Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bentonville Running Festival Half Marathon Race Report

It has been a long while since I bothered to document a road race. However, this day deserves some reflection. The festival includes a 1 mile fun run, a 5k and the feature, a half marathon. All courses begin and end on the beautiful downtown Bentonville Square. A number of generous local organizations and businesses including the Parks & Recreation Department and Rush Running along with an army of willing volunteers makes this a top notch event. Packet pick up was very well organized (I even volunteered for a couple of hours on Friday) and there are plenty of aid stations. And if you're into it the swag bags are stuffed full of goodies, the shirts are pretty sweet and the finishers medals are blingtastick. 
I missed running in it last year due to the stress fracture but I was tapped to drive the pace car which was a first for me. In 2011 I ran it for the first time and logged a 1h54m time. It was my first half marathon as I had never bothered with that particular distance. On that day I started super slow and then tried to run the final 5 miles like my hair was on fire. In years past this course was known for two things. The wicked downhill on Oakwood about mile 9 and the climb past Crystal Bridges to Compton Gardens in the final mile. 2013 would be different as Oakwood was eliminated and the course moved to Walton Blvd for a gentle 1+ mile decline to the Bark Park. In my opinion this is a change for the better. As for Crystal Bridges, that should never change. I love that hill and run it as often as possible. My Garmin showed 320' of vertical gain with pretty much all of it coming in the final 3 miles. 

The race benefits the Parks & Rec Department, a most worthwhile cause. Aside from the miles of trails and numerous parks they maintain, during the Summer they host several different camp programs for kids. A training group was established for the half marathon last year and led by Rush Running. It absolutely blew up this year and at times we filled the Activity Center to the hilt. I was able to join in on several of the training runs to help encourage the participants. It is inspiring to me and the other Team Rush members to mentor these aspiring runners. The program features a race specific training plan, group runs, tons of freebies, talks about various running topics, friendships and the chance to hear Mike Rush repeatedly scream your name. 
Since I had come off of a long training matrix to prep for a 50k last Fall (Pumpkin Holler) and a couple of 50 mile races over the Winter (Lookout Mtn & Rocky Raccoon) and bagged a new PR for each distance I knew I was in good shape. What I wanted to work on coming off of RR50 was some speed. I planned my Spring race schedule to be mostly road stuff for the simple sake of changing things up and stressing the body in new ways. So the trail shoes went to the corner of the closet and I dug out my road kicks. Not that I ignore the dirt, that will never happen. For months I ran exclusively on trails and now I would run a majority of my miles on hardtop for a while. And start some speed work. I thought 1h45m for this year at the race would be a good goal to set for myself. 
After a few weeks of training I realized that 1h45m was selling short. I could do better. I was knocking out mile repeats at 7:25 pace with no problem and completed a 13 mile tempo run with 6 miles between 7:30 and 7:20 per mile. I changed my goal to 1h40m and maybe, if things went really well, 1h38m on race day. The consistency and volume I ran November through January was paying dividends. So as race day approached I was quietly confident for a significant PR. 
As the crowd grew in the Activity Center yesterday before the start a buddy told me a mutual friend and very strong runner, Craig Adams, would be pacing a friend of his to a 1h40m time in the half. I found Craig at the start and asked if I could tag along. I thought I could cruise with them at a comfortable pace and then, if things felt right, crank it up about mile 7 or so. I have always been one to err on the side of caution with regards to pacing to avoid the blow up. On that topic, about 2 weeks before the race, Mike Rush told me something that stuck in my mind. Mike thinks I hold myself back. He said I should shoot for 1h35m. What he said was something right out of the Rush Book of Running Strategy... 

"Just go big. Real big. You might have a spectacular blow up or you just might blow your own mind. Either way, you have a great story." Mike Rush

Would you take running advice from this guy?
I feel good as I took the time to warm up by jogging for several minutes, did some short strides and dynamic stretching. It feels awkward being at a starting line and not having two handheld bottles and pockets full of gels. I find a spot next to Craig and his buddy Warren. And we are off running from The Square. Mile 1 clicks off at 7:18, mile 2 at 7:16. I know that's below pace for a 1h40m finish. We knock out a 7:22 over the hills on Tiger Blvd and along McCollum into the wind. Through Glen Brook and Memorial Park we lay down a 7:15 mile into the wind. Doubt began to creep in my mind. I wondered if this was too fast to hold on? I backed off the pace and ran a 7:23 towards the old Ice House and found myself pulling ahead of Craig and Warren. It was now me and Geoff, a buddy that rode with me to the race. He ran 1h33m the past two years so I knew he was strong. Why was I running with him? My pacer was now behind me. I need to back off some more I tell myself as we clip off mile 6 at 7:15 pace around the old fair grounds. 
That's when I decided I belonged here. I would either, as Drew Connor says, raise my shield high in victory or be carried home on it. It was along the cemetery I told the voice in my head to piss off. One way or another I was going to have a story to tell. I looked at Geoff and said the next few miles are a net downhill. Let's get busy.  It worked. Mile 7 @ 7:05, mile 8 @ 7:05, mile 9 down Walton Blvd @ 6:58 and mile 10 @ 6:51 through the Bark Park to Slaughter Pen.
I knew the last 3 miles back to The Square would be where the magic happens. This is where it might hurt. Mile 11 was a 7:06 pace and Geoff fell off the back a bit. Mile 12 was 7:08 pace. I lost count of how many runners I passed from the Bark Park and along the stink plant using the "rubber band" visual aid. All that was left was the climb up Crystal Bridges and then the finish to the Square. I've run that hill at least 100 times over the last 3 years. I did repeats on it two weeks ago. I hit it with purpose. After the first kicker I wanted to stop at the A Street parking lot and look for an oxygen tank. I kept going and passed more runners. On the flattish section before the bridge and Compton Gardens I took a few deep breaths and focused on form all the way to the top. Knee lift, pump the arms, steady and strong. I threw down a 7:28 pace for mile 13, that's pretty good. I cleared Lawrence Plaza and turned to the finish stretch. It was done. 
My official time was 1:34:30, an overall 7:12 pace, good enough for an 18 minute PR, 8th in my age group (damn you Ryan Holler) and 50th overall. That should tell you this race is pretty competitive. Perhaps the stat I take the most amount of pride in is the fact that my final split, from the 15k mark to the finish, was the 26th fastest out of nearly 1,500 runners. Everybody wants to finish strong. At Pumpkin Holler I struggled the last 5 miles. At LM50 I wanted to drop at mile 38 and even my PR at RR50 was marked by a bit of a sketchy final 8 miles where I lost time. But today I finished like a guy that knew what he was doing. And the fact that I threw it down like that on the toughest part of the course makes it even better. 
Thanks to Craig and Geoff for keeping me honest on the course. Thanks to Mike Rush for challenging me. Thanks to the City of Bentonville, Parks & Rec and all the great volunteers for a top notch event. I am fortunate to be surrounded by a talented group runners that openly give loads of crap but also encourage, share and motivate.
Lessons learned:
*The power of the mind cannot be underestimated 
*Consistency + Volume = Results
*Specificity in training is critical
*I'm faster than I thought

Next up? Frisco Rail Road 50k on April 27th. Going for a sub 5 hour time.