During the week before The Woodlands Half Marathon, I felt the worst I ever have leading up to a race. A slight headache dampened my mood, my productivity declined on various work projects, and a surprising weight gain of five pounds stuck around all week. To be clear, I have experienced these feelings before. I’ve raced a lot in my 19 years of sporting history and am accustomed to feeling terrible on a Wednesday session and then incredible on race day. We store four grams of water for every gram of carbohydrate, so I knew that minor weight gain was normal. But this was different. I hadn’t started carbo-loading yet! Usually, by Thursday or Friday during race week, I start to come around and feel energized again. But not the week before The Woodlands Half Marathon.
I thought maybe I was training too hard, resting too much, low on iron or vitamin D or testosterone, contracted COVID, or was showing early signs of cancer. I had bloodwork done in late January and my levels on several biomarkers were extremely low. My testosterone and Iron had dropped to HALF of what they were at the same time last year. Vitamin D and Vitamin B12 were low. My bloodwork analysis was measured three days before I ran the Big Bend FKT. Even though I regularly swallowed a multivitamin and was sleeping more, I hadn’t stopped training so I was confident my levels weren’t back to “normal.” And no, I wasn’t taking any hormone replacement or testosterone therapy medication. That stuff is illegal. I use a multivitamin by KLEAN athlete, sleep, and a weekly steak to try and bring my values up.
To throw one more fun twist to this story, I crashed my mountain bike on Wednesday night while riding to coach swim practice. I banged my knee a bit and hit my shoulder but it was nothing major. Then, on Friday afternoon, after our 3.5-hour drive to The Woodlands, I went for a 20-minute shakeout jog. My back tightened up between my shoulder blades so much so that breathing caused a sharp pain deep in my chest. Not good. I was planning on doing a lot of hard breathing the next day.
I was a bit of a head case, though none but my wife got to hear the inner turmoil inside ;-).
My original goal for The Woodlands Half was to run under 1:13. I thought that 1:12 for a half marathon was a doable goal after some of the running events I had done the previous year. My official half marathon personal record (PR) was 1:15:40 from over five years prior. After the basketcase of the week, my confidence was down and my new goal was to run as hard as I could on the day and run a PR.
A friend asked me after the race if I thought running a 50K six weeks prior helped my race at The Woodlands. With any performance, it’s tough to separate out the variables that made a difference and the ones that didn’t. Did 2020, a year which saw me train more than I ever have, averaging 2 hours per day of exercise including rest days, help my performance? Did the long, aerobic trail runs I did with my Paragon teammates in prepping for the 50K give me a larger aerobic base while not pounding my legs? Did the super shoes I was wearing help? What about getting a lot of sleep on race week? Eating a ton of rice and carbs in the days prior? My caffeinated pre-race mixture I sipped at the start line? Yes. All of that helped. I don’t think the actual act of running a hard 50K with 7000 feet of climbing specifically helped from a physiological standpoint. I do think the training I did for that was beneficial with lots of long, very aerobic, training days and just a hint of intensity here and there. I do think it helped from a mental and psychological standpoint. During the 50K, I felt like I was working and having to focus the entire time— 5.5 hours. There wasn’t a step that felt easy that day or a moment when I felt relaxed. Focusing and suffering for 1.25 hours is MUCH easier to do than 5.5 and I brought that mental fortitude with me to the starting line in The Woodlands.
Even with all the negativity swirling in my head, I got a decent night's sleep before the race. I ate a light breakfast, since I wasn’t hungry and had carbo loaded pretty well on Thursday and Friday. I’ll be honest here: it took discipline to commit to eating more than I wanted and to emphasizing starchy foods in the days leading up to the race. I mentioned that my weight had shot up 4-5 pounds a week prior and that was playing games with my mind. But here my experience served me well. I’ve ruined many races by having lazy fueling and hydration habits in the 48 hours prior, and I knew that topping off glycogen stores would be my greatest ally when trying to run fast versus a catabolic system and a half of a kilo lighter.
I didn’t have a fast enough entry time to make it into the elite wave so I made sure to get to the spaced-out starting line 15 minutes early. I nabbed a spot towards the front.
Then we were delayed for 15 minutes.
I tried to keep warm while standing on my spot by doing various running drills and alternating high knees and butt kicks. Nonetheless, I started to get cold standing in just my singlet and worried that my legs were stiffening up after having finished my warm-up protocol 30 minutes before.
To run under 1:13 for 13.1 miles, I needed to run 5:34 per mile or faster. It had been a while since I had raced a stand-alone half marathon, but I knew enough, and knew my training, to know that my best bet to run well was to ease into the pace with a 5:34-5:38 first mile and then try to work down from there. Now, after all the standing around at the start line, I was determined to not start too aggressively and to run my own race.
The 10-second countdown started and I scooted forward to tuck in behind the elite wave runners. As we set off, I weaved between the elite female athletes trying to get to the back of the male field and find a pack to run with. I looked at my watch 2:00 minutes in and was running 5:26 pace. “Relax,” I told myself. I backed off just a touch and watched most of the men’s field run away. A few stragglers and I, who weren’t willing to commit to sub-5:20 minute miles early on, were left spaced apart in no-man's land.
Mile 1: 5:30 “Right on.” I thought. “That felt ok.”
Mile 2: 5:26 “That was fast. But I think we had some downhill.”
I caught Jordan Hasay, a professional runner for Nike with a 1:07 half marathon PB to her name, shortly after mile 2. I had seen on her instagram that she ran a 9 mile tempo at 5:13 pace a few weeks prior—something I couldn’t fathom doing. Passing her was a confidence booster as I continued to run mostly solo.
