Ever had one of these dreams where you’re trying to run, but no matter how hard you drive those legs and arms, you’re barely moving?
That was me on the final stretch of the 2016 San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon. Trying my best to outrun what I later found out were 19 seconds.
And so I will give you the spoiler right here and tell you that I finished San Jose RnR with an official time of 1:40:18. My goal had been to run my first sub-1:40 half marathon. My “dream” goal had been to run 1:37:XX, which at the time of signing up for this race — immediately after I ran 1:40:09 at the Hellyer Half six months earlier — I had thought possible.
Not every race goes your way, however, and this one didn’t go mine. It wasn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
So now I have an opportunity to take stock of what happened. What went wrong and how can I fix it — and what went right and how can I improve it further?
First things first: if you stumbled on here looking for more info about the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose half marathon, you can find a more detailed course description and photos here. This year, I could barely hang onto my goal pace and the last thing on my mind was taking the phone out of my skirt pocket to take pics.
There are three main things to know about SJ RnR:
It is flat. The total elevation gain my Strava registered for this course was 138 feet, although honestly, I doubt running under a freeway and back up the road amounts to that much. (Is “freeway underpass” a word? Can I call it that?)
Thanks to its flat profile and what I can imagine is a generous purse, the race attracts amazing professional and elite runners every year. Meb Keflezighi ran it in 2015, and this year, Sara Hall was among the professional women. (She finished second.) The course has a few out-and-back sections, and it’s always cool to get a glimpse of the elites flying!
It is big. This year, there were nearly 11,000 half marathon and 10K finishers combined — and runners in both distances start together. I was in Corral 2 and when we looped back by the start around mile 5, people were still starting.
If you can’t make it to the start on time and end up in one of the later corrals, your race would likely involve a lot of zig-zagging.
It can get hot. Indian Summers are no joke in Silicon Valley and when Octobers get hot, San Jose is usually where it’s hottest. Every time I’ve run this race, it’s been at least 80 degrees at the 8 a.m. start. Dress accordingly.
This year, the forecast called for cooler weather, but alas: it was nothing like a chilly, foggy or overcast morning in Santa Cruz or San Francisco. I was still too warm for comfort!
The Expo is just like all other Rock ‘n’ Roll event expos: big, crowded. I decided to get there right as it opened on Friday, to hopefully avoid the crowds. It turns out that hundreds of others had the same idea. Traffic going into the parking garage was nuts, the lines for bib pickup were already long. A “quick in-and-out” turned into a full hour – and I still consider this quite expedient
As it happened, I returned early Saturday morning to get my ankle Rock Taped and the crowds were much better. So, for planning purposes: if you can get to the Expo right as it opens on Saturday, do that.
It’s always fun to see San Jose transform into a city of runners on race morning. As this one starts relatively late – 8 a.m. is practically noon in runner speak! – I “slept in” until 6, got ready and got to the start area shortly after 7 a.m.
I had literally shoved some oatmeal down my throat before I got out of the car, so breakfast was taken care of — but water, that was another question. I was so. thirsty. Lucky for me, one of the moms in our local MRTT chapter (San Jose Moms Run This Town – join us if you live here!) had an extra bottle of water. I swear, those 8 ounces tasted like liquid gold spiked with pure ambrosia and blessed unicorn tears. Totally saved me.
Lesson #1: Hydrate well the whole week leading up to a race.
Lesson #2: Hydrate particularly well if you are planning on going to a birthday party the night before the race.
Lesson #3: Beer does not count.
At the start, I met up with my training buddy Joe. Joe is a much faster and stronger runner than me, but he has a li’l problem with pacing. Namely, he tends to blow out the gate at a 6-something minute/ mile pace – which is sustainable for a few miles, but not over the course of a half marathon. (Not this year, anyway! One day soon, I’m sure.)
So Joe and I worked together: our pace was in the 7:30s (or so we thought). I was holding him back while trying to keep up with him. Ha.
