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Things I Wasn't Planning on Doing: Running a Virtual Half

Pic from a real race where I got a real medal.

Welp. It happened. After a year of no racing, even this hater of virtual races ended up jumping in on the action at the end. I've been doing a lot of injury rehab this year (I have hamstring tendinopathy), and until recently my weekly mileage has been limited due to discomfort. But in November I managed an average of 41 miles/week, and my running group was hosting an informal virtual race (scheduled for the weekend that would have hosted the Dallas Marathon), and I figured I'd find out how fit I was after a year of not really knowing.

My friend and I decided to set an aggressive goal - a 1:39. This is what I was chasing a year ago when I ran a 3-minute PR but an overall disappointing effort in Houston. We had already decided we'd be stopping at water stops, so I knew going in it wouldn't be a "real" PR effort.

The weather was perfect (in my opinion) - mid-40s, low humidity. We started off at about a 7:50, and the first mile felt smooth and easy. Unfortunately the feeling didn't last long - my calf started to tighten up after about 10 minutes (this is a recurring issue for me), and I had a feeling it just wasn't going to be the day. My friend admitted she wasn't feeling the aggressive pace either, and we settled into pretty steady splits (Miles 1-4: 7:51, 7:52, 7:53, 8:03).

Then came mile 5. At this point I knew it wasn't a happy stomach day for me, and I needed to find a bathroom STAT. We stopped at a Port-a-Potty along the road... only to realize too late that it didn't have any toilet paper. The freaking worst!!! Thankfully someone behind us had some tissues. Crisis averted. Imagine how dumb I felt 0.2 miles later when we reached the water stop at the home of a generous runner, and I realized I could have used her indoor bathroom instead. (Mile 5: 8:17 for the pit stop).

We continued on and reached the turnaround at 6.75 (we went out a bit further so we could skip a hill at the very end on the return) and made our way back down the road. Miles 7-10 of our route were almost entirely downhill, and it definitely made the effort feel easy enough to pick up the pace (Miles 6-10: 8:05, 8:08, 7:52, 7:58, 7:48). Sadly the fun came to an end in the last 5K, which featured a large hill at mile 11, and me taking an unscheduled stop and forgetting to re-start my Garmin. Mile 13 was painful physically and mentally - I had to finish my last 0.2 alone, as my friend's watch was slightly ahead of mine. So I took a victory lap in the parking lot (Mile 11-13: 8:11, 7:59, 8:23). Final time - 1:45:12, about a minute faster than my last PR (not including some generous water stop time).

All in all, I'm pretty pleased with my virtual effort. I always have an issue with fueling for the tail end of a half (even RDs have to work on their fueling!). I took a Huma gel at mile 3, half a pack of Skratch chews at mile 5.5, and the other half at mile 10. I use Skratch hydration mix in Green Tea & Lemon during most of my runs, so I drank that for about 7 miles and then dumped it in favor of water - which I always crave in the late half of races. What works best for me is fueling about 30 minutes in (so Mile 3-4), then around Mile 6.5 and Mile 9 to give me some juice for the last 5K, but the water stops didn't line up with my preference. This is what killed me in Houston (didn't take anything after ~Mile 7-8), and I think I improved on it slightly this time around. Takeaway: practice and tweak your fueling, figure out what works for you, and don't be afraid to take more fuel than you might initially think you need.

In retrospect, the decision to pause at water stops might have been a mistake if we were really hoping to push it. Mentally, taking a break every 2 miles broke the distance down nicely, but it also made it feel like the run was dragging on and on - and it probably contributed to some of my stomach issues. However, I also think I'm just not a virtual race person - not being able to stop the clock and being surrounded by crowds and fellow runners is a big motivator for me. Takeaway: Commit to your effort and know your strengths.

Finally, it was really gratifying to look down at my watch and see that I was still on pace even when I felt like I was slow. I have put in a lot of work strengthening my hamstrings, glutes, and feet in the last 6 months and I can definitely tell that I am stronger. I'm pretty sure I could have taken the pace down some if I were properly motivated and sans the calf cramping and GI issues. Takeaway: trust your body and your training, and don't give up even if things aren't perfect.

Considering I wasn't really feeling the magic, I'm happy with a 1-minute PR. I was hoping all the stops would make it easier on my legs - but turns out they still ran a hard effort for 13.1 miles, and I was pretty achy the next day! Go figure.

Although I think I'm done with virtual races for the time being, the effort has me looking forward to getting back to work for a sub-1:40 half hopefully in the late spring, before returning to marathon training in the summer. I've done quite a bit of work tweaking my own fueling and hydration this past year, so I'm excited to see the impact that has on my training.

I'd love to hear from you how you've fueled your virtual efforts and what's gone well for you (or not so well) in training. If fueling is a problem area for you, don't forget to sign up for my course interest list. We're covering fueling on and off the run, along with a ton of other great content, starting in early 2021.

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