Oh, Pittsburgh [Half-Marathon]

Here’s the promised race report: it sucked, the end.

Where “they” = “people running the Pittsburgh Marathon”

Ok fine, that’s a little unfair. A lot unfair, in fact. I suppose I should walk through what really went down that morning of Sunday, May 6. Get ready for a lengthy one, folks!

The Race

The Lady, her mother (our cheering section and photographer!), and I arrived in downtown Pittsburgh pretty freaking early that morning. We got there so early, in fact, that there was still toilet paper in the port-a-johns! *rimshot* We spent the next 45 minutes or so relaxing, strategizing, and making fun of the folks nearby who started pre-race group stretching an hour ahead of time.

Troublemakers. Nothing but making trouble.

It reminded me of high school football, where we’d always watch the other teams’ warm-ups with intense curiosity and immediately start making fun of them if they started doing jumping jacks. Because seriously, how does 10 jumping jacks get you warmed up and ready to play football?

Anyway. Eventually the surrounding buzz of excitement grew to the point where we couldn’t sit still anymore, and with about 20 minutes before the start we wandered off to our starting corrals. If I could change one single thing about the race (and there are a lot of things I would change), I would beg the race organizers to implement a better way of funneling runners into their starting corrals. This was chaos, as there were no obvious entrances or exits, and the police barricades arguably kept out more runners trying to get in than bystanders.

It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo.

Once the race got underway, I immediately tried to settle into a 7:50 pace, plan being I’d stay at this pace (~1:45 total) for the first several miles, then possibly kick it up to 7:30 if I was feeling good down the stretch. This plan worked well for the first 8 miles or so. This is a pretty rolling course: running though downtown Pittsburgh–the city that’s 2nd in the entire world in number of bridges (guess who it’s behind)–is no simple task.

Well, this plan worked well…until mile 9. We were crossing an onramp under the I-376 bridge, and I swear as we came down the other side, I felt something–probably my endurance–snap. My adrenaline suddenly stopped; it seriously felt like I just slammed into a wall. After 8 straight miles of solid 7:50 performances, my next mile slipped to 8:15, then 8:47, then 9:35…

Yeah, I faded pretty fast. Catch the entire blow-by-blow thanks to GPS here. I bottomed-out around mile 11, where I have seriously never been so pissed off on a run. I was angry. I had done all the training, kicking its ass in places, and now I couldn’t even maintain the pace I’d done five weeks previous. After crossing the Birmingham Bridge (the final bridge before the final ~5k back to the finish line), the thought of just chucking it all and walking home crossed my mind more than once. Of course I’d never actually act on it, but it was truly the first time in any race I’ve ever run that the thought of throwing in the towel crossed my mind.

I was just that frustrated.

This was the 10k mark, and I was feelin’ goooood.

This was the finish line, and I was not a happy camper.

I crossed the finish line and in my haze skipped right over the finisher’s photo lines. I just wanted to get some food in me and think about what had happened.

The Lady was not far behind; she did not PR either, but was much closer to her 1:59 PR with a final time of 2:02 and change. We spent the next while languishing on the grass at Point State Park while the post-race party roiled around us: doing some stretching, chatting, and general relaxing. I was still pretty upset about the whole thing, but The Lady made this astute observation: of the four half-marathons I’ve done, and the five she’s done, this was our second-best. That was a nice perspective.

The Analysis

After I’d had some time to cool down (mood-wise), I decided to do a little bit of analysis, as I was curious about my overall running progress. I threw together a Python script that did some basic regression, and even though I couldn’t quite get the kernel smoothing to work properly (how do you create weights for points that’s a function of their total distance, and use that weight–plus the weights of the runs that occurred near each other–to re-weight the average pace of the current run?), here’s the overall trend in terms of average paces for all the runs in my Garmin watch:

There are issues with this graph. The blue line is merely a plot of each run’s average pace; thus, it does not capture distance, which is an admittedly important factor when considering what your average pace has been doing. I’m still working on how to write a kernel smoother that takes three dimensions (time, distance, pace) while only plotting two (feel free to check out the code I’ve written so far and give me some pointers; this should be easy, I don’t know what I’m missing). But still, even when considering only average paces, the trendline still moves down, which is kind of impressive.

