Today I ran the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon and set a new personal record (PR) of 1:59:18. Not only did I beat my goal of 2 hours, I bested my previous PR by 10:17.

I never ran a mile, not even as a child, until November, 2006 as a 35 year old. In fact, I was not ever athletic until 2004, when I took up road bicycling. Having the cardiovascular endurance from 2 years of biking made it a quick task for me to run my first mile and see improvement continue immediately after that.

In 2008, I was still running but with no real idea of why, other than the sheer joy of being able to run - which isn’t a bad reason at all. I had no training plan, and no events I really cared to enter. Then a friend suggested a local marathon training group called Fort Bend Fit. Running a marathon sounded like an awesome goal, so I signed up, started the training in July, and stuck to it like glue. In August, I ran my first 5K, in October, I my first-half marathon, in November my first 25k, in December my first 30k, and then in January, 2009, I finished my first full marathon at a very slow and painful pace of 4:54. It was a great experience, but I promised myself I wouldn’t run another unless I could come in at 4 hours or less - it was too uncomfortable of an experience, otherwise.

The 2009/2010 running season didn’t go great for me. I was traveling too much for work and kept trying to ramp up my mileage faster than what I was capable of, so I had a few overuse injuries during the season. I also didn’t have my nutrition dialed-in properly, so I would often bonk on training runs. I decided to skip running the events for that season and focus on bicycling.

In January, 2010 I signed up for coaching with Carmichael Training Systems with the goal of greatly improving my bicycling performance in our local 2-day MS-150 charity ride, and a week-long bicycle touring ride in the Colorado mountains. The coaching worked - I didn’t just better at biking, I got a lot better. I spent more time biking than I ever had before, and I enjoyed it a lot more. After my big summertime event, I had to pick new goals to focus on, and that was easy - I wanted to be able to run a half-marathon a lot faster than before, and prove to myself that I might be able to run a full marathon faster in the future. In June, my CTS coach, Thad Walker, added running to my training schedule. And because I couldn’t make it easy on myself, I also wanted to do a triathlon that fall, so swimming was added to the mix, with plenty of biking still in the mix as well.

For the rest of the summer, and through much of the fall, training was… frustrating. It’s hot here in coastal Texas - hot and exceptionally humid. I reached a point where I would often over-heat during exercising, even early in the morning - sweat doesn’t work well at maximum humidity. My nutrition program also wasn’t dialed in well at all, despite some great advice from CTS nutritionalist Ryan Kohler that I pretty much just ignored - in almost every workout, I would bonk or just not have the energy to perform well. Add into the mix that I was now spreading my training hours across three different sports really meant I didn’t feel as if I were doing well in any of them.

Until late fall, my running was not progressing well at all. I was a much slower runner than my first season, and with a big biking event in September and my first triathlon in in October, I only had time to have 2 runs in my weekly schedule. My coach made sure these runs remained endurance runs, i.e. a moderate aerobic pace, until after my other race priorities were completed. I didn’t like this at the time - I was frustrated with how slow I was running, I wanted harder workouts so I could improve, and I wanted more workouts so I could increase stamina. But, this is exactly the type of a scenario where a professional earns their keep.

My coach had a good idea from working with my through the earlier part of the year where my over-training limits were, and he also saw how my base aerobic running performance needed more time before I was trained properly for the harder workouts. I also had recently read a blog post from another CTS athlete that reached their half-marathon goal and she had much the same concern: when does the hard work start? It is often hard to be patient as an athlete, particularly a relatively inexperienced one, as we always think that working harder is what is needed, and that’s really often not the case.

Things started to really come together in October. My last big biking event of the year was over, so we backed off the hours on the bike a bit and spent a lot more time running. The cooler weather really began to help, too - my first 10 mile training run with the local group saw my return to the sub-10-minute/mile pace I expected. My first triathlon in late October also brought quite a surprise - my fastest 5K time ever of 27:22. Hmmm, maybe I always needed a swim and bike warm-up before running. I began to feel hope returning.

That hope was shattered a bit when I ran my last long run of the season, with the HMSA 25K Classical run in mid-November. The run started great, but half-way through I picked up the pace and that did me in - poor race-craft on my part, as I wasn’t ready for that kind of run. The last 3 miles were a brutal slog to the finish and put me in a foul mood for a while.

