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Friday, April 24, 2015

Strategizing the Pittsburgh Marathon

The countdown to the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon has reached the single digits!  The big day is even appearing in the 10-day weather forecast, so you know it's getting serious here!  (The weather forecast, however, is NOT making me excited yet at highs in the 70's and rain.  Hopefully this changes as we get closer...)

Taken on a training run.  Hopefully the 'Burgh will look like this come race day!

The training and the physical preparation are pretty much in the bag at this point.  There's not a whole lot a runner can do in the week leading up to a marathon to become physically more prepared, other than sleeping and hydrating.  Mentally, however, I'm using taper time to strategize about my race.

Race Map and Elevation Profile from the Pittsburgh Marathon website.

This will be my fourth marathon, and my third consecutive Pittsburgh Marathon, so I am familiar with both the distance and the course.  I know from experience that I can divide the race into roughly three parts:

One of the 5 bridges runners will cross - this photo taken at the 2014 EQT 10 miler.

Miles 1-13  - Keep Calm and Don't Go Out Too Fast!

I expect to feel relatively strong and happy, but I know that I'll need to pace myself from going out too fast on fresh legs and a mostly flat part of the course.  I've felt great in the first 13 miles of most of my training runs, including last month's Run the Bluegrass half marathon.  For those familiar with the Pittsburgh course, you may recognize that there is a significant elevation gain at mile 12.  I have run the uphill of the Birmingham Bridge and Forbes Avenue many times in training, and actually feel pretty good about it!  I've learned that this is another place where I need to be smart and not go too fast, taking walk breaks up the hill if needed, since there are many more hills to come.

The Pittsburgh Soul Steppers around mile 18 in Homewood.  A pleasant and happy distraction!

Miles 13-20 - Distract Myself

If anyone out there is running the Pittsburgh Marathon for the first time, there's something you need to know about the hills.  Everyone talks about the big hill in mile 12.  What nobody talks about is that  miles 13-23 are full of rolling hills in the form of slight grades, often on long stretches of road.  This killed me the first time that I ran Pittsburgh.  I expected a flat, easy plateau at the top of mile 12's hill, but the slight elevation gains of this section of the course have felt brutal to me on tiring legs.  I plan to turn on kind of an autopilot mode, to trust my training and use the scenic urban neighborhoods and  friendly crowds on course to distract me from any tiredness in my legs.

The city as seen from high up on one of the East End's hills.

Miles 20-Finish - Dig Deep, It's (Almost) All Downhill from Here!

For me, the undisputed most challenging part of the Pittsburgh Marathon course is climbing the hill of North Highland Avenue at mile 20.  Mile 20 is often the "Wall" a runner has to overcome in a marathon.  In Pittsburgh, that wall is made even more impassable seeming by the slow, steady climb of the course.  Fortunately, once you get to the top of the hill at Bryant street, runners get rewarded with a corresponding downhill in mile 21.  Then, more ups and downs before the course gets it's huge downhill at mile 23.  As much as it seems like a giant downhill should be easy, its still tough on my tired body to complete these last few miles.  Once I get to the top of the hill in Highland Park, I'm going to try and push my pace, and make the last 10K my fastest 10K!

Crossing the finish line at my first Pittsburgh Marathon in 2013!

I'm hoping that this strategy will bring me home a new marathon PR.  My 2015 goal race is ultimately the Marine Corps Marathon in October, in which I hope to break 5 hours.  Pittsburgh is going to be something of a "practice marathon" and, while I don't know that I'll be able to break 5 hours yet, I'm hoping to beat my best previous time.  Let the countdown continue, and I'll see everyone in 1 week at the Expo, 5K, Pet Walk, and Pittsburgh Marathon!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon - Race Recap

Well, it's been over a week since the race, but I'm finally sitting down to recap my amazing experience at the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon in Lexington, Kentucky.  Just in case you don't make it to the end of the post, I want to make it clear right off the bat - I recommend the heck out of this race.  The race itself was on the most stunning, rural course, the expo was well-organized and held and the beautiful Keeneland racetrack, and the race weekend was filled with unique experiences highlighting Lexington's rich bourbon, farming, and thoroughbred traditions.  I loved this race weekend!

Post-race, all smiles!

The City of Lexington

My weekend started on Thursday, when I completed the 6-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Lexington and checked into my Airbnb accommodations.  For those unfamiliar, Airbnb gives private homeowners the ability to rent out rooms and properties directly to travelers.  I found and was immediately drawn to a woman renting out her Amish-built art studio which resided in her backyard garden, complete with chickens, dogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs milling about!  I chose this location for it's uniqueness, and I immediately felt drawn into the specialness of the Lexington community.

The view outside of my door!  Hey, chickie chickie!

After dinner and drinks on Thursday night (in a University of Kentucky bar during a Wildcats-WVU March Madness game!) I turned in for the night knowing I'd have a full day ahead of me.

