Saturday, September 22, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon

My anticipation for this year's Rock & Roll has been growing for a long time. One reason is the time that has passed since my last race. The Rattlesnake Tri was five weeks ago, though it feels like much longer. I've also had this one mentally circled as a "goal" race since early in the summer. With all of that time, today's race really could not get here soon enough for me.

My confidence in my ability to run the distance was bolstered after last year's race which I completed in 2:06:53, a PR. Considering I had done previously done the course twice before in my 30's, setting a new record at 42 felt pretty damn good!

Since then, however, I've struggled a little bit at the distance. Last December, I ran the Rock Canyon Half Marathon in Pueblo. I had no illusions about doing that one in PR time. It was a snowy windy day and a course I really didn't know. However, despite being on pace for a 2:07 goal for most of the race, I hit the wall in the last 2.5 or so. Truthfully, I was glad to finish.

Four and a half months later I was in Fort Collins for the Horsetooth Half Marathon. This time I thought I might PR. I had been training well all winter long and we were blessed with a nice running day. Indeed, I felt pretty good even after climbing the big hills at the front of that course, but alas, one last big hill, a stiff breeze and very sore muscles pushed me down below that goal as well.

When I did HITS in July, just completing that hot, exhausting and utterly difficult course was enough. I'm not a strong enough runner that I would ever hope to run the third stage of a 70.3 at record pace.

All of that brings me to today, the fifth time I've run 13.1 in the span of a year (last year's race was on October 9). Despite my struggles with the half mary, I've had a better year running. With that in mind, I aimed to complete the race in under 2:00.

As suggested by the race organizers, I picked up my packet at the expo on Thursday, leaving Friday for the out-of-towners. Apologies in advance for the camera work. I'm shooting with a new phone and am--obviously--still getting used to the camera.

Competitor Group is very proud of this series. And they reflect it in their pricing:

I registered early and saved a whopping $20 of that price. As I recall, when I did the Rock & Roll San Diego in 2006, the cost was about half of that $195. Ouch.

To their credit, they got us through packet pick-up with ease. Not that it should be hard, but I was through the pick-up section in something under five minutes and then out onto the expo floor.

I've been to so many of these things that I don't really find them all that interesting anymore. Maybe I'm just getting old, but getting a free granola bar just doesn't hold the same thrill it used to. What's more, most of the stuff there is for sale rather than for free. Sports Authority, the marquee sponsor of the Denver event actually sets up a store inside the expo. Here's a blurry (sorry) picture of that.

If actually R&R merchandise is more your thing, you can get that as well. You can even try on clothing in one of these "dressing rooms":

I really hope that they were never used for anything else prior to serving their purpose here.

I think I made it for a whole 15 minutes before hitting the road back home. Outside, I felt compelled to take a picture of the giant blue bear peeking in the window of the convention center. Why? It's a giant blue bear peeking in a window!

Then it was time to wait for race morning. For me that started at 5:30 this morning and it was pitch dark outside. It was also cool and would stay that way for the rest of the morning. Having done so much training on hot summer afternoons, I was especially appreciative of this fact.

No doubt, part of the cost of this event is the downtown venue. This includes the benefit of having the staging area, including the start and finish lines in Civic Center Park.

The gear check is still part of the deal as well so soon after arriving I checked my bag with post race clothing, etc. and was ready to kill some time before getting to my start corral.

It's a this point that I feel compelled to say something about starting in the right place. Though no doubt you, friendly reader, already know this. You don't help yourself and only mess with the race of fellow athletes by either signing up for the wrong time or just not starting with your assigned group. I spent much of the first mile dodging and weaving around people who were walking or were clearly not ready to run a race in the 2:05 time assigned to our group. That's right, my goal was 2:00 but I signed up for 5 minutes slower out of respect. If I catch you after mile 6, fine, you just weren't having the day. But you, the jerk walking right next to the corner I'm trying to tangent, you're a disrespectful, clueless idiot and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Whew! I feel better now.

Running through downtown Denver is indeed a unique experience. It's part of what makes this race so special and part of why I'm willing to fork over my hard-earned cash for it. That doesn't mean it isn't without some hazards. Downtown streets are still covered with cracks, bumps, dips and other obstacles that make it easier to trip or twist an ankle. Still, it's a really cool experience.