The week after the 25K things got exciting - I did my 2nd CTS running field test of the season, an all-out 8-minute run, in order to determine my heart-rate ranges for the rest of my workouts. I was able to run a 7:54 pace for the 8-minute test, with an average heart rate of 175 and a maximum of 186. This put my endurance range at 87 to 154 bpm and my tempo range at 170 to 177 bpm. Finally, speed-work was coming! I was excited.

In running, tempo intervals are intended to be just below or just at your lactate threshold. I had done lactate threshold workouts earlier in the year on the bike, and they were always more mentally challenging than physical I felt. The tempo runs verified this as well. During my early attempts at these intervals, I would often not have the mental fortitude to hold the interval the entire distance. Further more, sometimes I wouldn’t have what seemed to be enough leg strength to get my heart-rate high enough to be in the tempo zone.

Some objective thinking about the problems and discussion with my coach lead to two clear conclusions: mental strength is just as important as physical, and my running form sucked when I got tired. My running form at these higher speeds got better in a progressive fashion - ultimately it was as the strength in my leg muscles were built-up from the runs. The mental strength was another story. Some of the runs wen’t great, some wen’t horrible. I noticed that on the runs that didn’t go so well that I’d start having a lot of negative self-talk going on in my head during the interval - whoops. One I realized I was doing that, I really focused on positive self-talk and saw improved performance, and more importantly, the ability to hold the intervals through to completion.

My breakthrough workout occurred on December 28, 2010. I was scheduled to run 2 sets of 30-minute tempos with a 15-minute recovery. I had been working up to this amount of time, but it still seemed like an eternity to consider. But I had a positive attitude that day and went out with all intentions to do well… and boy, did I. Not only was I able to hold both intervals through to completion, but within each 30-minute interval contained my 2 fastest 5K runs ever - back-to-back. Hmm, maybe there’s something to all this after all.

After a brief recovery week, we added the ultimate speed-work intervals to my schedule: short duration maximum-effort running intervals. I started with 4-minute intervals, which for me meant about 800m of running. Over the next week and a half we worked up to 5 5-minute long intervals. These were certainly physically tough, but the mental challenge was completely different than the tempo intervals. All I had to do to keep the pace going was count down the next 90 seconds and that was enough to get me through. Your body is screaming at you to stop as the lactate builds up, but ultimately you know this effort just doesn’t last that. Compare that to those long tempo intervals where the discomfort is so strong, and slowing down to just a few bpm slower than your current pace feels like a walk in the park. Your brain wants you to stop this madness, and those of us who haven’t really experienced this before think this is called pain - but it’s not pain at all. None of this hurt, it was just discomfort with your body trying every trick in its book to get you to slow down, and maybe take a nice nap.

This final burst of speed-work had a pretty amazing effect to my actual physiological performance and to my mental confidence as well. In my first set of intervals on January 9th, I ran an average of 7:05, 7:34, 7:38, and 7:37 paces. On my last set of intervals on January 18th, I ran 6:56, 7:20, 7:32, 7:54 and 7:42 paces over a longer 5-minute duration. Between that and the sub-9-minute paces I ran on my 30-minute tempo run intervals, I felt I had the strength and stamina to hold the approximately 9:00 pace average I needed to to reach my sub-2-hour half-marathon goal.

Race Day

The week leading up to the race were a bit unnerving. The weather outlook implied a good chance of rainy weather during the race; no big deal, rain keeps you cooler and helps you go faster. In fact, 40 degrees with a light rain is just about my favorite running weather. But as the week went on, the forecast looked worse and worse - thunderstorms were in the forecast. The race organizers would quite rightly delay or cancel the race if lightning was in the area, and in this part of the world when it rains it often means heavy rain with big-ass drops, not just a wee little rain. Having the weather screw up the race after working this hard on it would be heart-breaking, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it.

Ultimately, we lucked out. It did not rain at all the night and morning of the race. When the race actually started at 7am there was light drizzle, which continued through the first hour before turning into a light rain. There was no lightning data being detected within 100 miles of the race, so we were all set to go. It was a bit warm - 64 degrees, so the yellow event caution flag was out to let people know they might need to slow down. I might not make my goal, but I felt at least I would make a new PR even with the warmer temperatures.