By mile 4, the pace felt harder than it should have and by mile 6, I was starting to deal with side stitches. They say those are a result of dehydration, so I kept drinking water – a cup at every single aid station.
By mile 8 – as tends to happen to me during San Jose RnR – I was hating everything about this race, this course, this city, this running thing — just, everything. We were still running in the 7:30-something range, but I noticed that my Garmin was ticking off the miles sooner than the mile markers.
By mile 9, Joe could no longer hang back with me and took off like a torpedo. So effortless. Jeez.
I kept thudding on. My legs were heavy, my lungs were burning, stupid stitches. I yet again regretted signing up for that race and carried on…
As we made the right turn on Almaden Blvd, I looked at my watch and I saw it tick off 1:39. And I thought, maybe I’ve got this – maybe I’ll finish in 1:39:59. Maybe… And then I looked ahead and, I swear, every year I think the finish line is straight ahead on Almaden Blvd, but it isn’t. You take one more turn, left, on Park Avenue, and that is when you see the finish line. It is so close, yet so far away.
I pushed my legs as hard as I could in one never-ending long stride that made my lungs explode, and I crossed under the finish arch with an official time of 1:40:18.
Maybe if I had started that final kick a little earlier, I would have made it under 1:40. Maybe I could have pushed myself a little bit harder throughout. Maybe I would have, if my Garmin wasn’t slightly ahead with the miles (a pace in the 7:30s should get me across in 1:39:XX, and that’s what I was seeing on my watch). Maybe I should have at least tried to get a bigger cushion. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that beer the night before.
There is always a “coulda, woulda, shoulda” and lots of maybe’s after a race — but more often than not, those are excuses. The truth is, I did the best I could with what I had in me on that day. All my training leading up to this race was geared towards long distance triathlon or the marathon distance. My tempo runs and long runs in the weeks leading up to SJ RnR were all indicative of running a pace in the 7:40s — and only with luck and a very, very good day, in the 7:30s.
The way I see it, the 1:3X:XX half marathon is so, so close. I just have to work for some more. A goal for another day!
In the movies, coaches say things like “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” or watch intently as their athlete sprints by on the track, and you know they’re silently willing them to go faster, faster!
In real life? If you’re an endurance runner working with a coach, chances are they regularly instruct you to do just the opposite: slow down.
In fact, slowing down might be the one thing standing between you and the stronger, faster runner you could be.
One of the most common mistakes runners make is push too hard on all of most of their runs. It’s only human: you’re out there running, which means you’re out there working, which means you better work it, right?
The problem is, if you push hard all the time, your body will at some point give in. The consequences are no fun, ranging from overuse injuries, getting sick too often (a compromised immune system), and inability to sleep well, to the worst of all: losing your running mojo and, eventually, giving up on running altogether.
All of the above are symptoms of overtraining and, more often than not, overtraining is a direct result of working too hard, too often.
How do you know if you’re running harder than you should? There are complex ways to determine this, using heart-rate data and software like Training Peaks, which has charts that look like this (I kid you not):
And there are simple ways, like asking yourself these questions:
1. Do I run all my runs at the same pace?
If you answer Yes, you are either not running often enough to improve, or you are pushing harder than you should — or both. Don’t get me wrong, running two-to-three times a week is totally OK for the recreational runner who either doesn’t race, or does so with no time goals in mind. Chances are, this person has other, more enjoyable hobbies or fitness passions: weightlifting, Cross Fit, Zumba, you name it. Nothing wrong with that! But, continually improving as a runner and knocking out those PRs requires more planning — and more running.
2. Do I need more than three rest days each week to recover from my runs?
If the answer is yes, then you are running too hard. Training for a long-distance event like a marathon, or even a half marathon, requires you to peak at anywhere between 35 to 60 miles a week (even more, for competitive runners). This is hardly achievable with three to four weekly runs. Not to mention, if you need a rest day after every single run, you are missing out on valuable adaptations your body would make if you went out and did a recovery run on tired legs. Again, in order to do this, you will have to introduce some easy-run days into your schedule.
