By Dana Willett
I was wide awake when my alarm chirped at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. Normally, early morning race routines start with a belly full of adrenaline and pre-race nerves, but not today. The Colorado half marathon “fit nicely” into my seasonal training plan, according to my coach of nine years, Craig Howie. Like always, life has intervened this spring and I missed some key workouts and cut others short… so my goals for this run were not so much to try to beat previous records, but to run a smart race, a solid race – one that would anchor my season.
Even though the performance pressure was off on paper and in my brain, my heart still wanted to do well, which is the reason I continue to toe the run/bike/triathlon line year over year. Life in my 50’s has taught me that while my endurance remains, I just don’t have the leg speed I had 5-6-7 years ago. OK, even three years ago…
So I popped out of bed, fresh and clear-headed from skipping my nightly wine for the last several days, and went through my routine. Stand-alone run events are so EASY to pack for! No bike or wetsuit or long list of gear! The 45 minute drive north to Fort Collins was quiet and dark.
After parking, a quick walk across the street brought me to the waiting buses – race organizers really have this routine dialed in, and everything moved smoothly. While in line I met a woman with a bike who was pacing the lead female. Her name was Mandy, and I really enjoyed talking with her and learning how she came to be in that role. A multi-Ironman finisher, seasoned athlete, mother and wife, she exuded what I love about our community: a genuine positive nature, willingness to help others, gratitude for all the outdoor beauty.
A 20-minute bus ride took us up the mountain canyon to our staging area, where familiar signs of porta-potty lines and crowds of blanket-clad runners huddled together for warmth in the dark. I stood aside and watch the golden sunrise hit the surrounding mountaintops, as the Poudre River gurgled in the background, and I felt so satisfied that I’d made the effort to get to this race. As the bullhorn guided us to the narrow start line, and a sole bugle played the Star Spangled Banner, a blanket of cloud cover covered the sky, securing cool, mild temperatures in the low 60s for the duration of the race.
The first few miles of downhill sped by and it’s always hard in this section to manage the effort because you don’t want to go to fast and trash your quads, but you also want to take advantage of the downhill. I hear Coach Craig’s voice in my head – “soft knees, quick turnover, it should feel too easy…” In no time we were at mile 5.5 and the steep uphill… this is where the first fast-starters gave in to walking and all those people who passed me earlier were now slowing down. Just after the crest of the hill movement to my left caught my eye – a beautiful Paint mare was cantering along the fence line parallel to us, her spunky chestnut foal at her heels… they seemed so happy and celebratory! With the second half – and toughest part of the run course – still to come, this was a good reminder of the fact that we’re out here to have fun.
Once out of the canyon the trail curves and winds mile over mile… the majority of runners followed every curve, instead of running straight tangents for the shortest distance…I tried to imagine the lines the race organizers used to measure the course, and not take any unnecessary steps.
This race is truly challenging with those long, unprotected miles at the end, including the suspension bridge that undulates for a good 2/10 of a mile – it can really mess with your knees, hips and back if you don’t slow down a hair and go with the flow. And then the mile markers seem to surely be stretched out too far, and the day was really warming toward the 80-degree high… I just kept thinking about relaxing my shoulders, concentrating on my form, and a strong cadence.
I had switched my garmin to heart rate and was using that to guide me – not pace. This is new for me this year – I’ve always approached races with time & pace goals… this year my goal is to be more realistic about where I am, now. My ability, today. Heart rate can be tricky on race day, depending upon nerves, elevation, etc. But for a long endurance event like the half marathon, I’ve learned what my numbers are, and how to also integrate perceived effort, and gradually build from low zone 3 for the first four miles, mid zone 3 for miles 4-7 (except the hill), high zone 3/low 4 for miles 7-10, and building zone 4+ for the last 5k.
And just like that I could hear the crowd at the finish, long before I could see them. The final two long blocks are uphill and seem to take forever, but as soon as that thought passed, my name was being announced.
As I crossed the finish line I glanced at my watch, switching from heart rate to time… I’d watched the 1:50 pacer pass me in the first half of the race, but never saw the 2:00, so I wasn’t surprised at my 1:57 time. But I wasn’t thrilled either – after all, despite my “I’ll-just-run-to-my-ability” approach, I DO care. I’d run faster several times in the past, and chalked this up to a solid effort and good for my overall training. I later learned that my finish was good enough for 2nd place among the 39 bad-ass women in my age group – a reminder that every course is different, and we do slow as we age.
I was buoyed by all the volunteers, the medals, festival vibe, and the Kaiser Permanente booth, drawing a huge crowd. This booth, just past the finish line, had the longest line by far. Finishers stood in queue, stretching quads and wiping sweat, for the coveted prizes Kaiser was rewarding. The literal fruits for our labor? A little free farmers market where runners were able to load a whole bag of produce – tomatoes, peppers, apples, broccoli, and mounds of fresh KALE.
Because it is the COLORADO Marathon after all.