Lucky Thirteen

The thirteenth running of the Fly with the Eagles Half Marathon was coincidentally my thirteenth race at the 13.1 mile distance. This was the fourth time I’ve run Fly with the Eagles over the past five years. Located in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, the race is about an hour and a half drive from my home. The mid-February race is a good one for me to put on the calendar to help motivate my winter running.

It’s hard to look back on a race and say, ‘well, that was a good learning experience’. But that is my best take-away. I recently read a business article on why success does not often lead to future improvement. Reflecting on my performance, I found this principle applies to running as well. I had a strong finish at this race last year and then, in November I set a PR at the half-marathon distance. Neither of these accomplishments propelled me into meeting my goal at this year’s Fly with the Eagles.

Previous Races

The first two times I ran Fly with the Eagles, I narrowly missed finishing in under two hours. Last year I was able to maintain a faster pace. Mile nine it where I often lose the battle between my mind and body. At this point last year, I decided it would be alright to drop in behind a couple runners to lessen the effects of the northerly breeze and cruise comfortably to the finish. I was about to let that thought control my actions when a younger man passed us on the left. I chose to pick up my pace slightly and follow him rather than be lulled into a more comfortable pace. That decision helped me finish last year’s race in 1:55:26; finally beating the two-hour barrier.

Three months ago, I set a PR at the Pearl of the Purchase Half Marathon. It was a bit of a surprise to me as I had not trained specifically for that race. It was a last-minute decision to run the race. The course was new to me and was filled with gradual inclines and rolling hills. Everything came together and I recorded a 1:52:02 finish.

Preparing to Run

For this year’s Fly with the Eagles I simply had not put in the work needed to successfully meet my two-hour goal. A look back at my training log reveals less miles, few hills and virtually no speed work. I really had no basis for my hope of finishing in less than two hours. Yet, still I hoped. My friend Colby calls it an optimism bias.

It was a nice drive to Crab Orchard on race morning, I arrived with plenty of time to check in and make necessary gear adjustments. Temperatures in the upper teens coupled with a stiff north wind had me rethinking the optimal clothing combination. I struggle with dressing appropriately for longer distances in the winter, usually overdressing. I really don’t like to be cold and find it most difficult to keep my hands warm when the temperatures drop.

Merino blend socks, running tights under a pair of basketball shorts made up the bottom half. A sleeveless compression, dryfit running fleece with a technical T-shirt covered my trunk. I chose to wear an ear-warmer under a balaclava to fight the breezy cold. I was concerned that even with mitten covers, the Saucony gloves wouldn’t be warm enough. So, I slipped a chemical hand warmer in each palm prior to the start.

This Year’s Race

Parking within yards of the start made it easy to stay warm in the car and still make it to the chute in time for the national anthem, beautifully sung acapella by a fellow runner. The start and finish of the course changed a couple years ago. What had been a dicey half mile of uneven trail is now flat and paved which provided a much better surface for the initial jockeying that takes place at the start of the race.

My first couple miles were barely under an 8:50 pace. Sustaining that pace would get me to the finish in less than two hours. But my tendency is to slow as the miles increase. Mile three continued under nine minutes on the flat, paved surface with the wind at my back. The course turned west onto an unimproved road through the woods. Rolling hills, gravel and occasional patches of gumballs made this section a bit more technical. I do like this part of the course for the scenery and diversity.

Enjoying the Middle

There is a long gradual uphill around mile six that tends to expose my lack of hill training. I was fortunate to have a young man run with me for a few minutes in this area. A small group of us ran together as we approached the half way point. As the course comes out of the woods, runners turn right onto the main road, and head toward the turnaround. Someone in our group suggested turning left which would have shortened our run by about three miles. I couldn’t outwardly encourage such disregard for the course. However, if even one of our group would have broke left, I would have followed!

My pace continued to deteriorate and the group pushed ahead without me. I was still enjoying the run as the abundant sunshine made it easier to handle to chilly temperature. Soon the turnaround came into view and a couple animated volunteers lifted the spirits of struggling runners.

Mile eight soon turned into nine and I knew that after one more hill, things would flatten out as the course crossed the lake and headed north to the finish. I recall thinking about how pleased I was with my gear choice as I felt comfortable. I had broken a sweat without feeling overheated. Even my hands were warm.

Finishing (not so) Strong

At the ten-mile mark it became apparent that I would not make my 2-hour goal. There was a photo opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So, I pulled up and took the chance to snap a couple pics. With no pressure to complete the race in a certain time, I was able to enjoy the last few miles. I’m not sure if it was because of the headwind or exposure while I took pictures, but my hands did start getting cold in the last couple miles.

I also felt quite hungry as I approached the end of the race. I had consumed a couple gels, a little Gatorade and a bit of water while running. Regardless, I knew I would be ready to eat something as soon as I finished. So, the finish chute was particularly appealing when it came into view. My watch time was 2:03:07 but I had stopped it during the photo op at mile 10. Not what I had wanted, but no reason to beat myself up.

After collecting my finisher’s medal, I walked over to the building hosting the post-race festivities and grabbed a bowl of soup and some crackers. The building was pretty crowded and I was feeling bad from the run. After a short walk to my car, I began shivering as my body quickly cooled. The warm soup and changing into dry clothes helped but I continued to feel ill-effects from the run.

Twenty minutes in a warm car and eating a sandwich finally helped me to start feeling better. However, it took another two days for my hips and quads to recover from the run. It was the worst I felt after a race in quite some time. So, what did I learn?

Gotta do the training to trust the training.

Put in the miles, hit the hills, don’t forsake the speed work.

Work on improving the back half of the race.

Develop a consistent fueling plan.

Plan gear and clothing choices appropriate for the day.

Always bring a towel and change of clothes.

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