things and being perfectionistic about goals. It's great you recognise that about yourself too because sometimes awareness makes a huge difference in managing those traits!

  4. This post shows me just how much about running I don't know but sounds like a useful reflection as it seems like you are doing well with your learning curve about marathons - hope the dolphins are forgiving of your lack of focus and return to cheer you on at the next marathon :-) and congratulations again!

    1. I like to think of dolphins as forgiving so hopefully they will indeed forgive me and give me a chance to enjoy their company next time! Thanks Johanna :-)

  5. Congratulations! That's a great result. I am not a runner but my friend Tim is, so I get you on the time thing. He is doing his first half marathon in Canberra in September.

  6. I'm very glad you ended up feeling happy. As someone "outside" the running world, it is amazing to me to think that so much mental and emotional energy could go into obsessing about a different or mere seconds or minutes. Or, perhaps, a part of me does understand it, but personally sees it as something I need to not get caught up in. Which is why I'm glad to read you got "out of your head" by the second half. Running any distance like this is amazing because it is something you want to do and something that you find value in. That's all that needs to matter. That doing it makes you feel good. 'Course, you can ignore all I say here, for I personally don't want to be a runner and therefore am talking out of my tookus. ;) xoxo

    1. You might not want to be a runner but your comment is spot on :-) Thanks so much Hannah. I think I might almost be more proud of myself for re-evaluating my priorities than I would have been for breaking the 2 hour mark.

  7. Kari, I think you are amazing for running another half marathon so soon and also for your honest reflections on the event. I'm sorry to hear that you had a rough time with your health and body in the week prior to the run and am sure that most athletes would have experienced some level of anxiety due to this. Big congrats on completing the run, learning from the experience and I hope you enjoy this event thoroughly if you enter again next year. It sounds like a lovely scenic course. :D

    1. Thanks so much Mel :-) It was a really beautiful course and I would love to run it again with a clearer mind from the start!

  8. Well done on your second half!! I'm doing my first one in October and I have a semi goal to do it in under 2 hrs as well but I also have the main goal of just finishing the thing :)

    Fueling on Dates? I may have to try that as I hadn't thought of what to fuel on.

    1. I definitely recommend dates as an easy and natural sugar source...not to mention a lot cheaper than commercial gels and the like. It's so exciting your first half is coming up too!

  9. I am so proud of you Kari!!! Firstly for completing your second half marathon (you amaze me!) but more importantly for being aware of what was happening in your head while completing it. The self reflection and adjustment aspect of your race honestly impressed me more than the achievement, that internal dialogue can be such a challenge to be aware of and counter, you did an wonderful job getting back in the right head space.

    And it goes without saying that those pancakes look divine and made me drool! x

    1. Thanks so much Claire - that is really kind of you. I'm so glad I was able to take a step back from the time focus to see the more important things :)


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