I felt just the slightest twinge of fatigue early on. Hard to say why, but I managed to shake it off and just kept putting the miles behind me. It's always a great feeling to notice how fast each mile goes by. 4.75? Wow, it feels like I just passed the 4 mile mark! Cool!

There's something of an altitude gain between the LoDo section of the course and last section of downtown on Broadway, but it's subtle and you don't really notice it. That all changes at about 3.6 miles in. As you make the turn onto 17th Avenue you are faced with the steepest, biggest hill of the course. It's always amusing to notice how all of the little conversations stop in places like this. But soon enough the hill is behind you and then it's a cruise down 17th all the way to City Park.

Turning off of York Street and into the park itself, you're greeted with a group of cheerleaders. I don't know which high school they are from, but I'm guessing it's Denver East since that's nearest. I can't say why, but they're awesome! I guess they just have some energy in their routines or their voices or whatever, but it always gives me a lift.

The park seems like it would contain a lot of choke points, but it doesn't. The whole race was crowded, but I had plenty of room to move, pass and get passed without feeling like I was going to crash into someone. I also started making some good time through this section. Indeed, miles 6, 7 and 8 all of which are in or partially in the park were at 8:18, 8:30 and 8:22 respectively. I started to think I just might hit my goal, but then again, there were still several miles to go.

I figured I needed to do at least 75% of the course at under 9:00/mile pace if I wanted to finish in under two hours. If things got slower after that, well that probably wouldn't throw me off. But it didn't happen. Even though I was feeling tired, I also kept my pace pretty consistent.

As I entered Cheesman Park for the last section before heading back to the finish, I felt a pretty strong pain in my left knee. The left has given my trouble on and off over the years and now it felt, well worse than normal. I knew I had the cardio and strength to finish but damn, you can't really beat an injury. I hoped I could just run it off and not have to limp or drag my left leg behind me and miss my goal time as a result.

I didn't feel bad about not being one of the full marathoners turning south at this point. I still like the idea of doing that distance, but today was all about the goal and I was starting to feel every one of the 11.5 miles or so I had completed at that point.

Cheesman is home to the last real hill of the course. It doesn't look to bad as you approach it, but since it's late in the race, you definitely feel it. But then its over and down the hill you go, the finish line less than a mile away.

I sort of recall a euphoria doing that section last year. Probably because I had no goal and was just thrilled to be so far in front of where I expected to be. This year---eh, not as much. Being that it's a downhill run, I felt pretty good, but I also was ready to be done and my achy knee was continuing to make intermittent appearances. But then it was right onto Sherman Street and then left right away onto 14th Avenue and then down hill (more or less the same big hill at 3.6 miles) and into the finish. Despite feeling sore and I tired, I gave it a little kick.

And my time: 1:53:37! I never imagined I could do it that fast. For a while during my training through the late summer, I began to question whether or not I could even break 2:00.

This report is already getting pretty long so and I gave a full review last year so I'll abbreviate this one:

On the positive, the race is an event. It's large in scale and the production quality is world class. Bands on the course, tons of support and a great venue keep me coming back. They also learned from some of last year's mistakes such as not parking a semi-trailer in the area where folks line up to drop off their gear. As I mentioned before, Civic Center park is a great place for both the pre and post race activities. In some ways, it's Denver's version of the National Mall albeit much smaller.

This one is getting to the point that there's really only fine-tuning needed. I could complain about price, but if people are willing to pay it--and based on today's crowds they are--I can't fault the business model. I chose to participate. In fairness to everyone who is trying to run at a specific time, I think they should be a bit more strict on corral enforcement. No one gets to move up to start at a faster time. Period. Moreover, I think that anyone aiming a time of 2:10 or less in the half should be required to prove they can do it. Setting qualifying standards, as is done for the BolderBoulder might be worth consideration.

As I was heading back to my car, I was pleasantly surprised by a text from my brother who just happened to be in town with his family and were having breakfast nearby. I got to enjoy a little time with them before heading home for a much needed and dare I say, deserved nap!

I'm now on my annual week off where I'll do absolutely nothing until next Saturday when I think I'll do a 1 mile max heart rate test, just as I did last year. Then it's time to slow down and build up my base. I'm leaning toward going back to Rock Canyon, as long as I stay healthy but otherwise, it will be nice to just train with no goals, pressure or worries. I don't doubt I'll be champing at the bit to get back into tri season next spring, but for now, I'm going to enjoy the down time!

Thanks for reading!

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