3. Do I obsess over each run’s mile splits and feel unaccomplished if they are slower than usual?
If yes, you most surely are running each run too hard. And it’s hardly breaking news that, if you try to better your time or mile splits on each run… well, sooner or later you will fail. That sort of mindset is almost a guarantee for reaching a point where your relationship with running turns sour.
4. Do I usually feel tired, spent and unable to run another mile at the end of each run?
It’s OK to feel that way at the end of a hard run (a long run, a tempo run, speed work). But all runs? You are running them too hard.
So, what is an easy run and why do them?
The “Easy” Run is:
Run at a significantly slower pace than your 5K, 10K, half marathon, or even marathon pace. The delta could be as wide as a full two minutes between your 10K and easy-run pace – and around a minute slower than your marathon pace. And plus-minus 40 seconds on top of that, depending on how you feel that day!
Run at a pace that allows you to comfortably chat with a running partner, or…
Sing. The test I often recommend is Adele’s “Hello” – if you can hit those high notes while running… well, you should probably be on The Voice, actually. But pace-wise, rest assured that you’re taking it easy.
And, finally, at an easy-run pace, you could finish your run – then turn around and do another one of the same distance or duration, right away. At that pace, you could run every day if need be, or even twice a day. It’s slow enough to barely get you to sweat, but still, you are building mitochondria –and that’s pretty much the main goal of easy runs.
Why run easy?
Easy runs are typically scheduled on days immediately following hard workouts or long runs. An easy run done on the day after hard work will force you to run on tired legs – which will give you valuable coping skills for those final miles in a race. It will also help your muscles loosen up. (Seriously, try going on an easy run if your legs are sore — they will feel better after a few miles!) Not least, slow running trains your aerobic system, gradually making your body more efficient at burning fat for energy, rather than carbohydrates.
If you’re reading this and asking yourself, Why would I listen to some random crazy person with a blog? — well, I don’t blame you. I never take advice from strangers with unknown to me background and credentials — why should you?
So here are a couple of books I hope will give you all the information you need to make your own decisions:
Matt Fitzgerald’s book “80/20 Running” cites numerous studies supporting the “run slow to get faster” theory. Interesting read, too!
Phil Maffetone’s overview of aerobic vs anaerobic training. Although his 180-minus-age formula for determining target heart rate is questionably simplistic, I admit to roughly sticking to it during my offseason and the initial base-building period each year. It drives my coach absolutely nuts, as he – like many coaches and endurance professionals – find it hard to take the work of Dr. Maffetone seriously because, for one, he is not really a doctor. But that is a different story. I still think his book, “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing,” provides one of the most digested (if not simplified) overviews of how the body uses its energy systems in training and racing.
“Lore of Running” by Tim Noakes has everything you would ever need to know about running, including a wealth of studies and information on high- vs low-intensity training. Make sure to get the 4th Edition, which has a new chapter on The Central Governor (fascinating stuff).
Make slow runs a part of your training schedule and enjoy them! You are doing work that is benefitting your running — even if the mile splits are nothing to brag about.
You know the feelings that rush you when you achieve a big goal? Pride, disbelief, joy, relief.
Now take all of those, and add surprise – as in, “Ha. Who knew this would feel that easy?” – and you know what it’s like to rock a BOGO race.
A BOGO race
1. A race that you can pull off of the fitness you built training for your key race of the season, which was of similar or longer distance, duration or level of difficulty, and took place four to six weeks earlier. A “train for one, get one free” race, if you will:
I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz knowing that, at only five weeks after Vineman, it would be my BOGO race.
All summer, I trained 20-hour weeks building up for Ironman Vineman with no idea how it would affect me physically or mentally. So I was on the fence about Santa Cruz. If I feel like my recovery is going well, I figured, I’d sign up. If I was feeling like crap and unwilling to get my butt off the couch, I’d pass.