I stuck to the plan my coach and I had discussed a few days before. I was going to aim for a 9:00 even pace during the first 9 miles of the race, and then increase my pace until my heart-rate was in the tempo zone and hold it there through the rest of the race. I’d take an energy gel at 45 minutes into the race, and another at the 9-mile marker. I’d drink water with the gels, and have a couple of sport drinks at the water stations in between. I’ve done enough of these races now to know that as simple as these strategies are, they are extremely difficult to adhere to. The excitement of the race, especially early on with all the crowds, cause a huge adrenalin rush, and it’s ridiculously easy to run a lot faster than you should in the first part of the race - that will ultimately bite you in the ass in the second half.

The chaos of the first few miles of this race is just hard to describe. There are 22,000 registered runners in this year’s race, split evenly between the half and full marathon races, and split into two separate waves. That’s a whole lot of people to have on a city street at one time. Finding room to run your pace, or not running too fast, is pretty damn hard. In the first three miles I ran a 9:19, 8:45 and 8:59 pace. On target, and more importantly, my HR was in the endurance zone at 143, 154, and 156 - things were looking good.

In between miles 4 and 6 the race runs by my parent’s neighborhood so I was able to see my family briefly twice and ditch a hat that had proved too hot with the warm and humid conditions. It’s always nice to run through this neighbor and seeing your family cheer you on is a great motivator. My pace for the next few miles remained on target, at 9:03, 8:58, 9:07, 9:01, 8:57 and 9:06 with a HR average of 158, 162, 161, 166, 166 and 167. I wasn’t surprised, or too concerned, about my heart rate creeping up - that’s somewhat normal, and I wanted to stick to my race plan.

At around mile 9, the half-marathon race splits off from the full-marathon and does a u-turn to head towards the finish. I remember when I ran the full-marathon on this course that suddenly the crowd noise and excitement of the race greatly diminished as half the participants suddenly disappeared. Luckily this wasn’t as big of a shock having run the race before, and more importantly, the half-marathon group stayed on the same road while u-turning so we got the crowd excitement for another full mile before things quieted down some. One I saw the mile 9 marker I put phase-two of my plan into action: down a gel and water, and pick up the pace until my HR was in the tempo zone.

At this point, you have a 5K run left to complete. Even if you aren’t doing well in either race, there is a great feeling that you can at least slog your way to finish - 5K just isn’t that far to jog or even walk if needed, unless you’ve reached a situation requiring medical attention. I found it easy to increase my effort a bit to increase my heart rate, but I didn’t see a good improvement to my pace. Part of this was simply due to tired muscles at this point in the race, but part if it was also that we had reached the relatively hilly portion of the race course along Allen Parkway. This road follows a Buffalo Bayou through town, and is one of the few places in the entire metropolitan area were there are actual natural hills. For any of my readers that don’t live along a coastal prairie, I cannot begin to explain how flat is here. Regardless, short hills are still hills, and they can wear a tired runner out. My paces along this section were 8:50, 9:01, and 9:11 with a heart rate of 170, 170 and 172 - on the heart-rate target, but not fast enough. Uh, oh.

Once you pass mile 12, you’re into downtown and the glorious flatness returns. You’re in the city canyons now, and the excitement of being so near the finish takes over, as well as seeing more people along the race course cheering you on. I picked up the pace a bit, but felt I was near my limit. Once I passed the 20K mark, I just had to turn the corner and run a few hundred yards before finishing. I saw that the clock time was 1:59 and something and the announcer said anyone wanting to finish in 2 hours or less had better sprint, so I did! I actually crossed the line at the 2:00:03 point on the clock, a.k.a. “gun time.” It would have been cool to have crossed just a few seconds earlier, but I knew then I had reached my goal, as my position in the first wave was about 45 seconds behind the gun. I had done it! My paces on these last parts were 8:52 and 8:48, with an average heart rate of 173 and 174.

I’m really glad the medical staff is so diligent watching over the runners. Several that had finished when I had were near collapse from pushing too hard. They warned the rest of us to keep our heads up and to keep walking - good advice, as when I looked down for a moment I got extremely light-headed. I had not frequently finished my runs at such a high pace and heart-rate before, and with such a sudden stop without a cool-down it was important to let yourself recover properly.