Monday, April 23, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Horsetooth Half Marathon

Having read my last couple of posts, it would not be hard to surmise that I had high hopes for a PR at the Horsetooth Half Marathon. While facing some steep hills in the beginning the course has an overall net elevation loss. I figured, not unreasonably, that if the hills didn’t throw me off pace, then I’d be able to run the rest of the course faster and turn in something along the lines of 2:05.

Sunday morning broke sunny but cool with no discernible wind at the starting area next the Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins. My brother, sister-in-law and I arrived about 30 minutes before the start which was enough time to hit the porta-potty, drop off our bags and do a short warm-up jog. A local Boy Scout troop was transporting bags to the finish and a big shout-out to them for a job well done. It’s nice to have a place to keep your post-race gear during a race, and even nicer to have it transported to the finish on a point-to-point course. This was also done free of charge.

There were definitely some stragglers still trying to park as we approached the 8:30 start time but I don’t believe that was the fault of the race organizers. If you are doing a race, especially one with something over 2000 registrants, don’t show up 10 minutes before the start.

While delayed, we were underway at 8:36 which I consider to be a completely acceptable delay. The start was slight up hill for the first third of a mile or so and then the first of a number of steep hills began. Initially, it wasn’t bad: more of ramp than a hill. Then we turned the corner and started into the really steep stuff. Conversations stopped and people began huffing and puffing as the grade took its toll. It was at this point that I realized I had overestimated how fast I could attack this slopes. I had planned for my pace never to fall below 11:00 per mile during the steepest hills but it was over 12:00 in several places. I just had to accept that given my heart rate jumping into the 160 zone. Pushing harder would have only pushed me into Z4 and that would have done more harm. As it turned out, I had underestimated how fast I could run down the hills and I was fairly sure I was making up for any lost time.

As we crossed the first damn, we had gained over 300 feet in altitude from the starting line. My focus was, and needed to be on the race, but it would have been nice to be able to snap a picture or two from this vantage point. It’s truly remarkable what a view you have looking out across nearly all of Fort Collins from this perch. High as it was, we still hadn’t reached the top yet.

The biggest hill on the whole course starts at about 1.2 miles in and you gain about 255 vertical feet over the span of a little over a half mile for an average grade of 8.6%. However, at places, it was an even steeper 9.2%. Even in your most upright position, it’s so steep that most of what you see in front of your face is the road. That’s just as well because gazing up this hill could be frustrating. Once you’ve crested this sucker, you’ve climbed the highest and steepest, but not yet the last hill on the course.

Considering the challenges I had already faced in the first two miles, I still felt okay. Heat was proving not to be a factor and while elevated, my heart rate felt under control. Running down hill beats you up a little bit, but I was able to recover the cardio some and keep a sub 9:00 pace for long stretches. I took water at the first of four stations and in retrospect that proved to be too few. I also should mention here a little something about race etiquette. Stopping in front of the water station is NOT COOL! I would imagine that any readers of this site already know so this, so sorry for preaching to the choir, but if you plan on stopping or even walking through a water station, you need to take your cup, keep moving and then get out of the way. Hundreds of your fellow-participants are behind you and your need to treat the station like it’s a bar slows their momentum. Okay, putting away the soap box now!

Another big hill began at 3.85 miles and crested at 4.41. It was obviously not as long nor nearly as steep and I was still feeling pretty good as I hit the downhill side. In fact, the next couple of miles were going to be all downhill and I hit them ahead of the pace-per-mile that would have me on target for a 2:05 finish. I was starting to feel a little tired, but I took comfort in the fact that I was running ahead of the pace.

At 6.9 miles, you hit the last really tough hill on the course. It’s about 4.6% but by now, you’re not nearly as fresh as the start and it’s nearly half mile length was a very tough climb. It also has a fairly sharp left turn so you can’t see the summit when you start. Like all the other hills, however, it was followed by a downhill and again, I picked up speed and recovered my heart rate. I was feeling a little more tired, but now I had gone over eight miles and other than one slight rise, there were no more hills.

A left turn puts you onto a street called Overland Trail for less than a quarter mile before you enter the Poudre Trail bike path which is the mostly flat stretch that runs east to downtown Fort Collins and the finish. In my pre-race planning, I viewed this as a good opportunity to run at or maybe even slight ahead of the 9:30 pace that would have me on track for a finish within my goal time. And it’s here that I made a mistake in my strategy.