A week after Vineman, I decided that I was feeling well enough that in a month, I could go for a half-Iron race. In fact, swimming 1.2 miles, biking 56 and running a half marathon now seemed… short. Crazy how that works.
It really didn’t feel like training! This was my fifth 70.3-distance race and I remember vividly how exhausted I used to feel as I built up volume on the bike and in the pool. (Running, I always enjoy. Can’t complain!)
To prepare for Santa Cruz, my main goal was to recover from Vineman. I took a week off of structured training after Vineman, only doing a few short swims and runs — and plenty of rest days:
The following week – and the weeks after that, I built up training volume to 13 or so hours a week. Unlike prior years when peaking at 15 hours a week left me feeling like a rag for days, 13 hours a week now felt like nothing.
My “long” rides for those weeks were three to three-and-a-half hours long, and the few “long” runs I did were hardly over an hour and a half.
My speed was nowhere to be found on both the bike and the run, but as the days went by, I got some of my pool mojo back (I don’t use the term “speed” here, as I am far from a good swimmer… Oh well).
And last but not least, in the two weeks leading up to Santa Cruz I had five flats on the bike over three bike rides. So I got plenty of opportunity to practice this:
I took all that “flatting” to be a good omen, though: better in training than on race day!
Santa Cruz is a short 40-min drive away: no need to book hotels, pack bags, or ship bikes. Easy and low-stress!
I drove to athlete registration and mandatory bike drop-off the day before with my training buddy Joe. That was going to be Joe’s first 70.3 and naturally, he was a ball of nerves. I did my best to entertain him with stories about peeing and pooping, because that’s what triathletes do to take their minds off of the serious sh*t that awaits. Ha. Pun intended.
Race morning, Joe picked me up at 5 a.m. for the drive to Santa Cruz. In hindsight, we should have left earlier. This race was no Santa Cruz Tri or Tri Santa Cruz, or even the Big Kahuna (Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz’s predecessor): all fairly small local events with a few hundred participants.
There were two-freaking-thousand triathletes racing that morning and, as you can imagine, the parking situation was tricky. Luckily, we found a spot maybe only a third of a mile away — but next time, we’re leaving earlier.
Obviously, my first order of business when we got to Transition was to line up for a porta-potty. To anyone reading this who may be about to do their first-ever 70.3, or tri, or any race for that matter: line up for the porta-pots first thing. Even if you don’t have to go. Always a smart decision.
It was especially in this case: the line was short and, as we would find out just a few minutes later, we wouldn’t have much time to spare to set up our transition stuff!
We entered the transition area, which took over an entire football field by the parking lot at Depot Park, where local races typically stage transitions. To give you an idea of how large of a space we took up this time, this was, at best, a quarter of it (taken at bike drop-off the day before):
I had barely walked over to my bike and started setting up, when I heard the race announcer say, “Fifteen minutes, folks! You have fifteen minutes until you have to be out of the Transition area.” Wait. Fifteen? Or fifty???
Nope, he said fifteen. It turns out, even though the race officially started at 6:50 a.m. – and my wave in particular was scheduled for 7:48! – the transition area had to be cleared out by 6:15. So there you have it – the reason to get a nice and early start if you ever plan to race IM 70.3 Santa Cruz.
On the positive side: this is a one-transition race, which is pretty rare for an Ironman event. So rather than having to deal with four gear bags, everyone brought all of their stuff in their regular transition backpacks, satchels, what have you.
Which meant that I had (now) less than 15 minutes to dump all the cr*p out of my huge t-bag, arrange everything, squeeze into my wetsuit and head towards the beach.
Done – and done!
I love the swim start at Santa Cruz races. It’s a beach sprint, then you dive into the waves and have to get working right away – because often, those are some waves! It looks like this:
[I don’t have any photos or videos of the beach or swim this year, so imagine it like this one, from the Big Kahuna in 2014, but with many more people and loud music, and M-Dot branding everywhere.]
