Rock n Roll DC Half Marathon Recap

I have run this race twice before, but both of those times I ran with and paced someone else, so this was my first time running it on my own effort. I wasn't quite racing it, though, as I signed up for it several months ago solely because there was a sale and it's local - why not use it as a training run with 7000 of my closest friends? I had intended for it to be a long marathon training run - running to and from the race would have given me 18 miles, exactly the number I had planned for this weekend on my NJ Marathon training plan - but since I decided to switch the the NJ half about 6 weeks ago, I wasn't sure if or how this race was going to fit into my new plans. I'm running Shamrock, one of my goal halfs for the spring, next weekend, so running a half marathon the weekend before a goal half seemed...excessive? But my coach Katie had the idea to use RnR DC as one of my workouts for this week, and since she is smarter than me and I trust her, I decided to go ahead and do just that.

The half marathon started at 8:30am, so I left my apartment a little after 8, took a bikeshare to as close as I could get to the race start near the National Mall, and made it to my corral about 5 minutes before the race started. I wish I had gotten there a little earlier as I really needed to pee one last time, but the porta-potties were on the opposite side from where I was and I didn't want to be rushed or risk not starting with my wave, so I just figured I would stop at the first stop along the course. The weather was a little warmer and a less windy than the forecast had been showing all week, but for whatever reason I dressed like it was colder than it actually was, and I was worried I was in trouble when I was already getting warm just standing in the corral waiting to start!

My plan for this race workout was to run the first 2 miles easy, then alternate 2 miles at an 8:00 goal pace with 2 minutes of recovery for the remainder of the race (so 5 2-mile sets, essentially). That adds up to 10 8-minute miles, which is definitely not something I have ever done before, so I was admittedly intimidated but willing to give it my best shot!

The beginning of the race was very congested, so I had no issues slowing myself down during my warm-up. The first couple of miles run along the National Mall, past the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy Center. The fact that I run there several times a week did dull some of the excitement for me personally, but it was a really beautiful morning! It was a little chilly but not too cold (I think the temperature was in the high 30s), and there was a little bit of wind but not as much as had been predicted. 

My first mile chimed in at 9:15, which was a bit fast as I was aiming for more like 9:30-10:00, but I felt good. There was an aid station shortly after the first mile marker, so I darted to the porta-potties. Unfortunately, about 10 other people did the same thing just before I did, so there was a little bit of a wait before I was able to use one. I figured that I wasn't too concerned about my final time and that my focus on getting through the workout miles, so it didn't matter if I lost time waiting. Plus, I really had to pee, so I didn't have much of a choice. I think I only lost about a minute though, and my second mile came in at 10:15. 

As I passed the mile 2 marker, my warmup was over and the real fun began! Unfortunately this was a really bad time to have to start running faster, because the course had just bottlenecked as we passed the Kennedy Center and everyone was really close together. I managed to get around people and after half a mile or so, the course opened back up a little more, so it got a little easier to get into a groove. There's a turn around mile 2.5 that takes you away from running along the Potomac and puts you on an out-and-back on a freeway which is just...not super exciting. I remember being really bored on this part of the course last year, but this year I was so focused on running fast and getting through my interval that I didn't think about where I was running so much. In fact, this year this part of the course was one of my best, as I was feeling really comfortable and shocked to discover that 8-minute miles didn't feel as bad as I'd made them out to feel in my head, and that I was still running sub-8 despite constantly telling myself to pull back and slow down. I knew I still had a long way to go and that I was still on the easiest, flat part of the course, but I felt pretty good. The out-and-back made up the majority of miles 3 and 4 and I ran them in 7:50 and 7:59. 

I feeling really confident at that point...maybe a little too confident because even though I felt like I slowed down significantly for my recovery interval, I ran it at an 8:36 pace - not good! The next two miles were up Rock Creek Parkway, which on a very slight upgrade, but that's actually the kind of terrain I feel strongest on. I ran my next two-mile set up Rock Creek in 7:53 and 8:10, which translated to 8:02 and 7:49 for miles 5 and 6 of the race (after mile 4 my sets no longer matched up with the race distance because of the 2-minute recovery periods...hopefully that makes sense).

The first half of the race is pretty much flat, but there is a killer hill at mile 6 that takes you up to Calvert Street, almost to the highest point of the race. I had hoped that my 2-mile interval would end right when I got to the hill, but alas, I ended up having about a quarter mile left in my interval when I got to it. It was brutal. I slowed way down and promised myself I could start walking just as soon as the 2-mile interval was over, and I finally got there at the steepest portion of the hill, with about a tenth of a mile left to climb. I walked the rest of the way up the hill for my recovery.

I have noticed previously running this course that the first half and the second half, which are both physically and figuratively separated by the Calvert Street hill, feel like two totally different races, and that was true for me this year too, although completely opposite from years past. The first half of the race is, for all intents and purposes, flat, with the exclusion of the Calvert Street hill, and the second half is a series of rolling hills that lead to the finish in a net downhill. For some reason leading up to the race and even during the first half of it I convinced myself that the second half would be even easier than the first half, but I was wrong. I was so wrong. 

After the Calvert Street hill there is a gradual but noticeable incline for almost a mile or so before the course finally starts to go downhill. It was during this mile that two things happened: 1) my third 2-mile set began around the halfway mark, and 2) I suddenly realized how warm it had gotten and was overcome with the urge to start stripping right then and there. I started my fast 2-mile interval on schedule but didn't make it more than a couple minutes before I stopped to walk so I could remove some layers. I had on a thin long-sleeve shirt and a thick outer layer, so the outer layer definitely had to go, and I had on not one but two ear-warmer headband things. Those had to go too. I think it took me a couple minutes to get my wardrobe situation sorted out, and I also walked a water stop during the first mile of this interval - I was so warm and so thirsty - so I definitely lost a bunch of time there.  I was able to pull it together for the second mile of the third interval, which put my third set at 9:20 and 7:48 (or 10:10 and 8:09 for miles 7 and 8 of the race). 