The Expo and the Day Before

Friday morning, I woke up and went straight to the expo.  This race weekend was somewhat unique in that the race was Saturday morning, so the expo took place on Thursday night and all day Friday.  Run the Bluegrass has an overarching theme of thoroughbred horse racing, and the Expo was held at the Keeneland racetrack, a stunning property full of stately buildings and rolling, green fields.  The Expo was not to big, not too small, and seemed well organized.  I got my bib, my shirt, and bought a good amount of swag including special race-branded Bourbon!

First thing Friday morning at the Run the Bluegrass Expo.

The official race shirt, a lightweight cotton hoodie, and my purchase of race-branded Bourbon!

Another cool thing about this race is that organizers offered unique experiences during the days before the race, including Bourbon tastings, farm tours, trips to meet award-winning horses, and meals from noted local chefs and restaurants.  I did not end up participating in any of the official tours.  I ended up doing my own visits to a couple of the distilleries.  I'm guessing that their organized distillery tours are pretty similar to the tours I found.  I made my own visits to 2 Lexington distilleries -  Woodford Reserve (lots of cool old distilling methods and historical buildings) and Town Branch (up-and-coming distillery/brewery with a variety of beers and spirits).  If I come back to run, however, I will definitely partake in the opportunity to meet one of the horses, or go to one of the special meals.

Tasting Kentucky Bourbon at Woodford Reserve Distillery.

The Race!

Here's the first thing you should know about the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon: it's hilly.  It's CONSTANTLY hilly.  I come from Pittsburgh, where we boast the steepest hill in the United States (Canton Ave in Beechview, 2 miles from my apt).  The thing about Run the Bluegrass is that no one hill is super long or super steep, at least not by my Pittsburgh standards, but you are going up and down hills from the start to the end.  Literally.  There is no respite.  If you come from a flat training environment, I honestly don't know how you would like this course in terms of its challenge.  For those coming from flat areas, the race does publish a treadmill training guide with grade equivalencies.  I personally prefer training outdoors, but I think the treadmill guide is such a cool training feature.  It also gives outdoor trainers an idea of what they're getting into!

In addition to the challenge of the hills, race morning greeted runners with a "feels like" temperature of 17 degrees Fahrenheit.  Super cold for waiting in the corrals, but honestly pretty perfect for the race.  It was sunny, clear, and not windy at all.  I could handle 17 degrees, especially once I started moving.  Pre-race, runners were definitely bundled up in the corrals!

So cold and sunny waiting for the race to start!

The race started at 9 am, which was great because it gave the sun plenty of time to rise despite the chilly temperatures.  I started in corral 4 of 7, and experienced only a short wait as the corrals started 2 minutes after one another.  With a medium-sized race field of approximately 4,000 runners, the course wouldn't ever be too crowded.

I embraced the beautiful scenery and the hills, running and walking conservatively up, and using my momentum to race quickly down.  The course was stunning to view, running through countless horse farms, with thoroughbreds exercising or grazing in the fields along the road.  The horses and the farms were both breathtaking, and I even saw some cows, chickens, and dogs along the course as well.

 Honestly, it was a very even race for me.  Opposite to the Urban and Disney races I normally run, there weren't a lot of landmarks or marked changes in the course.  Just steady hills and reliably stunning scenery.  I kept an even pace as well, averaging 11:54 in the first half and 11:28 in the second.  (Which adds up to be my second-fastest official half marathon time!) The course felt smooth, calm, and peaceful throughout.  I didn't have a particular time goal, and, I honestly never thought too much about my running.  I just enjoyed the scenery and the sunshine, and let myself run! 

The pictures do nothing justice.  Not the challenge of the hills, and not the beauty of the course.  There were hardly any spectators, which seemed a bit odd coming from the city/Disney race background, but it made for a zen-like, lovely experience.  In the end, I kept faster-than-marathon pace, which is great because I used the race as a training run for the Pittsburgh Marathon, and I had an amazing time.

Another special feature of the race was that a guest of honor was Scott Menzies, widower of Meg Menzies, a runner tragically killed by a drunk driver last year while out for a morning run near her Virginia home.  Scott was a speaker at some race weekend events, and mile 9 of the race was dedicated to Meg's legacy.

Mile 9 was dubbed "Meg's Mile."  As it turns out, Mile 9 also boasted the steepest uphill grades on course.  Dedicating the mile to Meg and her family helped me remember to be strong, and enjoy the run I was in, regardless of it's challenge.

After Meg's Mile, I rose up and coasted down through three more, and made my way to the finish!

To me, the thing that makes this race so worthwhile is the absolute celebration of Kentucky culture - the rolling bluegrass hills, the thoroughbreds, the bourbon, and the hospitality!  I would recommend it to any runner without reservation - they even have a 7-mile run the same morning, and kids races the night before.  Oh, and the races allow runners to bring along leashed dogs, push strollers, and they had their first wheelchair athletes this year.  It's truly a welcoming and joyful race experience.

And, in case the race didn't seem happy enough, runners get free Kentucky Ale beer, and free Papa John's pizza at the end.  Yep.  10/10 would run again.

*All un-watermarked photos are my own.  All watermarked photos are purchased from Run the Bluegrass as part of their $10 for unlimited downloads package!  Yet another reason to love Run the Bluegrass!*