There were a gazillion waves going off before me, so I spent quite a while watching the scene above on repeat. Joe and I chatted for a while, then it was his time to go and about 10 minutes later: mine.
I noticed that they played 70s rock music for the men’s waves that started before me, but when the 30-34 women were about to go, they played Beyonce’s All the Single Ladies. Hm. Then our song came on: ladies 35-39 this year enjoyed running into the salty ocean to the sound of Derulo’s Want to Want Me.
That darn song was stuck in my head the entire swim.
“It’s too hard to sleep. I got the sheets on the floor, nothing on me. And I can’t take it no more, it’s a hundred degrees…”
And then I’d invariably think, I wish it were 100 degrees, but unfortunately, the water could not have been more than 60.
All the more reason to keep pushing water, right? The faster I swim, the sooner I’ll be warm!
Unfortunately for me, I’m not a good swimmer, so I spent 39 minutes in the water. That is one too many repetitions of “It’s too hard to sleep,” I tell you.
Swim time: 39:08 Division rank: 30
Like all Santa Cruz Main Beach triathlons, this one involved a long transition run from the beach to T1. Seriously, it’s 0.4 miles. Some people around me put on running shoes or flip flops, but I’ve always done it barefoot and it’s been fine. (This is where having hobbit feet pays off.)
Brisk run over to my bike, get out of new Roka wetsuit (awesome, by the way!), jump into socks and cycling shoes, throw on helmet and sunglasses and off we go.
Transition time: 6:45
I kind of knew the bike course, but kind of didn’t. I did the bike leg of the Big Kahuna with a relay team in 2014, and I’ve ridden the 20 miles on Hwy 1 to Davenport and back many times. Those rollers don’t scare me!
But there was one big change this year – the addition of the Swanton Loop. I had seen the elevation profile and knew that it would be a climb, but as usual, I didn’t ride or drive it beforehand. Because, why not be surprised?
It was a good surprise! The road may not be as smooth as the rest of the course (it’s quite gritty, in fact), but the climb is not bad at all and you’re surrounded by tall, green and shady trees. Beautiful way to spend a little part of your Sunday morning!
OK, I admit I did wonder if and when the freaking climbing will ever end. But after no more than 10 minutes, it did. We descended back to Hwy 1 (dicey turns!) and went on with our ride.
I only had one little scare on the way back, coming down on one of the Davenport rollers. That is a very nice descent, if no one is blocking you. Or there is no traffic, consisting of a long line of cars moving slower than they’d like to – because there’s a race going on, obviously, and the section where cyclists merge onto Hwy 1 was policed. Still, all was fine until a beige SUV unexpectedly swerved to the right, nearly brushing one of the cyclists in front of me — and caused me to slam on my brakes a bit too strongly, so my rear wheel came off the ground. I managed to shift my weight backwards immediately and no flipping-over happened, but I admit, it scared me sh*tless. A few f-bombs were dropped.
So keep this in mind, if you’re planning on ever doing IM 70.3 Santa Cruz: Hwy 1 is not closed to traffic. There are cars, and many of them are not thrilled to be sharing the road. Be cautious.
After that, my ride was uneventful. It took me a bit longer than I hoped – I would have been thrilled to at least go under 3 hours on this course – but at least, having not pushed too hard on the bike, I hoped to be setting myself up for a good run.
Bike time: 3:04:25
Division rank: 21
This was (relatively) quick: out of bike shoes – into running shoes, helmet off – hat on, grab race belt and go. T2 time: 2:55
The run is always my favorite part of triathlon – and this was my favorite run of all triathlons I’ve done so far. And that tells you something!
It is a beautiful, beautiful course! It is nearly flat. You are by the ocean almost the entire time. The sky was overcast for us, even mid-day. What more could you want?!`
When I started running, I decided I wouldn’t look at my Garmin for at least the first mile and pace myself on feel. I kept a pace that felt a bit challenging – but nothing that I couldn’t sustain for a half marathon. My legs felt good! No cramping, no foot pain – even that rubbery feeling you get so often when you run on the bike wasn’t there.