Furthermore, check out my 10k and 13.1mi race times:

I’m definitely getting faster, even if I’m not always meeting my A-goals. And it’s only been 10 months since I started tracking this GPS information, and a little over 18 months since my first half-marathon. I suppose, more than anything, patience would be an important virtue to extoll right now. So, in conclusion:

What Went Wrong

  • I overtrained. Far and above anything else, this was my biggest problem. This past spring was significantly more brutal of a semester than I’d anticipated, and it went out in fantastic style during the last few weeks, which coincided with the Pittsburgh Half. Furthermore, after my 1:43 at JaSR, I pushed way too hard to try and get sub-1:40, running too many races and upping my cross-training intensity far too much in the weeks just before the Pittsburgh Half.
  • I set unrealistic goals. More unrealistic than usual, that is. After clinching my Pittsburgh Half goal in the late-March JaSR almost completely by accident, I was suddenly unsure how to proceed with five weeks yet to go. I fumbled around, significantly increasing my training intensity (see previous point) while trying to figure out what to do. I unofficially settled on an A-goal of sub-1:40, even though I knew it was far too ambitious a mere 5 weeks out.
  • I was really stressed. Maybe not entirely under my control, but the end of this semester was brutal. I hadn’t been sleeping well, and my mind was largely elsewhere.
  • I went out the gate way too fast. It was part stress-venting from the semester, part frustration-venting from the chaos of the starting corrals, but I jumped out the gate way too fast: my goal pace for the first 8 miles was 7:50, but I was aiming to do that through constant acceleration, not immediately locking in at that pace. Plus maintaining that pace through the sea of humanity in the first 6 miles meant a lot of stop-and-go running, which wears out the legs pretty fast.
  • I lost my cool. This was kind of scary: even during my infamous bonk at mile 9 of the Atlanta Half, I wasn’t feeling the level of desperation that was choking my insides during mile 11 of the Pittsburgh Half. Here, there was no focus, no calm, no mental discipline when things went sideways. I was so intent on hitting this vastly unrealistic goal that I almost opted to give up entirely rather than salvage something. It was a very not-me type of moment, one which I do not intend to repeat.
  • The sun did not help. Truthfully, I didn’t notice this one as much as others have said: apparently the sun was pretty brutal, and it may very well have sapped my performance further. But it wasn’t foremost on my mind as I was running.

Keep in mind: none of these things by themselves broke my performance; rather, it was their cacophonous symphony that derailed the race for me. It’s often said that everything has to go right for a PR to happen, so it doesn’t take much for things to swing the other way. That said, there were still some things that did in fact go well.

What Went Right

  • I hit my goal 5 weeks ahead of schedule. And while still recovering from a ridiculous Moroccan upper-respiratory infection. Pretty hard to top that one.
  • I nailed my goal pace for 8 strong miles. That’s still something to be proud of. With the litany of things that went wrong, I still cranked out a solid performance the first 60% of the race.
  • I learned a ton. I was shown none-too-plainly where the cracks in my training regimen were. As much as I love hills, I relied too much on that faith rather than actively working to make myself even better at them; as a result, Pittsburgh’s punishing bridges packed more than enough ammunition to tear through my stamina. I also learned that I need to work in mandatory rest time: now that I have a workout and racquetball buddy again, I need to be careful not to overdo it as I did in the last month where both half marathon training AND time spent playing racquetball increased significantly. Something needs to give.
  • Over the course of this training session, I improved. It seems that since January my performance was on a constant incline from workout to workout. It’s not surprising, therefore, that an eventual–and harsh–whiplash regression-to-the-mean event would occur, but that doesn’t negate the handful of fantastic speedwork and tempo sessions I had, nor the numerous PRs I set in the last 5 months. A sub-20 5k, sub-40 10k, and sub-1:40 half are not far off!

So…what comes next?

Contemplative couple is contemplative.

We don’t really have any races planned for the summer (though Elite Runners does usually sponsor Hump Day runs: informal 5k races on Wednesday afternoons, so there’s that), but are going to have a very busy September this year. There are still some things swirling in the Sea of Ambiguity, but let’s just say that amid running from zombies, racing alongside B-2 bombers, and embarking on yet another great race, it’s entirely possible we and 10 of our closest friends will be traversing the ~200 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, D.C….on foot.

I will kick the Pittsburgh Half’s race next year. Challenge accepted!

The big thing in the meantime, though, is that July begins training season for our first full marathon! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO *dies*

Check out the BLING!

About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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4 Responses to Oh, Pittsburgh [Half-Marathon]

  1. Pingback: Needz moar psots | theatre of consciousness

  2. Pingback: GP: A new way to track running progress | theatre of consciousness

  3. Pingback: Burgh 10k race report and Pittsburgh half check-in | Where are the pancakes?

  4. Pingback: Race Report: The Pittsburgh Half | Where are the pancakes?

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