I approached this race with a fair amount of concern for the hills. They’re steep, they’re long and they are frequent with four of them within the first eight miles. I was concerned about how spent I might feel after getting to the top. Would my slow pace up the hill be followed by not-much-better run back down because I was so winded? Would I pull a muscle? Would it cause pain in my knees, shins or Achilles tendon? None of those things happened so I felt like I was going to be on track. It might be close, but I figured I could always pour on a little more speed at the end if I had to.

As I ran east into something of a breeze, I began to feel more than just tired. My legs were very sore and muscles were tight. It was as though I had stopped running and allowed them to tighten up. My heart rate also started increasing into the upper 150’s. I just put my head down and kept running into the wind, telling myself that if I could just stay below a 10:00 pace, I’d still have a shot at my goal or at the very least a PR. Through miles 9, 10 and 11, that seemed to work. I ran each slower than planned but still under ten minutes. But as I approached mile 12, I was feeling pretty awful. I had slowed my pace, but my heart rate was still high. With about a mile to go, I slowed to a brisk walk and the relief I felt made it clear it was the right decision.

For the last mile, I ran walked and then ran again, finally finishing up at 2:09:50. Was I disappointed to have missed my goal? Sure. But not overly so. I know that I left just about all I had on the course. Had I tried to push on and run, I doubt I would have still hit a PR and it didn’t seem worth injury or illness to shave a couple of minutes off my time. The race was also a wake-up call for HITS and has me rethinking my strategy for the run portion of that event.

So here’s the review of the race:

The bad:

On-Course Support: Four aid stations are probably not enough. The day was cool, but it could have easily been much warmer and dehydration could have become a serious issue. As it was, I found myself very dehydrated. That’s my responsibility, but even if I had been taking to cups instead of one, a few degrees could have overwhelmed someone like me. What’s more, my sister-in-law who was around 15 minutes behind me actually had to pull it out of the hands of a volunteer who said she was running out of cups. If I were a race director, I could not imagine having to instruct my volunteers to never refuse water to a participant so I can’t really blame them for that. But running out of cups? Come on. This race has been running for many years and this is the stuff of logistics 101.

Post-Race Support: Every finisher is given a pint glass from the key sponsor, New Belgium Brewery and you were able to take yours and fill it from a multi-faucet pipe as much as you want. No Gatorade buckets. However, these same glasses allowed earlier participants to wipe out all of the sports drink. Keep in mind, this was after a race that did not have enough water or sports drink on the course. The food was also mostly depleted by the time I got there. It sort of seemed like they were expecting a smaller crowd.

Results: As of this writing, it has been well over 24 hours since my finish and I cannot find results anywhere on the website nor have they been sent to me in the form of an e-mail. Keep in mind, this one was electronically timed with chips attached to the bib. I’ve gotten results faster from races that were using the old-fashioned tear tag system. That those results, in an at least preliminary form, are not up yet is disgraceful. They should have been up by last night.

The good:

Pre-Race Information: The website for the event had all of the information one could need a detailed map and elevation profile. Other details on transportation, aid stations, prizes and bag storage were easy to find and I felt like I had a good idea about the race before I registered. Registration itself was done via which is not my favorite vendor, but it went easily enough.

The Course: This one is really tough, but I see that as more positive than negative. Despite the steep hills, all running was done on paved, smooth surfaces and did not contain annoyances like big rocks, stairs or slippery surfaces. Parts of it were open to traffic, but major choke points and spectator locations were all closed off. At the one place where the bike path crossed a street, a signal man was there and he very correctly gave priority to the runners.

Post-Race Party: This was pretty good. Every participant was allowed to enter a beer garden where volunteers from New Belgium were serving a variety of their brews in the aforementioned pint glasses. Non-runners could also get one for a $2 donation. The beers they brew are among the best in the craft-brewing industry and I have to admit, a pint of Fat Tire Ale tasted pretty good after my run.

Finishers Medal: I've got a lot of medals, but this is the first one to commemorate the course by etching the altitude onto it. Very cool:

Point-to-point Transportation: In other races I’ve done where start and finish are not the same place, organizers have used school buses to get you back to the start where you presumably have parked. That’s always been fine with me. Just get me back to where I need to be. This one used comfortable, air-conditioned motor coaches, ours driven by a friendly professional. I felt pretty spent by the time we boarded the bus for the ride back and I was glad I wasn’t packed onto a school bus. It was a nice touch.

Probably the ultimate review of how good a race was is on whether or not I would run it again. In this case, I’m inclined to say yes. I’m feeling especially sore today, but I’d like to go back next year and run a better race. Now that I know what to expect, I think I will. I do hope that the slow results are just a glitch for the current year and that lessons will be learned regarding water and nutrition supply along the route. If the organizers can address those items, I think they’ll have an excellent race.

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