I looked at my watch just as I passed the first mile marker: 7:45 pace. Interesting. I was feeling good, so I kept on the pace and effort level – though I admit I did wonder just how long this feeling would last. When would my legs turn into bricks?
Two things really helped me mentally on this run: 1. most people were running slower for some reason, so I could continuously zero in on someone, pass them, move onto the next runner ahead of me, repeat. And 2. this is possibly one of the most beautiful places to run.
We started on the swerving West Cliff Drive (after an initial small climb up the hill from Depot Park), continued on through Natural Bridges State Park, and – five or so miles in – entered Wilder Ranch State Park.
This is where we hit trail territory. I was not expecting that. We went from nearly flat, smooth road to uneven trails with a pronounced camber and mild, but noticeable hills – especially if you’re wearing racing flats!
My pace was now in the low 8s – and I was OK with that. If I could keep that up, I knew I would PR the run in a half-Ironman (the time to beat was 1:54:41 from Challenge Rancho Cordova in 2014). More importantly, I was still enjoying this run and feeling good!
As we returned on West Cliff Drive, I picked up the pace again to under 8. Now all I had to worry about was the half-mile run on the beach. My legs were feeling stiffer and I suspected that running on the sand would be the end of them. It was just something to get over with on the way into the finish chute.
Yet… I had just over a quarter mile to go, according to my GPS, and had yet to enter the beach? What was happening?
It turned out, Ironman changed the run course. They somehow made up for that half mile in the sand by adding distance elsewhere on the run — and the first thing I saw when I made the right turn from the road and into the beach, was the finish line.
Can you be both pleasantly surprised and annoyed at the same time? I was obviously thrilled to be done. But I was also hugely annoyed at myself for not studying the course beforehand. Another case of “I thought I knew”! I was sure – and still think it quite possible – that if I knew that I didn’t have that long, dreadful half-mile beach run to wrap up the race, I could have picked up the pace over the last two miles by at least 10-15 seconds per mile. I had it in me, I was just saving it. (Or so I like to tell myself.)
Crossing the finish was still awesome! Even more so when I looked at my watch and realized that not only I had PR-ed my half-Iron run, I had done so by 10 minutes! And my overall time – 5:37:59 – was only a minute over my 70.3 PR, which also happened at Rancho Cordova, a race with much, much shorter transitions and a flat bike course. (Just to give you an idea, my T1 time at Rancho Cordova was 2:43 and, if I remember correctly, my bike was set up no more than 100 yards from the swim exit.) So there you go!
Run time: 1:44:46 Division rank: 13
I had also moved up in my age group from 30th (out of 87 finishers) to 13th. I have no expectations when it comes to placing in Ironman events – they are too competitive, so I’m very happy with this!
Back to the finish line, though. Almost immediately after I crossed, I saw Joe. He had finished a few minutes ahead and smashed his goal of going sub-6 hours in his first half-Iron race. See? No need to be nervous!
With vivid memories of how cold I got after Vineman, I grabbed a space blanket from a volunteer – but then the sun came out – and not a minute too soon! So we set the blanket on the sand and sat near the finish for a while, soaking it all in.
The only downside to this situation? Because the finish line is on a public beach, no alcohol is allowed — or food, for that matter. So a few minutes later, we headed back to the transition area to eat and drink. (Surprise, though: no beer there, either. Oh well. At that point, even the can of generic Cola tasted like ambrosia to my sugar-starved body and brain!)
We ate some pizza and headed over to our bikes to collect our stuff – and take some finisher photos at what looked like a battlefield:
How about that mess behind me, eh?
I called the family to let them know where to meet me – they were already on their way to Santa Cruz to pick me up – and with our bikes and bags, we went back to the beach. Magic Bike needed his time in the limelight with my race bling, after all: