Sunday, February 28, 2010

Xterra Thrill In The Hills Half Marathon

The Xterra Georgia series Thrill In The Hills half marathon was a hugely anticipated event for me. After years of dreaming of doing a marathon I decided it was best to throw out that idea for this year and do a half marathon. I had my eye on this half marathon ever since I started trail running. It was close enough to Atlanta that I could stay with family, not too far from NC, and most importantly not during the warmer months which lots of the other trail half marathons seem to be in.

The week leading up to the race was one of the longest weeks of my life. So many emotions and thoughts running through my head all week. Sometimes I felt that I was so prepared and had nothing to worry about and other times I questioned if I had done the right training. At times I worried if I would even enjoy myself and other times I knew it would be the thrill of a life time. I constantly worked my strategy all week. When to leave my Aunt's house, what to eat in the morning, what to wear, and how to run the race were constant thoughts all week. The biggest concern was my race strategy. Not having done this distance I decided on taking it easy for at least the first 5 miles then decide when to kick it into a higher gear.

The morning of the race I left my Aunt's house at the perfect time. I drove calmly to Fort Yargo State Park, again going over race strategy in my head. I arrived at the park, parked the car, headed to the bathrooms, then checked in. After picking up my packet I went back to the car to check out my bag of goodies. The usual suspects were found; a short sleeve technical race tee made partially from recycled polyester, some GU, and a ton of post cards for businesses and various race series. After another trip to the bathroom I went back to the car and got all my gear ready. I made one last final decision to get back in line for the bathroom, third time's a charm! Perfect timing, ten minutes to spare until race start. The only thing I didn't do and really regret now is that I didn't do any IT band stretches, what the hell was I thinking?

At the start I still debated what my race strategy was. I decided just to run by feel and make decisions as I go along. About 450 people crammed in behind the start, mostly half marathoners and about 80 full marathoners. The gun went off and we headed out for a trip around the parking lot. On the far side we passed the finish and packet pick up area where they were playing music. The song coming through the speakers was "Welcome to the Jungle" and I cringed. I thought if this song gets stuck in my head for the next 13 miles there will be hell to pay! We made it to the trail head and we all came to a walk, as usual for large trail races. Once running again, I kept an easy pace, enjoying being able to listen to other people's conversations.

I kept my pace fairly easy. The first mile was around 11:30 and after that I kept it around 10:30. I broke the race down into 3 mile sections to start. At each water station I took a short walk break to pull out my water and take a few sips. Every two miles I assessed my clothing situation. Every time I'd get in the sun for more than a minute I'd decide that I'd take my top shirt off at the next walk break. Then I'd get back in the woods and decide that wasn't going to be necessary. I had some short conversations with other people on the trails. I slowly passed people here and there but was keeping it around my 10:30 pace.

Halfway through I was feeling great and decided after mile 8 or 9 I would up my pace a bit and finish at more of a race pace. I passed the mile 8 marker and was excited that I well on my way to finishing my first half marathon. The elation didn't last long as I felt a pang on the side of my left knee. I tried to pretend I didn't feel it. A few more strides and another one. "NO! This is not happening!" I tried to convince myself it wasn't my IT band, it had to be something else, just had to be. I made my way to the first big power line hill and after making it a quarter of the way up I decided I needed to walk it due to the pain on the side of my knee. Walking didn't hurt, so I walked up as briskly as I could. After the ground leveled I ran again. Before hitting mile 9 I stopped and stretched. I decided on a plan of walking the hills and stretching when needed. I implemented that plan and tried picking an easy pace. After passing a few people I realized that the slow running was hurting more than a faster pace. So new plan, walk the hills, run as fast as I could in between, and stretch if needed.

The last five miles were so disappointing. Walk the hill, let everyone pass, then sprint, passing all the people that just passed you, rinse and repeat for the rest of the race. In the last mile it started to hurt even on the down hill. I stopped to stretch at least twice in the last mile. I think I stopped to stretch a total of 5 times in the last 5 miles. I didn't look at my time on my watch until I saw the mile 11 marker. I was shocked to see that I could possibly make it in under 2:15, holy cow I'm shocked. I had told myself I'd be happy with anything under 2:30 and had a super secret goal of 2:15. I was going to make my super secret goal in spite of all the problems in the last 5 miles.

When I saw the finish I was thrilled. I hadn't looked at my watch since mile 11 and wasn't sure how much impact the hill walking and stretching had made on my time. I saw my dad and his wife, Linda, cheering for me at the finish. I waved to them wildly like a total goober and gave Linda a high 5. I hit the stop on my Garmin as I passed over the timing mat without looking at the time. I collected my medal and turned in my timing chip. I found a spot to stretch and looked at my watch, 2:14:31! I can't believe I did that with all my troubles with my IT band.

After the race my dad, Linda, and I headed to Athens to have brunch at The Grit, the best vegetarian restaurant ever. To my surprise and delight dad and Linda loved their meals. I indulged in a cup of their tofu cubes, which to me are absolutely heaven, and had the Boarder Patrol (pinto beans on a flour tortilla with eggs, salsa, and sour cream). What a great meal to have after a race, quite the treat for me.

Driving home I had a lot to think about. I know I could have finished faster had it not been for the IT band. I marched up the hills at a walk passing others who were walking due to fatigue, not pain, and that made me feel great. I had lots left in my tank and knew I had put in the right training. I thought about my training log and and realized that I did a lot of treadmill and road miles the past three weeks due to weather and illness. I really think the inability to run trails leading up to the race took it's toll on my IT band. Maybe not doing my stretches before the race was a bad idea too. Even though I'm thrilled I'm also very disappointed that my IT band had to flare up. Couldn't it have at least waited until later, maybe mile 10? I figure I added at least 5 minutes to my time with the walking and stretching. I decided on taking a week off, or as long as needed for my IT band to stop hurting. I'm going to trying some inserts that the Dr gave me last year and see if they help. If they do I might see about getting custom orthotics. I've done all I can to try to manage this without resulting to orthotics so it's time to give them a whirl. I'll cut my mileage back and not think about another half again until the fall, assuming I can recover from this fast. I see lots of swimming for me in the upcoming weeks.

Race stats:
Official time 2:14:44
10:17 minute mile average
Age Group 35-39: 9/27
Overall: 222/390

Stretching after the race.

I forgot to speak of the actual trail. The trails were fairly easy compared to what I train on. The single track was wide and it wasn't constant up and down small steep hills like the US National White Water Center in Charlotte. The conditions were fairly dry, the dryest trail run I've had in months.


  1. Great recap - and congrats on completing it under your super secret goal time! (I found you through running ahead and noticed you had not run this week as part of the 1000 mile club) Good luck on your recovery!

  2. Thanks! I tried a run today and only got 1.8 miles in before my IT band retaliated, ugh. Looks like the 1000 mile bunny is going to eat me alive.