Mile 3: 5:25 “More downhill?” We now merged with the marathoners and I thought about trying to hang with them, but they were running 5:18-5:20 pace. Still too rich for my blood.
Mile 4: 5:29 “I’m buying myself time here. Hopefully I don’t blow up.” I was gaining confidence that I could run 1:12 and was fully aware that my current pace, if I held it, placed me in the 1:11 range.
Someone asked me afterwards if the race felt easy in those early miles. I wouldn’t describe it exactly as “easy.” Running faster than 5:30 per mile definitely wasn’t easy, but it was controlled. I was mainly paying attention to my breathing and it felt good. I could tell my legs were moving fast and I had to focus to keep them turning over at the current rate, but I was breathing well and there was oxygen to spare. All good signs.
For most of the race, I felt like I was sitting in the driver's seat of an automobile with a very sensitive throttle. I had my hand on it the whole time, and the engine was going pretty hot. But I kept opening the throttle up a bit more and a bit more. And the vehicle kept responding.
Mile 5: 5:32 “Slower, but I don’t feel too bad. We did have a bit of an uphill there.” We were running into a very slight headwind most of the way out, so I knew that a tailwind would push us for the 2nd half of the race.
Mile 6: 5:19
I didn’t check my watch at the 10K split, but I glanced at the halfway mark and saw “35:40” on my watch. Some quick math told me that if I doubled that time, I would finish with a 1:11:20 half marathon time. That was the first moment that running in the 1:10’s crossed my mind but I quickly banished the idea “Don’t be greedy.” I told myself. “Stay patient. There is still a lot of running left to do and a lot can happen in the last 5k.”
And I was right.
A lot CAN happen in the last 5k of a half marathon.
Mile 7: 5:21
We now made the turn back towards the starting line and had a tailwind behind us. There was a pack of 5 to 6 guys ahead of me that I had been watching most of the race, and at mile 7, they were 18 seconds up. I resolved to see if I could slowly work my way towards them and catch a few guys in the 2nd half of the race.
Mile 8: 5:16 “Holy smokes, Mark. RELAX. You’re going to blow this if you run too hard too early.”
The pack ahead splintered and each guy was running on his own.
They must be hurting.
I didn’t feel fresh, but I still felt okay. My breathing was under control and I felt like there was more in the tank. I wanted to wait until 5k to go before I really drilled it, so I kept a light touch on the throttle and didn’t let it open up all the way.
Mile 9: 5:24
Mile 10: 5:21 “It’s GO time now.”
My cumulative time at mile 10 was 54:09. In my now fatigued state, I couldn’t remember if a 17 minutes 5k was 5:20 or 5:30 pace. I knew that if I ran under 17 minutes now and kicked SUPER hard, that I could break 1:11 and be a “1:10 guy.” I wasn’t worried about blowing up anymore and I had already passed a lot of guys from the pack ahead of me. It was time to suffer.
Mile 11: 5:17
I’ve never taken drugs. But I’ve read a lot of books about guys that have. One anecdote I remember is from Tyler Hamilton’s book, “The Secret Race.” In it, he talks about how doing EPO and taking blood bags didn’t necessarily make them feel better at a given power output. But what it did do was allow them to push beyond their normal physiological limits. They could push past the point where their brain normally screamed “STOP!” Drugs didn’t make them suffer less, It allowed them to suffer more.
The last 5k was how I imagined dopers must feel. It was as if my body had such an abundance of oxidative fibers and enzymes built up from all the years of training, all the easy aerobic miles, that every time I asked it to go faster, it could. And I could still breathe.
My wife, Alli, was running the 10K, which started 30 minutes after the half marathon and finished on the same course. I yelled at her as I ran by: “run your tangents,” and “I’m going to run 1:10!” She thought I told her to pick up her cadence. Either way, she ran faster.
Mile 12: 5:12
There was still more to give.
I was now terrified of reaching the finish line with something left in the tank. I think briefly about the Katie Ledecky quote: “I’m always afraid I’ll get to the end and have too much left.”
I committed myself to running as fast as possible for the next 5 minutes.
The element of control I spoke of earlier was now gone. I alternated opening and closing my eyes as a coping mechanism for the pain.
I fought to keep my mechanics good and my chin down as I kicked again and again.
I caught and passed eight or nine people in the last 4 miles, and I could see one more athlete running ahead of me. He looked to be about 10 or 15 seconds ahead which was far, but I was moving quickly.
I caught him right before mile 13 and right before we turned right to drop down to the finish area alongside the canal.
He was running fast but I was running faster. I lifted the pace again, determined not to let him latch on.
Mile 13: 5:01
I didn’t look at my watch when that split went off. I was too close to being done and there was nothing left to do but to finish what I’d started.
As I ran alongside the canal, I heard the race announcer cheer Jake Buhler, a local San Antonio athlete, across the line with a 1:09:4x.
I started sprinting even though I still couldn’t see the finish line. I knew I was close.
1:10:15 was my official chip time.
I don’t often surprise myself in races. I’ve been competing for a long time and generally have a pretty good sense of my capabilities. Winning my first Ironman wasn’t a huge surprise. It wasn’t expected but I knew and believed that I could win that day if everything went well and I had a good race.
Running 1:10:15--5:21 pace--for a half marathon was a surprise.
I started that race with more doubts and less confidence than I’ve had in a long time. But the beauty of racing is that the finish line doesn’t care about your reasons. The time clock ticks on at the same rate. I could have listened to my doubts, settled for less, and run a strong race that still left me tired and perhaps even a PR. But if years of racing and 2020 have taught me anything, it’s to seize every moment as an opportunity. Every starting line is a gift and being healthy enough to compete is something to never take for granted.
Never take that gift for granted and never be afraid to suffer.