Short Version: 1:36:10 for 6th place overall, 1st in Age Group
One of my running partners used to say “The process is the goal” all the time and while I theoretically appreciated what he meant, I didn’t practically start to appreciate it until this Spring when I had to take a hard look at who I am and who I want to be as a runner. 2016 and early 2017 are probably my least successful 18 months of training and racing since I came back to this a decade ago but improving on that isn’t going to come automatically, so I’ve had to be humble and race even though I’m nowhere near my old form. As challenging as that’s been in some respects, it’s also allowed me to focus on different race outcomes than a PR or a win and the Asheville Half was a perfect example of that.
It was a very early start and they asked us to be at the start line at 6:30, a full half hour before the gun. Thankfully, they just meant in the start area and I was able to do some jogging, drills and strides before the race started. Because I knew the course and knew it had two significant hilly sections, I started conservatively which wasn’t entirely easy because the first two miles of the course are essentially downhill. I didn’t wear a watch but my first mile split was 6:36 and my second was 13:00, so my first two miles were relatively quick for my goals. I just focused on effort, however, and hoped that everything would come out okay.
Right after mile 2, the first hill section starts and winds its way around the community college campus. You go up steep hills only to turn around and go down their backsides. My goal through this section was to float on the uphills and cruise the downhills and just keep my effort and legs intact. The group I was running with passed me here but I let them go because I was dedicated to executing my race plan. Towards the top of the campus, we went around a turn that let me see the field in front of me and I noted two women about 2 minutes up who seemed to have fallen off the front pack.* There was another woman (in bright orange shorts, I might add) just a few steps ahead of me but I sensed that she was in over her head so opted to focus on pulling towards the other two. The first hill section finally ended just after the Mile 5 marker and we got onto Meadow Road/Riverside drive for the 4ish mile flat section that this race features.
As we got onto the flats, I finally found my rhythm and worked at a steady state effort as I pulled forward. I passed orange shorts and her running partner, as well as a few other people from the group who’d passed me in the hills and felt cautiously optimistic. As we approached mile 8, I opened my gel on the first try and took it just before I got to the aid station where I actually slowed to a walk-jog and got a full cup of water with which to wash it down. This move was EXCELLENT. Usually aid stations catch me off guard and I can’t get my gel open or I try to move through quickly and choke on water. I lost maybe 10 seconds here and actually had a great fuel stop.
Shortly after the mile 8 aid station, one of the women in front of me was within striking distance.** She had gone out hard and from the looks of it, was paying for it in a place where she should have been cruising. I set my eyes on her and pulled forward. We passed the mile 9 marker and I knew the biggest hill was coming.
And holy shit was it a hill. I’m no stranger to hills but this was a BEAST to put in a race. It climbs all the way up the back of UNCA’s campus and I would estimate that it’s almost a mile long. It has a brutal curve at the top just when you think you’re done and then almost worse, a screaming downhill that will take your quads off right into another uphill. I passed the woman on the hill but she tried to catch me on the downhill. I didn’t react and just pulled away as we hit the second uphill and never saw her again. Finally, we turned to go down the hill in the front of campus, passed the mile 11 sign and turned onto WT Weaver. The other woman was about a minute ahead of me here but I was pretty sure I was out of real estate to make that up.
My proudest part of the day, however, came on the last two miles on Broadway. This is an insidious f*cker of a hill, climbing just enough that you can’t turn your legs over well. I found my tempo effort and pushed the whole way home. We rolled up Broadway, got a tiny reprieve coming into downtown then I gritted my teeth and pushed up Lexington and made the left onto Walnut. I didn’t have much left for a kick but was thrilled that I actually changed gears and held it for the last two miles rather than falling back, out of fitness.
I finished at a hair over 1:36 and although this is my slowest half marathon time by three minutes, it was also the hardest course I’ve ever encountered and I am really proud of the time. I feel like a totally different runner than I did at Unplugged and had the fitness and mindset to attack the course appropriately. I’m going back into base building phase now but would love to do another flatter half to see where I’m at.
There were two super shitty things that happened today that I witnessed. *The first was witnessing my very first course cutting. He passed me early on in the race like his pants were on fire. He was young, so I figured maybe he just didn’t know how to pace well. At Mile 4ish, however, there was a hill and turn that doubled back on itself on two sides of the road with a porto-potty between. I caught him just before this and he was struggling. He stepped off to the side of the road and looked around, then went in the porto-potty. When I came back around 45 seconds later, he came out of the porto-potty, looked around again and jumped back in behind me like nothing happened!
**The second one was almost as annoying. USATF is extremely clear that racers cannot have escorts or pacers, especially if they are competing for money. The formerly mentioned woman that I passed at mile 10 was also young but her dad had been biking with her for at least 6 miles. Not biking around the course to cheer, but actively biking right.next.to.her. Mind you, she was in 6th until I passed her so arguably racing for money and she had started the race in the lead pack. This was a totally empty course; the race happened early and there were not that many spectators so having a friend or family member on a bike was a definite advantage. Not to mention, when I was getting close, he was telling her how far back I was. Anyway, having watched this for a bunch of miles, I decided I would be nice but say something because perhaps they didn’t know that this wasn’t allowed. As I caught her, I said “hey bike guy, you may not know this but USATF prohibits bike escorts or pacers.” And he flipped out. “She’s not competing, that only counts if we’re watching paces and we’re not even timing her, this is just for fun!” I responded (mind you, I’m passing her going up a huge hill), “well, we’re in the running for the money so I would argue that we’re competing.” He sputtered away at me and I (okay, this was not my best moment) said “You seem pretty defensive” and moved on. I passed her and as I said, I never saw her again but a few minutes later, he biked away from her and she completely fell apart. I beat her by more than 3 minutes in the last miles. Maybe I’m oversensitive in light of all the cheating scandals but both of these incidents made me so mad. Play by the rules or don’t play at all…