I was pretty much toast from there on out. I went into this race thinking of it as just a workout, but neglected to remember that my workouts are usually 8-9 miles and that I don't need fuel for that, but that I definitely did need fuel for 13 miles. I ate one Honey Stinger chew somewhere around mile 4 I think, and those things contain like 30 calories? That's all I had other than water and I faded fast in the last half of the race because of it. 

By mile 8 the worst of the hills were behind me, but it was still tough to hang on. I was starting to feel nauseous at some points, especially going uphill, which I can only think was because I was starving and for some reason just not feeding myself. I had my chews in my pocket, I just wasn't eating them. I have no explanation for this. The last 5 miles snake back south and east, toward the finish at RFK stadium and, despite running this two times before, I could not for the life of me picture how in the world there could be 5 miles left in between where I was and the finish (my brain may have just been experiencing the effects of underfueling too). And even though I could feel that there was more downhill than uphill at this point, my legs felt like sandbags and even the smallest hills felt like mountains. I knew my chances of hitting my paces from there on out weren't great, but I did my best to hang on the best I could. My fourth 2-mile set was 8:30 and 8:24, for an 8:25 mile 9 and 8:06 mile 10.

This portion of the race runs south on North Capitol Street, with a gorgeous view of the Capitol straight ahead, but I didn't take the time to admire the scenery this year as much as I have in previous years. The stretch on North Cap (about a mile and a half) felt much longer this time than it had before, probably because I struggled more this time than before. It was mostly downhill, which was a nice break, but I was still having trouble moving on any terrains. My legs were so heavy, which I now really think was the result of not taking in enough fuel. I hit my last 2-mile interval at mile 10.5 and it felt good to finally get to the last one but man, it was a struggle. I was way over pace for this one too, at 8:36 and 8:23 (8:49 and 8:11 for miles 12 and 13 of the race).

The last couple miles snake through NoMa before finally heading toward RFK Stadium. Again, despite the fact that I have run this race not one, but TWICE, I could not recognize the end and I had no idea where the finish line was! I had a general idea but it didn't look at all like I remembered, especially when I came around a curve and realized the last quarter-mile was actually on an incline to the finish. I had had more than enough hills at that point and honestly felt like I was going to fall to my knees at any moment and have to crawl to the end, but I slowed down and eventually made it to the finish line in 1:54:45.

Initially, the idea of using this race as a workout both excited and terrified me - not only is a half marathon a lot of miles (duh), but lately I have struggled with running fast for farther than a mile or so, so even one two-mile fast interval seemed tough, let along five of them with minimal rest in between! As prescribed, this workout was essentially 10 out of 13.1 miles at my long-term half marathon goal pace, and I'm nowhere near ready for that right now. Still, despite not feeling super confident, I put on my best game face and I'm proud of the fact that I was even able to do that.

Although I didn't totally nail my race plan, ultimately I was more surprised at my ability to do it than not to do it, which just goes to show how much of a mental game running is. Something I've been working on a lot is adjusting my perception of my running and of what certain paces feel like, and I have to admit I have been a little shocked to discover that my brain may have it a little wrong. There were several times during the first half of the race when I couldn't believe that I was running sub-8, dare I say, comfortably? Maybe not uncomfortably is more accurate. Either way, it was a good feeling and something I never would have attempted on my own so I'm thankful to Katie for pushing me outside my comfort zone. The second half wasn't pretty but it wasn't the first time that's happened and I'm certain it won't be the last. At least in this case I know that there are at least actionable items I can learn from for the future, and I've already started working on my fueling so that I don't make the same mistake in the future!

This was my 23rd half marathon (27th if you count the ones I've done in 70.3s), and although it didn't top the list in terms of time or experience, I can't help but be proud. I'm trying to run with extra gratitude these days, and as crappy as I felt at the finish, I had to remember that I was just a week away the 6th anniversary of my very first half marathon, and that helped put it in perspective. Of all the half marathons I've run, this was my 6th best time and my 11th sub-2, which means I'm close to being able to say that I've run more half marathons under 2 hours than over 2 hours. Just a few years ago that was a huge hurdle that I didn't know if I'd ever get over, so it feels a little surreal to have 11 in my pocket now!

1 comment

  1. Your comment about the out-and-back on miles 2-3: I feel like that is SUCH a Rock 'n' Roll thing. I've run three of their races so far (Chicago, Nashville, and Vegas), and I swear, those kind of shenanigans, or something similar happen on every. single. course. In Chicago, you wind all around downtown in the most nonsensical way (especially compared to other races that involve downtown streets), there were all sorts of weird turns in Nashville, and even in Vegas, which is by far the most logical course of all of them, they still make you do an out-and-back away from the highlights of Vegas to start out the race. I swear, all of their routes look like they were made by someone who set out to run a 13.1 mile run, realized 11 miles into it that they didn't have two miles to go to get back to where they started, and had to putz around, doing laps around blocks or whatever, to get in the distance. I mean, I think the races are fine and all, but the courses! They're the worst!

    Anyway, I'm glad you're able to feel proud of how you ran, even with a tough back half of the course! I'm sure you're more used to running hills than I am, given that there are approximately two hills in the entire city of Chicago, but every time I've visited DC I've been intimidated by the idea of running around on the hills, never mind doing the entire second half of a half marathon on them. And holy cow, no matter how hard it was, I'm impressed that you were able to get to the finish line at all with just one Honey Stinger! I think I'd have ended up walking the entire second half of the race if I had been in your shoes!